Album Rescue Series: Keith Richards ‘Talk Is Cheap’

It’s an interesting process writing these Album Rescue Series (ARS) entries as no two are ever selected, researched or written the same way. Finding a piece of music to rescue is relatively easy; you simply find an album that you like, but the general public or the critics hated, and then rescue it by whatever metrics you deem appropriate. In fact a good proportion of the 11,000 plus albums that I own fit into the bracket of awkward, unloved, misunderstood, didn’t sell or are simply bizarre, so by default they are all suitable for an album rescue. To completely misquote German philosopher Martin Hiedegger “Music speaks us, we do not speak music”. This holds true to the music that I’ve purchased over the years. My music collection tells you more about the type of person that I am, and my conscience state when I bought an album, then I ever could, even more so if you place these purchases in chronological order. The whole of Nick Hornby’s (1995) baby boomer book High Fidelity taps into the notion of music defining us and our life journey.

The first step in my album rescue process is to look through my CD collection and ‘audition’ various albums. Once a suitable album has been sourced the next step is to play it continuously whilst researching. The locating and auditioning of Keith Richards’ 1988 first solo album Talk Is Cheap was a really easy choice, the research less so. As an avid reader, my primary research is normally whatever books I can lay my hands on. When Keith Richards’ released his autobiography Life in 2011, I bought it immediately and read all 630 plus pages in a matter of days. For this ARS, I thought a good starting point would be to re-visit this book, which I really enjoyed during the original read. It was with some disappointment when I checked in the index to find that only three pages (529 to 532) are dedicated to this album. Considering the number pages that are given over to Richards’ Rolling Stones albums and his second 1992 solo album Main Offender, it would appear that Richards himself would be grateful for this album rescue too. Released in October 1988 on Virgin Records, Talk Is Cheap received a reasonably receptive critical reaction; many reviewers half-jokingly called it the best Rolling Stones album in years. Sales could have been better and it never sold in anywhere near the numbers that would make Richard’s record company claim it to be anything close to a success.

The Rolling Stones are huge. In astronomical terms they are equivalent to the sun and they sit at the absolute centre of the rock ‘n’ roll solar system. The sun with its dominant mass exerts the greatest gravitational force in the solar system and holds all other objects in orbit and governs their motion. The Rolling Stones universal gravitational pull exerts an un-escapable force over all objects within their gravitational field e.g. Mick Taylor, Marianne Faithful, Brian Jones, Andrew Loog-Oldham, Alan Klein, the list is extensive. This makes a truly objective analysis of Keith Richards’ solo work virtually impossible. When Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham fired musical genius and original founding member Brian Jones from the band in 1969, the creative engine of the band defaulted to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. This event was a major contributor to the establishment of the institution that would become ‘The Glimmer Twins’. Jagger and Richards have worked together since they first formed the band over 50 years ago in 1962. Anyone who has ever wondered what Richards’ contribution to the considerable output of the Rolling Stones could undertake some objective and scientific research.

Atomic theory supports the belief that all matter is composed of tiny, indivisible elements. This theory has very deep historical roots, initially appearing thousands of years ago in Greek and Indian texts as a philosophical idea. However, it was not embraced scientifically until the 19th century, when an evidence-based approach began to reveal what the atomic model looked like. It was at this time that John Dalton (no relation), an English chemist, meteorologist and physicist, began a series of experiments, which would culminate in him proposing the theory of atomic compositions. Thereafter it would be known as Dalton’s Atomic Theory and would become one of the cornerstones of modern physics and chemistry. Dalton came up with this theory as a result of his research into gases. In the course of this research, Dalton discovered that certain gases could only be combined in certain proportions, even if two different compounds shared the same common element or group of elements. So for this album rescue I am going to be donning a white lab coat, safety goggles, latex gloves and undertaking some subjective, scientific subtractive and combinational analysis, something that I’m sure John Dalton would be proud of.

