It’s the end of the month so that means it’s time to profile another double album! The album in question may in fact be the best album that I will ever talk about on this blog, that is The Rolling Stones’ 1972 magnum opus Exile on Main St. The final record in the band’s incredible five year untouchable golden run that brought forth Beggar’s Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile; some of the finest rock music ever recorded. The Stones were the kings of rock and roll and at the peak of their creative powers.
Describing Exile on Main St. itself is rather difficult due to the sheer vastness of it all. Describing it piece by piece is also somewhat of a challenge because on first blush it is a cobbled together collection of muddily mixed rock-ish genre tracks. The strength of the album comes from the depth as well as breadth found in between the two vinyl discs. Sure, The Rolling Stones were a rock and roll band, they in fact bill themselves as the world’s greatest, but this album displays a vast reservoir of blues, soul, gospel, and country to go along with it. I think we should just jump in instead of me setting the stage any more.
The album begins in true Stones flair, with a drugged out and muddy sounding rocker about their hedonistic rock lifestyle. The song is appropriately titled Rocks Off, and sets an exhilarating tone for the rest of the record. The song’s mix is purposely haphazard, with instruments cutting in and out with little rhyme or reason, yet somehow it sounds better than the most professional records of the era. Session piano man Nicky Hopkins contributes his famous key licks to the track, and the backing brass keeps the song swinging as it frolics along.
A slow fade out and suddenly we find ourselves being swept up in Rip This Joint, one of the fastest songs the band ever recorded. A short little rocker moving at a breakneck pace, the song is about a tour across the country, and certainly could be seen to mirror the Stones’ own tours of the era, which were some of the most famous of all time for their decadence and general indecency.
The first of the cover songs on the album, track three is the Stones taking on Slim Harpo’s swinging blues classic Shake Your Hips. The Stones were perhaps the most decorated cover band of the time, devoting at least one album slot to an old blues or Motown standard which they gave a triumphant dressing up.
The fourth song on the first side is Casino Boogie, which takes blues images and shuffles them around a swinging boogie beat. The song has Keith Richard’s affection for the blues written all over it in his guitar lines and his backing vocals supporting Mick Jagger’s muddy drawl.
To close out the first quarter of the album we run into Tumbling Dice. Unlike the rest of The Rolling Stone’s albums, Exile has no real hits, as in a signature song that instantly conjures up the image of the rest of the album to other fans. Tumbling Dice is perhaps the closest thing to this as it is the most regularly performed song on the album in concert. The song features Jagger and a chorus of beautiful backing singers singing about gambling and infidelity. Sixth-Stone Ian Stewart contributes piano to the song. Drummer Charlie Watts was allegedly frustrated with his ability to play the beat coming out of the “keep on rolling” section of the song and was replaced in that part by producer Jimmy Miller, who also played drums on the Stone’s mega-hit You Can’t Always Get What You Want.
The second side begins with the song Sweet Virginia, a country-blues piece featuring the whole stones ensemble including Ian Stewart. Keith Richards and Mick Taylor duet on acoustic guitars and provide backing vocals for Mick Jagger along with a whole crew of other backing vocalists along with New Orleans blues legend Dr. John.
The second track on the second side is more country than country-blues but it has a notable soul influence in the vocalizations and the organ track. Al Perkins of The Flying Burrito Brothers contributed his signature steel pedal guitar to the song. Torn and Frayed is similar in lyrical content to other Stones country-influenced tracks as Dear Doctor and Far Away Eyes, telling the stories of washed up and haggard protagonists trying to survive their trying times.
While staying in the country-blues theme of this side of the album, Sweet Black Angel stands in stark contrast thematically to the other tracks on the album. Behind the absolutely beautiful acoustic arrangements is a sharp political statement from the Stones concerning the trail of civil rights activist Angela Davis, who was being charged with murder at the time the album was being recorded. The Stones were never a very political band, but this is one of their most overt statement against injustice as they saw it.
