Saturday, May 12, 2012

Keep On Rolling: The Rolling Stones' Exile On Main St. at 40

 The Rolling Stones - Exile on Main St.
The Rolling Stones
Exile On Main St.
Rating: *****

The Rolling Stones were adjusting to the 1970’s just fine. Their 1971 album, Sticky Fingers, was another chart topping album for the band. For the band’s next album, they would be dabbling in several different genres of music. It would also be the band’s very first double album. That album, Exile On Main St., was released on May 12, 1972. 40 years later, it’s still regarded by many to be the best album the band ever made. Exile On Main St. ranks at #8 on my list of my all time favorite albums. It’s my second favorite album by the Stones, right behind Let It Bleed. An album like this deserves the song-by-song treatment.

            The Rolling Stones (which consisted of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Mick Taylor, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts) had gotten out of their contract with Allen Klein by the beginning of the 1970’s. However in the spring of 1971, the band learned that they were pretty much broke. It got to the point when they discovered they didn’t have the money to pay their taxes. The band left Britain so that before the government caught them. It was decided that the band would relocate in France. Jagger had recently married his girlfriend, Bianca, in France and decided to live there. Richards rented a villa called Nellcote, a 19th century mansion with sixteen rooms. Using their mobile recording truck, the band was able to set up a studio in the basement of Nellcote. Producer Jimmy Miller, who had produced the band’s last three studio albums, was back on board to produce their next one.

Aside from recording the new album, drug use was frequent amongst the band. Richards began using heroin on a daily basis and friends of the band were bringing the drugs to them. Some of Exile had been recorded prior to the band moving over to France. From June till July 1970, the band recorded at Olympic Sound Studios in London. From October till November 1970, the band recorded at Jagger’s home in Stargroves, Newbury, England. The band recorded in France from June 7, 1971 till October 1971. Recording finished in Los Angeles in December 1971, and the album was mixed in two different studios in Los Angeles from December 1971 till March 25, 1972.

Track by track review

1.      “Rock Off”- From the sound of the opening lick till the end, “Rocks Off” is a perfect example of the Stones in 1972. The song is bluesy and raunchy, both musically and lyrically. The song, as whole, prepares for the ride you’ll be on while listening to the album. The saxophone and trumpet work from Bobby Keys and Jim Price livens the song up. The lyrics seem to be about the wild and crazy life people live. Personally, it’s one of my favorite songs off the album and also one of my favorite songs by the Rolling Stones.

2.      “Rip This Joint”- This fast-paced rocker is almost like a slice of 1950’s rock n roll, done by the Stones. There is a little dispute as to about the song is about, but the lyrics seem to celebrate the days of early 1950’s rock n roll. The whole first verse of “Mama says yes, papa says no” makes me think of a teenager asking his parents if he can go out and party (“I’m gonna raise hell at the Union Hall/Drive myself right over the wall”). The first chorus of “Rip this joint, going to save your soul/Round and round and round we go” may go back to the early days of the Rolling Stones and the lyrics to “Around and Around”. The “Roll this joint” bit is obviously referencing to drugs. It’s the shortest song off the album but it’s a killer track.

3.      “Shake Your Hips”- According to Mick Taylor, it was Jagger’s idea to cover this Slim Harpo tune. It’s a nice little rocker and Mick’s vocals are pretty good on this one. “Shake Your Hips” is one of the few tracks that weren’t recorded in France.

4.      “Casino Boogie”- “Casino Boogie” is a very interesting song off the album as to the way it was written. Notice that if you read the lyrics, they don’t make any sense. This is because the band wrote this song by using a style of writing that William Burroughs did: the band wrote phrases on pieces of paper, cut them up, put them in a hat, and made new sentences. This was the band’s result of doing that. Musically, the song resembles a slow blues track or simply boogie music. Bobby Keys delivers during his saxophone solo on this one. Overall, “Casino Boogie” is a great song.

5.      “Tumbling Dice”- Of the 18 tracks off the album, “Tumbling Dice” is easily the most popular of them. It also gave the band another hit single. Mick and Keith mainly wrote this soulful track. The song was originally titled “Good Time Women”, which had similar musical structure but different lyrics (“Good Time Women” can be found on the 2010 deluxe edition of Exile). “Good Time Women” was good for what it was but the song just didn’t have a hook. Richards came up with a hook for the beginning and Jagger rewrote the lyrics. Jagger’s inspiration for the song was from a house maid at the villa, who was very much into gambling. Jagger wrote a song around that and the song became “Tumbling Dice”. It’s one of the best tracks off the album and is always a live favorite.

6.      “Sweet Virginia”- The band churns out yet another great song, this time in the style of a country song. From the harmonica solo to the very end, “Sweet Virginia” is a bit of a deep cut off Exile. Lyrically, the band has written what does indeed sound like a country track done in the style of the Rolling Stones. Also, how can you not love the chorus: “Come on, come on down, sweet Virginia/Come on, honey child, I beg of you/Come on, come on down, you’ve got it in you/You’ve got to scrape that shit right off your shoes”.

7.      “Torn and Frayed”- Continuing with the country sound, the band goes into this country rocker ala in the style of Gram Parsons. There are rumors floating around that Parsons himself was on the album but this is not true. Overall, “Torn and Frayed” is a nice little song. This is also one of the few songs that wasn’t recorded in France.