Only a fool would dispute that Keith Richards is one of the most prolific riff creators in rock history Start Me Up, Midnight Rambler, Satisfaction, Beast of Burden, Brown Sugar, Honky Tonk Women, Paint It Black the list goes on. Every one of these classic Rolling Stone’s songs, and virtually everything the band have recorded, is built upon Richards’ initial guitar riff foundation. What we are trying to deduce here is what other attributes does Richards contribute to the Rolling Stones? Talk Is Cheap is a vital piece of evidence that can help solve this question. Richards’ playing style is more conspicuous without the presence of Mick Jagger, whose larger-than-life personality can often over-shadow other aspects of Richards’ musical contribution. My hypothesis here is that Richards is the heart and soul of the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band while Jagger merely provides the show biz chutzpah. My first scientific step in addressing this hypothesis is to identify what the Rolling Stones might sound like without Richards. Here, I suggest listening to Mick Jagger’s second 1987 solo album Primitive Cool but only in the name of scientific research because it’s an absolute disgrace; weak writing, poor musicianship, hideously overproduced and coated in the worst production excesses of the era. If you think this second album is bad then you definitely won’t want to listen to Jagger’s first 1985 solo album She’s The Boss. Both albums are beyond rescuing and would benefit from euthanasia. By 1993, Jagger starts to get the hand of solo albums with Wandering Spirit, which was a fabulous solo record, largely because of the superb production by audio alchemist Rick Rubin. Rubin understood Richards’ contributions so he went out and found a Keith Richards clone to fill the void.

Simply examining Mick Jagger’s solo recording isn’t going to provide the full answer to the hypothesis, so here we apply some sub-atomic theory. The Stones recorded their 18th studio album Dirty Work in 1985 with producer Steve Lilleywhite. Most people agree it’s a great album even if it is an album born out of the fracturing of the Glimmer Twins relationship. Everyone in the Stones, and the press, assumed that the band would tour in 1986 to support Dirty Work, but Jagger had a completely different agenda. Stones drummer Charlie Watts claimed that Jagger had folded up twenty-five years of history and had turned his back on the band once recording was complete. Richards’, the ardent traditionalist, and Jagger, the trend jumping shape shifter, were no longer living together in perfect harmony. In his autobiography Life (2011: p.527) Richards’ claims that Jagger’s priority in touring to support Primitive Cool was deliberately designed to close down the Rolling Stones. By 1987 things were looking rocky for the Stones and there was the distinct possibility that the end of the band was imminent. The Stones didn’t tour at all from 1982 to 1989 and didn’t venture into the studio together from 1985 to 1989. Mick and Keith are well known for their public disagreements, but things got very nasty when Jagger decided to tour in support of his second solo album, rather than Stone’s album. It signalled to many a change in Jagger’s priorities from the band to his solo work. Maybe Jagger had started to believe his own hype and honestly believed he was the Rolling Stones? Or was he simply fed up of running what was in effect an international global brand and being the sole creative, due to Keith’s self-enforced drug absence, within the enterprise? According to Richards’ (2011: p.520), Jagger sent letters out to the band informing them of his decision. Whatever Jagger’s reason he was perfectly entitled to do as he pleased because he’d already invested a quarter of a century’s work into the band. Richards was disheartened and finally succumbed to the idea of recording without the Rolling Stones. I’ve never met Keith Richards but from what I’ve read, he’s a pretty laid back cat and things have to be at the extreme end of the dial before he takes any action. According to Richards’ autobiography Life (2011), Jagger has been unbearable for the last 30 years. He also described his love-hate relationship with Jagger as being “like a marriage with no divorce” (2011: p.461). Richards reacted very badly to the departure of his soul mate ‘Glimmer Twin’ partner and it’s likely he was fearful of his own enforced creative solo future. Richard’s vented his anger in the press calling Jagger “Disco boy, Jagger’s little Jerk Off Band, why doesn’t he join Aerosmith?” (2011: p.527). Richards’ even threatened to “slit his (Jagger’s) fuckin’ throat” in one press interview (abid).

Richards was confronted with a huge problem, which was largely solved, via Occam’s Razor or the Law of Parsimony. This theory dating from the Middle Ages, states that among competing hypotheses that predict equally well, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. At the age of 44, Richards could have taken the easy route, the route of least resistance and simply retired, he certainly was financial capable. Ever since Richards had kicked his heroin habit around 1978, also the year the Stones released their greatest album Some Girls, music had again become his raison d’être. It was at this point that Richards became determined to make music, even without Mick Jagger though not entirely on his own. It’s ironic that when Richards quits the smack in favor of music, his long-term musical partner simply fucks off. This album might be billed as a solo album but Richards had some grade A1 premiership collaborators on Talk Is Cheap. The core band comprises of Waddy Wachtel (guitar), Ivan Neville (piano/keyboards), Charley Drayton (bass) and Steve Jordan (drums/producer) and became know, semi-jokingly, as the X-Pensive Winos. There are also numerous guest artists taking part, including Sarah Dash who provides the superbly appropriate duet vocals on Make No Mistake, bass virtuoso Bootsy Collins, saxophonist Maceo Parker, Bernie Worrell on organ and Mrs. Bruce Springsteen, Patti Scialfa, provides some superb vocals. Rolling Stones’ contributors include The Memphis Horns, sax player Bobby Keys in all his Texan finery and ex-Stones, guitarist Mick Taylor. This band was originally assembled by Richards to back up blues veteran Chuck Berry for the not entirely successful Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll documentary and concert.

