Keith plays in a rock & roll band. Anita is a movie star queen. They currently reside in a large white marble house that everyone describes as “decadent looking.” The British Admiral who built it had trees brought from all over the world in ships of the line, pine and cypress and palm. There is an exotic colored bird in a cage in the front garden and a rabbit called Boots that lives in the back. A dog named Oakie sleeps where he wants.
Meals are the only recurring reality and 23 at a table is not an unusual number. The ceilings are 30 feet from the floor and some nights, pink lightning hangs over the bay and the nearby town of Ville France, which waits for the fleet to come back so its hotels can turn again into whorehouses.
There is a private beach down a flight of stairs and a waterbed on the porch. Good reference points for the whole mise-en-scene are F. Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is The Night and the Shirelles’ greatest hits. There is a piano in the living room and guitars in the TV room. Between George Jones, Merle Haggard, Buddy Holly, and Chuck Berry, Keith Richard manages to sneak in a lick now and then like a great acoustic version of “The Jerk” by the Larks one morning at 4 a.m.
A recording studio will soon be completed in the basement and the Stones will go to work on some tracks for the new album, Mick Jagger having returned from his honeymoon. They will tour the States soon.
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Most of it is in the tapes, in the background. Two cogent statements, both made by Keith may be kept in mind while reading the questions and answers (which were asked and answered over a 10-day period at odd hours).
“It’s a pretty good house; we’re doing our best to fill it up with kids and rock ‘n’ roll.”
“You know that thing that Blind Willie said? ‘I don’t like the suits and ties/They don’t seem to harmonize.’”
What were you doing right at the beginning?
Your parents weren’t musical?
What did your father do?
Were you raised middle class?
Were you one of the boys?
It’s strange, ’cause I knew Mick when I was really young – five, six, seven. We used to hang out together. Then I moved and didn’t see him for a long time. I once met him selling ice creams outside the public library. I bought one. He was tryin’ to make extra money.
Rock and roll got to England about ’53, ’54, you were 11.
Then, everybody stood up for that music. I didn’t think of playing it. I just wanted to go and listen to it. It took ’em a year or so before anyone in England could make that music. The first big things that hit were skiffle. Simple three-chord stuff. It wasn’t really rock and roll. It was a lot more folky, a lot more strummy. Tea chest basses. A very crude sort of rock and roll. Lonnie Donegan’s the only cat to come out of skiffle.
But we were really listening to what was coming from over the Atlantic. The ones that were hitting hard were Little Richard and Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Chuck Berry was never really that big in England. They dug him but – all his big, big hits made it – but maybe because he never came over. Maybe because the movies he made like Go Johnny Go never got over because of distribution problems. Fats Domino was big. Freddie Bell and the Bellboys too. All kinds of weird people that never made it in America.
They loved the piano. Looking back on it, all the piano boys really had it together for England. More than just the cat that stood there with the guitar.
Did you start really playing in school then?
How things were at the start is something. It’s when everybody’s got short hair. And everybody thought it was long. That’s the thing. I mean, we were really being put down like shit then for having long hair. Really. Now, people go into offices with longer hair.
When I went to art school, people were just startin’ to grow their hair and loosen up. You got in there on the favors of the headmaster. You go there and show him your shit, the stuff you’ve done at ordinary school, during art lessons, and he decides. You don’t have to do anything apart from going to see him. He says, “You takin’ anything? What are you on?” And you’re about 15 or 16 and you don’t even know what the fuck they do in art school. You have this vague picture of naked ladies sittin’ around. Drawing them – well, I’ll try that.
So you go there and you get your packet of Five Weights [cigarettes] a day. Everybody’s broke – and the best thing that’s going on is in the bog [toilet] with the guitars. There’s always some cat sneaked out going through his latest Woody Guthrie tune or Jack Elliot. Everybody’s into that kind of music as well. So when I went to art school I was thrown into that end of it too. Before that I was just into Little Richard. I was rockin’ away, avoidin’ the bicycle chains and the razors in those dance halls. The English get crazy. They’re calm, but they were really violent then, those cats. Those suits cost them $150, which is a lot of money. Jackets down to here. Waistcoats. Leopard skin lapels – amazing. It was really “Don’t step on mah blue suede shoes.” It was down to that.
I really, literally, got myself thrown out of school. I was livin’ at home but I had to go everyday. When you think that kids, all they really want to do is learn, watch how it’s done and try and figure out why and leave it at that. You’re going to school to do something you wanna do and they manage to turn the whole thing around and make you hate ’em. They really manage to do it. I don’t know anyone at that school who liked it or anyone my age who liked to be at school. One or two people who went to a decent school had a good teacher, someone who really knew how to teach. The nearest thing I been to it is Wormwood Scrubbs [an English prison] and that’s the nick. Really, it’s the same feeling.
So you spent three years there and it was coming to degree time.
But then I started to get into where it had come from. Broonzy first. He and Josh White were considered to be the only living black bluesmen still playing. So let’s get that together, I thought, that can’t be right. Then I started to discover Robert Johnson and those cats. You could never get their records though. One heard about them. On one hand I was playing all that folk stuff on the guitar. The other half of me was listenin’ to all that rock and roll, Chuck Berry, and sayin’ yeah, yeah.
And one day, I met Jagger again, man. Of all places, on the fucking train. I was going to the school and he was going up to the London School of Economics. It was about 1960. I never been able to get this one together, it’s so strange. I had these two things going and not being able to plug ’em together, playing guitar like all the other cats, folk, a little blues. But you can’t get the sounds from the States. Maybe once every six months someone’ll come through with an album, an Arhoolie album of Fred McDowell. And you’d say: There’s another cat! That’s another one. Just blowin’ my mind, like one album every six months.
So I get on this train one morning and there’s Jagger and under his arm he has four or five albums. I haven’t seen him since the time I bought an ice cream off him and we haven’t hung around since we were five, six, 10 years. We recognized each other straight off. “Hi, man,” I say. “Where ya going?” he says. And under his arm, he’s got Chuck Berry and Little Walter, Muddy Waters. “You’re into Chuck Berry, man, really?” That’s a coincidence. He said, “Yeah, I got few more albums. Been writin’ away to this, uh, Chess Records in Chicago and got a mailing list thing and – got it together, you know?” Wow, man!
So I invited him up to my place for a cup of tea. He started playing me these records and I really turned on to it. We were both still living in Dartford, on the edge of London and I was still in art school.
There was another cat at art school named Dick Taylor, who later got the Pretty Things together. Mick found out—”Oh, you play?” he said to me. That’s what amazed him. Mick had been singin’ with some rock and roll bands, doin’ Buddy Holly – Buddy Holly was in England as solid as Elvis. Everything came out was a record smash number one. By about ’58, it was either Elvis or Buddy Holly. It was split into two camps. The Elvis fans were the heavy leather boys and the Buddy Holly ones all somehow looked like Buddy Holly.
By that time, the initial wham had gone out of rock and roll. You were getting “By The Light of The Silvery Moon” by Little Richard and “My Blue Heaven” by Fats, “Baby Face.” They’d run out of songs in a way, it seemed like. England itself was turning on to its own breed of rock and rollers. Cliff Richard at the time was a big rocker. Adam Faith. Billy Fury, who did one fantastic album that I’ve lost. He got it together once. One really good album. Songs he’d written, like people do now, he got some people he knew to play together and did it. His other scene was the hits, heavy moody ballads and the lead pipe down the trousers. They were all into that one.
To get back to Mick and I – He found out that I could play a little and he could sing a bit. “I dig to sing,” he said, and he also knew Dick Taylor from another school they’d gone to and the thing tied up so we try and do something. We’d all go to Dick Taylor’s house, in his back room, some other cats would come along and play, and we’d try to lay some of this Little Walter stuff and Chuck Berry stuff. No drummer or anything. Just two guitars and a little amplifier. Usual back room stuff. It fell into place very quickly.
Then we found Slim Harpo, we started to really find people. Mick was just singing, no harp. And suddenly in ’62, just when we were getting together, we read this little thing about a rhythm and blues club starting in Ealing. Everybody must have been trying to get one together. “Let’s go up to this place and find out what’s happening.” There was this amazing old cat playing harp – Cyril Davies. Where did he come from? He turned out to be a panel beater from North London. He was a great cat, Cyril. He didn’t last long. I only knew him for about two years and he died.
Alexis Korner really got this scene together. He’d been playin’ in jazz clubs for ages and he knew all the connections for gigs. So we went up there. The first or the second time Mick and I were sittin’ there Alexis Korner gets up and says, “We got a guest to play some guitar. He comes from Cheltenham. All the way up from Cheltenham just to play for ya.”
Suddenly, it’s Elmore James, this cat, man. And it’s Brian, man, he sittin’ on his little – he’s bent over – da-da-da, da-da-da – I said, ‘What? What the fuck?’ Playing bar slide guitar.
We get into Brian after he finishes “Dust My Blues.” He’s really fantastic and a gas. We speak to Brian. He’d been doin’ the same as we’d been doin’ – thinkin’ he was the only cat in the world who was doin’ it. We started to turn Brian on to some Jimmy Reed things, Chicago blues that he hadn’t heard. He was more into T-Bone Walker and jazz-blues stuff. We’d turn him on to Chuck Berry and say, “Look, it’s all the same shit, man, and you can do it.” But Brian was also much more together. He was in the process of getting a band together and moving up to London with one of his many women and children. God knows how many he had. He sure left his mark, that cat. I know of five kids, at least. All by different chicks, and they all look like Brian.
He was a good guitar player then. He had the touch and was just peaking. He was already out of school, he’d been kicked out of university and had a variety of jobs. He was already into living on his own and trying to find a pad for his old lady. Whereas Mick and I were just kicking around in back rooms, still living at home.
I left art school and I didn’t even bother to get a job. We were still kids. Mick was still serious, he thought he was, everyone told him he ought to be serious about a career in economics. He was very much into it.
But Brian, he was already working at it. We said, “We’re just amateurs, man, but we dig to play.” He invited me up to listen to what he was getting together in some pub in London. It’s then it starts getting into back rooms of pubs in Soho and places. That’s where I met Stew [Ian Stewart]. He was with Brian. They’d just met. He used to play boogie-woogie piano in jazz clubs, apart from his regular job. He blew my head off too, when he started to play. I never heard a white piano like that before. Real Albert Ammons stuff. This is all ’62.
A lot of these old cats had been playin’ blues in those clubs for ages, or thought they were playin’ blues. Just because they’d met Big Bill Broonzy at a party or played with him once, they thought they were the king’s asshole.
Music was their love. They all wanted to be professional but in those days a recording contract was a voice from heaven. It was that rare. Not like now when you get a band together and hustle an advance. It was a closed shop.
