Classic Music Review: Exile on Main Street by The Rolling Stones

936full-exile-on-main-street-cover

Sigh. I have such a hard time getting with the program.

Everybody thinks Dark Side of the Moon is Pink Floyd’s masterwork. I think it’s a bit boring, and not half as interesting as Wish You Were Here or Animals. Everybody thinks Tommy was the greatest thing The Who ever did. “Yawn,” say I, “I’ll take Who’s Next any time.” Everybody thinks Arthur is The Kinks’ masterpiece; I recently caught all kinds of hell from Kinks fans for disputing that conclusion. Everybody thinks Abbey Road was a fitting conclusion to a great run by the greatest band of all time. I think it’s a stinker that shows only that The Beatles hung on about two years too long.

So here I am facing the album that Everybody says is the best thing The Stones ever did and wondering why I’m pretty much alone in thinking that Exile on Main Street is a bloated, busy, overcrowded mass of uninspired music.

Well, at least I can take solace in the fact that Mick Jagger said it wasn’t one of his favorite albums, either. I’ve always thought Mick Jagger was a man of exquisite taste.

My problems with Exile on Main Street apply to just about every track and include:

Dreadful Arrangements: There’s simply too much stuff and too many musicians crammed into nearly every single song. It sounds like The Stones decided to throw everything and everyone who happened to stop by into the mix instead of actually thinking about the sounds and moods they wanted to create. If you look at the arc between Beggars Banquet and Exile on Main Street, we move gradually from elegant simplicity to more and more complexity in the form of horns, keyboards, choirs and backup singers. They managed the added complexity exceptionally well on Sticky Fingers, but here they threw all discipline to the wind. The greatest crime on Exile is the horribly overdone version of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down,” a shocking turnabout after their exquisitely sensitive version of “Love in Vain” on Let It Bleed. And why did they have to include that saxophone on “Sweet Virginia” or those horns that bury everything else on “Rocks Off?” There’s scarcely a song on Exile that doesn’t cause me to wince at some point and shout, “Why the fuck did you have to add that to the mix?” The biggest problem is that all this stuff masks the rhythm and the groove, and while everyone paid attention to Mick and Keith, it was Bill and Charlie that made The Stones go.

Dreadful Mixing: In addition to the sheer quantity of sound, the mixing is simply awful. Mick’s vocals are so muddy and unintelligible at times that I wonder if they bothered to see if his mike was plugged in. Anything’s possible, since they were shipping heroin into Villefranche-sur-Mer like there was no tomorrow and the producer was a major consumer! When you do hear bass and drums, it’s either during the few moments when no one else is playing or because someone accidentally bumped the sliders on the mixer. I’ve listened to the original mix on vinyl from my father’s collection, the 1994 mix from my teenage CD collection and bought the 2010 mix especially for this review. They all suck.

Too Many People Who Are Not The Rolling Stones: There are at least sixteen other musicians, both instrumentalists and singers, on Exile on Main Street as opposed to five Stones. During the recording period, The Stones observed what we refer to today as “flexible schedules,” meaning they pretty much showed up when they felt like it or when their other commitments eased up enough to allow them to grace the recording studio with their presence. The effect of all this chaos is a loss of The Stones’ core sound and attitude. Exile sounds like a large group of people doing Stones covers or a hootenanny of hangers-on and professional druggies.

Witless Lyrics: I mean that literally. The Stones had consistently demonstrated a penetrating sense of humor over the years; the lyrics on Exile are uniformly devoid of wit. In fact, they’re pretty much devoid of anything. There aren’t even any memorable lines that leap out at you. The lyrics are pretty much rock cliché with occasional roads that lead nowhere and a few naughty words thrown in to titillate the mindless. “Moronic Party Album” pretty much sums up Exile on Main St.

When it comes down to it, out of eighteen tracks, I like a grand total of one: “Sweet Black Angel.” Percentage-wise, that would make it my least favorite Stones album, but there are enough faint hints of something decent beneath the muck to put it ahead of the completely unsalvageable Their Satanic Majesties Request. I think Exile is probably a decent party album, if played at that volume where you’re aware of the patterns but aren’t paying attention to the details. By way of decade-based comparison, I like Some Girls a bit better, even though I despise “Miss You” and their pathetic cover of “Just My Imagination.” Since I don’t care at all for Goat’s Head Soup or Black and Blue, I guess Exile wins some kind of consolation prize.

We’ll let the cultured, sophisticated, incisive and extraordinarily perceptive Mr. Jagger have the last word, from the book According to the Rolling Stones:

Exile is not one of my favourite albums, although I think the record does have a particular feeling. I’m not too sure how great the songs are, but put together it’s a nice piece. However, when I listen to Exile it has some of the worst mixes I’ve ever heard. I’d love to remix the record, not just because of the vocals, but because generally I think it sounds lousy. At the time Jimmy Miller was not functioning properly. I had to finish the whole record myself, because otherwise there were just these drunks and junkies. Of course I’m ultimately responsible for it, but it’s really not good and there’s no concerted effort or intention.


