My reimmersion into The Rolling Stones’ back catalog has again ignited my obsession with “Sway,” my favorite Stones song. It’s nearly perfect, even without much input from Keith Richards. How do I love thee? Let me count the ways:
- Memorable riff.
- Glorious build. Kicks off with Jagger’s languid 1-2-3-4 count-in, punches you in the face with said riff, and then slowly builds up to a cacophonous rockgasm, featuring strings, piano, and …
- Mick the Taylor’s sublimely awesomeriffic guitar work, first on bottleneck slide, then at 2:38, when he unleashes the high-tech weaponry and riddles our ear canals with rock shrapnel. I could listen to this sucker for hours. If there is a flaw in this song, it’s that it fades out just as I’m ready to cannonball from my roof into the pool. OK, maybe that’s a good thing.
- Fat drum sound. Jimmy Miller gets Charlie’s thwack all up in our grill, which is where drums should be. Watts plays deftly behind the beat throughout, offering explosive counterpoint during Mick the Taylor’s outro solo.
- Fat bass sound. Miller’s emphasis on the rhythm section brought out the best in the Stones, but was really tailor-made for Watts and Bill Wyman. Wyman’s bass kicks it up a notch at :45 and he periodically reappears with the kickass Mike Watt-esque low-end.
- Mick the Jagger howling his way back into the song after Taylor’s bottleneck solo, “HEY! HEY! HEY NOW!!!” His singing is great during the entire song, but here in particular … damn.
- Mick & Keith’s harmonies. Duh.
- Nicky Hopkins. Lest we forget the “Session Man” (quick nod to The Kinks, thankyouverymuch), Hopkins’ usual palette of dexterous ivory-tinkling is replaced here with a stabbing, percussive attack that leaps into the mix at 3:00.
- Paul Buckmaster‘s brilliant string arrangements, which function like a harmonic anchor. They enter subtly at :53 (“For all my friends out on the burial ground”) and seamlessly blend into the mix, holding things together as the song builds to its frenetic climax. If you’re gonna use strings in rock ‘n’ roll, and you’re not Curtis Mayfield or Willie Mitchell, this song is textbook. Strings should support, not overwhelm.
“DID SOMEONE SAY OVERWHELM?”
As a bonus, here’s one of my favorite bands of the mid-’90s offering up their take on “Sway.” Sure, it’s not as good as the Stones version, but there’s no shame in that. What I like about the Overwhelming Colorfast cover is their refusal to copycat the Stones. Instead, they marshall their post-punk stacks in a manner not unlike Flip Your Wig-era Hüsker Dü, with a healthy dollop of Black Sabbath-flavored sludge. You should’ve heard them do this live, where Bob Reed’s face-melting Gibson SG riffage managed to approach the grandeur of the original. Oh well, this studio cut will have to do. Get yer rock on.