After the triumph of the career- and era-defining Sticky Fingers, there was only one way to go. Simply put, you don’t put out a better album than Sticky Fingers. Unless, of course, you’re the Rolling Stones at their peak, in which case you put out a double album that transcends pretty much every album you’ve ever made and almost every rock album made by anyone else, as well. Exile On Main St. is that album.
There’s an enormous amount of mythology wrapped up in the making of Exile. The bare bones of the myth is that the Stones left England to escape onerous taxation, and they set up shop in a mansion in France. Drunk, high, and decadent, they recorded Exile in the basement of the mansion. That’s partially true. They did leave England for tax reasons, and much of Exile was recorded in the basement of Keith Richards’ villa at Nellcôte. There was also an enormous amount of drugs and decadence going around. But the Stones were not sharing a house, and an enormous amount of the final record was recorded, overdubbed, mixed, and mastered in the decidedly less glamorous world of Los Angeles.
With Exile, the mythology of the making of the album is inextricably linked to the final product. The myth of the Stones endlessly working out these songs as a tight five-piece unit in the basement of a French villa, swigging whiskey straight from the bottle, is so evocative because that’s exactly how the album sounds like it should have been recorded. Los Angeles or not, there’s a lot of “basement” vibe on the album. It’s murky, sludgy, dark, and dank. As a recording, it leaves a lot to be desired. As a rock album, it’s one of the best ever made, a collection that isn’t flawless but whose greatness towers above almost every other album of the rock era. There are some artists that have put out albums as good or better, but those albums are few and far between and the artists are the titans of the music business: The Beatles, The Who, Bob Dylan. And even their best only shares the rarefied air of Exile On Main St.
In order to get to the music, one must first get past the artwork that adorns the sleeve. Outside, a collection of photographs of freaks, geeks, and sideshow attractions with the name of the band and the album titled scrawled in what looks like lipstick adorn the front cover while similar photos of the band are on the back. Inside, pictures of the band and scrawled slogans that would turn up, sometimes modified, as lyrics: “I gave you diamonds. You gave me disease.” “Got to scrape the shit right off your shoes.” Mick Jagger stands coyly in front of a movie poster for an X-rated film, a poster that contains a small and very explicit photograph if you look closely enough. The inner sleeves of the album contain more photos, many of them duplicated like a negative of a film roll (the still photos were taken from a film shot by the photographer). The song titles are scrawled with partial information about who plays what instruments. The original version of the album contained 12 inscrutable postcards. All photos in black and white or with a slight color tint. The Stones clearly had gone all out on the packaging, and the cover and sleeves were a perfect manifestation of the music: there is so much going on in the cover it’s hard to know where to look (although almost everyone seems fascinated with the one photo of the man with three oranges in his mouth).
The cover was dark and strange, and the music offered no comfort. Over the course of 18 songs, the Stones take the listener on a tour of the dark underbelly of American music, from Delta blues (a ripping cover of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down”) to a Southern Gothic gospel (“Shine A Light,” “Just Wanna See His Face”) to true country music (“Sweet Virginia,” “Torn and Frayed”) to barn-busting rock (“Rip This Joint,” “Rocks Off,” “Happy”). Exile, in essence, is a roots album. Unlike, say, Stephen Stills’s similar Manassas album that explored the different types of American music over its four sides, everything on Exile comes out sounding like the work of a band that had so completely absorbed their influences that they have become second nature. “Sweet Virginia” is both 100% American country music and 100% English bad-boy blues rock. It’s a pretty neat trick when you get right down to it, one that few bands have ever replicated and one which the Stones themselves were never able to do again.
There are several hard-charging rock and roll songs on the album. Side one boasts “Rocks Off,” the fearsome ode to the sex and drugs lifestyle being lived on the French Riviera, as well as the souped-up Little Richard blast of “Rip This Joint,” the fastest song in the band’s repertoire to this day. Side three begins with the greatest Keith Richards-led moment in the band’s career, the driving “Happy,” which Richards sings as if his heart was going to explode. In the long, storied life of Keith Richards, “Happy” remains his defining moment: three minutes of sheer exuberance, conceited boasting, and wistful loneliness. The verses of braggadocio and jaded living (“Always took candy from strangers…Never wanna be like papa/Workin’ for the boss…Never got a lift out of Lear jets…”) end in the desperate chorus of “I need a love to keep me happy/Baby, won’t you keep me happy?” This is Keith’s moment to shine on Exile, and shine brightly he does.
