This coming December 18th is actually the celebration of two birthdays. One, a celebration of the birthday of Rolling Stones songwriter/guitarist, rock n’ roll pirate, and superhuman drug-abuse survivor Keith Richards. And the other, incredibly, is the birthday of this very blog in its present form, which is three years old today. Happy birthday to us!
But, today let’s focus on Keef. He’s known by many these days for his ruined visage and onstage tenacity as a rock n’ roll musician. He’s still doing it even on the occasion of his 67th birthday, and also in the year that his biography Keith Richards Life was released.
So, what I’d like to do is to list some musical highlights in a career that offers an embarrassment of riches. Where many of the greatest tracks with the Stones were fronted by Keith’s musical partner, Mick Jagger, Keith himself has often taken the helm, providing lead vocals as well as game-changing touches as a guitar player.
And even when he hasn’t come to the fore as a lead singer, it was established very early on that even if early Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham was listed as the producer on the band’s early albums, the real musical ear behind their catalogue in the studio was Keith himself. The takes that were used on the records were done so on Keith’s approval.
So, let’s take a look at 10 such moments that best features Keith’s musical signature, which is a cultural contribution unlikely, if not completely impossible, to replace.
1. (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
“Keith Richard” as he was known at the time (‘”Richard” sounds more pop’, said Stones svengali Oldham) was a stalwart guitarist in the Stones from early on, sharing a spotlight on that front with fellow guitarist Brian Jones. The two had developed the intertwining lead-rhythm-lead dynamic for which the band is known, and which continues today with current guitar partner Ronnie Wood. But, Richards’ natural feel for hooky guitar riffs from the band’s earliest period is perfectly represented here in this, one of the Stones’ most recognized tracks.
And the recognition is centered around that riff, which first appeared to Richards in a dream, and recorded solo on a portable tape machine on awaking in the middle of the night. The tape featured the riff played hurriedly by a half-asleep Richards followed by the sound of the guitarist snoring as he fell back asleep. When he woke up, he had the seeds for his first world-beating song, eventually arranged with an almost sexual fuzztone against a Motown-inspired beat. The rising star of the Rolling Stones took an even sharper turn upwards afterwards, initiating an even fiercer “Beatles-or-Stones” preference conundrum from that point on.
2. You Got the Silver
Richards would continue to lay down solos and riffs that buoyed up the Stones through the London R&B boom period, and even through a brief flirtation with psychedelia. But, by 1968’s Beggar’s Banquet onward, Richards was steering the group in a back-to-basics direction as Jagger became a movie star, and Brian Jones was sinking down into the mire of drug addiction and serial absenteeism. What came out was an embrace, and a mastery of country music, and rural blues, which went into the rock pop stew that the Stones had established since they’d began.
This is one of my favourite tracks which illustrates this, with Keith himself on lead. There is a version of this song with Jagger singing. But, there is something more tender in this rendering, which perhaps is down to Richards’ tentative delivery. It’s his first high-profile entirely solo lead vocal released on a Stones record (not counting “Something Happened to Me Yesterday” on which he sang the choruses alone, and the solitary verse opening to “Salt of the Earth”), and something of a precedent setter that Richards could front a band, too. Yet, he would continue to support the band as a force for sheer riffage, and overall flavour.
3. Gimme Shelter
Where Richards’ lead here isn’t on the vocal front, it is impossible to ignore the epic nature of this track driven by his impossibly compelling guitar figure. It would be his examination of the blues which first inspired him that would help him to drive rock music into the next decade. In looking at some of the early blues records which had inspired him to become a musician to begin with, Keith discovered that many of them had been created using open tunings. As such, a whole world was opened for him when sitting down to compose this riff.
The guitar line in this track is a rolling, roiling mobius strip of a thing that takes on a life of its own. It really does feel like a storm is threatening one’s very life today, largely because Richards’ guitar is convincing you it is. The overall effect is like something out of a movie. It’s no wonder that filmmaker and Stones nut Martin Scorcese has used this track in so many of his.
