It’s a question you’ve probably asked yourself many times: just what is a riff? And believe you me, it’s a very good question (and you are a remarkably clever and thoughtful person to have asked). When it comes to the technical side of music I am very patchy indeed, and so I can’t give the textbook definition of a riff. But I can tell you what I think it is – it is the sound of an instrument (often best on a guitar, though one can be established on any number of noisy things) setting out some sort of rhythm which helps to kick start, guide and propel a song. The riff can be an opening gambit which then sits back, or it can be the beating heart of a tune and will stay with it until the whole thing dies; preferably a glorious, rock and roll death. I’m struggling to finish two bits of writing on Led Zeppelin and Fleetwood Mac at the moment and since January was so very trying I have sought comfort once more in the arms of The Rolling Stones, and in particular their chief engineer – Keith Richards, a prime contender for the title of coolest human being ever. And it is he we are celebrating today because, above all other guitarists, he is the high priest of the killer riff. A wizard of feel and pulse. He may not dazzle with virtuosity and he rarely does a big solo, but when it comes to creating a beating buzz that just makes you want to cry with gratitude there is no-one to touch him. At least I think so. His 60’s saw him get a feel for just what a great riff can do (please have ‘The Last Time’, Satisfaction’ and ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ for starters) but it was in the 70’s that he really did his best work and so, quite simply, here are ten of his best from that decade, in chronological order; because it isn’t fair to name a favourite child, even if you’ve already picked one.
Before we start, you can get an idea of where Richards was up to by the dawn of the 1970’s by listening to the sizzling wire that threads itself all the way through ‘Monkey Man’ on Let It Bleed, an album which begins with ‘Gimme Shelter’: The Rolling Stones had performed their first big bounce back and were truly big time. And just when they needed to deliver, they delivered.
- Brown Sugar. When it comes to Sticky Fingers (what a name for an album) it would be easy to just go for ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’, but that astonishing bit of guitar work ends rather abruptly half-way through, and so we must bow down to ‘Brown Sugar’ instead. I know it is deeply un-PC to like this song anymore, but let’s face some edges of reality: it isn’t exactly a celebration of slavery, and it was written and performed by musicians who held an enormous amount of respect for black music and black culture. Even if you don’t buy that then ignore the lyrics and clock the tune instead. That intro is just perfect and as it swings along it takes on an almost country inflection. It is also there right to the end and is the bedrock for everything else you can hear: the rolling drums, bubbling bass, cavorting piano and the filthy blasts of Bobby Keyes’ sax. It is rock and roll in excelsis and it should not be discarded in a corner just because perspective is something that some people don’t seem to appreciate. And, more importantly, it’s a smoking hot song (the footage of them performing it on TOTP at the time – the band miming and Jagger live – is priceless, and not just for Jagger getting away with a pink satin suit; these guys could wear clothes, and they looked like the best gang in town).
- Midnight Rambler. The studio version is fine enough but once they hit the road The Stones turned this into a centre piece that charged along at killer pace. On some days it almost sounds like the template for Status Quo’s entire career but that shouldn’t put you off (in fact, I love Status Quo in the 70’s). The one to try is from their show at The Roundhouse in 1971, which has a slurred false start and then rips your head off as the band fall in behind Richards and send the song spinning almost out of control before pulling back and starting all over again. Oh, how I wish I had been there to watch the music drip off their fingers.
- Tumbling Dice. Such a sloppy, almost lazy riff and yet it absolutely works, the feel of it, and it’s a sound that only Keith Richards could have come up with. It is never rushed and it never steals the show – it just is, and there is something magnificent in the daring of it. It neither struts nor swaggers because, in reality, it is far too cool to have to do either of those things. It will rather always add spice to your more languid step.
- All Down The Line. A lopsided, bordering on uncomfortable, riff that shouldn’t work in one sense but does because the layers that are added blend together so well. The pauses between drops as the song starts to wrap up are delicious but you could argue that this song worked better live, and the film of them playing it in Texas in 1972 is a priceless workshop in band dynamics. Watching Mick Taylor finish his perfect slide solo the camera switches and we see Richards hunched over his guitar, chopping away, totally locked in with Charlie Watts. Lost in music. This period, up to 1973, was as hot as they got, the top of the mountain, but the journey down was an awful lot of fun to listen to.