Then there is one of Exile‘s most overlooked tracks, “Turd On The Run.” The song will never be played on the radio because of the title alone and it is one of the Stones songs that’s known only to purists and hardcore fans. Musically, it’s essentially a rewrite of “Rip This Joint,” but the lyrics are some of the nastiest that ever came from Jagger’s pen. A tale of obsession and lost love that turns into a wicked revenge story, the lyrics are Jagger at his most sinister. The sex-crazed predator of underage girls from “Stray Cat Blues” and the demonic narrator of “Sympathy For The Devil” merge together as Jagger recounts the time and energy and love he “lost,” becoming increasingly bitter (“Diamond rings, vaseline/You give me disease”) before concluding with a bold threat (“Tie your hands/Tie your feet/Throw you to the sharks/Make you sweat/Make you scream/Make you wish you’d never been.”)But Exile would probably not have the grand reputation it enjoys today if it were nothing but hard-driving rock tunes. Side two, boasting “Sweet Virginia,” “Torn and Frayed,” “Sweet Black Angel,” and the epic “Loving Cup” is dripping with country elements, from the drunken sing along of “Virginia” to the magisterial pedal steel of “Frayed,” to the acoustic jam of “Angel.” “Loving Cup” is a perfect synthesis of rock ballad, grand piano, and country drinking song. “Gimme little drink! From your loving cup,” drawls Jagger, but the jokey nature of the chorus is undermined by the beauty of the verses and, especially, the bridge where Jagger claims to be “humbled with you tonight/Just sitting by the fire…what a beautiful buzz.” The verses are sweetness and romanticism; the chorus, a good time drinking tune. On paper, it shouldn’t work. On record, it works beautifully. “Loving Cup” is one of the greatest of all Stones songs, mired in the obscurity of being an album track on a densely packed record that most fans of the band in this day and age have probably never heard.
The blues gets its due on Exile, of course. “Stop Breaking Down” has a loose, jammy feel of a well-rehearsed band breaking out a song they all know and love. There’s also a cover of Slim Harpo’s “Hip Shake,” retitled “Shake Your Hips” and an ode to the overheated, stuffy basement at Nellcôte entitled “Ventilator Blues,” the only song in the Stones canon that carries an official co-writing credit for guitar ace Mick Taylor. There’s really nothing all that special about these latter two songs, nor is “Casino Boogie,” the other blues-oriented song from side one, anything to write home about. None of these songs are bad, but they also don’t stand up outside of the context of this messy, sprawling album.
The same is true, in spades, of “I Just Wanna See His Face.” It’s an odd quasi-instrumental jam with extemporaneous lyrics from Jagger about Jesus. Overdubbed backing vocals from Clydie King, Vanetta Fields, Jerry Kirkland add a hint of gospel music, but the song sounds like it belongs on Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music. As a song, it’s really nothing, yet to my ears it’s crucial to the fabric of Exile. Without it, Exile would be lessened in much the same way that the White Album would suffer if it were to lose throwaways like “Wild Honey Pie” and “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road”. More serious attempts at a gospel vibe are made in “Let It Loose” and “Shine A Light” which both rank in the top-tier of Stones recordings. The songs rock with a steady assurance and a confidence that borders on obscene, but the instrumentation and vocals, particularly the backing vocals, are lifted straight from the churches of the American South.The remaining tracks also represent the cream of the crop from the Stones. “All Down The Line” and “Soul Survivor” are blistering rockers that bookend side four of the record. “All Down The Line” still gets performed today by the band, despite the fact that it was never a hit and the Stones are nothing if not a traveling greatest hits show when they tour. “Soul Survivor” has a riff so good that it was stolen by Slash for his work on Michael Jackson’s hit single, “Black Or White.” It was also stolen by the Stones themselves, when they reused it in 1983 for “It Must Be Hell.”
Which leaves “Tumbling Dice.” Many critics claim that this is the best song the Stones have ever done. Along with “Happy” it’s the only song from Exile that has managed to achieve “classic” status. It was a Top 10 single in the States, peaking at #7, but it has managed to seep into the consciousness of Stones fans everywhere. It’s a slow, languid groove featuring some incredible guitar from Keith Richards, a seamless merge of Charlie Watts and Jim Miller on drums, and a slow, almost lazy vocal from Jagger that nonetheless manages to perfectly match up with the lyrics. “Tumbling Dice” is the sound of the Rolling Stones and the American blues becoming one and the same.
Exile on Main St. is the Grand Finale of the Rolling Stones. They would release many more albums, some of which were very good, but they would never again climb to these heights. It’s probably not even possible to do. As such, much of their later work suffers for the sole reason that it is compared to Exile, which is unfair. For this reason, Exile stands at the peak of 1970s rock music, yet is also an albatross over the career of the band that made it. It’s no surprise that Mick Jagger is ambivalent about the quality of the album, complaining that it doesn’t sound good and that the mix is terrible. It’s a natural reaction to being told that everything you’ve done for the past 38 years doesn’t match up to what you did back then. But the fact is simply this: Mick Jagger’s denunciations of the album and his confusion about its popularity are just plain wrong.
Exile has recently been re-released in a deluxe edition with ten extra tracks. These are reviewed separately.