When I first started blogging, I filled the empty spaces between compelling new releases with historical reviews primarily covering Oasis and the four bands I heard most while growing up: The Beatles, The Kinks, Jethro Tull and The Rolling Stones. With the first four names on that list, I just randomly picked an album based on mood or time of the month, but for reasons I don’t remember, I decided to do The Stones’ albums in chronological order. Because I was primarily interested in exploring the work of the Jagger-Richards songwriting team, I skipped the first two albums and began with Out of Our Heads. I liked learning how The Stones developed as the years progressed, following straight lines and detours along the way. I remember feeling pretty good after reviewing Sticky Fingers, one of their best, and I looked forward to Exile on Main Street, an album that was unfamiliar to me because it was curiously missing from my father’s collection.
I hated it. Still do. I think it’s a fucking mess of an album, a background-music-party-disc created in a heroin-induced haze.
“Why didn’t you warn me, you bastard?” I screamed at my father.
“I thought you’d figure it out when you didn’t see it in my stacks. What the hell did I send you to college for, anyway?”
Exile on Main Street turned me off to the Stones for a long, long time, and I had no intention of ever reviewing another Stones record as long as I could still sashay over our lumpy planet.
Then my gorgeous, voluptuous, damn-I’d-like-to-fuck-her-right-now partner put Some Girls on her list of Desert Island Disks. It reminded me how much I hated ending The Stones’ series on a down note, so I decided to see if I could pick up where I left off. I listened to Goat’s Head Soup, and came away with feeling that “Angie” is the second-most overrated song in history, right after “Stairway to Heaven.” I took one look at the cover of It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll and said “Fuck that.” Black and Blue didn’t grab me either.
I should have trusted my partner’s instincts. Some Girls turned out to be WAY better than I expected, though my initial reaction was utter confusion.
The confusion arose from the consensus opinion that Some Girls is The Stones’ “punk album.” I listened to it and sure as hell didn’t hear anything that sounded like The Ramones, The Clash or The Sex Pistols. Not one song clocks in at under three minutes, not one song is played at hyper-speed, and if we’re talking punk in 1978, where the hell is the anarchist rage? Punk is also characterized by intense, hyper-active drumming, and one look at Charlie Watts would tell you he’d be the last drummer on earth to go manic on the kit.
If punk did have an influence on Some Girls, it encouraged The Stones to get back to the basics. Some Girls is successful because The Stones rediscovered their sweet spot: cheeky R&B-influenced rock ‘n’ roll marked by a healthy dose of humor, with a touch of country thrown into the mix. The songs on Some Girls could have appeared on any of their albums released during their peak period, from Aftermath to Sticky Fingers (except for the psychedelic detour in Their Satanic Majesties Request). The Stones somehow managed to go backward while moving forward at the same time, for unlike a trip down Nostalgia Lane, Some Girls feels fresh, alive and immediate. Part of the reinvigorated sound came from Ronnie Wood’s ascension to full-member status, but most of the credit for the album’s compelling combination of looseness and sass goes to Mick Jagger, who rediscovered his writing and singing chops just in time to save The Stones from bargain bin irrelevance.
Jagger clearly has his mojo working on “Miss You,” a song that should have been subtitled, “Goin’ Home Revisited.” While that lengthy tune from Aftermath about unfulfilled libido seems disconnected from both time and space, “Miss You” features an insistent, libido-tickling rhythm that I could grind to all fucking night. Trapped in the context of the times, many listeners described this as a disco song, ignoring the simple fact that if disco had never been invented, The Stones still would have come up with a song like this sooner or later due to their passion for American soul and R&B. Instead of the over-the-top orchestration we hear in too many disco numbers, the layers in “Miss You” are a combination of blues harp (courtesy of Sugar Blue) and cool sax (by way of Mel Collins). Collins’ solo helps urbanize the piece, reinforcing the New York feel of the album. Meanwhile, Sugar Blue spends most of the song repeating the melodic refrain until the very end, when he finally steps into the spotlight and delivers a deep-soul solo that expresses the theme of emotional longing more effectively than words ever could. With Jagger on fire and Bill Wyman delivering one of his most active bass parts, “Miss You” sends a clear message that The Stones are in the groove and feeling it.
