Under the influence with a god of rock... Keith Richards
Published 13/09/2015 | 02:30
There is a revealing moment midway through a new documentary on Keith Richards. The Rolling Stones have arrived at the famed studios at Chess Records, Chicago, in 1964 to cut what would become their second album. They notice a black gentlemen on a ladder whitewashing the ceiling and are stunned to discover it's none other than Muddy Waters, the gifted bluesman who has had such an influence on the fledgling band.
More than half a century on, Richards remains outraged that a giant of music, a visionary talent who was pivotal in putting Leonard Chess's record label on the map, could find himself reduced to role of handyman. But the America that the Stones found themselves in after the huge success of their eponymous debut album was a place still very much divided on racial lines.
Happily, for Richards and his bandmates, their brand of blues rock was cross-racial and people like Waters were pleased that these young British upstarts were covering their songs and bringing them to a whole new audience.
Keith Richards: Under the Influence is a compelling documentary that examines the people and the songs that shaped one of the most significant guitarists in rock history. It's a Netflix Original, and will go live for subscribers on Friday. It's 81 minutes of your time that's well worth setting aside.
Directed by Morgan Neville, who made the Oscar-winning documentary 20 Feet from Stardom, it offers a series of interviews in a milieu that must feel like a second home for Richards - the studio, or rather a series of studios across the US in which he made his first album in 23 years, Crosseyed Heart. With a neat symmetry, it's being released on the same day the documentary comes out and it's sound is rooted in the Delta blues. A cover of Lead Belly's 'Goodnight Irene' is included for good measure.
Looking every day of his 71 years, Richard chain-smokes his way through anecdotes about the music that helped make him who he is. His mother listened to Sarah Vaughan, but he much preferred Billie Holiday. Robert Johnson and Louis Armstrong were important touchstones, but the young Keith was also exposed to Mozart and Beethoven. Later, when talking about Muddy Waters, he says the man born McKinley Morganfield was every bit as important as those two classical giants.
But it was on first hearing Elvis Presley that the door was really kicked down for the teen from Dartford in Kent. "Elvis hit like a bombshell," he says. "The world went from black and white to Technicolor".
It was his grandfather who helped interest Keith in the guitar and it was a classic Spanish version that he used to practise on. He notes that it is such guitars, more so than standard acoustic ones, that really ensure a mastery of the instrument. There's an interview with Richard's long-term guitar technician that will really appeal to fans of rock's most emblematic instrument.
There's talk, too, of the incredible importance of Chuck Berry, not just to the Stones, but in shaping the future of rock'n'roll. "He's influenced just about every guitar player, even if they don't know it," Richards says.
And, in a direct way, it was thanks to Berry that the Rolling Stones came into being. There's a lovely anecdote about bumping into Mick Jagger on a train and Mick had Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry albums under his arm. Instant kinship, and a seed sown.
Although the film is centred on Richards as an artist in his own right, the shadow of his celebrated band looms large. He seems to have had a special bond with drummer Charlie Watts, as he regales the viewer with stories of how songs like 'Street Fighting Man' came into being: he and Watts were simply jamming together in the studio when he dreamt up that striking guitar riff. Jagger added the words - and gold dust - later on.
Besides the blues, both country music and reggae provided considerable inspiration for Richards. He notes that while many think of him as a hard-living rocker, his antics are nothing on such people as Hank Williams and Johnny Cash - two country icons who feature prominently in his heart. "The pedal-steel [guitar] is a heart-breaker," he notes at one point.
He was living in Jamaica when reggae broke and recalls how it generated the sort of excitement there that rock music did 20 years earlier thanks to Berry and Presley. Its influence on his music is nowhere nearly as pronounced as the blues and country have been, though.
Under the Influence concentrates entirely on the music, so anybody expecting the dirt to be dished on life in the Stones will be disappointed. An engaging Tom Waits - who has frequently collaborated with Richards - is among the talking heads.
Incidentally, it's the second music documentary to be screened by Netflix in a matter of months. What Happened, Miss Simone? is still on the schedule and offers a marvellous portrait of Nina Simone - perhaps the most brilliant vocalist of her generation, but also a woman who was troubled by demons all her life.
And we can expect yet more striking music documentaries - and biopics - in the coming years, thanks to the recent partnership between Warner Music and TV production company Catalyst Global Media. Just think of the roster of big names there (Led Zeppelin, Fleetwood Mac...), and the possibilities for great material are endless.
But back to Mr Richards: one genre that hasn't influenced him in any shape or form is hip-hop. "Rap: so many words, so little said," he said recently. "What rap did that was impressive was to show there are so many tone-deaf people out there. All they need is a drum beat and somebody yelling over it, and they're happy."
Under the Influence is out on Netflix on Friday, while Crosseyed Heart is released the same day