Friday, 21 May 2010
The Rolling Stones "Exile On Main Street" (1972) (News, Views and Music 61, Revised 2014)
“I only get my rocks off when I’m dreaming, how come I only get my rocks off when I’m sleeping?” “I want to shout, but I can hardly speak” “I’ll tell you about a craze that’s going around, everybody doing it from the woodworks down, don’t move your head, don’t move your hands, don’t move your lips, just shake your hips” “No good, can’t speak, wound up, no sleep, sky diver insider, slipped rope, no joke....all that I know I don’t understand, while the judge and jury walk out hand in hand” “This coat is torn and frayed, it’s seen much better days, but as long as the record plays it can steal your heart away” “yes I‘m fumbling and I know my car don’t start, yes I’m stumbling but I don’t play bad guitar, gimme a little drink from your loving cup! Just one drink from your loving cup!” “Always took candy from strangers, didn’t want to get me no trade” “When your spine is cracking and your hands they shake, heart is bursting and your guts done gone and break, woman’s cussing can hear her scream, feel like murder in the first degree” “I don’t want to sit and talk about Jesus, I just want to see his face” “Make every song your favourite tune” “Just a dream I watched running right on the rocks, I’ve taken all of the miles, It’s giving me the problem, I wish I’d drunk sweet water, I wish I’d never have brought ya, its gonna be the death of me!”
Rolling Stones “Exile On Main Street” (1972)
Rocks Off/Rip This Joint/Shake Your Hips/Casino Boogie/Tumbling Dice/Sweet Virginia/Torn And Frayed/Sweet Black Angel/Loving Cup/Happy/Turd On The Run/Ventilator Blues/I Just Want To See His Face/Let It Loose/All Down The Line/Stop Breaking Down/Shine A Light/Soul Survivor
You know that feeling you get sometimes leaning out the window on a moving train/plane/automobile/heck bicycle (if you're a really fast pedaller) when the world outside suddenly begins taking on a life its own; a blurred vision where everything blends together in a sea of changing colours, with all distinct shapes lost? Sometimes the effect is disorientating and all a bit too much, making you giddy - but at times it makes what would normally seem a barren landscape into something a little more interesting for a while (the way that an abstract painting will flash in front of your eyes with bright colours but actually gives you less to go on intellectually than a painting done the 'proper' way). 'Exile On Main Street' is the only audio equivalent I can really think of, an album so blurred it's the musical equivalent of those old TV series that used to put Vaseline on the cameras to suggest a 'foggy day' (or an alien planet full of ants if you're a Dr Who fan). The lyrics are hazy and often fragmentary, with the songs across this album less developed than usual and the effect is increased by a bleary-eyed Stones playing long into the night fuelled by a variety of substances, to the point where it sounds like most of 'Exile' was made in their sleep (it kinda was for Keith, with the Stones recording in the basement of his rented villa - not that the guitarist ever got around to much sleeping!) However it's the mix that truly gives 'Exile' it's blurred feel, made in a hurry when the band suddenly decided on a tour and needed something to promote and - unsure quite what to include - the band decided to throw everything into the mix. This blurry feel has created some very different re-actions from fans down the years, the main debate being is the Stones' lone blurred abstract painting in a gallery of straight forward mug shots (they never do use this album style ever again) the best example of the Stones perfecting their 'art' and taking it to the next level or is it an example of the band getting lazy and running out of ideas? The truth, as ever, lies somewhere in between (although 'both' would also be an acceptable answer AAA students!)
Of all the 500 records we review at Alan's Album Archives, 'Exile On Main Street' must be unique in how different re-actions have changed since the album's release. If you’d have stopped the average rock fan in the street in 1972, told him you’d just gone back in time from 40 years later and that the world’s media (particularly the BBC) had just gone mad with a week’s worth of programmes dedicated to the re-issue of an album which had never been deleted from catalogue, they’d have probably assumed you were talking about the real hits of that year: Neil Young’s ‘Harvest’, the posthumous fuss over Lindisfarne’s ‘Fog On The Tyne’ (released in 1971, this was the best-selling album of 1972 in Britain), the first self-titled Paul Simon album or perhaps the year’s best-selling non-compilation album T Rex’s ‘Electric Warrior’. Tell them that you’d actually gone back in time to learn more about what is now seen as the definitive Rolling Stones album and they’d have most likely scratched their head, asked ‘oh do they have a new one out?’ and wonder out loud why anyone from the future would be so interested in an album that wasn't a patch on 'Sticky Fingers'. At the time many fans actively hated 'Exile', a sprawling double record that swapped the compact clarity and inventive front cover of 'Sticky Fingers' for a muddy confusing set of impressionistic songs and a cover that seemed to be badly photocopied and stapled together. Many critics picked up on the 'laissez faire' attitude of the album and - even though being rude to your fanbase was a major part of what the Rolling Stones did back then - took umbrage at just how badly put together this record was. However time has been kind to this record: there's a lot going on underneath the surface, which is unusual for the Stones, and the fact that we can now see this album as a one-off experiment outside the usual pattern makes it more interesting than it seemed at the time when the world wanted the band to sound the same. Most fans take this as the last great Stones album - we don't quite agree (that's the under-rated 'Goat's Head Soup', coming up next) but it is most certainly the last time that the Stones tried to make something that differed in any significant way from whatever the last album had been. Exiled and ex-communicated as it is from the band's usual discography, 'Main Street' is the rebel hero of the band's back catalogue and is inevitably going to seem more interesting than a copycat album like, say, 'Rolling Stones no 2'. But that still doesn't answer the question all our reviews try to answer: is it any good?
