"What the Hell Happened?"—Keith Richards Reflects on the '60s

Keith Richards (1965). Photo by: Keystone Features / Stringer, Hulton Archive. Getty Images

Editor's note: This post is an interview from the archive of Alan di Perna, a rock journalist whose writing has appeared in Guitar World, Rolling Stone, and Creem. His books include Play it Loud: An Epic History of the Style, Sound, & Revolution of the Electric Guitar and The Guitarist's Almanac.

"Yeah, the ’60s were a hell of a ten years..." Keith Richards leans back meditatively in his folding chair. We were in the front room in the Manhattan office of his manager, Jane Rose. The date was June 25, 1997, and we’d been discussing The Rolling Stones’ then-new album Bridges to Babylon.

The previous year had seen the release of The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus, the legendary 1968 telecast that featured the Stones, The Who, John Lennon, Yoko Ono, Jethro Tull, and other iconic rock performers of the 1960s. It had never before been seen by the general public, because the Stones were displeased with their performance and cancelled the show. The event had marked the Stones’ last performance with Richards’ co-guitarist and the band’s founder, Brian Jones, who died in 1969.

A poster for the The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus

So, perhaps inevitably, the topic of conversation turned to the decade that first brought the Stones to international fame, and the period in which they released some of their most groundbreaking recordings. The interview that follows is taken from my original transcript of our conversation that afternoon.

"People are still wondering what the hell happened in the ’60s," Richards said. "Most people who are still alive can’t remember. They were too high. It comes back occasionally."

Drug-addled stereotypes to the contrary, Keith’s own memory has always been razor sharp. It was especially so in ’97 when he was just 53 years of age. At one point, he regaled me with a spot-on imitation of Ian Stewart, the Stone’s lantern-jawed road manager and occasional pianist who died in 1985. It eerily felt as though "Stu" was in the room with us, not to mention Brian Jones, John Lennon, and all the legendary figures who played a role in the Stones’ turbulent and wildly innovative first decade.

Not everyone realizes that Ian Stewart was originally a full-fledged member of the Rolling Stones.

In a way, this is his band. The first rehearsal I went to that ended up being the Rolling Stones was above an old pub in Soho in London. I get there and ask the landlady, "Rehearsal?" And she sends me upstairs. As I walk up these creaky old stairs, I hear this barrelhouse piano and think, "Man, I’m in Chicago." I’d never been to Chicago at that point, but that’s how it sounded to me. And the only guy there was Ian Stewart. He’d sort of set the joint up—"You guys, you should play." And in a way it’s his band still.

It’s a shame he died so young.

It is. But in a way, he’s still with us. Every time we cut a track, we sort of look around and go, "Well, what do you think Stu?" And we imagine his answer: "Bloody load of rubbish." His idea of winding you up was to put you down. "Not bad." That was an A+ from him. You never got that. Usually, it was, "Not bad… for a bunch of white pricks."

In the earliest days of the Stones, you were mainly using Les Pauls and semi-acoustic Epiphones—particularly your ’59 Les Paul with the Bigsby. What attracted you to those guitars?

Well it was a Gibson, the Les Paul. It was just the best guitar available at that time. It was my first touch with a really great, classic rock and roll electric guitar. And so I fell in love with them for a while. It wasn’t until I got to the States that I finally started getting my hands on some good old Telecasters. I’d always liked Telecasters. That Fender sound—dry. James Burton—king! But they were hard to find in England in those days. There were newer ones. New then, that is. We’re talking ’62!

They’re vintage now.

I know. So am I [laughs]. But I slowly got into Telecasters the more I worked in the States. And Strats too. Even now, in the studio, I’d still say it's about fifty-fifty. There’s a lot of Fenders lined up. But the other lot’s Gibson.

But we’re definitely hearing Gibsons on the early Stones singles like "19th Nervous Breakdown" and "Get Off of My Cloud."

Yeah, it was old Gibsons. And the old Epiphones. Sunburst jobs.

The Beatles had similar ones.

Yeah. That was all out of the English guitar hustling fellows. Ivor Mairants and all those stores. [In an exaggerated cockney accent] "Got a noice one ‘ere fer you boys."

So you and the Beatles shopped for guitars in the same places?

Basically. There were only three or four stores in London. There wasn’t a big network of guitar freaks, in those days, where you could do it through the underground, like bartering. There weren’t a lot of great guitars around at that time in England. Most of them belonged to somebody else. So for people like us and the Beatles and Eric [Clapton], it would take us a long time to find a really good guitar. A lot of thieving went on, I think. A lot of re-spraying.

