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Music Review: The Rolling Stones – Exile On Main Street

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Rolling Stone magazine recognizes Exile On Main Street as one of the ten best albums of all time. That would probably be a fair assessment.

There was a lot of tension present during the final recording sessions of Exile On Main Street. Keith Richards, producer Jimmy Miller, and sax player Bobby Keys kept the heroin flowing. Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman would skip sessions due to the extensive drug use going on in the studio. Tension was building between Keith Richards and Mick Taylor. While this tension would inspire Keith Richards to new heights in his guitar work, the resentment and his insecurities would remain. Finally the group members were forced to leave England because of tax issues and settled in France.

The result of all these problems was a murky, disjointed, poorly mixed, yet brilliant album that produced some of the best rock ‘n’ roll ever created.

The brilliance of Exile On Main Street rests with the whole rather than the parts. While “Tumbling Dice” and “Happy” were released as singles, they were not big chart hits in the Rolling Stones tradition. It is no one song that drives the album but rather a listening experience that builds throughout. So put the disc in or on your machine and sit back and immerse yourself in some real rock and roll one song at a time.

“Rocks Off” and “Rip This Joint” are a high energy twin blast-off for the album. Play these songs very loud. “Happy” is probably the best known Keith Richards vocal and has been a part of the Stones' live act for decades. It is almost a philosophical statement by Richards, if not a lifestyle statement. It is Keith’s antagonist, Mick Taylor, whose subtle slide guitar binds the music together.

“Tumbling Dice” features beautiful lyrics and a subtle vocal by Mick Jagger. Interestingly Mick Jagger plays guitar on the song and Mick Taylor bass so I’m guessing there were not many other people in the studio at the time.

The center of the album features some slower ballads. “Torn and Framed,” “Sweet Black Angel,” and “Loving Cup” all feature Mick Jagger’s slow building vocals. It is a shame that these songs rarely see the light of day. “Ventilator Blues” features fierce slide guitar by Mick Taylor and a thumping bass line from Bill Wyman.

The Rolling Stones had begun billing themselves as the world’s greatest rock ‘n’ roll band. Based on this album’s 18 tracks they were right. Exile On Main Street is essential to any rock 'n' roll collection.

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About David Bowling

  • Your article really barely scratches the surface of what all went on that notorious summer at Vellcote that produced Exile.

    Richards, Miller, and Keys weren’t the only ones “using” for one thing. There was a whole parade of unsavory characters in and out of the place, and there was also wife swapping, issues between Jagger and Richards, and pretty much all manner of debauchery going on.

    For anyone who wants to learn more about this in greater detail, I highly recommend Robert Greenfield’s excellent book “Exile On Main Street: A Season In Hell With the Rolling Stones.”

    I’d also probably take some issue with your description of Exile as “murky, disjointed, poorly mixed.” Sloppy, yes. But thats part of what makes it such a seminal record. They really captured the chaos of the moment.


  • JC Mosquito

    Barely scratches the surface, yes, but as a quick overview, pretty much spot on, don’t you think? As to the murky sloppiness, there’s been worse – it sounds OK on the last CD release that I have. “It is no one song that drives the album but rather a listening experience that builds throughout” is the key observation here.

    Regardless of the time capabilities of the current CD format (and others), Exile is still one of the classic double albums of rock and roll.

  • mermaidiol

    One thing i would add is that the album was recorded after they arrived in france– the article seems to imply that the move happened during the creation of the album.

  • Good to see an article for this classic album. ‘Exile’ is probably the Stone’s ‘Sgt. Peppers’ as far as a peak musical/artistic statement.

    Hey, the album cover could not be beat! That guy with the 3 balls in his mouth?

