Ian Stewart interview
FIFTEEN YEARS WITH THE STONES by Lisa Robinson
"Got involved with this enthusuastic amateur who liked the real black rock n' roll - Chuck Berry, R&B and the older jazz (lionel hampton, Count basie, Coleman hawkins). I likd to play a little and have always liked the really insincere, greedy, self congratulatory side of show business. If my face ever appeared in Cash Box or Billboad I would die" - Ian Stewart 1975.
Ian Stewart formed the Rolling Stones with Brain Jones in 1961 and has been with the band ever since. He has played piano with them onstage and on their albums, co-ordinates recording sessions, has the offical title of 'Road manager' and refers to himself as the 'Company Secretary'. It is impossible for anyone who has spent any time around the Stones to imagine a world without Stu. Throughout the 1975 US Tour of th Americas, I pestered him to do this interview, the only one he's ever done. The following remarks were made on 2 ocasions: in Atlanta Jul 31 1975, and in NYC, Aug 13 1975.
Q: How did you originally become involved with the Stones?
I: I met Brian in 1961 I think, and he was very keen to start a sort of purist blues group. He had been playing traditional jazz and he could play Django Reinhardt guitar quite well. In England there's always been a large following for different types of jazz, and the only style of jazz that had not been well known was the Chess records type blues; largely because there was no real outlet for labels like Veejay and Excello in England... So it was a real collector's thing and Brian worked hard, dug things up, and had gotten all hot on this. He was trying to find musicians who were also keen on it to start a group. I knew a little bit about it because i'd always liked that style, and had one or two really obscure records, and through Alexis Korner - who was a sort of meeting point, really - we eventually met up with Mick and Keith. We had another guitar player, but Mick didn't want to do anything unless Keith came as well. They brought Dick Taylor in as bass player and used various drummers.... Anyway, there was a sort of line between R&B as we were playing it and rock n' roll, and the actual line was really drawn at Chuck Berry. Basically, Jeff Bradford didn't like Chuck Berry because he thought he was too commerical, and Keith loved Chuck Berry.I had almost all of Berry's records, but I had never seen that style played. As soon as Keith started playing Sweet Little Sixteen it just had to be. We just started to gig around and play in pubs, and rehearse and play about, not doing anything really. I mean, the only serious side was the rehearsal. We didn't do that many gigs.
Q: When was this, 1962?
I: Well, this would be like 1963 now. I'm talking about a 3 year period.
Q: What were you doing during the day?
I: I was working at ICI. I was the only one with a phone so I would stay in contact with the people who ran the clubs and oraganize things. I was the only one who had a vehicle...
Q: When did Andrew Oldham get involved?
I: Well, Andrew must have shown his face,,,it was sumertime. I can't remember whether it was '63 or '64. Andrew came around when we first started to stir things up in Richmond, and a couple of daily papers came down and printed things. Andrew turned up, and he was a publicist basically. His whole dream was,,,you know. The Beatles had taken off by then.
Q: What did you think of them?
I: The Beatles...I thought they were nice lads who wrote pretty songs but they are horribly overated. In fact, most of the Liverpool groups were overrated. They were all musically completely inept. Some of them could sing, but they could never play their instruments. I mean, you could count the number of good musicians who came out of Liverpool on one hand.
Q: The Stones were defintely from London though...
I: Oh yes, Brian was the only one who came from outside. So Andrew's basic idea was to find his own Beatles, and either at the end of 63 or the beginning of 64, the Stones really took off, and it was obvious they were going to thave the same kind of following that the Beatles had. But Andrew thought that they couldn't go on playing Muddy Waters material and maintain it, so he had them alter the repotoire and approach to the group. He wanted them looking right. He was really more interested in what they would look like, and how they timed things in their music. Andrew was, basically, I don't know, you could call him musically barren really. He knows nothing whatsoever about music. All he can do is take a product and push it. he's an ad man, a good merchant. Almost an Andy Warhol.
Q: Did he create a conflict within the band?
