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ALBUM REVIEW
Exile On Main Street – The Rolling Stones

Exile On Main Street album cover
Released: May 12, 1972
Produced by: Jimmy Miller

Album Review Written By: Sampson


You Can Be My Partner In Crime

In 1872, deep in the dusty crevices of the southwestern territory of the United States, a five piece band played a well-received engagement at a popular rowdy saloon, their instrumental prowess on violin, piano, horn, drum and bass fiddle enticing drunken miners, cowboys and gamblers into lewd and lascivious dancing with various ladies of the night, filling the bar owner's till as the thirsty revelers downed a steady supply of drinks to keep their inhibitions at bay. When the last of the patrons finally staggered out, drunk and delirious, the band, exhausted from hours of playing without respite, seethed as the owner counted out twelve dollars from a cash register overflowing with wrinkled bills and gold coins and stuffed it in their aching cramped hands to split between them as severance for their work. 

As the dawn rose over New Mexico three hours later the bar owner, his woman and a stout bull necked bartender lay on the dusty wooden floor in a gruesome tangle, their seeping blood so thick that it wouldn't fully dry for days. Leading away from the massacre were the crimson footprints of the murderers, three fifths of the band, who slashed their employer's belly with a long blade knife after an argument over their pittance wages they'd received for their playing. The tussle drew the attention of the owner's common law wife who attacked the musicians with the first weapon she could pick up, a rarely used broom, which alerted the beefy bartender who doubled as the saloon's bouncer and who had gone into the storeroom to take a much needed nap. He took the longest to subdue and was still breathing when the horrific scene was happened upon the next morning. Though he wouldn't survive past noon that day he was able to identify the perpetrators as the disgruntled band members. They'd spent all of thirty-six hours in Tularosa bringing people to their feet with their playing, and left as fugitives, two hundred some odd stolen dollars stuffed in their saddle bags, instruments left scattered at the scene, heading in a mad dash for the Mexican border. The musicians turned murderers, exiled from their country by virtue of their actions were destined to be hunted down and returned weeks later in shackles to face the hangman.  The bar soon changed hands and the revelry continued unabated, hosting more traveling musicians who played on a floor still stained with the residue of the previous band's grisly contractual negotiations, an ominous reminder that entertainment, however popular, is always replaceable. 

One hundred years later another band made a hasty, though less violent, exit from their country with sundry legal entanglements hanging over their collective heads as well.  There were no slain bodies left in their wake to be discovered, no armed posse in pursuit, nor even an ample reward for their return, but their exile would remain fixed in musical lore long after.


You Got To Roll Me

Since its beginnings in 1947 rock 'n' roll had been viewed by much of the established societal hierarchy as an outlaw music, its practitioners actively undermining accepted social mores and promoting open rebellion. The Rolling Stones, in a way, had lucked into their roles as the standard bearers for objectionable musical idols in the mid-sixties. They came upon the scene with a ready made rivalry in the form of their fellow countrymen, The Beatles, a more polished pop-rooted band who already had found widespread mainstream acceptance, in large part by intentionally downplaying their seedier early image once they came to America. It was a rivalry in which the Stones, for all their musical skill, stood little chance of winning commercially, yet because their very roots lay deeper within rock music's core, tapping into that unspoken societal rift delineating between the races, they just needed to present it in precisely the right fashion to turn that detrimental image into a positive by providing a distinct adversarial choice to The Fab Four for listeners who craved a more rebellious image to affix their allegiances to.   

Their look and their music was rougher than their counterparts, who initially sought acceptance by the establishment, whereas The Stones from the start gave the impression at times that they were seeking to overthrow the establishment. Though soon their records would be just as likely for airplay as their more embraced competitors, The Stones eternal edge in the ever-changing landscape of rock 'n' roll was the perception of them as outlaws, rogues and scoundrels.  Real or exaggerated, that image surely built their legacy every bit as much as their music. By the end of the sixties a whirlwind of events had cemented that label – from the death of founding member Brian Jones, to the murder of a fan at their violence plagued free outdoor concert at Altamont – the Stones were actually now at risk of morphing into what had been simply a loose knit marketing façade. 


