"This time around, it was a lot easier," says Keith Richards, describing the recording sessions for Main Offender, the recently released follow-up to his 1988 solo debut, Talk Is Cheap. "With Talk Is Cheap, we just kind of drifted from rehearsals into cutting tracks. We were forming this band, and it kept changing. You couldn't really say where the rehearsing left off and the recording started. This one was two straight sessions of ten days each. We had the songs ready in front, and everybody was ready to expand on the thing."
The core lineup of Richards's band hasn't changed on Main Offender; like Talk Is Cheap, the album features Richards on guitar and lead vocals, guitarist Waddy Wachtel, bassist Charley Drayton, drummer Steve Jordan and keyboardist Ivan Neville, as well as a return appearance by vocalist Sarah Dash. But on several tracks, Richards and members of the band swapped instruments to take advantage of the multi-instrumentalists in the band. The reggae track "Words of Wonder" is literally a game of musical chairs: Richards takes over the bass for Drayton, who climbs behind Jordan's drums, and Jordan picks up a guitar. On "Hate It When You Leave," Richards supplies the keyboard to free up Neville for bass.
Aside from Richards's impressive stab at reggae phrasings on "Words of Wonder," Main Offender offers no real departures musically; the album, which was produced by Richards, Jordan and Wachtel, is trademark Richards swagger – tag-along timing, growly, mumbled vocals and repeat-the-title-like-a-slogan backing vocals. Although it seems to have less of an edge than the bristling Talk Is Cheap, longtime fans won't be disappointed. The lower-key feel of Main Offender is probably a reflection of Richards's having been less tense when he made it. The recording of this album coincided with a period of relative calm in his often stormy relationship with Mick Jagger. That wasn't the case with Talk Is Cheap, which he says he went into "almost with reluctance" after Jagger opted to pursue his solo career instead of touring with the Stones behind Dirty Work in 1986.
"Of course," Richards says, "the minute you start working, you get into it. This band is very new and fresh for me. In a way it reminds me of working with the Stones in the early days. With the Stones, that feeling is long gone. And playing with different guys, especially of this caliber, makes so much difference for me when I work with the Stones."
"As a musician," Richards continues, "you've got to have something to do pretty much all the time. You don't have to work yourself to death necessarily, but if there's no reason to, you let yourself get slack. Drawing [the Stones] back together again became a strain.
"Whether Mick and I could put it back together with Steel Wheels was really the last big crunch point," says Richards. "And that turned out to be easier than I'd thought. Mick and I started cracking up the minute we had to sit around and write songs: 'What did you call me in the Daily Mirror, you asshole?'"
The Steel Wheels-induced truce between Richards and Jagger notwithstanding, questions about dueling solo albums invariably arise, with Jagger's latest Stone-alone effort – Wandering Spirit, coproduced by Rick Rubin – due for release in February. Richards says he hasn't yet heard Jagger's album, adding: "I hope his is good. He better make a good record."
Richards is planning a tour with his band for the end of 1992; meanwhile, the Stones are set to regroup in 1993 for a new studio album. According to Richards, there hasn't been any word as to whether Bill Wyman will be aboard. "We've gotta get into that," he says. "I'm going over to London to have a word with him. As Charlie [Watts] says, we can always threaten to replace him with a woman."
Unanswered questions aside, the guitarist seems confident that the bugs will be worked out; Richards says he's just glad to be working. Asked whether he sees himself alternating between the Stones and his band for the rest of his career, he pauses.
"I don't know," Richards says. "I hate predictions – they never turn out when I make them. But I think there's a possibility of another golden period in the Stones somewhere. I'm kind of looking forward to it. Nobody's ever taken it that far, so I ain't gonna chicken out now."
This story is from the November 26th, 1992 issue of Rolling Stone.