I: Well, the thing is that Mick got along with Andrew personally, and they soon became friendly and the 3 of them started sharing a flat together. Brian used to think he was the leader of the group. I mean, he was a bit strange in a way. He started off potentially being a good musician, but as soon as he had the slightest snip of success or money, he just wanted to be a Rolling Stone and play as little as possible. He still wanted to be the leader of the group, so he would go along with anything Andrew told him to do because there was money involved. Bill and Charlie weren't exactly founding members of the group - they had been brought in fairly early on - but they hadn't been brought in when it was reasonably sure that the Stones would be successful. So they wre prepared to go along with what Andrew said as well.
Q: How Did You Feel About it ?
I: Well, I was pushed out, so...
Q: By Andrew?
I: Well, there's a lot of things here...first of all there was the sort of pop star image. You had a clear stage and five guys in the band, and these were the five Rolling Stones, and anyone else would have gotten knifed, I imagine, if they had tried to play with them.
Q: Was there a time when you were bitter about this?
I: I don't know. If you're going to be really practical about this, then Andrew was probably the best thing that ever happened to that group. You have to own up to the fact that at the time Andrew handled the group perfectly. Even though Brian and myself started this group, there probably would've been a Rolling Stones in some form with Mick and Keith, because that pair - with other musicians - were going to make it anyway. So I don't feel that apart from losing a lot of sleep and buying hamburgers when they were broke...I mean, I really haven't done all that much. They have had to go through a hell of a lot just being the Rolling Stones. Like in the screaming era, I wouldn't have been them for all the tea in China.
I: Well, they didn't really make all that much money anyway. They couldn't walk down the street, they got their clothes ripped off their backs...
Q: Didn't they like it?
I: You can get a terrific kick out of the coliseum in LA having 15,000 screaming girls all dying to get their hands on you, but it just never stopped. And you had to put up with al sorts of crap from normal people who resented you. The first couple of times we came to America, you have no idea what it was like.
Q: Everyone treated them like pigs... <Å> I: Like long-haired animals, unwashed and dirty. If you went anywhere on any street in any town it would be loud-mouthed Americans saying "oh look at those bums" and all that.
Q: That never happened in England?
I: No, not really...
Q:I guess the British are more polite. They probably said it behind their hands or something.
I: Oh yeah...I mean there is certainly something lacking in American breeding or education. They do breed some very noisy, rude people...
Q: Did the group suffer becasue of a lack of private life?
I: I've seen Bill and Charlie in tears because of it.
Q: What about Mick and Keith and Brian?
I: Well, Brian loved it in that he was a Rolling Stone and all that rot but he forgot every so often that he was supposed to be playing guitar, and he just lost interest in that. Brian just got himself incredibly messed up very quickly. I think Brian was a very weak and easily led character.
Q: Was he a friend of yours?
I: No, not really.
Q: Do you think he's ever been replaced, or ever will be able to be replaced in this band?
I: Musically, certainly, because he played up till about 1965 and he got himself a bit ill on something...but by 1967 when all they wanted to do was record all the time, he would come into the studio, and wouldn't play guitar. You know, nearly all those records are just Keith taped over three times. Brian used to like to dabble at keyboards, and percussion and reed instruments, but he seemed to get a mental block about guitar and got frustrated over his inability to write or compose songs. And he's the only person who's gone around saying, "I'm a Rolling Stone, I want this and I want that". I mean, Mick and Keith don't do that and neither do Bill and Charlie. But Brian did - he was really ridiculous as soon as he got any inkling of money or fame. But in the middle of 1968, having had a year off, just recording, it was felt that it might be nice to play live again. But Biran had no desire to do so, and he was in no shape to do so, so while he was never forced out, it was agreed that another guitar player was going to be introduced. In a way, he seemed relieved and had started playing a little and was going to form a more bluesy group again, and he had sessions at his house with Alexis Korner, Mickey Waller, and - I seem to remember - John Mayall.
Q: Who else have you played with? There's that Boogie With Stu on the Zep album?
I: They were probably scraping the bottom of the barrel, looking for material for a double album. I only played with the Yardbirds on one session when they had Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck.And I also played on some Immediate things that were basically 2 guitar tapes with Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page...they came out in these British Blues re-issue series. There's a thing called the "London Howlin Wolf" Sessions which I got a little bit lumbered with. The producer came over and phoned me and asked me to help him set it all up. People do this. They come and pick your brains, they want you to help, and then say, "Well, if you do it, you can play piano". You know, rhubarb, rhubarb, so I played piano on all of that and then he went away and took the tapes to Chicago and got hold of Stevie Windwood and said "Would you overdub piano because there's no piano on it". Theh I had a couple of things with BB King in London, and I've done things with smaller groups.
