Fifty years ago this week, Keith Richards rolled out of bed in a motel room in California and plucked a few notes from his guitar into his tape recorder, and then nodded off again. While not an unusual occurrence for the pirate-headband favouring rocker, on this occasion he came up with the riff to ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ – the Stones’ biggest hit and one of rock’s greatest riffs.
In honour of that rocktacular milestone – and the continuing existence of Keith Richards in general –we celebrate the joy of the riff, with a selection of stories behind some of the all-time classics.
Smoke on the Water – Deep Purple
Deep Purple had been staying in Switzerland and set to record their landmark ‘Machine Head’ album at the Montreux Casino complex. Unfortunately, someone set off a flare gun during a Frank Zappa concert at the venue (everyone’s a critic), and the whole place burned down. Watching from their hotel, the Purps saw how the smoke was billowing across Lake Geneva, although the title only came to bassist Roger Glover in a dream a few days later.
You Really Got Me – The Kinks
One of the first few songs Ray Davies ever wrote, ‘You Really Got Me’ was originally demoed as a much bluesier, mellower affair. The guitar’s distortion – and apparently a key influence in the sound of heavy metal – was created after guitarist Dave Davies sliced the speaker cone of his guitar amplifier with a razor blade and poked it with a pin. Despite rumours to the contrary, Jimmy Page did not actually play the solo; it was all Dave.
Ziggy Stardust – David Bowie
In a bid to rise above all the other acts making concept albums about bisexual alien rock superstars, David Bowie – the chameleon that he is – went the extra and actually became Ziggy Stardust. He got a band together – The Spiders from Mars – and found his Jeff Beck in Hull’s Mick Ronson. Having only recently got used to chart success, he leapt on the opportunity to essentially invent glam rock while driving teenagers giddy with hysteria and confusion, before retiring in Hammersmith.
Whole Lotta Love – Led Zeppelin
Despite never releasing singles in the UK, Led Zeppelin were still really quite huge enough for ‘Whole Lotta Love’ to make it into many a Rock Classic list, also topping many polls for the Greatest Riff as well as becoming the theme to Top of the Pops during its imperial phase. Although the Zep were eventually sued in 1985, for Robert Plant’s ‘phrasing’ was a bit too similar to the Muddy Waters tune ‘You Need Love’. The clots!
Back in Black – AC/DC
Written as a tribute to their singer Bon Scott, who’d died literally days before the band had planned to begin work on the album of the same name, his replacement Brian Johnson was told not to make it in any way morbid. It worked, and helped the album go on to sell over 50 million copies, and the song itself eventually charted in 2012 when AC/DC relented and put their catalogue on iTunes.
For more insights into the world of Rock (and, let’s face it, Roll), grab yourself a copy of The Bluffer’s Guide to Rock®