Classic Album: Exile on Main St. The Rolling Stones

Late last month, as The Rolling Stones made final arrangements for a new US tour, we learned the sad news of the death of drummer Charlie Watts. Routinely recognised as as significant to the Stones’ sound as Keith Richards’ guitar or Mick Jaggers’ vocals, Watts’ swinging percussion anchored the chaos, injected swing and drove tempos in the Stones’ music for nearly sixty years. Here we look back on the pinnacle of their career; the rollicking, long form celebration of Rock ‘n’ Roll in all its forms, ‘Exile on Main St.’

As with so many classic albums, the situation and timing of its recording is a tale in itself. In early 1971 the band moved to France as tax exiles, driven partly by a considerable unpaid tax bill they were unable, or unwilling, to pay. Richards rented a large coastal villa near Nice and, unable to find suitable permanent recording space, the band began sessions in Richards’ basement while crew and hangers on found lodging throughout the home. Making use of the band’s mobile recording studio, soon to be immortalised in the Black Sabbath song ‘Smoke on the Water’, the various players found themselves spaced out in separate rooms due to lack of functional space. More dysfunctional still were band relations and rumours, legends and stories abound from this period detailing wild and at times disturbing behaviours. What’s clear is that Jagger would marry Bianca Jagger during the brief time in France while Richards began a descent into heroin addiction that beleaguered him for much of the decade. As each core band member kept differing schedules and varied commitment to proceedings, songs were written and developed through jams featuring whichever players were available and countless reworks and overdubs both in France and later at Sunset Sounds in Los Angeles. The result is an album that is at times claustrophobic, hot and sweaty, and features numerous session players and collaborators. Alongside core songwriters Jagger and Richards were Watts on drums, Bill Wyman on bass and second guitarist Mick Taylor forming the main band. Beside them Producer Jimmy Miller played percussion on half the tracks, longtime pianist and founding member Ian Stewart featured on keys as did Nicky Hopkins and Billy Preston, while Bill Plummer provided double bass duties.

Part of the beauty of ‘Exile…’ is how the extended cast helped make up for the fractures forming in the core group. Replace Nicky Hopkins’ piano on ‘Loving Cup’ with a Richards’ guitar part and it’s no great leap to imagine the track an equal to ‘Jumping Jack Flash’. Yet in its album version it’s still no slouch, and melds seamlessly into the overall rambling vibe while perfectly setting up the subsequent track, a rare Keith Richards vocal take on ‘Happy’. That track was written one day when, by Richards’ own admission, he uniquely appeared for a session early and picked out a guitar line while fellow players Bobby Keys accompanied on saxophone and producer Jimmy Miller replaced Charlie Watts on drums. Like much of the album, overdubs were added at Sunset Sound in Los Angeles, but the core of the track remains in essence a Richards solo track, allowing it to act as a sort of lynchpin for the whole album.

As a double album, ‘Exile…’ is not short on material and successfully brings a varied range of influences from Gospel to Country, classic Chuck Berry style Rock ‘n’ Roll to a classic Jagger fronted piano ballad in ‘Let It Loose’. Over time an oft repeated line that the album is the best Rock ‘n’ Roll record of all time reflects on the vibe and overall style of the recordings but fails to capture the emotive range present. Tracks like ‘All Down The Line’, initially stemming from 1969 sessions for Sticky Fingers, come across as artificially stimulated thrillers while ‘Ventilator Blues’ is claustrophobic and exhausted and features complex rhythms the band have avoided airing live. Elsewhere, ‘Shake Your Hips’ is loose and ragged and the album’s biggest hit ‘Tumbling Dice’ is weighty and cathartic. While the Richards focused material from France establishes the rhythmic qualities of the record, most of the backing vocals were added during the Jagger directed sessions in LA. It’s not clear immediately which parts of tracks stem from each block of sessions yet there’s a clear dialogue going on between more fervent, zealously Blues-based statements and elements that lean more towards a communal balance and restraint that round the edges. Of course, the ability of Jagger and Richards to elevate each other’s skills, to interplay off one another seamlessly, is not unique to ‘Exile..’ but here the whole thing is elevated further by the way the entire group contributes to the whole.

Crafted in a unique window of time when the Stones were transient and cast off from the unending successes of their ‘60s rise to fame, ‘Exile…’ saw the band step away from the drug busts (though more would come), the death of Brian Jones and the negativity surrounding ‘Gimme Shelter’ and Altamont, into a brief space where each member could act as an individual perhaps for the last time. Before jealousy took hold, the unraveling band relationships allowed a period of space and freedom for a larger cast to form their own bonds that resulted in a master work. Soon addiction, ego and the unrelenting pressure of stardom would begin to weigh on the bands’ creative process and while they would continue to release acclaimed albums, none would match the insistent creativity of ‘Exile…’.

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