Creating one of Keith Richards’ best-known songs didn’t happen overnight. It happened in a single afternoon. As Richards recalled, “Happy,” the only single to ever chart in the Hot 100 with him on the lead, appeared within hours. “At noon, it never existed,” he wrote in his 2010 autobiography, Life. “At four o’clock it was on tape.”
In 1972, the Rolling Stones had fled to the south of France, escaping a complicated tax situation in the United Kingdom. Richards was renting Villa Nellcote, a sprawling mansion by the sea where the band had set up their makeshift basement mobile studio to record Exile on Main St. But appearances could be deceiving.
“That Nellcote thing was very, very difficult,” said Mick Jagger QG in 2017. “The house looks good, but I can assure you the basement didn’t look very good. Things were being done, but they were very disorganized. … We should have recorded in the living room, that’s what we’ve done in my house in England before, but we didn’t, we were very impatient and ended up in Keith’s basement, and the basement was shabby in every possible way. But it wasn’t the ideal recording environment. It was very difficult to record there. The sound was probably adequate, but there were power issues, which made it very difficult, and it took us centuries and centuries to make it work.
It wasn’t just the equipment that was unreliable. If you walked into Villa Nellcote on any given day in 1972, the chances of finding everyone in the group sober and ready to work, let alone present at the scene, were slim to none. “It was very drugged, so it was totally unstructured,” Charlie Watts later recalled. “We switched to Keith’s time. When he woke up, we would record something, and if he stayed up for 15 hours, we would play for 15 hours.”
Richards may have called several shots, but he wasn’t alone in the structure-fluid schedule. “At that time, I was no more beside myself than anyone else,” he said. classic rock in 2016. “Charlie was banging Cognac like an asshole, Mick loves his wine – but that didn’t even cross our minds. People did what they wanted to do. It was like, ‘Is this that you’re gonna walk into that room and If you do that, I don’t care if you snort God It doesn’t matter what fuel you use, as long as you come with the goods.
That was more or less the situation when “Happy” started to take shape. Richards, who had written parts of the song earlier in the day, was in the studio with producer Jimmy Miller and saxophonist Bobby Keys, waiting for the rest of the band to show up. They jammed casually in the meantime. “We have something going on,” he wrote in Life. “We were rocking, everything was set up and so we said, well, let’s start working, and then we’ll probably do it with the guys later.”
Richards used a subtle guitar trick he would employ frequently in the Stones catalog: he used a five-string guitar in open G tuning. “At the time, I guess, I thought I wasn’t going to get better on the six-string,” Richards said in 2015. “I thought, well, take a string off and reinvent things. will help me, and it did, for what I wanted to do. It’s a rather unique setting, and I don’t recommend it to everyone.
Listen to “Happy” by the Rolling Stones
The lyrics to “Happy” poured out of him as he reconciled on the spot with no real connection to anything tangible: “I never got a lift from the Lear jets / When I can get home.”
“It was just alliteration, trying to set up a story,” Richards recalled. “There has to be a thin plot, although in a lot of my songs you’d be hard-pressed to find it. But here you’re broke and it’s evening. And you want to go out, but you’re not. I have shit. I’m broke before I start. [‘Well I never kept a dollar past sunset / It always burned a hole in my pants.’] I need love to keep me happy, because if it’s real love, it’ll be free! You don’t have to pay for it. I need a love to keep me happy ’cause I spent the fuckin’ money and I ain’t got no more, and it’s night and I’m looking to have a good time, but I don’t I don’t give a fuck.”
The chaotic nature of Exile the recording sessions often meant that Miller, struggling with addiction issues himself, would do double duty producing the album and performing on it. He plays drums on “Happy”; Richards later doubled playing bass and more guitar, Jim Price added trumpet and trombone, and Jagger sang backing vocals.
This is how things have been for much of it Exile. “You have two pianists, you have two horn players, Jimmy Miller playing drums sometimes,” Jagger recalled. “Mick Taylor plays bass if Bill [Wyman] wasn’t there – you have all sorts of combinations going on.”
Watch the Rolling Stones play “Happy” in 1972
Watts told a different story in 2016, recalling that he and Miller “performed on ‘Happy’ together.” Regardless, Miller was a cohesive force at Nellcote when there was little organization to be found. “I thought he was the best producer we ever had,” Watts said. “Jimmy was a hands-on type of guy. When we played, he could never sit still, so he was always hitting something – a drum or a cowbell.”
Released as the second single from Exile on July 15, 1972, “Happy” debuted on the Billboard Hot 100 at No. 69. In August, it peaked at No. 22 and it now ranks among the Stones’ 15 most played songs, with more than 500 live performances.
“Great songs write themselves,” Richard wrote in Life. “You’re just guided by the nose or the ears. The skill is not to interfere too much with that. Ignore intelligence, ignore everything; just follow where it takes you.”
Rolling Stones album chart
Ready to travel to the (dark) past? Check out the Rolling Stones albums ranked from worst to best.