Early on, how did you and Brian Jones approach the whole question of who was going to play lead and who was going to play rhythm in the Rolling Stones?

When we started playing together we were listening to Jimmy Reed and Muddy Waters. In both cases, you had two guitars weaving around one another. We’d play those things so much—which is the way you have to do it—that we knew both parts.

So then we got to the point where we got it really flash and we suddenly switch. The one doing the lead picks up the rhythm and the one doing the rhythm up the lead. It’s what Ronnie and I still call "an ancient form of weaving." We still do it today. We don’t have to look at each other, almost. You can almost feel it. You say, "Ah, he’s gonna take off now. Okay, I’ll go down." And vice versa.

So on "19th Nervous Breakdown," it’s you playing lead. But on "The Last Time," it’s Brian playing lead, right?

Yeah. I just did the chords on "The Last Time." Brian’s playing the main riff [sings it]. I’m playing the acoustic and I also overdubbed the chords in the solo. Just passing chords.

People tend to focus on Brian’s declining years, the drug excesses and all. But I imagine he was a pretty impressive guitarist early on.

He was. Brian was an impressive musician. He was a sax player as well, to start with. He was dedicated to playing in those early days. I’ll tell you what screwed Brian up was fame. Something snapped in him the minute that came. That was always the strange thing for the rest of us in the band too. All the rest of us tried our best not to get carried away. Like, "Hey come on, this might not last so long, baby."

And in a way, we were not doing what we wanted to do. ’Cause we were a blues band. And suddenly we made just one little pop record and it became a hit. Or semi-pop—Chuck Berry’s "Come On." Basically very lightweight. And suddenly chicks screamed at you and you’re not playing for anybody anymore, ’cause nobody can hear you over the screaming. You’re just wondering how the hell you’re going to get off of this stage and safely out of this town before you get ripped to shreds.

That became the gig for several years really. "How we gettin’ in? And how we gettin’ out?" Because you knew the show would last maybe 10, 15 minutes—if that—before mayhem broke loose. Chicks fainting and being carried off. I mean, it was unbelievable. You’d get chicks flying out of balconies like, "I love youuu..." Crash. Broken ribs and worse.

You suffered a few injuries.

Yeah, they choked me a few times. Weird, manic. And you’re thinking, "But I’m a blues player!" But what I realized was, "Hey, if you want to get in a recording studio and have all the time you want and be able to do what you want musically, instead of somebody telling you what to do, then you gotta be famous, man. Otherwise you’re never gonna get in."

"I realized pretty quickly that in order to control my own music, fame had to go along with it. So we figured we might as well learn to be famous for a bit. But nobody expected it to last."

So it’s not like I didn’t want to be famous. I realized pretty quickly that in order to control my own music, fame had to go along with it. So we figured we might as well learn to be famous for a bit. But nobody expected it to last.

We thought, "A couple of years." That was the lifespan of everything back then. I suppose that was true up until the sudden explosion of the LP [in the late 1960s]. ’Cause in 1962, 1963, the long playing record was a very small market—top of the line, very expensive.

A few years later, suddenly albums became the thing, instead of singles, although there was a transitional period. But to make a hit 45 every two or three months, that was draining, man. You’ve just got "Satisfaction" to number one and you’re going, "Whew." Suddenly there’s a knock at the door: "Where’s the new one?"

And Mick and I were like, "Hey this is like Tin Pan Alley, man. This is the Brill Building. Here we are in a cubicle, just made number one, and we’ve still got the hounds on our tail saying, "Where's the followup?" Shit man.

Fans of The Rolling Stones (1964). Photo by: William Lovelace / Stringer. Getty Images.

So by today’s standards, those singles were recorded very quickly.

Really quickly. You had to write and record an A side and a B side every few weeks. Every three months. It was hectic. I was glad to get out of that, in a way. But it was good to have been under that pressure. The last of the old Tin Pan Alley way, cracking the whip. You had to learn real quick. You couldn’t afford to procrastinate or get too deep in it. "It feels good? Yeah, let’s go for it. It’s done."

Another thing about those old singles: There’s always an acoustic guitar somewhere. That’s pretty much true throughout the Stones’ history.

That’s very important. When in doubt, if something doesn’t sound right, just brush on an acoustic guitar and see what happens. What it does, if you’re recording a band, is fill the air between the cymbals and all the electric instruments. It’s like a wash in painting. Just a magical thing. If something sounds a little dry or heavy or tight, put on an acoustic, or maybe just a few notes of piano—another acoustic instrument. Somehow it will just add that extra glue.

