Melinda Newman interviews Mick and Keith for Billboard:
- It’s a little hard to imagine, but Keith Richards says he fears that playing live with his Rolling Stones bandmates may one day feel like just another day at the office. He pauses, slides into a hard guffaw, and adds, “Not that I know what a day at the office feels like.”
No, but the Rolling Stones gross more than most corporations when it comes to their night jobs. In the 1990s, the band took in a staggering $750 million from three tours. With a nearly sold-out concert outing newly under way and a greatest-hits package that for the first time spans its entire career, the top touring act of all time is poised to reach a new plateau.
The hits package, “Forty Licks,” is a joint venture among Virgin Records, Universal Music International (UMI), and ABKCO Records that will be distributed worldwide by Virgin parent EMI Recorded Music. The first half of the two-disc set contains the ABKCO-controlled material, starting with the group’s first U.S. chart single, 1964’s cover of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.” The second half features the post-ABKCO material. The project is due Sept. 23 in Japan, Oct. 1 in North America, and Sept. 30 in all other markets.
“Forty Licks” features four new songs, which Richards, Jagger, Watts, guitarist Ron Wood, and bassist Darryl Jones recorded in Paris in May. “The last tour ended in 1999, and I thought, ‘I probably won’t get a phone call for about 18 months,'” Richards says via phone from Toronto, where the band was rehearsing for the tour. “And, sure enough, slightly after [18 months had passed], Mick calls up and goes, ‘Do you think we should do something next year?’ I just wait for people to get antsy at home.”
At the Paris sessions, the band turned out to be amazingly prolific, cutting 28 tracks in four weeks. There was never any doubt, Richards says, whether some of the new material would be included on “Forty Licks,” “because [of] this Beatles and Stones sort of thing. The main difference between the Stones and the Beatles, I guess, is that the Stones are still going. So we decided it would be important to have this sort of hint of ‘to be continued,’ rather than it all just being totally out of the can. At the same time, I wanted [new material], because the boys haven’t played together for almost three years.”
In addition to driving first single “Don’t Stop,” the new tracks on “Forty Licks” are “Keys to Your Heart,” which Jagger describes as “a soul tune with a sort of Curtis Mayfield [vibe]”; “Stealing My Heart,” which the singer says is “more of a ‘battle of the bands’ thing, with a hook”; and “Losing My Touch,” which features Richards on lead vocals. “It’s about a guy on the run who’s gotta say goodbye,” Richards explains, “and he’s doesn’t really know how to say it.”
“Forty Licks” marks the first time the Rolling Stones’ ABKCO-owned masters (which encompass the band’s 1963-1970 London/Decca recordings) and post-ABKCO recordings have co-existed on the same project. ABKCO head Allen Klein previously rejected any offers to blend the two.
“I thought it was a good time to get all these different business groups and bang their heads together and see if they could click this thing out,” Jagger says, jokingly adding that he got the parties to agree to the project “by playing on their mutual sense of greed.”
Klein says money was not his only impetus for doing the deal. Rather, it was Jagger’s appeal and Klein’s own sentimentality. “I mean, if this was going to possibly be their last tour and given the amount of time that had gone by … I would do it for them and not for anyone else.” He adds that ABKCO and the Stones actually hammered out a deal in 1989 that allowed for the eventual joint release of an album.
Simply because all parties have finally worked together, Jagger says it does not mean that fans should expect a more comprehensive Stones boxed set: “It sounds like too much hard work. Besides, there’s a reason why some of this stuff doesn’t come out. Don’t hold your breath on that one.”
The Stones prefaced the year-long Licks tour by rehearsing for six weeks in Toronto prior to opening Sept. 3 at Boston’s FleetCenter. It’s not that the band needed to practice “Brown Sugar” or “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” “We don’t rehearse those,” Richards says. “But what we do is rehearse a hundred old songs. Since we’re playing [different-size venues], we decided we really needed a lot more ammunition in the locker, so to speak, in order to be able to make the shows appreciably different.” He adds that he was especially happy with the way some oldies, like “Heart of Stone,” were resurrecting themselves. “I don’t think we’ve played that song in I can’t remember when … slightly before B.C.”
To keep things lively, the band will play a theater, arena, and stadium in its biggest markets, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Boston. The bulk of the rest of the first leg’s 40 dates are arena shows. Openers include No Doubt, the Pretenders, Sheryl Crow, Buddy Guy, and Jonny Lang.
