Me Up: The Beginnings
The Glimmer Twins' Chemistry
The Craft and the Process
I must say
I'm very proud to work with this group of musicians
for the last 25 years... The other thing I'm very proud of are
the songs that Keith and I have written over the last 25 years.
Jagger, 1989, from his acceptance
speech for the Rolling Stones' entry into
the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Andrew (Oldham) (the Stones' original manager and producer) in his naivety thought (that we could write our own songs). The fact that it came up was sheer luck because otherwise every guitar player - it does seem sometimes now that every guitar player DOES write songs but... - especially at that time songwriting was as different to being a guitar player as a bank clerk working in a store, you know. I mean it was a different job. You know, you had songwriters and - although we were well aware that what we were playing was written by the people who played them in the first place, we hadn't considered seriously that we could do it, you know: I'm lucky enough to have a talent for playing the guitar a bit, don't pile up on the optimism and be songwriters as well. But really it's a case of necessities, the mother of invention. You know when you run out of material, you come up with it. If you don't, you know... we wouldn't be talking now (laughs).
So what (Andrew) did was lock us up in the kitchen for a night and say, Don't come out without a song. We sat around and came up with As Tears Go By. It was unlike most Rolling Stones material, but that's what happens when you write songs; you immediately fly to some other realm. The weird thing is that Andrew found Marianne Faithfull at the same time, bunged it to her and it was a fucking hit for her - we were songwriters already! But it took the rest of that year to dare to write anything for the Stones.
(T)hat's why I take my hat off to Andrew. He had no idea, but it was worth a try, and it worked. In that little kitchen Mick and I got hung up about writing songs, and it still took us another six months before we had another hit with Gene Pitney, That Girl Belongs to Yesterday. We were writing these terrible pop songs that were becoming Top 10 hits. I thought, What are we doing here playing the fucking blues, and writing these horrible pop songs and getting very successful? They had nothing to do with us, except we wrote 'em.
(At first, w)e couldn't write rock songs. We just wrote these crap ballads... Eventually we got to grips with writing rock tunes, but it took a little time.
To English people Buddy Holly was an enormous inspiration. Therein lies the difference because he was a songwriter, which Elvis wasn't. And he wrote very simple songs - sort of lesson one in songwriting. Great songs, which had simple changes and nice melodies and changes of tempo and all that. You could learn from Buddy Holly how to write songs, the way he put them together. He was a beautiful writer.
We were making a change over from covering other people's material to trying to apply the sound we'd evolved to our own material. That was one of the hardest things to learn. Cause when anybody starts writing songs you can bet your life that 90% of the first batch will all be imitation gooey love ballads. These are much easier to write than a good rock and roll song.
The Last Time (1965) was... important, I guess, to Mick and myself because the previous songs we'd written we'd given to Andrew and we'd done dubs and sold 'em off to somebody else, you know, to do. So, I mean, that kind of - is a reason why we ended up with The Last Time, because the Beatles didn't have another good one and we'd rifled (laughs) everybody
I suppose we'd been writing for almost 9 months to a year by then, just learning how to put songs together. And with The Last Time, it became fun. After that, we were confident that we were on our way, that we'd just got started.
(Why Mick and I?) Brian was not a natural songwriter - his mind was too confused. He could talk his head off, but he couldn't write well. He was an interpreter more than a writer. I stumbled into songwriting; so did Mick. You know the story: Andrew Oldham locked us in the kitchen and fordced us to do it. You either find you've got it or not.
For some reason Keith and I wrote together. Maybe because we knew each other for so long and we're friends. I had no experience to back it with as far as songwriting was concerned. Brian was a much better musician. But it seemed very natural and Keith and I seemed quite good at it. Brian was quite problematical and it was obvious to Keith and myself after trying it a few times that it was going to work. Brian got annoyed but anyone gets annoyed when you exclude them because they're not compatible. I had a slight talent for wording, and Keith always had a lot of talent for melody from the beginning. Everything (in the beginning), including the riffs, came from Keith. But we worked hard at it. We developed it. You need application. Our first songs were terrible.
