The Rolling Stones were blessed to have some of the finest musicians to ever play rock and roll. With the rock-solid backbeat of Charlie Watts, the stinging lead lines of Mick Taylor, and the fluid dynamic style of Ronnie Wood, the Stones had aces up their sleeves for days. However, those aces didn’t always get played.
Much like The Beatles did once they became a studio-only band, the fragmented nature of The Stones’ recording sessions meant that having all members contribute to a song was becoming rarer and rarer after 1967. Even someone as irreplaceable as Watts was, indeed, replaced occasionally, usually with producer Jimmy Miller stepping in on tracks like ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ and ‘Shine a Light’. But the award for the most expendable member would have to go to bassist Bill Wyman.
Wyman was always an odd fit for the Stones. Older, more reserved, and more moderate in his drug and alcohol intake, Wyman often contrasted with the bombastic personality of Mick Jagger and the hard-living ethos of Keith Richards. While those two were leading recording sessions, Wyman would usually wait around for something to happen before leaving after a few hours, sometimes not even showing up to sessions at all. They were never any worse for wear. Richards was a talented bass player, as were Taylor and Wood, and all stepped in to cover for Wyman on a number of occasions, with Richards being the most frequent replacement.
The differences between Richard and Wyman also extended to their bass playing. Wyman was more minimalist and centred, pairing well with Watts’ own “simple is better” approach. Richards, meanwhile, was often flashy and more groove-oriented, willing to engage in high runs and riff-based excursions. They both served the Stones music well, but it wasn’t uncommon for Richards to create as many truly memorable bass lines as Wyman.
On the occasion of his birthday, we’re forgoing the usual celebrations and, instead, picking out five songs that prove that Wyman wasn’t always the best bass player in the band. Sure, his work on ‘Miss You’ and ‘Bitch’ are legendary, but we’re making the argument today that Keith Richards, not Bill Wyman, was actually the best bass player in The Rolling Stones, and we won’t even use ‘Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)’, ‘Soul Survivor’, ‘Before They Make Me Run’, ‘Stray Cat Blues’, or ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’ to make our point. Here a five songs that vault Richards to the top of the list.
The five best Rolling Stones songs with Keith Richards on bass:
‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’
It’s bizarre that the song where Bill Wyman has the most frequently repeated claim of authoring didn’t actually even feature him on bass. Word has it that Wyman, not Richards or Jagger, came up with the main riff for ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ while sitting at a piano. The writing credit eventually listed Jagger and Richards alone, although Wyman hasn’t seemed to have made any notable attempts to have the error rectified.
In any case, Richards’ bass part is the first time on a Stones record where the four-string instrument actually bounces its way into a prominent spot in the max.
With much of the same high throbbing pulse as the Velvet Underground’s ‘White Light/White Heat’, Richards delights in running up and down the neck with a ferocity that would come to define his bass contributions. Wyman’s organ contributions, in contrast, are hardly audible until the song’s fade out.
‘Sympathy for the Devil’
The number one example anyone should point to when highlighting the prowess that Richards had on the bass guitar, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ transformed from Jagger’s original folk arrangement to a rollicking samba due to Richards instigation. While a fair bit of that propulsion is thanks to the percussion work from Watts, Wyman (on shakers), Jagger (on bongos) and Rocky Dijon (on congas), the main drive comes from Richards’ busy bass line, one that’s as impressive as it is fun to listen to.
Establishing the song’s sensual and sinister groove, Richards pushes everything in the song forward, from the tight drums to the cooing backing vocals to Jagger’s increasingly unhinged performance. Even his fiery guitar lines stand in the shadow of the all-time bass line, one that perfectly compliments the song and one that couldn’t have possibly be played by anyone else. You can hear the difference when the song gets played live, not just by Wyman but by Darryl Jones in the modern day. They’re facsimiles, but nothing can touch that original groove.
A funny thing happened when Keith Richards moseyed down to the basement of his Nellcôte chateau that doubled as the Stones’ recording studio for the production of Exile on Main St.: he was early to a session. This was a rare occurrence, and so he gathered the only other people that were also there, producer Jimmy Miller and saxophonist Bobby Keys, to cut a brand new song in order to alleviate boredom and get some work done.
The grime and swampiness of the basement can be heard in Richards’ bass track for ‘Happy’, weirdly lo-fi and grungey before that term was heavily associated with music. Wyman found the Exile sessions contentious and too disorganised for his own tastes, and he appears on relatively few tracks from the album.
Richards dutifully stepped in, and his greatest line came from his own impromptu burst of inspiration.
‘Live With Me’
It took a lot to have a bass part kick off a Stones song. Let’s be honest: it took Keith playing it. Wyman, although respected within the band’s dynamic, was never going to be so bold as to assert that he should kick off a song. Richards, on the other hand, was going to do whatever he wanted, and he wanted to start ‘Live With Me’ with his own bouncy bassline.
This is a good time to mention that Wyman’s own lack of ego played into most of these basslines coming to fruition. While he was occasionally absent (like during ‘Happy’), most times Wyman willingly stepped back to let Richards do his thing.
“Sometimes I would say, ‘Bill, it goes like this.’ And he’d say, ‘Why show me? You got it down. Let’s make this simple. You do it,'” Richards recalled. It’s hard to argue with the results, as ‘Live With Me’ is almost certainly the most prominent bass in a Stones song ever put to tape.
‘Street Fighting Man’
The origin ‘Street Fighting Man’ was almost identical to ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’: Richards took his Gibson Hummingbird acoustic guitar, tuned it to open D, put a capo on the second fret to put the song in the key of E, recorded a chord progression, and overloaded the cassette to produce the signature fuzz-filled sound. It’s no surprise, then, that Richards did exactly what he did on ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ when it came to the bass as well – he took over.
Wyman was absent from the session and so he couldn’t object to having Richards playing the electric bass, the only electric instrument on the track. As Richards explained in an interview with The Wall Street Journal in 2013, “‘Street Fighting Man’ was the first time I had a sound in my head that was bugging me. That would happen again many times, of course, but after that song I knew how to deal with it. When we were completely done recording ‘Street Fighting Man’ and played back the master, I just smiled. It’s the kind of record you love to make – and they don’t come that often.”