Music Interviews
3:12 pm
Tue November 13, 2012

Keith Richards: 'These Riffs Were Built To Last A Lifetime'

Originally published on Tue November 13, 2012 4:20 pm

Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts and Ron Wood are celebrating 50 years of The Rolling Stones this year. The band released a compilation today titled GRRR!, which spans five decades of work, plus two new songs.

We asked each of the Stones to choose a song from the band's impressive catalog to discuss. Today, we begin with Keith Richards and his pick: "Street Fighting Man."

For the 1968 track, Richards recorded an acoustic guitar through a cassette machine, naturally overloading the audio of the equipment with distortion.

"So you had this very electric sound, but at the same time, you had that curious and beautiful ring that only an acoustic guitar can give you," Richards tells NPR's Melissa Block. "It was just a bizarre way of making a record. And everybody, of course, is looking at me like I'm nuts. You know, I'm in the middle of this enormous studio with a little cassette machine and bowing before it with an acoustic guitar, and they go, 'What the hell is he doing? We'll humor him.' "

Sitars And Toy Drums

Just as crucial to Richards' unconventional cassette recording was Charlie Watts' equally unconventional drum kit.

"[Watts was] the only one at the time who got what I was going for," Richards says. "He actually brought along a little practice drum kit that fits in a little briefcase. Basically, you opened up the briefcase and there was a little cymbal and a tambourine and a pair of sticks. Charlie stuck with me on this track. I'm the rhythm player. I'm not a virtuoso soloist or anything like that. To work together with the drummer, that's my joy. This record, to me, is one of the examples of what can happen when two cats believe in each other."

Then there's the late Brian Jones, buzzing and droning through the track on sitar and tamboura.

"Brian was a master of picking up the weirdest instruments that happened to be around," Richards says. "Other records — he was playing bells. He was amazing at being able to master, at least for a certain song, a sound or an instrument that had nothing to do with guitars or anything. He was a great experimenter, Brian Jones. He threw a lot of flavors into a lot of our records that wouldn't have occurred to any of the rest of us."

'Still Working On Them'

"Street Fighting Man" was banned by some U.S. stations. It was called "subversive," but Richards says it wasn't meant to be provocative.

"I wanted the [sings] to sound like a French police siren," he says. "That was the year that all that stuff was going on in Paris and in London. There were all these riots that the generation that I belonged to, for better or worse, was starting to get antsy. You could count on somebody in America to find something offensive about something — you still can. Bless their hearts. I love America for that very reason."

Richards says he has no doubt that "Street Fighting Man" will be a part of the upcoming Rolling Stones tour, likening that song and other Stones hits — "Jumping Jack Flash" and "Brown Sugar" — to the expensive sports cars from Maserati and Ferrari. ("You had the chassis," he says, "and now you remodel the body.")

"They're always interesting to play. You're not playing the same thing ever with songs like that. There's no de rigueur — sorry, I've just got back from Paris; I'm trying to get rid of my French," Richards says, laughing. "These riffs were built to last a lifetime, and I'm still working on them, you know?"

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Audie Cornish.

MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

I'm Melissa Block. And who is this?

KEITH RICHARDS: This is Keith Richards, Rolling Stones, one of those punks of a very important band, at least to me.

BLOCK: Of a rather successful little band.

RICHARDS: Yes. Amazing, isn't it?

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: It's been 50 years since The Rolling Stones played their first gig at The Marquee Club in London. Fifty years later, The Rolling Stones are still at it. A greatest hits collection is out today with two new songs, and the Stones are gearing up for a handful of shows in London, New York and New Jersey. It's an occasion for us to talk with the band, one at a time each, about one song of their choice. We'll hear from Charlie Watts, Ron Wood and Mick Jagger throughout the week. But today, it's Keith Richards' turn.

RICHARDS: If you want a story...

BLOCK: I do want a story.

RICHARDS: Yeah, you want a story.

BLOCK: I always want a story.

RICHARDS: Yeah. I take it that, yes.

(LAUGHTER)

RICHARDS: "Street Fighting Man" probably.

BLOCK: From 1968.

RICHARDS: Mm-hmm.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STREET FIGHTING MAN")

MICK JAGGER: (Singing) Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy. 'Cause summers here and the time is right for fighting in the street, boy.

