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Keith Richards’ 20 Greatest Songs

A definitive guide to the finest Keith-sung moments, from Stones classics to obscure solo gems

Jon Dolan Sep 11, 2015
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A new documentary about Keith Richards, 'Under the Influence,' will premiere on Netflix this fall.

In addition to his crucial contributions as a guitarist and songwriter, Richards is responsible for delivering some peak moments in the Stones discography.

Midway through every Rolling Stones show, Mick Jagger leaves the stage for Keith Richards to deliver two songs. Each time, Richards proves he’s a formidable frontman himself. In addition to his crucial contributions as a guitarist and songwriter, Richards is responsible for delivering some peak moments in the Stones discography, from wired rockers (1972’s “Happy,” 1978’s “Before They Make Me Run”) to ethereal ballads (1997’s “Thief in the Night,” 2005’s “This Place Is Empty”). And Richards’ side project the X-Pensive Winos, begun in the late Eighties, has delivered plenty of vintage-style rock & roll gems.

On September 18th, Keith Richards will add to his list of great solo songs with Crosseyed Heart, his third LP and first since 1992’s Main Offender. “I hadn’t realized it’s been 20-odd years since I’ve done this,” said Richards during a listening party for the new album. “Time flies!” To mark the occasion, we’ve distilled nearly 50 years of Keith-sung gems into 20 of his finest moments.

20. “Connection” (1967)

Album: Between the Buttons
This is what it felt like to be the Rolling Stones in 1966: dark, jumpy, surly, a little bit paranoid, barely a step ahead of the law. Jagger and Richards sum up their jangled nerves in “Connection,” one of their most searing vocal duets. It’s one of the first Stones songs to feature Richards’ voice so prominently. “Connection” has always been a favorite of Stones connoisseurs — including Richards, who wrote it. This was one of the few Stones songs he picked to bust out on his first solo tour, in 1988, and a searing live version appears on the 2010 compilation Vintage Vinos.

19. “Hurricane” (2005)

Album: Non-album single

Richards wrote this acoustic blues in Paris, on the one-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. “I tried to translate it back to folk music,” he said, “as basically just a disaster and not anything political. When the shit hits the fan and you were a musician walking in just after it, what would you say?” He released the song in the wake of Hurricane Katrina; fans who donated money to the Red Cross on the Stones’ 2005 tour were given CD copies of the song, with handwritten lyrics by Richards. “It’s the best short song I’ve written,” he said. “Because there’s nothing more to say.”

18. “Little T&A” (1981)


Album: Tattoo You

“That song’s just about every good time I’ve had with somebody I’ve met for a night or two and never seen again,” Richards said in 1981, adding that it’s also about the times “you pick up a chick and end up spending the night in the tank.” He deploys Chuck Berry–style rapping as he sneers about bitching bitches, snitching snitches, squealing dealers. The song’s title took on more significance years later, when Richards’ daughters were born: “Her name’s Theodora. And then a year later another one, Alexandra. Little T&A. And they weren’t even a gleam in my eye when I wrote that song.”

 17. “This Place Is Empty” (2005)

 Album: A Bigger Bang

“This place is empty” is a moving ode to his wife, Patti Hansen, that Richards wrote one night sitting alone in their home in Weston, Connecticut, while she was out. He played piano on the song, which displays his love of classic pop tunesmiths like Hoagy Carmichael and Cole Porter, while Jagger added simpering slide guitar. “Bare your breasts/And make me feel at home,” Richards sings. “You and me, we’re like all the rest/And we don’t want to be alone.” Asked about that lyric a decade later, he said, “I like it better to make you laugh in one line and make you cry in the next.”

16. “All About You” (1980)

Richards and Jagger’s relationship was at its most heated when Keith recorded one of his finest ballads, soulfully delivered over the phased-out guitar effect famously used on “Shattered.” While some heard this as a bitter farewell to Anita Pallenberg, Richards later revealed it’s about Jagger: “I realized that Mick had quite enjoyed one side of my being a junkie — the one that kept me from interfering in day-to-day business.” The lyrics allude to their personal differences, but the song ends with a confession: “So how come I’m still in love with you?” Jagger mixed all of Emotional Rescue except this track.

