On the eve of Keith Richards’ new solo album, Hamish MacBain meets the music and style icon
My favourite split-second of recorded Rolling Stones music – and thus my favourite split-second of recorded music by anyone, ever – does not actually feature any music. It comes just after the final thud of the drums on Brown Sugar, when, in the background, you hear a voice – this deliriously happy croak – just go, “Yeeeeeaah!”
The voice belongs to Keith Richards and it always, always makes me smile.
Consider that when it was being committed to tape in December 1969, The Beatles could barely be in the same room as each other, while The Who, The Kinks and new kids on the block Led Zeppelin were indulging themselves in more and more elaborate studio productions. Pink Floyd had just put out an album containing a 19-minute song called Sysyphus (Parts 1-4), and thus prog was in the post. And yet in this split-second “Yeeeeeaah!”, you hear a man not interested in this, because he is still so completely and utterly in love with the magical, simple-yet-infinitely-more-difficult-to-pull-off sound of five guys in a room (seven if you’re being pedantic), all locked in to each other, conjuring up yet another perfect take of direct, up, propulsive, swinging rock’n’roll.
Keith is regarded as the greatest rock’n’roll guitar player of all time for his riffs and his just-behind-the-beat swagger, not for his solos. When he does solo – on Sympathy For The Devil, say – his brief blasts of fuzz appear out of nowhere, do what they need to do, and disappear again. His playing is egoless, always in service of the song, of the band. Because Keith is, and has always prided himself on being, a member of a band.
So it might come as a surprise that, for the first time in 23 years and in the middle of yet another triumphant Rolling Stones world tour (they wrapped in Quebec two months ago, and are off out again soon in South America), he is tomorrow releasing a solo album.
The truth is, though, whatever it says on the cover, Keith regards Crosseyed Heart, his third solo release, as a band album. Along with a small, rotating cast of musicians (including late Stones saxophonist Bobby Keys), he made it with Steve Jordan, a drummer who has partnered him in his extra-curricular X-Pensive Winos project since 1987. “It’s like being with the Stones, but with different faces and different guys,” he shrugs.
And, in fact, as we sit smoking Marlboros in his suite at The Savoy, Keith admits that many of the songs on it could have ended up as Stones songs. “Easily. In fact, some of them were written and unfinished at the end of the last Stones record, A Bigger Bang. Some of the ideas for these songs were already there: they just didn’t get on that one eventually. And I can’t keep them in the basement forever. The Stones were in hibernation at the time, and I just wanted to get into the studio again.”
Might there also be an element then, with this solo album, of Richards trying to kick his band back into action?
“Maybe in the back of my mind I’m thinking this might give them a kick up the bum,” he grins. “The Stones haven’t been in the studio since 2004, man: a ludicrously long time to not make a record. But I just came from a Stones meeting. I just left the lads half an hour ago, and recording was up on the agenda. From my point of view, yeah, it’s time to get them in the studio and put something out. I’m hoping, pleading, begging and threatening to get in the studio as soon as I can.”
So Crosseyed Heart is a stop-gap, then. A distraction while the day-job lies temporarily dormant. But that doesn’t mean it is not also a great record: full of warmth, an intimate, live-in-the-room feel, and great songs. There are loose-limbed, up-tempo rockers (lead-off single Trouble), Beast Of Burden-style, bluesy grooves (Nothing On Me) and – this being the most romantic Stone who gave the world Angie – an abundance of ballads (the beautiful, pedal steel-laden Robbed Blind being the best).
At times it deals with very personal issues – Amnesia imagines what life could easily have been like after he fell out of that tree in 2006 – and it all comes wrapped up in that throaty, ragged, wizened voice. Mick Jagger is, of course, no slouch when it comes to the delivery of great vocals, but Keith Richards’ singing has this kind of fragility to it that is hard to resist. He first sang a Stones lead vocal on 1969’s You Got The Silver (Mick also cut a version – he preferred Keith’s), and since then has been behind the mic for some of their best-loved songs (not least Happy from Exile On Main Street and Before They Make Me Run from Some Girls).
And he really likes doing it. “It’s that kinda joy of something you don’t do much,” he says. “I enjoy fooling around with the voice and finding the right tune or the right space for it. I like phrasing. It’s something I don’t get to do a lot unless I get to do something like this, and it pushes me.”