It's Gonna Be The Death Of Me

As the seventies dawned however, the rock landscape was undergoing dramatic upheavals once more. Of the band's contemporaries dating back to their breakthrough in 1964, there were fewer and fewer left or still viable. The Beatles had broken up, Diana Ross had left the Supremes, Brian Wilson withdrew from The Beach Boys, Otis Redding had died. Along the way new stars, from Cream to Sam & Dave, The Doors and Jimi Hendrix, had risen fast, shone brightly and burned out in one way or another. More and more every day, rock 'n' roll was splitting along seismic lines with FM radio fragmenting audiences into smaller, insulated stylistic camps, often diametrically opposed to one another. The emerging rock styles were getting more musically ornate on one hand, with the string-swaddled Philly Soul groups taking the place of their grittier solo predecessors from the south, and the rise of classically influenced progressive rock groups with elaborate song craft spread over entire albums replacing the short explosive burst of the three minute single that had ruled the marketplace for so long.  On the other hand there were segments of rock that had become increasingly heavier in the form of Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath, as well as funk, led by Sly & The Family Stone along with the style's originator, James Brown, one of the few remaining dominant presences from the Stones earliest days, which was embracing a more ethnic-oriented political image. All of these forms of rock became self-supporting, cultivating their own isolated fan bases at the expense of a universal language known to all. Gone were the days of the diverse musical cross-pollination that The Rolling Stones had so fervently drawn from to create their own brand of nitro-fueled ragged rock 'n' roll. By 1971 that world, one which they knew and loved so well and had come to represent as much as anyone, was falling apart around their feet. Yet somehow The Stones were still standing. 

While the changing worldview loomed ominously over them, the more pressing problem for a band that had achieved so much was the confiscatory income tax laws of Great Britain hit millionaire rock stars particularly hard. Having 93 percent of your income forcibly taken by the government – any government – would be enough for somebody to want to flee that country and so flee they did, to the south of France where they holed up in Villa Nellcôte, a sprawling mansion that once housed Nazis during the second World War that Keith Richards had rented. In order to ensure his daily participation the house itself was eventually chosen to act as the de facto studio for their upcoming album with the working title Tropical Disease, before eventually being renamed for the quintessential declaration of their predicament - Exile On Main Street. It was there, amidst drunken sprees, drug deliveries by various sundry figures, and wild parties that seemed to have no beginning and certainly no end, that the band finally got down to recording in the crumbling, dank, dark basement.  Hardly the ideal working conditions for a group whose current album, Sticky Fingers, was resting comfortably atop the U.S. Album Charts at the time.  Unable to communicate with the mobile recording unit parked in the driveway, musicians in separate rooms from their amps because of limited space, instruments going out of tune due to the stifling humidity, all while the drinking and drug use went on unabated, with hangers-on drifting in and out of the proceedings and the lead singer himself, Mick Jagger, going off to get married and departing on his honeymoon, the rest of the band followed Keith's haphazard schedule to lay down the basic tracks over months of arduous work in unfamiliar surroundings. No album, certainly no album by an established group, likely ever faced as many obstacles to its completion as this. As its primary architect, Richards, said of the album – "It was us against the world now". 

But that was its key.  Just like that, exiled to foreign soil, the cohesiveness of the band having been strained, the musical tectonic shifts rumbling all around them, The Rolling Stones had somehow gotten their edge back.  Their outlaw image now suddenly felt wholly authentic.


