Happy 45th Anniversary to The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St., originally released May 12, 1972.
“The sunshine bores the daylights outta me, chasin' shadows, moonlight mystery.” –Mick Jagger/Keith Richards, 1972
Born out of shadows and darkness, both metaphorical and literal, recorded in a basement in the South of France, Exile on Main St. was made while on the run from British police and tax men. You want it darker? Here you can truly feel and hear the Rolling Stones sinking into an abyss. How does it get darker than a two-year lead-up period that found Brian Jones, the doomed guitarist who founded this band plus gave it their Muddy Waters-inspired name, floating dead in a swimming pool? Then followed by the end-of-an-era calamity that was Altamont, a Woodstock-inspired free festival at a Speedway in San Francisco where concert-goer Meredith Hunter was stabbed to death, directly in front of the stage, by a crazed, acid-raging member of the misguided Hell’s Angels security detail, just as Mick Jagger was singing “Sympathy for the Devil?”
Only by doubling down, with a double album soaked in rock & roll decadence, documenting this dangerously Dionysian dance. By Spring of 1971, the Sixties had very clearly ended. The Beatles were done. The Stones were now on the run. And in a myriad of ways neither fans, nor the band, would yet acknowledge or know, so too were the Rolling Stones. “This was the bad time,” Ray Liotta said as Henry Hill in Goodfellas.
While true in his case, it was also a high time, internally and artistically, for this band. The prior era’s acid culture had given way to cocaine, and even more destructively, heroin. That drug soon ensnared many of this band’s participants in its clenches. None more infamously or importantly, than the group’s songwriting co-pilot, Keith Richards. It can be easily argued that what you hear on this album is the best work of the Rolling Stones. By default, this means it is also one of the greatest albums in rock history. It can also be fairly stated, that this is the album that nearly killed them making it. While there would be further full-length glimpses of their greatness to follow, Black and Blue (1976) and Some Girls (1978) chiefly among them, things would never be quite the same after it.
The years of 1968 to 1972 represent arguably the greatest run that any single rock band ever had. Beggar’s Banquet (1968). Let It Bleed (1969). Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out (1970). Sticky Fingers (1970). All indisputable classics by the band and by extension, for the genre as whole. Then finally, Exile on Main St, which celebrates its 45th anniversary today. It’s the best #45 we’ve seen since, with all due respect to a rusty Michael Jordan pickpocketed by Nick Anderson, and zero due respect for the clown currently occupying the White House.
Let’s bring it back to rock and roll though. Because this is a raw, inspired love letter to the art form, filled with a bit of all the blues, country, gospel and R&B elements that birthed rock and roll as we know it. By 1971, Mick Jagger was ready to move past that. Richards, slipping into darkness but not yet losing his grip on the band he leads, won the argument. In this particular case, we all benefited.
Of course, it helped that the musicians involved were made up of a veritable all-star team of Rolling Stones collaborators. Besides the faithfully solid-as-a-rock drumming of Charlie Watts, this also meant saxophonist Bobby Keyes. Nicky Hopkins’ piano was crucial, most notably as centerpiece of the classic “Loving Cup.” Clydie King & Venetta Fields, both formerly of Ray Charles’ legendary Raelettes, blessed this godforsaken mess with some church-fueled vocal beauty. Most importantly, Mick Taylor, the best pure musician the Rolling Stones ever counted as a member, was in the sweet spot of his five-year tenure in the band. Taylor’s imprints are all over this record. He plays every lick of slide guitar. He plays lead and rhythm in other places. He even subs in for bassist Bill Wyman on bass for five tracks, presumably since Wyman was either shagging or sleeping at the time. Or maybe Richards just knew Taylor was by then the group’s secret weapon. Either way, he wields his axe with devastating effect all over the album.
Speaking of Micks, despite Taylor's virtuosity, it ain’t the Rolling Stones without the one whose lips came to symbolize this entire enterprise. I don't blame Mick Jagger for not counting Exile among his personal favorites. This is clearly a "Keef" album, probably 65/35, on the Jagger/Richards sliding “Glimmer Twins” scale. That's before we even get into the Daily Mirror-esque tawdry tales. Things that led to two boyhood friends stealing each other’s girls during the recording process, documented in rock folklore many times before, recently and mockingly in Richards’ LIFE autobiography, referencing his strutting lead singer's "tiny todger.”
On a purely musical level, Jagger's vocals are oddly muted. His words are slurred. The mix is muddled. The band is up front, with singing pushed back even with top-shelf lyrics. Despite this fact, this same singer, who happens to be one of the legendary front men in rock history, spends the entire album spitting bile and adding bite, even when backing up his fellow gunslinger's most iconic solo track.
Let’s move along, to these eighteen intoxicatingly heady rock and roll songs. If you can name ten better albums in rock history to help you get your "Rocks Off,” I’d say you're dreaming. Step up. Toss your "Tumbling Dice" while you "Shake Your Hips" to the "Casino Boogie.” As the Stones "Rip This Joint,” lack of oxygen inside their basement in the French countryside will give you the "Ventilator Blues.”
But "Stop Breaking Down.” To truly appreciate Exile, along with the "Torn and Frayed" folks who created it to make you “Happy,” while temporarily and toxically trying to do the same for themselves, you gotta follow them “All Down the Line.”
Somewhere in the depths of all this darkness, the voice of a "Sweet Black Angel" will find you and then "Shine a Light.” Come on. Come on down, "Sweet Virginia.” That "Turd on the Run" has got some shit on your shoe, and just seen too many flies on you, but this dirty demon-fueled masterpiece can help you brush ‘em off.
Much love to Keith & Mick. 45 years after this album was released and over 65 years since they first met each other, these two are somehow still “Soul Survivors.” Long after today, their legacy, in particular Exile on Main St., will still be.