The Rolling Stones

Sittin' on a Fence

Song Review by

Part of the reason the Rolling Stones were rapidly growing and improving as songwriters in the mid-'60s was their willingness to draw upon folk influences and non-blues-indebted pop melodies, as well as words that more directly reflected their experience as young rebellious playboys. "Sittin' on a Fence" was one of their better such songs, and was perhaps undervalued by the bandmembers themselves. From the sound of it, it was probably recorded around the era of the sessions for Aftermath and Between the Buttons, yet somehow made it onto neither of those albums. It was retrieved to fill out the 1967 compilation Flowers, and didn't appear in their native U.K. until late 1969, on the British version of Through the Past, Darkly (Big Hits, Vol. 2). Possibly it was unfinished or a demo, as it has one of the sparsest arrangements of any of their 1960s recordings, with no drums, though there is rattling hand-held percussion. The guitar work, too, is totally acoustic, starting with the memorable, almost Appalachian figure that begins the track and recurs throughout the song, particularly on the chorus; it's almost like hearing mandolin or banjo parts played on guitar. The lyric, sung with effective angry restraint by Jagger, gets a non-feminist dig in right at the start with his declaration that he can't understand some of the sick things a woman does to a man. Yet "Sittin' on a Fence" is less a putdown of a girl than a more a generally pissed-off look at social conformity in general, bemoaning how school friends have sold out -- mortgaged off their lives -- and married and settled down because they lack the imagination to do anything else (far more uncommon sentiments in '60s pop than they would be later). It's a haunting, slightly disturbing look at how settling for a comfortably bland life early on may lead to a lifetime of regret, which of course the Stones themselves observe at a distance, refusing to commit to such decisions and sitting on their fence. With a strong pensive melody, the track gets an added lift when the arrangement and tempo unexpectedly change for the final verse, a quasi-harpsichord (played by Brian Jones) coming in to anchor the backing before they return to the acoustic guitars to charge through the chorus. It does seem, however, that Keith Richards or whoever was playing the lead guitar line could have benefited from some extra takes, as he stumbles on the solo in the instrumental tag that ends the record, which dramatically slows for the last few seconds. Maybe if they'd given it fuller attention in the studio, the track would have been stronger, but then part of its appeal is its very starkness. Perhaps the decision not to release it on a regular Rolling Stones album was because it was covered by Twice As Much, a group also produced by Andrew Loog Oldham, on a May 1966 U.K. single, slightly over a year before the first appearance of the Stones' version on Flowers. This single actually had a fair amount of success on the British charts, reaching number 25, though it was much inferior to the Rolling Stones' rendition, with a prissy orchestrated Baroque pop arrangement.

Appears On

Year Artist/Album Label Time AllMusic Rating
Flowers 1967 ABKCO Records 3:02
Through the Past, Darkly: Big Hits, Vol. 2 1969 ABKCO Records 0:00
More Hot Rocks (Big Hits and Fazed Cookies) 1972 ABKCO Records 2:58
No Image 1981 Decca
Remastered Series 2004 ABKCO Records 3:02
The Rolling Stones 1964-1969 [Vinyl Box Set] 2010 ABKCO Records / Universal Distribution 3:04
The Rolling Stones in Mono 2016 ABKCO Records 3:02