In 1986, the future of the Rolling Stones was uncertain. Instead of hitting the road for the band’s new album Dirty Work, Mick Jagger went out as a solo act. So Keith Richards did something he’d always resisted: He started a new band. The guitarist gathered a group of friends he called the X-Pensive Winos and holed up in a Quebec studio to cut Talk Is Cheap, which mixed Memphis soul, reggae and early rock.
“I wasn’t under the pressure of the Stones,” he says. “It was a lot looser.” Talk Is Cheap has been reissued for its 30th anniversary, adding bonus tracks featuring the Winos playing with Chuck Berry pianist Johnnie Johnson — “magic, incredible rock & roll boogie shit,” says Richards. The album gave Richards new perspective when the Stones got back together: “I appreciated Mick’s angle on things more, onstage especially. It’s an incredible thing to have been a part of two amazing bands.” Here, Keith goes inside the making of his overlooked classic.
Talk Is Cheap is one of my favorite things you’ve ever done. Have you found that to be a common opinion from the fans?
Yeah man, I get a lot of that. It’s an incredible thing to have two amazing bands to be part of. And the Winos, we’re all still very close friends. Steve [Jordan, drums] and I still see each other a lot and work together. We’re always working in the background and never know if anything will come of it, but it keeps our chops up.
You had never made a solo album before. Was it at all scary stepping outside the Stones?
Well, it would have seemed that it would have been, because it was so unlike me. I had been so strictly Stones, Stones, Stones. I’ve got a great band here. But circumstances gave me the opportunity for me to work again, and actually find another incredible band. It’s like I’m double-blessed. And the Winos still live in me. I do miss them so, actually. I see them quite often. Waddy [Wachtel, guitar] has worked a lot with me on the last solo album and Crosseyed Heart. Basically there’s a Wino on every track in some way.
One point that Anthony DeCurtis made in the liner notes was that you could have made a solo record where you got all your all-star friends together. But you took a different approach.
Steve and I work very closely on this sort of stuff. We approached it like, “Who’s the best guy? Who are we hearing here, to bring in?” So we worked basically on that, rather than a bunch of friends just cropping up. Though there were quite a few friends that cropped up. Blondie Chaplin is in there. Waddy is on there. Ivan [Neville, piano] is on there. But then there’s people I actually hadn’t met before, like Spooner Oldham, who I’d always wanted to work with. It’s just working with whoever we thought was the top hand at what we wanted to.
In the past, you had said it was a mistake when Stones members ventured outside the group — they thought they could do it, but couldn’t.
What I was happy about was that I could step out of the Stones and just as easily step back in. But I learned a lot about being a frontman. I appreciated it a lot more — Mick’s angle on things — onstage especially. It widened my perspective of what everybody has to do in a band. It gave me more respect for the frontman.
How did it make you respect the frontman more?
You realize that you’re it all the time; you don’t stop. With the Stones, I’m in a beautiful position of being able to go forward whenever I feel like it, or just hunker down with the band and the groove. I have choices. The frontman has no choice.
On his differences with Mick Jagger: “That’s the way Mick and I are. That’s the little irritation that makes the pearl in the oyster.”
You started in a mansion outside Quebec.
Oh, yeah, that’s where they got their name, the X-Pensive Winos. Someone had sent me a crate of [Lafite Rothschild] ’38 or something. I left it in the studio and when I got back the damn thing was empty. I said, “I got your name now.”
How did you guys work?
It was very communal. The first sessions were in Bermuda. We always have our own joint and our own guys doing the cooking. There’s always great fun, man. I miss it immensely.
“I Could Have Stood You Up,” the album’s second track, is a great early rock & roll number, with Mick Taylor, Bobby Keys and Johnnie Johnson. How did that come together?