The title “When The Whip Comes Down” initially excited this kinky girl, but alas, the song has nothing to do with the more refined erotic arts. What it does have to do with is being gay, and while you might think my bisexuality might give me some magical insight into the psyche of the gay male narrator, the life experience of a bisexual woman is as far apart from the experience of a gay male as I am from celibacy. While pure lesbians tend to view bisexual girls with feelings ranging from distrust to hostility, most heterosexual men I’ve met are okay with bisexual women because they think they’re going to get a threesome in the bargain (NOT!). Gay males, on the other hand, are much more likely to get the shit beaten out of them by the same guys who want to get into the sack with my partner and me. Since I grew up a few blocks from The Castro, gay men are a part of my definition of “normal,” which has sometimes blinded me to the shit they have to deal with—it’s unthinkable to me, so it takes a while to register.
Here Jagger conjures up a gay dude who abandons L. A. for the Big Apple to become a “garbage collector,” a euphemism, not an occupation. While the move raised his status from “faggot” to “gay,” the attitudes of the populace are anything but an upgrade (“Wherever I go they treat me just the same”). While we all have to sacrifice something in order to make a living, our hero faces more workplace hazards than the average moke:
Yeah I’m going down Fifty-Third street
And they spit in my face
I’m learning the ropes
Yeah I’m learning a trade
The East River truckers
Are churning with trash
I’ve got so much money
That I spend so fast
Having been spat on by homophobes a couple of times while out with my girl, I’m befuddled by the hero’s willingness to turn the other cheek and write it off as part of the deal . . . but this was 1978, less than ten years after The Stonewall Riots and only five years removed from the change in the DSM that ended the status of homosexuality as a mental disorder. To make a living in such an environment, he is forced to work the streets, where the men who are “churning with trash” seek someone to relieve their secret burden:
Yeah, some called me garbage
When I was sweeping on the street
I never roll
Oh I never cheat
And I’m filling a need, yeah
I’m plugging a hole
My mama’s so glad
I ain’t on the dole
Both buyer and seller are part of the garbage cycle, and like the movement’s adoption of the formerly pejorative word “queer,” our hero wears his “garbage man” status like a badge. Economics student Mick Jagger even assigns him a sense of legitimacy by giving him credit for his sensitivity to the laws of supply and demand with the fabulous pun, “I’m plugging a hole.” But even with his stellar work ethic and commitment to quality customer service, he’s still a homosexual in a heterosexually-biased culture and the whip is always going to come down . . . again, again and again. A damned courageous song for its time, “When the Whip Comes Down” features a non-stop relentless attack with dual guitars and as much energy as Charlie Watts can muster. It’s still not punk, but hey, it’s The Stones rocking out, so who the fuck cares?
Next up is the cover of The Temptations’ classic, “Just My Imagination.” I approached this song with great trepidation, fearing another lame copycat attempt at the Motown sound as in “My Girl.” My trepidation vanished about four lines into the song when it hit me that the arrangement was pure garage, just a bunch of guys in the studio playing around with a song that caught their fancy. Stripping the song down to its essentials and playing it at a faster tempo actually allows the listener to better appreciate the melody and chord progression of the song, and while The Temptations version will always remain the gold standard, I have to give The Stones credit for revealing the fundamental structure that made “Just My Imagination” a great song in the first place.
Some Girls wouldn’t be a great Stones album unless they pissed somebody off, and with the title track they wound up pissing off both the usual suspects (feminists and Christians) as well as the Reverend Jesse Jackson in his dual roles of civil rights activist and shepherd to the flock. Before we get into all that hoo-hah, I want to say I love the feel of this song. Most of it is a two-chord pattern with plenty of drone, a mesmerizing combination that allows the three guitarists (Jagger included) and Sugar Blue a lot of latitude with fills and responses. The original cut ran twenty-three minutes, largely because of its vast improvisational potential. That potential is what put The Stones in hot water with the Purity Police, as Jagger improvised the most offensive lines in the song.
We all know that Jagger and Richard were big league Johnny Appleseeds, offhandedly shooting their wads in various locales making up a large part of the planetary landmass. We also know that many women were desperate to fuck rock stars, and while some really thought they were in love with their idols, we can assume that the majority of the women plunked by The Stones were probably motivated by pecuniary considerations. Fucking groupies is often a mutual exploitation arrangement where both parties use the other to get what they want: sex, money, property, notoriety, whatever. The evidence from various interviews indicates that members of The Rolling Stones had indeed been engaged in sexual escapades with groupies, that they fucked available women wherever they could find them on multiple world tours, and had no discriminatory restrictions related to race or color. They were equal opportunity fuckers, and for all I know and with the flurry of scientific advances in the study of erectile performance, they may still be.