Q: What do you miss most when you think about your involvement with the Stones over the past 15 years?
I: If I hadn't been pushed out... it wasn't very nicely done but that's water under the bridge... if I was still part of the group I would have been a much better piano player than I am now. That's the only thing I regret -- there are really a lot of guys going around who are really mediocre piano players. But the thing was that I stopped playing with this band in 1965, and I didn't relly touch a piano for three or 4 years. If i had continued...
Q: What did you do during those years?
I: I did just about everything else but play
Q: If you had to describe yourself as something...
I: I always put 'company secretary'
Q: But wouldn't you really say that you're a musician?
I: No, because I'm not really good enough to call myself a musican.
Q: Aren't you being a bit too modest?
I: No, not really
Q: Well, all I know is that so many other musicans talk about you...John Paul Jones tells a story about how he couldn't play this ratty old paino and you sat down and did wonders with it...
I: yeah, but John Paul Jones is a schooled musican and it would be totally beneath him to sit down and play and instrument like that piano at Hedley Grange. I mean, that thing is just hitroyqistory, but it *is* the sort of thing that a lot of these old blues records were made on. If you would ever see the original Chess piano...it's a ludicrous instrument, and somebody like John Paul Jones probably wouldn't want to do much with it...
Q: Do *you* still admire the Stones? Do you feel they are the best band at what they are doing?
I: I think you've got to admire Mick because of what he takes on. Every other band will just go on stage and be done with it, where's Mick is totally involved in every aspect. Most groups just get on stage and everything else is left to the managers, record producers, accountants and other staff members. Mick literally supervises *everything*. He has most of the original ideas and he usually wins arguments with advisors who tell him what he can and can't do...many have been proven wrong. He takes on nearly all the responsiblitlies of the Rolling Stones. Obviously, he's got his legal people and his financial people and all that, but Mick's always ontop of everything, more or less on behalf of the other three. Yet he could trot away and probably make a lot more money doing movies . He could do a single album with other people and he could probably do a tour with Billy Preston and some other people if he wanted to.. And I sometimes wonder why he takes all the responisblities of the Rolling Stones. I know he loves doing it, but it really means that he has to work 365 days a year.
Q: Is he as invovled in the music as Keith?
I: Oh sure. You see, Keith plays and that's the end of it. He doesn't want to know about anything else.
Q: He writes...
I: OK, so he writes and plays, but you have no idea of the legal side of this.The various hassles with the various establishments of this world. And the Altamont thing that goes on and on...I promise you, Mick never stops.
Q: All that socialsing he does?
I: Well, they're forever writing things like Mick is very fond of his stomach, and often the 1st palce he wants to go is the best restaurants. Those restaurants are the places that you're ussually seen in, and get written if you're in, and so - you know, you tend to get a bit of a name -- but Mick likes all that, he really does. But it's not too much that he gets the time to do it.
Q: What about Keith's involvement?
I: I think you've got to admire keith in a lot of ways becasue he's very single minded. He really is the pulse of the Stones. He leads the band and he's never displayed any flashy guitar techniques or anything. Keith is really the best rock and roll guitar player there is, yet people don't realise it because he doesn't do a lot of solos.
Q: He's said he likes to keep things short and sweet...
I: Oh yeah, Keith has always been great and laid it down and he's always left gaps. He's great at tempos. It doesn't matter what he gets into, because when it comes down to playing on stage, he's unstoppable.
Q: What about Mick Taylor?
I: I think he fitted in quite well and that they made some of their best records at that time.
Q: What do you think are the best records?
I: Well, when I'm saying their best, I'm talking about records that are accepted as being their best -- not neccesarily my favourites.
Q: What are your favourites?
I: In the form of singles, I think Brown Sugar
Q: You played on that didn't you?
I: Yeah, but that's got nothing to do with it. I mean, I played on Honky Tonk Women and I don't rave about that.
Q: What about albums?
