As Rolling Stones legend Mr. Richards nears 70, he remembers the minimalist sound and overdubbing that helped make “Street Fighting Man” such a huge hit for The Stones.
Keith Richards: “Street Fighting Man” is one of my favorite Rolling Stones songs—probably because the music came together through a series of accidents and experimentation. We recorded it in a totally different way than anything we had done up until that point and the results were pretty exciting and unexpected.
The music came first—before Mick [Jagger] wrote the lyrics. I had written most of the melody to “Street Fighting Man” sometime in late 1966 or early ’67—before “Jumpin’ Jack Flash”—but I couldn’t figure out how to get the sound I wanted. It’s hard to explain. If you think of a melody as a song’s shape, then the sound is its texture. The two were inseparable in my mind. I tried recording the melody in the studio in ’67 but nothing happened. So I took the concept home to my Redlands farmhouse in Sussex, England, to work on it.
Around this time, I became fascinated by one of the early cassette tape recorders made by Philips. The machine was compact, so it was portable, and it had this little stick microphone, which would allow me to capture song ideas on the fly. So I bought one, but as I watched the small tape-cartridge reels turn, I began to think of the machine not as a dictation device but as a mini recording studio. The problem is I couldn’t use an electric guitar to record on it. The sound just overwhelmed the mike and speaker. I tried an acoustic guitar instead and got this dry, crisp guitar sound on the tape—the exact sound I had been looking for on the song.
At the time, I was experimenting with open tunings on the guitar—you know, tuning the strings to form specific chords so I could bang out the broadest possible sound. That’s how I came up with “Street Fighting Man’s” opening riff—even before I bought the Philips. I based the rest of the song’s melody on the tone pattern of those odd sirens French police cars use [sings the siren and lyrics to illustrate].
Original Title: “Pay Your Dues” Stereo Edit: