Listen to this song by early ’60s London blues-boom quintet turned ’80s stadium-filling champeens The Rolling Stones. It’s “Waiting On a Friend”, a smash single from 1981’s equally smash-success full length record, Tattoo You. This new record would be their last (to date) to hit the top chart positions internationally. The album would also make several “best records of the 1980s” lists by the end of the decade. This would be pretty ironic, considering the album’s origins.
By the end of 1980, and after something of a hiatus period as a live act, the Stones were eager to tour again, and to do so behind a new record. Of course, the timing was a bit tricky. It takes time to make an album, and to write new songs. So, with the help of Chris Kimsey who served as co-producer on their previously successful album Some Girls, and their not-as-successful predecessor to this new one Emotional Rescue, they raided their own vaults for some bits and pieces to turn into new tracks. From here, lead singer Mick Jagger wrote a few new melodies and lyrics to shore up that earlier material as well as lay down some new vocal tracks. This song came out of that process, with the original backing track dating back to the late 1972 Goats Head Soup sessions, complete with parts from former Stone Mick Taylor on guitar, and stalwart sideman at the time Nicky Hopkins on piano.
This cobbling together of old material from a previous decade rushed out in time for a tour doesn’t sound like a likely recipe for a landmark album, does it? Well, it was anyway, with this song being a high point. So, what is the secret to its success?
I think there are a few elements that make this one of the most recognizable Stones tracks of their middle period. Beyond the gentle and flowing backing track is the clear affection that is demonstrated in the lyrics, crafted by Jagger. Gone are the hedonistic sentiments that are common to the band’s oeuvre, and in their place are straight up expressions of friendship aimed directly at band members; “someone I can cry to, someone I can protect”. That’s a long way from spiders and flies, stray cats, star stars, and brown sugar.
Another aspect of this song’s success is that it was designed for the then-modern era of MTV. The video, directed by Rock n’ Roll Circus and Let It Be director Michael Lindsay-Hogg, is a simple concept of friends meeting on the street with a drink-up to round things off. That simple idea still manages to communicate the subtext of the song; the close relationship between the writers of the song itself, Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards, and with the other members of the band, too. In its opening scenes, the video also features the same brownstone house that is prominently displayed on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, yet another smash album that is made up of bits and bobs and backing tracks from a band’s vaults, coincidentally. The story ends in second-chair guitarist and multi-instrumentalist Ronnie Wood’s bar, which he actually co-owned in New York at the time. The whole she-bang was all ready for a big visual representation in the video age of a practically new decade, well representing the band who’d made it, even if the personnel heard on the actual song had changed by this time.
The third aspect that helped to seal the song’s success as a high-charting single is the additional layers that were added to the original track to bring it into view for a new audience. In particular, I’m talking about the addition of Sonny Rollins’s solo, the saxophone colossus himself. By the early ’80s, Rollins had expanded into all sorts of genres beyond jazz, and much to everyone’s delight (imagine jazz-nut Charlie Watts’ reaction), took to his part with relish. His lines are in direct contrast to regular Stones reed-man Bobby Keys, who was estranged from the band at the time. Instead of Keys’ trademark ferocity on the sax, Rollins’ fluid lines are simpatico to the tapestry of gentle guitars, heartfelt vocal lines, and lyrical piano.
As mentioned, Tattoo You was the last Rolling Stones record to hit the top ten, with this single itself hitting the top twenty and being a well-performing radio staple. This would be the final chapter of a time when it was the records the band made that put them into the stratosphere, and not just the sheer spectacle they would turn into in earnest later on, with big screens and elaborate staging supplanting the Jagger/Richards reputation as songwriters. It was the end of an era for the Stones. The success of this song would also precede a period when the friendships outlined and celebrated in this song would be severely tested, making many fans, journalists, and the band members themselves wonder if they would weather the storm. The next chapter in what would become a fifty-year plus journey was soon to begin.
Amazingly, The Rolling Stones are an active band today, still recording albeit sporadically, and still touring the world. Catch up with them at rollingstones.com.