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Did Keith Richards really hate David Bowie?

Did Keith Richards really hate David Bowie? That is a historical question that has never been definitively answered. When we cast our minds back to the glory days of rock ‘n’ roll, two of the most iconic and pioneering acts that stand out are The Rolling Stones and David Bowie. Both contributed so much to popular culture that if one was to travel back in time and erase all existence of the two and then jump back to the present, life would be markedly different.

The Stones were one of a handful of acts that soundtracked the 1960s alongside The Beatles, The Who, Jimi Hendrix and Bob Dylan. Understandably, there are more acts in this category that we haven’t mentioned, but you get the point. The Rolling Stones have given us some of the most iconic rock ‘n’ roll songs of all time, such as ‘Gimme Shelter’ and ‘Paint It, Black’, to name but a few. The most defining feature of the Stones is the androgynous power duo of frontman Mick Jagger and guitarist Keith Richards. While all members of the Stones, past and present, are iconic, the enduring partnership of Jagger and Richards has been the beating heart of the whole operation since it began in 1962. 

Along with Iggy Pop, Jagger revolutionised the concept of the frontman, breaking down the rigid standards of the day, as exemplified by early John Lennon. The famously charmed Richards also made an indelible mark. His guitar playing, unbelievably technical and versed in the blues, has influenced droves of budding guitarists – his defining modus operandi is his use of a five-stringed, butterscotch telecaster in various open tunings.

On the other hand, David Bowie’s impact on music and culture really needs little, if any, discussion. The androgynous and inherently ephemeral star gave us an eclectic array of albums up until his tragic passing in 2016. His work endeared him to pop and alternative fans alike. His influence can be observed in as much of Placebo’s work as it can be in Lady Gaga’s.

The main difference between the two, apart from the sonic and aesthetic divergences, would be that the Stones were already superstars by the time David Bowie arrived as an artist on his third album, 1970’s The Man Who Sold The World. On his third outing, with the new backing band which featured the now-iconic associates Tony Visconti, Mick Ronson and Mick Woodmansey with sprinklings of YES’ Rick Wakeman, Bowie truly started on his trajectory to his own superstardom.

This realisation of his potential had been a long road. Like the Stones, he started his career in the ’60s; just it wasn’t successful. Apart from ‘Space Oddity’, the majority of his output during this period is rather forgettable. A key feature of his work during the ‘Swinging Sixties’ was the way that he tried to imitate the swaggering rock ‘n’ roll of the Stones. He remembered: “I didn’t get that near to it, but it had a feeling that I wanted,” he said, before adding: “That ’60s thing.” 

Before too long, the Stones’ influence would permeate Bowie’s work. This is most noticeable on the darkly futuristic Aladdin Sane. An album with a gaudy Stones-like edge to it, the inspiration of the swaggering band is smattered across it. Allegedly, Bowie was inspired by the Jagger quote, “The only performance that makes it – that really makes it – is the one that achieves madness.” Bowie even went as far as to cover the Stones on Aladdin Sane, and gave us the wickedly off-kilter version of the B-Side ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’.

Come to the dawn of the ’80s, and Bowie was a huge star. It is only natural that the two acts would by this point have come into each other’s orbits. In fact, Bowie and Jagger became such good friends, rumours of a love affair between them have abounded for decades. This close friendship would culminate in the duo’s iconic 1985 cover of the Motown classic, ‘Dancing In The Street’ for Live Aid. 

The extent of the closeness between Jagger and Bowie is wonderfully captured by Christopher Anderson, author of the 2012 biography Mick: The Wild Life and Mad Genius of Jagger. An excerpt picked out by The Sydney Morning Herald read: “Bowie and Jagger were soon spotted everywhere together without their wives: sitting ringside at the Muhammad Ali-Ken Norton bout, hanging out at the London disco Tramp, yelling and stomping their approval at a Diana Ross concert, or just cuddling up together on a hotel room couch.” 

Where was Keith Richards in all this, you may wonder? Lingering on the sidelines, it seems. Being ditched by his old friend for David Bowie clearly left a sour taste in the mouth of the Stones’ lead axeman. In a 2008 interview with Uncut, Richards gave his definitive take on the essence of David Bowie’s artistry. He revealed that he was “not a huge fan” of the Brixton native and admitted that ‘Changes’ from 1971’s Hunky Dory was the only Bowie song he could remember.

Keith Richards has never been one to remain quiet. (Credit: David Cole / Alamy)

He didn’t end there with this little bit of amnesia. He fully ripped into Bowie, clearly with a few bees in his bonnet. “It’s all pose. It’s all fucking posing. It’s nothing to do with music. He knows it too,” Richards said. “I can’t think of anything else he’s done that would make my hair stand up.” A scathing review from Richards. It almost makes the guitarist seem like the modern era’s Catherine of Aragon — humiliated by former companion Henry VIII, watching on, heartbroken as he shows off new plaything, Anne Boleyn. But we all know how that story ended. 

However, it does seem that Richards has somewhat of a jealous streak. In fact, ‘Gimme Shelter’ was partially inspired by the affair he believed Jagger and then-partner Anita Pallenberg were having behind his back while they both featured in Cammell and Roeg’s film Performance. It was rumoured that the sex scenes between Jagger and Pallenberg were not simulated. A remark of questionable origin that Richards nonetheless took to heart. Wracked by mistrust, it is said that he took to sitting in his car outside the location where the film was shooting. 

Across six pages in his tell-all autobiography, 2010’s Life, Richards maintained that he wasn’t upset by the pairs alleged infidelity. According to Alexis Petridis of the Guardianthe claim is “undermined by the bitterness that seeps through every page 40 years on.” Richards goes on to label the director Cammell “a pimp”, view the sex scenes as “third-rate porn”, and claim that his old buddy Jagger has a “tiny todger”. This makes the ‘Gimme Shelter’ lyrics: “A storm is threatening/ My very life today” and “I tell you love, sister/ It’s just a kiss away” seem profoundly explicit.

Richards’ jealousy of Bowie seems to have evaporated when the ephemeral icon passed away in 2016. The Rolling Stones released a statement to the NME, which read: “The Rolling Stones are shocked and deeply saddened to hear of the death of our dear friend David Bowie. As well as being a wonderful and kind man, he was an extraordinary artist, and a true original.”

Richards also took to setting the record straight. He admitted that he was actually “deeply saddened by such a sudden shock.” He continued: “David was a true original in everything he did and, along with many others, I’m going to miss him. Another goodbye to another good friend.”

It seems that mortality had had an effect on Richards in the eight years between 2008 and 2016. 

One cannot be totally sure, but it seems that Keith Richards did not, in fact, hate David Bowie and that if he once did, the feeling had since subsumed under respect for the man in death.

Watch Bowie imitate Mick Jagger, below.