To read the first part of this interview, click here.
In the 1960s, there were certain bands that proved to be breeding grounds for great guitarists. The Yardbirds are certainly the most famous, cranking out (in succession) Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page. Alex Korner’s Blues Incorporated was joined onstage from time to time by young blues enthusiasts like Keith Richards, Brian Jones and the aforementioned Page. And every bit as influential was the group founded by blues singer John Mayall. During the ’60s, his Bluesbreakers featured a post-Yardbirds Clapton, a pre-Fleetwood Mac Peter Green and, after them, a teenage guitarist named Mick Taylor.
From the time he first summoned the courage to ask Mayall if he could sit in for a missing Clapton at a club gig at the tender age of 16, Taylor was a star on the rise. A year later, he joined Mayall full-time and toured the world, opening for the likes of Jimi Hendrix. But the Bluesbreakers proved to be a mere gateway to a much grander stage, and that rising young star was now on the verge of playing to the biggest audiences in the world.
How did you get the introduction to the Stones?
That all came about through John Mayall, too, funnily enough. I’d just finished an American tour with John Mayall in ’69. This was my second tour – it was a long tour, about six or seven weeks. And when I got back to London, John had decided to do something that, at the time, was quite revolutionary: he decided to break up that particular lineup of the Bluesbreakers and form a different sort of band without a drummer and without an electric guitar player. So that meant that he didn’t need me anymore. And I was kind of thinking of doing other things anyway. I mean, I may have gone on to form my own blues band or something, I don’t really know. But instead of that happening, he heard from Mick that the Stones were thinking of working again and going on the road again, ’cause they hadn’t done much touring for two or three years… and that maybe they needed a guitar player. So he gave Mick Jagger my number, because by that time John Mayall had moved to America and I was living in a flat in England. And Mick called me up and asked me if I wanted to go down and play with them when they were putting the finishing touches to Let It Bleed. So, I went down there and did that, and a couple of days later I was asked to join the band.
So, you didn’t know you were trying out for the band. You just thought you were showing up for a session.
As soon as I met them, I kind of realized that maybe it was a bit more than just a session, because we all got on so well. And it was obvious they needed a guitar player.
As players, did you and Keith click immediately?
We did, actually. Yeah, we really did. Most of the stuff I did on Let It Bleed was overdubs, except there was one track that we did live at Olympic Studios, which I remember very well, and it was called “Live with Me.” And that was kind of the start of that particular era for the Stones, where Keith and I traded licks. He’d sometimes play rhythm, I’d sometimes play rhythm, but on stage there’d always be quite a lot of lead guitar playing, which I’d do most of. And even on the albums they made during the Atlantic Records years, I ended up playing a lot of solos that the Stones never used to write songs to accommodate, really. They didn’t change their songwriting style, but they tended to leave room for a guitar solo where they didn’t before, you know what I mean?
Was it pretty clear whose part would be whose in a song? Was there much back and forth about who would play the lead, etc.?
No, not really. Working with the Stones was never really as academic or as studied as that. It was very loose and spontaneous. By the time we got around to making Exile on Main St., it was a bit too loose and spontaneous. It took us ages to make that record. But that’s the record that everybody – well, not everybody – but that’s the Stones album that everybody seems to highlight as being one of their best. My personal favorite is Sticky Fingers. It’s certainly their biggest-selling album.
Well, you had a lot of creative input on Sticky Fingers, right? With “Sway” and–
Yeah, “Moonlight Mile.” Yeah, I don’t know why, but Keith wasn’t even there when we did “Moonlight Mile” and “Sway.” We actually recorded those two tracks at a house in the country, which belonged to Mick, called Stargroves. By that time, we had the mobile studio that the Stones had acquired. Yeah, we did have it then, I think. We definitely had it by the time we did Exile on Main St., anyway. But most of the time, we did our recording when we were in England at Olympic Studios.
Olympic Studios was a pretty vibrant place at that time. A lot of big acts were blowing through there. What are your memories of Olympic as a place to hunker down for a month and make a record?
Well, in those days – I mean before we actually had to leave England, for tax reasons – we never spent a great deal of time in the studio, like they did later on. We used to try and do what we could as quickly as possible. I mean, sometimes we’d end up jamming blues songs, sometimes Mick would come in with a song that was finished, sometimes we’d make it up in the studio. That’s what tended to happen later on with Exile on Main St., especially… Goats Head Soup and It’s Only Rock ’n Roll. But most of the songs on Sticky Fingers were written [beforehand], so it didn’t take a lot of time to make Sticky Fingers.
