Today (December 18), Keith Richards is 70 years old – to celebrate the Stone’s landmark birthday, here’s a classic interview from the Uncut archive (January 2004, Take 80), originally published to mark the guitarist’s 60th birthday. Jon Wilde hooks up with Richards to discuss his favourite Rolling Stones songs, the importance of Max Miller jokes and going without sleep for nine days…
“What a draaaaaaaaag it is growin’ o-o-o-ld,” Mick Jagger sang back in 1966. The rubber-lipped one became a sexagenarian earlier this year. Now it’s Keef’s turn. This month, on December 18 to be exact, The Human Riff, The Living Breathing Drug Laboratory and grandfather of two turns 60. To say he doesn’t look his age would be accurate but slightly impolite because, for years, Keith Richards has looked as old and ragged as creation itself while remaining rock’n’roll’s coolest personification of piratical non-conformity.
Look up “rock’n’roll” in the Collins English Dictionary and there you’ll find him – skull ring and vodka bottle aloft, looking impossibly ragged, grinning away like a man who started turning his juvenile fantasies into a way of life more than 40 years ago. That was when he decided he rather liked that way of life, and simply carried on – through the seemingly endless tours with rock’s most enduring circus, the long dance with heroin, close calls with death and the law, not to mention a famously volatile friendship with Jagger.
And still he carries on, not so much defying every rule in the book, but simply doing what he’s always done – ignoring everyone else’s rules, making up his own, and largely ignoring those, too. Of course, no one carries on and carries it off quite like Keef.
Making a perfectly dishevelled entrance into his London hotel suite, he looks like he’s just climbed out of bed. Perhaps the only surprising thing about that would be that he actually got to bed at all. After all, here’s a man who long ago set the benchmark for what qualifies as an extremely late night.
This afternoon finds everyone’s favourite Stone in very fine fettle. Lighting up the first of umpteen Marlboro Reds, supping the first of many vodka and cranberries, chuckling like a dysfunctional coffee percolator, his accent veers entertainingly between drawling Cockney, Niven-esque posh and primordial bluesman as he holds court for Uncut’s exclusive benefit. “Fire away,” he instructs us. We don’t mind if we do.
UNCUT: First off, happy 60th birthday.
KEITH: I’m 60, am I? I knew it was one of those with a zero on the end. 60? Christ! It’s a funny place to be. In a way, it’s a privilege. Then again, it’s felt like a privilege just to wake up to a new day for a few years now. There’s a lot of people who thought I’d never make it this far. Including myself. For a long time, it felt like being wished to death but I got over it. Of course, I saw the white light at the end of the tunnel a few times. But I proved I was sturdy. This body of mine, I pushed it as far as I could push. That was an interesting experiment. While it lasted.
When did it stop?
Oh, it never stops, old chap. At least it hasn’t for me.
How’s it feel to be everybody’s favourite Rolling Stone?
I am? I always figured that all that stuff evens out over the years. I really don’t think about the Stones in that way. For me, it’s always been a band. Having said that, it is kind of heart-warming if people like me more than the others [laughs].
You once said that the Stones carry on touring for the same reason that a dog licks its own balls…
Yeah, basically. I might have put it a little more poetically [laughs]. What I mean by that is that it’s part of nature for us. That’s what a dog does. Of course, it presumes that you’ve got balls in the first place. Also, we carry on doing it because we love doing it more than anything. You can call it habit. You can call it addiction. Whatever. But there’s a certain thing about working the road where everybody finds an equilibrium. I always say, ‘Let’s get up on stage and find some peace and quiet.’ It’s the one place where we can all be kings of the castle for a few hours. The one place where we can truly be ourselves. It’s the one place where only we know what’s really going on. It’s a private club, in a way. No one else will ever know what it’s like to be up there doing that. That puts us in a place apart in the time we’re up there. We cherish that. Also, there’s no denying it, we have so much fun doing that. It might be work in a way, but it’s never that hard.
Would you agree that the Stones’ career has endured as much through luck as judgement?
