As a wee young lad, I was walking by the cut-out bin in a department store when suddenly it caught my eye: Exile On Main Street — a double LP with a set of trendy postcards packaged inside a B & W collage comprising war-torn photos of circus freaks, fringe entertainers and those disemboweled, scruffy jesters collectively known as the Rolling Stones. The year was 1972, the record had only been out for a couple of months, and I scored it for a remarkable $3.27. Almost immediately, I sensed something was wrong. When I got home and threw it on the turntable, the only justifiable reason I could fathom was that the low price must have been a clerical error.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, Exile On Main Street was not initially a monster hit for the Stones. Even as “Tumbling Dice” barnstormed the charts, the album it came from was dismissed by critics and fans as nothing more than a sprawling mess. I guess I was just too young to understand. With bounce-off-the-wall rockers like “Rocks Off” and “Rip This Joint” leading the way, I thought it was the greatest thing since Machine Head. Only after a few more measured listenings, when I finally got tired of the novelty behind the chorus of “Sweet Virginia,” did I realize that this was to be the last stroke of pure, unadulterated genius we would EVER get from the World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band.
Recorded at Keith Richards’ rented chateau in the South of France, Exile On Main Street is an intoxicating melting pot of gospel, blues, country and rock. With the toss and turning guitar work-outs by Keith Richards and Mick Taylor, the firm rhythm section of Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman, smoothly rounded out by Nicky Hopkins’ saloon-styled piano and Bobby Keys’ shimmering sax solos – Mick Jagger is free to vocally meander through a field of rich and vibrant soundscapes. Collectively, the Stones dodge bullets as they swing through “Loving Cup” and leap tall buildings in a single bound cruising “All Down The Line.” Alternately, they manage to keep a stiff upper lip during “Shine A Light.” And while I churn through another reissue and take notice of the $3.27 original I still have in my collection, I can’t help but ponder how this album remains as feverishly delicious upon each subsequent feeding.
Almost 40 years later, Exile On Main Street has been revived with extra songs, an expanded vinyl version, a Super Deluxe Edition, a book, a film, tons of press, and the ample support of those much older and sophisticated, ever so scruffy jesters collectively known as the Rolling Stones. The double-CD version features 10 tracks reportedly cut during the Exile sessions. That’s only half-true. Mick Jagger, who has said repeatedly he has issues with much of what came out during that period, apparently felt the need to go into the studio with Don Was and re-cut vocals on some of the extra songs. What the singer failed to recognize are the subtle changes to the timbre of his voice, making “Plundered My Soul” and “Following The River” sound more like outtakes from A Bigger Bang than Exile On Main Street.
Rewriting history isn’t something anyone should being doing on precious recordings, especially on something as venerated as Exile. Fortunately, alternate takes of “Loving Cup” and “Soul Survivor” (with Keith Richards on vocals) offer a more accurate picture. And the lazy guitar lines rowing the boat on “So Divine (Aladdin Story),” along with “Good Time Women,” essentially an early version of “Tumbling Dice,” certainly make the reissue a worthwhile investment. Actually, as a package, it was difficult for me to contain my excitement at the mere spectacle of an updated, sonically improved Exile On Main Street. Even though you now have to pay extra to get the trendy postcards.
~ Shawn Perry