Chuck Berry

Christmas Time is Here — Part II

So in Part I of Christmas Time is Here I briefly described some of the history of Christmas carols and popular holiday songs with the idea in mind that as musicians we are sometimes called to play them and shouldn’t shy away from playing them or enjoying the rich history and tradition they symbolize. In this post I will cover actually moving on to making these songs a part of repertoire. The first step in that direction is, of course, deciding on, and building up an arrangement of a song that you like, that works with your abilities as a musician, and will fit the performance you are going to give. This can be an arrangement you learn or one you adapt from either a vocal or instrumental arrangement that is already out there. Every musical number I do, Christmas song or not, even if it is based on someone’s version of a song, I like to change it a little bit or add something to it. That is just a way of personalizing the music or performance and jazz musicians especially do this all of the time.

If you are inclined to a the classic era of Big Band and vocal performances, you can never go wrong with any of the masters from the Golden Age of jazz and pop: Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Ella Fitzgerald, Sammy Davis Jr., Nat King Cole, Tony Bennett, and Bing Crosby to name a few. Their interpretations of holiday music are still heard regularly today — I heard Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting…) in 3 different stores during the buildup to 12/25 this year. The arrangements are usually pretty involved but they are also accessible and can be very inspiring in what you add to the song or (if you also sing) how your vocal arrangement will sound.

Speaking of Chestnuts and roasting on an open fire… We’ve all heard Nat King Cole or someone else sing this song, but how many people have actually seen a chestnut? Have you ever wondered about that? There was a time when chestnut trees were almost 25% of all hardwood stock in some areas of North America and recipes for everything from roasted chestnuts to chestnuts and sausages were typical fare. But a blight, introduced by planting a strain of Asian chestnuts in Long Island, NY in 1904 wiped out literally billions of trees. That’s right, Billions! It’s estimated there are only a few dozen pre-blight trees still alive in North America today and, of course, hardly anyone eats chestnuts during the holidays and almost all of the chestnuts that are eaten have to be imported. By the time The Christmas Song (Chestnuts Roasting…) was written in 1944, most of the nation’s chestnut tree stock had already been wiped out. What an ecological nightmare! The things I learn blogging sometimes.

Many great instrumentalists from the 40s, 50s and 60s made holiday albums: Oscar Peterson, Count Basie, George Shearing, Joe Pass, Charlie Byrd all made Christmas albums. So did swinging 60s style artists like Herb Albert, and so have newer jazzy/poppy superstars like Wynton Marsalis, Diane Krall and Nancy Wilson. There are literally weeks worth of instrumental and mood-type Christmas music on YouTube and possibly something on one of these albums could inspire you.

Some people may be more inclined to the rock and roll side of things but keep in mind that the lines of where Golden Classics leave off and rock and roll begins is a fine one indeed. Elvis Presley recorded a whole bunch of Christmas music and his tastes range from gospel, to rock and roll to straight pop. His interpretations of the classics (I’ll Be Home For Christmas, Little Town of Bethlehem) are as good as anyone’s because his gospel background and religious convictions give such sacred songs a depth that many secular vocalists just don’t do as well. It’s very easy to reduce a whole lot of the religious holiday music to camp and sentimentality, but Elvis never does this. He also recorded the definitive version of Blue Christmas. On the original version his vocals are awesome and the arrangement, including the background vocals by The Jordanaires, was inspiring and musically groundbreaking for the time. Was this the first rock and roll Christmas Song? Hmm. Maybe someone more knowledgeable than I will chime in. Of course there was a whole lot of rock and roll Christmas after 1957 including: Chuck Berry, The Ventures, Phil Spector’s Christmas (including The Ronettes’ version of Sleigh Ride, which is also a classic), The Beatles, who released lots of Christmas craziness through their fan club and then later, John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s So This Is Christmas and Paul McCartney’s Wonderful Christmas Time, both of which still get HEAVY airplay during the season. They are modern standards for sure. The Boss, Bruce Springsteen, also has a modern standard with his version of Santa Claus is Coming to Town, which has also been covered by everyone from Mariah to Bieber. José Feliciano, who I wrote about here, has the awesome Felice Navidad song that still gets yearly airplay and the recently-departed George Michael had a big 80s classic hit with the holiday favorite Last Christmas. Back in 1992 I was lucky enough to catch the Johnny Cash Christmas show when it rolled through New York City. That was a lot of fun. Brian Setzer has had a Christmas show/revue for years and he has covered a whole ton of great songs. Like this one:

So, depending on your preferred style of music, you can adapt and arrange any song you see fit and spice up everything from musical performances to family gatherings. Christmas songs, carols and melodies lend themselves to a wide variety of possibilities; they can have a very bare bones arrangement that you may sing along with, or they also can be turned into an instrumental mind-blower like what the always amazing Ted Greene does below. When I was in a punk band we used to do a twisted, Black Sabbath kind of take on Santa Claus is Coming to Town. When I got old and settled down, Christmas Time is Here was the first Christmas song I learned to play as a solo improviser and I have played it every year since and performed it at numerous gigs. This past year I worked up an arrangement that was based on The Ventures version of Sleigh Ride and tweaked it to work with gypsy jazz, rehearsed a couple times with the fellows, and away we went at a gig 4 days before Christmas. It was one of the best songs of the gig(!) even though no one had either a vibrato bar or copious amounts of delay since we were playing amplified acoustic. As always: If you are playing the songs instrumentally MAKE SURE you can play the melody without screwing it up! That means going over it a bunch of times. You should be able to play it 3-5 times in a row without a mistake. If you can’t, you will probably fudge it at the gig or in front of people. So beware!

There are about 7-8 songs that I can play pretty well solo and I start getting them together in the fall and play them through the season. Christmas songs are great vehicles for learning to play in an unaccompanied style (especially if you are new to unaccompanied playing), because the melodies are so well-known and the arrangement you can begin with can be very simple, but still very effective. As always take it slow and work your way through it a couple bars at a time. Since most songs do not have many different parts or modulations (unless you add them, which you can certainly do!) you will find that they will come together pretty quickly. Learning to play and perform these tunes is also a great test of what you can add to the performance every time you play it once you become comfortable improvising with yourself. I blew off a version of White Christmas while a few of us were sitting around one day in December and it sounded pretty flippin’ good! If you’re comfortable with the arrangement and comfortable improvising (throwing in some wacky chords and riff choices) you can turn the song into a really special and personal thing…and it can be a little bit different every time! So maybe give that a go later on in the year. Here is a list of jazzy, snazzy solo guitar instruction to get you started. If you’re not up to that yet, try these. You will become part of a long and very storied and important tradition that has involved the guitar and other string instruments for the better part of a millennium. Even if you play in a punk or metal band — everyone likes Christmas songs if you play them well and it’s November or December. Whatever you do, don’t even try this in July man!

Here is Part 1 of this series.

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Brave New World?

