Today is Rolling Stones guitarist/mummified junkie Keith Richard’s birthday. It’s sad that Richards (who turns 70 today) has become a bit of a joke simply because he’s managed to not-die. Although to be fair, the joke isn’t that Keith Richards the musician is still alive, it’s that Keith Richards the vagabond-druggie is still alive. There’s cheating death and then there’s dropping your pants and taking a huge dump on Death’s chest–Richard’s been doing that for decades.
Kids these days are more likely to know him as Johnny Depp’s pirate-dad than for “Satisfaction.” That bums me out because Richards has contributed a lot to the world of rock n’ roll beyond his off-stage antics. It’s widely accepted that Keith Richards is a fantastic guitarist and that his ability to write amazing riffs is second to none. What’s not so widely-accepted is his ability to sing songs. Since 1967’s BETWEEN THE BUTTONS Keith has been allowed to sing lead on at least one song per Rolling Stones album. This has been viewed by many as a bit of rock n’ roll charity, similar to an arrangement The Beatles had with Ringo Starr. But I’m gonna go out on a limb and say that, with all due respects to Mr. Jagger, 80% of my all-time favorite Stones songs are sung by Richards.
Does Keith Richards have a pleasant singing voice? No. But there’s a haggard, raw quality to it that Mick Jagger’s voice lacks. When Keith sings about hard living and late nights alone, you can hear his suffering in the timbre of his voice. Time (and cigarettes) haven’t been especially kind to Richards voice, but in a way his rougher sound serves to accentuate his songs with a extra layer of desperation. Much like with Bob Dylan, another take-him-or-leave-him vocalist, I find that hearing Richards sing his own songs adds an extra dollop of sincerity. I’m sure Mick Jagger could have sung all the Stones tracks, but we’d be much poorer for it.
To that end, I present to you my Top 10 Keith Richards songs. These feature Keith on lead vocals and while they may not have set the Top 40 charts ablaze, have a special place in my heart. Here’s to 70 great years!
My Top 10 Keith Richards Songs
1. “Before They Make Me Run” off SOME GIRLS. First off, this song has an amazingly good guitar riff. The song is all about Keith’s legal problems following numerous drug busts. At the time, Richards was facing the real possibility of doing some serious jail time. So of course he writes a boozy song about “walking” before he’s forced to “run.” It’s a badass song.
2. “Happy” off EXILE ON MAINSTREET. This is Richards signature song, the one you’re guaranteed to hear him sing if you see The Rolling Stones live. It’s heralded as his best song and with good reason. Despite being recorded during one of the darkest periods in Rolling Stones history, “Happy” is bouncy and well…happy. There’s a real off-the-cuff aspect to his singing on the song, it’s almost like he’s making it all up as he goes. This joyous spontaneity and the bright horn section make “Happy” truly great.
3. “Wicked As It Seems” off MAIN OFFENDER. This track is not a Rolling Stones song but rather a straight-up Keith Richards solo-song. The song’s a slow burn with a great groove. This is the track that convinced me that Richards really was the heart-and-soul of the Rolling Stones.
4. “You Got The Silver” off LET IT BLEED. Keith Richards may be a rocker but he’s got the soul of a country artist. In fact, my all-time favorite Rolling Stones affectation is when they do a country song. “You Got The Silver” is a mix of country and dirty blues, it’s simple but damn earnest. I still get chills when I hear it to this day.
5. “Coming Down Again” off GOATS HEAD SOUP. A gentle piano ballad sung by Keith Richards? Yep. Add a knowing nod to drug abuse and you’ve got yourself a fantastic song.
6. “Little T&A” off TATTOO YOU. People give TATTOO YOU a lot of grief, and while it’s not the best Rolling Stones album it does have this tight little gem on it. Many considered Richards past his prime by 1981, but Richards proves on this track that he’s just as spry as ever.
7. “Locked Away” off TALK IS CHEAP. Another Keith Richards-solo track, “Locked Away” almost sounds like a serious Traveling Wilbury’s song. Richards is full of self-doubt and this track which also makes reference to prison/jail which like death has always loomed threateningly over the guitarist.
8. “Hurricane” off VINTAGE VINOS. A short little acoustic bonus track recorded during 2002, “Hurricane” finds a creaky-voiced Richards quietly singing with just a guitar. Even though it’s just a short, dashed-off track the song is endlessly compelling. I think it’s the world-weary voice. Keith sounds sound beaten it’s kinda heartbreaking.
9. “We Had It All” a bonus track recorded during the SOME GIRLS sessions. Another bonus track, “We Had It All” is a gentle ballad drenched with regret and sorrow. Not quite country, not quite blues, the song wasn’t right for SOME GIRLS but it’s still really good.
10. “This Place Is Empty” off A BIGGER BANG. The most recent track on my list, this song also has the roughest sounding Keith Richards vocals. It’s a little creepy to hear old-man Richards ask his lady to “bare your breasts” I’ll admit, but this is a good song. The song’s I-miss-you sentiment pairs well with Richards voice and somewhat halting delivery.