Keith On Keeping On

interview with Keith Richards

There was a time when the Rolling Stones gleefully played up to a shameless need among certain of their disciples for some kind of hedonistic role model. All very fab 'n' groovy at first, I suppose. Except I have this feeling that the Stones themselves, after a time, must have got heartily sick of it! just think for a minute ... These guys have been consistently deliverting the right stuff, both on vinyl and in person, for twenty-five years. "The Greatest Rock'n'Roll Band in the World" is at once both your mandatory show-biz hokum and a prosaic statement of fact.
So I guess it is some kind of tribute to the enduring seductiveness and potency of whatever bizarre tableau they evoke that no one ever stops to ponder how they can possibly still be out there - as prolific, creative and compelling as ever - if they're all supposed to be your lovable ol' burn-outs! Well, that's show business, folks! And I'm sure they must still get a kick out of it.
Now, at this point I'm hoping some of the more perceptive among you will have divined what all this is about. It can mean only one thing. Yes, you got it ... there's a new Stones album out. Called Dirty Work (the first single off it being "Harlem Shuffle"). And since the first hint of a new Stones product usually generates an unseemly stampede throughout all they survey, I must say I find it greatly reassuring that the guys still care enough to come out and do the rounds of interviews. They're checking in with us, making contact. Hey, these guys like us!
So on the appointed day, at the highly civilized hour of three-thirty in the afyernoon, I presented myself at the Stones' New York office, just a Stones' throw from Columbus Circle. While most of Manhattan was agonizing over whether (a) to observe Lincoln's Birthday (b) Valentine's Day counted as a public holiday and (c) we could take the whole damn week off because of the snow, there was none of that kind of nonsense at the Stones' office. Very much business as usual.
Keith had phoned ahead with apologies: He'd been delayed leaving the house and would be a few minutes late. A small courtesy, but kind of pleasing in a way. And since the "delay" turned out to be only two or three minutes, it might even score more points than arriving on the dot!
I was shown into a room dominated by a large conference table, the usual vulgar display of framed "platinum" discs refreshingly absent. No need for such ostentation here. Wonder where they keep 'em all? Probably in storage until the recording industry designs awards eye-pleasing enough to be worth wall space.
Off in another room a redundant telephone warbled soothingly. One left secure in the knowledge that someone, somewhere, would attend to it.
The door opens. Enter, Keith.
Nattily turned out in a dark blue pinstripe suit, the effect artfully softened by a loosely fitting creamy silk blouse.
Coffee is brought in, and an ashtray for Keith. The scene is set.
So here it is, then. My tete-a-tete with Keith Richards. And a pleasurable experience it was, too. For me, anyway. Ask the guy a straight question and you get a straight answer. But then, you'd expect that, wouldn't you? I mean, you can't get much more direct, incisive and unpretentious than a Keith Richards riff. It's almost as if the guitar had evolved to the stage where it needed a Keith Richards to come along and reach in and give us a glimpse of part of its true essence, its proto-soul. Keith's unique view of his relationship to his instrument is revealed when he talks )below) of how he first came to "... touch the guitar." Oh, sure, we've had more flamboyant players who, in varying degrees, have worked the same magic - Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck come immediately to mind. But with Keith it's not just a guy playing the guitar; the guitar sometimes appears to be playing him - drawing, as he does, on a solid and still-vital blues tradition, sifting and nurturing that rich harvest with just right sensibilities, thereby becoming the medium - our medium - for its expression, and contributing in the process to some of the more significant songs in our rock repertoire!
The Rolling Stones have carved themselves a sizable niche as the spearhead of a movement that awakened the American consciousness to that neglected part of its own musical hertitage - the blues. In this respect their influence has probably been more far-reaching than that of that flank of the British "invasion," the Beatles. Plus, the Stones are still very much with us!
When Keith spoke of Muddy Waters at the close of our interview, I like to think he was unconsciously expressing hopes for his and the Stones' future.

CS So you've just finished a new stones album, right?
KR Yeah. Dirty Work.
CS Gonna tour?
KR Good question. Can't really give you a definite on that. I think so, though.
CS Why haven't you done a solo album like other members of the group?
KR I've never had a clear enough idea of what I'd want to do. Something's been forming up in my mind over the last three months. Stuff I've been thinking of doing for years. It's sort of coming together. But I'm waiting for the little internal clock in me that says, "Now!", you know. I may well do something when this Stones thing is on its way - after the record and the tour - I may do something later this year. Make a start of it anyway.
CS What about producing?
KR Yeah, it was interesting doing Peter Tosh and Max romeo, but the thing that stopped me doing more of that has always been the time thing, you know, sort of being able to say to somebody definitely that I can spend ... give all my time for as long as it takes, you know. I don't think I'd like to take something on a schedule like, "We've only got four weeks in the studio here." I wanna be able to promise, to say I've definitely got the time, let's take as long as it takes and get it right. There's quite a few people fishing around, a mention here and there if we canput it together. I enjoy working with other people very much and, given the time, I'd work with just about anybody, really. As long as I can get along with them and they've got some good stuff to do.