Musicians, artists, writers, designers and other creative people are in a perpetual state of harried flux as they try to keep up with all of the technological advances that have enabled revolutionary methods for creating and communicating. This is also true of businesses who have long been the arbiters of content creation, distribution and world-wide entertainment. As the changes gather momentum and the multitudes that are interconnected in cyberspace share INFORMATION, everyone must hustle to stay ahead of the curve or they run the risk of obsolescence. The old modes and models are fading away and younger generations come of age with no frame of reference to how the business of creation and delivery to marketplace was done before technological advances enabled these new paradigms. Unless you live in a cave you know this has created a great degree of tension: lively discussions, court cases, large fines, threats, jail time, and even death.

What is at the center of many of these disagreements are the issues of ownership and control. Who controls information? Who owns the content? Who controls the means of content delivery between people? Do laws that were written before this technological explosion took place still apply and should they? Are they even relevant anymore? Who should decide? What role do individuals have in deciding the fates of their entertainment? How much does the sharing/interaction process now affect and relate to the creative process? Is it time for new business models? Is the idea of music as a business outdated, outmoded and irrelevant? These issues can be expanded out into the greater realm of topics that are at the forefront of national and international discussion: How big is TOO BIG? Should any company or organization be TOO BIG TO FAIL? Are corporations people? How does the immense wealth of certain individuals and corporations negatively effect the electoral process in what are supposed to be democracies or republics? Are large, heavily-centralized entities really sustainable? Do they serve producers and consumers better than a smaller, more decentralized businesses? CAN’T WE JUST GO BACK TO QUAD-STEREO 8-TRACKS?

Some of these issues have already been explored on this blog:
here, here, here, here, and here. Though technology has changed the landscape dramatically in the last 20 years, the business of music, content development, delivery to an audience and copyright has always been an ongoing evolution. Here are some opinions on the current state of the music and entertainment industry from people you may know and some you don’t.

Zoiks! Gene Simmons from KISS blames the fans for ruining the music industry and hints that music as we know it will disappear because there is no incentive to make it without the potential for some kind of profit. I don’t completely disagree with the second part of his point, but the first part is a real doozy. Gene’s mad as hell and not taking it anymore…BTW, have you seen KISS Visa Card? He’s looking a little bit like The Terminator in this clip and I’m not sure what all the talk about “Big Tits” is about. (Women play music too, amirite?) I don’t know why, but this interview and the credit card and the “business” reminds me of this Young Ones sketch from the early 80s. Maybe this interview is supposed to be comedy.

And now for something totally and completely different. Here’s a point of view RANT I saw on one of my social media connections. I was actually surprised when I read it because usually this connection is pretty guarded. Maybe jet lag or a hacker had something to do with it but the sentiment has never been retracted. I’m not going to say who it was because this wasn’t an official publicity release. What really matters is this is a pretty successful musical entity that obviously has the same concerns as any musician regarding copyrights, control, etc.

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You’re probably thinking that the above author must be a punk rocker, death metal player, or someone with a lot of steel embedded in his/her face(NO, NO, and NO). Nothing is said about rap music or breasts and there is a very low opinion of Hollywood and the people in the entertainment industry. How Un-American! The author must be French! (NO). They also don’t care they’ve been ripped off. What gives?? The quote references the documentary below on the notorious online entity known as The Pirate Bay. Founded in Sweden in 2003, the site helps facilitate peer-to-peer file sharing by providing links to various types of (torrent) files that are posted (and downloaded) by users all over the world. The documentary is worth a watch when you have a moment. Many of the main drivers to all of the controversies that surround this BRAVE NEW WORLD (?) issue are contained within.

Here’s a letter to the editor of The New York Times that came to me via ROCKRAP. This is a very official type of communiqué on another aspect of the music industry. The author of the letter is Rubén Blades, a Grammy Award-winning singer, actor and activist.

“…Tom Carson’s review of Clive Davis’s “Soundtrack of My Life” (March 17) states: “As the head of Columbia Records in the 1960s, he discovered, among others, Janis Joplin.” Record executives do not discover artists: they stumble upon them. Not even Christopher Columbus would have had the chutzpah to claim he “made” America. Undisputedly, Davis contributed to making such talents publicly known. But at whose expense? Joplin probably never received her fair share of royalty payments and may never have owned her masters; nor is it likely that her family inherited the full financial fruits of her work. These usually go to people who can’t sing, can’t write, can’t play and yet end up millionaires, while true artists, like Rodriguez, end up broke and ripped-off. That record executives step forward to usurp credit for artists’ success is not uncommon. More disconcerting is that their self-serving accounts are considered worthy of review in your pages.

RUBÉN BLADES, New York

I believe that maybe this was part of the letter. I can’t find the original. If you’re confused about how we go from Janis Joplin to Rodriguez, I think Rubén is talking about Sixto Rodriguez, another very interesting music story. While there are some who would think that Rubén is being unduly harsh, the entertainment industry is completely PACKED with people who share his sentiments. Genre-defining, instrument-reinventing artists like Jimi Hendrix and his Experience made a whole lot of money for people who didn’t even know what end of the guitar to hold. If the influence of The Blues and Blues songs on rock and roll music was measured in dollars almost all of the early blues artists would’ve been very wealthy. Most of them died with much less.

What about big rock bands, like The Rolling Stones…what about them? They certainly have been very successful over the years. Probably have a good outlook on how the business is run, etc, etc. Mick Jagger expressed his views on file sharing in an interview with the BBC during the anniversary celebration of the release of Exile on Main Street. Mick’s answers are in blue type:

Things have obviously changed a great deal since those sessions. What’s your feeling on technology and music?

Technology and music have been together since the beginning of recording.

I’m talking about the internet.

But that’s just one facet of the technology of music. Music has been aligned with technology for a long time. The model of records and record selling is a very complex subject and quite boring, to be honest.

But your view is valid because you have a huge catalogue, which is worth a lot of money, and you’ve been in the business a long time, so you have perspective.

Well, it’s all changed in the last couple of years. We’ve gone through a period where everyone downloaded everything for nothing and we’ve gone into a grey period it’s much easier to pay for things – assuming you’ve got any money.

Are you quite relaxed about it?

I am quite relaxed about it. But, you know, it is a massive change and it does alter the fact that people don’t make as much money out of records. But I have a take on that – people only made money out of records for a very, very small time. When The Rolling Stones started out, we didn’t make any money out of records because record companies wouldn’t pay you! They didn’t pay anyone! Then, there was a small period from 1970 to 1997, where people did get paid, and they got paid very handsomely and everyone made money. But now that period has gone. So if you look at the history of recorded music from 1900 to now, there was a 25 year period where artists did very well, but the rest of the time they didn’t.

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NOTE: There are many more opinions and thoughts from various artists at the ROCKRAP site, including Tom Petty, Chuck D, Ice T and Pete Townshend, who provides a very eye-opening perspective.

In the following clip Lawrence Lessig presents an interesting overview on the early evolution of the music business, including the “Bidness War” between ASCAP and BMI, as part of TED talk he gives titled “Laws that Choke Creativity.” A very good talk and the historical parallels he draws are important for those who believe the issues that surround entertainment creation and delivery today are something new.

