It seems so long ago that those slim, square packages — usually stood off to the side, so as not to get crushed or bent by some other present — used to show up under the tree.
I realized today it’s been 25 years since I got one particular LP for Christmas.
I’m pretty sure I knew what it was going to be before I ripped it open. But I was happy to get it anyway.
Keith Richards’ first solo album, Talk Is Cheap, came out in October of 1988.
Its vitality and variety quickly earned raves from all kinds of media outlets, which proclaimed it the best Stones-related album since Tattoo You — or, by some reckonings, Some Girls.
It was greeted as a reassuring sign that somebody in the Stones’ orbit still had the mojo, following a string of disappointing Stones-related releases in the previous five years. (Think Dirty Work, Undercover,She’s The Boss and Primitive Cool.)
I was 15 at the time and already a hardcore Stones fan, tuning in reverently to “Saturday Night Live” that fall to watch Keef honk n’ scratch his way through several of the album’s songs.
I was more than glad to buy into the hype at the time. I hailed Talk Is Cheap as proof of Keith Richards’ inherent rock’n’roll godliness — as well as tacit proof that the Stones would steamroll everybody with their sheer awesomeness, if that prancing poove Mick Jagger would only let Keith run the show.
Once I remembered its anniversary, I decided to take Talk Is Cheap out for its first spin in a long time, to see if it measured up to my memories of it, and to 1988’s praise.
My first thought, on seeing the cover again, was: “Jesus, he looks so young!” — which is a hilarious thing to think, given how trashed we all thought Keef looked in 1988.
(The quarter-century since Talk Is Cheap has not treated Doris and Bert’s boy gently. Course, he hasn’t treated it gently either.)
I’m pleased to report that Side 1 of the record is still a delight — six songs that span just about everything good about Keith Richards. There’s a little Chuck Berry, a little funk, a little soul, and a bunch of warm n’ crunchy Stones-style rock.
“Make No Mistake,” an intimate soul duet with Sarah Dash, was always a hidden treasure of Side 1 for me. Keith sings it in a terrific lower-register whisper-growl, and shows he knows more about singing than he usually gets credit for.
I hadn’t heard any Al Green in 1988, so I didn’t recognize how closely the song mimics the classic Hi Records/Memphis soul sound, with its thumpy drum and percussion underpinning. (Memphis soul supremo Willie Mitchell arranged the horns.)
Even though I now know what style Keef was copping, I still think “Make No Mistake” is a highlight. I love the changes, and Keith’s understated delivery, and the slow burn of the music, and the way the protagonists gradually give up on trying to hide their attraction.
Side 1’s closer, “You Don’t Move Me,” is famously shot through with Keith’s then-current enmity for Jagger, which was a trip back in time for me as well.
The Stones are pretty much a nostalgia act now, and I don’t imagine it matters to anybody whether Mick and Keef are getting along or not.
It felt weird and distant to imagine that people used to care about that, or that millions of music fans used to hold some sort of anticipation about whether the Stones would ever get back together.
(Given the music the Stones have made since the late ’80s, those millions of fans need not have cared so deeply. With one or two possible exceptions — “Almost Hear You Sigh” comes to mind — the reunited Glimmer Twins haven’t produced that much in the way of essential listening.)
I was never as attached to Side 2 as I was to Side 1. And, listening through 2013 ears, I’m forced to admit there’s a reason for that.
The songs on Side 2 (all by Richards and Steve Jordan) are jammier, less fully formed, and less driven by songcraft than the tunes on Side 1.
And they don’t wear as well. “Rockawhile” and “Locked Away” verge on monotonous, seeming much longer than their actual running times.
And album closer “It Means A Lot” consists of five minutes of Richards’ spiky, spanky Fender Telecaster vamping over (for the most part) a single chord.
For Richards aficionados, it’s a tasty treat to listen to his tone and licks as he stretches out. But there’s just not much underneath, as far as the bone structure of a song goes.
In my memory, the pleasures of Side 1 have always outweighed the way Side 2 runs out of steam.
(Maybe it’s a tribute to the genius of effective song sequencing: Knock everyone out on Side 1, and they’ll be so buzzed that they give you a pass on Side 2. Or maybe it says something about the weaknesses of other Eighties Stones albums that even a great half-album seems like something to rave about.)
I’m still willing to grant Talk Is Cheap a generous evaluation, anyway.
When I call it a “great half-album,” I emphasize the great rather than the half-album.
And, well, it’s served me better than anything else I can think of that I found under the tree on Dec. 25, 1988.
I marked a couple of Christmases past at the old blog by posting a video of one of my favorite holiday songs — a tune I can’t recall ever hearing on the radio in the States, even though it was a massive hit across the pond.
Slade’s “Merry Xmas Everybody” was the U.K. Number One hit at Christmas 1973, and remained there well into the following January. That’s a tribute to how infectious it is — and how unlikely it was, coming from a band best known for a thuggish, vaguely threatening glam-stomp sound.
(The glam genre is sorely underrepresented in the holiday canon. We have Christmas raps, and upbeat Christmas rockers, and cuddly teen-idol Christmas ballads. But how many Christmas chestnuts are there that make you want to stomp your boots, wave your scarf and pound lager? All too few, I’d say.)
I believe the band has since re-recorded the song (never a good move) and there are a couple of videos from a couple different vintages on YouTube.
None of them top the original clip of the band lip-synching its hit on “Top of the Pops” in 1973.
The styles of the time make them look like absolute clowns. Lead guitarist Dave Hill, in particular, sports what might be the worst hairstyle any man has ever worn.
And yet, there is a radiant joy in their performance. Lead singer Noddy Holder — a working-class lad from the Black Country like his bandmates — looks like he can’t believe his good fortune to be leading the entire country in a holiday singalong. And his imitation of the rheumatic granny doing the Twist is priceless.
(Holder, I suspect, was Birmingham’s answer to Alice Cooper — a performer whose gravelly voice and threatening demeanor masked the soul of a born entertainer, or even a ham.)
Here, then, another visit to the best Christmas song of the rock era. May the fairies keep you sober for the day.