What The Stones do in “Some Girls” is simplify their experience by using stereotypes, always a dangerous practice, but not all that much different from what The Beach Boys did in “California Girls.” The first set of stereotypes in “Some Girls” are a catalog of the different manifestations of female greed in various cultures (French girls want Cartier, Italian girls want cars, American girls want everything in the world). These are pretty tame accusations; the first two are backhanded compliments (French and Italian girls are style-conscious, well, duh) and the third is a teeny dig at American materialism. We then learn that English girls are prissy (another stereotype that has the positive connotation of “selective”) and that white girls are funny and sometimes annoying (as are all girls). I can’t see any of these targeted groups calling for a Stones boycott based on such lightweight jabs.
Then they clearly cross a big red line:
Black girls just wanna get fucked all night
I just don’t have that much jam
Chinese girls are so gentle
They’re really such a tease
You never know quite what they’re cookin’
Inside those silky sleeves
Whoa, dude! I’m hearing that you think black girls are primitive animals who still hear the jungle cry and can’t control their instincts . . . and that you’ve been watching too many movies depicting Asian women as “devious Orientals.” What? Say that again! “It never occurred to us that our parody of certain stereotypical attitudes would be taken seriously by anyone who heard the entire lyric of the song in question. No insult was intended, and if any was taken, we sincerely apologize.” Hold that thought . . . let me scan the lyrics for supporting evidence . . . no, I’m not seeing anything there. Sorry . . . I missed that, Mick—could you repeat that please? “If you can’t take a joke, it’s too fucking bad.” Getting a little touchy there, are we? Okay, let’s accept your argument that you were just trying to have fun and you didn’t think people would be stupid enough to believe you meant what you said. Then why did you later change the lyrics in live performances to eliminate those lines? And while I have you here, why did you change the lyrics to “Let’s Spend Some Time Together” for Ed Sullivan? You’re just going to stare at me, Mick? Why can’t you just admit that you blew it by not providing a stronger context and move on? Hey, I defended you over “Under My Thumb,” I stood up for you after “Stupid Girl” and I even went to bat for you on “Brown Sugar.” But Mick, this time . . . if satire was your intent, you really should have done a better job of establishing the narrator as a blind, insensitive jerk right from the start. Maybe if you’d moved that verse with the lines “Some girls give me children/I only made love to her once” we would have understood we were dealing with an irresponsible asshole and heard the lines through that perspective . . . if that’s really what you intended.
Intent is pretty clear in “Lies,” a dual-guitar ass-kicking ripper of a song where The Stones rock for no other purpose except to rock. Flipping over to Side Two, we get a nice change of pace with the hilarious, “Far Away Eyes,” a pure country number marked by Ronnie Wood’s outstanding pedal steel guitar and Mick Jagger’s approximation of a hicksville accent. Speaking of stereotypes, naïve people the world over believe that California is a place of sand, sun and liberal mores, but there’s a good-sized chunk of California where it feels like more like Oklahoma than Malibu. “Far Away Eyes” satirizes hick culture and its strange mixture of fervent Christianity and loose sexual morals, presented here as relatively harmless, but this was long before anyone realized that a group of stupid, superstitious people could coalesce to elect an equally stupid blatant racist to the most powerful job in the world:
I was driving home early Sunday morning through Bakersfield
Listening to gospel music on the colored radio station
And the preacher said, you know you always have the Lord by your side
And I was so pleased to be informed of this
That I ran twenty red lights in his honor
Thank you Jesus, thank you Lord
I had an arrangement to meet a girl, and I was kind of late
And I thought by the time I got there she’d be off
She’d be off with the nearest truck driver she could find . . .
Of course such a loser wants a girl with “far away eyes,” because stupid is as stupid gets.
It’s back to kick-ass mode with “Respectable,” a song Jagger described as a “Punk meets Chuck Berry number.” We’ll ignore the attempt at relevance-oriented marketing and simply congratulate The Stones for giving us another number that hauls serious ass. It’s followed by the Keith Richards confessional, “Before They Make Me Run,” which deals with his legal and personal struggles with heroin addiction. Keith can’t sing worth shit, but the song has a certain vulnerability to it that makes it charming, and Ronnie Wood’s steel pedal guitar sounds even better in a rock context.