20 responses

  1. Michael Chaney | Reply

    Whoa, baby. Really? I mean, “harsh” doesn’t begin to describe your take on Exile. I’m truly shocked. I don’t care if they were recorded using one microphone, songs like Rocks Off, Rip This Joint, Happy, and All Down The Line are about as great as ass-kickin’ RnR gets. And Torn and Frayed,

    While I do agree with some of your broad themes–e.g., subpar production–I have trouble with many of your specific points.

    Lyrics: What’s wrong with these?

    “Mama says yes, Papa says no,
    Make up you mind ’cause I gotta go.
    Gonna raise hell at the Union Hall,
    Drive myself right over the wall.

    Rip this joint, gonna save your soul,
    Round and round and round we go.
    Roll this joint, gonna get down low,
    Start my starter, gonna stop the show.
    Oh, yeah!”

    Or these?

    “I’m zipping through the days at lightning speed.
    Plug in, flush out and fire the fuckin’ feed.
    Heading for the overload,
    Splattered on the dirty road,
    Kick me like you’ve kicked before,
    I can’t even feel the pain no more.

    But I only get my rocks off while I’m dreaming,
    I only get my rocks off while I’m sleeping.

    Feel so hypnotized, can’t describe the scene.
    It’s all mesmerized all that inside me.
    The sunshine bores the daylights out of me.
    Chasing shadows moonlight mystery.
    Headed for the overload,
    Splattered on the dirty road,
    Kick me like you’ve kicked before,
    I can’t even feel the pain no more.”

    Or these?

    “Always took candy from strangers,
    Didn’t wanna get me no trade.
    Never want to be like papa,
    Working for the boss every night and day.”

    Or these?

    “Women think I’m tasty, but they’re always tryin’ to waste me
    And make me burn the candle right down,
    But baby, baby, I don’t need no jewels in my crown.

    ‘Cause all you women is low down gamblers,
    Cheatin’ like I don’t know how,
    But baby, baby, there’s fever in the funk house now.
    This low down bitchin’ got my poor feet a itchin’,
    Don’t you know you know the duece is still wild.

    Baby, I can’t stay, you got to roll me
    And call me the tumblin’ dice.”

    Or these?

    Well the ballrooms and smelly bordellos
    And dressing rooms filled with parasites.
    On stage the band has got problems,
    They’re a bag of nerves on first nights.
    He ain’t tied down to no home town,
    Yeah, and he thought he was wreckless.
    You think he’s bad, he thinks you’re mad,
    Yeah, and the guitar player gets restless.

    And his coat is torn and frayed,
    It’s seen much better days.
    Just as long as the guitar plays
    Let it steal your heart away,
    Let it steal your heart away.

    Joe’s got a cough, sounds kind a rough,
    Yeah, and the codeine to fix it.
    Doctor prescribes, drug store supplies,
    Who’s gonna help him to kick it.”

    Or these?

    “Wadin’ through the waste stormy winter,
    And there’s not a friend to help you through.
    Tryin’ to stop the waves behind your eyeballs,
    Drop your reds, drop your greens and blues.

    Then we get to the main reason to listen to Exile–MICK TAYLOR, IMO the best rock guitarist in history. How could you not praise him, notwithstanding your feelings about the album as a whole? Every note the guy plays on this album is perfect. Listen to his slide work on All Down The Line. That alone fully redeems all the negatives. And he’s masterful throughout.

    Then we have the horns, which I like–a lot. Bobby Keys, Rip This Joint? As good as a sax has ever sounded on a rock song, IMO.

    I don’t love every song on Exile, but the album is in everyone’s top five for good reason. Uh, I mean, ALMOST everyone’s. As a woman who loves terrific RnR, your dismissal of this monster ass-kicker album makes me suspect that for reasons unknown, your contrarian tendencies must have gotten the better of you.

    PS — You mention Pink Floyd. I’d take everything that band ever did and trash it. It’s soulless.

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    1. Usually I listen to an album 3 times before writing a word. I listened to Exile SIX times and nothing changed, and the lyrics still do nothing for me. But now we have two views for readers to consider and that’s good!

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  2. On first hearing (back in late 1972), my first impression of Exile was the same as many other people’s: “many of the songs are the same”, “the sequencing could be better”, “the Stones have become too commercial”… But the second listening led to others and others to this day.

