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Music

The story of how Keith Richards wrote his happiest song when he was sad

Keith Richards was never usually the one to submit the most cheery of The Rolling Stones’ tracks to the fore. His songwriting, by his own admission, tended to lean toward the more morose subject matter. For example, he wrote the 1969 classic ‘Gimme Shelter’ after seeing people seeking shelter from a downpour. But of course, the song needed more of an edge, so he brought in lyrics that drew imagery of “rape”, “murder and “war” into the equation. However, there was one occasion when Richards wrote a nakedly happy song called ‘Happy’. The track appeared on the Rolling Stones’ seminal 1972 album Exile on Main St. and was strangely written while Richard’s was at his saddest.

Richards discussed his songwriting process during a 1986 interview. “I don’t write songs as a diary,” He said. “None of them are autobiographical, but in some sense, they’re a reaction to certain emotions.” He continued, explaining how sadness was the feeling that inspired ‘Happy’. “Some of the best songs, some of the happiest ditties in the world come out because you’re feeling exactly the opposite,” he said. “Sometimes, you write to counteract that feeling. I was feeling anything but happy when I wrote ‘Happy.’ I wrote ‘Happy’ to make sure there was a word like that and a feeling like that.”

In a 2010 interview, Richards mentioned his particular love for the track, stating: “I play ‘Happy’ quite a lot, more often than any of the others,” he revealed. “I love playing it. It’s not usually my genre,” Richards explained. “I’m not known for happy and joyful stuff. I’m probably more aligned to Lucifer and the dark side.” Richards was perhaps alluding to the group’s hit song ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ here, which was sung from Lucifer’s perspective.

‘Happy’ was one of the few songs that Richards sang. He explained why he wanted to sing it in particular. “I’d ‘stolen it’ and captured it before anybody else knew it existed,” he said. “So that was it.” It appears that Richards felt a great deal of pride over the song and wanted to state his claim over it as he felt it was a song that one might usually expect from Mick Jagger. 

The single wasn’t one of the Rolling Stones’ biggest hits with little commercial success in the UK. It fared better across the Atlantic, reaching number 22 on the Billboard Hot 100, but the success of Exile on Main St. was attained as a collection of solid tracks. The album reached number one on the US album charts for four weeks. Despite its limited success as a single, ‘Happy’ has become a cherished standard of the Rolling Stones repertoire during live shows and has been covered by several prominent artists over the years, including Elvis Costello, Sheryl Crow, and The Pointer Sisters. 

Listen to ‘Happy’ by The Rolling Stones below.