Were you and Mick and Brian very strange for them?That’s right. They couldn’t figure us out. Especially when I tried to lay Chuck Berry shit on them. “What are ya hangin’ with them rock and rollers for?” they’d ask. Brian kicked a lot of them out and I really dug it. He turned around and said, “Fuck off, you bastards, you’re a load of shit and I’m going to get it together with these cats.” This cat Dick Taylor shifted to bass by then. We were really looking for drums. Stew drifted with us for some reason. I sort of put him with those other cats because he had a job. But he said no too. “I’ll stick around and see what happens with you.”
So we got another back room in a different pub. Competition. Not that anybody came. Just rehearsin’.
Stew at that time used to turn up at rehearsals in a pair of shorts, on his bike. His piano used to be by the window and his biggest fear, the only thing that really stopped him at piano, was the thought that his bike might get nicked while he was playin’. So every now and then when someone walked past his bike, he’d stretch up and put his head out the window and keep playin’, sit down again and then he’d see someone else lookin’ at his bike. Up and up, still playing.
Were you playing electric then?Yeah. With homemade amps, old wireless sets. It took a while longer to get the electric bit together. At the time we thought, “Oh, it just makes it louder,” but it ain’t quite as simple at that.
Brian was the one who kept us all together then. Mick was still going to school. I’d dropped out. So we decided we got to live in London to get it together. Time to break loose. So everybody left home, upped and got this pad in London. Chelsea.
Different Chelsea than now?Edith Grove. World’s End. That place – every room got condemned slowly. It was like we slowly moved till we were all in the end room. Every room was shut up and stunk to hell, man. Terrible. Brian’s only possession was a radio-record player. That, and a few beds and a little gas fire. We kept on playin’, playin’, playin’.
Brian kicked his job. He was in a department store. He got into a very heavy scene for nickin’ some bread and just managed to work his way out of it. So he thought, “Fuck it. If I work anymore I’m gonna get in real trouble.” Get into jail or something.
He only nicked two pound – but he quit his job and his old lady had gone back to Cheltenham so he was on the loose again.
Are you gigging?We didn’t dare, man, we didn’t dare. We were rehearsin’ drummers. Mick Avery came by, the drummer of the Kinks. He was terrible, then. Couldn’t find that off beat. Couldn’t pick up on that Jimmy Reed stuff.
Is everybody still straight?It was very hard to find anything. No one could afford to buy anything anyway. A little bit of grass might turn up occasionally but – everybody’d dig it – everybody’s turn-on was just playing. It didn’t matter if you were pissed. That was it. That was the big shot.
Mick was the only one who was still hovering because he was more heavily committed to the London School of Economics and he was being supported by a government grant, and his parents and all that. So he had a heavier scene to break away from than me because they were very pleased to kick me out anyway. And Brian too, they were glad to kick out. From university for making some chick pregnant or something.
Brian and I were the sort of people they were glad to kick out. They’d say, “You’re nothing’ but bums, you’re gonna end up on skid row,” and that sort of thing. Probably will anyway. But Mick was still doing the two things. Brian and me’d be home in this pad all day tryin’ to make one foray a day to either pick up some beer bottles from a party and sell ’em back for thruppence deposit or raid the local supermarket. Try and get some potatoes or some eggs or something.
I went out one morning and came back in the evening and Brian was blowing harp, man. He’s got it together. He’s standin’ at the top of the stairs sayin’, “Listen to this.” Whooooow. Whooow. All these blues notes comin’ out. “I’ve learned how to do it. I’ve figured it out.” One day.
So then he started to really work on the harp. He dropped the guitar. He still dug to play it and was still into it and played very well but the harp became his thing. He’d walk around all the time playing his harp.
Is there anything going in London in terms of music then?Alexis had that club together and we’d go down once a week to see what they were doing and they wanted to know what we were doing. “It’s coming,” we’d tell ’em. “We’ll be gigging soon.” We didn’t know where the fuck do ya start? Where do ya go to play?
But you were living together, unlike Cyril Davies or the older blues musicians, because you were young and broke…Yeah. Just Mick and myself and Brian. We knew Charlie. He was a friend. He was gigging at the time, playing with Alexis. He was Korner’s drummer. We couldn’t afford him.
One day we picked up a drummer called Tony Chapman who was our first regular drummer. Terrible. One of the worst – cat would start a number and end up either four times as fast as he started it or three times as slow. But never stay the same.
We did say, “Hey Tony, d’y’know any bass players?” He said. “I do know one.” “Tell him come to next rehearsal.” So we all turned up and in walks – Bill Wyman, ladies and gentleman. Huge speaker he’s got, and a spare Vox 830 amp – which is the biggest amp we’ve ever seen in our lives. And that’s spare. He says, “You can put one of your guitars through there.” Whew. Put us up quite a few volts goin’ through there.
Also, they don’t know what to play anymore. At that point, nobody wants to hear Buddy Holly anymore. He’s an old scene already to the rock and roll hip circuit. It’s that very light pop thing they’re all into – Bobby Vee was a big scene then. You wouldn’t dream of going to play in a ballroom. They’d just hurl bricks at you. Still have to stick to this little circuit of clubs, back rooms for one night, a shilling for everyone to get in. For people who didn’t want to go to ballrooms. Who wanted to listen to something different.
Most of these clubs at the time are filled with Dixieland bands, traditional jazz bands. An alternative to all that Bobby Vee stuff. There was a big boom in that: the stomp, stompin’ about, weird dance, just really tryin’ to break the ceiling to a two beat. That was the big scene. They had all the clubs under control. That’s where Alexis made the breakthrough. He managed to open it up at the Ealing Club. Then he moved on to the Marquee and R&B started to become the thing. And all these traddies, as they were called, started getting worried. So they started this very bitter opposition.
Which is one reason I swung my guitar at Harold Pendleton’s head at the Marquee thing, because he was the kingpin behind all that. He owned all these trad clubs and he got a cut from these trad bands, he couldn’t bear to see them die. He couldn’t afford it.
But Alexis was packin’ em in man. Jus’ playing blues. Very similar to Chicago stuff. Heavy atmosphere. Workers and art students, kids who couldn’t make the ballrooms with supposedly long hair then, forget it, you couldn’t go into those places. You gravitated to places where you wouldn’t get hassled. The Marquee’s a West End club, where we stood in for Alexis a couple of times.
With Charlie drumming?No. Our first gig was down at the Ealing Club, a stand-in gig. That’s the band without Charlie as drummer. We played everything. Muddy Waters. A lot of Jimmy Reed.
Still living in Chelsea?Yeah. We had the middle floor. The top floor was sort of two school teachers tryin’ to keep a straight life. God knows how they managed it. Two guys trainin’ to be school teachers, they used to throw these bottle parties. All these weirdos, we used to think they were weirdos, they were as straight as – havin’ their little parties up there, all dancing around to Duke Ellington. Then when they’d all zonked out, we’d go up there and nick all the bottles. Get a big bag, Brian and I, get all the beer bottles and the next day we’d take ’em to the pub to get the money on ’em.
Downstairs was livin’ four old whores from Liverpool. Isn’t that a coincidence. “‘Allo dahlin’, ‘ow are ya? All right?” Real old boots they were. I don’t know how they made their bread, working – They used to sort of nurse people and keep us together when we really got out of it.
The cat that supported Brian, this is a long story. He came from Brian’s hometown. He got 80 quid a year for being in the Territorial Army in England, which is where you go for two weeks on a camp with the rest of these guys. Sort of a civil defense thing. They all live in tents and get soakin’ wet and get a cold and at the end they learn how to shoot a rifle and they get 80 quid cash depending on what rank you’ve managed to wangle yourself.
This cat arrived in London with his 80 quid, fresh out of the hills, from his tent. And he wants to have a good time with Brian. And Brian took him for every penny, man. Got a new guitar. The whole lot.
This weird thing with this cat. He was one of those weird people who would do anything you say. Things like, Brian would say, “Give me your overcoat.” Freezing cold, it’s the worst winter and he gave Brian this Army overcoat. “Give Keith the sweater.” So I put the sweater on.
“Now, you walk twenty yards behind us, man.” And off we’d walk to the local hamburger place. “Ah, stay there. No, you can’t come in. Give us two quid.” Used to treat him like really weird. This cat would stand outside the hamburger joint freezing cold giving Brian the money to pay for our hamburgers. Never saw him again after that.
No, no, it ended up with us tryin’ to electrocute him. It ended up with us gettin’ out of our heads one night. That was the night he disappeared. It was snowing outside. We came back to our pad and he was in Brian’s bed. Brian for some reason got very annoyed that he was in his bed asleep. We had all these cables lyin’ around and he pulled out this wire. “This end is plugged in, baby, and I’m comin’ after ya.”
This cat went screaming out of the pad and into the snow in his underpants. “They’re electrocuting me, they’re electrocuting me.” Somebody brought him in an hour later and he was blue. He was afraid to come in because he was so scared of Brian.
Brian used to pull these weird things. The next day the cat split. Brian had a new guitar, and his amp re-fixed, a whole new set of harmonicas.
I guess the craziness comes from the chemistry of the people. The craziness sort of kept us together. When the gigs become a little more plentiful and the kids started picking up on us was when we got picked up by Giorgio Gomelsky. Before he was into producing records. He was on the jazz club scene. I don’t know exactly what he did, promoting a couple of clubs a week. He cottoned on to us and sort of organized us a bit.
We still didn’t have Charlie as a drummer. We were really lacking a good drummer. We were really feeling it.
All I wanted to do is keep the band together. How we were going to do it and get gigs and people to listen to us? How to get a record together? We couldn’t even afford to make a dub. Anyway we didn’t have a drummer to make a dub with.
By this time we had it so together musically. We were really pleased with the way we were sounding. We were missing a drummer. We were missing good equipment. By this time the stuff we had was completely beaten to shit.
And the three of you get on? Are you the closest people for each other?We were really a team. But there was always something between Brian, Mick and myself that didn’t quite make it somewhere. Always something. I’ve often thought, tried to figure it out. It was in Brian, somewhere; there was something – he still felt alone somewhere – he was either completely into Mick at the expense of me, like nickin’ my bread to go and have a drink. Like when I was zonked out, takin’ the only pound I had in me pocket. He’d do something like that. Or he’d be completely in with me tryin’ to work something against Mick. Brian was a very weird cat. He was a little insecure. He wouldn’t be able to make it with two other guys at one time and really get along well.
