In any music interview, one of the most common questions to be asked as a songwriter must be, “Where do you get the ideas for your songs?” The sheer banality of it must send shivers down the guitar neck of even the most seasoned of musicians.
For Keith Richards, we suspect, the question is not so banal because he genuinely doesn't seem to know the answer. Take the interview he did in the Rolling Stones special 'Jump Back', made by MTVin 1993, when he was asked about his songwriting process. His answer was as laid-back as the man himself.
“Where songs come from, I have no idea. They just zoom through the room, you know. I mean, I have never sat down in my life and said, “I am now going to write a song.” They come to me. I just sit around and play guitar, you know, I'll sing Buddy Holly stuff, or Eddie Cochran or Otis Redding, you know, and after about half an hour, you know..... Incoming!”
Of course, Richards rarely writes songs by himself - collaborating either with his life-long friend, Ronnie Wood, or, more prolifically, Mick Jagger. This may have something to do with his tenuous understanding of his own songwriting abilities. In an interview with Bruce Pollock, Richards said,
“When we’re doing an album I come in with a handful of riffs and some songs. One or two will be fairly well defined. Others it would be, this could be dynamite for the Stones, but I have to wait until I get the Stones all together in the studio to find out. I can’t take it any farther by myself as a song or a structure or an idea until I’ve got their input.”
In brief, Richards himself has always claimed that he has never actually sat down to write a song, often just picking up his guitar, playing a few songs of other musicians, and then suddenly getting an idea for a song of his own. However, this is not completely true. While he may feel there is no process, it is apparent from discussions he has had with various people over the years, that there is a routine to his writing.
If the driving force of the Rolling Stones was Keith Richards, the driving force of Keith Richards' songwriting was his early efforts with Mick Jagger, which in his own words were pretty terrible. This is what he said in 1992,
“In that little kitchen Mick and I got hung up about writing songs, and it still took us another six months before we had another hit with Gene Pitney, That Girl Belongs to Yesterday. We were writing these terrible... songs that were becoming Top 10 hits. I thought, What are we doing here playing the fucking blues, and writing these horrible pop songs and getting very successful? They had nothing to do with us, except we wrote 'em. “
10 years later, Mick Jagger reinforced Richards' words saying,
“(At first, we) couldn't write rock songs. We just wrote these crap ballads... Eventually we got to grips with writing rock tunes, but it took a little time.“
In this special 'Jump Back' (MTV, 1993), Richards also talks about playing Buddy Holly songs to get in the mood for songwriting. This is telling because, without doubt, Buddy Holly was the role model for the way Richards wrote in the early days. Much earlier, in 1977, Jagger had credited Buddy Holly with teaching musicians how to write a good song,
“... he wrote very simple songs … had simple changes and nice melodies and changes of tempo and all that.”
Another part of the process was who did what and in what order. It was natural in the early days thatRichards would do the melody, while Jagger would do the lyrics. Every musician has different and favorite approaches to creating music, Richards reasoned that he had to have the music first because he had to work out what was the music all about. In fact it was during an interview in 1992 that Richards first spoke of his songwriting process.
“First I find a riff and a chord sequence. And if that's any good, then I start to play it with some other guys and pump it up. If that's great, then I check the attitude and the atmosphere of the track.’’
The one over-riding impression we get when listening to Richards talk about songwriting is how much he emphasizes that songwriting in the Rolling Stones was a group effort; that he could never have finished a song until he had gotten the input of everyone else and their opinions.