As the pandemic took hold in March, Keith Richards called up Mick Jagger with an idea: The Stones should rush-release “Living in a Ghost Town,” a funky song they’d recorded not long ago for their first album of new songs since 2005. “I said, ‘Hey man, if there’s a time to put this one out, it’s now, you know,'” the guitarist recalls. Jagger agreed, and wrote new lyrics; the video currently has nearly 10 million views on YouTube.
New music is one way Richards has been staying busy at home in Connecticut. “We’ve just been hunkering down here, watching the garden grow,” he says. He spent a lot of time recently revisiting Goats Head Soup, the band’s 1973 follow-up to Exile on Main Street, which they have just reissued with a huge box set. After touring Exile, the band got together in Kingston, Jamaica, to cut a set of dark grooves that sounded like nothing they’d ever released. Critics didn’t like it at the time, and the Stones quickly dropped many of the songs from their live set. But Richards came away with a different opinion after putting together the reissue, which includes 10 bonus tracks, ranging from studio jams to unheard songs like “Scarlet,” featuring Jimmy Page. “I feel we did a great job on it,” he says.
Here, Richards talks about life in quarantine, reminisces on the Goats Head Soup era, and shares his hopes for how the Stones will celebrate their 60th anniversary in 2022.
How have you been spending your time at home?
I’m feeling very lucky that I have some space so I can get out. And apart from that, man, I managed to [finish] “Ghost Town.” I’m trying to figure out what to do with these tracks we cut [before the pandemic], and if we can do anything else with them in another way, you know?
“Ghost Town” was a perfect song for the moment.
Yeah, it was a matter of timing. Mick and I, we had it in the can, and we never thought that with what was going on …. I spoke to Mick around March. I said, “Hey man, if there’s a time to put this one out, it’s now, you know.” [Laughs.]
There’s a guy who teaches your riffs on YouTube. He gave a lesson on “Living in a Ghost Town,” and he was talking about how different the chords are for you guys, especially the bridge. It’s cool to see you guys still evolving.
Yeah, it’s an interesting track to play. I mean, driving around and seeing nobody on the streets, it was a pretty quick connection to make: “Hey that ‘Ghost Town,’ we should put that out!”
What do the other new songs you’re working on sound like?
Oh, I don’t know, it’s hard to describe music. I think we have five, six, or seven tracks we’ve sort of slowly been putting together, and right now, as I say, if this thing’s going to go on, maybe we should think about putting them out in another way.
Do you miss performing?
Well, yeah. Cause I [was] supposed to be on the road. So I always have this feeling of, like, sudden redundancy, which I have no doubt millions of other people have had, as well. But apart from that, I suppose, in everybody’s mind, we presume that things will look up next year. Otherwise, nobody’s going to play to be able to play for anybody, are they?
I really enjoyed that last tour [in 2019], it was a great trek. I was very disappointed in March when we said, “Uh oh, this thing’s looking bad.” And a week later, then they started to say, “Oh, we’ll cancel the first few gigs.” I said “I have a feeling, nah, this thing’s too big for us.” It’s too big for anybody, you know?
What do you hope comes out of all of this?
I hope, like everybody else, there’s a very good vaccine as soon as possible. And a change of regime wouldn’t be bad. [Laughs.] Let’s leave it at that, man.
I’ve been at your concerts and heard people wonder, “Why do they still do it? They have everything in the world they could possibly want.” What do you get out of playing live?
I don’t know, you might call it a habit. I mean, that’s what we do. And also there’s that thing between us, like, “Who’s going to be the first one to get off the bus?” You have to be kicked off or drop off, right? It’s like that. Otherwise, I mean, I really can’t imagine doing anything else. It’s not a thing you retire from, you know?
And the adrenaline, and love, that you feel up there must be pretty strong.
Yeah, I’m just hoping everybody can all get back together again next year, without masks! By then, I hope we won’t need ‘em. But otherwise, I wear mine in bed!
Do you wear a mask often?
Yeah, if I go out. It’s not very often. We do go drift out and stop by a sidewalk cafe. Oh yeah, I’m a masked man. I mean, it’s what you have to do. I don’t care what it looks like or anything else. It’s ridiculous. This is bloody Alice in Wonderland, you know?
“I’m a masked man,” says Richards. “I mean, it’s what you have to do. I don’t care what it looks like or anything else.”
I wanted to ask about Goats Head Soup.
Oh, yeah. It’s weird, when you listen to something you haven’t really heard in its entirety for a long time. It’s a very interesting album. I remember of course cutting in Jamaica, and that made it very memorable, especially in that year. Because that was ’73. That was the year Marley and the Wailers put out Catch a Fire. That’s also the year the soundtrack of The Harder they Come came out. I remember being in Jamaica. There was a feeling in the air, actually, that Jamaica was starting to make a mark on the map. It was a great feeling.
The Harder They Come introduced a lot of people to reggae for the first time. It’s such a great kind of entry point.