I don’t think it was a sexual thing. He was always so open with his chicks – It was something else I’ve never been able to figure out. You can read Jung. I still can’t figure it out. Maybe it was in the stars. He was a Pisces. I don’t know. I’m Sag and Mick’s a Leo. Maybe those three can’t ever connect completely all together at the same time for very long. There were periods when we had a ball together.
As we became more and more well-known and eventually grew into that giant sort of thing, that in Brian also became blown up until it became very difficult to work with and very difficult for him to be with us. Mick and I were more and more put together because we wrote together and Brian become uptight about that because he couldn’t write. He couldn’t even ask if he could come and try to write something with us. Where earlier on Brian and I would sit for hours trying to write songs and say, “Aw fuck it, we can’t write songs.” It worked both ways. When we played, it gave Brian – man, when he wanted to play, he could play his ass off, that cat. To get him to do it, especially later on, was another thing. In the studio, for instance, to try and get Brian to play was such a hassle that eventually on a lot of those records that people think are the Stones, it’s me overdubbing three guitars and Brian zonked out on the floor. It became very difficult because we were working non-stop – I’m skipping a lot of time now – when we were doing those American tours in ’64, ’65, ’66. When things were getting really difficult. Brian would go out and meet a lot of people, before we did, because Mick and I spent most of our time writing. He’d go out and get high somewhere, get smashed. We’d say, “Look, we got a session tomorrow, man, got to keep it together.” He’d come, completely out of his head, and zonk out on the floor with his guitar over him. So we started overdubbing, which was a drag cause it meant the whole band wasn’t playing.
Can you tell me about Oldham?
Was he in the business before the Stones?Yeah, he was with the Beatles. He helped kick them off in London. Epstein hired him and he did a very good job for them. One doesn’t know how much of a job was needed, but he managed to get them a lot of space in the press when “Love Me Do” came out and was like number nine in the charts and the kids were turning on to them and it was obvious they were going to be big, big, because they were only third on the bill and yet they were tearing the house down every night. A lot of it was down to Andrew. He got them known. And he did the same gig for us. He did it. Except he was more involved with us. He was working for us.
He had a genius for getting things through the media. Before people really knew what media was, to get messages through without people knowing.
Anita: But Brian, he never got on with Andrew.
Keith: Never. I’ve seen Brian and Andrew really pissed hanging all over each other but really basically there was no chemistry between them. They just didn’t get on. There was a time when Mick and I got on really well with Andrew. We went through the whole Clockwork Orange thing. We went through that whole trip together. Very sort of butch number. Ridin’ around with that mad criminal chauffeur of his.
Epstein and Oldham did a thing on the media in England that’s made it easier for millions of people since and for lots of musicians. It’s down to people like those that you can get on a record now. They blew that scene wide open, that EMI-Decca stranglehold. EMI is still the biggest record company in the whole fucking world despite being an English company. They can distribute in Hong Kong. They have it sewn up in the Philippines and Australia and everywhere. No matter who you go through, somewhere in the world, EMI is dealing your records. It’s a network left over from the colonial days and they’ve kept hold of it.
Oldham made money for the Stones.Yeah. I mean, God knows how much money has been made on the Stones name and how much of it has got through to us and how much got through to people along the way. Without mentioning any names but there is one guy I’m still going to get.
It’s not money. It’s like, what do you want? And how do you want to get it? And do you want to keep it cool? It’s not simple, cut and dried. By the time it goes through all those peoples’ hands they’re pretty soiled those dollar bills. To work it out any other way, you have to end up like them to do it.
How long was Andrew involved?From ’63 to the end of ’67. It still goes on though. I got a letter the other day about some litigation, Oldham versus Eric Easton, who was our first manager proper. Oldham was only half of the team, the other was Eric Easton, who was just a bumbly old Northern agent. Handled a couple semi-successful chick singers and could get you gigs in ballrooms in the North of England. Once it got to America, this cat Easton dissolved. He went into a puddle. He couldn’t handle that scene.
Was Charlie drumming with you when Andrew first saw you work?I’ll tell you how we picked Charlie up. I told you about the people Brian was getting a band together with and then he turned on to us and he told those other people to fuck off, et cetera. Our common ground with Brian back then was Elmore James and Muddy Waters. We laid Slim Harpo on him, and Fred McDowell.
Because Brian was from Cheltenham, a very genteel town full of old ladies, where it used to be fashionable to go and take the baths once a year at Cheltenham Spa. The water is very good because it comes out of the hills, it’s spring water. It’s a Regency thing, you know Beau Brummel, around that time. Turn of the 19th century. Now it’s a seedy sort of place full of aspirations to be an aristocratic town. It rubs off on anyone who comes from there.
The R&B thing started to blossom and we found playing on the bill with us in a club, there were two bands on; Charlie was in the other band. He’d left Korner, and was with the same cats Brian had said fuck off to about six months before. We did our set and Charlie was knocked out by it. “You’re great, man,” he says, “but you need a fucking good drummer.” So we said, “Charlie, we can’t afford you, man.” Because Charlie had a job and just wanted to do weekend gigs. Charlie used to play anything then—he’d play pubs, anything, just to play, cause he loves to play with good people. But he always had to do it for economic reasons. By this time we’re getting three, four gigs a week. “Well, we can’t pay you as much as that band but – “we said. So he said, Ok and told the other band to fuck off, “I’m gonna play with these guys.”