The basic material for songs used to come out of a beautiful collusion between Mick and Keith. But it became Mick's song or Keith's song, which started even on Exile (On Main Street), which is why I think that was Keith's album. Mick was always jumping off to Paris 'cause Bianca was pregnant and having labor pains. I remember many mornings after great nights of recording, I'd come over to Keith's for lunch. And within a few minutes of seeing him I could tell something was wrong. He'd say, Mick's pissed off to Paris again. I sensed resentment in his voice because he felt we were starting to get something, and when Mick returned the magic might be gone.
It's easiest to work together, but it's a lot more difficult to get together these days, that's the hassle. Before, it was so easy because we were on the road all the time, and if you got an idea for a song, you just went two doors down the corridor and put it together. Nowadays, we're often 3000 miles apart, and it just doesn't sound as good over the phone.
We do bits that we hear and then we throw them all together on a cassette or something, and listen to it. Mick writes more melodies now than he used to. The first things, usually I wrote the melody and Mick wrote the words. It's not gotten like the Lennon/McCartney thing got where they wrote completely by themselves. Every song we've got have pieces of each other in it.
I started writing on piano, which is easy: just put your fingers down. I think the first song I wrote melodically was Yesterday's Papers. Then Jigsaw Puzzle. As a singer I would impose my melodies over the chord structures. So even though I wasn't a player, I would help shape the melody. But it's true to say our roles were much more divided in the beginning, and now they're melded together.
You can't really (clarify who writes which song). It's not really true that I wrote all of one, and he wrote all of one when you get down to it. Keith and I might have had the initial idea, but after a while you can't separate who wrote it. We just sit down and do them, sometimes in the studio, sometimes at home.
Keith is the leader of the band until such times that Mick will walk into a studio with a song that's written and finished. If it's Mick's song and he's got it stuck in his head how it's gonna be it'll be done that way usually.
Usually, I hit (songs) around with people, with Keith. Sometimes I write them all down and say, Hey, this is it. Or sometimes I'll say, Well, this really can use a bridge.
Usually Keith gives me a start with the lyrics for his tunes. It's rare he gives me a melody with no indication - though if I come up with something better we'll change it. But usually he gives me an attitude or a phrase, like beast of burden, to pick up on. Obviously there are some lyrics I write all by myself. But sometimes Keith helps me just by saying which is the best verse. I might write five verses and we only need three. Keith will say, Oh, that's a great line, let's combine it with this.
(Mick recording a solo album did not affect the way we write together). See, I write songs for Mick to sing - that's my job, basically. I'LL do a couple here and there, whether because I want to or he thinks I should. But even if I write a song that Mick doesn't particularly like when he first hears it, I know that he CAN sing it. It's a matter of interesting him in a certain song. And then once he gets interested and does it - BOOM, there you go.
(Mick)'s got a bit of Shakespeare in him, no doubt about it. We've had fun arguments, writing songs. I would say, I think this should be an instrumental, and meanwhile, he'd written an opera... To me, writings songs is like making love: You need two to write a song. I've known Mick 40 years, longer than I've known anybody except my parents.
(A) lot of the things we write now, I write most of the lyrics...
I don't think people really know or care that much about what really goes on. I don't think people care about the mechanics of songwriting, particularly. So they think, Oh, well, Mick must write all the lyrics, and Keith writes all the tunes, which might have been true 30 years ago, but it really isn't true now. But that doesn't worry me very much. Keith might be underappreciated as a lyric writer. I don't think it worries him.
It's been a progression from Mick and I sitting face to face with a guitar and a tape recorder, to after Exile, when everybody chose a different place to live and another way of working. Let me put it this way: I'd say, Mick, it goes like this: "Wild horses couldn't drag me away". Then it would be a division of labor, Mick filling in the verses. There's instances like Undercover of the Night or Rock and a Hard Place where it's totally Mick's song. And there are times when I come in with Happy or Before They Make Me Run. I say, It goes like this. In fact, Mick, you don't even have to know about it, because you're not singing. (laughs) But I always thought songs written by two people are better than those written by one. You get another angle on it: I didn't know you thought like that. The interesting thing is what you say to someone else, even to Mick, who knows me real well. And he takes it away. You get his take.
Mick's more of a preacher than I am, in his method of delivery, etc. With Mick I can sit down and write on a more political level, a more social level, because he can deliver it that way. To me, when I get down to it, there's really not very much difference. A song about you and I is really about the same thing at a more intimate level... I usually focus it down to a more personal level, because I can deliver it better that way. Mick can sing it at a far more general level.