Zipping Through The Days At Lightning Speed

They enter, not surprisingly, with a guitar riff. Keith lays down the groove as the others shamble in on their own, seemingly picking up their instruments and joining in on the fly. The aptly named Rocks Off is rock 'n' roll at its most basic and most potent, a group of musicians jamming together for the sake of jamming, and over the course of the song, very quickly in fact, gel together completely. Mick's voice, a hung-over slurry drawl at the start, plays up its exaggerated tone, like he's joking around before the track kicks into high gear as the tempo shifts upwards and the engines roar as they reach cruising speed. His voice now whines like a well-tuned engine, accelerating at a dangerous speed, the sound of the instruments roaring past as everything around them becomes a blur. The boogie piano of Nicky Hopkins, the careening harmony vocals of Richards, the bashing of the cymbals and finally the cavalry that comes along in the form of the horn section provides reinforcements for the charge into the unknown. The perfect sound of a ragged band, brimming with cockiness, the aural personification of everything the Stones stood for and would come to represent. It's musical freedom and musical anarchy, which are probably the same thing come to think of it, simply rephrased for the benefit of the fans on one hand and the critics of their chosen profession on the other. Either way, the blast furnace doors have been ripped off their hinges and the fury of the roaring inferno is already singeing your face as Jagger masochistically wails, "I can't even feel the pain no morrrrrrrre".

Imagine your surprise that the song isn't even half over yet, though the rest of it is simply the train hauling ass down the track, getting smaller and smaller in the distance until finally it disappears out of sight, a vacuous chasm left in its wake where deafening sound had just been, leaving behind the ominous reminder of its power in the form of Mick Taylor's slinky guitar coda. 

If the listener was left standing at the station watching the churning locomotive steam towards the horizon at the tail end of "Rocks Off", they were abruptly transported back into the boiler room of that train for "Rip This Joint" and by the sounds of it the engineer had finished the bottle he was packing and was giving in to his death wish, hurtling towards the end of the line, maybe going off the cliff in a blaze of glory and having the time of his life doing so. The runaway train metaphor is no metaphor at all, as the Stones tackled this 50's pastiche at breakneck speed, possibly to outrun, not just the posse on their trail, but also the copyright lawyers for blatantly nicking fragmented bits and pieces from a litany of songs from their past, including Chuck Berry's train-themed "Let It Rock", the title of which Jagger screams with the joyous abandonment of someone about to crash and burn. The sources within are so multitudinous that it becomes a parlor game trying to catch them all. Are they raising hell at the same union hall where Little Richard once shagged at?  Most likely, but while people always point to Richard as a prime stylistic precursor to this, it owed an even greater debt to his label mate and inheritor to that 50's piano pounding legacy, Larry Williams, perhaps the most authentic rock 'n' roll outlaw, who in 1980 would be murdered by rogue cops after years as a pimp, drug dealer and cat burglar, and someone who the Stones clearly felt a kindred spirit towards in their careers. They copped his "She Said Yeah" nearly a decade before, now they name check Williams' biggest hit, "Short Fat Fannie" in a song that seems to owe much of its style to Williams hell-bent, hang on for dear life, approach.  Meanwhile, Jagger had long claimed to be vocally influenced by Fats Domino, whose thick Creole patois always made it seem like the words were mumbled, and here Jagger sounds like he's got a whole lotta fat dominos in his mouth, spitting them out from time to time to enunciate a line or two, just to keep you aware that these are actually lyrics in the songs. Meanwhile the Bobby Keys sax solo could've fit on any number of 50's rock classics, while Hopkins is maniacally playing throwback-styled piano triplets as if trying to shake the devil off his back. So when the train finally slows without going off the rails after all, the chugging riff picks up again as Slim Harpo's erotic "Shake Your Hips" comes into view, and the aura, whether implicit, insinuated or simply speculative, is firmly established. Though Harpo's song was lifted directly, the mood of it, the murky vocals Jagger hides behinds, and the ambiance of seething danger it possesses, makes it seem wholly original in the greater context of the album and causes you to become fully immersed in the steamy atmosphere they've conjured up.