By the early 70s, the Stones had hightailed it to France when the taxes demanded of them by the British Government sought to take most of their earnings. While there, they began sessions for their double-plattered artistic smash Exile On Main Street while in Keith’s rented house, which was once owned by occupying Nazi forces while holding down France during World War II; Villa Nellcote.
The sessions were loose, which comes out on the record, and recorded in “Keith’s filthy basement” according to Mick Jagger, while a perpetual party of hangers-on raged on in the upper floors. One day, when the other Stones had not yet arrived, Keith took to the basement with an idea, and took producer Jimmy Miller, and sax player Bobby Keys with him. With these three compatriots, Keith laid down the basic tracks, with Miller on drums and Keys on baritone sax. He filled in the other parts himself, including bass and lead vocals. What came out is what is ostensibly his signature track as a Stone, still performed today by the band as a spotlight piece, and associated with a certain joie de vivre, Keith-style.
5. Coming Down Again
Richards’ relationship with heroin was becoming something of a dark romance by the time this song was recorded. Keith was spending hours on his own fixing in the bathroom while sitting on the can (among other ways it whacks your system, heroin makes you constipated). This song, recorded for 1973’s Goats Head Soup is a journal of Keith’s descent into the drug hell that once had been the province of his deceased bandmate Brian Jones.
A delicate, Elton Johnesque country rock ballad of unique poignancy, and asking “Where are all my friends?”, it outlines the trap that a lot of rock stars fall into, to wit: missing home while being on the road, missing the rush of the road while stuck at home, and filling the void caused by that conundrum with self-medication. Unfortunately, Keith’s chemically-aided descent was the beginning of the end of what critics would consider the Stones’ purple patch, as Richards focus was less on the guitar, and more on the needle and spoon. Yet, despite a certain level of lyrical dishonesty about how he could balance these two forces, it’s one of his best vocal performances as a lead singer.
6. Before They Make Me Run
Richards’ very famous quote that he’s “never had a problem with drugs, but rather a problem with policemen” had come to a head while in Toronto by 1978. His penchant for carrying drugs across borders, using them heavily, and having them procured in whatever town he happened to be in, had become a normal set of logistical considerations while on the road. But, the RCMP had other ideas of what should be considered normal, and Richards was looking at a considerable stretch behind bars when they busted him in October of that year; seven years in prison.
And what does a law-beleagured songwriter do, looking at that kind of time? Well, he writes songs. And this one is a highlight from what many consider to be the Stones last fully consistent record, Some Girls, featuring his nasal vocal, and jagged rhythm guitar. The result of the court case was also a success; Keith agreed to put on a show for the CNIB with Ronnie Wood’s New Barbarians, and all was right with the world again. Even Richards’ level of drug use evened out after this, relatively speaking of course.
7. Little T&A
After a long, tumultuous, and drug-addled relationship with former model/actress Anita Pallenberg, Richards met a new love, also a model/actress; Patti Hansen. And this is Richards take on a “Something” style love song to his wife, although with less poetry and more practical sentiment. The Stones had always been a boys club, and happily so. So, when laying down a track inspired by the epitome of womanhood according to Keith himself ; a beautiful woman who takes no shit off of anyone, chasing off hangers-on and drug dealers on behalf of her man to make sure that ‘the tracks are fading’ process continues as it should. Hansen proved her worth.
Richards’ highest compliments must be put into perspective. It’s no small thing to be described as a ‘my little rock ‘n’ roll’, by one of the greatest rhythm players in the genre. It also illustrates a certain kind of vulnerability, with the admission that even a Rolling Stone needs such a rock in order to survive. Yet, it’s dressed as a tough rock song, full of male ego. It wouldn’t be a Stones song if it wasn’t.