The ideal thing, of course, is when (words and music) suddenly appear together. When there's only one phrase that fits and it says it all, and all you have to do then is fill in the gaps. But it's not often that it happens... Gimmie Shelter is a classic one. That, I just slapped down on a cassette while waiting for Mick to finish Performance. Honky Tonk Women is another. A lot of times you're fooling with what you consider to be just working titles or even working hooks, and then you realize there's nothing else that's going to slip in there and fit in the same way. So you're left with this fairly inane phrase. (laughs)
When you’re writing songs, there are no fucking rules. In fact, you’re looking to break them. You’re looking to sort of find the next missing chord. You’re looking to find the next best way to express things. Writing songs is not about the lyrics one side and music on another. It’s about the two coming together. And you can be a great poet and you might write some lovely music, but the art and the beauty of writing songs is to pull those two together, where they seem to love each other, and that’s writing songs.
That's how most of my songs come together. I can't walk in the studio with a song typed out on a piece of paper and say, THIS is it, THIS is how it goes, play it. If that's what I wanted, I might as well hire session men. I just go in there with a germ of an idea, the smaller the germ the better, and GIVE it to them, FEED it to them, and see what happens. Then it comes out as a Rolling Stones record instead of me telling everybody what I want them to play. The band can work it any way they want. If it works, great. If it doesn't, I know I can go in there the next night with another germ. I know I'll grab them some way, infect them somehow. If it's good, then Mick and I can finish it off.
Sometimes we run things down... sometimes we get an idea for a song from, say, a rhythm that Charlie and Keith have played together or something... Quite often, we go into it without the song being written - which annoys me intensely. But, that's the way we record sometimes. It like it to be rehearsed before we go in, but it never really is. The music quite often comes ahead of the words. That annoys me. It's very hard to write lyrics to the track. It's much easier to have it done before but... I always try to write the lyrics to the songs.
I tend to work more on riffs while Mick has finished songs.
I'm less inclined to go for the typical verse-chorus, verse-chorus approach. I don't mind a 5-minute intro, or knocking out a verse or some vocals. I go for the aural excitement, whereas Mick very understandably sees most of his work go down the drain if we cut two verses.
(Most of the time) there's an idea first from one person. You don't really sit down and say, Okay, neither of us have an idea. We usually say, Well, what do you think of this, or you go out and play something and someone else joins in: Oh, I like that or How does it go or Can you show me the chords to that? You don't REALLY sit down and say, Oh, this is starting from totally scratch - you know, having NOTHING. There's always somebody who has something.
My strength, probably, is I can recognize a song in a few bars. I spot the embryo there. I've been writing since so early on that the antenna is really well-developed. If I pick up an instrument, it'll come to me. I don't go searching. I don't have that God aspect about it. I prefer to think of myself as an antenna. There's only one song, and Adam and Eve wrote it; the rest is a variation on a theme.
(P)eople say they write songs, but in a way you're more the medium. I feel like all the songs in the world are just floating around, it's just a matter of like an antenna, of whatever you pick up. So many uncanny things have happened. A whole song just appears from nowhere in five minutes, the whole structure, and you haven't worked at all.
As long as you turn the set on and put your finger in the air, if there's any songs out there, they'll come through you. It's very easy to get hung up on just the simple mechanics and craft of songwriting rather than the more important thing that real master musicians like the wherling dervishes can tell us about: just letting it go through you and come out the other side.
Writing... I don't know why you call it writing. I don't put a thing on paper. It's either up here (points to his head) or, if I get the chance, I put it on tape. And - I make records. That's what I do. Writing a song and performing is just a part of the whole process of making a record. It's that basic sound that comes out of those speakers. And it has to sound good in mono too for the radio, you know. And that's what I do. I make sounds, you know, and I'm good at it now.
I'll put aside certain periods of the day. I've started using drum machines when I get an idea, 'cause I'm a bit of a groove singer. I'll start to play on the keyboard, and get the drums going. It really gets me loose; I can just go with the sequence. Sometimes it's easier that way. And if you're a writer, you learn a lot about what you want, not what the drummer wants to impose on you. I wouldn't say I'm a great musician. I'm adequate enough to write songs and play simple parts. And I would like to become better, the same as a lot of musicians. My main thing is to sing, but my most enjoyable thing is writing, the buzz when you first write that tune.
