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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.

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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.

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