Another enterprising fellow who has garnered media attention lately is ex-hacker/businessman Kim Dotcom, founder of Megaupload and it’s associated sites. He rolled out Megaupload’s successor, Mega, in January on the 1-year anniversary of his arrest from copyright infringement and the forced-closing of Megaupload. Dotcom has been accused of costing the entertainment industry hundreds of millions of dollars and is currently fighting extradition to the USA for trial. He is defiant, believes he will be acquitted, and has plans to encrypt half of the internet to protect users from spying eyes. If for no other reasons, The Pirate Bay movie and Dotcom’s interview videos are interesting to watch not only because the networking, sharing, and business models are exposed, but it’s also amazing to see how it all GROWS, most of it virally. Dotcom estimates that at it’s zenith, Megaupload had 800 file transfers per second, 24/7/365. Fascinating! It’s important to note that there were plenty of legitimate users on Megaupload so it’s not like all of those transfers were “infringement” on anything.

Finally, are you one of those people who thinks music today is totally worthless? Does it seem everything in mainstream entertainment is written for a 12 year-old girl? Does the tired, formula-driven aura that surrounds the entertainment business remind you of other too-big-to-fail entities out there ravaging the landscape in an ever-increasingly desperate attempt to suck money out of your wallet while giving you nothing in return? Well, YOU ARE NOT ALONE! As a matter of fact, there are some really successful music icons who feel the same way you do! This last link is an entertaining, sometimes educational documentary on the music business in the USA. As a “movie” or “documentary” Before the Music Dies certainly has its shortcomings. The “flow” of the film could’ve been better and certainly watching it in clipped bits on Youtube doesn’t help. The film highlights some of the authentic artists performing today with live music clips but some of the performances are too long and I was skipping through to get back to the thread of the movie. Many salient aspects of modern “music production” — The 1996 Telecommunications Act, ClearChannel, Auto-tune, butt implants, quarterly profit returns and much more are covered and in some cases demonstrated to very grim or hilarious results (depending on your point of view). The numerous interviews (Eric Clapton, Les Paul, Doyle Bramahll II, Dave Matthews, Bonnie Raitt, Erykah Badu, Questlove, North Mississippi All-Stars and Brandford Marsalis) are very illuminating to say the least. It warms my heart to watch performers who have reached this level of success deriding the superficial, profit-driven, multi-tentacled vampire squid that is the entertainment business today. Bonnie Raitt, Brandford Marsalis and Dave Matthews all have some great money quotes and Eryka Badu is awesomely funny in a biting, social-commentary kind of way. I recommend highly — enjoy the movie and figure out how it may or may not impact your career or musical journeys.

Keith Richards — Part II —The 70s

keith_GRThe late 1960s and early 1970s saw Keith Richards coming into his own as a bona fide guitar hero and entertainment personality, albeit a very notorious personality. If you missed the first part of this expose, you can find it HERE, and the most popular post I’ve ever done, Gimme Shelter, is also chock-full of Keith or, “Keef” goodies. Following the release of Let It Bleed and the infamous 1969 American tour, Keith and The Stones would tour Europe and release two more powerhouse albums before returning to the States for an even more infamous tour in 1972. The albums, Sticky Fingers (parts of which were recorded on the ’69 tour in Muscle Shoals, Alabama) and the genre-defining Exile on Main Street, which was basic-tracked in Keith’s rented house in the south of France with the help of the new Rolling Stones Mobile (recording) Unit, would cement the band’s reputation as the swaggering high priests of outlaw rock and roll. These two records also completed the HOLY 5 (Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Get Yer Ya Yas Out, Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main Street) run of Stones albums that is pinnacle of their career. All of these albums are very much driven by the guitar style Keith mashed together from all of his favorite blues, country and early rock and roll influences to recreate an updated form of rock and roll that is distinctly American. In that way, this period is very reflective of Keith’s artistic sensibilities and long-standing fascination with American culture in a way that nothing after 1972 would, not even his solo records.

During this time another British band was making their own indelible mark on rock music and as the 70s progressed they would eclipse the Stones in sales, popularity and sheer awesomeness. This, of course, was Led Zeppelin. The two bands had quite a bit in common, especially in the early 70s, the use of the mobile unit to record their groundbreaking records out of the confines of urban recording studios, for instance. There are many interviews with Keith and Jimmy Page that illustrate how much of the sound of these seminal recordings (the Stones 5 and Led Zeppelin III, Led Zeppelin IV, Houses of the Holy and Physical Graffiti) owe as much to the ambiance of their recording settings as they do the songs, players and instruments. Tales of the Stones recording Exile while dinner was being cooked upstairs or Keith ducking out of a session to put his son to bed (and not reappearing for 5 hours) align with Led Zep lore of the sound of John Bonham’s drum sound on When the Levee Breaks, captured in a Headley Grange hallway or all 4 members of the band dancing on the lawn after hearing first playbacks of Dancing Days. Recording these albums in this fashion allowed for greater artistic isolation because both groups were removed from urban environments, and was reminiscent of the old days when blues/country artists recorded in hotel rooms, kitchens, or on street corners. I believe this allowed both bands to bring a level of authenticity that approached high art to these recordings. Another similarity, one that Led Zeppelin embraced from the very beginning of their career, was that neither band had to be concerned with having a hot single out every two or three months and both had reached the superstar status level that afforded them the luxury of having to answer to no one, as long as the kids kept buying records and concert tickets. The Stones and Led Zeppelin had their own record labels by the mid-70s and this was a very big step (and one that isn’t talked about very often in the current file sharing discussions) of wrestling control away from record company executives and putting it firmly in the hands of the artists who were making the music. Not only was the music written and played in a very sympathetic environment, using all of the latest technology available, but the band (and a very willing engineer or two) recorded and produced the music as they saw fit. Personally, I think this has a whole lot to do with why these albums still rank as some of the best ever made and are very hard to beat for the sound of the BLUUZE excitement that jumps off of them when they are played.

LET IT BLEED

A very menacing record – the sound, the lyrics, the subject matter, the way Keith has developed his slashing chord jabs and the relentless, insistent pulse of the rhythm section. 1968-1969 were bloody years and the Stones had their finger square on the pulse of what was happening. Let It Bleed was released in the USA immediately after Altamont and it’s so evil that it might as well have been the soundtrack. John Lennon seemed to believe that “Let It Bleed” referred the last Beatles album and it probably did. Mick Jagger had always been jealous and competitive of The Beatles and their success and with this record he finally came out on top. While Let It Be is a half-assed collection of songs and jams from an aborted pre-Abbey Road movie idea, Let It Bleed is a tightly-focused statement on the state of the world as the Stones saw it at the time. While soon-to-be jettisoned Stone Brian Jones and soon-to-be Stone Mick Taylor both appear on the record, it’s pretty much a total Keith show.