Far more luck than judgement. That goes right back to the beginning. Like how we came to write our own songs. If we’d carried on doing covers, we wouldn’t have lasted the year. Of course, when Andrew (Loog Oldham) locked me and Mick in the kitchen, there was no guarantee we’d end up writing anything useful. That was a crunch point for us. Maybe because of Andrew’s experience with The Beatles, his vision was much larger than ours. We weren’t thinking further than being the hippest blues band in London. When “Come On” hit the charts, there was an underlying feeling that the clock was already ticking down. The feeling was that we had two years at the most, so we’d better make the most of it. Luckily, that feeling soon dissipated. Quickly we realised that we’d taken this thing further than we ever imagined. Once we realised that, we wanted to see how much further we could take it. More than 40 years on, we’re still doing that. It’s beautiful, man. But it hasn’t lasted because of some great master plan. It started off with ducking and diving and that’s how it’s continued.
If you hadn’t started writing with Jagger, you’d probably be playing Butlin’s now.
Exactly. When I look back on it, the fact we started writing our own stuff just seems logical. Back then, it was on a wing and a prayer. We had to learn from somebody. Apart from Chuck Berry, I can do Chuck Berry better than just about anyone. But I had to stop doing Chuck Berry and start doing Keith Richards.
How would you compare the thrill of the current tour with playing clubs like the Marquee and the Crawdaddy in the early ’60s?
That’s a good question, mate. When you get on stage, whether it’s 40 years ago at the Crawdaddy or Zurich a few weeks ago, that feeling is fairly constant and consistent. Back then, there was a newness to it which, obviously, gave it a certain edge. But that feeling of being up there is not much different now than it was then. It’s become a thread that we hang onto that makes us think, “Hey, this is what we do and we’ve been doing it for that long.” Of course, every show is a different show. We always know what we’re gonna do, but not exactly. At our best, we master the art of going just over the edge of the abyss, then pulling back. We’re seriously having fun up there. Playing live with the Stones is like living in our own separate country, and we take the country with us. It’s like having an empire but no land… There’s moments when we hit it, really hit, and it’s the best feeling. A real triumph. That’s never down to one individual. That’s when we come together as a band. It’s like the music is bigger than all of us. It’s powerful, man. Moments like that, they’re not about precision. They’re more about, I dunno, chaos, I suppose. A beautiful chaos. You can’t beat that.
What’s your best riff?
That’s so difficult to answer because, if I choose one, I’ll be killing all my other babies. If I had to pull one out, it’d be “Jumping Jack Flash”. There’s something so stripped-down about that riff. I play it every night on the road and, every time, I’m looking at it like it’s a half-tamed tiger. It’s never the same, but it’s always got so much spirit to it. In a weird way, it’s jazz. In the sense that you go on learning it and it goes on teaching you. There’s always something new. It’s strange with riffs. Some of my best ones have come to me in my sleep. “Satisfaction” was one of those.
Your favourite Jagger vocal?
He’s done a lot of great ones. “Sympathy For The Devil”, “Beast Of Burden”, “Jumping Jack Flash”, “Brown Sugar”, “Start Me Up”. Then there’s one like “Torn And Frayed” (from Exile On Main St) on which he brings out this country thing… we should do it more often on the road. When I hear that song, I think, “Shit, did I write that?”
Charlie’s best drum performance?
Oh, man. That’s not one I can easily pull out. I’ve been playing with the guy for more than 40 years and he still knocks me out. The thing about Charlie is that he’s so amazingly consistent. To me, he’s not the kind of drummer where you can point at one song and say, “That’s the essence of him.” Because everything he does is beautiful. Having said that, he’s pretty sensational on “Sympathy For The Devil” and “Brown Sugar”.
Ronnie Wood’s finest guitar part?
Oh, bless his heart. I love Ronnie, I just love the guy. Of course, he’s been through quite a thing in the last year or so when he really straightened out. I didn’t even realise it was affecting him until he came to me and told me he’d cleaned up. He’s done some great stuff in the Stones. He’s a great slide player. I love the pedal-steel he did on “The Worst” (from Voodoo Lounge). On the road, we’ve been doing “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” and he’s been taking some amazing solos on that. I love playing with Ronnie because he’s simpatico. Between us, we manage to perform the ancient art of weaving. You can never tell who’s playing what. It’s kind of seamless.
The general consensus appears to be that Exile On Main St is your masterpiece. Would you care to comment?
It’s funny with Exile. When it came out, nobody really got it. I mean, nobody. There was so much on it, maybe that was the problem. It didn’t sell that well at the time. But now, everyone seems to love it. It came at the end of what was probably our most consistent run of albums. Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, then Exile. I’d find it hard to single out one from that bunch.
