The Rolling Stones have built a reputation as one of the most dynamic live bands of all time. Their energy belies their years and their hip-shaking swagger speaks highly of their near-six decades at the top of the game. But often the band’s studio time is forgotten.
Led by the glimmer twins, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the group were famed for their experiments in the studio. But while Pink Floyd, The Beatles and other baroque pop legends would fiddle endlessly with tapes and loops, the Stones worked off-hand, never afraid to follow inspiration wherever it may lead them. It’s the energy that took demos to gold discs.
Often songs were chopped and changed right up until the very last minutes, with Keith Richards often able to out-work the studio engineers—staying up for days at a time in the process—he was usually the man to bring the experiments to the lab. Below we’ve got two of those experiments in the form of two classic demos of Stones songs ‘Wild Horses’ and ‘Gimme Shelter’.
They’re slightly more curious for one reason only, they feature Keith Richards taking the lead vocal.
The guitarist may have crafted the band in his image, all sleazy riffs and greasy palms, but to hear him sing on these iconic singles feels strange. That’s not to say Richards has a bad voice, his solo albums prove that’s far from the fact alone. But the songs are so ubiquitous with his partner’s own idiosyncratic vocal, that to hear Richards take the lead has a habit of shaking your senses.
‘Gimme Shelter’ is one of the defining songs of the band. Not only because the track has a deeply tragic side involving both Altamont and the sensational Merry Clayton but because it represented the end of the sixties free-spirited love-in. With that, hearing Richards version of the vocal can feel a bit pallid in comparison.
On ‘Wild Horses’ however, a song which Richards felt very close to, the guitarist’s demo of the song is emboldened by the tenderness Richards’ vocal has in spades. Taken from Sticky Fingers, Richards later said that the song is a quintessential Stones track: “Everyone always says this was written about Marianne but I don’t think it was; that was all well over by then. But I was definitely very inside this piece emotionally.”
Richards added: “If there is a classic way of Mick and me working together this is it. I had the riff and chorus line, Mick got stuck into the verses. Just like ‘Satisfaction’, ‘Wild Horses’ was about the usual thing of not wanting to be on the road, being a million miles from where you want to be.”
It is this very sentiment that Richards lays all over his demo. Constructed out of loneliness and longing, Richards strums like a lost poet and sings from his very heart. While the song would later benefit from far more accomplished vocalists (check out Debbie Harry’s), nothing quite matches the intense authenticity the guitarist brings to proceedings.