In Not Fade Away, we take a look at the legacy of some of the greatest albums of the past few decades – some iconic, some lesser known – as they celebrate significant anniversaries. Here, we look at Keith Richards‘ solo debut, 1988’s ‘Talk Is Cheap.’
It was the album that could have ended the Rolling Stones. Instead, it may have given them a new lease on life, albeit through some pretty tough (and harshly worded) love.
By 1988, the Stones’ “World War III” was in full effect. After the band decided against touring for 1983’s Undercover (read more: Not Fade Away: ‘Undercover’ Leads To The Rolling Stones’ ‘World War III’), frontman Mick Jagger went on to start his solo career, enraging Richards.
But it was on the next Stones album, 1986’s Dirty Work, where the seeds of Talk Is Cheap took root. Talk coproducer Steve Jordan was hired to work with the Stones on the Dirty Work sessions in Paris, and that’s when he first worked with the legendary guitarist.
As Jordan tells Radio.com, he was in the City Of Lights working with the Duran Duran side project Arcadia at the same time the Stones were there recording their album. “The Duran Duran/Arcadia crew knew the Stones crew, and the crews were gonna hang out,” Jordan relates. “I said [to someone from the Stones’ crew], ‘Tell Charlie [Watts] I said hello.’ Charlie invited me down [to their sessions]. So I went over to the studio, and it was the first time I’d ever seen them play live. I felt like I was walking in on a private concert. I was so moved.”
But having the entire band in the studio at one time on that album was the exception rather than the rule during that era. “Mick would come in every other night, and then other nights I’d get a call from [Stones piano player/road manager] Ian Stewart to come down,” where he’d add percussion and some backing vocals.
In Richards’ book Life, he writes that Jordan “encouraged me; he heard something in my voice.” When asked about that quote, Jordan says that when he heard Richards singing Dirty Work‘s ballad “Sleep Tonight,” he knew he wanted to work with him again.
“I had never heard him sing like that, it was so eerie and unique sounding, it was wild. I had no idea that we were even gonna be friends after that week [working on the album]. But I thought, ‘If I ever get a chance to work with him in the future, I would encourage him to try to cultivate that.…’ And then it happened!”
Richards first invited Jordan to work with him on Aretha Franklin’s cover of the Stones’ “Jumpin’ Jack Flash” for a movie soundtrack. Then, they put together a band to back Chuck Berry for the concert film/documentary Hail! Hail! Rock N’ Roll!
After that, they hit the studio for what would become Talk Is Cheap.
The album saw Richards fronting a new band on several tracks: the X-Pensive Winos featured Jordan on drums (and sometimes bass), Charley Drayton on bass (and sometimes drums), Waddy Wachtel on guitar, and Ivan Neville (son of Aaron) on keyboards.
And the lyrics? Well, to call them “thinly veiled” barbs against Jagger would be accurate. Richards made fun of his bandmate’s singing (“You lost the feeling/not so appealing”) and his social life (“Why do you think you got no friends/you drove them all around the bend”). Worse, he mocked a plagiarism lawsuit Jagger was fighting over his solo song “Just Another Night” (“How you gonna keep your wealth?/Can’t even defend yourself!”) and his solo career in general (“Now you wanna throw the dice/You already crapped out twice,” a reference to Jagger’s two solo albums). And those lyrics are all from one song: “You Don’t Move Me.”
It didn’t take too much imagination to figure that many of the other songs, including “Take It So Hard” and “I Could Have Stood You Up,” were also aimed at his bandmate.
Free of Jagger, Richards seemed to be enjoying calling the shots. He had his new band, but he also worked with a lot of other musicians: “I Could Have Stood You Up” featured the players from Hail! Hail! Rock And Roll, plus former Stone Mick Taylor. Opener “Big Enough” used funk legends Bootsy Collins, Bernie Worrell and Maceo Parker. And “How I Wish” and “Whip It Up” featured Patti Scialfa of the E Street Band. Bruce Springsteen even picked Scialfa up from the studio after her session; however, while Jordan notes that “It was a fun meeting,” he says they “had no intention of having anybody work on [those songs] but Patti. It wasn’t ‘Oh, maybe we’ll have Bruce play on something.’”
The album was a lot more fun than anything Richards had done since Tattoo You, and maybe even Some Girls. Rolling Stone‘s David Fricke gave it four stars, calling it a “masterpiece of underachievement.”
Richards and the Winos hit the road for Richards’ first tour since Tattoo You. And being the frontman led Richards to a rather surprising revelation. As he wrote in Life, “It made me far more sympathetic to some of Mick’s more loony things.” He doesn’t say much more than that.
But perhaps that sympathy–or empathy–was what was needed to mend fences between the two artists, or at least to begin that process. Richards was ready to record another album with the Winos (they would, in fact, go on to record Main Offender in 1992) but, as he notes in Life, “There was a phone call. There was some shuttle diplomacy.” By early 1989, Jagger and Richards had met in Barbados to discuss the band’s future. And by the summer, they’d released their comeback album, Steel Wheels.
One of the singles from that album–the gorgeous ballad “Almost Hear You Sigh”–actually began during the Talk Is Cheap sessions (and Steve Jordan even got a cowriting credit with Jagger and Richards).
About Richards’ ability to write and sing ballads, Jordan says that “he has that in him. It’s conversational the way he sings [ballads], he has so much soul. That’s a great talent. You want to communicate (as a singer), and he does that.”
Richards’s canon of ballads since that point includes several highlights from the Stones’ more recent period including “Thru and Thru,” “The Worst,” “Thief In The Night,” “This Place Is Empty” and “Losing My Touch.” Jordan notes that “I understand that many fans wait to hear what the ‘Keith songs’ are on Stones albums.”
Steel Wheels led to the Stones’ biggest tour to date. It was the beginning of the second half of their career, which has seen three more albums and an insane amount of touring, leading up to this year’s “50 & Counting” shows. (Read more: The Rolling Stones Wrap U.S. ’50 & Counting’ Tour In D.C.)
The Stones played two new songs during this tour, and one of them, “One More Shot,” was written by Richards for a potential solo album, according to the band’s Rolling Stone cover story earlier this year.
As it turns out, Richards is collaborating on that album with Jordan. “We’re working on it now, it’s really pretty amazing,” Jordan says, before adjusting that statement. “It’s weird to say something you’re working on is amazing. I think he’s amazing on it, is really what I mean to say. That’s basically it.”
Jordan says that it isn’t an X-Pensive Winos album; rather it’s mainly the Richards/Jordan team.
And he verifies that there’s a Keith solo version of “One More Shot.”
“We cut it, and it’s great,” Jordan says. “Again, that sounds weird. What I mean to say is we really had a great time doing it. Keith was looking for a new song to bring in [to the Stones], so he asked me if I minded if he brought it in, and I said, ‘No.’ So he brought it in and they liked it, and they ended up recording it. We gave them our version to listen to. We have a version, it’s done. It has a different flavor, an additional vocal, Meegan [Voss, Jordan’s wife] singing this counterpoint thing. It’s a little different, Keith is playing all of the guitars and the bass. That’s all I can say, I can’t say much more.”
The song served as something of an anthem for the Stones on what may well have been their last tour, but it may also double for Richards’ other band, should he decide to hit the road once again with the X-Pensive Winos.
— Brian Ives, Radio.com