 15. “The Worst” (1994)

Album: Voodoo Lounge

Short and acrimonious, this standout from Voodoo Lounge finds Richards warning a prospective friend (or lover) to stay clear of him: “I said from the first/I am the worst kind of guy/For you to be around,” he sings as he strums a light-hearted acoustic rhythm. In addition to a smooth pedal-steel guitar line by Wood and a sweet fiddle solo by one-time Elvis Costello collaborator Frankie Gavin, the tune’s power lies in its gentle pace and open-souled honesty. “It’s my riot act,” Richards said in 2002. “The last time I said it was to my old lady, 20-odd years ago. I say out front, ‘Take it on or get out.'”

14. “How I Wish” (1988)

Album: Talk Is Cheap

One of Richards’ most upbeat declarations of despair, “How I Wish” rollicks along deceptively like a carefree Stones rocker as he painfully yowls, “How I wish that you were here again.” It’s a song that moves with abandon, stuttering the rhythm at odd moments as Ivan Neville plays a roiling piano line and Patti Scialfa of the E Street Band lends backing vocals. According to guitarist Waddy Wachtel, who played on “How I Wish,” Richards’ off-time yet on-point playing is what makes the song work: “Those guitar stabs, those syncopations, nobody can play those parts like Keith,” Wachtel once said.

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13. “I Could Have Stood You Up” (1988)

Album: Talk Is Cheap 

Richards took what he called “a little stroll through the rock & roll alley” on this loving tribute to rockabilly and Fifties-style doo-wop. But the Talk Is Cheap track’s nostalgia doesn’t stop with its sound: Former Stones guitarist and frequent Richards foil Mick Taylor played fluid blues licks on the song, and Johnnie Johnson, who appeared on Chuck Berry’s classic recordings, performed its boogie-woogie piano line. “He’s one of the hidden masters of American music to me,” Richards said of Johnson at the time. As for reuniting with Taylor? “Mick Taylor is just a brilliant guitar player,” said Richards. “That’s what he is. And still is.”

12. “Locked Away” (1988)

Album: Talk Is Cheap

This ragged, regretful ballad struck Richards as somewhat too austere when he first wrote it: “If there was an overall concept to [Talk Is Cheap], it was to keep it musical.” At the time, Richards had been listening to “street music” from Soweto, South Africa, which inspired him to enlist accordionist Stanley “Buckwheat” Dural and fiddler Michael Doucet, who complement his understated guitar and yearning vocal performance. “I knew that ‘Locked Away’ needed some more color,” Richards said. “I had been listening to Buckwheat’s latest record and the South African music was critical, and it suddenly just clicked.”

11. “Coming Down Again” (1973)

Album: Goats Head Soup

Richards rarely wrote autobiographical songs. But one early revealing moment in his career is this sorrowful ballad from Goats Head Soup, with its tearful wah-wah-infused guitar and drug-referencing chorus, “All my time’s been spent coming down again.” In Life, Richards wrote, “I wouldn’t have written it without heroin. I don’t know if it was about dope. It was just a mournful song — and you look for that melancholy in yourself.” Gilded with hints at infidelity (“Slipped my tongue in someone else’s pie,” he sings), the song was interpreted by some to be about his relationship with Anita Pallenberg. In any case, “Coming Down Again,” which featured stately piano from Nicky Hopkins and forlorn sax from Bobby Keys and Jim Horn, homes in on a distinct sense of end-of-the-party regret and junkie malaise. The song was written and recorded around the same time as the drug-related death of country-rock icon Gram Parsons, giving an especially somber cast to lyrics like “Where are all my friends?” “I would have been most of the time very, very up, but when it got low, it got very, very low,” he said, recalling his mindset during the early Seventies. “This was a terrible period for casualties.”

