“Exile on Main St.” is widely regarded as the Rolling Stones’ masterpiece. It’s also an album surrounded by so much dark myth and debauched legend that if the working conditions were really that out of control, it’s a wonder it was even made.
The latest re-release of this iconic album will be available Tuesday, and it’s the most ambitious repackaging yet. It includes a deluxe edition with bonus tracks, a documentary DVD and a hard-cover book, but it doesn’t focus on the grungier aspects of the album.
Instead, it preserves the mystery by presenting the original album intact with liner notes and documentary footage that skims the surface of just what went on in Keith Richards’ villa-turned-recording-studio in the summer of 1971. The 10 previously unreleased tracks shed little new light on the past; instead most of them feature freshly overdubbed vocals by Mick Jagger, a misguided attempt to update an album that needs no updating.
The good news is that the original album has never sounded better. Remastered in a way that amps up its clarity and power without sacrificing its hard-swinging griminess, “Exile on Main St.” remains a towering achievement, the capstone to one of the great four-album runs in rock history (preceded by “Beggars Banquet” in 1968, “Let it Bleed” in 1969 and “Sticky Fingers” in 1971). The Stones were turning into a band divided, jaded rock stars who would never be as good again, but they had one final burst of brilliance in them.
The album arrived at a time when the group was the biggest rock band in the world, transformed from the Bad Boys of Swingin’ ‘60s London (“Would you let your sister go with a Rolling Stone?”) to jetsetting celebrities awash in drugs, sex and whatever else they craved.
The decadence had set in when the Stones headed to the south of France in summer 1971in part to flee England and a mountain of unpaid taxes due to unscrupulous management. There they all rented villas and hunted for a studio.
Nothing suited their fancy as much as Keith Richards’ 16-room mansion, Nellcote, on the outskirts of the Mediterranean seaport of Nice. It had a huge basement that could be converted into a performance space and the advantage of having the band’s leastcontrollable member on premises at all times. The Stones pulled their mobile recording studio onto the property and went to work at the start of a long, hot summer.
Richards’ mansion housed not just the musicians and their family members, but all manner of Stones hangers-on, from Richards’ guitar-playing buddy Gram Parsons to drug dealers and groupies.
By Richards’ admission, there was a party going on all the time upstairs; any Stone or ancillary Stone awake or sober enough slipped down into the basement to play music. Recording sessions began late and often didn’t finish for days.
The haphazard lineups for each track saw producer Jimmy Miller sometimes filling in on drums, Richards or guitarist Mick Taylor taking over on bass, Nicky Hopkins and Ian Stewart on piano, and horn players Bobby Keys and Jim Price adding percussion.
The working conditions were less than ideal: dark, grimy, hot and poorly ventilated (the inspiration for the “Exile” track “Ventilator Blues”). Instruments frequently went out of tune in the humidity, and songs were thrown together on the spot. Richards says he wrote and recorded “Happy” in the space of three hours, leaving Jagger with only a few vocals to sing on the chorus. The recording-bunker mentality suited Richards, who worked off feel and spontaneity, more so than Jagger, who preferred a more orderly approach.
As a result, “Exile” has the tone and texture of a quintessential Keith Richards-led Stones album — with the grit still intact — while Jagger serves as co-pilot, juggling the sessions with visits to his new bride, Bianca Perez Morena de Macias, in Paris (the couple had married in May 1971).For all the unruliness, the sessions were also highly productive, with the Stones cranking out several albums’ worth of material. The setting in part lent itself to music that was less studied, less concerned about pop-chart appeal, and instead allowed an uninhibited exploration of all the music — specifically, the American music — that had inspired the Stones in the first place. “Exile” plays like a tour of the American South, with its deep bows toward blues, soul, early rock ‘n’ roll, even gospel. All the styles were united by the band’s feel for rhythm, a loose swing fostered by Richards’ guitar, Bill Wyman’s bass and especially Charlie Watts’ drums.
After closing up shop at Nellcote, the band finished the recording in Los Angeles, bringing in more guest musicians (Dr. John, Billy Preston) who only solidified the album’s Americanroots direction. With 18 tracks and more than 70 minutes of music, “Exile” was divided into a double album, each of the four sides of music working as a discrete whole: rock abandon on Side 1, a reflective country feel on Side 2, the spooky ambiance of Side 3, the drunken stagger of Side 4.
Lukewarm reviews greeted the album’s arrival in May1972. Rolling Stone magazine called it “the Rolling Stones at their most dense and impenetrable ... a tangled jungle though which you have to move toward the meat of the material.” But over subsequent decades, the album has been elevated to exalted status, and routinely is named one of the great rock albums of all time. Of all the rock albums from the early ‘70s, it best captured the transition from ‘60s idealism to the more inward-looking dystopia of the new decade.
“Exile” is as dark and dank as the basement in which it was made, but there’s a glimmer of hope, a longing for a drop of salvation embodied by tracks such as “Just Wanna See His Face” and “Shine a Light.” In retrospect, it’s the sound of a great band flexing its strengths one last time before slipping off into a world of glitter and drugs.
The wealth of unreleased material from the “Exile” sessions has been long sought by Stones aficionados, and a number of songs have surfaced over the decades in countless bootlegs. The box includes 10 previously unreleased tracks, including early versions of “Loving Cup,” “Soul Survivor” and “Tumbling Dice” (presented in its first incarnation as “Good Time Women”). There are seven rarities, with Jagger adding new vocals and lyrics, as well as occasional harmonica and guitar, to most of them.
Jagger, working with Richards and producer Don Was, says he built the vocals and lyrics for several of the new “Exile”era rhythm tracks from scratch, because he didn’t get around to recording vocals for them in the original sessions. The only guide he had for lyrics were the sometimes fanciful working titles (“Wally’s Whistling Saw”).
As strong as some of the hybrid tracks are, in particular “Plundered my Soul,” it’s bound to come as a disappointment to Stones fans that so little new material from the original sessions has been uncovered. Jagger acknowledges that the archive of outtakes is pretty extensive, but he wasn’t interested in presenting alternate takes of wellknown songs. As a result, we’re no longer with the band in that sweaty bunker in Nellcote, but in an air-conditioned Los Angeles studio with Jagger and Don Was reassembling history to suit the needs of 2010.
What’s really needed is a warts-and-all look at what went down in the south of France that summer 39 years ago, with outtakes, fragments and studio chatter that show us not just the finished product but the process.
By all accounts, engineers Andy and Glyn Johns had the tapes in the mobile studio rolling pretty much continuously, and Jagger and Richards were writing songs on the spot trying to keep the band well-fed with new material. The real story of this album is not the partyout-of-bounds that swirled continuously around the Stones, but how they were able to create such a masterpiece in the midst of it. That story remains untold.