"What I do know about the guitar is, if all you play is electric, you’re not just playing guitar, you're playing electricity. You get used to the tricks."

As you’ve noticed, I found that out very early on. I don’t have any electric guitar at home, or an amp. I never play electric guitar at home. I play acoustic all the time. What I do know about the guitar is, if all you play is electric, you’re not just playing guitar, you're playing electricity. You get used to the tricks. The extra sustain and all. Which is fine. You need to know that for when you need that kind of stuff. But you can become over reliant on that.

When you go to an acoustic guitar, those tricks don’t work. That little round hole and that bit of wood—that’s the Truth. That’s how long a note will sustain. So when you go back to electric, you find yourself a little more precise. You should always keep an acoustic going, and work things out on that.

Let’s talk about your discovery of that five-string, open G tuning [G-D-G-B-D] that has become a cornerstone of your guitar work.

Around 1966 or so, after three or four years of being constantly on the road, rocking the Rolling Stones, I took a little time off and started to listen to some blues again. On the road, none of us had had the time to listen to much beyond the Top 10—our stuff, the Beatles, and Phil Spector’s latest. All great records. But when we finally came off the road, I started listening to Blind Blake. A whole lot of blues had become available that we just couldn’t get in England back in ’61 or ’62. Whenever we came to the States, we’d go straight to the record stores and rifle through them.

When we took some time off, I began to catch up on all the blues I hadn’t heard—stuff that I’d gathered and collected here in the States. I started studying the liner notes and listening to cats play and I suddenly realized, "The guy plays in a different tuning. Ah!" I started to fiddle around with open D and open E tunings first.

I came across the five-string G tuning on slide guitar records first. Then we did a session with Ry Cooder and he turned me on to other cats, all slide players. I played around with it a bit and realized you could do chordal stuff with these slide tunings. Nobody else had really done that. It was a really effective slide vehicle, but I’d never really heard anybody using it from the rhythm point of view.

Also, by then I’d reached a point with six-string concert tuning, where I was finding it very difficult to get beyond where I was. Not enough time to practice. Been on the road playing "Popeye the Sailor Man" to screaming chicks who couldn’t hear anything anyway. So I was a little disenchanted with myself, playing-wise.

Keith Richards (1965). Photo by: Keystone Features. Getty Images

And suddenly this five-string tuning comes along. And I felt, "Hey, this is like learning again. You gotta put your fingers in new places! How do you make a minor in this tuning?" Because the five-string tuning is basically three notes [G, B, and D, in various octaves]. So you learned how to play minors and different discords and suspensions. I started working things out in five-string tuning, and that got me back into studying and transferring ideas to and from six-string [standard] tuning.

With one six-string and one five-string playing together, there were just interesting tonalities that happened, just because of the sympathetic ringing off the instruments. Suddenly I was back into the guitar like a motherfucker.

So it really all came out of that period of wanting to lay back and check myself in ’66 and ’67. We sort of dried up there for a bit. Nobody would have known it, but we were knackered [tired], quite honestly. We worked live 350 days a year, making records in between as well. Four years of non-stop grind. Loved every minute of it. But even at that age you can wear yourself out, given the amount of female company we had.

Jesus, those were the days. It was all free and no danger then. It’s different now, man. I would hate to be a rock and roll star just starting off now. Get laid and you're gonna get AIDS, baby. You can’t do what we did.

Okay, so the alternate tunings came out of that.

Yeah, a little bit of reassessment and free time.

"Jumping Jack Flash" is in open E tuning. Is that the first instance of your using an open tuning on a record?

Yeah, and I was really into compressing it. I was into the early Philips and Norelco cassette recorders. They had this little mic, and I’d just overload it. Just slam the mic right down the acoustic guitar and then play it back on a little extension speaker. Put a microphone on that and then put it on the tape. That’s how "Street Fighting Man" and "Jumping Jack Flash" were done.

Was "Jumping Jack Flash" written because of that open E tuning? Was that the catalyst?

I think so. Mick and I were in my house down in the south of England. It was about six in the morning. We’d been up all night. The sky was just beginning to go gray. It was pissing down rain, if I remember rightly. "Jumping Jack Flash" comes from this guy Jack Dyer, who was my gardener. He’d lived out in the country all his life. I’ll put it this way, Jack Dyer—an old English yokel.

