We Got the Beat
Let’s start off with what’s new (and controversial) about the deluxe reissue ofExile On Main Streetthe 1972 double-album masterpiece by the Rolling Stones: The bonus tracks.
Inevitably, these tracks will infuriate some purists who claim, and rightfully so, that they’re not the true product of the Exile sessions since Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and the boys added some studio embellishments in preparation for the new release.
Considering that Tattoo You (which is generally regarded as the band’s last great album) was a bunch of '70s leftovers reworked as a last resort, the quibbles over what was recorded when seems trivial at best.
Thus, we’re left with some intriguing Frankenstein creations of old tracks cleaned up and finished by new contributions, some of which feel totally at peace with the original album. “Plundered My Soul” is a standout, Mick adding appropriately addled vocals to a long-lost instrumental track that works a similar groove to “Tumbling Dice.”
(And kudos to the boys for inviting Mick Taylor, who famously left the band for a solo career that never took off, to come back and help finish off the song.) The soulful piano ballad “Following The River,” features Jagger at his most tender, the gritty rocker “Dancing In the Light,” contains some hilarious lyrics and a killer groove, and the exotic “So Divine (Aladdin Song),” is a moody marvel that slinks along on a seductive snake-charmer riff.
Other revelations include an alternate take of “Loving Cup,” on which the band starts slowly, feeling its way before revving it up for an exhilarating finish, and “Good Time Women,” an early take on “Tumbling Dice.”
The priciest edition of the album also includes a documentary, Stones In Exile, which reflects on the circumstances surrounding the making of the album, how the group left England as tax exiles and recorded the bulk of the album in a hedonistic spree at Keith Richards’ villa in France.
That legend sometimes overshadows the music itself, but if this reissue does anything else, it should serve to remind everyone what startlingly brilliant work this is.
Yes, there is squalor and debauchery, much of which may have seeped in from the surroundings. But there is also the band taking all of their American music influences, from rockabilly to folk to country to gospel and, of course, to blues, and blending them into a visceral powerhouse.
When the Stones were great
It’s impossible to overstate what Taylor’s presence meant to the group.
The band had a swaggering groove with him that they never achieved before or since. His subtle fills and emotional solos allowed Richards to focus on the riffs, and he’s got some beauties here, from the Chuck Berry-in-a-strip-club intro licks of “Rocks Off,” to the legendary opening bars of “Tumbling Dice.” Charlie Watts is a marvel as usual, unerringly brilliant in supplying what was necessary to each song, while Bill Wyman’s low-key bass work provides a great rhythmic sway.
The catch-as-catch –can recording sessions also allowed for some notable guests to deliver essential contributions. Dr. John’s rollicking piano on “Let It Loose” adds some Southern grit to the track, and Billy Preston’s keyboard work on “Shine A Light” pumps up the mournful majesty.
Stones’ supporting players Bobby Keys (saxophone), Jim Price (horns), Nicky Hopkins (piano) and Ian Stewart (piano) all have stellar moments. And even when hardly anyone was around, magic could happen: Richards took some idle studio time and turned it into “Happy,” perhaps his most memorable lead vocal in group history.
For all of the rock and roll wildness included in its conception, what’s surprising about Exile is how much ambivalence to the lifestyle creeps in to the music. Jagger’s lyrics reveal that even decadence can seem routine.
Check out this eye-opening couplet from “Rocks Off”: “I’m zipping through the days at lightning speed/Plug in, flush out, and fuck and fight and feed.” Elsewhere, “Torn And Frayed” finds Jagger painting a portrait of Richards as a frazzled, disheveled mess, while the menacing “Ventilator Blues” is the downside of the rock and roll dream, all paranoia and anguish.
Much of the genre moves on the album can be seen then as a search for meaning in the midst of chaos. Nowhere does Jagger sound more at home than on the country songs, from the charmingly shambolic “Sweet Virginia” to the bucolic idyll “Loving Cup.” The gospel influence, supposedly sparked by the band’s time spent with Preston, lifts several songs into grandeur without any strain whatsoever, the music acting with healing power.
All of this is evident on “Shine A Light,” Jagger’s moving elegy for Brian Jones and the album’s emotional centerpiece. Mick sees how the celebrity hangers-on can take you down a dead end (“And your late-night friends leave you/In the cold, grey dawn”), and his disgust for the fate of his friend is evident. But he grants him benediction in the chorus, simply asking that the afterlife provides Jones his favorite music.
Grace notes like these are what make this album so special. It’s easy to paint the Stones as caricatures, but their best music tears all of those preconceived notions away with its depth and craft.
Quite simply, Exile On Main Street is not only the Stones at their peak, it is also one of the absolute musical pinnacles in the history of rock and roll. Any excuse to revisit this music this sublime is worth it.
Adobe Flash Required for flash player."Plundered My Soul"
Adobe Flash Required for flash player."So Divine (Aladdin Story)"
Adobe Flash Required for flash player."Shine a Light"
Hear Mick and Keith discuss the landmark album below:
Adobe Flash Required for flash player. 'Old Exile,' New Lyrics
Adobe Flash Required for flash player. An 'Exile' in France