Sometime around the mid-1800s, a school of rouge artists in France decided to stop painting overwrought, fanciful pictures in favor of depicting real subjects truthfully and without artifice. In the ensuing years, this new movement, dubbed realism, swept European art.
What, pray tell, does this have to do with the World’s Greatest Rock & Roll Band?
Well, “Factory Girl,” off of 1968’s Beggar’s Banquet, is the musical equivalent of a realist painting. It depicts love in its unvarnished state—its imperfections, its struggles, and ultimately its beauty. The woman Mick Jagger sings about is no Venus: she prefers scarves to hats, her clothes need mending, and her knee is “much too fat.” Make of that what you will, but its delivered with genuine sentiment and an implicit acknowledgement that for most, this is what love is. It’s no accident, in my opinion, that this song comes right before “Salt of the Earth” on the album.
The music certainly helps the beauty. Keith Richards’ flat picked guitar arpeggios, as well as the mandolin and fiddle, manage to create a pan-Atlantic folk sound that is humble and unassuming. It sounds equally indebted to traditional English dance tunes as well as American bluegrass—perhaps not such a stretch, given the close relationship between the two genres. It’s a song that you could easily re-create in the living room with a few friends.
There are other love songs by the Stones that get more attention—“Ruby Tuesday,” “Angie,” even “Let’s Spend the Night Together”—but for my money, this is one of their most honest, and one of their best.