Classic Album Review

The Rolling Stones - Exile on Main Street (1972)

Eamon Murphy
It’s 1971, and the Stones are heading south. Deep south.

So it shouldn’t surprise anybody that they would emerge from one of the heartlands of American music, a place that has given us Sam Cooke and Muddy Waters, Howlin Wolf and John Lee Hooker, with an album encompassing not just blues and R&B, but country, gospel and soul.

Not quite. It seems the band have holed up in an enormous mansion in the south of France; Villa Nellcote. An old regional Nazi HQ, replete with carved swastikas on the walls. Nice. A long way from Muscle Shoals, where Sticky Fingers was recorded a year earlier, but the venue nonetheless for probably the most “American” album the Stones recorded.

Nellcote became the setting for a lengthy binge of chemical and liquid excess, and intermittent recording involving a multifarious mix of band members and family, lovers, session men and drop-ins, from the seedy (dealers and other hangers on) to the sublime; William Burroughs, John Lennon, and Gram Parsons, who it was alleged took time out from getting stoned to make some personal input to the record.

Much has been made of this party of supposedly bacchanalian proportions, to the point that many music fans have probably read much more about the blowout than the album it spawned. And frankly, that’s almost sacrilegious, because no party, however debauched, should overshadow an album of such impressive variety and imperfect perfection.

Given what was going on as the album took shape, it’s appropriate that the album kicks off with a song that would start any party rocking. If the opening riff to ‘Rocks Off’ is pure Keith, the lyrics are classic Mick, as the thick-lipped frontman brings some of the album’s most overtly sexual lyrics to the fore before the first chorus even kicks in.

“I was making love last night
To a dancer friend of mine.
I can't seem to stay in step,
'Cause she come ev'ry time that she pirouettes o’er me”

The pace doesn’t let up on ‘Rip This Joint’, a rockabilly number that plays like a tour of southern American bars and juke joints. Slim Harpo, and later Robert Johnson, then receives a nod from Keef, as his ‘Shake Your Hips’ is given the Stones treatment.

A rip-roaring Side 1 closes with one of the highlights of the record in ‘Tumbling Dice’. Irresistible from the opening lick through to Jagger’s most narcissistic lyrics, the song proceeds with a musical swagger that epitomises the band at their brash and arrogant best, and is still a live highlight four decades on.

“Women think I'm tasty, but they're always tryin' to waste me
And make me burn the candle right down,
But baby, baby, I don't need no jewels in my crown”

Flip the vinyl over and you’re already into the fourth distinct musical genre touched on by the record. ‘Sweet Virginia’ is a high point not just of the album, but of the Stone’s output in that four year period from Beggar’s Banquet to Exile when one after the other, the band released four of the greatest albums rock n’ roll has seen. Often rumoured to feature vocals from Gram Parsons, (denied by Mick Taylor), the song’s obvious Nashville influences are intertwined with elements of blues and soul to create as unique and brilliant a song as the Stones back-catalogue possesses.

One of few overtly political songs the band ever recorded was ‘Sweet Black Angel’, a homage to, and protest for, the then-jailed civil rights activist Angela Davis. Quite what Davis, closely associated with the Black Panthers, thought of being referred to as “the sweet black slave” is unknown!

When Richards takes a rare lead vocal on ‘Happy’, it’s hard not to feel a little joyous in spite of the almost desperate lyrics, as his nimble picking and brisk strumming kick off Disc 2 with one of its hardest rockers. It’s a mood recaptured beautifully on the flip side with the brilliant ‘All down the Line’, but in between, the album descends into a slew of the unpolished cuts that contribute so much to the album’s raw feel. In parts, it sounds more like an old blues band hanging out and jamming than a group intent on cutting a record. Jagger himself commented years later, “The songs themselves are not really… I’m not saying they’re no good, but when you actually come to them, there’s a lot of songs that are really, like, not songs at all….”

Probably their most gospel-influenced song, ‘Shine a Light’ is a poignant and immensely beautiful ode to Brian Jones. Jagger began writing it in 1968 when Jones was still a member of the band, as the singer watched his band-mate descend into the haze of depression and addiction that eventually contributed to his death. Followed by ‘Soul Survivor’ and its pertinent refrain (“Gonna be the death of me”), it crowns an album that almost perfectly epitomises everything the Stones were about in their most productive era.

The party was fuelled by an almost endless flow of grass, coke, speed, and in the case of the albums’ musical director, heroin. In an interview with MOJO magazine, Richards was asked to confirm a myth from the sessions. “Mick complained he couldn’t use a mic because there was someone tying off with the cord? Ha ha! Probably”.

But he added years later, “Nobody gave a damn who was doing what. People were dabbling, everybody was. Mick is not the squeaky-clean little mother you think he is or he likes to portray himself.”

Given that their musical influences were always more Mississippi-delta than Merseyside, more Chicago than Chelsea, perhaps the biggest surprise is that the Stones didn’t produce a record like it sooner. Richards has attested, “We always considered ourselves an American band”. It would be almost eight years, and the release of London Calling, before an English group would put forth a record of such musical diversity.

But it was a perceived lack of cohesiveness resulting from this variety that contributed to the poor reception the album originally received. Though it is revered in many circles today, reviews upon its release could be considered mixed at best.

"When [Exile] came out it didn't sell particularly well at the beginning, and it was also pretty much universally panned” noted Richards. “But within a few years the people who had written the reviews saying it was a piece of crap were extolling it as the best frigging album in the world”

That the album was far from a conjoined effort between the band’s two main creative influences is given credence years later by Anita Pallenberg, who commented “I never saw Mick and Keith both sitting together and working as they would in the old days”. And perhaps not coincidentally, there is a great contrast in opinion between the two about the album’s merits; Jagger once commenting “it’s a bit overrated”, and slating the mixes as some of the worst he has ever heard.

That very rawness earned the album a slating from critics on its release, but Keith, on the other hand, still holds a lot of affection for Exile. “I still love that record very much. I would say there is the best of the Stones in there”

Many would agree. A review this year in The Times (UK) to coincide with the latest re-issue of the album describes Exile on Main Street as a “luminous coalition of everything the Stones had represented in their first decade, and much more besides”.

For this reason, Exile has rightly come to embody what the Stones were about at their creative peak. It’s a worthy representation.