So now we can settle in. The adrenaline rush of the first two tracks and the ominous pulsating groove that followed have grabbed every last bit of your attention. A double album or not, you're hooked for the duration, so the Stones are gonna milk it for all they're worth. But slowing down doesn't mean letting up on the mood. "Casino Boogie" twitches with menacing anticipation, like a scorpion on the desert floor as the wild bunch of outlaws pass on their way to their hideout in the looming mountain terrain ahead. A virtual duet between Jagger and Richards, his voice unusually high as he weaves in and out of the vocal mix, finishing Mick's lines at times, doubling him in a sultry verbal tango. The competitive brotherly love/hate relationship between them that always existed under the surface reached its zenith during this period. Ever since, with the Keith-overseen Exile long since established as the Stones ultimate album, Mick just as regularly downplays it, as if he's not able to give his running mate the credit he earned, tweaking him just enough to remind him who really steers the train. Yet here, as they twist their words erotically around one another's tongue, it shows how dependent each was on the other. So called album filler was never this fascinating before.

Most of the Stones previous albums, as brilliant as they usually were, had their singles stand out above the rest of the material, their cohesiveness as albums known to far fewer than those who had only latched on to the hit or two contained within. Even the best of those albums will regularly have tracks skipped to get to the most familiar of hits and those songs, stripped of their context, don't suffer in the least from the estrangement. Not so on Exile, where "Tumbling Dice" was the unquestioned hit, still heard on catalog radio decades later, and still sounding incomplete when separated from the rest of the album, an orphan longing to be back with his siblings. Adding to this sense is its famously murky fidelity, lead vocals that are swamped first by the chugging instrumental track, then the gospelish backing singers (Clydie King and Vanetta Fields), and even Mick's own disembodied second voice at times. Lyrics come to the forefront only sporadically, leaving behind a shaman's stream of consciousness, indecipherable and unintelligible. It doesn't matter in the least. The essence of the song is the feel, the addictive late night boozy sway of the melody, the quickening pace of the coda propelled by Charlie Watts' thumping drums and the echoing vocal refrains, until all that's left come morning is a blurry haze of fleeting memories and the sly smile in knowing something magical was achieved sometime during the night.

When morning does come, what better way to greet it while wiping the sleep out of your eyes, with a half dozen friends or so falling out of bed and shuffling around the cold house stiffly as everyone gathers around a table, than with a slow, archaic country ramble, that seems to draw you closer to the warmth of the smoldering fire in the stove. "Sweet Virginia" is the sound of that communal breakfast, everyone slowly getting their bearings as they greet one another. By the end of the meal the conversation flows freely with the coffee or leftover wine and the music floats alongside the boisterous talk and laughter through the morning sunshine pouring in the windows. They delve further into the country-rock idiom from there, particularly Jagger's exaggerated twangy vocals in the first verse of "Torn And Frayed", almost as if he's mocking the very thing he's singing, as if testing out their willingness to go along, but allowing for full-commitment by the time the others join in on the joyous loose-limbed harmonies.  The ghostly organ of Jim Price adds to the ambiance, but the hoedown spirit permeates the track in spite of the downcast lyrics, which still manage to find hope "as long as the guit-tar plays". They may be groggy and hung-over still, but they're on their feet again and ready to face the new day, whatever it may bring.


Make Every Song You Sing Your Favorite Tune

Hypnotic.  Seductive. Controversial. "Sweet Black Angel" is all of these things and more. A delectable subversive tribute to Angela Davis, whose membership in the Communist Party at first nearly derailed her career in academia, then with the establishment failing to get her ousted over that, she was fired by UCLA for supposedly "offensive and inflammatory" speeches she'd given. She immediately became a cause célèbre in underground radical political circles, the Black Panthers and various student movements, but that only made her a bigger target to be taken down. When a high school student, using a shotgun that had been purchased earlier by Davis, killed a judge in a highly publicized hostage situation, Davis was implicated in the crime and she became only the third woman to ever make the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List. Captured after two months as a fugitive, in October 1970, her plight led to a massive liberation movement which was ongoing when the Stones – with her picture hanging on the wall in their makeshift studio – cut their impassioned ode to the beautiful afro'd martyr. While the album's package contained no lyrics for the unwitting to decipher, and the grimy mix left Jagger's words, which explicitly detailed the shameful railroading of her, floating eerily amidst the instruments, their calls to free her were made clear. Symbolically, a month after the album's release she was justly acquitted in June, 1972. The track grounds the album's second side, musically and spiritually, and remains the most overtly political protest song the Rolling Stones ever cut.

