50 years of 'Exile On Main Street', the rock & roll bible
Exile On Main Street is the perfect definition of rock & roll, the record that best illustrates a ‘bastard and rebellious style that was born to shock’ and break all the racial and etiquette barriers in society. What better band to represent this music than this group of stray bullets and black sheep who had become the best rock & roll band on the planet -totally on the fringes of society? This was the final bacchanalia for the band, the finishing touch to their golden period from Beggar's Banquet; four years in which they would define the genre forever, reaping the best possible harvest of 'Chuck Berry Fields Forever'.
The Rolling Stones had just released Beggar's Banquet, Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers back to back, in between they had lost founding member Brian Jones, had released the legendary Get Yer Ya Ya's Out live album and had seen the Beatles, the only group that had ever overshadowed them, split up. Now they were alone at the top and on a roll, or one could say in a rich vein, as Keith Richards' heroin addiction was reaching insane heights, along with his partner Anita Pallenberg, Jones' old girlfriend.
The band had been ‘exiled’ from England to avoid high taxes and had gone to the south of France. There the Richards rented a mansion called Nellcôte and drug dealers from half of Europe found their new Mecca. The band decided that this was the best place to record their next album, their final act of provocation, with Taylor falling into the arms of addiction and Bill Wyman missing half the sessions. The fact is that it is the band's most Keith-esque record, the most aggressive yet relaxed, the most dangerous and the most cocky. It is an album in which the band act like outlaws who use rock & roll as their weapon against a self-righteous society, showing a feeling of joyful isolation, "smiling in the face of a terrifying and unknown future", according to Mick Jagger, who decided here, possibly with good reason, to get off the wagon and get away from it all to mingle with the jet set and the 'beautiful people'.
The result was both the best album of their career (and, in my opinion, one of the top five of all time) and the end of that golden period. The big party before the big hangover, the band's first double album was recorded with a truly plugged-in Keith, whether on guitar or syringe, his connection with Mick Taylor is total, even though the young guitarist had to fight with the Richards' 'guests' who used his guitar cable to 'get as high' as their hosts.
The opening song of the rock & roll bible, Rocks Off, is the best possible example to describe that devil's music. An outrageous riff, courtesy of Keith and his Telecaster, and a decadent, murky, menacingly raw feeling where New Orleans piano and soul horns come together, for an unstoppable song that as it ends gives way to that slap in the face called Rip This Joint, which is his particular homage to his idol, Chuck Berry, but played with a speed and rawness more typical of punk. Bobby Keys' sax solos are as spectacular as you would expect.
Within two songs they've already blown the roof off the house from the basement, so it's time to pick up some steam with a spicy blues in which Jagger invites you to shake your hips; although it's probably not dancing that either the singer or the original songwriter, Slim Harpo, has in mind. In addition, Richards and Taylor tangle guitars and the singer dusts off his harmonica. Casino Boogie continues the hot, smooth groove, Jagger and Richards sing along, with Keith taking over on bass, and Bobby Keys once again proves he was at his best in Richards' decadent basement. For his part, Mick Taylor takes the big solo at the end.
Then comes that treasure called Tumbling Dice, another of Keith's wonders using open G tuning for five strings, known as "Keef's chord", with Mick Taylor on bass, Jagger on rhythm guitar, Charlie Watts providing his wonderful groove and Keith colouring the song with his new Telecaster, the legendary '53 Micawber, and unforgettable backing vocals from Clydie King, Venetta Fields and Sherlie Matthews.
Then they unplugged for that beauty called Sweet Virginia, Keith's acoustic opens the song and is joined by Jagger's harmonica and a mandolin, then Taylor adds colour with another acoustic and, at the end, the rhythm section comes in and Jagger sings in a tired, old bluesman way. Then Bobby Keys adds another voice with his saxophone and this country blues explodes into a wonderful chorus, sung by Jagger with the two guitarists. The lyrics perfectly describe Nellcote's drug-filled environment, full of pills and amphetamines (“drop your reds, drop your greens and blues"), heroin, ("and I hid the speed inside my shoe"), and anything else that could be injected or snorted: "got to scrape that shit right off your shoes".