The band has been considering all manner of surprises for the concerts. “With the smaller shows, we’ve been thinking that we need some kind of theme — you know, like this is ‘Exile on Main St.’ night and sort of lean heavily into that album,” Richards explains. “Another idea is, ‘Let’s have a soul night or a blues night.'”
Jagger says, “The whole idea is that you enjoy them all so that you don’t get bored doing one thing. I mean, it’s a show for the audience, but you’ve also got to enjoy yourself.” Richards chimes in: “Football stadiums — as big and beautiful and spectacular and wonderful as they are — I tell you, after about a hundred of ’em, you get bored.”
But, after all these years, Richards reveals, “there’s still always that element of uncertainty when you step onstage. It’s like gambler’s fever, you know? It’s letting the tigers out of the cage. And then, after a show, you really feel like you’ve done something, even though sometimes you can hardly walk.”
More Q&A with Mick:
- Which venue are you looking most forward to: the theaters, the arenas, or the stadiums?
Well, I think the whole idea is that you enjoy them all so that you don’t get bored doing one thing. I mean, the problem I see is if you’re doing six theaters in a row, you’d get really good at doing theaters, but if you’re doing only one every week, you might never get good at them. That’s the downside. The upside is that it’s also enthusiastic. You never get bored, and say every night is wonderful.. On the other hand, if an audience is going to sleep, for whatever reason — especially in a very hot, outdoor show, the audience can be very tired — you have to sort of wake them up and work them. You can’t ever tell an audience it’s a terrible audience and it’s got to wake up. We were talking about that at lunch, actually, because we were remembering when Oasis had a show and they came out and said, ‘You’re a lousy audience.’ They may well have been a lousy audience, but the audience doesn’t really appreciate you telling them.
No. Because they have paid their hard-earned money. Speaking of, do you know that a ticket broker is offering second row seats to the Madison Square Garden show for $5400 each.
I’d buy them. It’s a bargain [laughs]. There’s something wrong with selling it retail at $350, and someone else re-selling it for $5400.
Keith said to me that he knew when the ‘No Security’ tour ended that he probably had about18 months until his phone was going to ring and it was going to be you saying, ‘You know, what do you think?’ Is 18 months about enough time before you start thinking it’s time for you and the boys to get back together?
That’s probably about right, I suppose. I’ve never really timed it, to be perfectly honest. I don’t really do it like that. There’s a lot of things to go before because you want to see how the market is for instance, you know?
How is the market right now? The market for records is not good right now.
For records, yeah. Most of the time, we’ve been talking about shows. You can start off by saying, ‘how’s the market in general? And how’s the market for a Rolling Stones show?’ If we went to Argentina at the moment, we wouldn’t get the offers.
No, because they can’t afford food right now.
Exactly. I mean, that’s just sort of a good example of the leaner market. In some countries, there’s a huge market value, but we can’t get there now, so we’re not even going to South America at all.
But you’re going to China and India, right?
Yes. But we don’t expect to make money. It’s more like fun and you know, who knows?
How did you pick the four new songs on “40 Licks,” since you recorded 28 songs?
Yeah. But not anywhere near as songs are they finished.
Then how did you pick these four?
Because I aimed to do at least two finished ones, but they were going to be different; in other words, different grooves and different kind of songs. Not four fast, you know, medium-tempo fast rock songs, so four completely different things. And that was the main priority. I wasn’t interested in doing 28 new things. So that was great that we did other things, but I wanted to put new, finished things on this album. I would have been happy with two, so four is really good. It’s nice to have an album that starts at the very beginning and goes to just a few months ago.
Why not a whole new album?
Because I wanted to do this. I thought it was the right moment to do it, and I thought we’d come out with a new album later.
And more with Keith:
- So are you looking most forward to those smaller venues?
Yeah, we all are, I think, because it keeps us interested too and, of course, one of the most important things is that the band’s turned on, you know? We always dread the idea of walking on stage and waiting for it to be over. They wouldn’t do it if they felt like that, so there’s always this kind of useful enthusiasm that goes on around this time of the tour.
I want to talk a little more about these new songs. You cut 28 and there are only four on “40 Licks.” What’s going on with the other 24?
