Keith Richards: Being a frontman made me appreciate Mick Jagger's job

A shot of Keith Richards and the X-Pensive Winos in 1988
(Image credit: Paul Natkin)

Back in April, the idea of the UK being in lockdown again in November seemed ridiculous. And yet, here we are: back at square one in a year which often appears like the most miserable, surreal and joyless remake of Groundhog Day ever conceived. 

The rules are the same whether you’re a ‘regular Joe’ or the most iconic rock ’n’ roll guitarist in the world.

“It's affecting me pretty much like it's affected everybody else," Keith Richards tells Ian Fortnam. "You know, we're all in this thing and I'm basically hunkering down with the family and a few friends, a bubble kind of thing, just like the rest of you, man. Wondering when we can get out of this thing. And, at the moment, it looks like it's going to be a hard winter.”

Right now, a live album almost feels like a relic from another time; a small portal back to that alternate reality where we could all squeeze ourselves into venues and share the thrill of live music together. It's a feeling which is universally missed, so the upcoming release of Live At The Hollywood Palladium the recording of Richards' December 15, 1988 appearance at the iconic Los Angeles venue, where he was joined by The X-Pensive Winos, the side band he assembled to back him on his debut solo album, 1988’s Talk Is Cheap – is impeccably timed. 

The gig was the penultimate date of a 12 city US tour for the group, and a recording of the show is being made available for the first time as a limited edition box set, due for release via BMG on November 13.

“Being a frontman was very unusual for me,” Richards admits. “I appreciated Mick (Jagger)'s job a lot more by the time I finished, I can tell you. Because with the Stones I can go back and forth at my will and whim. I can hide there with Charlie (Watts) or I can go upfront, but I realised the non-stop pressure of singing every song – though at the same time I was expecting it to be a challenge and it was. It was just a matter of stepping up to it, really, and it was very enjoyable.”

It was around the mid 80s that various Stones started stepping out with solo records and side projects. Mick Jagger released She's The Boss in 1985 – which proved a catalyst to Richards forming the Winos. "I think it was that time, around '85, when Mick and I both realised that we had to take a break," he says. "So I just intended to take a break, but the next thing I know Mick's off making records and all this stuff. After about a year I was like 'Oh, man. I've gotta do something'.

"I'd since been hanging around with Steve Jordan (drummer, producer, Winos all-rounder) and (drummer) Charley Drayton, and I'd got this gig with Aretha Franklin doing Jumping Jack Flash with Steve, and that led to Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll with Chuck Berry. So by the time we'd finished doing that, it felt ready to try it on myself, and Steve and I had started to write songs together. We thought that we'd better do something with them, you know? So I put this great band together: guys I'd wanted to play with for years; (bassist) Ivan Neville, (guitarist) Waddy Wachtel, and it was a pleasure to have (vocalist) Miss Sarah Dash as well, that was a joy."

While there's a certain comfort that comes from submerging yourself in the sounds of a live environment – even if only one captured on tape – it also brings up the question of when, if ever, things might get back to "normal". And if not, is there a plan B for how Richards sees himself performing in the future? “At the moment, I can't see any plan B coming," he replies. "At the moment I think it's all based on 'Let's get this thing over and done with as soon as possible. Let's smarten up and...' It's a rough one, man, because this thing is designed to keep us apart, and everything we want to do is be together.

"So, I dunno, what's the best thing on the horizon? A vaccine? And that's going to take a while yet. I think we're all going to have to bite the bullet for a bit and hunker down, do as we're told, wash our hands and wear our masks and do the best. Everybody's got to try and stay safe, man. It's a killer this thing.”

The release, in April, of a new Rolling Stones single, Living In A Ghost Town, took us all by surprise. The Stones’ first new original material since 2012, when Doom And Gloom and One More Shot were included on the compilation album GRRR!, the reggae-tinged song was completed with the Stones in isolation in Los Angeles and London, and was originally intended to feature on a new album from the legendary rockers. “And then [when] shit hit the fan Mick [Jagger] and I decided this one really needed to go to work right now,” he says.

The surprise release came as a nice reminder that a) we should never take the Stones for granted and b) life has a way of throwing out curveballs when you least expect it. Richards also confirms that he and his bandmates are itching to return to work on what will be the first album of original Stones material since 2005’s A Bigger Bang.

“We got about four or five tracks down before the pandemic hit and Ghost Town was one of them,” Richards says. “But that was actually written and recorded before we knew anything about Covid-19, it was one of Mick's really mysterious prophecies (laughs). I called him up and I said, ‘Mick, the time for this song is right now’ and that's when we put it out, but otherwise? I don't know. We can't finish it until we can get back together again, and this pandemic might change the way we want to sound or what we want to write about, because I think it's going to influence everything.”

“I'm not one to make predictions, but I'm just hoping we can all get together as soon as possible and try and get back to a so-called normal.”

Keith Richards And The X-Pensive Winos Live At The Hollywood Palladium is released by BMG on November 13 and is available for pre-order now

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