The Rolling Stones - Exile On Main Street
As I’ve got steadily more into the Blues and Americana it became self evident that there is a lot to discover in The Rolling Stones' late 1960’s and early 1970’s catalogue. My conversion started with Sticky Fingers. The 2016 Blue & Lonesome was confirmation that they were the real thing and their legend is built on some wonderful foundations. Exile, for me, was an overlong and messy confection. A double album with a couple of decent tunes on it?
My ‘Road to Damascus’ moment came when I was introduced (thanks Sooty) to a 2016 re-mastered vinyl version. The album was cut using specialist half speed mastering. This results in a superior high frequency response. So gone is all that mushy sound and now you can pick out the vocals and instruments. It was a revelation!
The album has a story beside the music. In 1972 the Stones became expatriates as they escaped British tax rates (top rate of 83%!), drug busts and contract battles. Keith Richards became a resident at Chateau Nellcôte near Villefranche-sur-Mer (Nice) in the South of France. It was here that the album was initially recorded. The stories abound about recording between 8pm and 3am most days and along the way Richards and half the musicians were high on heroin and booze whilst Jagger, Wyman and Watts made sporadic appearances to complete the record. Richards’ drug problems were so horrific that he was eventually banned from France, in 1973, for two years.
For all this then the Stones were in their pomp and magic came to pass. The album has that dirty bluesy rock n’ roll feel throughout and the irreverence and looseness suggests that they were beyond caring about the sensibilities of those more supposedly respectable.
The first of 18 tracks is “Rocks Off” a full throttle rocker with the horns and Nicky Hopkins’ piano driving it along. Maybe the listener starts to get a feel for the party that’s going on behind this:
Feel so hypnotized, can't describe the scene.
Feel so mesmerized all that inside me.
The sunshine bores the daylights out of me.
Chasing shadows moonlight mystery.
Headed for the overload,
We’re on our way.
Mick Taylor was holding down the present day Ronnie Wood position. Possibly the most accomplished guitarist the Stones ever had. Less pleasing to Jagger, because of his disruptive drug fuelled behaviour, was Bobby Keys. However, immediately you can hear his saxophone giving the whole album a Soul feel. “Shake Your Hips” isn’t a Stones composition but a cover of Slim Harpo's who wrote it in 1965. It’s hypnotic percussive rhythm would have an audience up immediately. However, they won’t be sitting down anytime soon as we move onto “Casino Boogie” (with Taylor’s beautiful outro solo) and then finish side one with “Tumbling Dice”.
Side Two starts with “Sweet Virginia”. A great Country Blues song led off by Jagger on harp. Following we have three throttled back ballads but someone steps on the gas on “Loving Cup”. Jagger lays into a gutsy vocal. The song had a subsequent controversy when their previous manager, Allen Klein sued them for royalties claiming that the song was written during the time they were under contract to his company. Very rock ‘n roll.
“Happy” opens Side Three. This is a concert favourite when Mick leaves the stage and Keith croaks his way through this song. Apparently on one recording day Richards came to the studio early before the other band members showed up, found a riff and they recorded it with subsequent vocals and instruments added later. “Ventilator Blues” is a funky thing and Mick Taylor has no doubt been privately educating his kids with a share of the royalties that came from composing this with Jagger and Richards. “I Just Want To See His Face” references Jesus and is like a Soul coda with call and response – so different and innovative. As is the gospel ballad “Let It Loose” with female chorus harmonies, distorted guitars and horns accompaniment with Keys (sax) and Price (trumpet) providing backing for the ladies to take this gem home. This has never been subsequently played live but has ended up on two film soundtracks. My favourite track on the album.
I can’t believe there is another side to go!
Side Four rocks out starting with “All Down The Line” that seems to be an arrangement that we hear a lot of in later albums. Next the cover of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down (Blues)” is without doubt the best cover of this standard. The band light it up with howling harmonica and great muscular guitar passages. All other efforts by latter day Blues luminaries are damp squibs compared to this. “Shine A Light” apparently is about Brian Jones and started life under Allen Klein’s management and became another legal dispute. As in all these histories about the album and songs then you have to be sceptical but it is a fine rocker with gospel leanings and a wonderful vocal. “Soul Survivor” ends the journey and what a journey it is.
There is a lot to discover and love. If some of the immense anthems and commercial classics were the earlier phase then this was a ‘back to basics’ package. Given that Richards was operating on automatic for another decade, as his addictions led him by the nose, you do feel that Jagger took control and led them into a patchy future of hits and outtakes on future albums. This is possibly forgivable as who was pushing or buying Blues and Country Rock albums in the Eighties or Nineties? Whatever the facts then the later records are out there awaiting my discovery and dissection. Can’t wait.