After taking a month off to give Pink Floyd’s The Wall and Rush’s Moving Pictures some well deserved attention, the classic album of the month feature returns to dissect Exile On Main St, an album so mired in its own mythology that it represents a daunting, near impenetrable, proposition.
As an album Exile… is a living breathing contradiction. Panned by critics in the 70s, divisive among band members, less popular commercially than both its predecessor (Let It Bleed) and its successor (Goat’s Head Soup); Exile On Main St. is a messy, bloated and largely unfinished work, and yet, in 2011, it is considered not only one of the greatest albums of all time but also The Rolling Stones’ finest single offering.
To many onlookers and outsiders Exile On Main St. is a dramatic plot point in the ongoing saga that is The Rolling Stones; more a moment in time than an artistic endeavor, an album that music fans know of, but haven’t necessarily listened to. So this month Guitar Planet attempts to unlock one of most music’s most intriguing myths.
By 1971 The Stones were their own men in some ways but not others. The band ended their five-year relationship with Allein Klien and Deccar Records with a messy divorce, which left their former manager in possession the majority of the Stones pre-’71 materiel (Jagger was careful to ensure that certain tracks originally penned in 60s, that would eventually appear on Exile On Main St., remained in The Stones’ possession).
Jagger and Richards were now the makers of their own destiny, releasing the wildly successful Sticky Fingers on their own record label before departing to France to escape taxation in the UK. Arriving in Cote D’Azur the Stones took up residence in Villa Nellcote with Keith Richards leasing out rooms in the plush French mansion to his band mates and friends.
The band’s principal songwriters found their lives heading in radically different directions. Mick Jagger married his first wife Bianca De Macias in May just months before the Exile On Main St. sessions were due to commence and unlike the rest of the band he dropped in and out of Nellcote sessions, appearing when available.
Richards on the other hand became slave to heroin addiction (a vice he wouldn’t overcome for a decade), turning Nellcote, the height of French aristocratic luxury, into a drug fuelled playpen for famous poets, screenwriters, record producers and unruly rocker stars. The Byrds front man Gram Parson’s was the worst offender, binging on drugs, he spent most his days either incapacitated or vehemently arguing with his girl friend. Parson’s was eventually asked to leave by fashion designer Anita Pallenberg but he did feature on the track “Sweet Virginia”.
At this point we encounter two of the biggest and most contradictory myths surrounding the Exile On Main St. recording. Firstly, there is the idea that the exiled Stones came together, partied hard and recorded a rustic album in the sweaty basement of the French mansion. The second myth states that Exile On Main St. was Keith Richards’ baby, that Jagger was a distant bit part player on Richards’ record.
Both interpretations have some validity but the truth is found somewhere in between. The Exile… sessions weren’t a back to basics band bonding experience; instead Jagger was a distant figure who dipped in and out of the Nellcote recordings. It’s an alluring illusion but this was anything but homogenous booze up with the boys.
The second myth is easier to understand. Exile On Main St. is a bluesy roots record that Mick Jagger has constantly disowned, and that in many respects represents Richards’ desire to explore earthy rock music. It was not however, Richards’ record. This was a Jagger and Richards joint production and much of the crucial work took place in Los Angeles not the south of France.
Jagger took control, recording fresh lead and backing vocals while overseeing the entire overdubbing process and even entirely re-recording certain tracks. Jagger would infuse the recordings with a broad range of influences and it was Mick’s infatuation with the Evangelical sound that led to the creation of some of the album’s best-loved tracks, including the brilliant “Shine A Light”.
The Rolling Stones emerged after eight months with a rough, cluttered and inhospitable double album. Forty years removed from its original release and Exile On Main St. is still an imposing piece of work, with its grimy production, half explored ideas and a mammoth run time.
It’s a record whose secrets have to be coaxed out, nothing is surrendered easily; charm is buried in the mire, hooks are obscured by scratchy vocals and slick guitar work is suppressed by dank arrangements and murky production. Looking back it’s completely understandable why critics in ’72, with a week to collect their thoughts, dismissed Exile… as a sludgy misfire. This is not an accessible or immediate LP.
It starts brightly enough, “Rocks Off” flies out of the gates with a classic Richards’ riff, a rollicking bar room piano line and Jagger delivering delicious one liners (“Your Mouth Don’t Move, But I Can Hear You Speak”) in a smoky drawl. From then on in the fog descends as the Stones take a sonic tour of the US from roots rock (“Sweet Virginia”) to primitive blues (Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips”, Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down”), through Evangelic rockers and laments (“Tumbling Dice”, “Shine A Light”), and, let’s not forget, a whole host of cutting edge rock and roll tracks.
The stylistic shifts are often raw and are rarely bolstered by immediate hooks. The listener instead has to invest, and with each listen a layer of grime is peeled away and the delights of this wonderfully constructed lattice cake of an album are revealed.
The delicate marriage of bare bones percussion to a reverberating acoustic riff on “Sweet Black Angel”, the bleakly spliced genre fusion of “I Just Want To See His Face’s” bustling Gospel/Jazz/beat blues, and Jagger’s heart wringing sex-sick plight on “Let It Loose” are obscured by the enormity and awkwardness of Exile…
Once you’ve delved beyond the surface, trudged through the mire and made it to Exile On Main St’s core you uncover a weary heart. This is the tale of a sex-tired band, desperately yearning and searching for direction; fleetingly clinging to women one moment, only to spurn them the next. The entire record feels old and sleazy as it lurches and veers from one sound to the next, as if The Stones are on a sonic tour of every insalubrious cesspit in the United States.
Moments of tragedy are tied to bursts of excess, in Jagger’s lyrics and in Richards’ guitar, as carefree ballroom blitzes (“Rip This Joint”) share space with subdued moments of self doubt (“Torn And Frayed”).
Exile On Main St. is the embodiment of a contradiction; it’s forward thinking and retrospective, conservative and avant-garde, basic and complex, a patchwork mess and a cohesive work, it’s Richards, and it’s Jagger, and it’s all tied together by a wonderfully weary/sleazy joie de vie (or lack there of).
Today Exile On Main St. is the triumph that it never was, it’s universally lauded by critics (beyond the ever-prescient Robert Christageau), and most importantly it’s adored by a new generation of fans. With over 500,000 sales of 2010’s latest reissue, Exile On Main St.has become the new starting point for aspiring Rolling Stones fans.
It’s still cryptic of course, and many fans are no closer to unraveling it now than they were in 1972, but that’sExile On Main St’s charm; it will always be a willfully awkward collection of tracks.
For artists today it’s an inspiration, a glorious union of the back to basic aesthetic and the hipster obsession with experimentation, combining and juxtaposing sounds old and new. Exile… is an invitation for bands to indulge themselves and to challenge their audience with complex and confounding music. Proof positive that you can create a classic album with no hit singles, and bury your greatest work and your slickest solos (“Shine A Light”) at the end of sixty woozy impenetrably minutes.
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