‘Exile’ will never be my favourite Stones record, it doesn't feature any of my all-time top favourite Stones songs and its certainly not the album of theirs I play the most (regular readers of this site will know by now how much I keep banging on about the band’s under-rated psychedelic albums being the best), but at the same time I can see why it has as many adoring admirers as it does. While other Stones records tend to have two or three great career enhancing songs and then tend to coast a bit, this one is full of an awful lot of very good songs, with only 'Sweet Black Angel' truly awful. Perhaps best of all it's the one album where Mick and Keith are truly equal partners, both bringing their own unique brand of mischief to each song: there has never been a Stones song more fully in tune with Keith's philosophy than 'Happy'; equally songs like 'Let It Loose' and 'Rip This Joint' ably show off both sides of the Jagger swagger - the slow weepie ands the raucous rocker. Moreover the pair sing together round the same microphone on a good two-thirds of this record and Mick's macho posing combined with Keith's falsetto nagging is a particularly delightful combination here: 'Loving Cup' may well be the best sung Stones song by either of them. Of all the band's records is the one that feels most complete, the album with so much stuffed on it that all facets of the Stones’ personality are here, the closest the band ever came to aping The White Album, albeit one mixed with less care and time (although at 67 minutes it's actually only the equivalent of three sides' worth of material: why was the generally excellent material left unreleased from this album and only issued on CD in 2012 left of this record? I could also have nominated 27 lesser minutes from this album to throw away easily, in which case this would easily have been the best Stones release of them all!) The rest of the band, playing all in one room and bouncing off each other just like the olden days, are also in cracking form: Charlie booms, Mick Taylor soars and Bill Wyman holds the whole thing together quietly, as ever (with horn player and 'seventh Stone' - the sixth being Ian Stewart - Bobby Keyes at his best throughout the album too In other words, it makes perfect sense that 'Exile' is a fan's favourite: if the band's records came as teabags this one would be marked 'extra strong'. ). If this is the band in exile then we should think about kicking them out more often!
Then again, it's hard to see why everybody seems to have gone mad for this record so suddenly - especially people who don't actually like the Stones that much. This is a comparatively shy and quiet Stones album, without the fireworks of other albums and whose 'major controversy' alarm only goes off thanks to some badly misguided lyrics and a patois accent on African-American solidarity track 'Sweet Black Angel' and the record's really off-putting packaging which doesn't so much scream 'a classic' as 'a classic rip-off'! (Collages of some really scary photographs that have to be seen to be believed, from the demented looking man with three satsumas in his mouth and the English hunter with a primus stove to the midget conductor and the half-man half-dog, just four among 30 equally off-puttingly gruesome and grimy Victoriana postcards of circus freaks that suit this album's rebellious spirit but not it's blurred pathos or weary power). 'Exile's closest claim to fame is 'Tumbling Dice', an under-rated single that didn't sell that well and which many critics and fans profess not to like (though I've always had a soft spot for it). While this record has many fine melodies, they're of the sort that only form in your sub-conscious after several playings: there's nothing instantly hummable here, which is a good 50% of the reasons why most classic records are as loved as they are. 'Exile' doesn't even manage the other key reason an album becomes loved: there's nothing to link this record to 1972, the only politics being the deeply suspect ones of 'Sweet Black Angel' - everything else here could have been recorded in any era (which might be why this album wasn't immediately taken by the generation of 1972 as one of it's own). It’s as if the Stones are intent on damning everything about the world around them in 1972: the bright world of colour television is replaced by eye-hurting monochrome; the carefree fun and bounce of glam rock is given over to serious blues and an emphasis on the darkness of life and the crystal-clear production values so beloved of all rock stars in the early 70s has been replaced by a murky muddy sound that makes even this most eclectic collection of material sound all the same and lyrics that aren't dark so much as tired and grumpy. ‘Exile’ is the epitome of the Stones rejecting everything their public have come to expect of them in 1972 – and yet it’s very defiance and dangerous subject matters are what we most fondly remember the band for in 2017. Even the band don’t seem to agree about this album’s merits: whereas Keith quite happily talks about this album being the pinnacle of the Stones’ career, Mick Jagger all but hates it, continually scratching his head in interviews over why this album out of the whole Stones catalogue should be plump for a revival.
This album was famously recorded on the run from the establishment – or the taxman at least – and was the first of many albums in the 70s recorded in another country for no other reason than to avoid paying high amounts of money to the country they’d been happily staying in for most of the past decade (see the torrid tale of The Beach Boys’ Holland the following year, if you feel up to it). To be fair to the Stones, out of all the bands on this list they were probably the ones who got ripped off the most throughout the 60s, due to a combination of their managers Andrew Loog Oldham and Allen Klein and if Bill Wyman’s detailed autobiography ‘Stone Alone’ is anything to go by the band had less money in the bank in 1972 than their roadies did. While 'Sticky Fingers' was the real start of the band's escape from Decca,‘Exile’ was the first record made from scratch after the protracted legal wrangles getting rid of Klein was over – their ex-manager, appointed by Loog Oldham but not the band, actually got more money from their music than they did. Income tax was also at its peak in Britain in 1972 – or at least the peak for all the 1960s AAA bands: 83 pence in the pound, leaving the band highly in debt to the Inland Revenue, forcing the band temporarily out of the country as they began to make 'proper' money for the first time. Nobody seems to quite remember why the band chose France: it may just have been practicalities as the country nearest Britain, or it might have been Bianca Jagger's cosmopolitan links. Either way the Stoners became (self-made) exiles for the making of this record and most of 1972, living in various locations dotted around the South Of France (chaotic last-minute arrangements meant that the band were scattered hundreds of miles away from each other, with poor Bill and Charlie getting off worst with a very long commute to work every day). The band famously recorded most of this album in Keith Richards’ basement at Nellcote in the searing heat, with an extractor fan (celebrated in 'Ventilator Blues') had to be turned on whenever the band weren't working and turned back off again whenever the tapes began to roll. This romantic image of the band all together in a foreign clime might well have much to do with this album's renaissance in the 21st century (it makes for a good story), but like all good stories it's become a bit 'embellished' down the years. Actually a good third of this record was recorded in London’s Olympic Studios during the sessions for previous LP ‘Sticky Fingers’ and the band simply did what they've always done ever since their second album - pick through the discarded bones of their last project to find inspiration for the next. Whatever the true history, this album does sound like it was recorded in just one place with the band jamming night after night – overdubs are kept to a minimum, the band are for the most part in the same room at the same time and it’s easy to see how many of these songs were formed after endless jam sessions with Jagger and Richards selecting the best bits for their new opus.