10. “Eileen” (1992)

Album: Main Offender

The X-pensive Winos were “a slightly more ragged gang” when they recorded Main Offender, the 1992 follow-up to Talk Is Cheap. Sessions for the album would routinely start between one and three in the morning, fueled by Jack Daniel’s “and other stuff too,” Richards recalled (several band members got sober afterward). The highlight is this endearingly sloppy throwback rocker. Fired by Richards’ furious playing and scarred vocals, the simple heartfelt plea suggests the early Beatles playing a biker bar. “It’s a voice with character,” Richards said. “Pavarotti it ain’t, but then I don’t like Pavarotti’s voice.”

9. “Wanna Hold You” (1983)

Album: Undercover

A Beatles tribute of sorts — released 20 years after Lennon and McCartney wrote “I Wanna Be Your Man,” the Stones’ second single — “Wanna Hold You” consciously echoes “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” both in its title and its dance-band immediacy. Richards and Jagger first bashed out a demo of the song in late 1982 in a basement studio in Paris, with Jagger on drums, then finished it at the Hit Factory in New York the following year. “I might’ve rewritten it, but I decided to leave it as a dumb pop song,” Richards said. “It has a very universal desire, especially when you’re very frightened or lonely or cold.”

8. “Thief in the Night” (1997)

Album: Bridges to Babylon

“I got the title from the Bible, which I read quite often,” Richards recalled. “Some very good phrases in there.” Against a slow, sultry riff written by guitar tech Pierre de Beauport, Richards sang lyrics inspired by his own romantic life. “It’s a song about several women and actually starts when I’m a teenager,” he wrote. When Jagger struggled to get the right feel, Richards stepped in and sang it, giving him a third lead vocal on Bridges to Babylon. That was one too many for Jagger, and a standoff ensued, so producer Don Was mixed “Thief in the Night” into another song, keeping Richards’ quota, technically, at two cuts.

7. “Take It So Hard” (1988)

Album: Talk Is Cheap

After Jagger decided to go solo in the mid-Eighties, Richards did the same, jamming with drummer Steve Jordan, who’d appeared on the Stones’ 1986 album, Dirty Work. “He heard something in my voice that he thought could make records,” Richards recalled. They recruited a band, dubbed the X- Pensive Winos, which included keyboardist Ivan Neville and guitarist Waddy Wachtel, and went to Canada to record Talk Is Cheap. “It was so hot you could hardly believe it,” Richards said. “It brought me back to life. I felt as if I’d just gotten out of jail.” One of the first tracks they cut was the rocker that became the album’s first single — a lover’s pep talk with a hard groove, barroom piano, a misfit-gang chorus and Richards’ roaring Telecaster. “I went back to the house going, ‘We’ve conquered Everest already?'” said Wachtel. When Billy Gibbons of ZZ Top heard the song, its shuddering intro stood out — and he remembered a conversation with Richards about the intro to Bo Diddley’s “Crackin’ Up,” which the Stones covered in the Seventies. “You can’t find the downbeat [on “Crackin’ Up”]… and the first time I heard those opening bars of ‘Take It So Hard,’ it’s the same can’t-find-the-downbeat effect,” said Gibbons. “I couldn’t help but smile.”

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6. “Thru and Thru” (1994)

Album: Voodoo Lounge

The closing song on Voodoo Lounge was a Jimmy Reed–influenced blues Richards came up with in 1993, while in Barbados working on new songs with Jagger and Watts. Richards and his longtime guitar tech Pierre de Beauport went into the studio after a night out and quickly laid down the track (“I’ve always thought of songs as gifts,” Richards said. “They just arrive.”) Watts’ huge drums were recorded at the bottom of a stairwell. The song got new life when it appeared on The Sopranos nearly 10 years after it was released. Richards recalled, “Suddenly everybody was saying, ‘What’s that wonderful record?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, it’s the last track on Voodoo Lounge.'”