Mick Jagger appears to be completely perplexed at how Exile is now rated. He doesn’t seem to get it at all.
That’s Mick for you [laughs]. Sometimes he’s too close to things. He doesn’t read things the way that other people read them. Mick’s got a tendency to think in front of himself. He doesn’t really like to dwell on the past. Actually, he prefers to deny it.
Apart from anything else, Exile On Main St is one of the great album titles. Who thought that one up?
Again, good question. But I fear the answer has been lost in the midst of time. We’d decided to call it “Exile Something Or Other” because we’d just moved out of England. Or we’d been kicked out, to be accurate about it. I’m not sure where the “Main St” bit came from. All I know is that I knew it had to be the title the first time I heard it. It might even have come from someone outside the band. We’ve been lucky with album titles. Sometimes it comes out of a song that we write and never finish. Something might be a lousy song but it might be a great title.
In all honesty, what are the chances of some of the recent Stones albums enjoying the kind of critical rehabilitation that Exile has received?
It’s been different in the last 15 years. Our previous albums occupied a different position. I don’t know that the Stones could make an album now that would have the same impact. Maybe it’s just that we’re getting old [laughs]. I’m aware that the stuff we’ve done since the ’90s is unlikely to hit the listener straight away. But there might be a few time bombs left behind. I just remind myself that my whole reason for getting into this was to be able to make records. I love the fact that I can still do that…
You used to make whole albums in a week. Why not go back to that approach?
It’s getting down to that. Our last sessions in Paris, where we did the extra tracks for Forty Licks, they were similar to the way we used to record. Three microphones and let’s go. Basically, we got sick to death of the hi-tech. Recently, we’ve been recording stuff while we’re on the road, in hotel rooms, whatever. Maybe a great Stones album will come out of that. Who knows?
There’s a few enduring Stones myths worth clearing up once and for all.
Sure thing. Fire away, man.
Is it true that Mick Taylor left the Stones because he didn’t know any Max Miller jokes?
There’s some truth in that [laughs]. There’s something about being in the Stones. It’s about more than musicianship. Something else has to click… The fact that Mick didn’t know any Max Miller gags would definitely have counted against him.
Is it true that, in the early days of touring, Brian Jones would play “Popeye The Sailorman” halfway through “Satisfaction”?
That’s true, actually. It didn’t matter what you played back then. Everyone was screaming so fucking loud you couldn’t hear a thing. You could barely hear anything on stage, let alone the audience. The screaming got so loud at times that there was no point in playing anything. But there were times when Brian would start off “Popeye The Sailorman” and I’d join in with “My Old Man Says Follow The Van”… then you wait for the shit to hit the fan, or the fans to hit the shit. After all, it’s only rock’n’roll.
Is it true that you were the very first rock star to throw a TV out of a hotel window?
I dunno if I was the first. But I was certainly one of the first. Bobby Keyes (saxophonist) and I did hurl a magnificent 21-inch set out of a hotel in the late ’60s or early ’70s. It provided the most satisfying crash. But the only reason we did it was that the damn thing refused to work. It took a while to do because they used to bolt them to the floor in those days. We really sweated it. But once it was done, we both felt a surge of satisfaction. The great moment was captured for posterity in the film Cocksucker Blues.
The story about you regularly jetting off to Switzerland for a complete change of blood still endures.
Oh, that old chestnut. Funnily enough, that was a myth of my own making. I was going to Switzerland and I was going to clean up. I was at Heathrow and there were a few guys there from the street of shame. They asked me where I was going. I said the first thing that came into my head. “I’m off to Switzerland to get my blood changed.” I’ve been stuck with it ever since.
What about the story that, at the height of ’70s rock star decadence, you once bought your own hovercraft?
That’s true. Though it was in the late ’60s. Someone gave me this hovercraft. My house in Sussex has got this moat around it. So we were rolling the hovercraft around the garden to see how it worked and it fell in the moat. When it came out, it wasn’t the same. We never tried again. That was my one and only attempt at hovercrafting.
Has it been difficult not to buy into your own myths?
I fell into it. I’m still falling. You never learn to cope with it. You’re on the road for so long, living this abnormal life. Then you’re meant to return to normality, but it’s never normal. There’s a kind of decompression that goes on. In the last 20 years, the most I’ve spent in one place is three months. It’s hello and goodbye, like being a whaling captain…
How did you react when Liam Gallagher challenged you, Mick Jagger, George Harrison and Paul McCartney to a fight?