The circumstances - the financial wrangles across 1971, the long commute, Keith reportedly staying up for four days at a time to get the work he wanted done while the rest of the band came and went - might explain why the band sound so tired for so much of the album. The Stones often had a slightly lethargic swampy sound in this period of 1968-73 (the records they made with producer Jimmy Miller), a sound quite unlike any other uptempo rock band of the era (compare this to an adrenalin-filled Who record of the era, for instance, and the differences are striking), but 'Exile' is where feeling a bit sleepy is turned into an art form. Nearly every song runs slower than it reasonably should, Mick slurs practically every lyric to the point where I still don't have a clue what half of the words on this album actually are and songs like 'Ventilator Blues' (a stoned stream of consciousness apparently caused by insomnia) and 'Torn and Frayed' (a peculiar country-rock ballad about the 'problems' on the narrator's mind) are the band at their lowest; ready to drop and admitting how they've all 'seen much better days'. The other half of the coin though is that they can all drop into line 'whenever the guitars play' - much of this album is about the band venting their weariness before suddenly finding inspiration again and this conversation lasts for most of the album, from 'Rocks Off' heading for an overload of ideas to the 'Soul Survivor' who finds himself the last man standing when everyone else has either Od'd, left the party or gone to bed, complaining 'I'm the sole survivor - and it's gonna be the death of me!'
However, that makes it sound as if ‘Exile’ is a cohesive masterpiece, with the same sonic template delivered by a cooking band in lots of different ways and great as parts of it are 'Exile' most decidedly doesn't offer any of that nonsense. Thematically, ‘Exile’ is a sprawling mess more akin to ‘The White Album’ than, say, ‘Quadrophenia’ and heard out of context these songs could have appeared on any Stones album to date: there isn't even the half-theme the band use on so many of their other 70s LPs. What really makes the difference is the band’s performances: Charlie Watts’ drums cut through the murk like never before (some joker seems to think they’re the only sound that matters in the 1980s and insists on mixing them right up high – whereas here they sit on top of the band sound without over-powering it), Bill Wyman’s always under-rated bass runs reach a consistent high (or at least they do on the tracks he actually plays – it’s easy to see where Keith’s inferior playing replaces it on the finished cut) and Brian Jones’ replacement and Ronnie Wood’s predecessor Mick Taylor provides some of the best guitar work ever heard on a Stones album. Mick Jagger may well be at his best here too, barking out the lyrics with a growl that’s deeper and more deadly than on most other Stones albums and with a commitment that puts paid to the idea that during the album sessions he was only a causal bystander. This album is arguably Keith Richards’ grand statement, though, with more guitar than ever before and a full range of Keith’s styles from Chuck Berry-style basic rock to country pedal steel (this is the period he was busy befriending ex-Byrd Gram Parsons who may well be on this album un-credited given that he spent more time in Keith’s villa than Keith did in 1972) to that sort of bluesy rocky slurry tone unique to the band in this early 70s period. Keith dominates the writing of this album in a way never heard before or since – and gets more vocals than usual in this period too – probably because it was recorded in his house with Keith able to work all hours on his grand project (alas the cocaine addiction that gave him the energy to do this will have all but taken him over a couple of albums later). However Mick had a lot to do with this record too and overall 'Exile' may well be the last great 'band' album the Stones make until at least 1978, possibly 1989, with Keith at the peak of his powers before his slow slide into drug-addled nonchalance.
So is ‘Exile On Main Street’ the band’s great masterpiece? Even putting aside my love of The Stones’ 1966-68 period, you have to say that ‘Exile’ is far from the Stones’ best. There are some songs that really don’t work – even given the Stones’ usual penchance for ruining classic albums with a single hideous song (see Satanic Majesties’ ‘Sing This All Together’, Beggar’s Banquet’s ‘Dear Doctor’ and Some Girls’ ‘Faraway Eyes’ in particular) ‘Exile’ has a higher quotient than normal of chaff filtered through with the wheat. 'Sweet Black Angel' has already been given a rough ride on here, but so it should: seriously a band with that much of a love for and respect for black American music shouldn't have been doing this sort of thing still in 1962, never mind 1972. 'Rip This Joint' is a dangerous precedent for all the Stones' records from the 1980s and 1990s that nearly all try to sound like this unfocused rock nonsense recorded better by a million better bands down the years. 'Sweet Virginia' is yet another Godawaful Stones country-rock song, not as bad as 'Dead Flowers' and 'Faraway Eyes' but still wrong enough to ask you how it got through quality control (Gram Parsons, country-rock legend, surely laughed the band out the room when he heard the playback, with only Jagger's drawl anywhere near authentic). Given how lovely some of the outtakes from this album are you have to ask: why? The Stones were generally rather good judges of their own material, so why did they pass over the finished-sounding gorgeous ballad 'Following The River', say, for any one of these misfires? Even the worth of songs like ‘Casino Boogie’ and ‘All Down The Line’, promising songs with intriguing lyrics, gets lost somewhere in the album's offhand performances and overall murk - they should sound bright and sparky, not blurry and slurry (the band would have been better off remixing both and arguably a lot more and returning to them for the next record, as was their usual method of working).