The stately piano that leads into "Loving Cup" lends the right mix of emotional gravitas coming off the righteous hymn that preceded it, but soon the piano recedes ever so slightly and the drums and guitar rise to pick up the slack. Jagger's vocals are the clearest they've been yet as the album hits its most unified note, with each element sharing the stage equally. Once the horns jump on board the song is in full swing and the true democratic nature of the Stones is apparent. Carrying that to its most dramatic extreme is "Happy", the first song in their canon to feature a lead vocal by someone other than Michael Phillip Jagger. The symbolism is unmistakable while the vibe is undeniable. Keith Richards takes center stage in all his glory, a truly happy soul – happy just to be making music it seems. There's nothing more needed in his world than a guitar, some booze and a few friends to sing along with. No Mick there tonight? That's alright, sing it yourself. That Mick joins in on the overdubbed harmony laden chorus and takes the coda, no matter his true thoughts on taking a back seat at the time, shows that even when it overturned the entire dynamic of the band, when something worked they all acknowledged that fact and went with it.

The deviant boogie formula of John Lee Hooker, sped up to the extreme, on a throwaway-type song with the self-mocking title of "Turd On The Run" becomes oddly addictive when crammed into the middle of a loose, free-wheeling album by a bunch of delinquent rock 'n' rollers. Jagger's rhythmic lead vocals ride the insistent guitars straight downhill, wiping out anything in their path without looking back, howling with unfettered pleasure at their destruction, even as it wipes them out with it. So naturally when they reach the bottom of that hill, tumbling over each other in a heap, they need to get to their knees before they ever get to their feet. In that vein, "Ventilator Blues" is slow and deliberate, a choice meaty riff ripped from the corpse of a hundred dead bluesman, held aloft with pride and gnawed on with ravenous hunger by the band. It's 99% attitude and 1% refinement and even that might be underselling it by half.

In the seamless transition from the fade of "Ventilator Blues" to the intro of "I Just Want To See His Face" the album's larger ambition becomes apparent. Whether originally conceived as such or not, their genius for sticking to a double album format, in spite of the risks of sacrificing the taut flow and losing too many listeners over the vast sprawling landscape they laid down, was best seen here in what can only be called the most humid track they ever cut. Floating into consciousness out of the darkness, eerie disembodied voices hovering on the periphery, electric piano, congas and bass mixing together in a lethal voodoo spell, this is The Rolling Stones submerged in the swamps outside of New Orleans, alligators menacingly floating alongside them as they paddle nonchalantly to shore, right at home in the mire. Proof that they'd been baptized by Dr. John and gifted with a helping of Gris Gris from his own bag of tricks. The song goes nowhere but in circles, yet has you diving back in for more all the same.

Speaking of Dr. John, the good doctor himself appears on "Let It Loose", along with fellow Crescent City alum, Shirley Goodman (who also sounds as if she was on the preceding track as well, though uncredited). But this song doesn't lurk in the bayou, it's straight from the church, almost a hymn of sorts and the longest cut on the album, in which a wary Mick ruminates on love and devotion, almost as if talking to himself in a dream state.  So when the highway romp "All Down The Line" kicks in, with its piercing guitar licks cutting through the faded reverie we just left, and Mick Taylor's slurry slide parts leaping out at you, it's actually jarring to the senses. It signaled a new side on the vinyl, but almost an entirely new record it seems breaks free, no matter the format. We're now in the home stretch, the band flexing their considerable muscles, finally having gotten into peak shape over the course of the album and ready to return to the style they lay claim to as their own.