I: I think Let It Bleed was good, Satanic Majesties I've never played since they did it. A lot of people like it but I think it was awful. I think the best album really is Exile which is everyone else's most unfavourite.
Q: Funny, a few years later that album seems right. I really like it now and never listened to it before.
I: I think it's more to a key to the Rolling Stones that a lot of other albums. On that album, there are 2 or 3 of the best tracks they've ever done. There's one in particular, which no one seems to have caught onto, called Loving Cup, and that's excellent. I also like the pseudo country things like Sweet Virginia and Dead flowers.
Q: Why don't they play them onstage?
I: Well, we have played them onstage but it's too much pissing about with acoustic guitars.
Q: How involved are you in recording?
I: Well, usually in the studio, it's me and the group and the engineer and that's it. I'll normally arrange everything. Like booking the studio time and the hotels and the flights. Or Anna (Menzies) will do it, or we'll sort it out between us.
Q: Do you prefer recording to touring?
I: Oh, absouloutely. It's quite nice to get down to Munich for a couple of weeks, get settled at the Hilton, spend about 12 hours a day in the studio, play a little bit and generally keep pretty busy because you've got everything to do. Literally everything. On this past tour I had very little to do, except for playing a number or two....
Q: Does touring get to you after all the ones you've done?
I: Well, there's only one or two or three things that get to me...but on a good night, you get to realise what a good band they are, and a concert that swings the way a good one does sometimes does get to me. What doesn't get to me is all the bullshit that goes with it. All the huge entourage and caravan following the Rolling Stones about. All the little egos running about.
Q: When would you say that started? When do you recall there being an abrupt change and the creation of a huge organisation? Was it with Peter Rudge?
I: I suppose it was in a way, but here again Peter believes in it all. In fact, Mick believes in it all. So I mean they are obviously right, but the trouble with this is, when you've got a good deal of people going around, and it's a union thing the way it is, and it all moves around like a big machine -- albeit an efficient one -- it just all becomes a big routine. It certainly takes away some of the excitement. Before, when we used to go out on tour, it used to be chaotic. I wouldn't want to see that again either, but at least all sorts of unexpected things used to happen and you'd get yourself in a lot of trouble and you'd have riots, but it used to keep it interesting. But this is like a big machine. In 65 & 66 we did 2 american tours a year, and they said 'let's not tour anymore and concentrate on making albums'. In 66 they were still getting screamed at, you could virtually get up onstage and play what you liked and it hardly made a difference. At that point, Mick was talking about knocking it on the head altogether and he said "well, I just don't want to do it anymore. I just want to make records". Before 67, recording was anything you did on odd days when you didn't have an engagement, or in the afternoons when there was a concert in the London area. It occured to the Stones that good records could be obtained if weeks or months were set aside especially for recording purposes.
Q: Do you think that the '75 tour had less bullshit than others?
I: I think the tour had its most bullshit. That's when the bullshit reached its highest level.
Q: Truman Capote
I: Yeah, especially that. This tour was like a refinement of the last tour. There was a lot of uneccessary things thrown out.
Q: You said that you felt there were still some uneccessary things...
I: Well, yeah, when you consider you've got all these people around and yet Bill Wyman can't even get tickets for Howlin' Wolf in Chicago. If Bill wants a car he can seldom get it...and yet Wolf comes to the show in Chicago and Bill, who is one of the Stones, can't get tickets for him. In Chicago, Wolf sat in the dressing room, and then they wanted to take him up to the pressbox because there were no tickets. To get to the pressbox you have to climb a lot of stairs, and he couldn't do it becaue he's got a bad heart, so eventually he stayed in the dressing room and never saw the concert. There's a lot of little scrubbers who've got tickets and whose friends are they? Not even the band's...just this endless party of people who get all the tickets they need.
Q: Whose fault is that?
I: I don't think it's anybody's fault, but the fact remains that when Bill wanted seats for Wolf, he couldn't gt them...
Q: A lot of people have said that they thought they were better in '69 or '72. What do you think?