Those are all my reasons for telling you why 'Exile On Main Street' is not the world's greatest album, never mind the world's greatest Stones album, despite what so many people have been saying recently. But there's still plenty about this album to love: the gradual falling-over of 'Rocks Off' (a band that tries so hard to wake itself up from its lethargy that it collapses into an exhausted reverie by the end), the soft-shoe-shuffle gambling song 'Tumbling Dice', the delicate 'Torn and Frayed', the sultry soft-loud duel 'Loving Cup', Keith's bouncy signature tune 'Happy', the fascinating weary and fed up experiment 'Ventilator Blues', the groovy voodoo-ish 'I Just Wanna See His Face' and the stream-of-consciousness 'Casino Boogie'. Eight really strong and very different songs would be more than enough for most albums and is actually pretty good odds for most AAA albums. However the album's trouble is that this is an 18 track album, not a 12 track one, with all that good work getting largely undone by the less interesting songs surrounding these gems. While less consistent and less memorable than either of the two albums that sandwich it ('Sticky Fingers' and the under-rated 'Goat's Head Soup'), 'Exile' has many things going for it compared to these two: the strong band performances, the unusual blurry texture unique to this album and some very interesting ideas that prove how much the Stones still had left to give in the years before they fell into self-parody. There are better albums around, more deserving of the 'classic albums' tag - but this is a good album even so, one that delivers up more and more to the listener each time they hear it and allow themselves to get carried away by Exile's hypnotic grooves.
One final word before we move onto the songs. We don't often harp on about what format you lot need to listen to these albums. For a start there aren't many AAA albums I've owned on every one of the main four formats as of 2014 anyway (vinyl, cassette, CD, MP3), but I also fully believe that if an album is really good it will work whatever format you own it on: a tens-of-thousands-of-pounds hi-fi system with your own personal DJ or a battered worn out vinyl somebody once stood on - if a piece of music 'works' it will do so oblivious of what circumstances you hear it in (there's a story that The Beatles used to play every single of theirs using a vinyl acetate on a beaten up record player in mono to check they would sound 'powerful' enough to listeners who only had poor equipment or could only pick up distorted off-station mono radio broadcasts). 'Exile' is one of our rare exceptions. Generally speaking upgrading vinyl copies to CD is a good idea - they take up less space and CD either works or it doesn't, while a vinyl record is effectively in a state of deterioration from the day you buy it unless you take extra care. We could get into an argument about CD remixes never being an exact replica and no doubt we will some other time soon (it's the equivalent of having identical twins - while casual people might not see any difference at all the better you know someone the more differences between them you can tell), but by and large CD mixes tend to improve sound: they take away the tape hiss from the original recordings, give the songs a spit and polish and offer a useful chance to correct any mistakes in the original mix ( engineers are only human, though their final decisions effectively mean playing God with music and setting recordings into stone). All worthy ideals that work for 99.9% of all the records you will ever want to own - but hopelessly wrong in the case of 'Exile', a record that demands to be heard on a beaten up piece of crackly vinyl. Every time the band remix it and re-issue it on CD it seems to lose a bit more of its lustre, to the point where in about 50 years' time 'Exile' is in danger of sounding like every other Stones album out there. Please for goodness sake stop giving this brilliantly dirty scruffy album an aural bath - there are already plenty of Stones records out there that sound too clean for their own good; a bit of grit and dirt never hurt anyone (this is, after all, a band named after a song by 'Muddy Waters'!) Rant over it's on to...
 ‘Rocks Off’ is the album’s opening track and already the band are playing with our heads. Like most of ‘Between The Buttons’ this track is a sheep in wolf’s clothing, but unlike that 1967 album’s ballads-posing-as-angry-rockers, nasty-rockers-posing-as-sweet-ballads ‘Rocks Off’ is an energetic, all singing all dancing song about how low on energy the narrator is. In fact ‘Rocks Off’ is a classic fed-up blurred rocker in the ‘Satisfaction’ mode, with the narrator fed up and grumpy rather than angry. ‘Rocks Off’s classic line is ‘I want to shout, but I can barely speak’ and that sums up this song’s slow-footed adrenalin rush perfectly: the swampy mix and slow tempo belies the energy that Jagger in particular pours into this song, complaining of overload and going numb to a tune that is played with more energy than any Stones song in years. Jagger’s vocal is one of his very best and must surely have hurt his throat badly with the sudden switches between slurred tiredness on the verses and outright screaming on the choruses. The melody line, which starts low and then builds up in pitch almost line by line as the song gets goings is excellent, ratcheting the tension up until the narrator is forced to scream at the top of his lungs how he can ‘only get my rocks off when I’m dreaming’. The song perfectly encapsulates the rush and mania of the Stones in the late 60s/early 70s with tour after album after tour and how badly the band need a rest. Of course, this being the Stones, there’s plenty of sexual tension in the lyrics too, with the chorus doubling as a pained paean to the narrator’s love life and how he can only find satisfaction during his dreams. One of the very best songs on this album, ‘Rocks Off’ is an under-rated and actually quite complex song that also makes a fine theme song for chronic fatigue syndrome!