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Gimme Shelter kicks off the record with it’s dramatic, almost cinematic, building intro. Keith’s playing in open-E tuning and the treble chords in the intro set the listener up for the main body of the song because once the descending riff (a variation on Under My Thumb) kicks in he is beating you over the head with it. Charlie Watts is locked in on Keith once the song kicks in and never strays. On top of this rhythmic heaviness, there is some slide guitar, a short Keith solo, a bluesy harp and apocalyptic lyrics provided by Mick, and a female vocal break provide by Merry Clayton that is so intense it was blamed for the miscarriage she suffered after the session. It’s 4 1/2 minutes of mayhem and this is the first song on the record! It’s evil twin brother kicks off side 2. Midnight Rambler, a song that sketches the Boston Strangler, is even more intense than Gimme Shelter. Keith has described it as a blues opera and he and Mick wrote all of the various parts together while vacationing in Italy. Played in an E position with a capo on the 7th fret, the song is a perfect example of how much power Keith gets out of a very basic and compact approach to guitar. Thousands of blues-influenced songs use this E position on the first fret, but putting it up at the 7th fret and swapping in a “D” chord and progression instead of the standard 12-bar B-turnaround, turns the whole form inside out without diverging too far away from it. You can hear it’s the blues, but it’s also much more than the blues. I find the tone of the studio version of this song to be really amazing… it burps, kind of… and staggers along like a pervert in a dirty raincoat clutching a long knife. Keith used the same guitar on Gimme Shelter and Midnight Rambler and he recalled in 2002:

That was done on a full-bodied, Australian electric-acoustic, f-hole guitar. It kind of looked like an Australian copy of the Gibson model that Chuck Berry used. I played it on Gimmie Shelter too… It had all been revarnished and painted out, but it sounded great. It made a great record… (I got it f)rom some guy who stayed at my pad. He crashed out for a couple of days and suddenly left in a hurry, leaving that guitar behind. You know, Take care of this for me. I certainly did! But it served me well through the album. http://www.timeisonourside.com/SOMidnight.html

Monkey Man and Live With Me are two more nasty songs from this very nasty album. The first finds Keith locked in on one of his prototypical riffs; a hard-knuckled adaptation from Chuck Berry that sounds as if it might be in open tuning, but it is in standard C#/E major. This is the kind of hammer-time guitar thing that has made Keith a guitar hero and he probably spent days playing it over and over until it was exactly right. The slide part that happens as a break before the final “I’m a MONKEY!!” is probably open-E. Really nice layering of guitars and a tinkling piano above Charlie’s insistent drums. Monkey Man is a silly song lyrically, but a great music track. Live With Me is a swaggering ode to sleaze that features Mick Taylor on guitar and Keith on bass, which he likes to do from time to time. In concert, the propulsive bass line would be doubled on guitar with those slashing standard-tuned guitar chords played against the rhythm. Saxman Bobby Keyes makes his first appearance with the Stones on this track. On the softer side of things is a very bluesy adaptation of Robert Johnson’s Love in Vain that features Keith on acoustic picking and electric slide and Ry Cooder on mandolin. I believe the acoustic is in standard tuning and has a capo on the 3rd fret and Keith uses really cool finger-picking patterns to bring the desolation and loneliness of this song to life. Extra chords were added to the Robert Johnson version so it is a bit more complex than a 3 chord blues. You can hear shades of this same progression in I Got the Blues from Sticky Fingers. Country Honk is the original version of Honky Tonk Women (although the electric single version was released first) and was supposedly inspired by the gaucho cowboys Mick and Keith saw on their trip to South America (see how I tied that together?). Keith was always fascinated with the cowboy lifestyle from an early age and for sure the band is channeling a little bit of Hank Williams and white boy honky tonk music on this one. For this song you can leave it in standard or tune it to open-G and merge with parts Keith plays on the electric version which is definitely in open-G. You Got the Silver is Keith’s lead vocal debut and he plays acoustic and electric slide guitar in open-E/D, with a capo on the 1st or 3rd fret so the song is in the key of F. (Whether you tune to D or E is a personal preference). The atmosphere of this song is simply 60s beautiful and is easily one of the best songs the band ever did. Originally Mick also sang on the track and there are alternate versions out there with him on vocals, but Keith’s vibe is really cool and that makes the album version definitive. Let It Bleed and You Can’t Always Get What You Want round out the album and on both Keith is playing various acoustics and electric/slide guitars. When I saw the Stones on the 1981 tour they played Let it Bleed, which was great because it had never been a concert song before. You Can’t Always Get What You Want (played in open-E or D [acoustic] on the record and usually played in open-G with a capo on the 5th fret live) was a concert staple throughout the 70s.

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Let It Bleed was a critical and commercial success and really was the next big step (after Beggars Banquet) of the Stones’ new image to the world. As with the rest of the studio albums during this period, the best songs would be hits and favorites of legions of fans for decades to come and still make up a big part of any Rolling Stones set list. Musically, lyrically and artistically Let It Bleed is more than an album and is probably second only to Exile on Main Street as the best record the group ever did.

GET YER YA YAS OUT

I include this in the group of must-haves because it’s much more than a live album. A case could be made that it isn’t really a live album as there were a few overdubs done after the fact and any close listening to bootlegs from the tour or clips from the movie Gimme Shelter (like the one above) prove this. Not everything was changed and certainly all of the ingredients for a great live album were already there, but given that the band was on a creative roll and probably wanted to put their very best into their first real live album, it’s understandable they would play around with it. Another crucial component is Mick Taylor. His guitar playing gave the album a very HEAVY blues virtuoso feel in spots and it was smart to make the most of what he was now bringing to the band. He had only been involved for a few months prior to the tour but it was very clear from the beginning he was going to change the sound in a big way. The album rocks from beginning to end and some cuts like Midnight Rambler, Jumping Jack Flash, Live With Me, Street Fighting Man and Sympathy For the Devil have such a powerful sound and energy that it’s almost breathtaking. Taylor’s slide solo on Love in Vain (which he plays in standard tuning) is simply brilliant as is his solo (the 2nd one) on Sympathy. The rapid-fire negotiation of the 4 parts to Midnight Rambler come off perfectly and that song is so sizzling it is downright scary. The band would never sound like this again on a live release and that has everything to do with Mick Taylor, Keith’s good health and the band working with the realization that they have expanded their capabilities and execution and are firing on all cylinders. The maelstrom that was the late 60s probably had something to do with it as well as the fact that this was the first time the Stones had played America with powerful amps and PA systems. They rose to the challenge perfectly and this is a great transition from Let It Bleed to their next offering.

