Celebrating Keith Richards’ solo classic
By the mid-1980s, the relationship between Rolling Stones’ frontman Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards was fraught with tension.
In pursuit of pop stardom, Jagger had released his first solo album, She’s the Boss, in early 1985 while Richards’ first priority was always the Stones. When the band began recording Dirty Work, its first album under a new deal with CBS Records, Jagger was typically AWOL from the sessions, recording his vocals later (and alone). While Jagger performed a solo set that summer at the Live Aid concert in Philadelphia, Richards and the Stones’ Ron Wood performed supporting Bob Dylan. The last straw in the duo’s musical partnership was Jagger’s decision not to tour in support of Dirty Work after its release in early 1986, preferring to follow up on his relatively successful solo debut by starting to work on a follow-up album.
In the wake of Jagger’s decision to pursue his solo career in opposition to the Stones’ fortunes, Richards decided to record his own solo LP. Richards enlisted the help of journeyman drummer Steve Jordan, who had appeared on the Stones’ Dirty Work album and was a member of the Saturday Night Live house band during the 1970s (he also toured with Dan Aykroyd and John Belushi’s Blues Brothers band). Jordan was a skilled musician and songwriter who had launched his career as a teenager playing in Stevie Wonder’s band and had subsequently lent his talents to sessions by a number of jazz, soul, and blues artists including Don Cherry, Taj Mahal, Patti Austin, and Cissy Houston. Together, they wrote a number of songs for Talk Is Cheap, and Richards put together a band that included guitarist Waddy Wachtel, keyboardist Ivan Neville, bassist Charley Drayton, and Jordan that he dubbed “The X-Pensive Winos.”
Richards began recording Talk Is Cheap in August 1987 in Quebec, Canada with further sessions taking place the following spring in Montserrat and Bermuda. A number of Richards’ famous and talented friends would appear on the album, including funkateers Bootsy Collins and Bernie Worrell; legendary Chuck Berry sideman Johnnie Johnson; NRBQ’s Joey Spampinato; Chuck Leavell from the Allman Brothers Band; singer Patti Scialfa (i.e. Mrs. Bruce Springsteen); and former Stones guitarist Mick Taylor (who plays on “I Could Have Stood You Up”). Although the Stones were signed to Sony Music, Richards inked a deal with Virgin Records to release his solo debut.
With so much musical horsepower applied to the recording of Talk Is Cheap, the album was either going to be a monster creative success or an enormous failure. Richards had a clear vision of the musical direction he wanted to pursue, however, which resulted in an eleven-song collection that documents where the guitarist’s muse was leading him at the time. The album earned a fair amount of critical acclaim, Rolling Stone magazine’s David Fricke writing at the time, “indeed, Richards’s first solo album is a masterpiece of underachievement. He does nothing more or less than what he’s always done on Stones records, slicing and dicing classic blues and Berryesque motifs into junkyard-dog guitar growls, singing in a shaky tortured-tonsil yelp that makes Jagger sound like Metropolitan Opera material.”
Jagger’s Primitive Cool beat Talk Is Cheap to market by almost a year, but the album performed poorly by comparison, yielding a minor hit with the lead single “Let’s Work” and peaking at #26 in the U.K. and #41 on the U.S. albums chart. It was a meager showing considering that Jagger’s 1985 solo debut, She’s The Boss, had charted Top 10 in the U.K. and rose to #13 in the U.S. On the other hand, Talk Is Cheap hit #37 in the U.K. and peaked at #24 in the U.S. charts on the strength of FM rock radio favorites like “Take It So Hard” and “You Don’t Move Me.” Overall, their solo experiences seemed provide common ground for the two musicians to mend their relationship. When the Stones returned in 1989 with the Top 10 album Steel Wheels, they had also seemingly turned the clock back a decade by eschewing contemporary fads and revisiting their classic rock sound.
How does Richards’ Talk Is Cheap hold up 30 years later? Quite well, actually…since the guitarist used a basic musical blueprint of rock, blues, soul, and funk that his pick-up band was immanently qualified to create, Richards captured the sound he heard in his head. The album-opening “Big Enough,” for instance, slips ‘n’ slides on a deep, funky rhythm that rocks like a trailer park in a tornado to the legendary Maceo Parker’s soulful blasts o’ sax and Bootsy Collins’ rumbling bass lines. Both men were veterans of James Brown’s band as well as George Clinton’s Parliament-Funkadelic empire, so they knew instinctively how to cut a groove so deep you could bury a body in it. By contrast, “Take It So Hard,” the album’s lead single, is a stripped-down, low-slung Stonesy rocker with languid vocals, razor-sharp guitars, and gang harmony vocals.
