Editor's note: This post is an interview from the archive of Alan di Perna, a rock journalist whose writing has appeared in Guitar World, Rolling Stone, and Creem. His books include Play it Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound, & Revolution of the Electric Guitar and The Guitarist's Almanac.
"Yeah, the ’60s were a hell of a ten years..." Keith Richards leans back meditatively in his folding chair. We were in the front room in the Manhattan office of his manager, Jane Rose. The date was June 25, 1997, and we’d been discussing The Rolling Stones’ then-new album Bridges to Babylon.
The previous year had seen the release of The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, the legendary 1968 telecast that featured the Stones, The Who, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Jethro Tull, and other iconic rock performers of the 1960s. It had never before been seen by the general public, because the Stones were displeased with their performance and cancelled the show. The event had marked the Stones’ last performance with Richards’ co-guitarist and the band’s founder, Brian Jones, who died in 1969.
So, perhaps inevitably, the topic of conversation turned to the decade that first brought the Stones to international fame, and the period in which they released some of their most groundbreaking recordings. The interview that follows is taken from my original transcript of our conversation that afternoon.
"People are still wondering what the hell happened in the ’60s," Richards said. "Most people who are still alive can’t remember. They were too high. It comes back occasionally."
Drug-addled stereotypes to the contrary, Keith’s own memory has always been razor sharp. It was especially so in ’97 when he was just 53 years of age. At one point, he regaled me with a spot-on imitation of Ian Stewart, the Stone’s lantern-jawed road manager and occasional pianist who died in 1985. It eerily felt as though "Stu" was in the room with us, not to mention Brian Jones, John Lennon, and all the legendary figures who played a role in the Stones’ turbulent and wildly innovative first decade.
Not everyone realizes that Ian Stewart was originally a full-fledged member of the Rolling Stones.
In a way, this is his band. The first rehearsal I went to that ended up being the Rolling Stones was above an old pub in Soho in London. I get there and ask the landlady, "Rehearsal?" And she sends me upstairs. As I walk up these creaky old stairs, I hear this barrelhouse piano and think, "Man, I’m in Chicago." I’d never been to Chicago at that point, but that’s how it sounded to me. And the only guy there was Ian Stewart. He’d sort of set the joint up—"You guys, you should play." And in a way it’s his band still.
It’s a shame he died so young.
It is. But in a way, he’s still with us. Every time we cut a track, we sort of look around and go, "Well, what do you think Stu?" And we imagine his answer: "Bloody load of rubbish." His idea of winding you up was to put you down. "Not bad." That was an A+ from him. You never got that. Usually, it was, "Not bad… for a bunch of white pricks."
In the earliest days of the Stones, you were mainly using Les Pauls and semi-acoustic Epiphones—particularly your ’59 Les Paul with the Bigsby. What attracted you to those guitars?
Well it was a Gibson, the Les Paul. It was just the best guitar available at that time. It was my first touch with a really great, classic rock and roll electric guitar. And so I fell in love with them for a while. It wasn’t until I got to the States that I finally started getting my hands on some good old Telecasters. I’d always liked Telecasters. That Fender sound—dry. James Burton—king! But they were hard to find in England in those days. There were newer ones. New then, that is. We’re talking ’62!
They’re vintage now.
I know. So am I [laughs]. But I slowly got into Telecasters the more I worked in the States. And Strats too. Even now, in the studio, I’d still say it's about fifty-fifty. There’s a lot of Fenders lined up. But the other lot’s Gibson.
Yeah, it was old Gibsons. And the old Epiphones. Sunburst jobs.
The Beatles had similar ones.
Yeah. That was all out of the English guitar hustling fellows. Ivor Mairants and all those stores. [In an exaggerated cockney accent] "Got a noice one ‘ere fer you boys."
So you and the Beatles shopped for guitars in the same places?
Basically. There were only three or four stores in London. There wasn’t a big network of guitar freaks, in those days, where you could do it through the underground, like bartering. There weren’t a lot of great guitars around at that time in England. Most of them belonged to somebody else. So for people like us and the Beatles and Eric [Clapton], it would take us a long time to find a really good guitar. A lot of thieving went on, I think. A lot of re-spraying.
Early on, how did you and Brian Jones approach the whole question of who was going to play lead and who was going to play rhythm in the Rolling Stones?
When we started playing together we were listening to Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters. In both cases, you had two guitars weaving around one another. We’d play those things so much—which is the way you have to do it—that we knew both parts.
So then we got to the point where we got it really flash and we suddenly switch. The one doing the lead picks up the rhythm and the one doing the rhythm up the lead. It’s what Ronnie and I still call "an ancient form of weaving." We still do it today. We don’t have to look at each other, almost. You can almost feel it. You say, "Ah, he’s gonna take off now. Okay, I’ll go down." And vice versa.
So on "19th Nervous Breakdown," it’s you playing lead. But on "The Last Time," it’s Brian playing lead, right?
