Fine album though it is, Mick Jagger’s just-released solo compilation serves to remind that nothing the singer has recorded on his own matches his work within the Rolling Stones. The secrets to the Stones’ chemistry are elusive and multi-faceted—tomes have been written on the subject—but no one’s gotten a view of the band’s inner workings quite like record producer Don Was. Beginning with 1994’s Voodoo Lounge, Was has occupied a producer’s seat for each of the Stones’ studio albums. In the following interview, he shares some insight into how the world’s most legendary band achieves its distinctive sound.
What have you learned from watching the Stones work together?
There’s something in particular that struck me while we were making their last album, A Bigger Bang. We did most of the recording in France, and at the time I was following the NBA, on the Internet. I had also recently read Phil Jackson’s book, Secret Hoops. What started to dawn on me is how a five-piece rock and roll band is in many ways identical to a basketball team. That’s true of the Stones, especially, where you’ve got a center, and two forwards playing guitar, and guards on bass and drums. The Stones are like the Detroit Pistons, who are such a superb team. It’s a joy to watch the Pistons play, because of the interplay that goes on between them. It’s as if you reach a near-utopian condition, or a rare moment when men cooperate because they know it’s in their best interest as a group, and as individuals, to work together. The Pistons are always passing the ball, and they’re extremely generous with one another. The same thing is true of the Stones, when they’re at their best.
So the idea that the chemistry between Jagger and Richards has to do with the tension between them is really a fallacy?
Well, there’s something else I discovered about the Stones. I’ve worked for them for many years now, and what I realized—especially on the last record, because they were really cooperating as a band—is that although people think of them as this sloppy, drunken rock and roll thing, it's not sloppy. What happens is this: Keith Richards is a rhythm guitar player whose rhythm guitar parts are often the melody of the song, just by virtue of the way the Stones write their songs. The rhythm riff for “Start Me Up,” for instance, is also the melody of the song. And that’s true even in instances where Mick might have written the riff—on “Miss You,” for example.
Can you elaborate on how that’s different from the approach most rhythm guitarists take?
If the rhythm guitar player is also playing melody, that’s a pretty unique situation. Normally the rhythm guitar player plays in the holes, where the singer isn’t singing. In the Stones’ case, however, the rhythm guitar player is doing what the lead guitar player normally does, and he’s playing the melody that the singer is singing, simultaneously. However, there’s a little disparity in where they feel the phrasing. Mick is more or less a rhythmically straight up-and-down singer. He’s in the grid, whereas Keith has a more languid approach. That’s how Keith sings, as well. The place where they clash—where it gets a little messy, and they don’t land on the melody at the same time—is what the Rolling Stones’ sound is all about. It’s not messy. Basically it’s a duet—a duet of the melody, by Keith and Mick. And if you don’t have that, you don’t have a Rolling Stones record.
Is some of that also a function of the fact that many of the songs are written in open tunings?
Well, that’s given them distinctive-sounding riffs, but I think it’s really a function of having riffs that are highly musical, that make you want to sing them.
What keeps the Stones hungry to keep making music at this point in their career?
They’re just like every other musician, on every level. They love to play more than anything else in the world. They riff off each other. It’s like a jazz group, really. There’s not enough time to achieve that sort of thing twice, in your lifetime. That’s why they keep going on. I know for a fact that they’re not sitting there thinking, “Let’s go out on tour and make another two hundred million dollars.” They get approached by people who say, “We think you can sell tickets again. Are you willing to go out and play?” They’re actually timid about it. They’re like, “Are you sure people are going to come out? Are you sure they still want to hear this?”
Throughout your production career, you’ve tended to work with people who have really strong personalities. What do such people have in common?
You know, Chris Blackwell from Island Records has a theory that in the case of real stars, you should be able to draw caricatures of them—like the Al Hirschfeld New York Times caricatures. His theory was that you should be able to make cartoon characters out of people like that—people like Bob Marley, for example. And that’s true. If you can’t do that, then you probably don’t have someone who’s a star. And there’s another quality about people like that, too—something Jagger has. It has to do with how far in front of the speakers the voice appears to go. Jagger’s voice jumps out about 20 feet in front of the speakers. You just bring the fader up, with his vocal, and you don’t have to do anything else to it. It’s some kind of gift. Mick and I have talked about this a lot. He’s aware of it, and he has no idea what it is. You can factor in something like frequency response to the voice, but it’s also some kind of crazy vocal charisma. It’s something no vocal teacher can teach.