In 1967, The Rolling Stones were finished. Washed up. Dead and buried.
A foray into Sergeant Pepper-style psychedelia on their sixth album, Their Satanic Majesties Request, had led to disastrous reviews and accusations of “selling out”. The cover of the album says it all: the former bad boys of rock are depicted sitting amid a gingerbread wonderland dressed in satin medieval clothing; Jagger has even donned a wizard’s hat.
Although the album had some wonderful songs on it (She’s a Rainbow; 2,000 Light Years from Home; Citadel; 2000 Man) it also had some dreadful ones, songs that are classic examples of 1960s’ psychedelic bloat. Which meant the reviews were not bitchy or unfair – artistically, The Stones were in trouble.
Lesser bands might have folded.
The Stones, however, licked their wounds, then wrote, recorded and released the most important (and probably best) single of their entire career: Jumpin’ Jack Flash.
Not only did this masterpiece wallop their critics into submissive silence, it marked a seismic shift in the way The Stones played their music – and by doing so, changed music forever.
In most rock songs, the rhythm and groove are derived from the interaction between the drums and the bass guitar.
Jumpin’ Jack Flash turns this on its head by placing a guitar riff centre stage as the principal rhythmic element: move your hips, click your fingers, tap your feet – no matter what you do, you will be following that riff. It’s impossible not to.
To gauge the importance of the stylistic change this song marked, compare Jumpin’ Jack Flash to Satisfaction, which is probably The Stones’ most famous riff.
In Satisfaction, the riff is equally simple and infectious . . . but it is a mere musical adornment to the song’s melody, as proved by Otis Redding, who later covered the song and used horns to replace the fuzz guitar riff. In fact, Redding’s arrangement left large swathes of the song without the famous riff.
Can you imagine anyone doing the same with Jumpin’ Jack Flash? (Ananda Shankar had a good go (click to listen) but can you hear how the song plods during the verses?)
And so was born the legend of Keef Richards, the Human Riff. After Jumpin’ Jack Flash, Keef’s guitar – and his subtle, inventive rhythm style – became the centre of The Stones’ sound, the groove to which all the other instruments were slaved: Honky Tonk Women, Street Fighting Man, Brown Sugar, Start Me Up – the beat in each song follows Richards’s riff.
Guitarists of a certain ilk – normally those given to playing widdly-diddly scales on Superstrats – often disparage Richards, describing him as messy and clumsy.
I pity them: because if you don’t “get” Keith Richards and his superb – and unmatched – rhythmical ability, you really are missing out on the best that rock and roll music has to offer.