Classic Rock Review

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Keith Richards Talk Is Cheap (1988)


Keith Richards probably never ever even dreamt of making a solo album – until he was hard pressed to it by Jagger. He gave everything he ever had to the Rolling Stones, and he never had or, at least, always controlled his ambitions within the band. But when Mick dissolved the band (and yes, everybody knows that it was primarily Mick’s fault), what was a poor boy to do except to sing in a rock an’ roll band – his own rock an’ roll band?

So, as much as good ol’ Keith hated it, he was simply forced to assemble his own bunch of musicians, come up with some lyrics and croak out most of the vocals – himself, because, ambitionless as he was, he really didn’t want to become the next Jeff Beck. The guys he plays and jams with are mostly nameless, honest studio workers, and the ‘big star’ of the album is Keith’s co-producer Steve Jordan: he plays bass, drums and probably something else, plus he co-wrote most of the tunes with Keith.

Critics loved this album – and I can easily understand them. History has probably overrated it, but there’s no denying the fact that Talk Is Cheap was an astonishing accomplishment for Keith: nobody thought he would be able to do a record at least half that good. Now see here, it doesn’t always sound like the Stones, this one. First of all, it has no Mick Jagger on vocals. A banality, yes, but an important one. I’m not the biggest fan in the world of Keith’s vocals.

I mean, I certainly don’t have to bring up the fact that the guy can’t sing worth a dime – that goes without saying; and sometimes, his dreamy, croaky and soulful vocals can be an interesting distraction from Mick’s harsh, sly tone. But when he sings throughout a whole album, that’s damn hard to take still. Also, if you already enjoyed my Stones’ reviews, you probably already know that I’m not a fan of what I’d call ‘typical Keith-style boggy ballad’, stuff like ‘Sleep Tonight’, ‘Coming Down Again’, all that crud, which is very soulful and emotional, for sure, but lacks strong melodies completely.

Of course, Keith couldn’t miss the chance to insert a couple of such babes onto this record: ‘Locked Away’ and ‘Make No Mistake’, to be exact. The former just drags at five minute plus, and does nothing for me, although I understand perfectly that devoted Keith fans will get additional years of life out of listening to it. ‘Make No Mistake’ is a little better, maybe just because there’s something endearing in the way Keith gurgles out these ‘make no mistake… abooooout it…’ lines all the time.

But in any case, it’s not the ballads that are gonna make this album. For an ex-Rolling Stone (soon-to-be-Rolling-Stone again), the general tone on the album is remarkably soft: most of the rockers are subdued and subtle, with little distortion or ‘ass-kicking’ to get in your way. Nevertheless, Keith still plays that six-string in a way that no living man on Earth can. Listen to his pulsating, incredible licks on ‘It Means A Lot’ to know what I mean. How on Earth can he achieve that incredible rock-rock-rockin’ effect by playing just a few chords in a few places? Over the years, he’d learned that famous ‘syncopated’ style of his that could only be equalled by Pete Townshend in his prime days – but Townshend’s prime days are long over, while Keith is still in perfect form for a rhythm guitarist (not for a soloist, though). And most of the songs here display his guitar playing talents, thank you Lord – after all, the back cover of the album, with the famous fingers, the famous skull-ring and the famous guitar, should really tell you something.

Apart from ‘It Means A Lot’, there’s a great funky opener, ‘Big Enough’, that at first seems like a more self-assured, real-song-like rewrite of ‘Hot Stuff’ – but it isn’t, it’s actually a separate strong song in its own rights. ‘Take It So Hard’ is the song that rocks out the fiercest on here – with lots of prime riffage, some cool vocals and a great party atmosphere. And don’t bypass the jolly Fifties sendup on ‘I Could Have Stood You Up’ – together with some doo-wop harmonies and funny lyrics. Yeah, Keith is no great lyricsman, but he does well for a beginner. He even summons all his forces to write a venomous, How-Do-You-Sleep-ish message to Mick (‘You Don’t Move Me’), and succeeds – come to think of it, it isn’t even venomous, it just sounds like an innocent, angry, but not really thoroughly pissed off scolding of an older brother who’s always been an example but isn’t any more. ‘You made the wrong motion, drank the wrong potion’.

All in all, no Rolling Stones fan will ever be disappointed by this record. Arguably, it is considered the best offer by a solo Stones member that money can buy – and while I certainly disagree, because, shame on me, I enjoy Mick’s solo output a lot better, it is quite decent and, well, definitely better than Dirty Work, at least. It is, however, obvious that Keith really needs Mick. The Beatles’ solo careers proved that John didn’t need Paul, and Paul didn’t need John – they could get on by themselves just as well, even if with a diminished commercial and artistic success. Keith and Mick cannot successfully function without each other, not for a long time period of time, at least.

Mick needs Keith’s great riffs and his ‘primal’ sense of melody; whereas Keith certainly needs Mick’s vocals and sense of experimentalism. The latter is especially important: perhaps the greatest flaw of Talk Is Cheap is that it is horrendously formulaic. People complain about the Stones’ mythic ‘formula’ (although I hardly ever understand what they’re talking about); well, this album certainly has a ‘formula’, and it gets a bit tiring near the end, though on this particular release it never gets too tiring. Buy it still! And get Keith to autograph it to you! Hurry up – he’s still alive, miraculous as it may seem!

May 6, 2013 Posted by | Keith Richards Talk Is Cheap | | Leave a comment