The song was recorded in 1969 but wasn’t released until 1971 due to the band’s legal tussle with their manager. The band’s normal piano player bowed out of the session because he didn’t like playing minor chords. And the track was originally intended by the guitarist to be a song about missing his newborn son, only to be hijacked by the lead singer, who turned it into a depiction of a burned-out relationship.
For The Rolling Stones, such drama has always been par for the course. That they overcame all of that and turned out a gem like “Wild Horses,” the song saddled with all of the aforementioned obstacles, is a testament to their talent, chemistry, and unfailing ability to rise above all the chaos, self-induced and otherwise.
For three days in December 1969, the Stones stopped into Muscle Shoals studios in Alabama and managed to lay down three songs, one of which was “Wild Horses.” (“Brown Sugar” was one of the other two, so you could say it was a productive stint.) The composition of this plaintive ballad was begun by Keith Richards, whose first child was born in August 1969, causing Keith regret about going out on the road and leaving the boy behind.
“It was one of those magical moments when things come together,” Richards wrote in his 2010 autobiography Lifeabout the song’s genesis. “It’s like ‘Satisfaction.’ You just dream it, and suddenly it’s all in your hands. Once you’ve got the vision in your mind of wild horses, I mean, what’s the next phrase you’re going to use? It’s got to be couldn’t drag me away.”
So Richards wrote the music, using a 12-string acoustic guitar to really draw out the melancholy in those chords, and the chorus. He then handed the song off to his songwriting partner-in-crime Mick Jagger to complete the verses. And that’s when the track took a turn away from Marlon, the name of Richards’ little boy, and perhaps veered toward Marianne, as in Faithfull, Jagger’s on-again, off-again lover of that era.
Jagger recalled his contributions to “Wild Horses” in the liner notes to the 1993 Stones’ anthology Jump Back: The Best Of The Rolling Stones. “I remember we sat around doing this with Gram Parsons, and I think his version came out slightly before ours,” Mick said. “Everyone always says it was written about Marianne, but I don’t think it was; that was all well over by then. But I was definitely very inside this piece emotionally. This is very personal, evocative, and sad. It all sounds rather doomy now, but it was quite a heavy time.”
That heaviness hangs in the air throughout the song. You can hear it in the lazily-strummed guitars of Richards and Mick Taylor, in Richards’ just-right electric solo, in Charlie Watts thudding fills. Jim Dickinson filled in on the tack piano when Ian Stewart famously begged off playing the sad chords. As for Jagger, he holds back the histrionics and plays it straight, his weariness and frustration mingling seamlessly with his unshakable devotion for the wayward girl he’s addressing.
The opening lines hint at a simpler time in the couple’s life together: “Childhood living is easy to do/ The things you wanted I bought them for you.” As time passes, however, they become inseparable in anguish as well: “I watched you suffer a dull aching pain/ Now you’ve decided to show me the same.”
As bad as things get though, the narrator’s loyalty never wavers. “You know I can’t let you slide through my hands,” Jagger sings at the end of the first verse. Perhaps alluding to the drama in her life, he uses the metaphor of the stage to describe his steadfastness: “No sweeping exits or offstage lines/ Could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind.” And there’s that chorus, Richards joining in for high and lonesome harmonies with Jagger to transcend the cliché and make you believe that no amount of horsepower could sway them from their intent.
Gram Parsons’ version with the Flying Burrito Brothers does indeed predate the Stones’ release of the song on Sticky Fingers by a year, giving rise to unsubstantiated rumors that he deserved some songwriting credit. Among the many cover versions of the song that have been done through the years, The Sundays of “Here’s Where The Story Ends” fame checked in with a particularly memorable take, thanks to the ethereal vocals of Harriet Wheeler.
The final chorus of the song ends with Jagger changing the kicker line. Instead of the horses dragging him away, he sings, “We’ll ride them someday.” Some might say it’s a hopeful ending, but it also sounds like the kind of thing someone would say as parting words to a loved one they won’t be seeing again. This kind of poignancy isn’t what we often consider when we think of The Rolling Stones. Yet “Wild Horses” demonstrates that the songwriting of Jagger and Richards can fragilely glow just as well as it can bombastically glimmer.