That was it. When we got Charlie, that really made it for us. We started getting a lot of gigs. Then we got that Richmond gig with Giorgio and that built up to an enormous scene. In London, that was the place to be every Sunday night. At the Richmond Station Hotel. It’s on the river Richmond, a fairly well-to-do neighborhood but kids from all over London would come down there on a Sunday night.
There’s only so far you can go on that London scene; if you stay in that club circuit eventually you get constipated. You go round and round so many times and then suddenly, you’re not the hip band anymore, someone else is. Like the High Numbers, they took over from us in a lot of clubs. The High Numbers turned out to become the Who. The Yardbirds took over from us in Richmond and on Sunday nights we’d find we were booked into a place in Manchester.
Where are you recording now, with Giorgio?Not with Giorgio. Eric and Andrew fucked Giorgio because he had nothing on paper with us. They screwed him to get us a recording contract. We were saying to Giorgio, “What about records?” and he didn’t have it together for the record thing. Not for a long time afterwards either. He was still very much a club man. We knew that to go any further and reach out a bit, we wanted to get off the club thing and get into the ballrooms where the kids were. It turned out to be right.
It was difficult the first few months though. We were known in the big cities but when you get outside into the sticks, they don’t know who the fuck you are and they’re still preferring the local band. That makes you play your ass off every night so that at the end of two hour-long sets, you’ve got ’em. You’ve gotta do it. That’s the testing ground, in those ballrooms where it’s really hard to play.
Stew is driving you around now?Yeah, there was this whole thing, because for us Stew is one of the band up until Andrew. “Well, he just doesn’t look the part,” Andrew said, “and six is too many for them to remember the faces in the picture.” But piano is important for us. Brian at that time is the leader of the band. He pulled us all together, he’s playing good guitar, but his love is the harmonica. On top of that, he’s got the pop star hangup—he wants to sing, with Mick, like “Walking the Dog.”
Are you singing?Naw, I was getting into writing then though. Andrew was getting on to me to write because he sussed that maybe I could do it if I put my mind to it.
What are some of the first things you wrote?They’re on the first album. “Tell Me,” which was pulled out as a single in America, which was a dub. Half those records were dubs on that first album, that Mick and I and Charlie and I’d put a bass on or maybe Bill was there and he’d put a bass on. “Let’s put it down while we remember it” and the next thing we know is, “Oh look, track eight is that dub we did a couple months ago.” That’s how little control we had, we were driving around the country every fucking night, playing a different gig, sleeping in the van, hotels if we were lucky.
A lot of it was Andrew’s choice. He selected what was to be released. He was executive record producer, so-called. While we were gigging, he’d get that scene together. But remember then, it was important to put out a single every three months. You had to put out a 45, a red-hot single, every three months. An album was something like Motown—you put the hit single on the album and ten tracks of shit and then rush it out. Now, the album is the thing. Marshall has laid the figures on me and Sticky Fingers album has done more than the single. They’re both number one in the charts but the album’s done more than the single.
The concept’s changed so completely. Back then it was down to turning on 13-year-old chicks and putting out singles every three months. That was the basic force of the whole business. That was how it was done.
That’s another thing. Both the Beatles and us had been through buying albums that were filled with ten tracks of rubbish. We said, “No, we want to make each track good. Work almost as hard on it as you would work on a single.” So maybe we changed that concept.
Still, we were on the road every night so there are probably a couple of tracks in there that are probably bummers because Andrew said, “Well, put that on.” Because up until the Beatles and ourselves got into records, the cat who was singing had absolutely no control, man. None at all. He had no say in the studio. The backing track was laid down by session men, under the A and R man, artists and repertoire, whatever the fuck that means. He controlled the artist and the material. Bobby Vee or Billy Fury just laid down the vocal. They weren’t allowed to go into the booth and say, “I want my voice to sound like this or I want the guitar to sound like this.” The man from the record company decided what went where.
That’s why there became longer and longer gaps between albums coming out because we got into trying to make everything good.
The first three albums are pretty close though.The first one was done all in England. In a little demo studio in “Tin Pan Alley” as it used to be called. Denmark Street in Soho. It was all done on a two-track Revox that he had on the wall. We used to think, “Oh, this is a recording studio, huh? This is what they’re like?” A tiny little backroom.
When we got into RCA in Hollywood, fuckin’ huge Studio A, with Dave Hassinger engineering, we said, “We can really do it here. It’s all laid out. All you have to do is not let them take you over.” Engineers never even used to work, man. They’d flick a few switches and that was it. The machinery was unsophisticated in those days, four track was the biggest there was.
Suddenly a whole new breed of engineers appears, like Glyn Johns, people who are willing to work with you, and not with someone from the record company. There are all those weird things which have broken up in the record industry, which haven’t happened for movies yet. There are no more in-between men between you and the engineer and you can lay it down. If you want a producer or feel you need one, which most people do, it’s a close friend, someone you dig to work with, that translates for you. Eventually we found Jimmy Miller, after all those years.
Slowly and slowly, we’ve been finding the right people to do the right thing like Marshall Chess, like Jo Bergman. All those people are as important as we are. Especially now that we’ve got Rolling Stones records, with the Kali tongue – nobody’s gotten into that yet, but that’s Kali, the Hindu female goddess. Five arms, a row of heads around her, a sabre in one hand, flames coming out the other, she stands there, with her tongue out. But that’s gonna change. That symbol’s not going to stay as it is. Sometimes it’ll take up the whole label, maybe slowly it’ll turn to a cock, I don’t know yet.
