The Rolling Stones broke up in 1986 during the recording of the album Dirty Work following a well-publicized feud between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Jagger went on to release two solo albums. Richards found new projects to engage in—a solo album Talk Is Cheap with a new band, the X-Pensive Winos; sessions with Aretha Franklin that produced her version of “Jumping Jack Flash;” and assuming the music director’s role for the film Chuck Berry: Hail! Hail! Rock ’n’ Roll.
Richards then went on a critically-acclaimed U.S. tour. Stones drummer Charlie Watts and guitarist Ron Wood also toured the United States without the Stones.
Watts put together a big band that reproduced swing-era classics and performed at Jazz Festivals, while Wood joined forces Bo Diddley for a series of performances.
I interviewed Keith in February 1989. We sat down in a back room at the offices of his manager Jane Rose. Richards asked me “Are you a drinking man?” It was a rhetorical question. He produced a fifth of Rebel Yell, cracked the seal, then we proceeded the drain the bottle as he delivered one of the most entertaining interviews I’ve ever been involved with.
I saw the Chuck Berry film. It’s pretty amazing how you managed to pull that off.
It’s a trick to put a bunch of guys together and make them sound as if they’ve been playing together [a long time] after only a few days. It’s very difficult to do, but in the last year I’ve realized that I can do that. It was the same with Aretha Franklin. We were there only three days, but we were a band by the end of it.
It’s an ingredient that I’ve always taken for granted with the Rolling Stones, but it always worried me that I might not be able to get anything like that again. I found that it can be done.
It started out as a 60th birthday concert for Chuck.
It’s one of those offers you can’t refuse. I knew it wasn’t gonna be easy. Chuck’s not an easy guy to work with. In fact, nobody’s worked with him for years because he always plays with pickup bands that show up at the gigs. If I didn’t do it and someone else did it I’d be kicking myself for the rest of my life.
When I was starting to play the guitar, that was the guy I wanted to be, the one that was slightly out of focus over Chuck’s shoulder backing him up. I kind of had to do it. It was my idea of what I wanted Chuck Berry to sound like, playing with a really good band. And I wanted to get him back with Johnny Johnson, who was so instrumental in Chuck’s early success and sound, and songs. I only realized that when I got into playing and rehearsing with him.
Was [Johnny] surprised to get the call?
I think so, yeah, because Johnny hadn’t played with Chuck since the early ’60s, since Chuck got out of jail on that first rap. He stopped carrying a regular band. Before that his whole career was tied up with Johnny Johnson. Chuck basically walked in on the Johnny Johnson Trio and took it over. Chuck seemed to sing more naturally and take more care of his music when Johnny was there. There was an immediate bond that was picked up again. I thought there would be some enmity or grudges after 25 years of not working together, but Johnny’s so easygoing, and he was such a tower of strength within that little band we put together.
Why do you think [Chuck] stopped writing essentially in ’62?
Could I hint at the fact that Johnny Johnson wasn’t around anymore? The melodies in those songs are all traditional melodies, and the other strange thing is that none of them are in guitar keys. There’s no open A’s and E’s, they’re things like C sharp, E flat, all piano keys. This is not to take anything away from Chuck at all. Johnny was very instrumental, and I use that word specifically in putting those classic ’50s records of Chuck’s together, those riffs, those tempos. Chuck is a lyricist essentially, a wordsmith, but I think the melodies—like “Sweet Little 16”—you can hear ’30s versions of that as a folk song, and I think the reason you didn’t hear hardly any new Chuck Berry songs after the early ’60s is the fact that he split with Johnny Johnson.
If you ask Johnny he’d say “No,” because he didn’t think of it as writing songs. Then you ask, “How did Chuck write these songs?” and he’d say, “Chuck had all these words, and I’d sit down and play. I think Chuck just used Johnny’s piano riffs as a bedrock, to put these great songs down onto. Maybe a more generous guy would have cut Johnny in for a little slice [laughs]. When you’re sitting around with Johnny Johnson at the piano and you say, “Johnny, play us a 12 bar in G,” you hear that, it’s his intro and Chuck just transposed it to guitar. It just drips off [Johnny’s] fingers. As a musician you can tell when a guy’s playing his own lick. Like I say, it takes nothing away at all from Chuck Berry either, because the lyrics are just so gorgeously innovative, especially for the time.
Did you write arrangements?