Exactly, yeah, it’s a great introduction to the whole thing. And you felt that in the air in Jamaica. At least I did, because I stayed there. After the sessions, I moved back and I stayed there for months. That’s where I met all the guys that eventually turned up on the Wingless Angels [in 1997]. It became my second home. But at the time, when we were recording, we were just so into doing the sessions. We were working like maniacs. Midnight till ten in the morning. While we were doing that, we didn’t have much time to have much contact with what else was going on in Jamaica. It was after we finished and I moved up to Ocho Rios that I suddenly realized that, “Hey, Jamaicans have got something going here, you know?”
What about the initial idea to go to Jamaica? There are stories about you having trouble getting into other countries. Is that all true, or is it legend?
Yeah, basically. It’s one of the few places that would have us at the time. Because this is when the Exile bit of this whole thing really kicked in. Cutting Exile was like, you just left England. We all moved into my basement [at Nellcôte in France] and carried on. We were still in each other’s pockets, you know? But by the time we cut Goats Head, it had been almost a couple of years. Mick had married Bianca, and then … in other words, we had become exiles. Charlie was living in France. We were all over the place. Mick and I had to learn how to write and do this stuff apart, while we’re not actually next door in the hotel room or around the corner. So this was my first attempt at writing long-distance, so to speak.
And how did that change the quality of the songwriting?
Well, you can tell me. I feel that we did a great job on it. Listening to the record now, I mean, “Dancing with Mr. D,” that is a funky track. And “Heartbreaker.” I remembered, of course, Billy Preston was in there as well as Nicky Hopkins and of course Ian Stewart. We had this funk thing going that hadn’t dawned on me so much until I re-heard it recently.
It’s a really it’s a cool sound, between “Can You Hear the Music” and “Heartbreaker” — you guys were taking it in all kinds of different directions.
Yeah. I think being ’73, we are what we listen to, and a lot of funk music was infiltrating. As a musician, you don’t live in a vacuum. Charlie Watts was fascinated with funk rhythms, and always had been, since James Brown. So it was a natural progression for us to move and try that out.
You went to Switzerland beforehand to do a little bit of writing with with Mick, and that’s where you wrote “Angie.”
Yeah, I remember “Angie” I wrote in Switzerland, in a Swiss restroom. At that time, Mick was really on the other side of the world. So we got together a few weeks before we actually went to Jamaica to put all of the bits and pieces we got together into some coherent songs. Mick had “Silver Train” and “Starfucker,” and I was working on most of the others. It was a different way for us to work, you know: “Hey, I’ve got this, but I need a bridge.“ “Oh, I got a bridge that suits that!” We were tailoring it up as we went along.
Did you know “Angie” was special at the time?
I don’t quite remember how the decision was made on “Angie.” I was very happy with it, because it took the Stones on that singles market in that era. It gave us another flavor, another place. In a way, it reminded me of when we put out “Little Red Rooster” [in 1964], which was a surprise at the time. As I say, through the mist of time, I can’t remember how “Angie” actually became a single.
Do you remember when the song came to you?
Yeah, out of sheer boredom. My daughter Angie had just been born recently. The weird thing is, at the time, we didn’t call her Angie, because that was actually a name given to her by Roman Catholic nuns, because she was born in a Catholic hospital. “You have to have one [from] this list of names.” Anita was calling her things like “Dandelion,” you know, it was that time. But weirdly enough, the Angie thing always stuck in my mind. And that was actually the name later on she chose to go by.
Dylan recently said that “Angie” was one of his favorite Stones songs.
Really? I didn’t know that. Bless old Bob. I love his new album, man. He’s done a lovely job there, Rough & Rowdy Ways.
I thought of you when I heard the album, especially “Goodbye Jimmy Reed.”
Yeah, man, bless him.
Back to Goats Head Soup — “Heartbreaker” is such an incredible recording, especially the way the guitars jump out at you during the song.
Yeah, lovely riff, man. I was very happy to kick that one out. I think I had the riff in my head and it came together in the studio with Billy Preston and Charlie. A lot of tracks really weren’t thought about or worked out much before we actually get in there. Some of them are maybe an hour old.
Do you remember how you wrote “Coming Down Again”?
[Laughs.] Let’s say that it speaks for itself.
What about “Scarlet,” the track with Jimmy Page?
Oh, that’s really difficult to remember. Jimmy has waltzed in on a few sessions over the years. And “Scarlet,” my feeling is that we walked in as Led Zeppelin had finished [a session] … or at least Jimmy and Rick Grech. I think our session was after theirs, and they stuck around. [Laughs]
There’s an old quote where you were looking back on the Seventies, and you said the Stones had too many people playing on your records, which compromised the sound. Has your view on that changed?
I might have said that. I was probably pissed off about a track or two. But nah, I wouldn’t wanna stick that on anything, especially this record, because all of the sidemen, there’s very few of them, and they’re the best in the world, you know?
Mick mentioned he’s working on a documentary. Are the Stones working on one at the moment?
I’m not sure. Some things were in the works before the pandemic. You take the “dem” out, and all you get is panic!
The Stones’ 60th anniversary is coming up in 2022. Are you guys planning to celebrate?
Let’s hope so. And I hope to celebrate with as many of us as possible. Look on the bright side — one has to do that, you know?
It’s going to be a pretty special moment when you guys walk on stage again.
I hope we’re all there, man. It’s something to look forward to.