Music

Counterbalance No. 8: The Rolling Stones - 'Exile on Main St.'

In 1972, the Rolling Stones were holed up in a rickety mansion in the South of France, writing an epic love letter to American music. Counterbalance examines the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St and separates the fever from the funk house—now!

Exile on Main St.
The Rolling Stones

Rolling Stones Records

12 May 1972

Klinger: Ah, that opening riff, the salacious "Oh yeaahhhh", that sweet, sweet groove. Truly, my friend, I think you'd be hard-pressed to find a better side one/track one tune than "Rocks Off" from the Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St. And from there, the rock just keeps coming for 67 glorious minutes. I'm not going to lie to you, Mendelsohn—Exile is quite possibly my favorite album of all time. And while the critics were slightly less than effusive at first, they seem to have come around, as it's firmly ensconced in the Top Ten on the Big List over at acclaimedmusic.net.

Mendelsohn: You forgot the mention the horns, man, the horns!

Klinger: Oh, dear lord, yes, the horns. That kick of trumpet and sax right before they roll into the chorus—Jim Price and Bobby Keys deserve some sort of unsung heroes award.

Mendelsohn: I'm going to get this out of the way as quick as I can—my first run-in with the Rolling Stones was Mick Jagger's appearance in Freejack. That came at a precarious time in my musical development and pretty much turned me off of the band until many years later. Conversely, it was David Bowie's performance in Labyrinth that turned me on to his music. Go figure. Regardless, I climbed on the Rolling Stones bus just a couple years ago, but I love what they've done to and for the American blues.

Klinger: I'm glad to hear that the damaging effects of Freejack were only temporary. From the synopsis on Wikipedia (which, by the way, is nearly 750 words long), it sounds like it could have been quite scarring. I, of course, didn't see it, because I have the sense God gave a billy goat.

No matter, though, Exile on Main St is unassailable, and anyone who says different probably listened to the album incorrectly. Perhaps they were vacuuming while they were listening to it, or they were on the phone with their mother. Perhaps the CD was in the player upside-down. I don't know, but I do find it interesting that one person who refuses to give Exile its due is none other than Mick Jagger. I find that quite telling indeed.

Mendelsohn: Mick doesn't like it? Really? Did they have his microphone turned down too low or something? Not enough grooves for him to do his chicken dance? Wait, what am I saying? This is the guy who accepted a starring role in Freejack. His judgment appears to be questionable, at best.

Light bulb by ColiNOOB (Pixabay License / Pixabay)

What I find interesting about this album is its lack of that one monster hit. The Rolling Stones have a stable of number one songs to rival any band. Still, a cursory look through the song titles on Exile doesn't reveal anything the Regular-Joe Radio Listener would be able to belt out in a karaoke bar.

Klinger: No, there's no "Brown Sugar" or even a "You Can't Always Get What You Want" on this one, to cite Exile's two preceding albums. "Tumbling Dice" was apparently a top ten single when it was released, but it certainly doesn't get the Oldies radio treatment much these days—at least not around these parts. And I've gone so far as to say that "Tumbling Dice" is the Stones' single greatest song. Just ask Mrs. Klinger—she'll tell you I never shut up about that song.

If low vocals are a factor in Mick's dismissal of the album, he does have a point. His voice is buried in the mix; I think it gives the album a lot of its mystery and vibe. It's kept me listening raptly for about 25 years, and I still don't think I've sorted out all the lyrics.

Nice of the band to set side two apart as a sort of country bear jamboree for us, too. When I first picked this record up, I was maybe 13, and parts of this album seemed a little too dark and impenetrable, especially on the super-druggy second LP (never before have gospel grooves sounded so unseemly). Side two was perfect, though—just bawdy enough to titillate, but still with an overall good-timey feel to it.

Mendelsohn: The vocals could be turned up—way up. It sounds like Mick is singing inside of a box off to one side of the stage. But I've noticed a lot of rock bands, especially some of the emerging groups, are employing this little trick. And I don't know if it's because the producers don't know how to produce or if the band is just trying to hide the fact that the lyrics are derivative. But that's not really the case with Exile.

Klinger: No, it's not. The lyrics, as I understand them, are some of their best, and the entire band is firing on all cylinders here. Exile is reported to be something of a ragbag of songs that they hadn't gotten around to finishing over the previous few years. It's striking, then, how they were able to turn it into a pretty cohesive whole. And it's curious too that they did something similar with 1981's Tattoo You, which to my way of thinking was their last unqualified success as an album.

It seems the Stones, like a lot of people who have had issues with substances, tend to leave stuff lying around. It's what they do with the bits and pieces when they tidy up that sets them apart.

Mendelsohn: Junkies who remember to clean up after themselves? Sounds unfathomable, but then Keith Richards is still alive, so stranger things have happened. I'm going to go off on a tangent really quick. I wish the Rolling Stones would stop touring. This is going to sound selfish and evil (because it is), but every time I see those walking skeletons gyrating on stage, I lose a little bit of respect for them.

I don't begrudge them their ability to do what they love and make money hand over fist doing it, but whatever happened to that old rock and roll maxim of "it's better to burn out quickly than fade slowly away"? What's more rock and roll than releasing a string of great albums and then going down in a fiery blaze because you snuck your pet monkey on to the plane, accidentally dosed it with LSD, and it ended up biting the co-pilot because his yellow uniform makes him look like a giant banana thus causing the plane to crash on a deserted tropical island where the band and their groupies lived for three months trying to repopulate the world before they were all devoured by a mysterious smoke monster?

Klinger: Yeah, it's the same old story. The same old monkey-plane-crash-island-repopulating-smoke-monster story. When will our rock stars learn?

