The narrative goes like this: The greatest rock band in the world expatriate themselves to Europe due to the high tax bracket imposed by the English Labor government (there was probably more to it than that, but that’s the reason they gave at the time). The year is 1971; and The Rolling Stones, said greatest rock and roll band in the world, have relocated to Nice, in the south of France, to record what would ultimately prove to be their masterpiece; the Mona Lisa of rock and roll; the majestic and sprawling mess that is Exile on Main Street.
There is already a wealth of information documenting the band’s period of self imposed exile that it would serve no purpose to repeat any of it here. You, the reader, can look it up yourselves. What is now generally considered to be their finest album, received mixed reviews at the time of release. Too long some thought. Too patchy said others. But just as time can heal most wounds, it can also change how people view things, especially when it comes to art. Often what is loathed in its own era is loved and celebrated by another. Exile is no exception. So much so, that in case of fire, if I had to choose one LP from my Stones collection to pluck through the flames, it would be this one.
First up is “Rocks Off”. Keith Richards and Mick Taylor lock together into a tight groove, while Mick Jagger complains about how “The sunshine bores the daylights out of me”. A song so good that if anyone around you ever flatlines, forget about CPR, instead just play them this, and they’ll be sitting up in no time. “Rip this Joint” is pure energy, and just pumps through your stereo till even your furniture will want to get up and dance. Next is “Shake Your Hips”, where Taylor gets to exercise his blues chops, John Lee Hooker style, while Jagger blows on the harmonica like a white Slim Harpo. “Casino Boogie” is another sloppy party song, where everyone sounds like they’re busting for a piss, while waiting in line for the toilet. And now we have the song which the album is probably most famous for, “Tumbling Dice”. Beginning with a languid ‘just got out of bed’ riff by Richards, the rest of the band sound as though they’re barely conscious too, except for Jagger and the women wailing behind him. Only listening to bootlegs does one know that this track went through various stages of experimentation before it blossomed from ugly duckling into glorious hedonistic Swan.
It’s no secret that Richards had been hanging out with Gram Parsons, who like Keith himself, had a penchant for the old Columbian nectar. “Sweet Virginia”, which opens side two, has Parsons’ presence all over it. I especially love the line “Got to scrape the shit right off your shoes” at the end of each verse. As far as I can recall, I’ve never heard a country song with a line like that before. And as shambolic as it comes across, I’d take this over Hank Williams any day.
“Torn and Frayed” is ragged country-rock, and opens with one of the laziest riffs I think I’ve ever heard, but somehow stays in your mind. Here they build the song like a house of cards which could fall apart at any moment, but miraculously manage to hold the whole thing together.
“Black Angel” is Jagger’s ode to Angela Davis, the civil rights activist who had been charged with murder in 1970. Whether this is a serious paean to human rights and justice or just Jagger’s way of writing a song about some chick he thought was hot who can say. Regardless, it’s a more than decent track, and one of the rare examples of the Stones expressing a political view.
“Loving Cup” is sheer celebration, where Charlie Watts is the anchor, and who prevents the whole band from straying too far off course. Apart from Watts’s drumming, I have no idea what else holds this song together.
“Happy” is all Keith, and one of the most upbeat tunes of the album. All scrappy riffs and left over slide, but somehow it works, even with Richard’s heroine vocals.
“Turd On the Run” is a short boogie with some fast guitar workout, al la ZZ Top. “Ventilator Blues” is a slow blues and brass workout followed by “I Just Want to See His Face”, a gospel inspired tune built around a basic riff and superb female vocals. “Let It Loose” is about the closest thing the listener will get to a ballad on this record. Here the piano dominates, while Mick sings in his most reflective “another woman done me wrong” mode. If you’ve ever had your heart broken, this is definitely one song you’ll listen to whilst getting drunk. But then we’re back into party mood with “All Down the Line”, where Jagger seems to have found somebody else to arouse his libido. They also cover Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down”, of course nothing like the original, but then how could it be with a bunch of drugged out white boys behind the helm. This is the second Johnson song they’d reinterpreted (“Love in Vain” being the first), and it works. “Shine A Light” is one of my favourite tracks of the whole LP. Billy Preston adds his brush of soulful colours, but it’s Mick Taylor who really shines, whose playing is impeccable, and remains a perfect example of how much he really brought to the band.
The album ends with “Soul Survivor”, perhaps a befitting coda if there was ever one. It’s not the best Stones song you’ve heard, but still not a bad way to go out.
Jagger has been quoted as saying that Exile is “over rated”. Richards has often stated that it’s his favourite album. My money’s on Keef in terms of taste and judgement. For in as much as they’ve attempted to recreate the magic of Main Street in their more recent years, some experiences simply cannot be repeated.