CS Did you enjoy working on the Tom Waits album?
KR Yeah. Very much. I'd never met him before. He asked me to do onne track and we were having such fun we tried a bit on this one and a bit on that one. A good idea! I didn't realize how complex his stuffwas till I started getting into it. 'Cause on the surface it sounds very casually thrown-together blues, but some of the times are very sort of jazz.
CS Since the first Stones album was cut on a two-track recorder, what is your reaction to the ongoing rampant technological explosion in the recording studio?
KR A lot of young bands that come and see us in thr studio can't believe there's an actual band in there playing all at once. They think it's some new technique for recording, 'cause with those guys it's the drummer Mondays and Tuesdays and the bass player goes in on Fridays or something - they never see each other!
CS And drum machines that are judged by how like real drums they sound, and drummers who are judgedby how like drum machines they sound!
KR That's true. So much technology has flooded in in the last seven or eight years - not that it ever stopped, but it's speeding up a bit now with all the possibilities - and everybody's going a bit betserk. What you eventually end up with, right, is that you've got five million more possibilities of what you can do with all these different pieces of equipment with the result that all records start to sound more and more alike - and most records are made on the same three or four pieces of equipment. A studio will buy a new piece of equipment even if it costs a billion dollars, because it keeps you in the studio. They know that every time they give you another possibility or a choice to make, you have to be making these decisions in the studio and the clock's ticking and money's going around. I mean, you can make a movie with the budget of a record for a big group.
CS But you made records on two-track when you didn't know half what you know now. you have the knowledge and technique to make records without all this stuff. Don't you think that might putsomething into the music, might be an actual advantage? With the Let It Be album years ago the beatles made a conscious attempt to get back to basic recording techniques.
KR Well, "Street fighting Man" was cut on a cassette player and you know what they were like in those days! The first little Phillips ones, you know. There's a million possibilities - like overloading an acoustic guitar inatead of using an electric guita. You can get that lovely acoustic dryness and feel but with an electric sound. To make a rock'n'roll record, technology is the least important thing. As far as technology is concerned we keep it to a minimum. We're the kind of band that you don't .... We sound terrible if you try and make it techno-pop with us!
CS I don't notice on the last couple of albums you've been using a kind of rockabilly slap-back echo on the lead guitar, which I quite like myself.
KR Yeah, right, that analog-delay thing, yeah. The only new technology that interests me is when it sort of throws me back soundwise. And I can think, "Wow, that means I can go onstage and sound like Scotty moore now and again!"
CS Looking back, what first got you interested in music?
KR I was twelve or thirteen in 1957 whenrock and roll first really hit in and as you know, up to that time living in England it was "How Much Is That Doggie in the Window?" But my mother always had good music taste in music. At home I can remember listening to Billy Eckstein, Sarah Vaughan, Ella Fitzgerald and stuff every day, 'cause that's what my ma would play around the house, singing away doing the dishes. And then her father, my grandfather, Gus dupree, had a dance band in the Thirties, and whenever we'd go visit granddad there'd be a piano, fiddle, guitar, you know. He was probably the one who got me on guitar. I wouldn't be surprised if he had a long-term plan for it, 'cause I always used to think this guitar was always sitting in the corner of his room, and then I found out only a few years ago that he only used to bring it out when he know I was coming. So I sense a conspiracy there.
but I don't really start playing an instrument until, really we're talking about '57-'58, when I started to actually sort of touchthe guitar. Although, as I said, I was brought up not unused to having musical instruments around and just going sort of plink-plonk-plonk and, you know, bang-bang wallop.
CS But when you first heard rock music, didn't something inside of you click? i know it did for me.
KR Exactly
CS ... and everything prior to that seemed to be a time of total innocence and then suddenly there was a whole new thing going on.
KR And you wanted to know where the fuck it came from. And because there wasn't so much of it, you weren't swamped with it and you would say, hey, I really like that "Sweet Little sixteen" and trace it back and you find out that this gut chuck Berry comes from a record label that also has these guys like Muddy Waters, and it made us English guys a little more conscious of the history of the music just because it was such a bombshell when it first hit.
CS And in the fifties in England, we used to be embarrassed about not being able to come out with a good rock record.
KR There were only a few guys that could sound convincing.
CS And then all of a sudden with the stones and the Beatles ...
KR yeah, 'cause we were the ones who were twelve or thirteen when rock first hit, so it took those six or seven years for it to seep through and get the chops right.
CS Did it surprise you when you realized that America was picking up on this stuff that you'd ...
KR Oh yeah, we couldn't believe it that we were actually going to come to America and work. To most English guys at that time, America was this half-fabled land. And then later to actually work and record at Chess in Chicago, the same studio that Chuck Berry recorded in - amazing.
CS What was the attitude of those guys at Chess to you guys?