 ‘Rip This Joint’ is another high energy song, but given such a murky and impenetrable mix that it sounds equally blurry and tired at times. It’s easy to imagine the Stones grouped together in Keith’s basement taking several runs at this song and revisiting their early days as a basic rock band – except, of course, unlike most bands on this list, the Stones started their career with blues cover not rock and rollers and only started getting into copying Chuck Berry once they won their record contract with Decca. There’s nothing that special or particular inventive about ‘Rip This Joint’, it’s just a two minute burst of rock and roll from a band getting back to their roots that is badly served by the production mess: this is the one song on this album above the others that needs to be crystal clear and powerful. As it is, it sounds a bit of a mess and trying to hear what Jagger’s singing becomes irritating rather than fascinating, even if its fun to hear the Stones singing an original that sounds like a 1950s rock and roll standard.
 ‘Shake Your Hips’ is, ironically, an old cover updated to sound contemporary. This Slim Harpo blues cover is highly suited to the Stones’ hypnotic trance-like productions in this period, repeating the same plucked-out simple riff and tap-tap drum pattern over and over while a particularly murky-sounding Jagger tells us how to dance. If you’re not a fan of the Stones you’ll positively hate this song where the whole point is the repetition and the slow succumbing of the listener to the groove, but if you’re a fan this is the sort of thing you’ll have always wanted to hear: Jagger at his most seductive, Keith at his most bald and Mick Taylor really given space to fly with the lyrical guitar solo. For once this album’s sparse production makes this song sound better than it actually is, with the feeling that the band really are in your living room and bouncing off the walls, warts and all, although alas this not-quite three minute song ends just at the point when it’s becoming really interesting (did one of the band make a mistake? Surely there’s no other reason for building up to such a crescendo and then not giving us the pay off!) I’m surprised this song didn’t stay longer in the Stones’ live catalogue too as it sounds tailor made to audience seduction, with enough room for Keith to show off his guitar chops and enough space for Mick to show off than he can actually still move his hips.
 ‘Casino Boogie’, however, positively drowns under the weight of the production values. This is a lyrical, Dylan-ish song that sounds more like a Brian Jones-era piece than a 70-s one, married to a basic good time groove the Stones made their own back when. However, the song is clearly born out of Keith’s problems in 1972 with drugs, tax problems (‘a million dollars sad’), work (‘fame is getting me twitchy – got no time on my hands’) and maybe even guilt at Brian Jones’ death and the ever popular Stones past-time of swapping girlfriends. Just take a look at the opening line: ‘no good, can’t speak, wound up, can’t sleep’; this isn’t a rock God talking to us here but a very fragile human being pouring their heart out into a song. On face value this song is the usual Stones swagger, but the more you get to know this album the more it sounds like the dropping of the charade, with Jagger and Richards’ vocals all but left bare for the first part of the song and sounding very isolated, before the band kick in and Keith gets to channel his frustration in the epitome of all fed-up guitar solos, lurching from one idea to the other just like the brain the narrator can’t keep still. It’s most certainly not a ‘boogie’ as the sarcastic title tells us – it sounds like the people bankrupted at the casino having a consolation party afterwards rather than any real celebration. A special mention for the saxophone passage by Bobby Keys, overdubbed in a studio in Britain at a later date. Now I’m not usually a big fan of saxophones in rock music – if you’re not 100% committed a saxophone solo in the middle of a song inevitably makes it sound like MOR and if you are out on the edge then the last thing you want to hear is an instrument categorised with cocktails and lounging. But for some reason this passage really works in this song, emphasising the fed-up qualities in a song which in other people’s hands would come out sounding like a slow ballad but here sounds like a mournful goodbye performed by a band doing everything in their power to overturn the decision.
[157a] ‘Tumbling Dice’ is the album’s best known track – indeed, considering this album’s status as a classic album its strange to admit it’s probably the only track that people who don’t own this album might know. Like the album, this single brought a very mixed response when it came out as its hardly the most immediate song the band ever put out – but if you give way to its innocuous groove and accept that you can’t always hear the lyrics this is a very lovely song indeed. Like many a song on this album it’s loosely related to money and gambling, but this time its about the randomness that life throws up every time you take a step forwards and have to wait for fate to throw the dice to decide how well your latest romance/job/life change will work. Like the last track, this is a song born out of frustration – unusual for the Stones but obviously rooted in all the tax and managerial problems they had in this period and were out of their hands. Again the track tries to fool us with its gentle and very Stonesy riff and its lyrics about ‘I don’t worry’, but don’t believe a word of it: the slow tempo and the hidden messages in the words makes it clear that this is a very downbeat song indeed. Mick Jagger turns in another sterling vocal, barking his head off at the fates for giving him such a low deal without ever sinking to self-pity or self-caricature as he so often does on the albums after this, although interestingly given the fragile lyrics most rock critics agree this song is predominantly Keith’s work. The production murk is toned down here, perhaps because the band intended this to be the album’s spin-off single from the beginning, but it’s still a little too echoey and confusing for this song which really needs to hit the narrator (and us) in the stomach. The use of female backing singers is another questionable choice – this sorry-for-itself song needs to be isolated and troubled, not dressed up to sound grand I think. Still, this song is another sterling effort with a really detailed and moving set of lyrics about troubled circumstances coupled with one of the band’s better Chuck Berry-like riffs. Most commentators today will tell you it’s the worst thing on the album but don’t listen – this song’s gentle seduction is a delight.