Well, we’ve got them in the can, and in a way I’m going to try to work on them and see if there’s an album in there or the beginnings of an album or what. It seems like there’s a lot there and it was a very profitable and prolific month in Paris, so I’m not going to just let them sit in the can and forget about them. But at the moment I can’t do anything but this. But once this tour gets going, maybe I’ll find some time to start working on them.
But you’re talking about cutting almost a song a day.
Basically, yes. Surprising, isn’t it?
Do you normally work at that rate?
No, there’s never any set pace for these things. For some reason this year these guys … it’s all been bubbled up for a couple of years and they’re just ready to go. I’m looking around and going, ‘Come on, when’s the other shoe gonna drop?’ You know? It’s too good.
And did it?
Unfortunately, yeah. Not the way I thought. One of our most long-serving roadies, [Roydon] Chuch [Magee], died. That’s the shoe that dropped, that really put a blanket on things. Only personally, from that point of view. From the other point of view, we’re playing better now because Chuch would’ve wanted us to.
I saw a quote where one of you talked about how he was in some ways the heart and soul of the band.
Yeah. When you work so closely with a team and with guys … I mean, they’re our lifelines, those guys behind there. We’d look pretty stupid, I can tell you. And sound pretty stupid too. As usual, you don’t really miss anybody until they’ve gone and then you realize what a huge hole has been left. Not just in your heart, but in your music. Chuch was doing the work of five men and nobody knows where he’s put anything [laughs]. Everybody’s now trying to get in touch with him to say, you know, ‘Where are those wires?’
And then somehow they just magically appear.
Slowly, yeah. They’re still opening cases in the back saying, ‘Oh, that’s where he put it.’
“40 Licks” is obviously the first album that’s had both the Stones’ ABKCO and the post-ABKCO cuts together. I heard you guys helped pick the tracks. What were you looking for when you picked them?
I didn’t have a lot to do [with it]. Everyone sent me their lists and some people get into it and I said, ‘I’ll just go with what the flow is,’ because you can start to get so greedy about them and you realize afterward that it didn’t really matter. So I thought I’d let them do it and I just sort of watched the lists as they changed and said, ‘Oh, that’s the one that’s come out the most favorite amongst everybody,’ so I went with that.
ABKCO has just released 22 Stones albums in the Super-Audio CD format. Have you listened to them?
Those remasters and remixes are quite amazing. I’m hearing instruments I forgot I played on them. There’s instruments coming out on those tracks and you realize, ‘Oh, of course, there was an acoustic on there.’ I mean, there’s an amazing clarity and what they pulled out of those old tapes is quite amazing. When they first sent me a copy, I thought, ‘Oh God, the idea of listening.’ You know, it’s not everyday I throw on a Stones compilation to listen to myself. I’ve had so many of them over the years. But when they put that one on I thought, ‘Oh, that is leap forward.’ Those records are suddenly… I mean, they got more out of them then we ever got in those days and it’s amazing how much information is on those bits of tape that they can pull out now, it’s like hidden in there. I was very impressed.
When you go into the studio do you feel the pressure to create another “Beggars Banquet” or “Exile on Main Street,” or do you say we can’t put that kind of pressure on ourselves?
I don’t know. I don’t think people think about whether there’s anything left in us. When you cut 28 tracks in a month, there’s plenty in there. It’s a matter of do you feel like doing it and, at any rate, what’s the point of doing it and is there a reason, etc. But, in a way, it’s so strange because we really just work like a band. You know, ‘Let’s make a record.’ There’s no really sort of great strategy involved in any of this.
I hear you’ve got quite the recording set-up in your basement, and you’ve been cutting a lot of stuff there.
Oh, I do. There’s a room called “L,” which some people pronounce “hell.” But it’s called “L” because it’s L-shaped, a sort of unique shape for recording, but one part of the “L” happens to be for my pool room and the other is the bar. I was working down there, and allowed in some guys, Blondie Chaplin and a few other cats that I’m working with, and I got this request to do the something for “Timeless,” the Hank WIlliams compilation that came out last year. I said, ‘Yeah, I’d love to do’ — I was firmly convinced that someone else would have cut it — so I said ‘I’ll do it if I can do ‘You Win Again,’ and they called back and told me that, funny enough, no one had tried that one. So I said, ‘Okay, I’m in.’ So we cut it down in the basement and it came out and we got a Grammy!