STICKY FINGERS

Sticky Fingers is a really good indication of how SMART The Rolling Stones are. They were always able to integrate whatever was going on at the time into their sonic palette and produce records that were simultaneously timely and timeless (This would also be true of Some Girls). Quite a feat when you think about it. Everything that would follow in the 70s: the debauchery, self-destruction, failed 60s ideals, tired and overplayed musical styles and the indulgences of the “ME” decade is contained in the lyrics and music of this record and really all Keith Richards and Mick Taylor did was further define the twin-guitar style that had already worked for the band for the better part of 7 years. Even though the 70s would be the era of long songs and jams, the Stones always kept it pretty tight around the blues wail/pop song format that had served them throughout the 1960s. While Brown Sugar or Bitch seem like a far cry from Satisfaction or The Last Time, musically they aren’t in terms of complication or excess. The refinement of the riffs, rhythms and parts, a much bigger sound, combined with Mick Jagger’s envelope-pushing lyrics only illustrate how the band grew over time. There are some interesting tidbits about these two songs that anchor each side of Sticky Fingers. Brown Sugar was a Mick Jagger composition right down to the rhythms and salacious subject matter. Keith turned it into a tour de force by adapting it to his open-G tuning, layering electric and acoustic guitars together and adding a very patented Chuck Berry ending to the song. Brown Sugar was recorded at Muscle Shoals during the ’69 tour and as I relate in the post on Gimme Shelter, part of the reason that the band ran into trouble on with various components of the counterculture on that tour was because of the fact that they had already moved on from the 60s (after the drug busts of 1967, the failure of Their Satanic Majesties Request, and Brian Jones’ death) and were already channeling a new decade. While many people from the hippie movement at the time thought that the Stones were an anachronism of a bygone era, the band glided effortlessly into the 1970s more successful than ever. Bitch, on the other hand, was a mess of a song that began without Keith, who showed up to record that day with a bowl of cornflakes in his hand. After listening to the band struggle with it for a few minutes he strapped on his guitar, simplified the riff and WHAMMO! Instant 70s AOR hit.

The rest of the album shows the band’s dedication to American roots music whether it be country; Dead Flowers, Wild Horses, the blues; I Got the Blues, You Gotta Move, or (what became) definitive 70s rock; Sway, Can’t You Hear Me Knockin’. Sister Morphine and the very unStonesy Moonlight Mile round out the record. Thanks to their always on-point music savvy and the addition of Mick Taylor, and a horn section, including saxman Bobby Keyes, the Stones had developed a formidable sound that greeted the 70s with sass, hipness, and their always insistent energy. Taylor’s fluid lead lines gave songs like Moonlight Mile, Sway and the Santana-esque 2nd half of Can’t You Hear (the first part is a brilliant Keith G-tuning workout) a big rock virtuosity that was perfect for the 70s. Jagger would say after Taylor’s departure that he had really enjoyed writing with the guitarist because he didn’t come from as limited a background as Keith and his more lead-based style allowed for departures from the typical Stones raunchiness. Sister Morphine featured slide guitar maestro Ry Cooder, who has long been rumored to have been the one who turned Keith on to open-G tuning and was also not the first person to be turned off by the druggie vibe that was becoming more a part of what the band (at least some of them) represented. A review I read of this record from a long time ago mentioned that there were enough overt drug references in the lyrics that one could get high simply by sniffing the record jacket. The nastiness of the lyrics combined with the very up front chugging of the band made this a very obvious and in-your-face record, much more so than any of the others of the “5 group.” The band would bury much of this on the next album and in some ways, that made all of the danger and debauchery even more bawdy and sinister.

A word about open tunings, a guitar technique Keith uses quite a bit. There are a few things to remember about using different tunings that players should keep in mind. 1) Keith was a pretty good rock and roll guitar player and had certainly come up with some genre-defining riffs before he started changing tunings, so don’t assume everything post ’68 is played in something other than standard tuning. Plenty of songs that some people think are in open-G aren’t. 2) Don’t assume that the tuning a song might have been recorded in is how it was played live (Jumping Jack Flash, You Can’t Always Get What You Want). Certain things, like that open-G, suspended chord sound one hears in the riff to Brown Sugar, are fairly obvious, but also keep in mind, that 3) it’s possible to play these songs without changing the tuning. I’ve watched Chris Spedding play Brown Sugar in standard tuning and Mick Taylor never played in open tuning as far as I know. Chris told me a story about how he played in front of Keith once and Keith mentioned that he liked the DRONE sound that playing with an open tuning gives to a song like Brown Sugar. That’s really what you miss if you play it in standard tuning — there is none of that sympathetic ringing that can give you a really big, sometimes slightly dissonant sound. Obviously that sound won’t work on everything and as a guitar player you have to use your judgment on what is best for you in various musical situations. From personal experience I can tell you I don’t favor two or more guitars in a band tuned to an open tuning. That gets really weird, especially live. I think a big part of the Stones sound during this period was that Mick Taylor remained in standard and played complimentary parts to Keith’s riffing. Even when they were doubling lines in a song like You Gotta Move, the sound is full without being disorganized because Keith plays his lines on an open-C tuned acoustic and Mick Taylor doubles on a standard-tuned electric. This is just my opinion and really only applies to roots style music. Bands like Soundgarden certainly employed various open tunings with more than one guitarist tuned out of concert tuning to great effect.

EXILE ON MAIN STREET

While some might disagree (certainly Mick Jagger always has), this record represented the pinnacle of the Rolling Stones creative vision and execution. While the band would enjoy hits, tremendously profitable tours and notoriety for the following forty years, they never topped Exile and once again, while the group and some assorted special guests were absolutely crucial to the way the record turned out, this is Keith’s album. It has everything that has been the hallmark of his style throughout his career: subtlety, the guitar as a vehicle for the song, slashing riffs, ingenious production, compact leads and a tremendous ability to recreate musical styles in a way that makes the songs sound absolutely authentic. It’s not just his guitar that’s at work here either. In some ways Keith is the equal to Page or McCartney when it came to using the studio almost as if it were another instrument and the production quality of Exile, controversial for it’s buried wall of sound mix, is exactly the same as his guitar style. He wears his influences on his sleeve and if you listen to those old records then it’s obvious he and the band got this album exactly right. He also deserves a whole lot credit for the vocals (lead and back up). In some cases they completely make the song. I don’t know how long the following song will be available (it seems to come and go from Youtube) but notice how the whole band wakes up on this version of Dead Flowers after Mick and Keith sing the first chorus. Many people have remarked on this quality of the band, especially live: when Keith wants to rock, there is no stopping the the band. His vocals are also a feature on “Exile” songs like Rocks Off, Casino Boogie, Soul Survivor, Torn and Frayed, Sweet Black Angel, Tumbling Dice and Sweet Virginia. While many rock and rollers don’t know this, gospel music is a big influence on the Stones’ sound. Keith is a HUGE fan and while many people would not see how church music could work with dirty rock and roll songs about nasty habits listen to Sweet Virginia, Tumbling Dice or Torn and Frayed again. What has kept Keith in the music business for over fifty years is the fact that he was always more than a guitar player into one style of music. Also, take it from someone who was there, Mick and Keith sharing a mic was one of the most ubiquitous and iconic photo images from the early/mid 70s.

Much has been made of the recording conditions in France for some of the basic tracks. Andy Johns, who was the engineer for the sessions gives a nice rundown on how it all worked HERE. The environment was hot and steamy, guitars went in and out of tune (you can hear this on the intro to All Down the Line), but in some ways it didn’t matter because the band was dialing in their cosmic blues infused slop rock where problems like wiggy tuning only added to the ambiance. Because the band (like Zeppelin and more after them) had been forced to flee Britain as a result of high taxes, there was an extreme sense of dislocation among members of the band and their entourage. This more than likely added to some of the jittery, nervous energy that can be found on parts of the record.