I: I don't think they were better in '69 or 72...I think they are playing as well now as they have ever played. The thing really is that when they started out they were rebels and non-conformists and obviously you can't be like that all your life. But when you go out and do a tour with union guys, basically, you've gone back to the type of legit-theatre situation. Thwey are getting to be part of sort of show-biz which I don't think was ever the idea in the 1st place, but this is the way Mick wants it. He wants to have a theatre production. I don't know if it's worth it... the stages in NYC and LA...it was very funny and great to see it all happen, but I don't really know why. I suppose that one can be very proud of it all. They spent a million dollars and it opened up and the kids loved it and at the end the Stones were on stage and it closed again and it is the best rock and roll prop, but so what? The 1975 tour was probably the best rock and roll production ever, I'm not knocking it and I'm certainly not knocking the skill and application of the crew that made it possible, but if I went to a Stones concert -- or a Count Basie concert for that matter, I would want to enjoy the Stones or the Basie band without distraction. And afterwards I would be knocked out by Keith Richards or Al Grey, as the case may be, and if the stage went up and down at the corners, that would be interesting at best, but a distraction at worst. I just wonder if it's really worth it. Mick believes that it is and that people want to see a total production. Maybe they do. I am probably completely in the minority.
Q: How much do you think Mick controls the show?
I: Oh, I think he controls everything. Not so much the music; Keith leads that. See, basically, Keith can't be bothered to go to any of these meetings where people have to decide these things, and although he'll tend to bitch a little bit afterwards, he's quite happy to let Mick and Charlie go over these things and draw the stage and say "well, do it" because Keith is certainly not worried about the money thing. I mean, Mick doesn't worry about it either, but he just wants to do it the best way he possibly can. He wants the money that's due him, but once he's made sure he's got that, he's not worried about spending it on stages. In the past he spent it on taking people like Ike and Tina Turner around, and I mean, that's a very expensive pastime -- but very worthwhile. They didn't make anything on the '69 tour and I doubt they made any in 72. One tour in England with Ike and Tina, and the one with Chip Monck in Europe made no money. I mean, you can squawk about money, but the money they've made hasn't done them much good either. It's really gotten them into some trouble...They can't even live in their own country now. They just have to go aroudn from hotel to hotel, and one big house to another, cart an entourage with them...I suppose they've got Ferraris and things, but I don't know...I personally have never had a desire for money for the sake of it. I mean, there've been times when I've thought 'Christ, I should be getting more money that I am, but if you think about it, Madison Square Garden really gets filled on the strength of Jagger, and if not the strength of Jagger, then on the strength of the Rolling Stones -- and it's got nothing to do with playing piano. Mick and Keith and Bill and Charlie could have done this tour by themselves and it still would have sold out
Q:Do you feel as though they're your friends, this band? Do you see them when you're not recording or touring?
I: I think Bill and Charlie are certainly friends. When Bill and Charlie weere living in England I would see them, and when Charlie comes to London, which he does fairly often, I would see him too. Keith lives a rather strange life...strange to me anyway. When he comes to London, he is usually around with Woody quite a lot, and Woody lives quite close to me, so I would go around to Woody's a lot anyway.
Q: Were they close prior to this tour?
I: Oh sure, but in fact, less than a month before we came to Montauk, they were still arguing about who was going to be the guitar player. Keith was really not sure about Woody, because he felt that Woody played too much like him, and that it wouldn't sound good. But Mick and I wanted Woody. The other guys were rather undecided. There was a fair amount of support for Wayne perkins. Wayne is a lovely guy and all that, but it was difficult to imagine him onstage as part of the Rolling Stones. And I had been at that concert in Kilburn...you know, when Keith and Woody palyed together -- and it was great actually. It got panned largely because it was the Faces sound team doing it, and of course, their idea of a good sound is just lots of volume for the sake of it, and the acoustics of the place are horrendous, so the sound was a bit painful, but the feel was there. The approach was great and the 2 guitar thing was just fine. Eventually, Mick put his foot down and said "Right, it's either going to be Woody or no tour".
Q: Did you ever think of leaving the Stones?
I: Sometimes, but then again, what else would you want to do? This sort of life has a lot of advantages. I certainly wouldn't go and work for another band, because there's only about 3 other bands thatI enjoy listening to.
Q: Which ones?
I: Well, it's not really the music you like best, is it? I mean, given the choice to go and see Zep or a jazz club...yeah, in all seriousness, I would probably go and see Count Basie.