Talk Is Cheap is clearly worthy of the deluxe reissue treatment for historical reasons alone.
Of the many ‘60s rockers who struggled to acclimate to the shifting tides of the ‘80s, few were quite as much of a fish out of water as Keith Richards. Always the more traditionalist half of the Rolling Stones’ creative engine, Richards spent the majority of the decade butting heads with a trend- and fame-chasing Mick Jagger. So when Jagger scuttled plans for a Stones tour in 1987 to focus on his second solo album, his jilted co-pilot took the opportunity to assemble his own band and make an ersatz version of the Stones album he’d been wanting to make since 1982.
In this post-poptimism era, one might expect Jagger to have come out on the right side of history: on paper, at least, making dance-oriented albums with Nile Rodgers and the Eurythmics’ Dave Stewart sounds like a more interesting career trajectory than sticking doggedly to the Stones’ roots. But if Richards’ 1988 solo debut proves anything, it’s that the Stones had more interesting roots than we often give them credit for. Yes, Talk Is Cheap features the chugging, Chuck Berry-inspired riffage one would expect from a Richards-driven Stones album; lead single “Take It So Hard” even sounds like a dry run for the band’s 1989 comeback record “Mixed Emotions.” But it’s also far from a work of rockist conservatism: just listen to the way opener “Big Enough” channels the funk-rock of the Stones’ “Hot Stuff,” beating Mick at his own game with a deeper groove than anything on She’s the Boss.
Part of the credit for Talk Is Cheap’s adventurousness should go to the band, memorably dubbed the X-Pensive Winos. Along with veteran rock sideman Waddy Wachtel and up-and-comer Charley Drayton, the group also included pianist Ivan Neville (son of Aaron) and former Saturday Night Live drummer Steve Jordan, lending an R&B band’s rhythmic fluidity to Richards’ trademark rock ‘n’ roll. The aforementioned “Big Enough” features guest appearances by P-Funk refugees Bootsy Collins, Maceo Parker and Bernie Worrell; the soulful ballad “Make No Mistake” has vocals by Sarah Dash of Labelle and a horn chart by Willie Mitchell and the Memphis Horns. Even when the songs stay in Richards’ wheelhouse of blues-infused hard rock, the Winos’ stylistic diversity push him in interesting directions: see, for example, Worrell’s percolating clavinet on the groove-oriented “Rockawhile,” or the taut interplay between Jordan’s drums and Richards’ guitar on closing track “It Means a Lot.”
It doubtless also helped that the album gave Richards a reprieve from the tension that surrounded the Stones in the ‘80s: much more than 1983’s Undercover or 1986’s Dirty Work, Talk Is Cheap sounds like the work of people who actually enjoy being in the same room together. Stones-esque tracks like “Struggle” and “Whip It Up” may not stand up to the best of the band’s material, but they come closer than anything since 1981’s Tattoo You; and the joy with which Richards performs the retro rhythm & blues pastiche “I Could Have Stood You Up”—a reunion with former auxiliary Stones Mick Taylor and Bobby Keys—is palpable. Even the ballads, “Make No Mistake” and “Locked Away,” offer him the opportunity to stretch as a singer, expanding on the rough-hewn pathos with which he’d invested Stones features like 1969’s “You Got the Silver” and 1980’s “All About You.”
For all of these reasons, Talk Is Cheap clearly served its purpose at the time of its release in 1988; what’s surprising, however, is how vital the album remains over three decades later. The 30th anniversary edition sounds sharper and livelier than earlier versions of the album; and the six new bonus tracks, while by no means essential, provide further evidence of the bonhomie between Richards and the Winos. Covers of Willie Dixon’s “My Babe” and Little Johnny Jones’ “Big Town Playboy,” along with bluesy instrumentals “Slim” and the aptly-named “Blues Jam,” capture the band in loose live form, giving the studio the after-hours ambience of a smoky nightclub. More intriguing are the last two tracks, the instrumental “Brute Force” and “Mark on Me,” which move beyond the blues into hard-edged funk and reggae. “Mark on Me” in particular, a six-minute groove apparently trimmed down from 14, hints at a weirder album than the one we got, with Richards improvising lyrics about a “bitch” who “put the mark” on him over a brassy synthesizer line. It sounds like the soundtrack to a demented 1988 crime movie, and it’s a movie I want to see.
Talk Is Cheap is clearly worthy of the deluxe reissue treatment for historical reasons alone: without its success (and, frankly, the failure of Jagger’s Primitive Cool the previous year), it’s hard to imagine the Rolling Stones soldiering on for as long as they have. But it’s also an excellent album in its own right—even, arguably, a better one than any the reunited Stones have released in its wake. Ever the survivor, Richards weathered the ‘80s as gracefully as he did heroin addiction; he really does make it look easy.