The Meaning Behind “Waiting on a Friend” by The Rolling Stones and Why It Took Almost a Decade to Complete

“Waiting on a Friend” suggests in touching fashion that the reliability of friendship is far preferable to the instability of romance. In typically counterintuitive Rolling Stones fashion, the band finished recording the song at a time when band relations were extremely strained, especially between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the twin artistic poles of the band.

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What is “Waiting on a Friend” about? Why did it take almost a decade to complete it? And how was it a case of the band rewarming leftovers? To find out about the making of this hit ballad, you have to go back to some rough times between The Glimmer Twins.

Old Friends

The Cliff’s Notes version of where the relationship between Jagger and Richards stood at the beginning of the ’80s reads something like this: Because of Richards’ personal and legal issues, he largely ceded artistic control of the band to Jagger around the time of the 1978 album Some Girls, which allowed Jagger to push for more modern sounds. Once Richards got his stuff straightened out, a tug of war developed between the two when it came to where the band’s new music would be heading.

When it came time to make a new album circa 1980 so they could go out and tour, Jagger and Richards couldn’t bear the thought of settling in for weeks or months to write new material. It was Chris Kimsey, an associate producer who had worked with the band throughout the ’70s, who suggested that all the rough material needed for a new album was in the vaults. The Stones had consistently recorded more than they needed for the last several albums.

They began scouring the cutting-room floor for songs, and one that they liked was sourced all the way back to 1972 and the sessions for the album Goat’s Head Soup. The track breezed about on a simple, catchy guitar lick, and it was adorned with lovely piano by studio ace Nicky Hopkins. As with all the other songs that would land on the Tattoo You album in 1981, the band just needed to lay down some embellishments on top of that, while Jagger had to come up with lyrics.

Considering the friction between the band at the time, Jagger’s decision to frame the lyrics around friendship was fascinating. He defended it in a 1983 interview: “Just let me be cynical for a moment. First of all, it’s really not about waiting on a woman friend. It’s just about a friend; it doesn’t matter if it’s a man or a woman. I can see people saying, ‘Oh, we’re all much older now, Mick’s writing this much more compassionate stuff, must be about a real person. But that’s only in their perception of it.”

To add the finishing touches, the Stones asked jazz legend Sonny Rollins to add saxophone throughout “Waiting on a Friend.” He glides through the early parts of the song, and then closes it out with a mesmerizing solo.

What “Waiting on a Friend” is About

“Waiting on a Friend” plays cleverly off the reputation of Jagger as a kind of serial playboy. Instead, he insists that, I’m not waiting on a lady / I’m just waiting on a friend, and he fortifies that message throughout the song. Simpler pleasures are for him: A smile relieves a heart that grieves.

The protagonist shuns whores and booze and confides in the listener what’s most important to him: But I need someone I can cry to / I need someone to protect. He suggests that maturity has taught him these lessons: Making love and breaking hearts / It is a game for youth.

The video for the track followed the lyrics to a tee, showing the members of the Stones congregating at a bar with smiles all around. Maybe they were just playing it up for the cameras. Or maybe the lyrics of “Waiting on a Friend” say more about the intra-band relationships of the Rolling Stones than the occasional insult lobbed from one to another in the press.

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Photo by Joe Bangay/Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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