If there’s one man capable of playing both the angel and devil on your shoulder then it’s The Rolling Stones’, and their iconic guitarist Keith Richards. And while we agree that his version of an angel may well be drinking a bottle of Jack Daniels and smoking as he offers advice, nobody can doubt the guitarist’s ability to morph into the devil whenever he needed.
Keith Richards may not be the most talented guitarist of all time. In fact, he probably wouldn’t make the top 10 when you consider the contemporaries around him. But what some musicians have in technical prowess, Richards makes up for in sheer rock and roll ‘vibe’ and a gunslinging style which nobody could match. There’s no better showing of that style than on the band’s magnetic hit ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ and, when Richards’ guitar is isolated, it’s clear for all to see that he’s rightly considered the poster boy of rock ‘n’ roll.
As part of the glimmer twins alongside frontman Mick Jagger, Richards helped forge a brand new type of sound, with the iron ore of rock days gone by, Richards put a shimmy and a shake into the band’s output and it certainly captivated their audience. While Brian Jones had been the main architect of the band’s early foundations, now it was Richards and Jagger who were the foremen.
By 1968, the duo were running the show and creating some of the band’s most notable pieces. There are few songs that inspire the rock and roll passion that pair began to enact than on ‘Sympathy For The Devil’. The opener to Beggars Banquet remains a bastion of spirit and power, and while Jagger’s vocal is sensational, it is Richards’ ability to wear the skin of Lucifer that has us reeling.
Although the song is attributed to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, it is widely believed that Jagger wrote most of the song on his own through its original incarnations as ‘The Devil Is My Name’ and ‘Fallen Angels’, before settling on the song’s title. It’s one of the band’s wildest tracks and, in a 1995 interview with Rolling Stone, Jagger said, “I think that was taken from an old idea of Baudelaire’s, I think, but I could be wrong.”
He continues, “Sometimes when I look at my Baudelaire books, I can’t see it in there. But it was an idea I got from French writing. And I just took a couple of lines and expanded on it. I wrote it as sort of like a Bob Dylan song.” But perhaps most notably, it was Richards who suggested changing the tempo and using additional percussion, turning the folk song into a subterranean samba which smacked of the subversive pop the group were peddling. He was Jagger’s devil on the shoulder who was happy to suggest the final ingredient: danger.
Aside from the sinister samba rhythm and the lyrical enjoyment of tragedy, the real seal of demonic approval comes from Richards’ flaming riffs. Moved away from the London blues sound which was permeating the streets of the capital in the mid-to-late-sixties, Keef attacks with intensity. It was a performance in the booth that would see The Rolling Stones labelled as Devil worshippers.
When you hear Richards’ piercing solo in the middle of this otherwise pleasant samba bop you get the picture of his intent, every single clench knuckle of it direct to the chin. It’s an uppercut of a lead line and one that not only cements his place as a great but makes Richards the vital component in the song.
Richards said in a 1971 interview with Rolling Stone, “Before, we were just innocent kids out for a good time, they’re saying, ‘They’re evil, they’re evil.’ Oh, I’m evil, really? So that makes you start thinking about evil … What is evil? Half of it, I don’t know how many people think of Mick as the devil or as just a good rock performer or what? There are black magicians who think we are acting as unknown agents of Lucifer and others who think we are Lucifer. Everybody’s Lucifer.”
And truly, isn’t this the crux of Richards’ thinking, and in fact, his guitar playing?
Richards is the mix of good and evil, the bubbling crucible of humanity, embodied in one indestructible vessel of rock ‘n’ roll. Neither too good nor too bad, The Rolling Stones and especially good ol’ Keef, are the core of us all, as capable of giving you angelic mortgage advice as burning the whole damn house down.