Thursday, January 12, 2017

Songs in the Key of Keith

After having spent about two weeks immersed in the music of Greg Lake and Keith Emerson, it was time to go “back to basics” of the music from another Keith, in this case Keith Richards.  As I wrote in a previous blog, in the latter part of the 1960s Keith Richards decided he wanted to try other things to be able to play the tunes he was hearing in his head.  This led him to try different tunings – Open D, Open E, and especially Open G.  Just what is an open chord?  In standard tuning [EADGBE], one has to form chord shapes with your fingers to play an E, a D, or whatever chord you want to play.  If you have long fingers, forming chords isn’t a problem.  But for those with shorter fingers, sometimes it can be a problem.  Not so much with open chords.  To get an open chord you tune specific strings to that get the sound you want.  For Open G, that tuning is DGDGBD.  Once tuned thusly, you can strum the guitar without fretting and you get the sound of a G chord.  Keith likes the Open G tuning because he can move fingers around on only two or three strings while holding down a barre chord.  The remaining unfretted strings create a drone sound, the hallmark of the Stones’ sound since 1969.

I had some great songs to choose from.  There are two that I considered but didn’t include – Tumbling Dice [Mick, not Keith, plays the rhythm] and Sway [Keith didn’t play on it – he only sang].

Soul Survivor [Exile On Main Street, 1972] – This is the last song from Exile On Main Street.  The band had a helluva time recording tracks at Nellcôte. Who is going to be the death of Mick Jagger – Bianca, the new jet-setting wife?  The new lifestyle?  Keith the junkie?  I don’t know, but this is what a Stones song is supposed to sound like.

Can't You Hear Me Knocking [Sticky Fingers, 1971] – The Stones don’t normally jam, but they do here.  Mick Taylor said it happened by accident.  Everyone thought they were done but Taylor just kept on playing.  Everything after the 2:40 mark is the band just “winging it.”  It’s not a bad result for a band that doesn’t improvise.

Honky Tonk Women [Single, 1969] – This one is the first Stones song to bear the then-new Open G imprint.  Others that were in an open tuning [in this case, Open E], were the likes of Jumping Jack Flash, Street Fighting Man., and Gimme Shelter.  In his memoirs Life, Keith Richards admitted that he took Ry Cooder [who showed him the tuning] for all he was worth. This song is the first of many Stones songs that Keith would use the Open G tuning.  To not include this song in a list of my current favorites in Open G would be blasphemy.

Brown Sugar [Sticky Fingers, 1971] – Mick Jagger wrote the riff, the words – everything, but Keith played it.  Who else but the Stones would record a song about slavery and interracial sex with a title that’s slang for heroin?  Bobby Keys played a career-defining sax solo.  If you’re interested, the long-rumored version with Eric Clapton on slide does exist on the deluxe version of Sticky Fingers.

Wild Horses [Sticky Fingers, 1971] – I’ve seen much debate on music discussion boards on whether this is an Open G song.  Then I found two online guitar lessons of this song on YouTube, both of which were done in Open G.  That was good enough for me.  Keith played it on a ten-string guitar tuned to Open G [a 12-string with the bottom 2 strings removed].  Keith wrote this about his feelings for going on the road and leaving his son Marlon behind.  Of note, the Stones let Gram Parsons [and the Flying Burrito Brothers] record it first for Burrito Deluxe.

Rocks Off [Exile on Main Street, 1972] – This is the leadoff track for Exile on Main Street.  This is done in a modified Open G [EGDGBD].  The bottom E string is retained, but the rest of the tuning remains.  Mick Jagger sums up the drugged-out Seventies - Your mouth don't move but I can hear you speak… It’s also a commentary on the rock and roll lifestyle - The sunshine bores the daylight out of me.

Rip This Joint [Exile On Main Street, 1972] – Punks take note.  Can you play this well at this speed?
Turd On The Run [Exile On Main Street, 1972] – No particular reason other than I think it’s a cool song.

Ventilator Blues [Exile On Main Street, 1972] – This is an ode to Keith Richards’ basement in Nellcôte.  It was so hot and humid the guitars would quickly go out of tune.  Charlie Watts had trouble nailing the drum part.  Bobby Keys knew how it should go.  He clapped the beat off-mic.  Charlie played off Bobby Keys.

Hand Of Fate [Black And Blue, 1975] – Lyrically, this is a first cousin to Heartbreaker [from Goats Head Soup].  The solos sound like Mick Taylor, but it’s really Wayne Perkins.  This song is the reason I bought Black And Blue.  This one is fun to play.  Hell, they’re all fun to play, but I really enjoy playing this one.

Love Is Strong [Voodoo Lounge, 1993] – This is the leadoff track to Voodoo LoungeVoodoo Lounge is the Stones’ attempt to travel back in time and sound like they used to, circa 1972.  The gloss and sheen from 1989’s Steel Wheels is gone.  If you’re keeping score, Voodoo Lounge is a “Keith” album.  If you listen closely, Love Is Strong bears a strong resemblance to Keith’s Wicked As It Seems, from 1992’s Main Offender.

Low Down [Bridges To Babylon, 1997] – Since Keith Richards kicked heroin in 1978, there has been a struggle between him and Mick Jagger over the musical direction of the Rolling Stones.  Mick was the one who kept up on the latest sounds, on what was popular to the music consuming public.  On Bridges to Babylon, there are synthesizers, sampling, tape loops, techno, and even some rap [on Anybody Seen My Baby…blech!].  Bridges to Babylon has been seen by reviewers as a “Mick” album. This song has Keith stubbornly keeping to the old Stones formula.  The sound of Keith’s guitars in the song inspired me to buy a Telecaster and tune it to Open G.  Once I did that and played it myself, it was a “Eureka!” moment for me.

It Won't Take Long [A Bigger Bang, 2005] – I learned this one the same night I learned Low Down.  Again, part of my “Eureka!” moment.
Amnesia [KR – Crosseyed Heart, 2015] – Keef described this as an “after-album party”.  It was the last song recorded for Crosseyed Heart.

Wicked As It Seems [KR – Main Offender, 1992] – This is Keef at his funky best.  It’s better than its cousin Love Is Strong.  I like them both, and here they are.

Take It So Hard [KR – Talk Is Cheap, 1988] – This is track #2 from Keef’s first solo album, Talk Is Cheap.  At the time it was released, the future of the Stones was in doubt.  It was Keef’s own admission that he couldn’t keep the Stones together to hit the road.  When Rolling Stone magazine reviewed Talk Is Cheap, they called it the best Stones album since Exile On Main Street.  For once, they were right.  I first heard this one on MTV, back in the day when they programmed music videos.  I was hooked to this one – still am.

Mixed Emotions [Steel Wheels, 1989] – After the disaster that was Dirty Work [1986], most thought the Stones were finished [and for three years, they were].  But Mick and Keef buried the hatchet, and this was the result.

Hold On To Your Hat [Steel Wheels, 1989] – There are three songs in Open G from Steel Wheels – the opener Sad, Sad, Sad, the single Mixed Emotions, and this one.  This one is like a modern-day version of Rip This Joint, only the guitars are louder and rawer.

High Wire [Flashpoint, 1991] – A great riff.  This was the single from the live album that documented the Steel Wheels/Urban Jungle tour.  It’s not a commentary about the Gulf War – it’s a commentary about how we got to that war in the first place.  This is Bill Wyman’s Rolling Stones swan song.