Naturally that means blues-inspired rock and so they take a detour back to the pure blues of Robert Johnson's "Stop Breaking Down", paying homage to one of their avowed idols and one of the most famed musical outlaw images that they long modeled themselves on, in spirit anyway.  The rough necked authority of Jagger's voice, combined with the beefed up guitars, always catch the Stones whenever they threaten to ride off the rails into another realm and drag them back to their roots. It works every time it's needed too, renewing their faith in themselves as much as confirming their tangled musical DNA, which like all true rock prophets can not be contained within a single style, but needs to be given expression in a myriad of ways. On Exile that included gospel in the form of "Shine A Light". That connection is explicit in the presence of the organ (by guest Billy Preston) and the heavenly backing choir of black angels that helped to shape the second LP of the set in particular. But more than the sounds, it's the theme – desperation in the face of adversity, the hope to rise above it and calling on a higher power to help them through – that earmarks it as the Stones at their most spiritual. Originally written back in 1968, while watching Brian Jones' self-destruction firsthand, the placement of it on Exile five years later means its subject could be easily switched to Richards, whose drug use was becoming ever more prolific. For Jagger (and this is the one cut that is mostly Mick's doing, as Keith doesn't even play on it), seeing not one, but now two of his most trusted bandmates fall prey to the lifestyle was a frightening prospect. Yet the sad harrowing scene Mick lays bare in the lyrics improbably gives way to the possibility of a glorious redemption with the most uplifting chorus in their long decadent history. 

So it should come as no surprise that they close with an ode to their endurance in typically cocky defiance of all odds they may face with "Soul Survivor". Sticking closest to their grungy riff-rooted templates they'd long since made their name on, it's essentially "Street Fightin' Man" updated after the battles of those streets have wracked up too many casualties and the participants have gone from idealists fighting for their beliefs to hardened soldiers of fortune, fighting now only because it pays well and it's all they know anymore. They're resigned to their fates by now, smirking proudly at the bounties placed on their heads, their litany of crimes too long to put behind them, their outlaw reputations shackled to their souls for eternity while the date with the hangman is inevitable somewhere down the road. Until that time when the devil comes to collect his due the band simply has no choice but to survive.


Judge And Jury Walked Out Hand In Hand

But that's what the Rolling Stones are when all is said and done. Rock's ultimate mercenaries. From this point forward they started to amass their fortune with massive tours and worked more on securing their legacy than adding to it. Exile On Main Street was the last moment where they were truly the best band in rock 'n' roll before becoming officially "The World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band" (patent, eternally, pending). Soon their individual lifestyles unraveled the fabric of the group, their self-destructive habits ate away at their focus, and inspiration went from being their constant companion in the studio to an ever more fleeting and elusive mistress. But the musical gunslingers bid their glory days a farewell for the ages with the exhilarating cosmic rush of Exile.

The outlaws escaped in the end. They rode off into the parched hills, saddlebags overflowing with loot, guns emptied, bloodied but unbowed. As with all such stories, once the climatic shootout is over, when the sun sets, the air grows still and the dust settles, all that's left is for the characters to fade slowly into legend.


ALBUM TRACKS
Rocks Off
Rip This Joint
Shake Your Hips
Casino Boogie
Tumbling Dice
Sweet Virginia
Torn And Frayed
Sweet Black Angel
Loving Cup
Happy
Turd On The Run
Ventilator Blues
I Just Want To See His Face
Let It Loose
All Down The Line
Stop Breaking Down
Shine A Light
Soul Survivor


ALBUM CHARTS
Exile On Main Street - #1 U.S. Charts / #1 U.K. Charts

SINGLES CHARTS
Tumbling Dice - #7 U.S. / #5 U.K.
Happy - #22 U.S



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