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Music

The Rolling Stones song Keith Richards called "a cry from the heart"

When one thinks of The Rolling Stones, you never normally think of them as a band that carries a relatively soft edge. You usually think of the raucous rock ‘n’ roll troupe who raised hell in every city on the planet. However, some of their best songs are ballads, including ‘Wild Horses’, ‘Fool to Cry’ and ‘Ruby Tuesday’. 

Their introspective moments aren’t confined to only ballads, though. The Stones have a number of songs in which they take an autobiographical route, blending upbeat music with dark introspection. A classic example of this is the 1978 effort ‘Before They Make Me Run’ taken from Some Girls

The song is written about guitarist Keith Richards‘ notorious rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, and it was actually recorded while he was on bail after being caught with heroin and arrested for drug trafficking in Toronto, Canada, in 1977. The spectre of Richards facing jail time loomed over the recording sessions for the album and is even said to have nearly finished the band. Luckily, in the end, Richards was only charged with possession and not trafficking and was sentenced to probation. The Rolling Stones lived on.

Famously, Richards takes the lead vocals on the track and did the majority of the recording of the song. Although Mick Jagger helmed the rest of the album while Richards was sorting out his legal issues, ‘Before They Make Me Run’ is practically a Richards solo effort. Showing how disappointed he was with himself and his lifestyle, the working title of the track was ‘Rotten Roll’.

The track is also memorable for another reason; it was intended as a tribute to the late Gram Parsons, Richards’ good friend who passed away from an overdose of morphine mixed with alcohol in 1973. A former member of The Byrds and The Flying Burrito Brothers, Parsons was the mastermind behind the early 1970s craze of ‘Cosmic American Music’. 

Parsons is a mythical figure within the world of rock music, and, infamously, his body was stolen by his friends and burned in the Mojave Desert per his wishes. The first portion of the lyrics are about him: “Booze and pills and powders, you can choose your medicine / Well it’s another goodbye to another good friend”.

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Following his arrest, Richards sought medical treatment for his severe heroin addiction and came to the conclusion that addiction would be the defining feature of his upcoming trial. He had to do something about it to stem the tide of the law. 

The song was recorded over five days in Paris, March 1978, where Richards did not catch a wink of sleep. It became the longest session for a Rolling Stones song in the whole of their back catalogue. In his 2010 autobiography Life, Richards recalled: “For sheer longevity – for long distance – there is no track that I know of like ‘Before They Make Me Run.’ That song, which I sang on that record, was a cry from the heart. But it burned up the personnel like no other”.

He explained: “I was in the studio, without leaving, for five days… I had an engineer called Dave Jordan and I had another engineer, and one of them would flop under the desk and have a few hours’ kip and I’d put the other one in and keep going. We all had black eyes by the time it was finished… That’s probably the longest I’ve done. There have been others that were close – ‘Can’t Be Seen’ was one – but ‘Before They Make Me Run’ was the marathon”. 

It paid off. ‘Before They Make Me Run’ is a fan favourite, and also showcased Richards as a very capable frontman. His vocals are similar to Faces era Rod Stewart, and the song has a good groove, even if the album was a misfire. Given the upbeat nature of the music, you’d be forgiven for not noticing Richards’ heartfelt lyrics.

Listen to ‘Before They Make Me Run’ below.