If there is one song that encapsulates the Keith Richards’ style during this period, Tumbling Dice is it. The “hit” that Exile on Main Street produced is an awesome open-G tuned, capo on the 4th fret (key of B) exploration of lead/rhythm ambiance. Except for a brief solo before the final verse the song is a perfect example of what Keith calls “guitar weaving,” two guitars playing sympathetic parts with enough restraint that a listener will have a hard time detecting which guitarist is doing what. What’s interesting is Mick Jagger is playing rhythm guitar on the recorded track and Mick Taylor is playing bass. The Exile sessions revolved around Keith’s “schedule,” or lack thereof, and whoever was around when he felt like playing/recording ended up on the track. Keith’s vocal track on the record, Happy, is another example of a song in the same Tumbling Dice tuning and an altered line-up, with producer Jimmy Miller filling in for Charlie Watts on drums. Hip Shake, as shown above, is another great example of Taylor and Richards weaving their guitar parts together. Ventilator Blues is the only song Mick Taylor received a songwriting credit for as it is his swampy guitar riff that drives the whole song. Bobby Keyes was actually the brains behind the rhythm of the song as Charlie Watts recalled later. Other highlights include the very emotional, gospel inspired Let it Loose with the guitars through a Leslie speaker and a gospel choir, recalling Al Green or Otis Redding perhaps. Robert Johnson’s Stop Breaking Down is given a loud, jamming performance featuring Mick Taylor’s slide and Mick Jagger’s harp. Rip This Joint is the fastest song the band has ever done and sounds like Little Richard on steroids. All of the instruments, including gospel choir arrangements were layered in to give the songs on the album a complete sound. No instruments or players really stick out as even a lot of the vocals are buried. While some, including Mick Jagger write this off to heavy drug use, I think this is the way Keith hears this music. His first solo album, released some 25 years later sounded similar. The rhythm section, guitars, saxes, harmonica, piano, vocals, percussion all kind of swirl together creating a sound tsunami that carries the listener away. This makes for a very dense and murky audio experience but I think it sounds very close to Phil Spector, Memphis or Chess Records. When the album mixes are BIG ROCK, It’s Only Rock and Roll and Dirty Work, the blues-inspired songs sound generic, flat and innocuous to me. The manner in which Exile was recorded and mixed is so important to not only how Keith wrote and played music, but also to the sonic concept of authenticity. The second part of the recording process took place in Los Angeles and various thing were cleaned up and added or overdubbed. But the basement feel and sound permeates the record and closes the book on the Stones’ glory days.

Plugging a Les Paul or a Telecaster into a Fender Twin or an Ampeg SVT with a little bit of delay or reverb and a nice healthy dose of volume and you have pretty much what you need for the Keith Richards Exile on Main Street sound. (The Dan Armstrong plexiglass guitar that he was playing on the ’69 tour was stolen in France during the making of the album). He was never much of an effects guy although there is a phaser used on Rocks Off and Keith would continue to employ slow phase on ballad songs (Comin’ Down Again) throughout the decade. The 1972 Americas tour was the debut of the prodigious use of Fender Telecasters, some of which were tuned to the open G (GDGBD) with the low E string removed. All Down the Line, Soul Survivor, Rip This Joint, Happy and the amazing Tumbling Dice are all very obvious open-G songs, most, if not all of them played with a Telecaster probably. This contrasted nicely with Mick Taylor’s Les Paul sound, especially when Mick’s slide guitar came into the equation, like on the following clip. There are quite a few great clips from the ’72 tour and they all ROCK!

keith_ORFollowing the release of Exile, the ’72 tour of the Americas and the ’73 tour of Europe were grand affairs. Not only did the denim-clad rowdies turn out in droves, but celebrities and the jet-set crowd were in attendance thanks to Mick Jagger’s marriage to Bianca Pérez-Mora Macias and his hobnobbing at all of the hottest spots the early 70s had to offer. Of course, these habits didn’t sit well with his guitar playing partner whose habits put him with a completely different class of people, described by others in and around the band as “the dregs of the earth.” This division, which had begun in France between those who took a lot of drugs (Richards, Taylor, Keyes, producer Jimmy Miller) and those who were much more restrained (Jagger, Watts and Wyman) became more pronounced. This led to sub-par material and acrimony between Keith and Mick Jagger. Mick was bored with rock and roll and was already making his views on this known as Exile was being released. His lifestyle and ambitions did not include being stoned to the point of incapacitation. Post-1972 he would be a lot more opinionated and forceful in his musical ideas for the group, whether that would him at odds with Keith or not. This happens and usually the result is the end of the band. That was certainly true with The Beatles. The Rolling Stones would carry on, but it would be different. While they would enjoy success and failures for another 40+ years they wouldn’t be the same important BAND anymore. They would gradually become an institution and much of that is simply a byproduct of longevity and the fact that there was a time, especially between 1968-1972 when there was no one playing and recording better music.

THE 70s and BEYOND

Even though nothing after Exile would be as much of a complete statement, there were some bright spots in the 70s and early 80s. I was a huge fan of the band growing up and heard all of the following as they were released so I’ll give a brief review of each.

Goat’s Head Soup — A very boring album. The band sounds tired even though Mick Taylor plays some ripping guitar in spots. He more than likely co-authored Winter, which is a really good song, way better than Angie in my opinion. A big rift between Mick Taylor and Keith also starts to emerge during this time and will culminate with Taylor’s departure after the next album. Keith is not down with the big soloing thing that has taken over rock circles (remember this is 1973…the biggest band on the planet is doing half hour versions of Dazed and Confused). But Taylor is completely down with being a LEAD player and is capable of bringing that to the music. On Exile Keith still had it together enough to bring in good stuff and force the guitar weaving style he enjoys so much. But starting with this album, the material isn’t as good or is just flat out derivative. They get it back on the next album a little bit, but Mick Taylor will begin to lose interest and feel constrained by the limitations of Keith’s vision of the band.

It’s Only Rock and Roll — Very underrated in my opinion. The title track is great, Dance Little Sister is awesome and has a great Taylor doing Keith solo on it. Keith channels his rhythm skills into a great reggae feel on Luxury, which I think is the best reggae-influenced thing the band ever did. The jazzy Latin-esque Time Waits for No One features a great groove, great lyrics and a very progressive style guitar solo from Mick Taylor. Perhaps his best moments as a Stone. Fingerprint File is flat-out amazing! Mick is doing an Isaac Hayes impersonation, but it doesn’t have the feel of bored parody…yet. He would definitely get there later in the decade. He plays the phased rhythm guitar, Keith plays the wah-wah guitar and Mick Taylor plays bass and it’s a great performance from all three. My favorite on a very good album. If You Can’t Rock Me, Short and Curlies, Til The Next Time and If You Really Want to Be My Friend are all solid songs and are played with great 70s feel and enthusiasm. This is the first record by Mick and Keith as The Glimmer Twins and Ron Wood, who was in the band shortly after the release, had a lot to do with the title track. This would be the last appearance of Mick Taylor until some of the songs worked on during his tenure are brought back for Tattoo You. Ron Wood will join the band for the 1975 tour of the USA.

