The Rolling Stones – Exile On Main St.

Exile On Main St. (1972)


1. Rocks Off 2. Rip This Joint 3. Shake Your Hips 4. Casino Boogie 5. Tumbling Dice 6. Sweet Virginia 7. Torn And Frayed 8. Sweet Black Angel 9. Loving Cup 10. Happy 11. Turd On The Run 12. Ventilator Blues 13. I Just Want To See His Face 14. Let It Loose 15. All Down The Line 16. Stop Breaking Down 17. Shine A Light 18. Soul Survivor


By 1971, the Stones were on the run, hounded by England’s oppressive top tax bracket rates (hey, tea party, if you think rich people are taxed enough already now, try being rich in England in the 1960s, when the taxman would take like 95% of your money. I think that whole Obama=Stalin theory would suddenly seem very, very silly to you. Not that it doesn’t already to the rest of us). After staging a “Farewell England” tour in support of Sticky Fingers (incidentally the first and last Rolling Stones “farewell tour.” Believe me, they’ll never call any tour they go on a farewell tour, no matter how old they are at the time. Keith will literally have to disintegrate into fine dust before they admit that they’ll never play a show again), they all relocated to different countries. And with various drug charges and other misdemeanors hanging over their heads in many different corners of the world, their options for locations to record their next album were limited. Naturally, they chose Keith’s basement in the South of France – the perfect combination of refinement and grit. The result was the double LP Exile On Main St., the last of the Big Four Stones studio albums and one of the most revered rock albums of all time. And, unlike the previous three albums, it may be hard to fall in love with at first. But trust me, once you do, the rewards never stop coming.

Once anyone listens to Exile for the first time, a common trajectory almost always emerges in that person’s relationship with the album. First listen: “What is this crap? The mix sounds like shit, I can’t hear the vocals, it’s sloppy as hell, and there are too many goddamned songs!” Some weeks/months later: “OK, my first impression wasn’t totally right. If they’d cut it down to single LP length, it would be one of the greatest Stones albums ever. But as is, there’s too much filler!” A year or two later: “Exile On Main St. is the greatest album of all time.” It’s very predictable. Even I was the same way. I knew “Tumbling Dice” and “Happy,” of course, so I liked those, but, having already absorbed Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers, I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. The big band sound employed throughout the record, complete with a full horn section and gospel backup singers, sounded dopey and overindulgent, the mix was all muddled up, and though I remember liking “Loving Cup” on first listen for whatever reason, but nothing else stood out to me at all. I couldn’t hear a “Brown Sugar” or a “Wild Horses” or a “Honky Tonk Women,” or even a “Live With Me” or a “Sway” anywhere on my new 67-minute CD. I was confounded.

But you know, I can understand why 13-year old me wouldn’t really get it right away. I can even understand why a middle-aged critic who was around when the album came out wouldn’t get it right away (and most didn’t – it got pretty much panned on its release, but by a couple years later, all those writers were, in Keith’s words, “extolling it as the greatest frigging album in the world”). Because, on its surface, Exile is a mess. The recording sessions in Keith’s basement in his mansion, Nellcote, are a huge part of the album’s legend (even if only about half the album was actually recorded there), and the gritty, spontaneous atmosphere that resulted from recording in said locale are big part of why we love the album. But, for all practical purposes, it was a disaster for the Stones. You try gathering up a few drug-taking rock stars, their friends, girlfriends, drug mules and various other hangers on and telling them to record an album in a horribly cramped basement where it’s 105 degrees and shit catches on fire when you do so much as turn on an amp and at any given time at least half the band members are off somewhere else in the house shooting up, screwing models, and generally not doing anything productive to the completion of the record. See how smoothly those sessions go and report back. Good luck. See, even though Exile sounds raw and off the cuff, it took forever to finish. Just getting everyone coordinated and ready to work by itself was a nightmare – what was everyone supposed to do whenever Mick would intermittently jet off to Paris to see his new bride-to-be, Bianca? Or when Keith would wander away somewhere for a hit and then doze off for a few hours? But they had to be ready for when he woke up and suddenly had an idea about how a song should go. And he was bursting with them – it just took a bit of teasing them out of him.

Pardon the pun, which I feel may be beneath the dignity of this record, but the Stones leave no stone unturned on Exile. Every form of black and/or hick white music that they had ever attempted is well-represented here. You’ve got your overdriven rockers (the hyperspeed boogie of “Rip This Joint” and “Turd On The Run,” the classic Stones riff rockers “All Down The Line” and Keith’s “Happy”), your electrified blues covers (Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down,” Slip Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips”), swampy soul/gospel balladry (“Just Want To See His Face,” “Let It Loose,” “Shine A Light), country (“Sweet Virginia,” “Torn And Frayed”) – and then some. It’s long, being a double album and all, but it’s so expertly constructed under the constraints of vinyl sides that it necessitates it being a double LP. Side 1 is the most traditionally Stonesy side, side 2 is the country and ballad side, side 3 is the bluesy side, and side 4 sums it all up. It would be impossible to remove even a note without disrupting the momentum. That means you, folks that would have it trimmed to a single LP – shame on you!

But length and staggering diversity is not why Exile’s genius can take a while to grasp. You just have to trust me – if at first you struggle with it, eventually something will poke itself through the incredible density that you hadn’t noticed during the last 30 listens and make you go, “Woah.” There are so many layers to this thing that you could have listened to it every single day since the day it came out forty years ago and you’d still be discovering new things hidden deep with the record’s core. There’s enough hidden golden nugget moments in the first song alone to keep you enraptured for the rest of your life. One of the greatest asides in rock history: Mick’s nasty “oh yeah,” coming a couple of seconds into the song, after Keith’s grimy neo-Berry opening riff, and setting the tone for the rest of the record. The watery bridge, where Keith wails indecipherable verbalizations in the background (“rip and rock the shoeshine?” Something like that) before the band explodes back into high gear: “the sunshine bores the daylights out of me.” And just when the song has just about faded out and you think it’s over, Mick Taylor, just about inaudible for the previous four minutes, rips off a short, red hot solo.

“Rocks Off” is just the tip of the iceberg. I could go on and on about more of those tiny moments… about how the closing groove of “Tumbling Dice” is so incredibly perfect that I can’t help but wish it would go on for another three hours; about how I get chills every time Mick comes in after the horn solo on “Let It Loose,” and so on and so forth. But it would be too immense a task. There’s just too much magic here to rationally tackle in a stupid review on a stupid website written by some stupid punk. So I guess you’ll just have to discover it all for yourself.

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