8. Take It So Hard
After Mick Jagger had released two solo albums, and helping then to create a rift in the Stones which would last for years, many wondered when Richards would do the same thing. He’d released a solo single in 1978, a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Run Run Rudolph”. He also provided his services as musical director to Berry’s 60th birthday show, as depicted in 1986’s Hail! Hail! Rock N’ Roll movie. But, Richards’ loyalty, artistically speaking, was to the Stones.
As a result, it took years before he brought out his first solo record, 1988’s Talk is Cheap. He cut the record with the help of drummer/producer /songwriter Steve Jordan, and a collection of veteran musicians who became known as The X-Pensive Winos, the membership of which Richards and Jordan hand-picked themselves. As it turned out, choosing musicians with complementary traits was a hidden talent for Richards. This one plays to everyone’s strength; a loose, sloppy glory that was all-Keith, which is really what you want on your first solo album, even if you’ve been a professional musician for decades by the time you’ve cut it.
9. Wicked As It Seems
After his first solo album, the Stones came together again reunited and stronger, and ready for the 1989 Steel Wheels album and tour. Yet, Richards had had a taste of working with other musicians in the ‘Winos. As such, by 1992, he was ready for another go-around with them to prove that the first record wasn’t just a fluke. And this was one of the highlights of that set, a funked-up, call-and-response rock song, full of soul, and with Richards cracked, gnarly lead vocal at the centre of it.
One thing which makes this track interesting is to see Richards removed from the Stones, and seeing how much of the Stones’ sound he takes with him. We miss Charlie Watts’ signature dextrous, flick-wristed drumming, as good as Steve Jordan is. And we may even miss Jagger’s low-high lead vocal. But, removed from his usual configuration, we can see that that dirty, sloppy sound that defines the Rolling Stones pulses primarily from Richards’ guitar, particularly here.
10. The Worst
By the end of the 1960s, Keith Richards and former Byrd Gram Parsons formed a fast friendship. One of the things Keith took from Parsons was a deeper understanding of the mechanics of country music. He of course took this and poured it into songs like “Honky Tonk Women”, “Dead Flowers”, and “Sweet Virginia”, among many others. By 1994, this influence on Richards’ approach to writing songs was undiminished. And this is certainly one of the best latter-day examples.
Another thing that stands out of course is the vulnerability expressed here, a far cry from what was hinted at in “Little T&A”. Here is the tale of a guy who is in love enough to tell his loved one to steer clear. Of course, if questioned I’m sure he’d never admit that the song was about him, a man who famously intoned “I don’t regret nothin’!”
Bonus moment: Key Man
To round off this list, I thought I’d add a bonus track, where Richards played something of a back-up role, not unlike his pivotal role in many Stones tracks. In this case, it’s the role of producer for a collection of Jamaican musicians called collectively Wingless Angels. Richards had been interested in Jamaican culture and music since he went there to record Goats Head Soup in 1973. As such, and like the interest his onetime bandmate Brian Jones had in the music of Morocco and the Master Musicians of Joujouka, Richards steps in here to showcase the music of Jamaica, and its African roots.
Listening to what is clearly folk music that pulls in African choral music, gospel, and even some vaguely Celtic textures, it’s easy to see where Richards might have seen a common thread running through the music. This is a far cry away from “Brown Sugar” of course, which goes to prove that even if the Stones have become something of a rock ‘n’ roll brand, as it were, his musical imagination is far wider than many would suspect. And his willingness to frame it without needing to be in the spotlight is even more notable.
I believe that a musician like Keith Richards will never come again, inspiring likeminded players for good or ill following in his footsteps, but never quite reaching his mystique. Yet, beyond that mystique lies the skills of someone who understands the importance of texture and groove, whether playing rock ‘n’ roll, country, rural blues, or reggae. Where many have written him off as being something of a characature, it’s also important to note that he’s written songs that rank among the most recognized and celebrated of the 20th century.
Happy birthday, Keith!