Song of the Day, December 5: As Tears Go By

Today’s song is As Tears Go By. It has a complicated history, as does the woman who made it famous and her one-time boyfriend who co-wrote it. In 1964, Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham was pressing Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to compose their own songs. One of their earliest compositions — legend has it their first ballad — was As Tears Go By. Oldham loved the song (so much so that he tweaked it enough to share the songwriting credit) but believed the quiet tune was a bad fit for the band. A young woman had recently begun hanging around with the Stones, a hopeful singer named Marianne Faithfull. Oldham gave her the song and it became her first (and biggest) hit.

Soon after, Faithfull began a famously tempestuous relationship with Jagger. Her sweet-voiced, almost folky singing career stalled in just a couple of years, partly due to hard living and partly due to the dissonance between her musical and public images. In the meantime, the Stones were achieving huge success and finally decided to record the song for themselves. Despite Oldham’s qualms, they delivered a strong version, and it was a Top 10 hit in the US and a successful B-side in the U.K.

Faithfull’s relationship with Jagger didn’t last much longer than the first phase of her singing career. By 1970 they had broken up for good and she struggled to manage her career while coping with drug addictions. Nearly a decade later, after two failed albums of country-tinged folk, she stunned the music world with Broken English, a hard-rocking set of songs that were perfectly suited to her now ravaged voice. Launching from that platform, she has enjoyed a successful career as both an alt-rock godmother and a world-weary chanteuse.

Faithfull merged these identities beautifully on 1987’s Strange Weather, which includes original songs, pieces from WWII era Europe, and a handful of well-chosen covers. One of these was a revisiting of As Tears Go By. The lyrics were always powerful, but earlier versions of the song suffered from the youth of the singers and somewhat lighthearted delivery. Faithfull’s worn voice and greater musical experience allowed her to transform the song into what it was always meant to be, a rare reinvention of a song that elevates it to whole new level.

It is the evening of the day,
I sit and watch the children play.
Smiling faces I can see
But not for me,
I sit and watch as tears go by.

The quiet, wistful ache and reluctant resignation surge through every line. It doesn’t matter who wrote it, after 23 years it truly belongs to its first singer. Enjoy this wonderful version of a classic song today.

About Robert Hulshof-Schmidt
Freelance writer, researcher, online comic vendor, and project manager. Fan of a wide range of music -- especially folk and 80s pop -- vintage comics, British TV, and LGBT fiction.

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