- Luxury. Opinions vary on this. Some say it is a nadir, an insult to reggae and a charmless piece of crap. Others appreciate it because it doesn’t take itself too seriously and because it has such a big fat, filthy riff running right the way through it. I have literally no idea how you make a guitar sound like that, but I’m so happy it does. A riff that deserves to be isolated and listened to all on its own. The rest isn’t bad either, silly but a whole lot of fun too. But then I’m white, so I would say that. And this is immediately followed by……
- ……Dance Little Sister. That one disgusting riff could be followed straight away by another is the best thing about the otherwise hit and miss album this brace comes from. ‘Dance Little Sister’ is all chug and fuck, nothing fancy, just pure and simple rock and roll, push and pull. During this period Keith Richards appeared on The Old Grey Whistle Stop, looking and sounding about as stoned as it is possible to be without being dead. That this man, with his glazed, glassy, half dead eyes, broken teeth and slurred, none cooler slump was just as capable of churning out music as danceable and insistent and grubby sexy as this is nothing short of a miracle. But then in my mind Keith Richards is music’s one undisputable miracle, so that all makes sense.
- Fingerprint File/Hot Stuff. Respectively tailing and topping their two mid 70’s albums, clearly The Stones had been indulging in a bit of funk and fancied themselves new masters of the next big trend. Alas, they were not, but they still gave it a dirty wah-wah tip of the hat anyway and Richards, with his narcotic gait and reggae white-lite mannerisms looked and acted as if he might just get away with a role in a blaxploitation film, something that Jagger would have bombed at. These two riffs are all very Superfly and contemporary Isley Brothers, and while neither is a world-beater they both served to remind that the band still had the will to try something new and kind of make a virtue of it. Which is more than can be said for Rod Stewart.
- Crazy Mama. Rod Stewart once complained that when he tried to do full out rock and roll he was just chasing the “Rolling Stones” sound, with this song in mind. But when you think about it Rod Stewart could never write something as good as Crazy Mama, never mind deliver it with the same brio. With Mick Taylor gone, this was where Keith began “weaving” with Ronnie Wood, a technique (if that’s the right word) that never had quite the same majesty but sometimes achieved a bit of oompf all the same. As this does.
- Before They make Me Run. Richards was in deep trouble when they recorded this, and was even facing a long stretch in jail. In the process of sort of sobering up he found solace in this scratchy, pushing number and even lent his utterly unique (for better or worse) voice to it all. Mick Taylor may have been a far better sparring partner but Ronnie Wood is the right man for this number. Richards is up against it but he’s not going out without a fight. There was still life in the old dog. Booze and pills and powders indeed.
- Beast Of Burden. Coming immediately after on the Some Girls album came this, a total change in pace, as lovely as you like and definitive proof of how much soul the man and the band had. It’s a loving touch of a riff, as soft as that sound can make, should make. It’s a seductive type of manly man music, and there are surprisingly too many of those that truly make the grade.
And then that was it. The 70’s ended and The Rolling Stones started to stop being quite as cool and instead just became a huge road show act that occasionally flung out a mediocre studio album. Keith’s 80’s kicked off quite promisingly with the glorious ‘Start Me Up’ and the undervalued growl of ‘Slave’, but after that things never really got much better. Which is fine, because you can’t be that brilliant forever. No-one can. All good things must come to an end and so The Stones simply followed that rule, to some degree. Only Keith Richards decided not to, and instead just carried on doing his thing; a drop dead cool bohemian rock god that at least always had the ability to be self-depreciating enough not to believe all his own hype. If only he ruled the world. If only we all woke up every morning and listened to his wisdom and then, on tap, got to bathe in a choice cut of his riffage, one of those riffs that starts at the start and ends at the end. Which, after all, is exactly what life is all about; start, continue and end. And if you’re going to do that you may as well do it in style. Cheers, Keith.
G B Hewitt. 02.02.2022