Black and Blue — Even though Fool to Cry and Hot Stuff were popular, this album sucks and many people said the same thing at the time. I’m not of the opinion that the Stones did 70s dance music very well or that they ever should’ve tried. Miss You was a great tune and a smash hit, but this album isn’t and by his own admission Keith was so strung out at this point he was pretty much useless.

Love You Live — An abomination when compared with Ya Yas. The whole band sounds bored and remember what I said about Mick’s parody of Isaac Hayes? It’s in full effect on this record.

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Some Girls — The last GREAT Stones album. Keith is clean, Ron Wood brings a whole lot of new energy and punk rock/new wave and disco have helped give the band a new lease on life. This is Mick Jagger’s album and not only did he write some great songs and lyrics, he also plays so much guitar that several songs have a patented Lynyrd Skynyrd 3-guitar sound. (The two bands had played together in England in 1976…coincidence?). The disco-influenced Miss You was a huge hit and the rockers like Lies, When the Whip Comes Down, Respectable and Shattered are fast, furious, smart and nasty. Just what you would expect from the Rolling Stones. Faraway Eyes is funny and has a nice chorus and pedal steel from Woody. Just My Imagination I could’ve done without. The real musical gems of the record are Beast of Burden and Before They Make Me Run. Both of these songs are primarily Keith’s and were written during the period he was facing a possible lengthy prison term for a heroin bust. His riffing is smart and original on this record and he and Woody work together very well. Wood’s tenure in the Stones has certainly had some very low points, but up through ’83 he played his ass off. While he never had Mick Taylor’s chops and big sound, Woody certainly had a great touch and a few tricks up his sleeve. He really makes Some Girls come alive and this was a great soundtrack for the late 70s.You didn’t have to be a “rock guy” to like it.

Emotional_Rescue — I remember hearing this record a lot at the time, but I can’t remember why now.

Tattoo You — The last solid album (still a step down from Some Girls), culled from recordings in the vaults going back to Mick Taylor’s time in the band. The record has enough rockers, Start Me Up, Little T & A, Slave, paired with some really good ballads, including Worried About You and Waiting On a Friend to offer a really good balance of songs and they managed to make it all sound current and right for a live setting. As I said earlier, I saw the Stones on this tour and they really delivered well — long sets with a lot of surprise numbers — and the new stuff sounded really good. It was a total party!

The Rest
Tattoo You was pretty much the end though because everything released after ’81 sounded a bit too formulaic for me. I checked out Dirty Work and Undercover and saw them live a couple more times, but for me the late 60s and early 70s were the peak and there was and is a whole lot of other music to listen to. But Mick, Mick, Ron and KEITH gave me a whole lot of great rock and roll and GUITAR BRILLIANCE over the years and for that I am very thankful. I learned so much about music and rock and roll from listening to and playing the Rolling Stones music and any player can find oodles of goodies contained within any one of a number of tunes that will definitely be of use the next time a chance to ROCK OUT comes along.

One final thing… I really enjoyed the Chuck Berry Hail Hail movie (on Youtube in its entirety). Great cast of characters (Chuck, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bruce Springsteen, The Everly Brothers, Robert Cray, Bo Diddley, Bobby Keyes and a whole lot of Keith!). Oh and Little Richard! Any movie with Little Richard is going to be AWESOME because he is one crazy dude!

Keith Richards — Part I

GUITAR HERO

Keith is my numero uno, the man, the KING OF COOL and HOT TRASHY GUITAR. He was the first guitar hero I had and over the years I’ve learned many a lick and trick from listening to his music, reading his interviews and copping the feel from his playing. Long before Django, or Eddie or Jimi or anyone else I was a huge fan of The Rolling Stones and their music. Not only is Keith’s style great, but because he always mentioned great players from the past that were influences, he provided a link to the past that made for even more listening entertainment and inspiration. The Stones, from the very beginning, always picked great cover songs too — Love in Vain, Mona, Let it Rock, Prodigal Song, Shake Your Hips, Down the Road Apiece, Stop Breaking Down, Not Fade Away and many others always done with the energy and panache that is THE STONES.

There have been many great books on Keith and The Rolling Stones over the years and probably anyone reading this has had at least a few in their possession. The pictures you see in this post come from The Rolling Stones: The First 25 Years, by rock writer extraordinaire Dave Dalton. I’ve had this for so long it’s not even a book anymore. It completely fell apart years ago and is basically just a big pile of pages, but it’s a an AWESOME BOOK. Not only is the photography really brilliant, but it spans the real pinnacle of the band’s career and includes many interviews with Keith and Mick from the 1970s. This is is how I knew all about Keith’s guitar style before I even left home. I was surprised to see this book is still available and if you like Keith and the band, you should totally buy it.

BLUES ATTITUDE

From the early days The Stones were different from all of the other people who banded together to play rock and roll music. They grew to be notorious for their attitude and behavior and although they were eclipsed by The Beatles in the 1960s and Led Zeppelin in the 1970s, at least as far as popularity and sales, they became the epitome of what a rock and roll band is, or should be. Not only was their music top-notch, but they had the attitude (in spades) to match. The emotions and the attitudes expressed in songs like Satisfaction and Let’s Spend the Night Together (which was too risqué for The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967) seem quaint when compared to some of the jokes in an present-day episode of Family Guy. But that was the uptight culture that was America in the post-WW II years. Many of the overly conservative/fundamentalist leanings rampant today have been a part of this country all along. Whether he was in court on drug charges, staring down the Hells Angels at Altamont or being flogged in the press as a musical hack, Keith was never one to shy away from conflict. He has the BLUES ATTITUDE, a style and way of life I’ve already talked about in the Bukka White post I wrote last year. Along with the outlaw country styles of Jimmie Rodgers and Johnny Cash and the rock and roll snarl of Elvis and Chuck Berry was all about IMPULSE and ABANDON, not only in the music, but also the lifestyle associated with it. Keith Richards came to embody all of this and even today is held up as THE symbol of hedonistic living, a shining example of those people who burn the candle at both ends and then snort the wax. In uptight conservative society, which is really what the upper class wants to inflict on the lower classes because the upper class perfected hedonistic behavior a long time ago, people like Keith were a threat to the status quo that had kept everyone in line. As the 60s progressed, more and more of the old ways fell away. Of course, Keith doesn’t get all the credit for these changes, but he was and is a person who declared, through his razor slash chords and his defiance of traditional mores, that he was a man who lives on his own terms, like it or not.

EARLY DAYS

In the beginning Keith and the Stones played the music of their heroes, the music they loved. It was rude, energetic, infused with sex and danger and the freedom to let it rock. Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts were a great rhythm section, Mick Jagger was well on his way to being a superstar frontman and Brian Jones and Keith Richards had practiced their dueling blues, rhythm and blues and rock and roll “weaving guitar” parts until they had them down cold. They had digested Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Hubert Sumlin, Scotty Moore, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry and were able to play it with a reckless enthusiasm that drove the kids wild. It was all about MOVING people, as the following clip from The Tami Show proves. The Stones are having a really good time and everything the band becomes is right here in this clip. It’s a tad derivative still — Showtime at The Apollo, James Brown or Otis Day and the Knights maybe. They weren’t really writing their own material yet. But Keith fires the whole band with his timing, feel and exuberance. He’s also really good at those short, stingin’ leads. ROCK AND ROLL BABY!