We tried to make it simple, and as much like the records as possible arrangement-wise, same with the tempos. That was what we were going for on stage, to have a band that would sound powerful enough, yet restrained themselves from having to push it into sort of power rock, which is not really Chuck Berry. It’s a very light touch; the rhythms are very bouncy and have a lot of elasticity to them. It’s not stiff rock ’n’ roll. It’s a beautiful fusion of ’40s jump time and ’50s rhythm-and-blues power. I was thinking on stage this thing could really collapse, but the guys were up for it. Steve Jordan’s tempos were locked in. We did two shows, and a couple of numbers we had to edit from one show to the other. Without any click tracks the tempos were exactly the same in both shows.
Chuck’s guitar had that light, almost jazz touch, just like on the records.
I’ll let you in on a secret. I never did tell him this but I didn’t actually rely on the amp that he had on the stage. He likes to keep turning up which can throw off the recording. I had another amp connected to his signal that was three floors below the stage. I had a mike on that so it would stay the same throughout. Sorry Chuck but I had to do it, man.
You rehearsed with the Stones to play a song like “Little Queenie.” What was the difference playing with Chuck?
The main difference is that it’s his song. I had to forget the way I played it with the Stones. I had to sort of unlearn all that I’d learned over the years about Chuck Berry and the way I play, and actually start again, even down to the keys.
It’s easy in A and E. That’s what virtually everybody plays Chuck Berry songs in because you have all those open strings ringing away, but in E flat and C sharp, suddenly you have to re-learn the whole concept of playing it. You have to forget what you thought you knew about Chuck Berry when you’re actually playing with him.
Did Ian Stewart idolize Johnson?
Actually, yes. That was an undercurrent for me, because this happened only a few months after Stewart died. Stew was the one who told me that Johnny Johnson was alive and well in St. Louis. It was one of the things he told me a few months before he died. We were talking about Johnny Johnson and what a marvelous piano player he was. I always thought Stew would still be around after I was dead. He was like a rock to us. And one of the strange sensations I had making this thing was that I had this uncanny feeling, especially during the rehearsals, that it was actually Stew playing the piano. Johnny’s position in the band was always the same as Stew’s was. You looked to him to unravel the mystery of what the hell was going on. So I was looking up and thinking, If there is a rock and roll heaven up there I can see Stew looking at us. There’s this uncanny sort of thread running through it.
It’s kind of like this band was the Rolling Stones and Chuck Berry music all fused together.
What I was going for was I wanted to put together the Chuck Berry gig that I never saw, that I always imagined when I was learning to play the guitar. I wanted to walk out when all was said and done with a record—the movie is not my movie, I had very little say in that—but the soundtrack’s mine. There’s never been a really good Chuck Berry live recording and that was my goal, the one that almost got away.
I hadn’t heard Eric play with as much fire in a long time. Those two solos at the end were a flash of the old God; we used to call him “God” in England.
You tell that story in the film about him punching you. When was that?
It must have been three or four years ago. I walked into the dressing room to say hello and he was leaving. He just swept out and I played along, saying, “Hey don’t just leave like that, at least say ‘Hello’” and he just turned around and BANG! I was incredibly proud of myself because I didn’t actually go down. The guy’s got a reach and he’s physically fit. He’s got a punch. The eye went through the usual things, turning colors, black and purple and yellow. He just smacked me and went. Then his roadie comes in with his guitar. I said, “Is that Chuck’s guitar?” He said, “Yeah.” I’m just about to get it across my knee and smash it all over the dressing room and I thought, Ah, no. Like I say, he’s the only one who could get away with it. Sparks fly and sometimes it’s worth it.
Did he remember?
He knew he’d hit me but when Ronnie went up to him about a year later he apologized to Ronnie. You can’t tell ’em apart y’know.
I read all those reports about you being mad at Mick. Is that real?
I don’t have time now [laughs]. But yeah that’s one of the reasons the Stones at the moment aren’t working together.
Well you can never be sure unless you ask somebody yourself if that was real or not.
I was considerably mad at Mick, more and more so in the last couple of years with the Stones, because it seemed to me that he didn’t consider the feelings of the rest of the band.
I’m not talking about myself particularly, because I’ve known Mick really well. I can live with that, but he became increasingly more arrogant and dictatorial to the point where he was spending the band’s money on movies and stages without even telling anybody, and it would inevitably fall to me to have to point this out. Things got really bad during Dirty Work. With the pressure of the work and the frustration, not being able to talk to my oldest friend and not getting an answer out of him, except a sort of weirdo power struggle, I could well, in a moment of rage, have done the boy some injury. So in a way this is a cooling-off period, lean on the ropes for a minute.