Of course, for all of the riffs that he has given the world, there is another way in which Keith Richards continues to inspire generation after generation: as a bona fide fashion icon. Right now, somewhere in London, Milan or New York, someone is putting together a probably quite-embarrassing mood board of ‘rock’n’roll style’, and on it will be pictures of that thin, somewhat emaciated, beautiful man from the late-Sixties and Seventies. You will know the ones. Some of them are here if you need reminding (you do).
It’s a good time to talk to him about this, because the Rolling Stones are preparing an exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery that opens next April, a large portion of which will centre around their clothes. “I’ve just come from that meeting where they’re laying out the idea of little models, screens and stuff,” Keith says. “And I saw a pair of my boots that I’ve been missing for years! Somehow they must have turned up in the warehouse, because there’s my boots. It’s like, ‘Oh, that’s where I left them!’”
It didn’t take long for the Stones to shed the suited image that was the norm for all early-Sixties beat groups. “We deliberately lost the uniforms in two or three months,” he says. “I’d have thrown the jacket away: [adopts an innocent voice] ‘I can’t find the jacket or the tie. I don’t know where it’s gone, man!’ The guys in the Stones, they’re not into uniforms at all. I mean it’s like joining the Army, right? And why shouldn’t people wear what they want? It’s the music that counts. But it seemed at the time to be – especially in old-time show-business circles – like you shot somebody or something. ‘Where’s your uniforms?!’ ‘We don’t have any.’ It would be like... horror!”
His own personal style icons from this time came via American music, then the emerging British tailors. “It’s not a look I’d take myself, but Eddie Cochran was a pretty good look,” he remembers. “Elvis, in the very early days, nice loose pants. But otherwise, it was what was happening in England, suddenly you had some young stylists, the Kings Road started to open up and actually most of my style came from there.”
This spilled into the extreme decadence of the Seventies, when, sartorially speaking, Keith went from being a Rolling Stone to the Rolling Stone. While Mick Jagger plotted increasingly flamboyant ‘costumes’, Keith put on whatever was lying around, and accidentally conjured a beyond-iconic look that was feminine, but somehow always overtly masculine. Keith in the Seventies pulled off the impossible trick of wearing frilly scarves, leopard-print vests and even blouses, but always looked manly rather than camp. The trick, he says, was to get up earlier than your girlfriend, and give her stuff a try. “I used to borrow Anita [Pallenberg]’s clothes, the old lady!” he cackles. “If you look closely at some of the pictures – for the Vogue fashion icon thing, I think, I can’t remember – all the buttons are on the wrong side! I took all that from ’Nita. I’m a bit of a beggar with clothes, you know what I mean? I’ll take the shirt off somebody’s back.”
As recently as 2003, Keith was still providing new style inspiration: with Johnny Depp nicking his latter-day look for Pirates Of The Caribbean (“Johnny, yeah, he’s a bit of a thief, bless his heart. Although I had a pair of boots off Johnny!”). But the bad news for ShortList readers is that there is, of course, no secret to impart, and the maxim “It’s not what you wear, but how you wear it” applies to him more than perhaps anyone else, ever.
“It’s never been anything that’s been in the front of my mind, just what feels good,” he shrugs. “I happen to be built with a frame that almost everything fits. Unless it’s some enormous bloke: you know, ‘one size fits all!’”
The first time I watched the Rolling Stones play (as a spotty teenager just starting to fall in love with rock’n’roll) was in 1994. Even then, 21 years ago, large sections of the media were mocking them for still doing it at their age (‘The Strolling Bones’ was one headline around that tour announcement). But their shows continue to be joyous, celebratory occasions. I’ve seen every Stones tour over these 21 years, and the most recent have been the best. I mean, hey, Jo Whiley might have thought their Glastonbury performance was a bit ridiculous, but a lot of what’s wrong with modern rock’n’roll is that it seems overly preoccupied with worrying whether Jo Whiley will think it’s ridiculous.
More ridiculous to Keith Richards would be the idea of the Rolling Stones not being a touring and recording entity. He still talks with infectious enthusiasm of hearing Charlie Watts drumming, or the prospect of him and Mick (“We’re pretty good friends actually, people only hear about the other bit”) getting together “in a kitchen somewhere and just writing together”. I ask him whether he still thinks the Stones’ best music could be yet to come, and you can guess what he says.
So there will be new Rolling Stones music. Of course there will be. And I bet that if you listen carefully, at the end of another perfect take of the type of rock’n’roll song that millions of musicians continue trying and failing to imitate, you will still hear a voice – this deliriously happy croak – just go, “Yeeeeeaah!”
Crosseyed Heart is released on 18 September