How Keith Richards’ ‘Talk Is Cheap’ Saved the Rolling Stones
Keith Richards never wanted to go solo. He'd intimated over and over that the Rolling Stones would basically have to break up to get him to consider such a thing.
And that's just about where his band was as the late '80s wore on. So, Richards finally relented, releasing his debut album Talk Is Cheap on Oct. 3, 1988. Fittingly, he approached it with mixed feelings.
"It's kind of strange, because it was never in the cards for me," Richards told Rolling Stone on the eve of the album's arrival. "It was not something I wanted to do. Also, in the back of my mind, doing a solo record meant a slight sense of failure. The only reason I would do a solo album was because I couldn’t keep the Stones together."
He couldn't. Already at a low creative ebb, the Rolling Stones' endured a shower of bad reviews for 1986's Dirty Work. Mick Jagger seemed more interested in his nascent solo career, electing not to tour with the Stones. At the same time, the band was trying to deal with the loss of longtime pianist Ian Stewart, a glue-guy sideman who often smoothed things over within their warring factions.
At loose ends, Richards finally decided to strike out on his own. Simply making the decision seemed to open the creative floodgates, even though Richards had never been a frontman, and only rarely even took over the mic. Richards said, in a way, he felt he had been left no choice.
"It was necessary to work. Talk Is Cheap came out of necessity," Richards told the Tulsa World in 1992. "I had never made an album by myself, and I had to be the focus of the whole thing. I felt I had had a very cushy life in a way. I could direct things, but I wasn't the No. 1 man. I let Mick take that."
Watch Keith Richards Perform 'Take It So Hard'
"Take It So Hard," the lead single, re-established every grimy, laconic credential Richards had in the Exile on Main St. era. But "You Don't Move Me," Richards' perhaps inevitable take down of Jagger, garnered the most contemporary press clippings. "Half of me's saying I don't want to rub the guy's nose in it," Richards told the Washington Post in 1988, "but of course you're also human, so you stick the knife in and turn it one time. Anything Mick and I do, if we could keep it quiet, we would. But it eventually goes public. He's still my friend and it doesn't diminish the work we do – can do – together."
Elsewhere, "How I Wish" and "Whip It Up" were of a similar piece, boasting the whiff of danger and depth of real emotion that had been missing for some time from his collaborations with Jagger. But there was far more to Talk Is Cheap than comfy Stones-isms. Richards kicked things off with the greasy funk of "Big Enough," then continued through a thrilling menagerie of personal influences from rockabilly ("I Could Have Stood You Up") to Memphis soul ("Make No Mistake"), from reggae-fied rock ("Rockawhile") to Louisiana-inspired roots music ("Locked Away").
The results couldn't have been less like the sleek R&B-infused sounds found on Dirty Work, much less the glammed-up pop-rock Jagger was peddling as a solo artist. Principal collaborator Steve Jordan made a telling comment, in that same 1988 interview with Rolling Stone: "It's a real record," he said. "We weren't trying to do anything hip."
Much of Talk Is Cheap was cut in about 10 days at a Montreal studio with a core lineup of regular collaborators. Dubbed the X-Pensive Winos, the group also included guitarist Waddy Wachtel, bassist Charley Drayton and keyboardist Ivan Neville. They had an instant musical chemistry, even though no auditions were held. (Richards called Wachtel and said, simply, "I'm putting a band together, and you're in it.")
There was a reason it all sounded so fresh. Richards started over, ditching any leftover songs he had from his lengthy tenure in the Rolling Stones in order to create a new composing template with Jordan.
"That was the biggest fear I had at that time; the reason I didn't want to do this solo stuff is exactly that reason: If I write a song, do I keep this for myself or give this to the band?" Richards mused in his talk with the Tulsa World. "That was the biggest stumbling block. I handle it by doing this: What songs come out of me when I'm doing the Winos, are for the Winos. What songs I'm doing with the Stones, I give to the Stones."
Watch Keith Richards Perform 'Make No Mistake'
There were a few guest stars – including Maceo Parker, Patti Scialfa, Bootsy Collins and Richards' old Rolling Stones bandmate Mick Taylor – but otherwise the sessions were intimate, old-school and focused on a newfound musical vibe. "It was so hot, you could hardly believe it," Richards said in his 2010 autobiography. "It brought me back to life. I felt as if I'd just gotten out of jail."
In an emblematic moment, "Take It So Hard" arrived in a single take. Richards asked them to try it again, but Wachtel always believed that was just a formality. "It's just ridiculously good," the guitarist says in Life. "It was the second tune of the night, and it was this killer fucking take on our strongest tune. I went back to the house going, 'We've conquered Everest already?'"
They ended up climbing all the way to gold-selling status, as Talk Is Cheap offered definitive proof that there remained an audience for a Stones record that sounded like, you know, the Stones.
"It made you reevaluate everything, and wonder just who'd been responsible for what," music journalist Rich Cohen wrote in The Sun & the Moon & the Rolling Stones. "In other words, Jagger's dash for freedom backfired."
In this way, Richards' solo debut led directly to their reunion for 1989's Steel Wheels. "Almost Hear You Sigh," a Top 40 U.K. hit for the Rolling Stones in 1990, actually grew out of the sessions for Talk Is Cheap. Richards seemed to sense that all of that was still in front of his old band – that one day, they'd get back together. At the same time, he'd belatedly established something for himself away from the Rolling Stones.
"For the last couple of years I’ve had to deal with not being one. At first, it almost broke my heart," he told Rolling Stone in 1988. Richards came to believe their time apart had helped him to be "a better Rolling Stone, or make the Rolling Stones better. I have a little more confidence in myself, by myself. I found that I can, if I have to, live without the Rolling Stones. And that my only job isn't desperately trying to keep a band together that maybe needed a break."
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