Interview: Keith Richards

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One of Keith Richards' favorite Rollings Stones songs is Street Fighting Man. I learned this two weeks ago after pitching him on an interview for my “Anatomy of a Song" column in The Wall Street Journal. He loved the examples I had sent over and agreed to do it (go here for a free read—or pick up Friday's paper). For Keith, talking about music was welcome relief from the endless interviews he has to do where writers start by asking about 1962.

When my phone rang last week at the appointed time, the voice at the other end was unmistakable: “Hey, uh, Marc? It's Keith." Keith's voice has a slow sizzling quality. The English accent is there, of course, but there's also a simmering sass and sincerity about it, especially when the subject turns to guitars and songwriting.

Street Fighting Man is my favorite Stones song, largely because of its urgency, garage sound and the fact that my brother and I fought over the single after we bought it at Kappy's Music World on 181st St. in the summer of 1968. When Keith heard that, he laughed. “Ah, yes, good ol' fightin' brothers, eh? Did the record remain in one piece?" It did and I still have it. Then Keith asked if I liked his choice of song. I told him I did, that the opening guitar riff was almost addictive, like flipping open a heavy Zippo lighter and flicking it just for the sound and action. Keith laughed again. “Like this one?" he asked, flicking a lighter on his end of the phone. Pure Keith.

As the laughter trailed off, Keith almost apologized. “I'm glad 'cause I said to myself, 'Man, I'm going to talk about Street Fighting Man, I hope he likes it." What's not to like? The song predates the writing of Jumpin' Jack Flash and stands out on Beggars Banquet, the album released in December '68 that changed everything for the Stones. It also marked the start of Keith striving for a crisp, dry sound by using an early cassette recorder made by Philips to record basic guitar tracks. After Street Fighting Man, the Stones experimented more in the studio and their output over the five albums that followed became grittier and more muscular.

When I told friends that the interview was due out in few days, all had virtually the same look and remark. Eyebrows went up, a smile formed and they asked if Keith was outrageous or burned out. The answer on both counts was no. Keith likes to play the performer, but when it comes to music, he's a stone cold artist. He knows his blues and R&B history and loves talking about how songs that he co-wrote with Mick Jagger came together.

What was most surprising to me was Keith's analytic intellect. He comes to interesting conclusions through gut feeling and crab-like sensitivity. He had immediate reactions to questions but would doubleback and feel his way through elaboration. Which is similar to his thunder-clap playing style and embellishment. At one point I asked him about how hard he hits the strings on Street Fighting Man:

“On that opening riff, I used enormous force on the strings. I always did that and still do. I'm looking at my hands now and they look like Mike Tyson's. They're pretty beat up. I'm not a hard hitter on the strings—more of a striker. It's not the force as much as it is a whip action. I'm almost releasing the power before my fingers actually meet the strings. I'm a big string-breaker, since I like to whip them pretty hard."

Street Fighting Man and the album Beggars Banquet signaled an end to the Stones' reliance on Anglican rehashes of Delta blues and the start of a new tougher style that blended country, Chicago blues and hard rock into a form more suitable for large-scale theatrical performances at arenas.

JazzWax clips. While Keith didn't expressly say these songs influenced his opening riff on Street Fighting Man, he did say, “Yeah, all of that kind of stuff" when I asked him about these tracks...

The Beach Boys' Cherry, Cerry Coup...



Bo Diddley's technique...



And the eclectic Wall of Sound punch of the Crystals' He's a Rebel...



Here's the Stones' Did Everyone Pay Their Dues?, which would become Street Fighting Man once the lyrics were overhauled...



And here's the mono single of Street Fighting Man...

Continue Reading...

This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2021. All rights reserved.

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