Yeah. I just did the chords on "The Last Time." Brian’s playing the main riff [sings it]. I’m playing the acoustic and I also overdubbed the chords in the solo. Just passing chords.
People tend to focus on Brian’s declining years, the drug excesses and all. But I imagine he was a pretty impressive guitarist early on.
He was. Brian was an impressive musician. He was a sax player as well, to start with. He was dedicated to playing in those early days. I’ll tell you what screwed Brian up was fame. Something snapped in him the minute that came. That was always the strange thing for the rest of us in the band too. All the rest of us tried our best not to get carried away. Like, "Hey come on, this might not last so long, baby."
And in a way, we were not doing what we wanted to do. ’Cause we were a blues band. And suddenly we made just one little pop record and it became a hit. Or semi-pop—Chuck Berry’s "Come On." Basically very lightweight. And suddenly chicks screamed at you and you’re not playing for anybody anymore, ’cause nobody can hear you over the screaming. You’re just wondering how the hell you’re going to get off of this stage and safely out of this town before you get ripped to shreds.
That became the gig for several years really. "How we gettin’ in? And how we gettin’ out?" Because you knew the show would last maybe 10, 15 minutes—if that—before mayhem broke loose. Chicks fainting and being carried off. I mean, it was unbelievable. You’d get chicks flying out of balconies like, "I love youuu..." Crash. Broken ribs and worse.
You suffered a few injuries.
Yeah, they choked me a few times. Weird, manic. And you’re thinking, "But I’m a blues player!" But what I realized was, "Hey, if you want to get in a recording studio and have all the time you want and be able to do what you want musically, instead of somebody telling you what to do, then you gotta be famous, man. Otherwise you’re never gonna get in."
"I realized pretty quickly that in order to control my own music, fame had to go along with it. So we figured we might as well learn to be famous for a bit. But nobody expected it to last."
So it’s not like I didn’t want to be famous. I realized pretty quickly that in order to control my own music, fame had to go along with it. So we figured we might as well learn to be famous for a bit. But nobody expected it to last.
We thought, "A couple of years." That was the lifespan of everything back then. I suppose that was true up until the sudden explosion of the LP [in the late 1960s]. ’Cause in 1962, 1963, the long playing record was a very small market—top of the line, very expensive.
A few years later, suddenly albums became the thing, instead of singles, although there was a transitional period. But to make a hit 45 every two or three months, that was draining, man. You’ve just got "Satisfaction" to number one and you’re going, "Whew." Suddenly there’s a knock at the door: "Where’s the new one?"
And Mick and I were like, "Hey this is like Tin Pan Alley, man. This is the Brill Building. Here we are in a cubicle, just made number one, and we’ve still got the hounds on our tail saying, "Where's the followup?" Shit man.
So by today’s standards, those singles were recorded very quickly.
Really quickly. You had to write and record an A side and a B side every few weeks. Every three months. It was hectic. I was glad to get out of that, in a way. But it was good to have been under that pressure. The last of the old Tin Pan Alley way, cracking the whip. You had to learn real quick. You couldn’t afford to procrastinate or get too deep in it. "It feels good? Yeah, let’s go for it. It’s done."
Another thing about those old singles: There’s always an acoustic guitar somewhere. That’s pretty much true throughout the Stones’ history.
That’s very important. When in doubt, if something doesn’t sound right, just brush on an acoustic guitar and see what happens. What it does, if you’re recording a band, is fill the air between the cymbals and all the electric instruments. It’s like a wash in painting. Just a magical thing. If something sounds a little dry or heavy or tight, put on an acoustic, or maybe just a few notes of piano—another acoustic instrument. Somehow it will just add that extra glue.
"What I do know about the guitar is, if all you play is electric, you’re not just playing guitar, you're playing electricity. You get used to the tricks."
As you’ve noticed, I found that out very early on. I don’t have any electric guitar at home, or an amp. I never play electric guitar at home. I play acoustic all the time. What I do know about the guitar is, if all you play is electric, you’re not just playing guitar, you're playing electricity. You get used to the tricks. The extra sustain and all. Which is fine. You need to know that for when you need that kind of stuff. But you can become over reliant on that.
When you go to an acoustic guitar, those tricks don’t work. That little round hole and that bit of wood—that’s the Truth. That’s how long a note will sustain. So when you go back to electric, you find yourself a little more precise. You should always keep an acoustic going, and work things out on that.
Let’s talk about your discovery of that five-string, open G tuning [G-D-G-B-D] that has become a cornerstone of your guitar work.
Around 1966 or so, after three or four years of being constantly on the road, rocking the Rolling Stones, I took a little time off and started to listen to some blues again. On the road, none of us had had the time to listen to much beyond the Top 10—our stuff, the Beatles, and Phil Spector’s latest. All great records. But when we finally came off the road, I started listening to Blind Blake. A whole lot of blues had become available that we just couldn’t get in England back in ’61 or ’62. Whenever we came to the States, we’d go straight to the record stores and rifle through them.