I once said, "Have you ever been to town?" And town, to an Englishman, means London, right? And he says [rural English accent], "Oh yeah, I was up there V.E. Day, when the war [WWII] finished. That cathedral is something." He meant Chichester, the local big town, seven miles away.

So Mick and I were sitting there. And suddenly Mick starts up. He hears these great footsteps, these big rubber boots—slosh, slosh slosh—going by the window. Mick says, "What’s that?" And I said, "Oh that’s Jack. That's jumpin’ Jack." And we had the open tuning on my guitar. I started to fool around with that.

[Singing] "Jumpin’ Jack ... " And Mick says, "Flash." He’d just woken up. And suddenly we had this wonderful alliterative phrase. So he woke up and we knocked it together. It basically came out of that. And the only guitar in the house was tuned that way. It’s really "Satisfaction" in reverse. Almost an interchangeable riff, except it’s played on chords instead of a Gibson Fuzz-Tone.

How did Mick Taylor’s arrival in the Stones [late in 1969] affect your playing?

I learned a lot from him. We learned a lot about guitar-playing from each other. Because he’s another great weaver. His touch and his tone and his melodic ideas wow me. I never understood why he left. He’s always been a little restless and a little uneasy inside his skin.

If he had to leave, I’d always hoped it would be to go on to bigger and better things than he did. I thought it was an impetuous move. But that’s what happened, and then we got Ronnie. The new boy. He’s only been with us 22 years now.

The Rolling Stones with Mick Taylor (1969). Photo by: Len Trievnor / Stringer. Getty Images.

Do you ever play leads in that five-string tuning?

I tend not to actually take a solo in that tuning. Just throw a lick in here and there. There’s a lot of interesting things you can do, like the embellishments in "Honky Tonk Women." I’ve always tried to avoid that separation between lead and rhythm. If you’re playing with the right guys, a lot of it’s just psychology and compatibility.

The five-string just lends itself to different things. You can strike chords that you can’t get on a six string in standard tuning. The way you can put one string against another, you get overtones that would be impossible in standard six-string tuning. Like, if you hear guys play "Brown Sugar" on a six-string guitar—you can get close, but you’re never gonna get it right. ’Cause you’ve got too many notes to cover. And it’s just a different spacing.

Put that tuning on a guitar and one thing that immediately becomes apparent is that there’s more room for the bass.

Exactly. That low E string doesn’t get in the way. Your rhythm section has more space. If you research it, a lot of cats say that up until the first World War, guitar was not the instrument of choice in bands—it was the banjo. The five-string banjo.

After the first World War, Sears and Roebuck put out very cheap guitars. Much cheaper than banjos. And guys, especially black guys, were buying them, taking the sixth string off and tuning them like banjos. Slowly, five-string guitar evolved out of that. That’s my understanding of it. And it sounds logical.

Why was the decision made to release The Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus after all these years?

I think it was because we found it. The cans of film were found in Ian Stewart’s garden shed, in a wheelbarrow. The reason it was there was, when we first saw it, after we’d done it, we said, "Nah." We didn’t like it. We liked everything except us. So it ended up in a wheelbarrow.

But then when it was found and we saw it again, we said, "Oh, we were just too critical." By the time it came out [in 1997], it was of historical importance as well. If it had come out around ’68, when we first did it, it would have been, "Ah, big deal." There’s probably a lot more interest in it now than there would have been if it had come out when we did it originally.

Boy, the talent in that room.

The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus (1968). Photo by: Michael Webb / Stringer. Getty Images.

Yeah, I’d completely forgotten about playing bass on "Yer Blues" with John Lennon, Eric [Clapton], and Mitch [Mitchell]. And Taj Mahal with Jesse Ed Davis... great.

It’s amazing how quickly things moved in the ’60s—musically, socially, politically...

It was a strange time. Very volatile too. The war in Vietnam... When I first came here in ’64, ’65, playing for these young kids, and a few years later you got a letter from them from Saigon and all of a sudden their world has changed. One moment they’re little incipient rock and rollers. A year later, they’re slogging through the jungle with the Viet Cong, up to their necks in muck and bullets.

And we’d get these letters saying, "Hey, still remember you guys." Poor bastards. Shit. So that really wound it up in this country—which is why you had things like Altamont. All the cops were in the army. There was no law. In some places in the country, the Hell’s Angels were the ruling force for several years.

Well, you formed an alliance there, with tragic results, at Altamont.

Well the Grateful Dead did. We said, "You set the show up. It’s your area. You done this before. We ain’t." So they did it through their setup, which was their alliance with Hell’s Angels. Which got a little too big for everybody, that one. Including the Angels.

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