Keith Richards Turns 75: Celebrate With His 10 Best Rolling Stones Songs
Despite co-leading The World’s Greatest Rock n' Roll Band, Keith Richards is loath to call himself an original. “I prefer to think of myself as an antenna,” he said in 1994. “There's only one song, and Adam and Eve wrote it; the rest is a variation on a theme.”
The Rolling Stones’ co-leader is still picking up wild signals -- and today (Dec. 18) marks his 75th birthday. Mick Jagger, of course, steals the show as their lip-pursing, stage-prowling frontman -- but it all wouldn’t mean much without the cantankerous Richards as his corrective.
Despite decades of hits like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Gimme Shelter” and “Start Me Up,” the Stones weren’t natural songwriters from the jump. Like most of their British Invasion peers, they cut their teeth on blues favorites from Willie Dixon, Jimmy Reed and Bobby Womack.
Their first released composition had been “Tell Me (You’re Coming Back),” a vaguely folky trifle that got lost in their self-titled 1964 debut. Their evocative ballad “As Tears Go By,” written that same year, was an upgrade; sensing this, manager Andrew Loog Oldham initially gave it away to a teenaged Marianne Faithfull.
It was a vote of no confidence; the pair would dominate the rest of the 20th century as one of rock’s most legendary songwriting teams. When Jagger’s on the mic, he’s the life of the party; when Richards croaks out a gutter ballad like “Memory Motel” or “Thru and Thru,” it sounds like he’s reporting from the morning after.
In Martin Scorsese’s 2006 Stones concert doc Shine a Light, the best moment is his. Jagger introduces the band and sashays offstage for his costume change; Richards practically hovers to the mic in a long, black overcoat like a phantom, framed by thick plumes of cigarette smoke.
“It’s good to see you all,” he sneers through a toothy grin. “It’s good to see anybody.” He lurches into his signature song, “You Got the Silver.”
Therein lies the yin and yang of the Stones; Jagger basks in the spotlight, Richards takes the piss out of him. And true heads treat Richards’ sardonic cuts as currency. In honor of Uncle Keef’s 75th trip around the sun, here are his 10 best Stones contributions, ranked.
10. “Thief in the Night” (from Bridges to Babylon, 1997)
An avid reader with a massive library in his Connecticut home, Richards nicked the title of “Thief in the Night” from a passage in the Gospel of Matthew, referring to the unpredictability of Jesus’ Earthly return. (“Some very good phrases in there,” Richards mused in his 2010 memoir Life.) Needless to say, “Thief” ain’t about the Second Coming, but creeping around the houses of old girlfriends.
“It’s a song about several women,” he described. “I knew where she lived and where her boyfriend lived, and I would stand outside a semi-detached house in Dartford.” With its whirling, experimental production and Richards’ guitar tech Pierre de Beauport on a burbling Wurlitzer, “Thief in the Night” is creepily evocative.
9. “The Worst” (from Voodoo Lounge, 1994)
Named after a stray kitten Richards adopted in the Caribbean, Voodoo Lounge found the Stones circling the wagons after the split of their founding bassist Bill Wyman. Producer Don Was was behind the boards, attempting to channel them into their ‘70s roots-rock heyday.
Of the whole bunch, Richards’ acoustic ballad “The Worst” strikes hottest -- not for invoking old Stones, but Elvis Costello. In all of two minutes, Richards makes his emotional incisions: “Well, I said from the first / I am the worst guy for you to be around,” he confesses. Ronnie Wood’s sympathetic lap steel part soothes the burn.
8. “Slipping Away” (from Steel Wheels, 1989)
From “Gimme Shelter” to “Rocks Off” to “Sway,” so many Stones classics spit in the face of death and destruction. On the deep cut “Slipping Away,” it’s jarring to hear Richards write unflinchingly about his own mortality.
“Slipping Away,” which literally slipped away at the end of their so-so ‘80s album Steel Wheels, is a moving lament about waving goodbye to bygone experiences. “All I want is ecstasy / But I ain't getting much / Just getting off on misery,” sings Richards with a tinge of regret.
Jagger and Richards were both in their mid-fifties when they cut “Slipping Away” -- it’s moving to hear these old, wizened friends in a reflective rather than risible mood. “I’m zipping through the days at lightning speed,” they sneered at the top of Exile on Main St.; but “Slipping Away” is an affecting report from a life on the edge.
7. “You Got the Silver” (from Let it Bleed, 1969)
In 1967, Richards began dating Anita Pallenberg, a former Factory Girl who had just broken up with the Stones’ Brian Jones. The three had taken a Moroccan vacation to lay low after a drug bust; when an erratic Jones flew off the handle, she left with Richards, with whom she’d remain for twelve years. “You Got The Silver” is Richards’ love ballad to Pallenberg, in which Richards is intoxicated by her potency.
Pallenberg remains one of the most fascinating characters in the Stones universe -- an It Girl fashion icon who was fluent in five languages and routinely carried around garlic to ward off vampires. “You Got the Silver” does her justice, with her love like precious metals, her eyes like airplane lights.