 ‘Sweet Virginia’, however, is truly horrible. The song that kicks off side two of the album – which Keith later described as the ‘listen to late at night side’ – is just too far removed from the typical Stones sound. It’s the latest in a long line of poor country songs, ones that are scuppered not by their genre but because the band can’t decide between them whether to treat the genre as seriously as rock or take the piss out of it. Jagger treats this song more seriously than most, perhaps because this is one of the few Stones originals in the country mould rather than covers, but his false American accent is irritating, particularly given that the swampy mix makes it even harder to work out what he’s singing. The lyrics have nothing really to say being yet another song in the where-did-it-go-wrong-and-can-we-start-again mode: a throwaway line about scraping shit off shoes would have been quite brave then but sounds silly now and is about the only one most Stones fans can name. The band also sound drunk on the performance, with even the usually reliable Charlie Watts sounding less than his reliable self. AAA fans might wish to note that Small Faces bassist Ronnie Lane made this song a regular in concerts of the 1970s – a live version can be heard on the compilation ‘How Come’, although to be honest it’s not any improvement on this sorry original.
 ‘Torn and Frayed’ is probably my favourite track on the album, summing up this album’s strengths (a blurry tightness unique to this album) as already heard but with none of this album’s weaknesses (it’s slapdashness). This is another song that’s hard to hear but seems to sum up perfectly the situation behind this record: comparing the Stones to a coat Jagger’s narrator tells us how the band’s been around for a few years now but as long as all the musicians can keep it together they can still move people just like they used to. And I’m not going to disagree: this spooky song is an arrangement masterpiece, with both Richards and Taylor trading guitar lines over an organ riff by Nicky Hopkins keeping the band tied to the mothership. Best of all is the pedal steel part played by Manassas legend Al Perkins (see review no 50) which is about the happiest pedal steel part I’ve ever heard. In fact come to think of it, this song about solidarity in the face of trouble is the happiest song on the album by some margin, with even a few comedy lines thrown in about life in Keith’s villa (‘Now, whose going to help in the kitchen?’ sings Jagger at one point). Even here though there’s quite a few moments of doubt, with the guitar player ‘getting restless’ (Keith’s drug withdrawals or an early sign of Mick Taylor leaving the band?) and the long fade-out desperately repeating ‘just as long as the guitar plays’ like a mantra, as if the band are working really hard at keeping things together.
Most of ‘Exile On Main Street’ is timeless – or at least it is for a Stones album, most of which are firmly rooted to the decade of their birth, one of the many reasons why its this album that has trounced this album in ‘greatest album’ polls over the past two decades. But next track  ‘Sweet Black Angel’ really puts quite a few feet wrong: it’s meant to be a song about black radical Angela Davis who was given a quite ridiculous jail sentence for getting roped up in the Black Panther power movement. Alas, some of the lyrics of this track prove that the Stones really didn’t get what they were singing about – even in jest lines like ’10 little n***ers sitting on the wall’ are missing the point about Angela and her colleagues’ demands for equality, especially when sung by Jagger in a bad Jamaican accent. Many Stones songs are tongue-in-cheek but I honestly don’t think this is one – it’s much maligned chorus lines of ‘she’s a sweet black angel, not a gun toting teacher, won’t somebody free her?’ sound perfectly genuine and Keith’s harmony vocal has a definite edge on this track that Jagger’s doesn’t have. The world has moved on since 1972, though, and you just couldn’t get away with a half-hearted message song like this today. John Lennon too spoke out on her behalf on his ‘Sometime In New York City’ album of the same year which is just as bad as this track with it’s twee politics (‘Angela, you’re one of millions of political prisoners in the world’ – well, who’d’ve’ thought it?!) A truly unique song in the Stones’ canon – the only political song about an individual that isn’t one of the band, this song’s only vague cousin is 1984’s ‘Undercover Of The Night’ – and that song’s more about people making noise and not doing anything; this is crying out about somebody doing something and getting in trouble for it, something the Stones knew all about after their various drugs convictions in the 70s.
Luckily [161a] ‘Loving Cup’ is much better, another of the album’s highlights and another in the Stones’ canon that is one song masquerading as something else. The song starts with a delightful flowery passage from band aide Nicky Hopkins whose work on throughout this album is as excellent as ever, the perfect foil to the Stones’ nasty side. Most of this song becomes a sweet ballad, albeit one played with Charlie Watts’ drums mixed up loud, and it appears at first that the narrator is keeping to his promises of being a gentlemen and letting a relationship flow to its own slow natural path. However, the chorus line seems to cut in from nowhere as the narrator cries lustily ‘gimme a little drink from your loving cup!’ This exciting little chorus then gets even more inventive when after slowing down into a full stop and going back to the melody of the verse it suddenly kicks in again: ‘just one drink from your loving cup!’ This is, you see, a song about addiction no matter how well the narrator tries to hide his true feelings, although like many a song on ‘Exile’ it’s probably more about relationships in the band than a loving one: ‘I’m stumbling, but I don’t play bad guitar’ sounds like another of Keith’s diary entries from this period, warning the band how much the drugs have taken hold. The ‘loving cup’ in this interpretation is the music itself: goodness knows the band must have tempted to knock the Stones on the head, especially after the fall of The Beatles and their own problems throughout the late 60s, but this song and several others on this album sound like the band re-discovering their drive and hunger and perhaps each other: the line ‘I’d love to spill the beans with you till dawn’ is one of the kindest things Mick or Keith ever wrote, even if this jagged cry from the heart is hardly a love song in the classic sense.