The album continues to veer towards country with one of my favourite songs on the album, the wonderful Torn And Frayed, in which you can tell that Gram Parsons was one of Keith's friends who spent his days doing whatever he could get his hands on at the Richards' house. Its mix of country and soul is pure "cosmic American music" as the former Flying Burrito Brother liked to describe his sound; the chorus is absolutely irresistible but the song's main protagonist is the pedal steel of Al Perkins, another great friend of Parsons.
Sweet Black Angel continues the acoustic feel of this side of Exile, perhaps my favourite on the album, with Richards and Taylor again on acoustic and Keith joining Jagger on lead vocals, who was responsible for the lyrics about black activist Angela Davis, at the moment when she was accused of murder. At the end Jagger returns to harmonica and Richard Washington adds a touch of marimba as if he were Brian Jones. Then a gospel piano begins and Jagger and Richards again join their voices in harmony as if saying a prayer to a distant God, although in this case, Loving Cup, it is to a distant woman. The moment when Jagger is left alone singing over a wonderful horn section is one of his most soulful moments as a singer. A perfect close to the first album.
The second part opened in style with the best song ever sung by Keith Richards, Happy, a song in which the guitarist does everything, plays all the guitars, the bass, sings it, does the backing vocals, together with Jagger, with the two most famous Stones being the only ones who appear on it, as Jimmy Miller is in charge of playing the drums and Bobby Keys and Jim Price are in charge of the horns. If Exile On Main Street is the most Keith-esque album in the band's history, then Happy is the song that best represents it: pure unbridled rock & roll.
It's followed by the churning blues of Turd on the Run, again with Jagger's harmonica and Richards' backing vocals, sounding spritely and unbridled. Ventilator Blues was one of the few times that Jagger and Richards gave a songwriting credit to Mick Taylor, on whose riff this dirty, brutal blues is built, with another great contribution from Keys on saxophone and a feeling of being overwhelmed and in discomfort: understandable as the band were playing in 40 degrees indoors. With no clear ending, the song dives into I Just Want to See His Face, a swampy gospel that sounds like something out of a Dr. John album (it's one of the Stones’ strangest songs; so it's only natural that it's one of Tom Waits' favourites). Then begins the menacing, but beautiful riff of Let It Loose, with Richards' guitar passed through a Leslie, again there are gospel overtones and an aura of fervent passion, the arrangement is spectacular with another spectacular horn section and Jagger on fire as a soul preacher, joined by backing vocals from Tami Lynn, Dr. John, Clydie King, Venetta Fields, Shirley Goodman and Joe Greene.
The last side of the album begins with All Down The Line, an unstoppable rock piece in which Richards once again provided the best backdrop for Taylor to shine with his slide on his Les Paul. And this last side is full of juicy examples of Taylor as one of the best slide guitarists in history. As in that moment when they returned to one of the great sources of all their music, Robert Johnson, to turn their Stop Breaking Down into a cavernous, electric blues, with Jagger in his element, unleashed on vocals and harmonica, accompanied by an on fire Taylor.
The penultimate song on the album – Shine a Light - was a tribute to Brian Jones, composed mainly by Jagger and Leon Russell, though credited, as almost always, to Jagger and Richards. The song opens with Billy Preston's keys, giving the song the soul and gospel feel the singer was going for, then comes its terrific chorus and Taylor starts to make his presence felt with the Les Paul in the background. Another of the album's absolutely great moments. The end comes with Soul Survivor, pure Stones sound, pure distilled Exile, dirty mid-tempo guitars and a chorus that explodes with an unleashed Jagger, "It's gonna be the death of me", at the end a kind of 'jam' - with Keith's chords, Taylor's slide, Watts' groove, a gospel piano, and call and response choruses. Pure rock & roll, baby.
The blues had a child and they called it rock & roll, but it was a bastard child with many other fathers - country, gospel, folk, swing… It was 1972 and the creature had just come of age and was out of control, its reputation was most questionable, living in the basement of an unhealthy mansion with syringes, bottles of Jack Daniels and groupies, mingling with ventilators, amps and guitars. He was not a good guy, nor was he healthy, but he never sounded better than he does here, in the sacred Rock & Roll bible that is Exile On Main Street.