Drummer Steve Jordan becomes a surrogate Glimmer Twin and key collaborator when he takes on joint production and songwriting duties with Richards. Between the two of them they put together a musically simple and straightforward album. Where this album excels is in the top notch playing, as you would expect from such a stunning band of musicians. Sonically this album is superb as it hails from a time when big production budgets resulted in access to the world’s greatest recording studios. The tracks Take It So Hard (2), Struggle (3) and Whip It Up (9) are riff perfect Richards’ classics. Track ten Locked Away is emotionally intelligent without being maudlin and worldly while sounding adult and contemporary. The main point of Talk Is Cheap is the music, nothing more; Richards obviously didn’t want to fret about anything but the groove. While Jagger’s solo work sounded like Mick with some studio musicians, Keith had assembled a band, found a productive songwriting partner and surrogate Glimmer Twin in Steve Jordan, and created a record that was free of frills. This is an album of free expression and enjoyment; Richards sounds like he’s playing for himself, having a ball and loving every moment of it. Because the X-pensive Winos are hand picked by Richards, they have a different work ethic from the Stones, which forces Richards to focus on the music. What resulted was a solid album built on fundamentals rather than style. The brilliance of Keith Richards is his ability to serve the song, and the band, with his playing. Richards is an expert collaborator with a simplistic but unique tone, a fabulous sense of rhythm, an uncanny ability to turn the beat around and the ability to move around inside the structure of the song with those signature soulful riffs. His guitar playing is not about fancy or lightning fast playing or impressive technique, he’s got Waddy Wachtel for that. It’s all about those simple glorious infectious grooves and some basic but timeless song writing.

Richards and Bob Dylan would appear to agree on the fact that you know when you have a great song because you can strip away all the production and play it with an acoustic guitar and a voice. Dylan calls this a “song with legs” (Heylin, C. 2000), a song that is strong enough to get up and walk around on its own. All the songs on Talk Is Cheap have legs, in fact, the songs are so good they can do star jumps. This album shouldn’t come as a shock because Richards had served notice on the 1978 Stones album Some Girls with his solo written track Before They Make Me Run. Richards was busted for heroin in February 1977 at Toronto airport and the criminal charges and prospect of a prison sentence loomed over the Some Girls recording sessions and endangered the future of the Rolling Stones. It would appear that Richards is reactive and not pro-active to situations as the recording of this track demonstrates. According to Elliot Martin’s book The Rolling Stones: Complete Recording Sessions (2002: p.263), Richards recorded this song in five days without sleeping. Originally entitled Rotten Roll, the song was recorded in Paris at the Pathé Marconi studio in March 1978 during one of Mick Jagger’s prolonged absences from the Some Girls recording sessions. That’s not to say that Jagger didn’t have a right not to be present, he’d carried the band, and Richards, single-handed for the last decade.

Talk Is Cheap, returned Richards’ musical focus and for the first time in a decade put him back in the position of playing what he wanted to play and not what the crowd expected to hear. This is a luxury that most musicians don’t have and Richards’ millionaire international rock star status is one reason he could make such a unique and engaging piece of work. Talk Is Cheap is definitely not a period Stones album, it isn’t the Stones at all, but is an expression of Richards fondness for traditional rockabilly, soul and at times hints of funk. Surprisingly, there is not a whole lot of blues in it explicitly, but it does lurk in the background, I guess the blues are saved for Rolling Stones albums? Track seven, How I Miss You, is as close to a Rolling Stones simulacrum as its possible to get. A rocker of a song with a deep heart felt cry out to long lost friend such as Anita Pallenberg, Gram Parson or even Mick Jagger? Richards and his co-songwriter and producer, Steve Jordan, put together a collection of songs that display all these loves of Richards in an honest, straightforward and simple way. Talk Is Cheap is an island of simple solid rock ‘n’ roll granite in a featureless shallow sea of late 1980’s post modern glitter; to my ears this album sounds even better today than it did back then.

If I was to pick one track from this album to serve as an indicative example of the whole album it would have be track two Take It So Hard. It starts with the hallmark Richards’ rough-n-ready riff that clearly signals that he has reclaimed his mojo, which had been begrudgingly on loan to Jagger through most of the 70s and 80s. The loose but very attuned X-pensive Winos jump in with a hard-driving groove and Richards sings the tune with all of Jagger’s swagger and sneering attitude, even if he doesn’t quite have Jagger’s flair. Moreover, there are enough ad-libs in this track to tell you he’s definitely having fun. Waddy Watchel’s guitar solo in the break is a leitmotif originally authored a couple of decades earlier by Richards, but Watchel reappropriates and reinvents it here in this album. Naturally this solo fits a Keith Richards’ song perfectly. All the tracks on this album are simple and I don’t mean this as a criticism. Upon its release many critics claimed the simple attributes of Talk Is Cheap were it’s main problem, because simple attributes no matter how well mastered, always remain simple. This criticism completely misses the point.

This album needs rescuing because simple is always good, simple works, simple is agile, simple is clever, simple is confidence, simple focuses the mind and simple lets you see the wood without the trees in the way. Simple is not a criticism, simple is about doing one small thing incredibly well, Richards’ style, as opposed to doing lots things not so well, Jagger style. This album displays a simple but expert mastery over the music that Richards loves to play, a mastery which he displays on his second solo album Main Offender (1992) but which is not fully displayed on any Rolling Stones records. As 19th century French writer Stendhal wrote in his 1830 work Le Rouge et le Noir (The Red and Black) “Only great minds can afford a simple style”. Evidence of how simple Richards’ likes to make it can be seen in his guitar choice. Six strings is one too many, five strings work great especially with open G tuning. Richards’ prominent guitar of choice over the years has been a Fender Telecaster. This guitar is all about being a tradesman and coming to a job tooled up. Telecasters aren’t about flash or showing off they are about getting the job done. Look at other well-known Telecaster players: Bruce Springsteen, Joe Strummer, George Harrison, Syd Barret or Graham Coxon and you’ll see my point. Keith Richard’s Talk Is Cheap is definitely the greatest Fender Telecaster record ever made.

Talk Is Cheap is a wonderful record because it features for the first time Richards’s second instrument, his voice. With this second instrument, Richards wonderfully expresses his experiences, while his first instrument, the guitar, so wonderfully expresses his endurance. His voice is unique, most people hate it, a few love it and as he rightly states, (2011: p.534) “Pavarotti it ain’t, but then I don’t like Pavarotti’s voice”. For the first time Richards is writing material that he wants to write and not in collaboration with Jagger and for a different audience. Richards’ is not prolific in his solo output; he barely averages a solo album every 17.5 years. As George Bernard Shaw once said “I’m sorry this letter is so long, I didn’t have time to make it shorter”. To return to my original hypothesis, this analysis has proven that as a primary component of the Rolling Stones, Richards is the engine driver and without him the machine does not move. During Richards’ heroin sabbatical (which could have been one of his productive periods), Jagger carried him, as any good partner should, until Richards was well enough to work again. In many ways Jagger’s semi-selfish actions of concentrating on his solo work pushed a refocused Richards into making Talk Is Cheap. Mick Jagger broke from the Stones to try and be a rock star and largely failed while Richards was pushed into making a record he never wanted to make. Neither Jagger nor Richards sold anywhere near the amount of solo records as they expected to, but that’s not the point. Jagger explored the territory solo and came back to the Rolling Stones to re-identify himself. Richard’s was forced out begrudgingly to explore solo territory as a junkie joke and came back a creditable musician. Whatever the circumstance I am very pleased that Richards made Talk Is Cheap and I believe that it is a significant piece of work that is well and truly worthy of an Album Rescue. Without Talk Is Cheap the Rolling Stones would have disappeared into the “where are they now” file. How could any Keith Richards’ record possibly be better? How could any Keith Richards’ record ever be worse?

2 thoughts on “Album Rescue Series: Keith Richards ‘Talk Is Cheap’

  1. ‘Some Girls’ the greatest – hmm. ‘Beggars Banquet’ esp after the disasterous ‘On Her Satanic Majesties Request’ with 3 good songs, the first, the second and the adventerous ‘2000 Light Years from Home’ luckily which made it to a B-side. After ‘Exile’ perhaps the next best brilliant effort with an overall rating of 70% given someone’s proclivity for boring mewing ballads the Stone’s next effforts were becoming indifference itself with perhaps one or two great numbers and the rest not even any good. By then, late 70s and on bands like The Stooges, The Tubes [amazing stuff there], The Stranglers, moved rock onwards furthered by women such as Siouxie herself each LP a reincarnation continuing into ‘Juju’ her best along with Cabaret Voltaire, Bauhaus the Stones seemed somewhat predictable if not – sad to say- dated. Now it is Anglespit, Junksister, Aiboforcen, Ego Likeness, Collide [a little dormant for now] Garbage and all other great musos contributing to the eclectic universe of music. The Stones have done their stuff amazingly well but diversity is the spice of life. A mutation of sorts would be desirable, and if not perhaps back to the blues.


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