6. “Thru and Thru” (from Voodoo Lounge, 1994)
Best known for its usage in a classic Sopranos episode in which mob enforcer Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero is gunned down for being an FBI informant, “Thru and Thru” is another riveting Richards performance from Voodoo Lounge.
It’s all empty spaces, just ringing guitar arpeggios and Keef roaring about being open like a 24/7 business, waiting for his lover to give him a ring. Until drummer Charlie Watts slams out snare hits like gunshots, and Richards goes from pleading and begging to bemoaning his “f---ing blues.”
The results don’t sound much like any other Stones song out there; “Thru and Thru” achieves a singular, spectral vibe.
5. “Little T&A” (from Tattoo You, 1981)
“The bitch keep bitching / Snitcher keeps snitching / Dropping names and telephone numbers and all.” So snarls Richards on “Little T&A,” a libidinous rocker on Tattoo You.
Musically, it rides a knuckle-dragging, sleazy riff no one else could pull off. He wasn’t exactly shooting for Wordsworth, either; according to a Rolling Stone interview that same year, he was singing about one-night stands and their concurrent risks: “You pick up a chick and end up spending the night in the tank, you know?”
Tattoo You would perhaps be the Stones’ final great album. It ends with Jagger’s astonishing “Waiting on a Friend,” which corrected the Stones’ Neanderthal attitude toward sex and relationships with self-awareness and newfound maturity.
This is not so on “Little T&A.” It’s perhaps Richards’ most on-brand moment, and a carnal, giddy thrill.
4. “Memory Motel” (from Black and Blue, 1976)
Recorded while the Stones were between guitarists and creatively exhausted, Black and Blue is mostly interesting to diehards. But even head-scratchers like “Hot Stuff” and “Hey Negrita” are redeemed by Blue’s astonishing, seven-minute centerpiece, “Memory Motel.” Though Richards doesn’t technically play on “Motel” -- that’s Harvey Mendel of Canned Heat we hear -- but contributes a soulful co-lead vocal.
On this ballad about a doomed one-night stand, the Glimmer Twins sound at the end of their rope: “She got a mind of her own / And she use it well,” groans Richards about the one who got away.
The dog-tired regret of “Memory Motel” is right in their playbook; for once, Black and Blue’s exhaustion resulted in beauty.
3. “Before They Make Me Run” (from Some Girls, 1978)
In 1977, Richards and Pallenberg disembarked a plane in Toronto -- only to find Canadian authorities onto him. Staffing his hotel with officers dressed as hotel staff, they found a large heroin stash in Richards’ room.
Richards’ legal team convinced the court to allow him to receive rehabilitation from home by Dr. Meg Patterson, a neurosurgeon for the stars who treated him with neuroelectric acupuncture and allowed him to substitute heroin for Jack Daniel’s.
As Richards wallowed in his legal predicaments, he locked himself in Pathé Marconi Studios in Paris for five days -- and recorded “Before They Make Me Run,” a strange, paranoid rocker. “That one was a cry from the heart,” Richards remembered in Life. “I was telling them what to do. Let me out of this goddamn case.”
Of course, Richards lived to tell this sordid tale without derailing the Stones. But “Until They Make Me Run” remains a harrowing recounting of his recent legal troubles. It’s rock as journalistic reporting -- and one of Richards’ greatest songs.
2. “Coming Down Again” (from Goats Head Soup, 1973)
The romantic break that led Pallenberg into Richards’ arms wasn’t pretty. During their climactic 1967 Moroccan trip, an abusive Jones had dragged two “really hairy girls” into their hotel room to “force a scene,” leading to a violent meltdown during which he flung room service food at her. “I thought Anita wanted out of there, and if I could come up with a plan, she would take it,” Richards recalled in Life.
But Richards’ greatest song about their relationship wasn’t about how he saved her from physical abuse; it was how they led each other into a drug-fueled abyss. “Coming Down Again” dually refers to romantic bliss and a nasty habit.
Instead of reveling in debauchery, the Stones sound resigned. “She was dying to survive / I was caught, taken for a ride,” he sings. But at what cost? On “Coming Down Again,” Richards grasps at earthly pleasure as it bittersweetly fades.
1. “Happy” (from Exile on Main St., 1972)
Richards’ greatest song has nothing to do with hedonism, criminality or drug use -- it seems to throw all that out the window. It hardly even counts as a Stones tune; he laid it down during the Exile on Main St. sessions, waiting for the rest of the band to show up.
“It’s no Rolling Stones record,” he wrote in Life, and he’s right. Richards played the guitars, bass and sang lead, and had producer Jimmy Miller bang away on percussion. Just like that, the basic tracking was complete. “At noon, it had never existed. At four o’clock it was on tape,” he remembered.
It’s just as well: “Happy” is the sound of honest-to-God jubilation on one of the Stones’ most troubled albums. “Never got a flash out of cocktails / When I got some flesh off the bone,” he insists. Only love will do.
Every second of “Happy” is a wave of giddy exultation -- Bobby Keys’ wailing sax, Jagger egging him on. Richards sounds truly “in it,” not just muttering from the margins. “One sublime example of a song winging in from the ether,” he later described in awe. He’s right -- “Happy” keeps on giving.