I’ve given myself 67 minutes and 16 seconds to write this. Because that, it would appear, is the length of perfection.
Recipe for perfection:
Take a large and decadent villa in the south of France and place on the hob. Fill to half way with atmosphere, ambience, damp and testosterone and then bring to the boil. Add Jagger, Richards, Taylor, Wyman and Watts, in no particular order, and allow them to mingle together at their own pace. After a few minutes add two pianists and a few spices; upright bass, marimba, steel guitar, that kind of thing. Once it’s all bubbling away nicely drain and place in an oven dish. Stir in a couple of good ol’ boys from Texas to play trumpet and saxophone, and then add some of the best gospel hollering backing vocalists of any generation and cook on high for a couple of months. Chuck in plenty of late, late nights, limitless booze and drugs upon drugs, along with superstar guests dropping by and a few lurid tales of decadence and mischief. Dribble with a bit of mythology and then serve hot and sticky. If the flavours don’t express themselves immediately then don’t worry and certainly don’t throw it away – this dish is meant to be savoured slowly and repeatedly. There is no finer plate of food in existence and there probably never will be.
At a fair guess I’d say I first listened to ‘Exile On Main Street’ when I was 19 and I reckon it had become my favourite album by about a year later. Since then it has never not been my favourite album. A gallery of hucksters and suitors and jesters have all had a shot at the title, some have even come close, but in the end they never quite made the grade. In my musical world there is no premiership; there’s just ‘Exile’ and then there’s everything else. When the end really does come every other classic and also-ran will vanish as if made from nothing and all that will be left is the finest 67 and a bit minutes that the best rock and roll band there ever was decided they would grace us with, way back in 1972; four years before I was born and they must have known they were onto something.
You’ve first got to appreciate what kind of a band we’re dealing with here. This was the rock and roll band that invented the rock and roll band. Come to think of it they also invented the whole concept of what we see and hear as modern rock and roll – as in not the old version of Bill Hailey and Little Richard, but the new generation. Follow The Stones through the 60’s and you can hear this infant music grow up so that by the time you get to 1969 it sounds a million miles away from 1964. The Beatles had pop but The Stones took care of both rock and roll. And they also knew that you couldn’t have one without the other. As heavier bands focused on the rock, with great success it should be added, Jagger, and particularly Richards, always insisted that their music retain some swing for the swagger. They did it all first – the women, the drugs, the scandal, the decadence, the mystery and magic. They did it all first and everyone else has spent the last 50 odd years chewing on their vapour trail.
And so ‘Exile On Main Street’ is the peak. Before it they had suffered a few punches but they were in the midst of a fiery hot streak that no other band has come close to. When you bear in mind that their last 3 studio albums had been kicked off by ‘Sympathy For The Devil’, ‘Gimme Shelter’ and ‘Brown Sugar’ respectively and that they’d also snuck out ‘Jumping Jack Flash’ and ‘Honky Tonk Women’ along the way, you must surely start to realise what form they were in. They had some truly gob smacking moments after ‘Exile’ too, but you can’t go back to that level of magnificence; it’s actually a law of music. And it’s not just about the music. This album comes with a whole story; of that villa; those drugs; wives and girlfriends and overdoses and condensation trickling down the walls of the basement and tables heaving with food and drink and days that started in the evening and ended at some time after dawn, 52 hours later. And that’s because ‘Exile’ is Keith Richards’ album. It’s his baby and his bent and creased fingers are all over it. Mr Rock and Roll himself at the wheel. What could go wrong?
I shan’t bore you with the stories but this should not be mistaken as just a love letter, it’s an advertisement because no album has ever occupied as much of my time as this one and it contains pretty much something for everyone if you listen hard enough. It’s a smoky, thick cauldron of blues and country and gospel and soul. The lines and branches weave around each other and reach back to a music that came from deep down at the bottom of the century – of the black man and the white man, it didn’t matter to Jagger and co; they could work with anyone, provided anyone was good enough to keep up. Every song hides the hours and days and weeks of jamming and musical cul-de-sacs and differences of opinion. Here is music that seems somehow sloppy and tight at the same time. Lethargic yet urgent, pushing and pulling at your attention so that it can sneak under your skin just when you think you’ve already got the hang of it. Don’t expect to get ‘Exile’ first time around, it isn’t that kind of album. Instead it’s much better than that – it wants you to work because it knows it will be worth your while. Oh boy.