Some Girls features one of the strongest finishes of any Stones album, beginning with the semi-slow number, “Beast of Burden.” Keith Richards came to the studio with a shell of a song and relied on the rest of The Stones to flesh it out. The prerequisite for such an approach is the musicians have to be able to easily slip into the groove, and this is where the remarkable chemistry between Richards and Ronnie Wood pays off huge dividends. There is an instrumental-only take on YouTube that I absolutely adore and highly recommend. You’ll hear Keith on the right channel and Ronnie on the left, but what you may not notice (because the guitar work will immediately draw you in) is Charlie Watts playing the base rhythm with the clear punctuation the guitarists need as a foundation for their explorations. The musical dialogue between the two guitarists as they trade off lead and rhythm roles and integrate harmonic solos into the mix is a fascinating journey—you can hear them sensing each other out, one offering a possible direction and the other responding almost immediately to the new musical idea. In many ways, I prefer the instrumental version to the original, but I do think Jagger does a damn good job with the emotional content as he sings at the higher end of his range. The lyrics that pop out at me are those that define the “real man” paradigm—men are expected to be hard enough, rough enough and rich enough, and anything less than enough simply won’t do. Putting aside the double entendre of “hard enough” for a moment, I’ll point out that the paradigm is the source of all toxic masculinity. The men who commit acts of domestic violence don’t act out of a position of power but from feelings of inadequacy about those three qualities, and lacking any kind of self-awareness, blame the broad for all their troubles. In this song, the narrator is a gentler sort of fellow unlikely to resort to violence, but it’s still tragic that he has to live with perceived inadequacy because of a dated philosophy of what it means to be a man. I also hope that those who whine about The Stones’ allegedly unrelenting sexism will take note that Jagger placed the gent in the position of supplicant, begging for attention from a woman who holds all the cards. Power in relationships is not always dictated by gender or worn-out rules of behavior.
We end with my favorite song on Some Girls, the marvelously manic “Shattered.” We’ll get to the New York-in-the-70’s aspect of the song in a sec, but there’s one tiny passage I can’t restrain myself from singing at the top of my lungs whenever I hear it, because it is the relentless message of my inner consciousness bursting through the layers of bullshit I wear as I go about the world trying to make a living:
Work and work for love and sex
Ain’t you hungry for success, success, success, success
Does it matter?
Yes, I work and work for love and sex and THAT matters. I have no hunger for success and that DOESN’T MATTER AT ALL. Work leaves me in tatters! Shattered! Let me the fuck out!
Back to the real story . . . Jagger says he wrote the lyrics in a New York taxi, and there’s no reason to doubt his word. The Stones had been spending more time in New York City during the 70’s, and the Big Apple of the 70’s was nothing like the sanitized and safe version of New York that exists today. The city was in deep financial doo-doo, the infrastructure was falling apart, crime was commonplace and tensions between the various ethnic groups and political factions were at their peak. I recommend the book Ladies and Gentlemen, The Bronx is Burning by Jonathan Mailer if you want to learn more. Note that Mailer’s story of New York’s decline is integrated with the ascension of the Yankees under Steinbrenner, Martin and Reggie Jackson, so if you’re not into baseball, forget about it, and by the way, I don’t want to know you.
Jagger’s sprechgesang commentary on the state of Gotham is expressed with sincerely-felt disbelief at the craziness of it all: how can a place with so much wealth and power seemingly self-destruct before one’s eyes?
Pride and joy and greed and sex
That’s what makes our town the best
Pride and joy and dirty dreams and still surviving on the street
And look at me, I’m in tatters, yeah
I’ve been battered, what does it matter . . .
. . . Don’t you know the crime rate is going up, up, up, up, up
To live in this town you must be tough, tough, tough, tough, tough!
You got rats on the West Side, bedbugs uptown
What a mess—this town’s in tatters, I’ve been shattered
It should be noted that The Stones didn’t flee New York in response to the decaying environment. Even in its worst times, there is no place on earth as endlessly compelling as New York, whether you like it or not.
What makes the song so compelling is the combination of Jagger’s maniacal vocal, the simple but remarkably effective two-chord riff, and the haunting, almost random appearance of low-voice vocals in the background (shattered, shay-oobehy). The feeling of a song unstuck in time and space is intensified when Charlie Watts does a virtual disappearing act and limits his activities to the high-hat—when that happens, I feel like the lights have suddenly gone out and I’ve lost all connection to reality. Brilliantly arranged and expertly performed, “Shattered” is a remarkable expression of the modern just-beneath-the-surface madness we all feel as we make our way through the inexplicable worlds we have created.
While I’ve think they’ve taken the farewell tour thing way too far for way too long, Some Girls is a piece of The Stones at their best—rocking, rolling and riffing with tongues firmly planted in cheeks. It ain’t punk in terms of genre, but as my father will righteously claim with all his heart and soul, The Stones were the original punks, with a stellar record of defying the stricter social norms of the time.
And though Mick Jagger is now Sir Michael, had nice things to say about Maggie Thatcher and still supports the Tories, he still had his moments—and Some Girls contains some of his best.
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.