During the mid Eighties, the relationship between Keith Richards and Mick Jagger hit a historic low, as Jagger tested solo waters. “Mick started to become unbearable.” Richards wrote in his 2010 memoir Life. You could hear the rift: 1983’s Undercover and 1986’s Dirty Work often sounded like lackluster attempts at keeping up with the times.
So in 1988, Richards took advantage of time off in the Stones’ schedule and went into the studio with a crack band he dubbed the X-Pensive Winos, including guitarist Waddy Wachtel, keyboard player Ivan Neville and drummer-producer Steve Jordan. The result was a surprise: not just the debut solo LP by pretty much the last Sixties icon left who’d never gone solo, but an album with a loose vibrancy lacking in his primary project; “a masterpiece of underachievement,” wrote Rolling Stone Senior Editor David Fricke in his review.
Talk Is Cheap was rare among works by middle-aged rockers at the time, when many felt compelled to address the MTV era with programmed drums and albums that seemed to deny their own histories. With its raw, roomy feel and hollered backing vocals, “Take It So Hard,” the first single from Talk Is Cheap, had it both ways, rocking with garage-gang vigor while still getting MTV play. “Struggle” was taut, speedy and full of sharp-elbowed guitars. “How I Wish” was the Platonic ideal of an Eighties Rolling Stones single, minus gratuitous contemporary sonics. “You Don’t Move Me” had a classic jagged Richards riff and growled lyrics that seemed to allude to his blossoming in-house feud (“Why you think you ain’t got no friends,” he growled with strikingly authentic-seeming anger).
That bare-knuckled drive didn’t preclude texture or subtlety. Always an underrated vocalist, he delivered lyrics with two-pack-a-day gravitas, gruff aggression and flashes of fraying soulfulness. Musically, he doubled down on vintage earthiness and living history — Fifties rock & roll (“Could’ve Stood You Up”), Memphis soul (“Make No Mistake,” a track helmed by iconic Hi Records producer Willie Mitchel) and South African township jive (Michael Doucet’s beautifully dissonant fiddle on the barbed ballad “Locked Away”). For sideman, he called on Chuck Berry pianist Johnny Johnson, members of Parliament Funkadelic, longtime Stones sax man Bobby Keys and even ex-Stone Mick Taylor.
It’s perfectly fitting that an album this casual would get a 30th Anniversary reissue the year after it turned 30. The deluxe edition includes six bonus tracks that show just how much fun these guys were having at the time, like the funky throwaway “Mark on Me” (in which Richards shouts, “That bitch she put the mark on me” against a hilariously gloppy synth), the humid Neville Brothers-esque instrumental workout “Brute Force” and several blues numbers featuring rollicking piano work by Johnson.
Talk Is Cheap wasn’t meant to signify anything; that was a huge part of its charm. But in its own way it proved prophetic. The year after its release would be a boom year for Sixties-identified artists returning to their bedrock sounds after struggling to pilot the Eighties: Lou Reed with the street-level commentary of New York; Neil Young with the balance of raging noise and acoustic ache of Freedom; and Bonnie Raitt, with the subtle introspect and blues resolve of Nick of Time.
Richards recently said the experience of recording solo made him appreciate working with Jagger. The Stones were back in 1989 too, sounding undeniably Stones-like on Steel Wheels. Somewhat poetically, the album’s best song was by Richards, the slow closer “Slipping Away.” Moodily elegant and last-cigarette reflective, it’s full of middle-age self-examination, intimations of hard-living mortality and a wry sense of the Stones’ own imperiled state at the time. It was also a moving moment of detente with Jagger, who lent spirited vocals to the tune’s resiliently hard-swinging bridge. “It seems I’ve lost my touch,” the Glimmer Twins sing together. Talk Is Cheap was a reminder where they could find it.