Songs are running around - they're all there, ready to grab. You play an instrument and pick it up. What I generally do is like, Fingers are getting a bit soft right now. I'll go through the Bully Holly songbook - because I love Buddy's songs. Then I start playing 'em for half an hour. (Sings Maybe Baby.) Let's try Eddie Cochran or the Everly Brothers or a little Chuck. And after about an hour, I get fed up with other people's songs, and there's something that I'm playing of theirs that suggests something else to me, and I'll start to follow that. It'll either end up as a song or it'll end up as a disaster, and I'll get bored with it. It doesn't bother me. I never sit down and say, Time to write a song. Now I'm going to write. To me, that would be fatal. I know other guys work in other ways. There's no one system to this. It's what's right for you. But me, I always like to sit down and play the guitar a couple of hours a day, and something will come. If something interests me, then I think, Hey, there it is, and then I hang on to the end and follow the motherfucker. To me the important thing is recognizing something when it comes by.
I love playing guitar. I just don't really ever practice. (Laughs). I enjoy playing it just for fun, but I do write on it, as well. I write on piano too. I write the ballads mostly on piano; the rock songs are guitar.
Mick astounds me with his ability to do his homework and come up with great lyrics. Usually when we're doing pre-production, there's only a phrase or half a chorus, a couple of lines and a verse, and he literally mumbles the rest of it. One reason he does that is because he's waiting for the song to take shape. He doesn't want to write a verse if in the long run that verse doesn't exist, and he's wasted his time. So he likes to go through the motions until the song takes structure. Then he'll go home, do his homework, and come back with it. It's fascinating to me. He's brilliant.
Mick sits over the synthesizer with headphones on, which I consider a prison. This is like, Are you wearing those things because you don't want to be interfered with? Or are you just jerking off? See, the synthesizer worries me. Nobody should have ever let them out... (Mick) really is one of the best instinctive singers and players I've ever worked with, but when he calculates, I have a problem.
I like ballads. Also, you learn about songwriting from slow songs. You get a better rock & roll song by writing it slow to start with, and seeing where it can go. Sometimes it's obvious that it can't go fast, whereas Sympathy for the Devil started out as a Bob Dylan song and ended up as a samba. I just throw songs out to the band.
As life went on and we became - not living next door to each other, in the same room sometimes, we slowly had to learn how to do it from 3000 miles away. And, basically, since then we've worked the same way. Get a lot of ideas, and I send him, give him 5, 6 ideas and... First off, does it turn him on? (Laughs) You don't say, Write the lyrics to these! It can't be done that way. And does it turn you on, there's a couple of ideas here, do you want to expand on it? So in a way it goes like this. It's just done by more remote control these days, basically. But eventually you have to come together and decide. At the same time, in a way I miss the urgency and the closeness that was forced upon us in those days. At the same time, I quite care that we could get over of NOT being that close and still being to do things together. You just adapt and improvise...
As a writer, you keep writing all the time. I don't live anywhere near Keith, so I don't have time to sit down and write with him unless we make writing dates. When we were on the road all the time, we had a lot of time to do that. But we're not like that any more, so we don't do it.
(W)riting is a strange thing. Once you start writing songs, it turns you into an observer of other people. You listen more to what is being said, phrases. You pick them up, so without even meaning to suddenly everything somebody says is a potential song... (I don't carry notebooks.) I have bits of paper, man, that are all over the house. The wife keeps continually saying, Do you want to keep this? Usually, what Ive found with myself, is that if I remember it, then it's worth keeping. There's a few things I jot down, but a lot of it is remembering one phrase somebody said over there and another phrase somebody said across the room. They're totally unconnected, except I can see a connection. I observe.
The idea that you create it, again, is alien and can also fuck you up, because then it's all on your back, whether you've written something or not there. Treat it in a lighter way and say, This is what I do. If you can write one song, you can write 900. They're there. Your method of going about that - you can either try and regiment it, make it a task, or you make it a part of your everyday life and just sit around and play and not think about writing. Play anything you want.
Written music has always intrigued me, and I once taught myself to do it, and realized that this is no path for me to travel. I immediately forgot it, and I deliberately - for better or for worse - decided I ain't gonna be able to work within these parameters.
here to continue reading about
the songwriting of Jagger/Richards