To close the first album is the lush and lusty Loving Cup. Nicky Hopkins takes over again on the keys and together with Charlie Watts and bassist Bill Wyman provides the Stones the perfect backing track to perform their subtle and sublime overlays. Similar to Tumbling Dice, Loving Cup has an aurally astounding vocal display from Mick Jagger and his backing vocalists.
The second album begins with the classic Keith Richards song Happy. It is considered to be the signature tune for the guitarist, and is frequently played in concert whenever Keith gets his two or so songs in the middle of the show. Mick Taylor performs the slide guitar and Mick Jagger is relegated to backing vocals for this one track. Both Ian Stewart and Nicky Hopkins play piano on the song, with session man Hopkins taking up the electric piano.
The next track is the short and rollicking Turd on the Run, and yes that is the song’s name. The song has a varied mix of acoustic and electric instrument and the production job makes it somewhat difficult to decipher what exactly is being said and played, but it’s a fun little tune.
A deep down and dirty slide guitar riff from Keith Richards starts off the lumbering Ventilator Blues. The song is the only song ever co-credited to guitarist Mick Taylor, although he only plays the guitar solo that closes out the song. It’s likely that he also wrote the guitar licks even though Keith plays them on the recorded version. Nicky Hopkin’s complex and articulate piano riffs roll up and down and contrast the slow back beat.
Ventilator Blues fades directly into I Just Want to See His Face. A gospel inspired song, the combination of the falsetto vocals and sparse instrumentation make the song sound as if it’s somewhere out of the 19th century swamps and fields of the American Deep South.
The last song on the third side is Let It Loose, one of the most spiritually moving songs that The Rolling Stones ever wrote. The song draws on soul, gospel, and blues and meshes them together in an incredibly powerful manner that draws out the very heart of any invested listener. Dr. John again contributes backing vocals and also performs the delicate piano track. Mick Jagger gives one of his finest vocal performances on the song, this is high praise for the singer of a band whose very logo is a mouth. The backing gospel choir adds onto Jagger’s solos with precise angelic swoons and hails. Taylor and Richard’s guitars, plugged into Leslie organ speakers, give the song another unique angle that makes it stand out not only on the album but throughout the Stones catalog.
The last side of the album would not be as tame as the previous two, beginning with a bang with All Down the Line. The song is one of the most straightforward rock tracks on the album. It features Mick Taylor’s slick electric slide guitar licks, a key to the band’s success during his tenure as guitarist opposite Keith Richards. Bill Wyman’s bass and Charlie Watt’s drums pull the song forward like a speedy roadster. Bobby Keys and Jim Price, who contributed sax, and trumpet and trombone throughout the album lend their lungs to this rolling record.
The second cover song on Exile can be found in Stop Breaking Down, from the original blues master Robert Johnson himself. The song contains much more instrumentation than just Johnson and his solitary acoustic guitar, with Taylor once again performing his masterful slide. Mick Jagger plays harmonica in addition to singing. A full band effort, the song is a great example for how the Stones can retool an old blues song into a rock and roll format.
The album makes its last twist and turn in direction with the gospel inspired Shine a Light. The song was written for former Stones guitarist Brian Jones, whose tragic detachment from the band and eventual death is spiritually chronicled in harrowing style by Mick Jagger. Jones’ replacement Mick Taylor plays a fitting emotive guitar tribute to his predecessor. Billy Preston, who had performed with The Beatles in their Get Back and Abbey Road days contributed both piano and organ to the song.
To close out an album as vast and expansive as Exile on Main St. we finally come to Soul Survivor. The tune seems to sum up the album, drawing elements from many of the genres explored in the album, including soul, gospel, and of course rock and roll.
With that we reach the end of the album Exile on Main St. It is truly one of rock music’s great master works and is an essential record in the history of genre as a whole. The album displays an astounding depth and breadth in all of the 18 tracks laid down by the band. If you want to experience what rock music was at its absolute height, this is a great place to start.
I’d like to thank all of my readers, running this weekly publication has been very fun and rewarding. I was honored on April 25th as KCR Radio’s best blogger and I hope to continue my work here. Thanks for reading.