RICHARDS: I think I wanted to make it - the sound of it in very, in a way, traditional that I used acoustic guitar, and I put it through a cassette machine. Those times, it's like a very new machine. And you could overload it.

BLOCK: When you say became overloaded, it's adding distortion, right?

RICHARDS: Distortion. You can add it. It just distorted because there was no, you know, you just jam the guitar right in front of the microphone. So you had this very electric sound. And at the same time, you had that curious and beautiful ring that only an acoustic guitar can give you. It was just a bizarre way of making a record. And everybody, of course, is looking at me like I'm nuts. You know, I'm in the middle of this enormous studio with a little cassette machine and, you know, bowing before it with an acoustic guitar, and they go, what the hell is he doing, you know? We'll humor him.

(LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STREET FIGHTING MAN")

JAGGER: (Singing) Hey, think the time is right for a palace revolution. But where I live the game to play is compromised solution.

BLOCK: So, Keith Richards, what are you hearing as you listen to this?

RICHARDS: I'm also hearing Mr. Charlie Watts. Yeah. The only one at the time that probably got what I was going for.

BLOCK: Huh. What do you mean?

RICHARDS: He actually brought along a little practice drum kit that fits in, like, a little briefcase. It was - basically, you opened up the briefcase, and there was this - a little cymbal and a tambourine and a pair of sticks. And Charlie stuck with me on this track. I'm the rhythm player, you know? I'm not a virtuoso soloist or anything like that. And to work together with the drummer, that's my joy. And this record, to me, is like one of the examples of what can happen when two cats believe in each other.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: We're also hearing in here the late Brian Jones, the Indian instruments, with sitar and the tamboura.

RICHARDS: Brian, yes. And Brian was a master of picking up the weirdest instruments that happened to be around. On the records, he was playing like bells. And he was amazing at being able to master, at least for, you know, a certain song, a sound or an instrument that has nothing to do with guitars or anything. He was a great experimenter, this Brian Jones. And he threw a lot of flavors into a lot of our records that wouldn't have occurred to any of the rest of us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STREET FIGHTING MAN")

RICHARDS: (Singing) Well, then what can a poor boy do except to sing for a rock and roll band? Because in sleepy London town, there's just no place for a street fighting man. No.

BLOCK: This song, "Street Fighting Man," was banned by some radio stations in the U.S. I think it was called subversive.

RICHARDS: Yeah, I believe so. But it was not meant to be provocative. I mean, I wanted the dan-dan, da-dan, da-dan to sound like a French police siren.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STREET FIGHTING MAN")

RICHARDS: (Singing) Hey, said my name is called disturbance. I'll shout and scream, I'll kill the king. I'll rail at all his servants.

That was the year that, you know, that was when all the stuff going on in Paris and in London, and there were all these riots, that the generation that I belonged to, you know, for better or worse, was starting to get antsy, you know? And you could count on somebody in America to find something offensive about something. You still can, you know? And bless their hearts. I mean, I love America for that very reason.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: Do you think "Street Fighting Man" is going to be one of the songs you play on this new tour?

RICHARDS: I actually have no doubt. I can play "Street Fighting Man" and "Jumping Jack Flash" on stage and "Brown Sugar" and, you know, those kind of rockers. And they're kind of like Maseratis or Ferraris. You had the chassis. And now, you, like, remodel the body, you know? And they're always interesting to play. You're not playing the same thing ever with the songs like that. There's no, like, de rigueur, you know? Sorry, I've just come back from Paris.

(LAUGHTER)

BLOCK: You just can't stop yourself.

RICHARDS: Yeah, I'm trying to get rid of my French. And these riffs were built to last a lifetime. And I'm still working on them, you know?

BLOCK: Well, Keith Richards, it's been great to talk to you. Thank you.

RICHARDS: Thank you very much. It's a pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STREET FIGHTING MAN")

RICHARDS: (Singing) Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet, boy.

BLOCK: And tomorrow and Thursday, we'll hear from Charlie Watts, Ron Wood and Mick Jagger. And their greatest hits collection is called "GRRR!"

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STREET FIGHTING MAN")

RICHARDS: (Singing) ...street, boy. Well, what can a poor boy do except to sing for a rock and roll band? Because in sleepy London town, there's just no place for a street fighting man. No.

CORNISH: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.6 Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Related program: