The Next Stone Age
After Brian died, you recorded what has to be considered another classic Stones album, Sticky Fingers. Was it strange making an album without Brian?
Oh, yeah. A whole new world, an era away from Beggars Banquet. We had Mick Taylor in the band, and we had a new record company. We'd been at Decca, and we'd been rather successful, but we didn't get paid very much, and it was like being with strangers.
The cover of that album is a pair of jeans with a real zipper.
This was Andy Warhol's idea.
There's underwear on the back. Is that you?
No. It's one of Andy's ... protégés is the polite word we used to use, I think.
All right. That's the news in this interview. Why does "Brown Sugar" work like mad?
That's a bit of a mystery, isn't it? I wrote that song in Australia in the middle of a field. They were really odd circumstances. I was doing this movie, Ned Kelly, and my hand had got really damaged in this action sequence. So stupid. I was trying to rehabilitate my hand and had this new kind of electric guitar, and I was playing in the middle of the outback and wrote this tune.
But why it works? I mean, it's a good groove and all that. I mean, the groove is slightly similar to Freddy Cannon, this rather obscure '50s rock performer – "Tallahassee Lassie' or something. Do you remember this? "She's down in F-L-A." Anyway, the groove of that – boom-boom-boom-boom-boom – is "going to a go-go" or whatever, but that's the groove.
And you wrote it all?
This is one of your biggest hits, a great, classic, radio single, except the subject matter is slavery, interracial sex, eating pussy ...
[Laughs] And drugs. That's a double-entendre, just thrown in.
Brown sugar being heroin?
Brown sugar being heroin and –
That makes it ... the whole mess thrown in. God knows what I'm on about on that song. It's such a mishmash. All the nasty subjects in one go.
Were you surprised that it was such a success with all that stuff in it?
I didn't think about it at the time. I never would write that song now.
I would probably censor myself. I'd think, "Oh God, I can't. I've got to stop. I can't just write raw like that."
"Wild Horses." Is that a Keith song?
Yeah, it was his melody. And he wrote the phrase "wild horses," but I wrote the rest of [the lyrics].
It's one of the prettiest.
I like the song. It's an example of a pop song. Taking this cliché "wild horses," which is awful, really, but making it work without sounding like a cliché when you're doing it.
What about "Moonlight Mile"? That's a song without Keith – that's you and Mick Taylor.
Yeah, we recorded it in my house in the country, Stargroves. And we recorded a lot of stuff [there]: "Bitch," stuff from Exile on Main Street.
At the same time? And then just divided the songs between records?
Yeah. It's a good house to record in. And that's also where the Who made an album. Led Zeppelin recorded one. But anyway, I remember Mick Taylor playing that song. Real dreamy kind of semi-Middle Eastern piece. Yeah, that's a real pretty song – and a nice string arrangement.
You do "Dead Flowers" on this record. You put on this kind of loopy, country voice.
I love country music, but I find it very hard to take it seriously. I also think a lot of country music is sung with the tongue in cheek, so I do it tongue in cheek. The harmonic thing is very different from the blues. It doesn't bend notes in the same way, so I suppose it's very English, really. Even though it's been very Americanized, it feels very close to me, to my roots, so to speak.
Do you have anything to say about "Sister Morphine,"which is also on this album? Did Marianne write part of this?
She wrote a couple of lines; she always says she wrote everything, though. I can't even tell you which ones. She's always complaining she doesn't get enough money from it. Now she says she should have got it all.
What is it about?
It's about a man after an accident, really. It's not about being addicted to morphine so much as that. Ry Cooder plays wonderfully on that.
It's not what we think it was – it's not about Marianne Faithfull?
No. If you listen to the lyrics – that's what I remember, anyway. "Here I lie in my hospital bed."
Yeah, that's the bit she wrote.
Critics say your next album, Exile on Main Street, is the best Stones album. What do you think?
It's a bit overrated, to be honest. Compared to Let It Bleed and Beggars Banquet, which I think are more of a piece, I don't see it's as thematic as the other two. I'm not saying it's not good. It doesn't contain as many outstanding songs as the previous two records. I think the playing's quite good. It's got a raw quality, but I don't think all around it's as good.
What was the atmosphere recording "Exile"?
Well, Exile on Main Street was done in different pieces. There's this part which is recorded at Olympic [Studios], maybe a third. Another part is recorded in my house in the country in England. And half of it's recorded in Keith's basement in the South of France, and it's all mixed in L.A.
What was the band like at that time?
Stoned is the word that might describe it. [Laughs] It's the first album Mick Taylor's on, really. So it's different than previous albums, which had Brian on them – or Brian not on them, as the case may be. It was a difficult period, because we had all these lawsuits going with [business manager] Allen Klein. We had to leave England because of tax problems. We had no money and went to live in the South of France – the first album we made where we weren't based in England, thus the title.
Was the band at its drug zenith at that time?
What was the mood? What was the vibe around?
Just winging it. Staying up all night.
Keith was a full-scale junkie at that point?
And everybody else?
Stoned on something; one thing or another. So I don't think it was particularly pleasant I didn't have a very good time. It was this communal thing where you don't know whether you're recording or living or having dinner; you don't know when you're gonna play, when you're gonna sing – very difficult. Too many hangers-on.
I went with the flow, and the album got made. These things have a certain energy, and there's a certain flow to it, and it got impossible. Everyone was so out of it. And the engineers, the producers – all the people that were supposed to be organized – were more disorganized than anybody.
So it was a classic of that era, when that was a common approach to things.
Absolutely. But the previous ones were easier to make.
"Let It Bleed"?
We were still like that, but we were grounded because we were still in England and had this way of doing it. We went to the studio and lived in London. Though it was made in a screwy way, it was organized, structured; a studio rather than a home recording. Those home recordings have a good side to them, but they get floaty; you don't really know what you're doing.
Who wrote "Tumbling Dice"?
[Laughs] Keith and me. I wrote the lyrics.
And he did the groove?
Yeah. It comes back to that thing where I really don't remember who had the melody or not, but it doesn't really matter.
Why does that beat grab you so quick?
I don't really know what people like about it. I don't think it's our best stuff. I don't think it has good lyrics. But people seem to really like it, so good for them.
Do you cringe when you hear some of the old drug songs?
Sometimes. Not only the drugs – I just cringe, period.
Many people would be embarrassed to discuss the drug behavior of their youth, but you have no choice.
I was thinking about this the other day, and I don't really think I was suited to heavy drug behavior, to be perfectly honest. But I don't mind talking about it. It's hard to believe that you did so many drugs for so long. That's what I find really hard. And didn't really consider it. You know, it was eating and drinking and taking drugs and having sex. It was just part of life. It wasn't really anything special. It was just a bit of a bore, really. Everyone took drugs the whole time, and you were out of it the whole time. It wasn't a special event.
But drugs definitely had a big impact on your band.
All these drugs had tremendous influence on behavior. I think half of starting to take drugs in that early period was to kind of place yourself outside of normal society.
Thinking about those days, do you feel this was a good use of time or a waste of time?
Good use of time. [Laughs] I'm reticent to go into a sort of dreadful reminiscence of the swinging '60s.
What about the contribution of Mick Taylor to the band in these years?
I think he had a big contribution. He made it very musical. He was a very fluent, melodic player, which we never had, and we don't have now. Neither Keith nor [Ronnie Wood] plays that kind of style. It was very good for me working with him. Charlie and I were talking about this the other day, because we could sit down – I could sit down – with Mick Taylor, and he would play very fluid lines against my vocals. He was exciting, and he was very pretty, and it gave me something to follow, to bang off. Some people think that's the best version of the band that existed.
What do you think?
They're all interesting periods. They're all different. I obviously can't say if I think Mick Taylor was the best, because it sort of trashes the period the band is in now.
Why did Mick Taylor leave?
I still don't really know.
He never explained?
Not really. He wanted to have a solo career. I think he found it difficult to get on with Keith.
On musical issues?
Everything. I'm guessing.
After those four great albums, it seems like a weak period starts. There's Goats Head Soup which has "Angie." And Black and Blue has got "Memory Motel" and "Fool to Cry." But these records are kind of weak after those big ones. What happened? Did it have to do with Keith's drug use?
Yeah, I think so. I find it so hard to remember, though, I don't want to commit myself to saying something. I mean, everyone was using drugs, Keith particularly. So I think it suffered a bit from all that. General malaise. I think we got a bit carried away with our own popularity and so on. It was a bit of a holiday period [Laughs].
I mean, we cared, but we didn't care as much as we had. Not really concentrating on the creative process, and we had such money problems. We had been so messed around by Allen Klein and the British Revenue. We were really in a very bad way. So we had to move. And it sort of destabilized us a bit. We flew off all edges.
Everybody went in different directions?
We had all lived in London before this.
So for the first time you guys are not together all the time.
Not only couldn't we stay in England, we couldn't go to America because we had immigration problems. So we were limited. It was a very difficult period.
You came back, though, with "Some Girls." Did that have to do, perhaps, with being in New York City?
Yes, you are absolutely right! Well done! I'd moved to New York at that point. The inspiration for the record was really based in New York and the ways of the town. I think that gave it an extra spur and hardness. And then, of course, there was the punk thing that had started in 1976. Punk and disco were going on at the same time, so it was quite an interesting period. New York and London, too. Paris – there was punk there. Lots of dance music. Paris and New York had all this Latin dance music, which was really quite wonderful. Much more interesting than the stuff that came afterward.
"Miss You" is one of the all-time greatest Rolling Stones grooves.
Yeah. I got that together with Billy Preston, actually.
You and he came up with that?
Yeah, Billy had shown me the four-on-the-floor bass-drum part, and I would just play the guitar. I remember playing that in the El Mocambo club when Keith was on trial in Toronto for whatever he was doing. We were supposed to be there making this live record.
That was the first performance of it?
Yeah. I was still writing it, actually. We were just in rehearsal.
But that's a wholly Mick Jagger song?
And "Beast of Burden"?
That's more like Keith's song. I wrote lyrics.
It's got that really nice little lick on that. And "Respectable"?
Yeah, this is the kind of edgy punk ethos. Yeah, the groove of it – and on all of those songs, the whole thing was to play it all fast, fast, fast. I had a lot of problems with Keith about it, but that was the deal at the time.
He told me that you kept trying to make a disco album, and he didn't think that was the Stones. Was that the problem?
Not at all. I wanted to make more of a rock album. I just had one song that had a dance groove: "Miss You." But I didn't want to make a disco album. I wrote all these songs – like "Respectable," "Lies," "When the Whip Comes Down."
So most of the songs on this album are yours?
No, not most. I only mentioned half. I don't know what else is on there.
That's one of Keith's and me in combination.
"Far Away Eyes"?
Combination. I wasn't out to make a disco record, making "Far Away Eyes." But "Miss You" really caught the moment, because that was the deal at the time. And that's what made that record take off. It was a really great record.
I seem to like records that have one overriding mood with lots of little offshoots. Even though there's a lot of bases covered, there's lots of straight-ahead rock & roll. It's very brass edged. It's very Rolling Stones, not a lot of frills.
Boys Will Be Girls
On the Some Girls cover – and not for the first time – the members of the band are in drag. This now seems to have become a rock tradition. What are the origins of the androgynous appeal of rock & roll?
Elvis. Elvis was very androgynous. People in the older generation were afraid of Elvis because of this. That was one of the things they saw in Elvis. They called it effeminate. And they saw it straightaway.
I saw Elvis as a rock singer, and obviously you were attracted to him because he was a good-looking guy. But they saw an effeminate guy. I mean, if you look at the pictures, the eyes are done with makeup, and everything's perfect. I mean, look at Little Richard. He had a very feminine appearance, but you didn't translate that into what Little Richard's sex orientation was.
When did you first start to incorporate all that into your own act?
Well, we did it straightaway, unconsciously.
But when did you get deliberate about it?
Oh, about 1960. Very early, before we made records. As far as I was concerned, it was part of the whole thing from the beginning. I couldn't have talked about it like I talk about it now. But it wasn't some new thing. You were copying all your idols. I always thought Buddy Holly was very effeminate. His voice, not necessarily his look. And you just incorporated it all. I just pushed it further because it seemed the natural thing to do. Plus, there was that whole culture of people you met who were gay, in the theater and so on. And everyone in show business talked in a very camp, English way: "All right, duckie," "Come along, dear." So as soon as you were in it professionally, that was the way people carried on, so it became even more camp.
The Beatles weren't like this. You were wearing heavy makeup and skirts.
I think you just pushed the whole thing because you thought it was sophisticated to be camp and effeminate. It was a thing you showed some of the time and then put aside. It was very English – guys dressing up in drag is nothing particularly new.
But David Bowie told me that you were the master: "He taught all the rest of us."
Well, that's very nice. And it obviously worked and offended people, which was always the big thing, something new to offend them with. I think what we did in this era was take all these things that were unspoken in previous incarnations of rock & roll and intellectualize them.
But you went further than anybody else and became a symbol of it. When were you first aware that you were this beauty, that you had a power to attract both boys and girls?
Oh, from the beginning.
The girls, then the boys?
In a sexual sense?
I didn't really think about it. I mean, boys were a very essential part of rock & roll. The girls were more onlookers. When I was 15, 16, I used to play this old-fashioned rock & roll – like Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis. And I always felt the boys were more involved than the girls. Boys, as far as England was concerned, were always the hard core. And you just know the guys like it. They want to be you. Some might be attracted to you without knowing it. The girls are more obviously reaching out to you. In those days, guys didn't reach out, put their arms around you and kiss you.
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