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Delanceyplace: Keith Richards On Writing Songs

The Rolling Stones' Keith Richards says that writing songs causes you to distance yourself, to become more of an observer -- a bit of a Peeping Tom.

One hit requires another, very quickly, or you fast start to lose altitude. At
that time you were expected to churn them out. 'Satisfaction' is suddenly number
one all over the world, and Mick and I are looking at each other, saying, 'This
is nice.' Then bang bang bang at the door, 'Where's the follow-up? We need it in
four weeks.' And we were on the road doing two shows a day. You needed a new single
every two months; you had to have another one all ready to shoot. And you needed
a new sound. If we'd come along with another fuzz riff after 'Satisfaction,' we'd
have been dead in the water, repeating with the law of diminishing returns. Many
a band has faltered and foundered on that rock. 'Get Off of My Cloud' was a reaction
to the record companies' demands for more -- leave me alone -- and it was an attack
from another direction. And it flew as well.

So we're the song factory. We start to think like songwriters, and once you get
that habit, it stays with you all your life. It motors along in your subconscious,
in the way you listen. Our songs were taking on some kind of edge in the lyrics,
or at least they were beginning to sound like the image projected onto us. Cynical,
nasty, skeptical, rude. We seemed to be ahead in this respect at the time. There
was trouble in America; all these young American kids, they were being drafted
to Vietnam. Which is why you have 'Satisfaction' in Apocalypse Now. Because the
nutters took us with them. The lyrics and the mood of the songs fitted with the
kids' disenchantment with the grown-up world of America, and for a while we seemed
to be the only provider, the soundtrack for the rumbling of rebellion, touching
on those social nerves. I wouldn't say we were the first, but a lot of that mood
had an English idiom, through our songs, despite their being highly American influenced.
We were taking the piss in the old English tradition. ...

And because you've been playing every day, sometimes two or three shows a day,
ideas are flowing. One thing feeds the other. You might be having a swim or screwing
the old lady, but somewhere in the back of the mind, you're thinking about this
chord sequence or something related to a song. No matter what the hell's going on.
You might be getting shot at, and you'll still be 'Oh! That's the bridge!' And there's
nothing you can do; you don't realize it's happening. It's totally subconscious,
unconscious or whatever. The radar is on whether you know it or not. You cannot
switch it off. You hear this piece of conversation from across the room, 'I just
can't stand you anymore'... That's a song. It just flows in. And also the other
thing about being a songwriter, when you realize you are one, is that to provide
ammo, you start to become an observer, you start to distance yourself. You're constantly
on the alert. That faculty gets trained in you over the years, observing people,
how they react to one another. Which, in a way, makes you weirdly distant. You
shouldn't really be doing it. It's a little of Peeping Tom to be a songwriter. You
start looking round, and everything's a subject for a song. The banal phrase, which
is the one that makes it. And you say, I can't believe nobody hooked up on that
one before! Luckily there are more phrases than songwriters, just about.

Author: Keith Richards with James Fox
Title: Life
Publisher: Little Brown & Company
Date: Copyright 2010 by Mindless Records, LLC
Pages: 179-183

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