By 1965, with the release of the singles The Last Time and Satisfaction and the Aftermath album, the band really came into their own with original material and almost all of it was built on Keith’s style and sensibilities. He was and is a complete genius at adapting to whatever the situation required. Very early on, in one of their first forays into the recording studio, the question was asked, “who makes the records?” and Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham pointed to Keith and said, “he does.” While part of the reason was Keith’s personality, it was also because he knew how to create a good track and capture the atmosphere necessary to make it more than a great track, especially once the concept of albums came into vogue. Only Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page equaled Keith’s ability to make albums that had not only the sound, but also the ambiance and atmosphere of blues and early rock and roll. Many critics have said that about the Exile on Main Street album, but it was true of other records as well, Beggars Banquet, Let it Bleed and Sticky Fingers especially. He was and is the KING of lo-fi, slop guitar and with Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, Brian Jones and later, Mick Taylor and Ronnie Wood, he had a lot of help making genre-defining records.

POP STARDOM

In the first phase of their career, the band was constantly being pressured for a single because that was the format du jour at the time. This was true of every band and every project through the late 60s. Many groups, even heavier ones like Cream and The Yardbirds were at the mercy of producers, record companies and managers who didn’t really understand this new rock phenomenon and insisted on doing business the old way. (HERE is a funny interview with Keith Relf, singer for The Yardbirds on the trials and tribulations of dealing with this aspect of pop stardom). Because The Beatles were the undisputed rulers of the pop charts throughout the decade, there was a lot of pressure on bands to follow their lead. Some of this yielded positive results for Keith and The Stones, others were pretty dismal (Their Satanic Majesties Request). Many of the Stones’ early original singles — The Last Time, Satisfaction, Get Off Of My Cloud and 19th Nervous Breakdown were very Rn’B-influenced and contained all of the best riffs and tricks to be mined from listening to all of the influences I’ve already mentioned. However, in 1965 they started to expand on this with other songs like Paint It, Black, Under My Thumb, Lady Jane, Ruby Tuesday, and Mother’s Little Helper. They were able to do this because Keith and Mick were becoming great song writers and Brian Jones was a complete genius at picking up exotic instruments and mastering them them well enough to play on a track or live in a very short time. Even though Keith would, in time, become the best example of the outlaw rock and roller, he, like the others was always very pop-conscious. His guitar hooks usually brilliant and he knew how to ARRANGE a song for the singles format. It was Keith’s idea to use a fuzzbox on Satisfaction to give the guitar a horn-like sound and there weren’t a whole lot of people using fuzz boxes at the time. (It was supposed to be a “guide” track for real horns, but it was released as is). In addition to his electric guitar finesse, Keith was a very good acoustic picker, featured on songs like Lady Jane or Back Street Girl. While some of this material seems a bit off the wall compared to later, there are some real gems in the mid-60s Stones catalog that capture the whole period of 1960s “Swinging London”.

PHASE II

The mid-60s was a really great period for Brian Jones, but, unfortunately it was also the beginning of his decline. He really came into his own as the COLOR guy for the band because he played everything; sitar, mellotron, recorder, harmonica, marimbas, organ, harpsichord, saxophone, accordion, autoharp, and dulcimer. Songs they did during this period, which are still very popular, would have been impossible without him. He was comparable to The Beatles having George Martin involved on their records. According to Keith, Brian didn’t enjoy playing guitar very much after 1965 and while there were certainly other issues within the band, it’s easy to believe that he would’ve been bored being the rhythm guitar player given his multi-instrumental abilities. Hounded by the drug squads and marginalized within the band because of his physical and mental condition, he would become the 1960s first “death by misadventure” casualty.

1968, the year of Jumping Jack Flash and Beggars Banquet, was often heralded by critics as the band’s return to their roots, but it was actually much more than that. In the past they had played American music, but post ’68 they set out to completely reinvent American music and culture, at least as they saw it. It was art in it’s truest sense and while Mick Jagger’s lyrics had a lot to do with the panorama they created, this whole period was Keith Richards coming into his own as a complete (understated) guitar master. He began exploring the concept of open-tunings, used by the blues masters of the past: Skip James, Robert Johson, Bukka White, Son House and Muddy Waters. Combined with his love of acoustic guitars, brilliant song sense and endless supply of memorable riffs and driving rhythms, he created a body of work from ’68 to ’72 that is the Stones pinnacle. Every one of the albums from this period rates five stars or… it should. Charlie Watts has said (I’m paraphrasing) that “every band in the world follows the drummer except The Rolling Stones. We follow the rhythm guitar player.” A very crucial ingredient to why these records were so great was how well Keith and Charlie play together. Keith’s riffs, combined with Charlie’s unique approach to “rock” drumming creates a very powerful, hip shaking statement. This was the beginning of the band’s ascent to superstardom.

OPEN TUNINGS

I learned all of the open-tunings a long time ago precisely because Keith used them. The original version of Jumping Jack Flash (with it’s flip side Child of the Moon) was done in open E/D. Tune the guitar to a major chord E-B-E-G#-B-E (down 2 steps for open-D, which is less stress on the guitar, especially acoustics). Beggars Banquet was the first album done with Keith using these tunings although Brian had used this tuning for slide guitar in the past. Street Fighting Man, Prodigal Sun, Salt of the Earth, No Expectations, Jigsaw Puzzle and Stray Cat Blues are all definitely in open tunings. Another element that makes this album interesting is that some of the songs were cut with the band gathered around a Phillips cassette recorder which was then put through a speaker and recorded. Sort of like having an overdrive in the chain. Says Keith: “The basic track of that was done on a mono cassette with very distorted overrecording, on a Phillips with no limiters. Brian is playing sitar, it twangs away. He’s holding notes that wouldn’t come through if you had a board, you wouldn’t be able to fit it in. But on a cassette if you just move the people, it does. Cut in the studio and then put on a tape. Started putting percussion and bass on it. That was really an electronic track, up in the realms.” Brilliant lo-fi stuff isn’t it? That track still sounds great and the whole album is just drowning in atmosphere. Here’s the original when the song was still Did Everyone Pay Their Dues?

Here’s my version of Stray Cat Blues…I just did the music for a friend’s project that profiles a woman who takes care of stray and feral cats (at her own expense) in Mexico. I decided to use the Keith approach to the music and I ended up with something not too bad considering I haven’t played slide guitar in 5 years and was never much of a harmonica player. I also used the old Johnny Cash trick of slipping a piece of paper through the strings to create a nice rhythmic “chuck” for the background. The track had to be edited down for the length of the movie, but this is why I love GARAGEBAND.

In THIS post, I do some playing around with open-tunings on an acoustic, including Prodigal Son and You Gotta Move. They are close to what Keith does except “Move” is tuned down to a “C” tuning. I’m playing it in “D”. Keith Part II coming later in the year!