    A friend of mine – also a musician and an even bigger Stones fan than me – says that Exile is a rock and roll equivalent to a symphony, meant to be listened from beginning to end as a hour-long work, not a collection of songs. Indeed, sometimes I feel that too, and some of the songs are similar enough to coalesce as a whole, even the lesser and more unlikely songs add up. Repetition without tedium is the very essence of all dance music, be it in the jungle or the palace ballroom – that’s, in one word, groove. And many of the tracks (“Rocks Off”, “Torn And Frayed”, “Soul Survivor”, “Sweet Black Angel”, “Let It Loose”) are among my all-time Stones favourites.

    As for the sound quality, its lack of clarity is intentional and matches the musical avalanche that the band plus a cast of thousands make – to me it’s a relief compared to many recordings from the 1980s onwards where you can hear even the spaces between the piano keys… Sure, one hour of this taken straight may be intoxicating to some, but then one person’s fish is another person’s poisson… ;^)

    OK, everything I’ve said is IMVHO, regardless of millions or no one else thinking likewise. And I also think that some later Stones albums are very underrated, such as Steel Wheels and Voodoo Lounge. Just as long as the guitar plays…

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    1. I think the circumstances behind the recording would discount the idea that somehow Exile formed a symphony unless symphonies can be created accidentally by people who were far too stoned to think conceptually . . . but that’s just MVHO.

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  3. altrockchick, I agree with just about everything you wrote about Exile. Track-for-track, it is not among the Stones finest albums, and I say this as a huge Stones fan. I’m glad I’m not the only one who feels this way.

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    1. I have tried so hard to like that album. I put it on about a month ago, and it still didn’t grab me. I guess it’s you, me and Mick against the world!

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      1. Oh, I too have tried and I’ve tried and I’ve tried (to reference Mick himself) to like Exile, but to no avail. Music chooses us, of course, not the other way around … so unfortunately you can’t trick yourself into liking a particular record. I must say that I’ve been luckier than you have … I deeply love 6 or 7 tracks from Exile, but the rest just leave me cold, including some of the most beloved tracks on the album. For example…

        • Any redeeming musical value in Rocks Off, like you mentioned, is completely buried by those fucking horns.
        • In Let It Loose, the Leslie-fed guitar at the beginning sounds cheesy, not churchy, Jagger’s vocal sounds strained, and why the fuck did they have to throw so many musicians into the mix? I mean, come on … SIX background singers, trumpet, trombone, mellotron, sax, piano, AND the band?!! I wouldn’t mind all the window-dressing if the song itself were stronger, but it’s not.
        • Stop Breaking Down, which could have been a deeply funky update of Robert Johnson, is instead bland, repetitive, and tiresome, Charlie is (again) buried way too deep in the mix, and Jagger’s delivery again seems forced.

        Beyond these complaints, I think a key problem I have with much of the album is that it exudes exhaustion while trying to be up-tempo and rocking. Goats Heads Soup, their next album, also exudes exhaustion, but in that album the slower tempo and the sad mood of most of the songs sound natural, not forced.

        What baffles me is that so many fans love Exile so much. I truly believe that they are being sincere in claiming they love it; I do not distrust them. However, I wonder how they can possibly overlook all the flaws that you and I find so jarring and disappointing!

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        1. What I’ve heard from people who like it is that it’s a great party album. Guess I won’t be going to those parties!

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          1. Well, I suppose it could be defined as a “party album” if that means an album that sounds like it was created by a bunch of zonked out, drug-addled guys who were staying up way too late at “parties” and consequently losing touch with their artistic gifts.

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  4. Am convinced “Let It Loose” is one of the greatest rock songs ever put to record. It has a resignation and world weariness that can only be described as uncunty.

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  5. Addendum to ARC blog

    As time passes; the music of Exile for the most part fades.

    Reviews of the album conflate the music; the making of the album
    and the popular culture of the day.

    The interest in the album ; maybe more in the photography of the album
    art; and photographers ; Norman Seeff and Robert Frank; than any music.

    Seeff had opened a studio in L.A. and was attracting attention ;
    Frank was filming the Stones for his documentary Cocksucker Blues;
    and graced the album with many photos from what has become an iconic
    book of photography The Americans; whose idea had won him a Guggenheim fellowship .

    Franks’ journey across America; pushing his negatives and then
    underexposing them in the darkroom to gave the images a darker ; grainer look
    in keeping with his subject matter; and showed viewers another side to America than
    The one Walker Evans and WPA photographers did in the 1930’s.

    Photography as a fine art was taking off ; on the streets and in schools across the States.
    The visuals of the album art IMO have a stronger pull than the music.

    If the music is about anything it the songs might be best viewed through the lens
    of Seeffs’ and Franks’ cameras.

    Many of the songs, Rip this Joint; Let it Loose; Soul Survivor; Happy; Hip Shake
    seem to have some echo of what you would hear if you travelled
    through the south in the late 50’s and early 60’s
    and stumbled into a roadside juke joint .

