Talk is Cheap is the greatest Rolling Stones album never made by The Rolling Stones, and would probably never have even happened were it not for the deteriorating relationship between Keith Richards and Mick Jagger, especially when the latter decided to embark on a solo career, which really pissed Keith off. But if I had the choice of listening to this, or another Stones record a la Dirty Work, I know which one I’d be saving from the fire. Yet as far as I’m concerned, the Glimmer Twins fallout was not only one of the best things for Richards, but also one of the best things for rock. Because let’s face it, when you’ve got the likes of Rick Astley, Gloria Estefan, and Bon Jovi storming the charts you knew that there must have been a serious imbalance going on somewhere in the universe. So good on ol’ Keef for trying to rectify the equation somewhat, not an easy task considering it was after all the late 1980’s.
Opener “Big Enough” is all funky riffs and filthy beats. Keith was hardly famous for his vocal qualities, yet somehow he manages to pull it off. “Bootsy” Collins and Maceo Parker (both ex James Brown), on bass and alto saxophone respectively, add their own special ingredients to the mix, giving the song a decidedly sophisticated flavour. “Take It So Hard” was the first single off the album and also the most popular. And it’s not difficult to see why, what with its primal chords and prehistoric rhythms, not to mention Richards’ own two pack a day nasal delivery, it’s what every Stones fan had been waiting to hear for nearly a decade, a back to basics, no bullshit rock and roll song from one of rock and roll’s greatest exponents of the ‘less is more’ approach to the six string (or in Richards case, five).
“Struggle” is another classic number, more akin to “Bitch” (sans horns) than “She’s So Cold” (which I’m sure is what Jagger might have turned it into had the opportunity presented itself), and the sort of song which must have had many a Stones lover barring up over. The 1950’s doo wop inspired “I Could have Stood You Up” is a lot of fun, and even more so for having Mick Taylor on board. And as good as it is, it’s a pity that such an important reunion wasn’t executed on something a little more musically serious. Richards croons (or croaks) his way through “Make No Mistake”, albeit with some help from vocalist Sarah Dash, who is the yin to Richards’ yang, like comparing satin with sandpaper. “You Don’t Move Me” is the one that got a lot of attention, for the fact that it was nothing more than Keith’s way of publicly spitting in the face of Mick Jagger, whose decision to release a record of his own was to Richards akin to having one’s missus having an affair with the milk man. And when Keith sings “Why do you think you got no friends/You drove them around the bend… Now you wanna throw the dice/You already crapped out twice” the venom is as direct as it is palpable.
“How I Wish” is the album’s first piece of filler which is pleasant enough, but the sort of thing you know would have sounded so much better on Exile. “Rockawhile” is all idle grooves, relying on personality more than actual performance to make it work. “Whip it Up” is Keef by numbers, notable for the inclusion of Bobby Keys on baritone and tenor sax, who manages to make the song at times seem like an outtake from Sticky Fingers. “Locked Away” is the sort of tune Richards probably had tucked away in his bottom draw for many years, but finally managed to dust off for this record. And let’s be thankful that he did, because it’s a fine piece, and very different from anything one would expect to hear on a Stones LP.
Final track “It Means a Lot” most resembles what Exile might have sounded like had it have been recorded in the 1980’s, which means that the song is somewhere between satisfying and “I’m already starting to think about what record I’m going to put on next”.
While it’s true that Jagger and Richards need each other in order to take their craft to a level neither of them are capable of achieving on their own, what Talk is Cheap speaks in volumes is that for all of Jagger’s high society swagger and Tina Turner posturing, without Keith, and his meaty, salt of the earth riffs, The Rolling Stones would simply not exist, nor ever have existed, or at least not as we know and love them.
Keith Richards is probably the only man on this earth who can do more drugs and drink more alcohol yet still manage to wake up in the morning (maybe he should have his own comic book series. “The Adventures of Hedonistic Man!”). Although he might well look like a walking cadaver today, he’s been defying medical science for the greater part of fifty years, and for that alone he deserves some sort of lifetime achievement award. That he is still alive and making music is a miracle in itself, and a testament to not only good luck, but obviously good genes. Long may he reign.