When I was twelve, I got an acoustic guitar for my birthday and taught myself to play some chords from library books, and later guitar magazines which I saved up for. I had a couple of classical guitar lessons when I went to secondary school but formal lessons were something I consciously avoided as it didn’t seem very rock and roll.
You can’t imagine Keith Richards sitting down and reading musical notation while knocking out the riff to ‘Brown Sugar’, a cigarette hanging lazily from his lip but never falling out of his mouth. Keith was rock and roll personified to me.
I remember seeing a live performance of Satisfaction on one of the music channels at the time which was repeated often. It was from the start of the 80s, some big stadium in America, probably not long after Start Me Up had given them their biggest hit in a decade. The familiar fuzzy riff which spawned a thousand rock bands starts and Charlie’s drums kick in. Keith hasn’t even stepped on stage yet as he knows the game. He’d been doing it for twenty years even then. After two or three cycles of the riff, he leaps on stage energetically, missing a note when he jumps, but it doesn’t matter. He’s Keith Richards. Freshly recovered from heroin addiction, wearing a white sleeveless top and black jeans, he’s unsmiling, lean, mean and impossibly dangerous, like he’s been carved out of granite. He uses his vintage black Telecaster like he’s in a war.
Billy Wyman lumbers on, a figure much less graceful than his bobbing bassline, and Jagger pirouettes and prances his way to centre stage wrapped in a Union Jack flag, but I knew who I wanted to be in that band. About a minute into the song, Jagger struts to the front of the stage and jumps up and down frantically like a toddler having a tantrum as hundreds of balloons are released into the crowd and around the musicians. I think it must have been an encore, probably the last song. Jagger turns back, sings “I can’t get no’ a couple of times and looks around. Too late, he sees there’s somebody rushing towards him with stage security in hot pursuit.
Remember this was the early 80s. John Lennon had just been shot and many rock stars had taken to hiring more minders. I don’t think Keith was one of them somehow. He’s clocked the guy way before Jagger, and he knows what to do. Cool as ice, Keith walks forward while taking off his jet black Telecaster in one fluid motion. Keith doesn’t rush for anyone. He clubs the invader around the head casually, giving him a couple of kicks for good measure, before security bundles the guy off stage.
As Keith said later, he didn’t know what the guy was going to do and he had his singer’s back. It turned out the man wasn’t an assassin, and Keith even bailed him out afterwards even felt guilty about it later. What impressed me wasn’t the violence, but the sheer coolness of the way he immediately put the guitar back on and went back into the riff without missing a beat, as if nothing of significance had happened. He even turned down the volume before taking the guitar off so any impact of Telecaster on skull wouldn’t interfere with the song. If that isn’t professionalism in rock music I don’t know what is.
I tried to master some of Keith’s riffs when I first started playing guitar, but even when I played them exactly as the guitar tabs said they never sounded right to me. I later found it was because he played in non standard tuning – open G and those tabs were wrong. This is why when you hear cover bands playing Stones songs they often sound close but not spot on. By that time I wanted to create riffs of my own, and it was harder than I thought. As Keith says “The rock’s easy, but the roll’s another thing…”
Great rock and roll songs, like ones written by Jagger and Richards in their heyday, sound effortless and the best were written effortlessly. The Beatles rarely spent much time writing, and Brian Wilson famously wrote ‘I Get Around’ in an afternoon. Noel Gallagher once compared writing songs to sitting by a river with a guitar, waiting for a catch. It is said that the best songs write themselves. The idea that songs exist already and we’re just discovering them intact and fully formed was very appealing to me. Great songs have a little magic about them, and what could be more magical than coming from another world?
I’ll leave the last words to the man himself.
“What is it that makes you want to write songs? In a way you want to stretch yourself into other people’s hearts. You want to plant yourself there, or at least get a resonance, where other people become a bigger instrument than the one you’re playing. It becomes almost an obsession to touch other people. To write a song that is remembered and taken to heart is a connection, a touching of bases. A thread that runs through all of us. A stab to the heart. Sometimes I think songwriting is about tightening the heartstrings as much as possible without bringing on a heart attack.”