You going to put two pills on the tongue?We’re going to do everything with it, slowly. Don’t want to let it grow stale. It’s growing change. Got to keep it growing.
What was the first lime Oldham saw the band?It was in March, 1963. The next week he took us right into a big studio and we cut “Come On.” We were always doing other people’s material but we thought we’d have a go at that – “Oh, it sounds catchy.” And it worked out. At the time it was done just to get a record out. We never wanted to hear it. The idea was Andrew’s – to get a strong single so they’d let us make an album which back then was a privilege.
Were you still a London band then?Completely. We’d never been out of the city. I’d never been further north than the north of London.
Was Andrew a change in the kind of people you had to deal with?He faced us with the real problems. That we had to find the hole to get out of the circle of London clubs and into the next circle. Lot of hustle, a lot of plague.
Did you have an image thing already?It’s funny. He tried – people think Oldham made the image, but he tried to tidy us up. He fought it. Absolutely. There are photographs of us in suits he put us in, those dog-tooth checked suits with the black velvet collars. Everybody’s got black pants, and a tie and a shirt. For a month on the first tour, we said, “All right. We’ll do it. You know the game. We’ll try it out.” But then the Stones thing started taking over. Charlie’d leave his jacket in some dressing room and I’d pull mine out and there’d be whiskey stains all over it or chocolate pudding. The thing just took over and by the end of the tour we were playing in our own gear again because that’s all we had left. Which was the usual reason.
You weren’t the socially “smart” band yet?
It must have been amazing early on, when some young lord or some young titled lady would come to see you play?Brian and I were really fascinated by them. They used to make us really laugh, from a real working class thing. It was so silly to us. It happened so fast that one never had time to really get into that thing, “Wow, I’m a Rolling Stone.” We were still sleeping in the back of this truck every night because of the most hard-hearted and callous roadie I’ve ever encountered, Stew. From one end of England to another in Stew’s Volkswagen bus. With just an engine and a rear window and all the equipment and then you fit in. The gear first though.
But to even get out of London then was such a weird trip for Mick and me. The North. Like we went back this year right, on the English tour, and it hasn’t changed a bit, man. In the Thirties, it used to look exactly the same, in the middle of the depression. It’s never ended for those people.
You’re travelling alone?Sure. Never carry chicks. Pick it up there or drop it. No room, man. Stew wouldn’t allow it. Crafty Bill Wyman. For years we believed that he couldn’t travel in the back of the bus or he’d spew all over us so he was always allowed to sit in the passenger seat. Years later, we find out he never gets travel sick at all.
Is the first album out?No, we released two singles before the album. The first single was “Come On” with Muddy Waters’ “I Wanna Be Loved” on the other side. We were learning to record. Andrew too. He’d never made a record in his life, and he was producing. Just to walk in and start telling people, it took guts. Andrew had his own ideas on what we were supposed to sound like. It’s only been in the last few years with Jimmy that it’s changed. The music went through Andrew then. He was in the booth.
Was there a period when it was all the same, just working, but you knew something was building?It’s weird. I can remember. You know it in front. Being on the road every night you can tell by the way the gigs are going, there’s something enormous coming. You can feel this energy building up as you go around the country. You feel it winding tighter and tighter, until one day you get out there halfway through the first number and the whole stage is full of chicks screaming “Nyeehhh.” There was a period of six months in England we couldn’t play ballrooms anymore because we never got through more than three or four songs every night, man. Chaos. Police and too many people in the places, fainting.
We’d walk into some of those places and it was like they had the Battle of the Crimea going on, people gasping, tits hanging out, chicks choking, nurses running around with ambulances.
I know it was the same for the Beatles. One had been reading about that, “Beatlemania.” “Scream power” was the thing everything was judged by, as far as gigs were concerned. If Gerry and the Pacemakers were the top of the bill, incredible, man. You know that weird sound that thousands of chicks make when they’re really lettin’ it go. They couldn’t hear the music. We couldn’t hear ourselves, for years. Monitors were unheard of. It was impossible to play as a band on stage, and we forgot all about it.
Did you develop a stage act?Not really. Mick did his thing and I tried to keep the band together. That’s always what it’s been, basically. If I’m leapin’ about, it’s only because something’s goin’ drastically wrong or it’s going drastically right.
Mick had always dug visual artists himself. He always loved Diddley and Chuck Berry and Little Richard for the thing they laid on people on stage. He really dug James Brown the first time he saw him. All that organization – ten dollar fine for the drummer if he missed the off beat.
What was Brian like onstage?He’d worked out these movements. In those days, little chicks would all have their favorites. Yeah, when you think the Rolling Stones magazine, the Beatles magazine came out once a month. Big sort of fan thing. It was a very old thing that one had the feeling had to change. All those teenyboppers.
It might have been a great last gasp.Yeah, I think so. Chicks now maybe they feel more equal. I think chicks and guys have gotten more into each other, realized there’s the same in each. Instead of them having to go through that completely hysterical, completely female trip to let it out that way. Probably now they just screw it out.
Was it innocent hysteria?They used to tell us, “There’s not a dry seat in the cinema.” It was like that.
Were you being approached by the kids?Yeah, I got strangled twice. That’s why I never wear anything around my neck anymore. Going out of theatres was the dodgiest. One chick grabs one side of the chain and another chick grabs the other side – Another time I found myself lying in the gutter with shirt on and half a pair of pants and the car roaring away down the street. Oh shit, man. They leap on you. “What do you want? What?”