Richards’ “Struggle” was seemingly just that, a song that was difficult to get right even at four minutes plus (a session outtake later released clocks in at twice that length). With syncopated rhythms and a wicked guitar riff that punctures the dense instrumentation, Richards’ mesmerizing vocals are supported by a ramshackle musical foundation that includes some odd sounds bubbling beneath the mix. It’s an oddly alluring performance that sits starkly in opposition to anything else on the album. The rockabilly-flavored “I Could Have Stood You Up” leans more towards Tav Falco than Carl Perkins, and benefits greatly from Mick Taylor’s spry guitar licks and Johnnie Johnson’s honky-tonk piano-pounding.
In not for Richards’ underplayed vocals, “Make No Mistake” could easily pass for an early ‘70s R&B jam with its smooth-as-silk instrumental soundtrack, rhythmic hornplay, and Patti Labelle band member Sarah Dash’s soulful accompanying vocals. Richards croons his way through the song, which might have been better served if he’d adopted his usual growl and let it play against Dash’s angelic tones. No matter…the song is a funky foot-shuffler nonetheless. “You Don’t Move Me” was the album’s second single release, and it really should have been bigger. An intricate mid-tempo rocker with some interesting instrumental color along the edges, the song’s dominant harmony vocals are accompanied by Richards’ submissive voice, turning the song’s dynamic upside down. There is also some intriguing guitar interplay going on deep in the mix, along with exciting percussion and other musical flourishes.
Another Stonesy track, “How I Wish” could be a Some Girls outtake with its imaginative fretwork and in-the-pocket rhythm with Jordan’s occasional drum fills punctuating Richards’ low-key vox. “Whip It Up” is a facile rocker with vibrating guitar riffs, vocals that are buried beneath the instruments, and an engaging rhythm that will cause involuntary toe-tapping while “Locked Away” offers some elegant Richards’ guitarplay juxtaposed against Michael Doucet’s mournful violin. With a minor melody that digs its way into your consciousness and Richards’ affecting performance on the microphone, the song might have made an attractive single release. Talk Is Cheap closes with the blustery “It Means A Lot,” the song further exploring the intersection of rock, blues, and funk that Richards favored at the time. The song’s textured instrumentation sounds like a studio session run amok, but it supports one of Richards’ best vocal performances on the album.
Talk Is Cheap isn’t without its flaws. The album is badly under-produced by Richards and Jordan, at times sounding under-budgeted and almost garage-like, but with ten different engineers working in three different studios, it’s surprising that the performances are as cohesive as they are. Richards’ vocals are often tentative and/or mixed too low, but the instrumentation is top-notch across every song and the band creates a raw, immediate musical canvas for Richards to paint upon. These minor cavils aside, three decades removed from its release, Talk Is Cheap continues to find new fans and inspire old ones.
One such old ‘Keef’ fan is blues artist Greg “Stackhouse” Prevost, who co-wrote Rolling Stones Gear: All the Stones’ Instruments from Stage to Studio, which cleverly documents the band’s history as told through the instruments they used on tour and in the studio. Discussing Talk Is Cheap, Prevost says “for me, this album represented the reincarnation of the Stones via Keith. It came out at a time when the band was nil, and the last ‘real’ album, Dirty Work came out two years earlier. ‘Sleep Tonight’ from the latter made me wish there would be a whole album under his name, but as long as the Stones existed, he [Keith] refused to go solo during those days.”
Continuing, Prevost says “when Jagger jumped ship, it opened the door and his pinnacle solo masterpiece came to light. ‘Take It So Hard’ is the best Stones song that the Stones didn’t record. The album also has special meaning for me in that I got married the week it came out; after our honeymoon in Berlin my wife (also into Keith) and I immediately got the album the day of our return as well as the Keith In A Can CD edition. [On] Talk Is Cheap, he had that fire and rage due to being pissed off by Jagger and I think that helped fuel the production.”
Earlier this month, Nashville’s Music Row magazine reported that Richards had signed a new worldwide deal to bring his catalog of four solo albums to BMG, who has represented Richards’ music publishing since 2013. In celebration of Richards’ debut single, a 1978 recording of the Christmas classic “Run Rudolph Run,” the label will release the song as a limited-edition 45rpm 12” record on red vinyl as a Record Store Day “Black Friday” exclusive. The recording has been remixed and remastered by Steve Jordan and includes a cover of Jimmy Cliff’s “The Harder They Come,” a version of “Pressure Drop” featuring Toots & the Maytals, and a “Santa Keith” holiday card featuring a greeting from Richards himself.
Talk Is Cheap, as well as Richards’1992 solo album Main Offender, have both been re-issued digitally by BMG along with a studio/live compilation album Vintage Vinos. Future plans for Richards’ catalog include deluxe and expanded CDs and vinyl as well as a box set. “This agreement paves the way for a reappraisal and repositioning of the solo work of one of rock ‘n’ roll’s true originals and arguably its most pre-eminent guitarist,” BMG EVP Global Catalogue Recordings Peter Stack stated in a press release about the deal. “Fans can expect a program of releases which truly does justice to these great recordings.”