8.      “Sweet Black Angel”- The story behind “Sweet Black Angel” is very interesting: believe it or not, it is a protest song in support of Angela Davis. In 1970, Davis had been blamed for the shootings of a judge, prosecutor, and several other people during a trial. Around the time the album was released, Davis was found not guilty. Still, “Sweet Black Angel” is a powerful song. According to engineer Andy Johns, Jagger and Richards were recorded in a room that was not far from a hall that had wooden floors and no furniture. Jagger, Richards, Jimmy Miller, and Richard Didymus Washington were recorded in a circle playing this little song. You can certainly hear the echo from the hall and it really does make “Sweet Black Angel” a highlight off the album. This was one of the tracks that was not recorded in France.

9.      “Loving Cup”- The Stones go into a ballad of sorts, which is also another great track off this album. The lyrics seem to talk about a man who is intoxicated by the love of a certain woman. I think what makes this song so great is because of the piano playing and the backing vocals of Jagger and Richards. The band has rarely performed this onstage but it did go back in the band’s setlist for the band’s 2002-2003 tour and in 2006. The latter can be seen in the Shine A Light movie, with Jack White joining the band for the performance.

10.  “Happy”- Richards takes the microphone for this rocker, which is another popular track off the album. At that point, Richards singing on a Stones song was rare. He did sing parts of “Something Happened to Me Yesterday” from Between the Buttons and sang all of “You Got the Silver” from Let It Bleed. According to Richards, the song was written and recorded in a very short amount of time. Of all the songs that Richards has sung lead vocals on, this is probably the best of them as it has become a live favorite.

11.  “Turd on the Run”- There isn’t a whole lot written about this fast paced bluesy rocker. Jagger sounds great on this track. The harmonica on this makes the song what it is. According to sources, Bill Wyman is not on this track at all. There is, however, a man named Bill Plummer who is playing an upright acoustic bass. Nicky Hopkins is on piano and Bobby Keys is on maracas! This is certainly a wild one.

12.  “Ventilator Blues”- Mick Taylor gets co-writing credit, along with Jagger and Richards, for this fittingly bluesy track. Not much can be said about this track except that it’s basically just a standard blues song. According to Richards in his 2010 autobiography, the song was recorded in the basement of Nellcote. Richards says that the basement for Nellcote wasn’t big enough but it was “divided into a series bunkers”. There was a lack of ventilation so that’s how this song got its title. The end of “Ventilator Blue” leads into the next track…

13.  “I Just Want to See His Face”- This gospel-riddled track is a song that the Stones have never performed live. Jagger later said that this song was basically a “complete jam”. The song does have some religion linked to it as heard in the lyrics (“Then you don’t want to walk and talk about Jesus/You just want to see His face”). One source suggests Jagger might have been influenced by Billy Preston and their visits to church.

14.  “Let It Loose”- The Stones get soulful in this ballad of sorts. Jagger sings about a woman that he loves but he knows he cannot. The backing vocals on this track are sensational. Dr. John is even there on backing vocals with several other people. This song has not been performed live, as Jagger says it’s a hard song to play live.

15.  “All Down the Line”- An upbeat rocker follows. “All Down The Line” is always a fun song hear played live because usually, the band nails it ever time. There’s a lot going on in this track. Jagger’s vocals are great and there’s a great horn section on here. Mick Taylor is also playing slide guitar. Overall, a great track.

16.  “Stop Breaking Down”- The Stones take on this Robert Johnson tune the best way they can. “Stop Breaking Down” is a simple blues track but there’s some great guitar work from Richards and Taylor here.

17.  “Shine a Light”- Of the 18 tracks on this album, I have to say that “Shine a Light” is my favorite off the entire album. The song has an interesting history behind it as it was originally written as “Get A Line On You” in 1968 when Brian Jones was still in the band. When Jones died in 1969, it is thought that Jagger changed a few of the lyrics to make it a tribute to Jones. There are those who believe it may also be about Jagger’s girlfriend Marianne Faithful after she attempted suicide around that same time. I really think that “Shine a Light” is a tribute to Brian. The lyrics seem to depict Jones. I also love the chorus: “May the good lord/Shine a light on you/Make every song/Your favorite tune.” Like “I Just Want To See His Face”, Jagger found the gospel influence from Billy Preston and their visits to church. Personally, I think “Shine a Light” is the best song off the album.

18.  “Soul Survivor”- Exile closes out with a soulful bluesy track. Jagger’s vocals, again, are top notch. It’s hard to believe that only Jagger and Richards are doing backing vocals because it sounds like there are more than two people doing backing vocals. On the deluxe edition from 2010, there’s an alternate version of this song sung by Keith. Jagger doesn’t think that he wrote this song, he thought it was Keith’s lyrics. Nevertheless, the song closes out Exile brilliantly.

When Exile was released in May 1972, reviews were generally positive. Some critics didn’t know what to make of the album due to its diversity and the fact that it was a double album. The album was a success in the charts, peaking at #2. The band then embarked on one of their wildest tours ever, which was documented in Robert Frank’s Cocksucker Blues.

For me, Exile On Main St. ranks at #8 on my list of favorite albums. I will admit that it did take a while for this album to sink in. After several dozen listens, I absolutely loved it. Forty years after its release, the album is still great by today’s standards. I don’t think it’s the best Rolling Stones album (I’ll give that to Let It Bleed) but there’s no doubt that Exile is indeed a classic.

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