“I’ve never stopped learning.” — Mick Taylor
The key ingredient to Mick Taylor revolutionising The Rolling Stones is that he brought a higher level of skill and magic to the band, the likes of which they had never encountered before. Although leading up to the Stones sacking their founder Brian Jones, Taylor would be his replacement; the band began developing dull expectations for Jones. He began doing too many drugs and would end up in comas and other states of inactivity; Brian’s involvement with the Stones became increasingly sporadic and unreliable. Initially, he was largely responsible for starting the band, and in the first few years, he took on guitar duties alongside Keith Richards.
Later on, he became bitter at how close Jagger and Richards were becoming and that they were writing all of the songs — consequently, he started losing his sense of identity within The Rolling Stones. So, he would experiment with different instruments, leaving his famous teardrop-shaped guitar untouched. Unfortunately, it meant the band had lost a large part of their live sound of weaving guitars, which Keith Richards would search intensively to regain.
When Mick Taylor joined, the Stones went through arguably their greatest phase of musical creation and produced their most critically acclaimed albums such as: Let it Bleed (1969), Sticky Fingers (1971), Exile on Main Street (1972), and Goats Head Soup (1973). As Keith Richards notes in his book Life, “Mick Taylor being in the band on that ‘69 tour certainly sealed the Stones together again. So we did Sticky Fingers with him. And the music changed — almost unconsciously.
“You write with Mick Taylor in mind, maybe without realising it, knowing he can come up with something different. You’ve got to give him something he’ll really enjoy. Not just the same old grind.” It’s the mark of a serious guitarist that, firstly, you gain the respect of Keith Richards and secondly, that he thinks you may get bored of the riffs he was writing.
Richards continues to go on and say at a different time, “we did the most brilliant stuff together, some of the most brilliant stuff the Stones ever did. Everything was there in his playing — the melodic touch, a beautiful sustain and a way of reading a song.”
Mick Taylor’s first gig with the Stones was at Hyde Park in 1969, a show that would begin with Jagger paying tribute to the man Taylor replaced in Brina Jones. Around this time period, The Rolling Stones were recording Let it Bleed, and while Taylor joined the band in the middle of the sessions, he was still able to contribute to the record and provide a certain level of virtuosity that the Stones hadn’t had before.
One factor was the use of slide guitar, something which Taylor was particularly proficient in. Richards elaborates on this and in particular, Taylor’s use of slide on a song off Let it Bleed: “He’d get where I was going even before I did. I was in awe sometimes listening to Mick Taylor, especially on that slide – try it on ‘Love in Vain.’” To what extent Taylor contributed to Let it Bleed is debatable.
According to Louder Sound publication, Mick Taylor said in an interview, “‘Live With Me’ was the very first track I ever played on, when they were putting the finishing touches to Let It Bleed. We actually recorded that the night I went for my audition at Olympic Studios, or maybe the night after.”
Richards has said that he added Taylor to the Let it Bleed tracks here and there for prosperity’s sake. Of course, that would prove to be a wonderful and powerful thing, as it did end up doing a lot of good. On the single that would precede Let it Bleed, and while not included on the album, a country version of ‘Honky Tonk Women’ was added instead. Richards credits Taylor for influencing the track: “the song was originally written as a real Hank Williams/Jimmie Rodgers/1930s country song. And it got turned around to this other thing by Mick Taylor, who got into a completely different feel, throwing it off the wall another way.”
Charlie Watts also recalls this period of time with Mick Taylor as an extremely important phase, “the Mick Taylor period was a creative peak for us. A tremendous jump in musical credibility.”
Exile on Main Street would be recorded in France, when the Stones were, in a sense, well, exiled. The band had rented a bunch of different houses in the Nellcote region of Southern France and did the recording sessions at Richards’ mansion. By the time they did this album, many would argue that the Stones were at the height of their powers and their ability both as a live band and studio outfit was nearing its peak. Not to mention, a part of the brilliance of the band was the very small difference in their sound between live and studio sessions — they were essentially the same band, being able to recreate everything one heard on a record, in a live show but with a little more swagger.
Mick Taylor’s playing further elevated their sound to legendary status. Mick describes the sessions and the studio they were operating in, as according to Louder Sound: “It was a dingy little basement, quite damp,” said Taylor.
“It wasn’t a proper recording studio at all. We ran all these cables down into the basement, which was divided up into small rooms. And there was only one room which we could all fit into and where we could play together. There was a place where Charlie played the drums, but it was in a separate section of the room. For vocal overdubs, Mick had to do them in a tiny room along the corridor. It was like a labyrinth, really.”
This just proves how much an environment and atmosphere influences a piece of artistic work. Taylor described Exile in Main St. as “earthy and bluesy.” It’s as if you can hear the geography in the record, sonically speaking. The Stones were able to really soak up all the parties that were happening at Richards’ mansion, the dingy basement, and the overall feeling of being exiled and on the run from the British authorities.
Ultimately, by 1974, it did prove a little too much for Mick Taylor. He wasn’t artistically fulfilled anymore and couldn’t sail on the crazy pirate nation of a ship that The Rolling Stones were at the time. Keith Richards offered his thoughts on the matter: “Mick could never explain why he left. He doesn’t know why. I always asked him, why did you leave? He said, I don’t know.
“He knew how I felt. I always want to keep a band together,” continued Richards, “You can leave in a coffin or with dispensations for long service, but otherwise you can’t. I can’t second-guess the man. It might have had something to do with Rose, his wife. But the proof that he didn’t really fit in is that he left. He didn’t want to fit in, I don’t think.”
While Keef thought long and hard about why Mick Taylor may have left, for some, including Taylor himself, it may have been obvious and not completely dissimilar to Brian Jones’ start to his disintegration. Jagger and Richards tended to overshadow and monopolize the band and spotlight, even accusing them of plagiarisation. Mick Taylor noted about writing and recording Exile on Main St: “‘Ventilator Blues’ was a song that, to be honest, I didn’t expect to get any credit for. I probably had a lot more input on one or two of the other songs.”
Taylor himself has said that his experience with the Stones was both heaven and hell, ‘a rollercoaster ride.’ In an interview he did at Rockpalast, he stated: “Towards the end of my time with the Stones, it became very laborious, and monotonous, and a lot of people around the stones seem to drag them down and hold them back, and obviously, certain people’s addiction to drugs didn’t help. It really became difficult, especially for Mick Jagger, who seemed to be capable of just overcoming anything. He found it very difficult to get the albums finished, so he was extremely annoyed when I left, I think, at least, I hope he’s forgiven me by now.
“In fact, if you had asked any of the Rolling Stones at the time if they think they would still be together now, they probably would have said no.” Mick Taylor may well be less famous than Keith Richards and Mick Jagger but his commitment to the band and his rollicking style certainly made him as integral to the success of The Rolling Stones as those two.
Watch Mick Taylor’s first gig with The Rolling Stones at Hyde Park, in 1969 and enjoy one of his first moments as a fully-fledged Rolling Stone.