Keith Richards: Back with a Band
GW On “The Place Is Empty,” you do your Hoagie Carmichael/Cole Porter suave ballad thing, in much the same vein as [Carmichael’s] “The Nearness of You.” A lot of people are surprised that you have those kinds of influences.
RICHARDS Well, I like to surprise people.
GW When did you develop a taste for that kind of thing?
RICHARDS Hey, I grew up with it, man! My mother played me jazz and all the standards. That stuff just drips off of me. My mother played me Sarah Vaughan, Billy Eckstine, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Count Basie… It’s just that rock and roll suddenly came along and totally diverted my attention.
GW You play piano on that track, which is something you’ve done on the occasional Stones record, going back to the “Let’s Spend the Night Together”/“Ruby Tuesday” period, I guess.
RICHARDS Yeah, I was in pretty early. It was [Stones pianist/tour manager] Ian Stewart that got me into it. I never thought of playing piano at first. My attitude was “I’m the guitar player and that’s it.” But sometimes I’d catch Ian Stewart playing some really beautiful blues piano all by himself. One day I just said to him, “Hey Stu, show me how to do that. I gotta know.” And I went on from there. I enjoy the piano because at least it’s all laid out in front of you. With the guitar, you gotta keep peering around the neck. You don’t have to wear the piano either. And you can sit down. There’s room for an ashtray and a drink. A civilized instrument.
GW What was the very first Rolling Stones album that was conceived as an album and not simply as a willy-nilly selection of tracks?
RICHARDS In actual fact, surprisingly enough, that was the first one [1964’s The Rolling Stones, released in the U.S. as England’s Newest Hit Makers]. We only had about one or two singles out before we made it, so we were making that as an album from day one. Probably because of the Beatles, albums were just becoming the potential medium of choice at that time. Singles were always like gasping for air, ’cause you needed a new one every eight weeks. “Satisfaction” goes to Number One all over the world, and the very moment you’re saying “Let’s have a drink on that,” there’s a knock on the door: “Where’s the follow-up?” It was a good school for songwriting, but I’m quite glad that it eventually became less of an important thing to have a hit single every few weeks and your life depended on it. We got to nurture a few albums. We got to overnurture a few actually. “How long did that take to make?” “Two years. I can’t actually tell you where the time went, but...”
GW I remember [former Stones producer] Glynn Johns complaining to me about that.
RICHARDS Oh, Glynn’s a famous complainer.
GW But certainly by the time you get to Beggar’s Banquet, the model is in place for the classic Stones album experience—a few tough rockers, a blues, a ballad or two, maybe a country number…a whole musical trip that takes you over hills and valleys.
RICHARDS A lot of that was us evolving with the technology. We started on two-track and within a year it went to four. Then it went to eight, 16, 24… And everybody was dickering around trying to figure out how to use these concepts and inventions. The machines were coming in with “Missiles Fire” written on them. And that was the record button!
GW So what’s exciting about making records with today’s technology?
RICHARDS You can make a record anywhere now. The studio isn’t so important. In fact, we don’t use studios. We just find a good room that’s handy for everyone to get to. Most of this album was done at Mick’s house in France. The machinery was inside the room with us. The producer, Don Was, and the engineer—they were in the room with us. So you get rid of that glass barrier between the studio and control room, which can be enormous at times. I know from all those years of working in huge studios. You do your thing in the studio, then you go into the control room for a playback and you’re on another planet. They’re not gettin’ it in
there! So it’s much better to do it with the recorders actually in the room, and you can do that these days. The equipment is smaller. You can separate things easier without having to put big booths around them. We just played in a small room for most of this album. No doubt for a symphonic orchestra, there’s something to be said for a big studio. But I’ve found with rock and roll that you’re always playing on someone else’s turf. They’ve never built a room for it yet. You have to beg and borrow: Can I use your football stadium? Can I use your auditorium?
GW But you’ve achieved some pretty epic results working out of Mick’s house. “Streets of Love” is a classic Stones ballad, very much in the tradition of “Wild Horses,” “Angie”…
RICHARDS Yeah it kind of is. It’s a Mick tour de force, in a way. But we all really enjoyed playing it. When we first knocked it out on acoustic, we felt, Oh, that’s nice, but it sounded kind of standard. So then Mick and I were saying, “It’s the dynamics that count. You gotta take it up and down.”
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