    Anyway, the album is a good statement of society, the artist’s self, etc. An all time great album. I recomend it as a listening project for todays youth/music listeners. You know, I made a young songwriter/client listen to ‘Tommy’ by the Who for sake of a lesson in how to tell a comprehensive story by album. It was a great educational tool for him. Keep an ear out for STBG. OK, that was a pitch……

    Anyway, great album that deserves notice. It will be around for as long as Beethoven’s 5th, or whatever…


  • Randyrocker

    ‘Loving Cup,’ ‘I Just Want To See His Face,’ ‘Shine a Light,’ for these rock and roll masterpieces alone, gems in and of themselves, the album was a hit. To include along with theses cuts, the rest of the ensemble is a remarkable feat in and of itself. When I first heard this album, I could hear subtle inflections of Van Morrison’s voice in ‘Rocks Off,’ at the time the album came out, Van Morrison had a unique style of singing, in which Jagger seemed to inflect into the cut. The whole album is such that you can rearrange the playing order anyway you wish and you will find the experience of listening enjoyable. It’s like a puzzle that like a maze, can be re-modified anyway you please.
    Certainly, this was a major step into the seventies, and laid out the ground work for many of the bands that followed, until Disco reared its head. ‘Knock on Wood’ by Amy Stewart being an exception. The Rolling Stones made you feel the story, and the empathy for it came from how much feeling and soul, they laid down in their tracks. ‘Sweet Black Angel,’ was their first foray into the world of reggae, to be later pursued with the album ‘Black and Blue.’ Seeing the Rolling Stones perform ‘LIVE’ and deliver these tunes with full energetic force, was just an other worldly, captivating, stunning experience. You left the concert hall, with crowds of thousands, in an awe ear splitting numbing silence. You knew no one who saw what you just experienced, would ever be the same. You had just been converted, like the countless millions of other Rolling Stones fanatics .

  • Just curious… aren’t you reviewing Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out?

  • ChaliQ

    This is without a doubt the best albumn of all time. Even when the critics trashed it when it came out anyone who knows anything about music new this album was great. Notice now how the critics embrace it. I don’t care who was high & who wasn’t drugs do open up the creativity in everyone. Since they’ve been staight it’s been downhill ever since. Even there latest hits are when Mick Taylor was still in the group.

  • Great Read, I don’t agree that it’s the Stones Sgt. Pepper’s though – I think it’s much much better than that! Just adding that Jagger admitted that ‘bits and pieces were left over from the previous album recorded at Olympic studios and which, after we got out of the contract with Klein, we didn’t want to give him’

    I’m still playing the album (on vinyl of course) and Ventilator Blues always stands out for me.

  • The “Ventilator Blues” RULEZ!!! But for another underappreciated classic from this album, let’s have a little shout out for “Just Wanna See His Face.”

  • Rob

    One of my all-time faves: Let it Loose — Mick’s most heart-wrenching performance – ever!

    Yeah, it’s tempting, tho futile to compare Exile and Pepper’s: Peppers owes a lot to judicious post-production work; Exile is just the Opposite: It’s pure performance.

    As far as Greenfield’s book “Exile” goes, I expected a lot from it; and was ultimately disappointed. His “STP” book of the ’72 tour was a masterpiece. If it’s your first time reading of Nellcote, I’m sure it makes an interesting read. But he goes to such lengths to glorify Keith at the expense of Mick; it comes across forced and slightly sickening. Seems he borrowed a page or two from Stanley Booth on that score. Greenfield also goes to lengths to dismiss Tony Sanchez’ book; but at the same time he draws heavily from it. I’ll take Tony’s book any day over Greenfield’s. They both have their lapses; but Tony is equally tough on Mick and Keith; and his book comes off a lot more believable if only for this reason.

    Also, if you are a true Exile on Main St. afficionado, you must read Bill Janovitz’ book of the same name; a song by song discussion from the perspective of an unabashed fan. No pretentions; No ass-kissing; no face saving; just pure fun.

  • Paul

    No question, Stones fans love this one. The Stones were definitely on a roll from Beggar’s Banquet through this album. I think “Tumbling Dice” is fantastic. But I’ve never really thought this album was any more than very good.