Honestly, I think that even though burning out vs. fading away has been taken as an article of faith, it's very much a false dichotomy. The phrase was, after all, immortalized by a guy who's now in his 60s and still making intermittently quality music. And there are plenty of other examples of aging rock stars who still can compel. The main reason the Stones these days are little more than a touring cash grab, I suspect, is due to their group dynamic.

In the past, Mick and Keith have shifted the power between them as their personal lives/problems dictate (Exile is a Keith album, Some Girls is Mick's). Now that there's less pressure on them to remain creatively fertile, they can now just as easily shift the blame for their lack of "relevance" onto one another. And lord knows Ronnie Wood isn't going to do anything to upset the applecart.

But no matter what level of self-parody they may reach, no matter how much Mick may resemble the Incredible Mr. Limpet, no matter how silly Keith looks in his Flashdance-era t-shirt and bedazzled hair, Exile on Main St is the reason why pop culture nerds like us award lifetime passes.

Mendelsohn: And so long as Mick doesn't make a Freejack II, that pass will remain in good standing.

* * *

Ten years ago, we began presenting the beloved Counterbalance series that ran through 2016. Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger debate the merits of some of the most critically-acclaimed albums of all time. We are re-running the entire series with a new entry each week. Enjoy.

This article originally published on 5 November 2010.

Music


Books


Film


Recent
Music

Run the Jewels - "Ooh LA LA" (Singles Going Steady)

Run the Jewels' "Ooh LA LA" may hit with old-school hip-hop swagger, but it also frustratingly affirms misogynistic bro-culture.

Books

New Translation of Balzac's 'Lost Illusions' Captivates

More than just a tale of one man's fall, Balzac's Lost Illusions charts how literature becomes another commodity in a system that demands backroom deals, moral compromise, and connections.

Music

Protomartyr - "Processed by the Boys" (Singles Going Steady)

Protomartyr's "Processed By the Boys" is a gripping spin on reality as we know it, and here, the revolution is being televised.

Music

Go-Go's Bassist Kathy Valentine Is on the "Write" Track After a Rock-Hard Life

The '80s were a wild and crazy time also filled with troubles, heartbreak and disappointment for Go-Go's bass player-guitarist Kathy Valentine, who covers many of those moments in her intriguing dual project that she discusses in this freewheeling interview.

Music

New Brain Trajectory: An Interview With Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree

Two guitarists, Lee Ranaldo and Raül Refree make an album largely absent of guitar playing and enter into a bold new phase of their careers. "We want to take this wherever we can and be free of genre restraints," says Lee Ranaldo.

Books

'Trans Power' Is a Celebration of Radical Power and Beauty

Juno Roche's Trans Power discusses trans identity not as a passageway between one of two linear destinations, but as a destination of its own.

Music

Yves Tumor Soars With 'Heaven to a Tortured Mind'

On Heaven to a Tortured Mind, Yves Tumor relishes his shift to microphone caressing rock star. Here he steps out of his sonic chrysalis, dons some shiny black wings and soars.

Music

Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras' tētēma Don't Hit the Mark on 'Necroscape'

tētēma's Necroscape has some highlights and some interesting ambiance, but ultimately it's a catalog of misses for Mike Patton and Anthony Pateras.

Music

M. Ward Offers Comforting Escapism on 'Migration Stories'

Although M. Ward didn't plan the songs on Migration Stories for this pandemic, they're still capable of acting as a balm in these dark hours.

Music

Parsonsfield Add Indie Pop to Their Folk on 'Happy Hour on the Floor'

Happy Hour on the Floor is a considerable departure from Parsonsfield's acclaimed rustic folk sound signaling their indie-pop orientation. Parsonsfield remind their audience to bestow gratitude and practice happiness: a truly welcomed exaltation.

Music

JARV IS... - "House Music All Night Long" (Singles Going Steady)

"House Music All Night Long" is a song our inner, self-isolated freaks can jive to. JARV IS... cleverly captures how dazed and confused some of us may feel over the current pandemic, trapped in our homes.

Music

All Kinds of Time: Adam Schlesinger's Pursuit of Pure, Peerless Pop

Adam Schlesinger was a poet laureate of pure pop music. There was never a melody too bright, a lyrical conceit too playfully dumb, or a vibe full of radiation that he would shy away from. His sudden passing from COVID-19 means one of the brightest stars in the power-pop universe has suddenly dimmed.

Music

Folkie Eliza Gilkyson Turns Up the Heat on '2020'

Eliza Gilkyson aims to inspire the troops of resistance on her superb new album, 2020. The ten songs serve as a rallying cry for the long haul.

Music

Human Impact Hit Home with a Seismic First Album From a Veteran Lineup

On their self-titled debut, Human Impact provide a soundtrack for this dislocated moment where both humanity and nature are crying out for relief.

Music

Monophonics Are an Ardent Blast of True Rock 'n' Soul on 'It's Only Us'

The third time's the charm as Bay Area soul sextet Monophonics release their shiniest record yet in It's Only Us.

Film

'Slay the Dragon' Is a Road Map of the GOP's Methods for Dividing and Conquering American Democracy

If a time traveler from the past wanted to learn how to subvert democracy for a few million bucks, gerrymandering documentary Slay the Dragon would be a superb guide.

Music

Bobby Previte / Jamie Saft / Nels Cline: Music from the Early 21st Century

A power-trio of electric guitar, keyboards, and drums takes on the challenge of free improvisation—but using primarily elements of rock and electronica as strongly as the usual creative music or jazz. The result is focused.

Books

Does Inclusivity Mean That Everyone Does the Same Thing?

What is the meaning of diversity in today's world? Russell Jacoby raises and addresses some pertinent questions in his latest work, On Diversity.

Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews
Features
Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.