Recording of “Waiting on a Friend” (as ‘Waiting for a Friend’) began in late 1972 through early 1973 in Kingston, Jamaica, during the Goats Head Soup sessions when the band still had Mick Taylor as a member. His guitar piece made it to the overdubbing sessions in April 1981 when the song was selected by Tattoo You producer Chris Kimsey as one the band could re-work for the album.
In the liner notes to 1993’s compilation album Jump Back, Mick Jagger said, “We all liked it at the time but it didn’t have any lyrics, so there we were… The lyric I added is very gentle and loving, about friendships in the band.” Jagger also had stated that the 1981 lyrics were contemplated for a future possible video, making the song the first Rolling Stones single to be packaged as a possible video for the emerging MTV channel.
The video, directed by Michael Lindsay-Hogg (who also directed their 1968 special The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus), became very popular on MTV. Matching the song’s lyrics, Jagger is seen waiting for Keith Richards in the doorway of an apartment block. The building, at 96-98 St. Mark’s Place in Manhattan, is notable for appearing on the cover of Led Zeppelin’s 1975 album Physical Graffiti. The two then walk down the street and enter the St. Mark’s Bar & Grill where the other three band members are already drinking. Jagger sings the song to Richards and the video concludes with the band setting up for a gig at the back of the bar, ignored by the other patrons
The lyrics see a more mature side of singer Jagger represented. He speaks of setting aside women and vices in favor of making some sense of his life and finding the virtues inherent in true friendship: “Don’t need a whore, I don’t need no booze, don’t need a virgin priest. But I need someone I can cry to, I need someone to protect.”
The song is noted for its dreamy qualities brought on by the soft guitars, smooth rhythm, and Jagger’s lilting refrain of “doo-doo-doo”‘s. Stones-recording veteran Nicky Hopkins performs the track’s running piano. The Stones hired jazz saxophonist Sonny Rollins to perform the solo on this song, as well as two others on the album. On his addition to the track, Jagger said in 1985:
“I had a lot of trepidation about working with Sonny Rollins. This guy’s a giant of the saxophone. Charlie said, ‘He’s never going to want to play on a Rolling Stones record!’ I said, ‘Yes he is going to want to.’ And he did and he was wonderful. I said, ‘Would you like me to stay out there in the studio?’ He said, ‘Yeah, you tell me where you want me to play and DANCE the part out.’ So I did that. And that’s very important: communication in hand, dance, whatever. You don’t have to do a whole ballet, but sometimes that movement of the shoulder tells the guy to kick in on the beat.”
Additional percussion, comprising claves, cabasa, güiro and conga, by Michael Carabello, was added during overdub sessions in April and June 1981.
Released as the second single after “Start Me Up,” “Waiting on a Friend” became a radio staple in the US where it reached #13 on the singles chart in early-1982. It did not fare as well in Europe, reaching only #50 on the UK Singles Chart but as high as #9 in the Netherlands.
Although included on both Jump Back and the earlier Rewind (1971–1984), it was not included on 2002’s Forty Licks but is present on 2012’s GRRR!. A live performance with saxophonist Joshua Redman was recorded during the Bridges to Babylon Tour and released on the 1998 live album No Security and concert film Bridges to Babylon Tour ’97–98. A 1981 performance of the song featured on Let’s Spend the Night Together (film) (1983). The song was later used in the film The Normal Heart (2014).