Would you still work with him again?
Well that’s, uh, far be it for me to say no. Of course I would. But I wouldn’t do it just for the bread or to put the Stones together on a phony basis. It’s not just Mick and I; it would have to come together in a way that we could all feel comfortable with to resolve all this. Time is the one ingredient that can maybe do it. After 25 years on each other’s back, maybe a couple of years off ain’t so bad. After all, it’s about the only remedy left that I could think of, because it was getting sticky between Mick and me. I can understand his point of view in a way. He’s out there in the front in the LV position, lead vocalist. So after 25 years you have to start believing that the sun shines out of your ass. You kind of lose contact with reality. And it’s very difficult once that occurs to be able to say what’s the problem? Because there isn’t one. There’s a question but there isn’t an answer. It’s gets to be frustrating. So let’s try that, a couple of years off. Because if anybody can pull it back together, it will be the Stones.
There’s got to be a lot of pressure to reunite the Stones.
Oh sure. As far as I know we’re still committed to make more records. I personally would lay a lot of the Stones current non-communication and this current break at the doorstep of (CBS and division president Walter) Yetnikoff in particular.
He thought Mick Jagger was the Rolling Stones, and he encouraged and greased him up, led him to believe he wass really all that counted. I don’t think that was good for Mick to hear at the time. Because that’s what he wanted to hear and to believe. And as far as I’m concerned if you want to say who broke up the Rolling Stones, I’d say CBS. It’s fairly obvious when you think about it. Why sign a band for 26 million bucks and then steam straight away into breaking them up?
Mick and I have in fact been writing songs together again. We just spent a week in Barbados writing. We wrote about 35 songs together in a week and I’m going back down there to write more songs with him. The Stones will tour from around September through to December.
Any time I work with Mick, I feel the charge. It’s very rare that I play with anyone that I don’t feel the charge, but with Mick it’s easy because we’ve known each other since we were kids. I know that I can turn him on, and he turns me on. There’s nothing we can do about it.
When did you start feuding with Mick?
The seeds of this started back in the early ’70s when we were hounded out of England. It’s very difficult to make good records when you’re thrown out of your own country. You’ve got to learn how to go from sort of living around the corner from each other and being a closely knit unit, to being flung all around the far corners of the globe and still trying to keep the intensity of the Stones together. You go from seeing everybody three or four nights a week, even when you weren’t working, to not seeing them for nine months a year.
The pressures of making a Rolling Stones record around the time of It’s Only Rock ’n’ Roll were very difficult. Black and Blue especially was difficult, with Mick Taylor dropping off on us, he still doesn’t know why.
You were also getting harassed by the authorities for drug use, thrown out of France.
I was pretty much on a fugitive trail, being hounded from pillar to post, and trying to make good records under those conditions is difficult. I’m not just offering it as an excuse; it’s something to bear in mind. You realize that the solid amount of work that went down, forget the early stuff, let’s say from Beggar’s Banquet to Exile On Main Street, and the fact that it coincided with the point where we had to start being nomads, trying to keep the Stones together out of a suitcase, and the fact that the next two or three records didn’t build on that work. It bears considering.
By the time of Undercover, Mick was going with current trends and trying to impose them on the Stones, which is fairly difficult to swallow. Still, some of the songs are good, and there’s a certain amount of give-and-take that goes down in partnerships. Okay, if you want to do that, I’ll do my best to give you what you want.
You can’t really go 25 years without feeling like you want to stretch a wing or two. I say that not in retrospect. The signs were obviously there, but being so close you didn’t read them like that.
I see what went down as inevitable. Also, I see that it’s still a fact that there’s an awful lot left in the Stones that still has to be explored. Mick has recognized that, too, which is why we’re working together again. I personally never doubted that, but Mick had to be taught it. That’s the difference.
Earlier this year you and Mick played together for the first time since the breakup at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction dinner when the Stones were inducted.
He had me playing behind him, didn’t he? For me, any time I work with Mick I feel the charge. We’ve known each other for so long, it’s bananas and cream.
When Mick and I talked about it, when we started to work together again, we said “The Stones are going to work together this year. That’s on. Let’s look at it like this—let’s put together what we’ve learned in the last two or three years positively and make music for the Stones.” We said, “Let’s make something work, rather than just be purely negative, two superstars bitching at each other.”