What was it about Waters, and that generation of bluesmen, that fascinated him so much? Keith shakes his head.
“I don’t know. It just struck the chord in here somewhere. You heard it and all the breath left your body and you were…anything to be able to approach that. Wherever he is, I wanna be, you know? That solidness, that hint of knowing far more than you ought to know, and power. Just such maleness, y’know. You felt, ‘That’s a man.’ And he lived up to it personally. He was such a very gentle guy, and that’s a real man. It’s very strange in that way, nearly all those guys had a certain streak of self-assurance, just steadiness about them, about what they know and how they’re gonna do it. Nearly all of the blues guys, the old cats that I ever met, were also very humble, no side on ’em. Just straight up.”
Listen to John Lee Hooker. His is a very archaic form of playing. Most of the time it ignores chord changes. They’re suggested but not played. If he’s playing with somebody else, that player’s chord will change, but he stays, he doesn’t move. And it’s relentless. And the other, the most important thing apart from the great voice and that relentless guitar, was that foot stomp, a crawling king snake. He carried his own two-by-four wood block to amplify his stomps. Bo Diddley was another one who loved to do just that one elemental chord, everything on one chord, the only thing that moves is the vocal and the way you’re playing it. I really only learned more about this later on. Then there was the power in people’s voices, like Muddy, John Lee, Bo Diddley. It wasn’t loud, necessarily, it just came from way down deep. The whole body was involved; they weren’t just singing from the heart, they were singing from the guts. That always impressed me.
Our thing was playing Chicago blues; that was where we took everything that we knew, that was our kickoff point, Chicago. The way those artists were recorded – there were no rules. If you looked at the regular way of recording things, everything was recorded totally wrong. But what is wrong and what is right? What matters is what hits the ear. Chicago blues was so raw and raucous and energetic. If you tried to record it clean, forget about it. Nearly every Chicago blues record you hear is an enormous amount over the top, loading the sound on in layers of thickness. When you hear Little Walter’s records, he hits the first note on his harp and the band disappears until that note stops, because he’s overloading it. When you’re making records, you’re looking to distort things, basically. That’s the freedom recording gives you, to fuck around with the sound. And it’s not a matter of sheer force; it’s always a matter of experiment and playing around. Hey, this is a nice mike, but if we put it a little closer to the amp, and then take a smaller amp instead of the big one and shove the mike right in front of it, cover the mike with a towel, let’s see what we get. What you’re looking for is where the sounds just melt into one another and you’ve got that beat behind it, and the rest of it just has to squirm and roll its way through. If you have it all separated, it’s insipid. What you’re looking for is power and force, without volume–an inner power. A way to bring together what everybody in that room is doing and make one sound. So it’s not two guitars, piano, bass and drums, it’s one thing, it’s not five. You’re there to create one thing.
“I do tend to listen to what I tend to listen to. I still listen to a lot of Otis Redding and a lot of Mozart. I listen to a lot of country blues still. It still hits me as being the essence of things, somehow, and I can’t quite put my finger on it. Otherwise, new stuff…I know there are those of great talent out there. I don’t know why I’m not hearing it. To me, records are sounding synthesized. It’s all too manufactured for me at the moment. Even drum beats, where the guys do them on pianos.
I’m a very roots man. I don’t know who else has made 70 and still works, except me. I don’t know what age people were when they did things, that’s my problem. I don’t even know quite honestly how old I am. It goes on and on.”
“When we started the Rolling Stones, we were just little kids, right?”“We felt we had some of the licks down, but our aim was to turn other people on to Muddy Waters.”
Indeed, the band had formed after Richards bumped into Mick Jagger, who was carrying two albums: Chuck Berry’s Rockin’ at the Hops and The Best of Muddy Waters.
“When I got to hear Muddy Waters,” said Richards, “it all fell into place for me. He was the thing I was looking for, the thing that pulled it all in for me. When I heard him I realized the connection between all the music I’d heard. He made it all explainable. He was like a codebook. I was incredibly inspired by him as a musician.”
One of the first lessons I learned with guitar playing was that none of these guys were actually playing straight chords. There’s a throw-in, a flick-back. Nothing’s ever a straight major. It’s an amalgamation, a mangling and a dangling and a tangling thing. There is no “properly.” There’s just how you feel about it. Feel your way around it. It’s a dirty world down here. Mostly I’ve found, playing instruments, that I actually want to be playing something that should be played by another instrument. I find myself trying to play horn lines all the time on the guitar. When I was learning how to do these songs, I learned there is often one note doing something that makes the whole thing work. It’s usually a suspended chord. It’s not a full chord, it’s a mixture of chords, which I love to use to this day. If you’re playing a straight chord, whatever comes next should have something else in it. If it’s an A chord, a hint of D. Or if it’s a song with a different feeling, if it’s an A chord, a hint of G should come in somewhere, which makes a 7th, which then can lead you on. Readers who wish to can skip Keef’s Guitar Workshop, but I’m passing on the simple secrets anyway, which led to the open chord riffs of later years–the “Jack Flash” and “Gimme Shelter” ones.
There are some people looking to play guitar. There’s other people looking for a sound. I was looking for a sound when Brian and I were rehearsing in Edith Grove. Something easily done by three or four guys and you wouldn’t be missing any instruments or sound on it. You had a wall of it, in your face. I just followed the bosses. A lot of those blues players of the mid-’50s, Albert King and B.B. King, were single-note players. T-Bone Walker was one of the first to use the double- string thing–to use two strings instead of one, and Chuck got a lot out of T-Bone. Musically impossible, but it works.
We didn’t think we were ever going to do anything much except turn other people on to Muddy Waters and Bo Diddley and Jimmy Reed. We had no intention of being anything ourselves. The idea of making a record seemed to be totally out of the picture. Our job at that time was idealistic. We were unpaid promoters for Chicago blues. It was terribly shining shields and everything like that. And monastic, intense study, for me at least. Everything from when you woke up to when you went to sleep was dedicated to learning, listening and trying to find some money–a division of labor. The ideal thing was, right, we’ve got enough to live on, a few bob in case of emergencies, and on top of that, beautiful, these girls come round, three or four of them, Lee Mohamed and her mates, and clear up for us, cook for us and just hang about. What the hell they saw in us at that time, I don’t know.
We didn’t have any other interests in the world except how to keep the electricity going and how to nick a few things out of the supermarket for food. Women were really third on that list. Electricity, food and then, hey, you got lucky. We needed to work together, we needed to rehearse, we needed to listen to music, we needed to do what we wanted to do. It was a mania. Benedictines had nothing on us. Anybody that strayed from the nest to get laid, or try to get laid, was a traitor. You were supposed to spend all your waking hours studying Jimmy Reed, Muddy Waters, Little Walter, Howlin’ Wolf, Robert Johnson. That was your gig. Every other moment taken away from it was a sin. It was that kind of atmosphere, that kind of attitude that we lived with.