 ‘Happy’ is Keith’s only lead vocal on the album suggesting he must have been close to it (there is a version on bootleg of Mick singing lead – which doesn’t appear to be on the CD re-issue sadly – which sounds far more polished and finished than this take and indeed you can hear an extract from it at the fadeout of this take). ‘Happy’ does appear to be Keith’s philosophy on life: compared to Mick Keith is naturally seen as a downbeat, loner figure by The Stones but if something good is happening in his life, be it the band or his latest romance, then he can’t wait to get out of bed an celebrate it. However, even this seemingly upbeat song comes at a price: the chorus could run ‘I need a love to be happy’ but here its ‘I need a love to keep me happy’ – Keith’s only too aware of how fleeting happiness can be and this song is continually switching between happy major and sad minor keys, as if the narrator is glancing over his shoulder to make sure sadness isn’t following him close by. There are lots of other ambiguous lines here too: the allure of the Stones and their lifestyle, as heard in the last track, has now become a nasty self-centred philosophy (‘always took candy from strangers, never wanted to get me no trade’). Hearing the band fade out on the line ‘happy’, repeated over and over on a minor chord that won’t resolve itself, is one of the most unsettling passages on any Stones record. As a result, ‘Happy’ is a troubling song, telling us something while hiding the truth and unlike the other Stones songs that pull the same trick it doesn’t so much make you go ‘that’s clever’ as ‘that’s creepy’. AAA favourite and Stones fan Nils Lofgren, who came close to joining the band instead of Ronnie Wood in 1976, covered this song on his album of that year ‘Night Fades Away’, as if to prove how good he could have sounded in the band, but sadly takes the song at face value, slowing the tempo down but making it sound far more upbeat.
 ‘Turd On The Run’ is, despite its unfortunate name, one of the very best songs on the album yet one that almost every other commentator on this album misses out. ‘Run’ is a fast-paced yet sinister rocker that really does sound like the band trapped in the studio and laying down a groove before they can go home. The song barely moves off the one chord (and it sounds like one of the most overpowering parts of the album when they finally do 90 seconds in) but is still one of the most exciting songs the Stones ever did. The guitars are meshing together nicely, Jagger gets out his old harmonica with one of the best solos he ever played even counting his 60s triumphs and Wyman and Watts are driving the song forward at full propulsion. You still can’t hear the lyrics that well but when you decipher them they become a sweet little retro triumph about a loser putting all his energies into one relationship that takes his life over and is everything he dreamed about but falls apart really quickly (and, depending how you read the lyrics, ends up giving him a sexually transmitted disease so he can’t enjoy the next lover on his list either). Coming after no less than seven ambiguous and – for The Stones – slow songs on the trot this song is perfect at upping the energy levels and is a testament to whoever planned the running order for the album. Jagger clearly has fun re-creating his 1960s persona too, with lots of shouts and screams not heard for a long time on a Stones longplayer, although its Mick Taylor’s entrance halfway through the song, mimicking Keith’s Chuck Berry-ish riff but with a more fluid style, that makes the song. A definite success which has been overlooked for far too long.
 ‘Ventilator Blues’ sounds like an even heavier version of ‘Casino Boogie’, if that’s possible. This is another of Keith’s everything’s-going-wrong-songs of the period but things sound even scarier and more futile than before. The list of grievances in the first verse of what his body is going through – presumably from heavy drugs – is truly scary, while the line about committing ‘first degree murder’ because his woman doesn’t stop being nasty to him sounds real, rather than tongue-in-cheek like many of The Stones’ blues rip-offs. What’s perhaps most scary is the ungrammatical way the lyrics go, as if the narrator can’t think straight any more and, together with Charlie Watts’ head-crashing cymbals when we’re least expecting it, sounds like the migraine/hangoverfrom hell. Mick excels at the depth of the song he’s been given to sing, growling at the very bottom of his register, while the band find the slow pace of the song really suits the pace of the song. However, the band run out of steam early on, merely repeating the verse-chorus-verse-chorus structure without giving us any surprises, although the monotony of the song does have a certain appeal too. Certainly the ending, with Mick’s mournful and defeatist ‘can’t find it, can’t fight it’, sticks in the throat. The title and throwaway lyrics in the last verse refer to the ventilator in Keith’s basement which on some recordings is meant to have drowned out the musicians struggling to play and some sharp-eared listeners have picked up on this final take, although I can’t say I’ve ever heard it myself.
The song then blends into the third strong song on the trot with the often overlooked  ‘I Just Want To See His Face’. Another song that’s truly unique in the Stones canon, this stream of consciousness song merges gospel with voodoo, with a scary and hypnotic bass/keyboard riff overdubbed with Mick Jagger sounding like he’s singing down a tunnel and a choir of crystal clear female voices joining in with him. One of the better songs about religion in the AAA archives, this song rattles on for a good minute before Mick finally stops scat singing and tells us straight: with so much wrong in his life it would give him strength to know that there’s a grand design for his life and that its not in vain. Unwilling to hear what the religious leaders have to say or debate the finer points of Christianity, the narrator tells us how he ‘just wants to see his face’ and know that something is out there. Mick even borrows from the earlier Stones hit ‘Everybody Needs Somebody To Love’, turning the track into a kind of anti-gospel, with the heavenly-sounding singers joining in about how much stronger their faith could be if they could just see Jesus’ faith and didn’t have to rely on his word. A truly spooky song, with Charlie Watts working overtime on all the percussion overdubs, this is a milestone of a track, the inventive likes of which won’t be seen again on a Stones album until 1981’s gorgeous and equally fragmented ‘Heaven’.
 ‘Let It Loose’ is most critic’s favourite song on ‘Exile’ but I can’t say it does a lot for me: the tune meanders like many on this album, but sounds mighty close to something familiar instead of being unique to the Stones and the lyrics are nothing special. The only truly inventive part of this song is the horn part, which is indeed beautiful and completely out of left-field for the band, but that’s small pickings for a song that obviously tries hard to be the epic on the album. For the most part this song is a ‘Let It Be’ retread, with a walking pace ballad filled with gospel images and another gospel choir all tied together by Nicky Hopkins on the organ. The lyrics are generally agreed to be Mick having second thoughts about his society wedding to model Bianca, now that so many of his close friends have come to him to warn him about her, but that could just be the usual writer’s prop and not based on truth as such. Say what you will about this album but once you get beyond the murky production values its never boring – except for this unwelcome track.