He even named the place, didn’t he?
Primrose Hill. Midday. The following Saturday.
I’d quite like to have seen him take on Mick and Paul [laughs]. Basically, though, my attitude was, “Come back when you grow up.” It didn’t rile me. I thought it was quite funny. But it says more about him than it does about anyone else. Having said that, we’ve all done it. I threw out a challenge to Billy Fury 40 years ago. So there you go.
Presumably, you can handle yourself in a fight?
I’ve been known to. Self-defence, old boy. That’s my policy.
When was the last time you raged about something and completely lost it?
I dunno. Maybe when Mick accepted the knighthood. I went fucking berserk when I heard. I thought it was ludicrous to take one of those gongs from the establishment when they did their very best to throw us in jail and kill us at one time. Just as we were about to start a new tour, I thought it sent out the wrong message. It’s not what the Stones is about, is it? I don’t want to step out on stage with someone wearing a fucking coronet and sporting the old ermine. At the same time, I told Mick, “It’s a fucking paltry honour. If you’re into this shit, hang on for the peerage. Don’t settle for a little badge.” He defended himself by saying that Tony Blair insisted that he took the knighthood. Like that’s an excuse. Like you can’t turn down anything. Like it doesn’t depend how you feel about it.
A few questions about drugs, if that’s OK?
Sure. What you need to know?
Your all-time record for partying without a wink of sleep?
Nine nights. I did six or seven plenty of times. Not to prove anything to anyone. I wasn’t interested in showing how tough I was. It was my way of getting to know myself. Also, I wasn’t doing it all the time. That was just one side of me. There was this other side of me that craved peace and quiet… just sitting there burning my incense. I’m all for a quiet life. I just didn’t get one, that’s all. Fine by me.
Does staying up for nine nights bring a certain wisdom?
If you can remember it! A lot of the wisdom you get from doing something like that, it all comes at one time. It was the most amazing experience. You lose track of time after three nights. An hour becomes a minute. A minute can become an hour. Time’s meaningless, sleep becomes superfluous. Everything becomes a beautiful blur, until you fall over and break your nose. I’ve still got the scars, mate. Only other people can tell you how long you’ve been up. People would be coming and going. I’d still be there, carrying on conversations that started four days ago. It was an interesting place to be. I don’t recommend it for everyone. And, listen to your Uncle Keith, no driving heavy machinery while you’re doing it.
What have you got against daylight, exactly?
I’ve nothing against daylight. When the sun’s out and I’m on the beach, I love a bit of daylight. I don’t live totally nocturnally. Only when I feel like it. Which is most of the time.
What’s the best drug for creativity?
Speedballs used to do the trick for me. On a long-term basis, the weed can be pretty useful.
Can you recall specific Stones songs that were written when you were off your head?
I don’t remember much when I’m pissed or stoned. If I did an in-depth survey, I’d say that anything I wrote in the ’70s up until about 1977, I was almost certainly on smack. Then again, I was never just on smack. I was on everything else as well. I can’t classify my songs chemically. There was too much of it going on.
Are you obliged to live like a monk these days?
Not at all. Though, now you mention it, I wouldn’t mind trying it some time… but I get bored too easily.
Did you ever do the traditional drugs talk with your kids?
I never had to sit down and lecture them. I never had to wag my finger at them. They do ask me about it and I tell them what’s what. Basically, they know who I am and they’re the first to defend me.
You once said that Brian Jones had 45 demons inside him and you have just the one…
I probably meant nobody knows how many demons they’ve got. My policy’s to identify one and deal with that. The thing with Brian was that as soon as he identified one, another would crop up. I’ve got just the one demon but he’s bad enough. It’s not that easy to be Keith Richards… but it’s not so hard, either.
Any thoughts on the forthcoming Brian Jones biopic?
You see other people writing the history of the Stones and it takes on a life of its own. It’s like another story entirely. You see these versions of yourself and you think, “Who the hell is this guy?” As far as Brian is concerned, I say let the man rest in peace.
What’s the best thing about being 60?
The fact that people still dig what I do, which gives me the licence to carry on being myself.
Finally, is there anything you want that you haven’t got?
No, but if someone can come up with something, I’ll have it.