    Not that the Rolling Stones stumbled into juke joints in their travels across
    America.( Well maybe Charlie Watts took a side trip) Perhaps they imagined after listening
    to enough Hooker and Johnson ; reimagined through early Presley ; photographed by Frank
    they would take a trip in this ever present past….but would post it from Villefranche-sur-Mer.

    Lots of help from culture vultures of the day has mythologized the album.
    The Stones can and have rested on the music from Beggars Banquet, Let it Bleed
    and Sticky Fingers ( thank you to Andy Warhol)

    I think Exile on Main Street will be remembered more for the collaboration
    with Seeff and Frank then any imagined juke joint world these very middle class
    Englishmen would sing about .

    Thanks again for all the reviews and insights
    Stay in touch.

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    1. I hadn’t checked the blog in weeks, but I had a feeling today that I should pop in and see what’s happening. “Mythologized” is a good word to describe the critical reaction, which seems too conformist to be real. I really should have mentioned the photography, so thank you. I’d give anything to see Cocksucker Blues. The longer I’m away from the U. S. the more I’m convinced that Frank captured the underlying spirit of America that lies beneath the neon and the never-ending sales pitch better than anyone.

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      1. Thanks for the reply and thoughts about Robert Frank.

        The juke joint of the RS imagination was down the road from
        The one portrayed in Jean Negulesco’s “Roadhouse”
        …Richard Widmark , Cornel Wilde and the great Ida Lupino
        The YouTube clip of Lupino singing in the hushed room is terrific.

        Lupino was a real trailblazer for women ….Directed many
        Films including “The Bigamist ” and “The Hitchhiker”

        Fought the studio system at Warner Brothers …took suspensions
        Over accepting poor scripts or characters .

        Think you would appreciate Ida Lupino

        Best

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      2. Thanks for the reply and your thoughts about Robert Frank.

        The RS juke joint wasdown the road from another one I should point out .
        That one was to be found in Jean Negulesco’s Film “RoadHouse”
        ….Richard Widmark , Cornel Wilde and the great Ida Lupino.

        The YouTube clip of Lupino singing in the hushed room is worth a look.

        I have a feeling you would be very interested in Ida Lupino.

        A real trailblazer , way ahead of her time .
        Took on the studio system at Warner Bros , and took suspension
        Rather than appear in poorly written films.

        Directed many films , including “The Bigamist ” and “The Hitchhiker”

        Much of what was written in the ARC blog would resonate
        Though the life and times of Ida Lupino

        Best

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  6. The key to the excellence of ‘Exile on Main Street’ isn’t picking out individual outstanding songs (although there are plenty of them, like “Loving Cup” and “Let It Loose”), it’s the overall flow. It rocks like a mother, and it truly is the Stones’ ultimate tribute to the rock and blues influences that made them want to be musicians in the first place. The mix is SUPPOSED to be murky — it adds to the jamming, garage feel of the record that the band wanted to achieve. Keith Richards and Mick Taylor spar and trade off memorable riffs throughout, and the band just sounds like it’s functioning at its peak. As far as Jagger’s comments on the album, he changes his mind in interviews almost as often as Pete Townshend does. I’m not saying it’s the band’s best album – ‘Beggars Banquet’ gets that title from me – but I am willing to say it is one of rock’s five greatest double albums.

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    1. Yes, I think it is a case of the whole adding up to more than the sum of its parts, which is often the case with double albums. (One might say the same thing about the White Album or Tusk.) The bigness of a double album puts all of the songs in a different light. It is like a house of mirrors, which only works if there are lots of mirrors. That said, I agree with you that there are plenty of songs on here that would do just fine on their own. In addition to the ones mentioned by you and altrockchick, I would add “Shine A Light,” “Tumbling Dice,” “Rocks Off,” and “Sweet Virginia.”

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  7. As far as the Stones’ output after ‘Exile’, I think that ‘Some Girls’ and ‘A Bigger Bang’ are both very good albums, and ‘Tattoo You’ is just OK.

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  8. It’s 1974, and I’m driving back to campus late at night in my VW Bug. Exile on Main Street is blasting on my 8 track. Almost home, some asshole is tailgating me with his brights on. I respond by running a stop sign. It’s a cop. ” What’s that smell kid?” he says. I quickly respond ” Yes sir, you’re right. My little brother sits outside the house in my car and smokes pot listening to the Rolling Stones.” It’s the best lie I could come up with at the time. “You better tell that brother of yours to watch out”. He let’s me go.

    Exile on Main Street. The album that saved my ass.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Robert
      This is Stan Kubinski. I was the cop that pulled you over that night in Austin. I remember you were a skinny Hippie twerp. Listen, we knew you were bullshitting us about your brother. We let you go because you were listening to Exile on Main Street, the best fucking Stones album ever.

      Liked by 1 person

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