By any measure, “As Tears Go By” is an iconic song. It’s not necessarily the best song ever written, it doesn’t have the most eloquent lyrics, Marianne Faithfull’s performance doesn’t knock you off your feet with its power, verve and style.
But it captures a moment in time perfectly.
In the same way as I can’t hear the Charleston without thinking about flapper dresses, Model T Fords and speakeasies, I can’t hear “As Tears Go By” without thinking of a Britain still going about its business in post-war black-and-white, before the hippies and colour TV came along to show us how to live life in bold technicolour.
Although it’s still well within living memory, the world was a different place when Marianne Faithfull released “As Tears Go By” in the summer of 1964.
The Beatles were only just getting some traction in the charts. The Rolling Stones were a year away from “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” sending their career into overdrive. It was a time when Matt Munro, The Bachelors and Val Doonican were still major chart acts in the UK.
But before the Rolling Stones became global superstars, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards…along with their manager, Andrew Loog Oldman…took some time out from their more familiar groove in the blues to write the distinctly un-Stonesy “As Tears Go By”.
The Rolling Stones recorded their own version later, but the iconic performance we remember today is Marianne Faithfull’s. It’s thanks to her that one of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ very earliest compositions remains firmly wedged in our minds.
“As Tears Go By” is an unusual song. For starters, it’s a song about someone in the autumn of their years looking back at their life, but it was written by two 20 year-olds. What’s more Marianne Faithfull was just 17 when she recorded it. However she brings a reflective, contemplative perspective to the song that belied her tender years.
And it’s a very simple song, at least lyrically. “As Tears Go By” doesn’t overcomplicate the story, or try to tell too much of it. It leaves plenty of space for listeners to develop their own perspective on what the song might be about and to make up their own stories…
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
It’s a wonderfully wistful song. There aren’t many hit singles that successfully carry off an oboe solo, but “As Tears Go By” does. That most wistful of instruments perfectly complements Marianne Faithfull’s delivery.
Listening to her sing, we absorb a lifetime of someone’s feelings…of love, loss, and disappointment…of decisions made that didn’t pan out…of people who left, never to return…of a lonely and uncertain future…of someone whose life has passed them by, leaving only regrets behind for company.
Just the sight of some children, playing innocently as children do, is enough to kickstart the emotions.
Perhaps it was all those years of wishing for children, but never meeting the right partner. Or a child cruelly taken before their time. Or a family which moved halfway around the world before FaceTime existed, where years could go by with only an occasional handwritten letter going in one direction or the other.
Before the Beatles and the Rolling Stones took over the world…before the British Invasion…before the world exploded into technicolour…things were very different.
“As Tears Go By” came along at the transition point between the wartime generation holding sway and the kids taking over.
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote a song which could have been written and recorded at almost any time in the previous decade. It would have done just as well in 1954 as it did in 1964.
And “As Tears Go By” became a hit just before the Rolling Stones helped redefine the global music industry by chalking up hit after hit of their own iconic style of blues-inspired rock from the mid-1960s onwards.
In many ways, that’s what makes “As Tears Go By” such a fondly-remembered song. It was reflecting on a world that had already gone, although not many people realised it at the time.
It was both before its time and after its time. Perfectly balanced at the fulcrum of the time-space continuum.
Perhaps that “frozen in time” dimension is what makes “As Time Goes By” so special.
It’s hard to pin down rationally, but I defy anyone to listen to this song without being taken to a reflective, contemplative place where we think about the people we lost, the opportunities we missed and a time before our hearts were broken.
Here’s Marianne Faithfull with “As Tears Go By”…