5. “Slipping Away” (1989)

Album: Steel Wheels

Richards movingly evoked his own mortality on Steel Wheels’ somber closing track. Recorded in the spring of 1989, with Richards’ and Wood’s guitars playing subtly off Chuck Leavell’s piano and Jagger joining in during the bridge, it was a poignant way to end an album that marked a moment of détente in Richards’ stormy relationship with Jagger. The band returned to the song on 1995’s Stripped, giving it a relaxed acoustic treatment. “I like ballads,” he told Rolling Stone in 2002 when asked about songs like “Slipping Away.” “You get a better rock & roll song by writing it slow to start with, and seeing where it can go.”

4. “Make No Mistake” (1988)

Album: Talk Is Cheap

Richards was deep into reggae and Memphis soul while writing Talk Is Cheap, his 1988 solo debut, and he effectively married the two on “Make No Mistake.” He recorded the song in Memphis with legendary Al Green producer Willie Mitchell, who overdubbed the Memphis Horns. Former LaBelle member Sarah Dash added backing vocals (“What a girl, what a voice,” Richards said), and the guitarist used an unconventional chord that gave the song spooky ambience. “My favorite chord is the one I haven’t found yet,” he says. “But that’s one of those moments when I thought I found the lost chord.”

3. “You Got the Silver” (1969)

Album: Let It Bleed

“[This] was not the first solo vocal I recorded with the Stones,” notes Richards in his memoir, “but it was one of the first ones I wrote entirely by myself.” One of the initial tracks cut for Let It Bleed, it’s a gruff, simple country blues, with Richards’ shining acoustic-slide work, some handsome Nicky Hopkins organ and, in one of his last appearances with the band, autoharp from Brian Jones. “You Got the Silver” is a sleeper among the LP’s more flamboyant set pieces. But it’s one of Richards’ most emotionally revealing moments. “I sang it solo simply because we had to spread the workload,” he said.

2. “Before They Make Me Run” (1978)

Album: Some Girls

“That song…was a cry from the heart,” Richards said of this taut rocker from Some Girls. The tempo on “Before They Make Me Run” has a wired energy, the hammer-on open-G riff is a Richards staple, and the lyrics are a strikingly open plea to the Canadian authorities to go easy in his recent drug-possession case. “Booze and pills and powders… done my time in hell,” he sings, giving one of his heroically raw vocal performances a sense of unguarded personal urgency. “I was in the studio, without leaving, for five days,” Richards said of the song’s recording. “We all had black eyes by the time it was finished.”

1. “Happy” (1972)

Album: Exile on Main Street

Around noon one day in the basement of Nellcôte, the house in the South of France where the Rolling Stones were recording Exile on Main Street, Keith Richards, saxophonist Bobby Keys and producer Jimmy Miller were waiting for the rest of the band to arrive when Keith ripped into a riff he’d been working on that morning. Soon, Miller was behind the drums and Keys was on baritone sax, and the tape was rolling. “It was no Roll-ing Stones record,” Richards said. “[Even though] it’s got the name on it.” The result was a raucous three- minute dose of stomping barroom blues and soul-revue firework swagger. Richards made up the lyrics — about looking for love when you’re down-and-out — while shouting into the mic. “It just came, tripping off the tongue…. ‘I’ve spent the fucking money and I have none left, and it’s nighttime and I’m looking to have a good time, but I ain’t got shit,’ ” he explained in his memoir, Life. Richards credits the song’s framework on his late-Sixties discovery of open-G tuning, which is normally used for slide guitar. To sharpen his sound, he had also recently stripped his guitar from six strings to five. “You change one string, and suddenly you’ve got a whole new universe under your fingers,” he wrote. “I was starting to really fix my trademark.” The basic track was written and recorded in about four hours. After the initial take, Richards played the bass part himself, and additional horns and Jagger’s back-up vocals were also overdubbed. “I love it when they drip off the end of the fingers,” Richards told Rolling Stone in 2002. “And I was pretty happy about it. Which is why it ended up being called ‘Happy.'”

 

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