KR Pretty much disbelief on both sides. They were just knocked out that some white kids from England knew more about their music than American kids, they just couldn't believe it. So it was a little bit of a shock all around. we didn't know how long this thing would go on so we went for it gung ho! Charlie came to New York and hung around at the Metropole and birdland fulfilling all of the old dreams.
CS I saw an old clip of one of your live Ed Sullivan Show appearances recently on MTV and it made me wonder just exactly what Brian Jones' role was in the early group. 'Cause when we started getting original songs it was always Jagger/Richards, never a Brian Jones song, and although he was obviously a charismatic performer and had this great image thing, when it came down to writing and performing it was always you up front with Mick and you were usually playing all the leads. Was this a gradual change that came about when you and Mick started writing? It was surprising to see him insuch an obviously subordinate role.
KR Yeah. He never got 'round to writing. I sat down with him a couple of times and tried to write with him, but .... You see, I personally believe that most people that play an instrument would be able to write a few songs here and there. But they say, "I tried, I can't do it" and give up and don't try it again; they get too discouraged. But for myself and Mick it became a matter of, almost, necessity. It was Andrew Oldham who made it very apparent very quickly. He said you really got to buckle down and try and start writing songs because another album or two and you're going to be forever at the mercy of other songwriters. You're always gonna be hunting around for material. So the first song, "As Tears Go By," was a great encouragement because, moldy old ballad as it was in its way, it did come out as a record and did all right. And that's all you need to be able to say "Okay, I'm a songwriter as well." But Brian was the one who was most affected by becoming a pop star. One minute he was a real back room jazz boy and then within a very short time it seemed to me he felt his main job was to be a pop star. He got less into playing and more into flitting around. He became very adept at leaping onto a vibraphone or xylophone in the studio and being able to knock it out. And in that way added a lot of interesting texture to some of the earlier records. It seemed he thought, "I've made it, I'm a pop star, that's really what I do." I suppose a bit of him inside, well, maybe there was a little bit of self-contempt: "I've sold out, therefore I'm not gonna concentrate on playing anymore."
CS Well, he was always the blues purist, wasn't he?
KR Very much so, yes. He would never even listen to Jimmy Reed, and hardly any of Muddy Waters' electric stuff. we turned him on to Jimmy Reed and Bo Diddley. He was into guys like Sunnyland Slim and Tampa Red. Elmore James was about as far down the road as he'd gone with electric blues. Even people like Buddy Guy - I think he thought they were too showman-y. Chuck Berry, too. But he did get into it. I had a lot of trouble in those days, and I nearly didn't even get in the Stones because I insisted on banging out Chuck Berry songs."we don't want no rock'n'roll 'round here," he'd say. But i got through that one pretty quick. for a while he was ostracized from the blues purist societies of London for that. Mind you, so was Muddy waters for a while.
CS So how did the group come about?
KR Well, there wasn't really a group first. We all sort of met at Alexis korner's club, you know. Brian knew Alexis and he'd played in a couple of bands in Cheltenham, whereas I'd only done the odd dances and a country band at art school and a couple of rock'n'roll gigs for fun. Brian was more into "A gig - we can get fifty bob for this." Get a guest slot down the red Lion or something like that. He knew a little bit more about the musician scene in London. Stu was the first guy I saw when I went to the first reheasal of what turned out to be the Stones. He was just sitting there at the piano. Mick and I had done a couple of numbers with Alexis. It was good experience and we got off on it. And then Alexis had offered Mick a couple of gigs to come and sing at some of these deb jobs he was doing.
CS Yeah?
KR yeah, 'cause he saw a certain amount of commercial appeal to use Mick for four or five numbers to give it a bit more variety, I guess.
CS Another thing I noticed on that old ed Sullivan clip was that Mick was just standing there singing - nothing like what you see these days!
KR To me, as long as we've known each other, I've always thought Mick's most brilliant thing was that he could work in an area two foot square and give a very exciting performance. I keep saying to him, "Don't worry about it, save your breath, you don't have to look upon it as an athletic stunt anymore. Just stand there and sing."
CS Do you still enjoy playing live?
KR Yeah. There's no substitute for live work to keep a band together.
CS Yes, almost every other band from that era has faded away. It's almost as if you'd all consciously made a kind of pact with each other to keep it together. You're getting to be like an institution.
KR Yes, I find it very interesting to still be together after all this time, and in a way it's put us in this unique position. Since nobody else has got this far with it as a band, let's see if we can take this English rock'n'roll fab group/mania sort of thing it started as and see if we can make it grow up with us. Without having to get hung up on the Peter Pan aspect of it.
CS Well, rock came about as a sort of musical expression of the postwar baby-boom generation and it was originally an adolescent thing you were expected to grow out of. There were no rock musicians over twenty-five and the idea of still doing it when you're forty ... and yet look at guys like Muddy Waters.
KR Muddy is the example I always use when talking about this. He commanded all the respect in the world and did it in a mature and graceful way. So it's really up to you. None of the great ones ever sort of ... stop.

Chris Spedding - the journalist