Mainly through meeting and hooking up with Johnnie Johnson, which happened during the Chuck Berry movie. I remember saying early in rehearsals [for Hail! Hail! Rock ‘n’ Roll], “Chuck, you know, Johnnie Johnson is still around.” I knew he was because Stu [Ian Stewart, the late Stones pianist] had told me. Stu had said, “Never forget that Johnny Johnson is alive and well and playing in St. Louis.” So I brought the subject up with Chuck. My impression was that they hadn’t seen each other for years — that it was a prickly sort of relationship. Funny enough, Chuck turned around and said, “Yeah man, he’s around, I’ll give him a call.” I pulled it off with hardly a struggle! So Johnnie Johnson turned up and brought magic into the band — and also after that had his own great career, deservedly so. He was sort of the inspiration behind that incredible rock & roll boogie shit. Once you get into a groove, it’s like a mantra, man.
“Take It So Hard” is one of your greatest recordings. Is it true that was done in one take?
I believe it was, yeah. We had done several run-throughs, but I believe that was the first: “OK, cut it.”
What did you write it about?
Um, interesting question, really. I’ve wondered ever since. I think probably, you see the thing is, I actually had it going before the Winos became a possibility. I had been playing around with it. When I wrote it, I was thinking of Mick singing it. And that’s the true convolution — it sort of ends up with me singing about him.
“Make No Mistake” is my personal favorite.
Mine too, I think.
Do you remember where you were when you wrote it?
No. You very rarely remember where the first chords come from. And it’s usually just a chord sequence to start with. And then a phrase suddenly fits in lyrically later. All I know is there’s a very interesting chord in that song. In fact, a musicologist once sent me back a reply on it saying, “This is very interesting!” Yeah, it’s a strange chord. No one can tell me what its name is. It may be the lost chord, you know! [Laughs] It was a beautiful track to do and to get the Memphis horns on it and get [legendary Memphis soul producer] Willie Mitchell. All them cats from Memphis!
You’ve said there are certain pressures with the Stones, real or perceived, that you didn’t really have with the Winos. What kind of pressures do you have with the Stones?
I don’t know, they come and go, basically. They’ve sort of gone. I know people want to talk about it. But in actual fact, it’s very difficult to put into words because people want to talk about storms in teacups [laughs]. The large picture remains the same and always will: The way I look at it basically now is, that’s the way Mick and I are. That’s the little grit that makes the pearl in the oyster. It’s that little irritation occasionally that produces the pearl, you know. That’s the way I look at it and I firmly remain to look at it that way forever.
You’ve also said there are certain things you can do melodically with the Winos that you can’t with the Stones.
I could explore the melodic side of things more. The Stones basically want to concentrate on fast numbers, rock & roll. And I wasn’t under that sort of pressure with making the Winos record. I would make the tempos whatever I wanted. Sometimes with the Stones there’s this feeling of urgency: “Is it fast enough? We need more fast numbers and blah, blah, blah.” Which is a continual discussion amongst the Stones [laughs]. Apart from that? I felt very much as if I was working with the Stones; it was just different guys. Great friends. The fact that you can do it twice is really the mindblower.
You toured smaller theaters with the Winos. What was that like?
With the Winos, it wasn’t such a big production. Intimate stages. And there was a feeling that I could do whatever I wanted. These guys are pros. They’re top hands. We know we can let it loose a bit and not follow the regime. It was a lot looser, if I can answer that question in a very long way and make it very short. Mainly it was because I was the lead man. And I work a lot looser than Mick, you know.
“I was the lead man. And I work a lot looser than Mick, you know.”
I love the live version of “Gimme Shelter” you did with the Winos.
Oh, yeah, that was one of the best versions I ever did without the Stones. I think sometimes better!
Why did the Winos stop?
Well, it was never meant to go on and on. It all started because the Stones had this lengthy break in the late Eighties. And it kept going. But maybe it inspired the Stones to get back together. What it did do was, we came up with Steel Wheels, which is not a bad album!
“Mixed Emotions” from Steel Wheels really has a Winos feel to it.
Yeah, sure. One thing rubs off on the other. You know, you get used to working one way and it’s quite possible that the idea for “Mixed Emotions” I’d already written for the Winos, and some things get left over.