Ed Driscoll

Happy 70th Birthday, Keith Richards

And to think, he doesn’t look a day over 170.

The Wall Street Journal recently interviewed Richards on how he stumbled over one of his signature sounds, the distorted, open-tuned acoustic guitar sound on 1968’s “Street Fighting Man,” which, along with “Jumping Jack Flash,” also recorded during those same sessions, and using the same techniques, marked the beginning of a new found ascendance for the Stones, after their curious psychedelic misfire the previous year, Their Satanic Majesties Request:

I became fascinated by one of the early cassette tape recorders made by Philips. The machine was compact, so it was portable, and it had this little stick microphone, which would allow me to capture song ideas on the fly. So I bought one, but as I watched the small tape-cartridge reels turn, I began to think of the machine not as a dictation device but as a mini recording studio. The problem is I couldn’t use an electric guitar to record on it. The sound just overwhelmed the mike and speaker. I tried an acoustic guitar instead and got this dry, crisp guitar sound on the tape—the exact sound I had been looking for on the song.

At the time, I was experimenting with open tunings on the guitar—you know, tuning the strings to form specific chords so I could bang out the broadest possible sound. That’s how I came up with “Street Fighting Man’s” opening riff—even before I bought the Philips. I based the rest of the song’s melody on the tone pattern of those odd sirens French police cars use [sings the siren and lyrics to illustrate].

Sometime in early ’68, I took the Philips recorder into London’s Olympic Sound Studios and had Charlie [Watts] meet me there. Charlie had this snap drum kit that was made in the 1930s. Jazz drummers used to carry around the small kit to practice when they were on the bus or train. It had this little spring-up hi-hat and a tambourine for a snare. It was perfect because, like the acoustic guitar, it wouldn’t overpower the recorder’s mike. I had Charlie sit right next to the mike with his little kit and I kneeled on the floor next to him with my acoustic Gibson Hummingbird. There we were in front of this little box hammering away [laughs]. After we listened to the playback, the sound was perfect.

Keith has dined out on the story of how he used an early cassette recorder for decades to distort the sound of his acoustic guitar, but the real revelation in the Wall Street Journal article is the inclusion of the demo track for the first draft of Mick Jagger’s lyrics, which were originally built around a chorus titled “Did Everyone Pay Their Dues?”

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Early on, when I had played the tape of my melody for Mick, his lyrics were about brutal adults. We recorded them and called the song, “Did Everyone Pay Their Dues?” But we weren’t that crazy about the results, and the lyrics underwent several rewrites once we saw what was going on in the streets in London and Paris in 1968. While we were in the studio, Mick had been at a huge demonstration against the Vietnam War in London’s Grosvenor Square in March. And we were both in Paris in May during the violent protests by students demanding reforms. The French cops were pretty nasty about it. As we traveled around, Mick and I would look at each other and realize something big was happening in two major capitals of the world and that our generation was bursting at the seams.

Mick knew that “Dues” needed an overhaul that better matched what was going on. I came up with the line, “What can a poor boy do” and threw it out to Mick. He completed the thought with ” ‘Cept to sing for a rock ‘n’ roll band” and he wrote the rest of the new lyrics in the studio. That’s how we often worked. One of us would have a piece of a lyric that sounded interesting, then hand it off to the other to get things going.

It’s hard to tell, listening to the clip, if the lyrics were just an improvised first draft, but it’s certainly a good thing they were revised. Otherwise, a killer backing track would have been wasted as just another album programmer or b-side, such as “Child of the Moon” (another of Keith’s early open-tuning explorations, and the b-side to 1968’s “Jumping Jack Flash,” or “Soul Survivor,” the rocking, albeit wall of noise track that ends 1972’s Exile of Main Street.

From “Street Fighting Man” and “Jumping Jack Flash” onward, open-tuned guitar would be become a trademark of Richards; nobody has written more hit songs around simple staccato C major to F major chord changes than Keith. I keep an electric guitar around tuned to his signature open-G tuning, it’s great therapy, both to play the sorts of chord changes that define Keith’s sound, but also to discover other chords hidden in this non-standard tuning.

But enough of all this music trivia. Isn’t the real question: How is this man still alive? Perhaps Del Preston was right twenty years ago: Keith cannot be killed by conventional weapons.

(Via Maggie’s Farm.)