You mentioned Exile, and there’s been a lot attention on that album lately, with the re-release. What are your memories of those sessions? You mentioned that it really dragged out.
Just that. I don’t know whether you’ve seen that documentary that the Stones released. It was pretty much like everybody says it was in the movie.
Was it a little bit frustrating how things dragged out in France, given – as you say – how productive the band was on the Sticky Fingers sessions?
Oh, no. I can’t honestly say it was, really. No. I mean, it was just the way things were, you know? When you try and make a record in somebody’s house, albeit in the basement of their house, and you’ve got people flying in from all over the world to have a holiday and, you know, everybody’s holiday time and your work time and Keith’s own personal, domestic life all get sort of mixed into one surrealistic portrait, don’t they? I mean, Exile on Main St. is a little bit like the artwork, really. [laughs] A bit like a circus. A bit freaky, you know? But it was just the band being themselves and trying to write some songs and, more often than not, coming up with a great song like, for example, “Shine a Light”… and some of the other ones. And then, coming up with – not all the time – some fairly ordinary songs, like “Ventilator Blues.” I mean, it was the Stones making blues music their own music.
With the re-release, you actually got to go back and take another shot at one of the tracks, “Plundered My Soul.” What was that session like?
Oh, that was very quick. I mean, because the track was already there for me to overdub on, and Mick had already done a rough vocal, so it didn’t actually sound too much like an outtake from Exile on Main St. Well, it did, except Mick had added vocals and back-up vocals and all it needed was some lead guitar, which I did… very quickly. I think it took about two hours for me to do about four or five different passes on the guitar.
Over the years, you’ve stayed in touch with the Stones. You’ve shared stages with them. With their recent announcement that the upcoming tour is a farewell tour, has there been any talk about you joining them for any of the shows?
Not directly, no. I don’t even know whether they will do a tour, but it would be nice if they did. But I haven’t heard from their office or Mick or anybody directly about that.
I just know that when I play with them, all the stuff that I used to do in the past – even now – it’s just such an instinctive thing for me and I fit into that role quite easily. I mean, you know, there’s not too many people like Mick Jagger as a frontman, so I don’t get a chance to play that type of rock and roll very often. I really enjoy it, because it’s a different aspect of my playing. It brings out a different side to my playing.
I know the question you always get asked is, “Why did you leave the Stones?” Can you tell me about the year leading up to that decision?
Most of 1974, I took a long holiday in Brazil, which was wonderful, and then I came back and we started doing recording on It’s Only Rock ’n Roll fairly quickly. The very track we recorded, that I remember anyway, at Musicland Studios in Munich was “Time Waits for No One.” And it was done very quickly, so that was a song where most of the song must have been written before we even got into the studio, by Mick. ’Cause although it always says “Jagger/Richards,” that doesn’t necessarily mean that they both always write the songs. You know, there are some songs, maybe, that Keith had written on his own, like “Happy,” but by and large most of the songs, especially when it comes to lyrics, are written by Mick.
“Time Waits for No One” was a great track.
Yeah, it’s very different from (other Stones material). I mean, Mick Jagger does write these sort of ballads. Well, I don’t know that that was a ballad, because it’s medium tempo, but yeah, from time to time he does write these songs that aren’t like “Start Me Up” or “Brown Sugar” or “Honky Tonk Women.” They have a slightly more lyrical, gentler side to them. They’re a little more evocative. And throughout his career, he’s done that. I mean, on his solo albums he’s done that, as well.
So you came back for those sessions. Did you have an inkling, when you returned, that you might want to leave at that time or was it more an on-the-spot decision?
It’s such a long time ago, it’s hard to remember it clearly, but I do know that – although we’d done two major American tours and we’d done two European tours – the time I enjoyed with the Stones most of all was when we’d arrive in the studio, making a record, or when we were on the road. And in 1974, there were no plans to tour or anything, and it seemed very sterile. The band had gotten very… I don’t know. To me, anyway, It’s Only Rock ’n Roll is not a great album. It’s got some good songs on it, some wonderful songs, but it’s not as strong as Sticky Fingers or Let It Bleed or Exile on Main St. or even Beggar’s Banquet, which actually was the album that made me really take notice of the Stones as more than just a blues band that did covers, but was a band that wrote their own brand of really good rock and roll songs and had a kind of English originality about it, that was unique to them.