The Rolling Stones - Exile On Main Street

by Steve Ricciutti Rating:10 Release Date:1972-05-12
The Rolling Stones - Exile On Main Street
The Rolling Stones - Exile On Main Street

Maybe it was the setting. The dank, suffocating basement of a French villa on the Riviera that used to be the vacation getaway for a high ranking Nazi officer was far from the ideal place to make a record. The guitars were constantly falling out of tune, the rooms were too small, such that musicians would be in different rooms alone, trying to play cohesively despite the maze of electrical cords and wonky acoustics, and the heat and stifling humidity made everyone miserable. Add to that, Keith Richards increasingly problematic visits to the bathroom, which brought proceedings to a screeching halt for hours at a time, so that, when they were lucky enough to get all the members in one place, some driving in an hour or more from their temporary tax exile homes, frustrations mounted even more. It’s a wonder this album got made at all, let alone would become their greatest album and my favorite of all time. And yet it did.

Kicking off with another in what would become the Keith Richards vernacular, that open tuning, hammer-on chordal riffing that “Brown Sugar” popularized, the raunchy “Rocks Off” is a brilliant choice for the opening cut. The caterwauling duet of Jagger and Richards on “The sunshine bores the daylights out of me!” is priceless.

Frenetic concert staple “Rip This Joint” could well be an early Ramones prototype, a snarling, dirty cover of Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips,” the push-and-pull of “Casino Boogie,” with lyrics apparently created free-form style, with members writing non-sequiturs on scraps of paper and cobbling them together (e.g, “Dietrich movies, close up boogies, kissing cunt in Cannes”), and the perfection of “Tumbling Dice” make the first five songs (Side One, in the old days), a quintet of perfection.

The next four find the band tapping back into the country blues they’d begun exploring years earlier, which culminated in Beggars Banquet. It’s no coincidence that one of the peripheral figures on the scene was Gram Parsons, the man who taught Keith about authentic American country in exchange for Keith’s schooling in the fine art of addiction. Take, for example, “Sweet Virginia,” which goes so far into the country as to “scrape the shit right off your shoes,” or the gorgeous “Torn and Frayed,” which references the issues facing the band, and their notorious member “Joe.” “Joe’s got a cough. Seems kinda rough. Yeah, but the codeine’ll fix it. Doctor prescribes drugstore supplies. Who’s gonna help him to kick it?” After a near funky homage to black activist Angela Davis on “Sweet Black Angel,” the band returns to the country on “Loving Cup,” “I’m the man on the mountain, come on up. I’m the ploughman in the valley, with a face full of mud.”

Things return to blues roots on the last half, starting with Keith’s lilting work-out “Happy,” and the basement sweat of “Turd on the Run” and “Ventilator Blues.” The only moment on the record that seems a bit out of place is “I Just Want to See His Face,” which may be nothing more than a pause in the “barrooms and smelly bordellos” revelry. Closing out this side is the exquisite “Let It Loose,” one of the best songs the band has ever written. Tapping into gospel with uncanny skill, the arpeggioed riff, run through the Leslie sound effect, underlines Jagger’s prescription to “let it loose, let it all fall down,” amidst the cynicism of a life spent among the nouveau riche, in a soaring outro that is nothing short of transcendent. 

By the time the textbook Stones’ number “All Down the Line” cues up, until the final repeated chorus of “Soul Survivor,” the band is on cruise control. Another cover, Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down,” and the superb “Shine A Light” offer Mick Taylor the chance to do what he did best during his tenure, add brilliant, inimitable instrumental flourish to a song, and never better than on this album. “Soul Survivor” is at once both a predictable Mick Jagger ode to a former lover, as well, perhaps, as a sneaky bit of sniping at the man whose drug abuse and profligate ways conflicted with his stuffier, aristocratic designs. The song chugs along on chunky riffs and sinewy slide as Jagger warns, “Where you are, I won’t be. You’re gonna be the death of me.”

Started amidst the sprawling decadence of Nice and completed with the urgency and demands of Los Angeles, Exile On Main Street is an exhilarating and even exhausting sixty-eight minutes; a Flannery O’Connor-cum-James M. Cain novel set to music. Somehow, this band of English expats captured the America of the mid-to-late 20th century better than all the others who tried. The Robert Frank photographs that adorn the cover, comprised of a host of black and white freak-show faces is the perfect packaging to present this homage to “Main Street;” the myth, the legend, the smoky, writhing juke-joints, the blistering heat of the cotton fields and crossroads of country blues lore, the bustling urban grime, the angelic soar of church choirs, and the drunken twang of neon-lit honky-tonks; it’s all here in this magnificent testament to the land of their musical heroes.

It’s often stated that this is not the best album for a novice of the band. While I agree that any of the multiple hits packages might be a wider, more welcoming entrance, I would also argue that Exile On Main Street is the most authentic entry point. It is the pinnacle of their career, to which all their previous roads have led and from whence all subsequent ones fall away.

 

Overall Rating (1)

5 out of 5 stars