You have to get a little crazy from that.You get completely crazy. And the bigger it got, America and Australia and everywhere it’s exactly the same number. Oh, we were so glad when that finished. We stopped. We couldn’t go on anymore. And when we decided to get it together again, everybody had changed.
Was it the same kind of madness in the States before it changed?Completely different kind of madness. Before, America was a real fantasy land. It was still Walt Disney and hamburger dates and when you came back in 1969 it wasn’t anymore. Kids were really into what was going on in their country. I remember watching Goldwater-Johnson in ’64 and it was a complete little show. But by the time it came to Nixon’s turn two years ago, people were concerned in a really different way.
Rock music as politics?Who knows, man? I mean they used to try and put it down so heavy, rock ‘n’ roll. I wonder if they knew there was some rhythm in there that was gonna shake their house down. I used to pick up those posters down South that say, “Don’t let your kid buy Negro records. Savage music. It will twist their minds.” Real heavy stuff against a black radio station or black records.
Was it a big thing to finally see the black lifestyle in America for the first time?It was a real joy. It was like I imagined but even better. Always a gas to see Etta James or B.B. King work for the first time. Some of those old blues cats. Wherever I go I still try and see whoever I can, I’ve heard is good or is still alive. I saw Arthur Crudup and Bukka White last time. Incredible.
We all went to the Apollo Theatre the first time over. Joe Tex and Wilson Pickett and the complete James Brown Review. Could never get over the fact that they were into that soul bag in ’64. Those suits, those movements, the vocal groups. It became obvious then the spades were going to change their music. They were into that formal, professional thing, which is not half as exciting as when they just let it go. And music ties in with all the rest. Like a real rebellion against that soul thing. Like “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.” You were always told it was going to be heavy going up there, but it never was.
Actually, the first gig was in San Bernardino. It was a straight gas, man. They all knew the songs and they were all bopping. It was like being back home. “Ah, love these American gigs.” and “Route 66” mentioned San Bernardino, so everybody was into it. The next gig was Omaha with the motorcycles and 600 kids. Then you get deflated. That’s what stopped us from turning into pop stars then, we were always having those continual complete somebody hittin’ you in the face, “Don’t forget, boy.” Then we really had to work America and it really got the band together. We’d fallen off in playing in England ’cause nobody was listening, we’d do four numbers and be gone. Don’t blink, you’ll miss us.
There was one ballroom number in Black-pool during Scots week when all the Scots come down and get really drunk and let it rip. A whole gang of ’em came to this ballroom and they didn’t like us and they punched their way to the front, right through the whole 7000 people, straight to the stage and started spitting at us. This guy in front spitting. His head was just football size, just right. In those days for me, I had a temper, and “You spit on me?” and I kicked his face in. It was down to the pressure of the road too. America to Australia to Canada to Europe, then recording.
You did some recording the first time over?Yeah, at Chess “Michigan Avenue” and “It’s All Over Now” and “Confessing the Blues.” Oldham was never a blues man, which was one reason he couldn’t connect with us. But a lot of things like “Spider and the Fly” were cut at the end of a session, while some guy was sweeping up. “Play With Fire” is like that, with Phil Spector on tuned-down electric guitar, me on acoustic, Jack Nitzsche on harpsichord, and Mick on tambourine with echo chamber. It was about seven o’clock in the morning. Everybody fell asleep.
Did you meet Spector that first time over?I think we met him in England before we even went to the States. We were still into the blues. Phil Spector was a big American record producer, kind of just another person that Andrew wanted you to meet. Although I really dug his sound, those records. Always wanted to know how he got such a big sound, and when I found out it was a 170-piece orchestra, Ok. Jack Nitzsche was Phil’s arranger and a very important part of that whole sound. It was Jack’s idea of harmonies and spacing. But it’s nice he’s singing with Crazy Horse now. He couldn’t stand to – to even get him to play the piano you used to have to do a whole Jack number. It’s great he’s doing it.
Brian had some kind of genius for finding people, didn’t he?He did. He got us together – Charlie, Mick and me.
He brought Nico to the Velvet Underground.He was into Dylan too, very early on. He was the only one of us who hung out with Dylan for a bit. A lot of people know Brian that I don’t know, that I didn’t know knew him who come up and say, “Yeah, I knew Brian.”
He was great. It was only when you had to work with him that he got very hung up. Anita could tell you a lot about Brian, obviously, because she was Brian’s chick for a long time. Brian did have that thing for pulling people together, for meeting people, didn’t he? [A] Anita: Mixing. Mix it. Mix it, Charlie. Fix it, Charlie.
In those two weeks, he’d had musicians down there every day. He was rehearsing. I’d talk to him every day and he’d say, “It’s coming along fine. Gonna get a really funky little band together and work and make a record.”
Do you think his death was an accident?
It could have as well been an accident. There were people there that suddenly disappeared – the whole thing with Brian is…
Do you think he was murdered?
He was really easing back from the whole drug thing. He wasn’t hitting ’em like he had been, he wasn’t hitting anything like he had. Maybe the combination of things. It’s one of those things I just can’t find out. You know, who do you ask?
How did you feel about his death?
We were completely shocked. I got straight into it and wanted to know who was there and couldn’t find out. The only cat I could ask was the one I think who got rid of everybody and did the whole disappearing trick so when the cops arrived, it was j
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