Keith Richards on the ’80s argument that saved the Rolling Stones: ‘He was taking it in a wrong direction’

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By the mid-1980s, a couple of decades into the Rolling Stones’ debauched journey through rock history, they had lost momentum. Worse still, they weren’t getting along.

“Nobody has the perfect marriage,” Keith Richards once told the BBC, before concluding: “He was taking it off in a slightly wrong direction.”

How the self-proclaimed “World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band” got to this point, in the period around 1986’s disappointingly slick Dirty Work studio project, is in no small way Richards’ fault too, of course.

“I have to say, in defense of my friend,” Richards says of Mick Jagger, “I wrote the songs and I was coming out and doing the gigs, but in that period, I had nothing to do with the running of the Stones. He assumed control. He assumed that he was the leader. So, when I stopped dope and I said: ‘Hey, Mick, thanks for holding the fort. Give me the load. I’ll carry my load now,’ it surprised me that — instead of a sigh of relief — he didn’t want to relinquish.”

Mick Jagger had issued his own platinum-selling solo debut in 1985, but to that point Keith Richards had refrained from working outside the framework of the band. “It was his assumption that he was bigger than the Stones,” Richards adds. “It started, at first, to annoy me — and then it slowly enraged me. World War III, we called it within the band.”

Richards subsequently issued 1988’s Talk is Cheap, a brilliantly nasty little aside that went gold — and, apparently, sent its own message. Slowly, but surely, the ice melted in the relationship with Jagger. By August 29, 1989, the Rolling Stones were ready to issue Steel Wheels; they then mounted an enormously successful reunion tour.

Keith Richards, for his part, credits the intermediary skills of the Rolling Stones’ stalwart drummer: “I rely incredibly on Charlie Watts — who’s pragmatic, incredibly calm,” Richards says. “If Mick and I have a problem with each other, it’s like: ‘Where’s Charlie?'”

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