So what can you listen out for in 4,036 seconds of accumulated genius? Well there really is too much to mention because this sleazy, addictive spoonful of inspired piracy has more corners and nooks and crannies than a Versailles maze. Just listen from the middle of opener ‘Rocks Off’ to the end and you’ll see what a dense, layered music this is, with guitars lapping over each other, drums snapping away at every heel and a glorious piano scattering glitter and beauty all over the place. All that for a song about impotence. ‘Tumbling Dice’ has a riff that only Keith Richards could have dreamt up and it absolutely does not matter that Jagger is virtually incomprehensible; every word can be left to your imagination: don’t bother looking them up, it just spoils the fun. And those two songs, I suppose, are the welcome mat – the first song on the album and then the only single they released from it. Two aces in a hand chock full of them.
Listen further and you’ll hear ‘Loving Cup’ build up on a driving churchy piano and then deliver one of the finest middle eights of them all. I put it on our wedding service music list. ‘Rip This Joint’ almost trips over itself such is its haste, bullets of pulse dripping from every pore; and you can just see Jagger flicking about under the red lights, all nervous energy and chemical assistance. ‘Turd On The Run’ is a music just as filthy and clammy as it sounds, though in terms of perspiration it is pipped by ‘Ventilator Blues’ which is a claustrophobic, tropical jail cell of a number. ‘I Just Wanna See His Face’ is something else altogether but I just don’t how to describe it. What I will say is thank goodness this album is a double, because if it hadn’t been then songs like this would never have been give enough oxygen to prosper.
Then we have ‘Sweet Virginia’, a slurred tribute to all the wonderful things that the best country music can offer, glowing with the warmth of a dying camp fire; in The Stones music death is always close by but is something to respect and not to be afraid of. ‘All Down The Line’ is a bread knife jagged bit of work and if you want to see rather than hear what they could do then watch them play this on YouTube on the supporting tour (‘Ladies and Gentlemen – The Rolling Stones: a tour that, if I could, I would invent a time machine to go back and see): it’s the sound of five grown men locked together in a dense, propulsive soup of noise with back up from a trusted cavalry. Their cover of Robert Johnsons blues standard ‘Stop Breaking Down’ has Jagger playing the best riff Richards never did and one of my favourite lines ever – “I love my baby, ninety nine degrees, that mama took a pistol, laid it down on me”. It doesn’t look much but it sounds fucking terrific.
And so on and so on – you’re either still reading or you gave up ages ago. Although they were always a five piece set up The Stones were too excited by all the possibilities that could be explored to keep a closed door. With Bobby Keyes and Jim Price for a horn section along with cameos from other assorted session men and vocal back up from the much prized likes of Clydie King et al, they were more than happy to broaden their palate and crew a bit if it meant something special might happen. And so we end with a song that over time I have come to realise is the real heart of ‘Exile On Main Street’ – ‘Let It Loose’, a seductive blend of all kinds of beautiful and worth it all just for the moment when the horns come in half way through and create what might just be the most warming, soulful few seconds of music ever recorded.
If you look at modern popular music as a whole, and it’s a very big whole, then ‘Exile On Main Street’ is proof that The Rolling Stones could turn their hand to an awful lot of things, and if they tried hard enough they could make them work. There is more awe and wonder in any one song here than there is in some bands’ entire career. You might stumble and choke and try to tell me there are better bands and better albums but it will never work. I spend most of my life wondering if I’m right about anything but when it comes to this I couldn’t be more sure of myself. I’ve heard it all before and you’ll have to trust me on this, because I’ve heard a lot since I turned 19. And you can say whatever you want about them as a band, of course they’re old and flaky now but if anything that should make you want to hear what all the fuss was about in the first place. Take it or leave it, but don’t blame me if you find yourself on your death bed wondering what you’ve missed out on; because it’ll be this, it’ll be ‘Exile On Main Street’. Fool.
G B Hewitt. 29.02.2020
It took a few minutes longer than I thought, but at least I gave it a shot.