 ‘All Down The Line’ is no classic either, despite re-instating Charlie Watts to the forefront of the band’s sound and trying once again to sound like an early 60s outtake. There’s nothing bad about this track by any means, its just that it has nothing new to say: you know exactly when the track is going to change key, when the guitar solo is going to kick in and to the milli-second how long the interminable chorus is going to last. Amazingly this pretty but rather nothing track was considered to be the band’s first single on their own record label instead of the (admittedly equally awful and tasteless but much more commercial) resulting single ‘Brown Sugar’. It also predates the album sessions by some 18 months, having been wisely passed over for inclusion on the ‘Sticky Fingers’ record.
You may have noticed a definite running out of steam during the latter stages of this album. Certainly, if I had my way, I’d know what songs to trim to cut this album down to a single one – and one of the first to go would be the weak Robert Johnson cover  ‘Stop Breaking Down’. While Robert Johnson’s bluesy original is seductive, pleading and ear-catching (and the Stones’ own re-write ‘Break It Down’ on 1989’s Steel Wheels isn’t far behind), the Stones’ version just passes you by in a swirl of out of tune harmonica, grungy guitar and Mick Jagger singing by numbers. This is another song dating from 1970 and apparently added to the album in order to fill up enough room to make it a double (but as it is at 68 minutes ‘Exile On Main Street’ must be one of the shortest double album ever released). The band cook up a storm in the second half of the song, mainly courtesy of Mick Taylor’s George Harrison-esque steel guitar solo, but never really takes off.
 ‘Shine A Light’ is more gospel from The Stones, this time sung straight and so strange is the change in direction that it rather takes you by surprise – never before did we expect to hear a Stone sing ‘may the good Lord shine a light on you’. Mick is obviously genuinely moved, though, writing one of his best love songs which is all the better for the sense of wonder and awe he induces in the listener while gazing at his beloved and wondering how she came to choose him. Mick’s opening line, about staggering from a busy day to find the person of his dreams quietly waiting for him in ‘hotel room 1009’ is perfectly cast, although his vocal gets rather swamped by the band and the backing singers later in the song. His advice to her – and us – to ‘make every song your favourite tune’ has become something of an anthem for Stones fans too and is a rare instance of an upbeat, positive tune on this troubled double. Most fans adore this song and it was even added to the band’s set lists during the last ‘Bigger Bang’ tour, but while the lyrics are indeed pretty special the tune can’t match them and its hard to work out where the song is going. The murky production doesn’t help either, although strangely the girl choir sound perfectly clear, just to rub in how backward recording techniques were at Keith’s basement. Unusually, this is one song the band play better in the 21st century than they did at the time – or is it just the production getting in the way of this album again?
The album ends on a positive at long last with the troubled  ‘Soul Survivor’ which follows the album trick of couching its real meanings in sound. This song speaks about survival for the most part, of overcoming obstacles and getting away with it, but suddenly in comes that troubled chorus line ‘its gonna be the death of me!’ So what we have here is a song from a guitarist who knows he’s gotten away with skirting with death a few too many times and isn’t prepared to go down quietly – but all the hoohah the lifestyle causes is slowing him down and wearing him out. If we take this song as autobiographical – and it might not be - Keith is apparently afraid of going out with a whimper rather than bang as he wants – and as his friend/rival Brian Jones did in 1969 despite appearances to the contrary of him slowly fading away over time. Cue one of the album’s more angst ridden tracks, with a backwards version of the familiar Stones Satisfaction/Start Me Up et al riff, with enough unexpected surprises and trapdoors to keep us guessing about the song to the end.
So, soggy mess or aural masterpiece? Well, as ever, ‘Exile On Main Street’ is a bit of both. What’s surprised me most about this album’s revival in the past two decades is how un-Stones parts of it is, with the album largely unique to the Stones canon (although 1967’s ‘Between The Buttons’ can be seen as an early try at giving us a kind of inverted Stones album, one that sounds familiar on first listen but reveals all sorts of shifting feelings on further hearings). Having written this site for a while its probably fair to say that there is some sort of a pattern emerging: most classic albums as loved worldwide tend to be unified, however disparate their parts may be (‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ is the obvious choice), have very little filler (‘Revolver’ or ‘Smile’ are about the closest we get to date), fit the time and surroundings of their release perfectly (‘Sgt Peppers’) and sound like the band’s usual formula times 1000, whether by production, accident or design (‘Who’s Next). ‘Exile On Main Street manages to be a ‘classic album’ without ever really embracing any of these ideas – it’s not that unified (although parts of it do link together – namely Keith’s ‘worried’ songs), it’s not that consistent (any album with ‘Sweet Virginia’ and ‘Sweet Black Angel’ automatically lose a great number of marks in my book), it sounds like no other album made in the whole of the 70s never mind being specific to 1972 (hence the fact that it wasn’t that well regarded at the time) and tries it’s best to extend the band’s usual formula, not magnify it.
‘Exile’ exists pretty much on its own in the racks of classic albums, except perhaps for The Beatles White Album, for defining a band by their very sprawling, disassociated manner. As I said before, it will never be my favourite Stones LP, but I can see sparks of greatness sprinkled throughout the set and it does after all feature one of the world’s best ever bands at more or less the peak of the powers. So although the amount of hoo-hah over this latest re-issue seems overdone to say the least, at the same time it’s pleasing that an album so under-rated at the time is no longer an exile in the hearts of collectors all over the world.