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 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.
In my essay on Chuck Berry’s The Great Twenty-Eight, I recounted the story of my dad’s offer to let me have five albums from his voluminous LP collection as a get-the-fuck-out-of-the-house-kid going-away present. As narrated, I spent nearly a full day culling through his collection, which numbered in the thousands.
I spent a long time doing something my flower-child parents called “tripping” to the cover of Their Satanic Majesties Request. I tilted it sideways and back-and-forth to see their faces (except Jagger’s) change direction and likely shortened my corneal lifespan trying to find the images of The Beatles. When I finally shook myself out of the trance, I started to put the album on the pile of possible keepers . . . then suddenly and violently snapped my arm away.
“This album sucks!” I exclaimed, and flung it into the reject pile.
In preparation for this review, I re-engaged with this psychedelic relic, and I’m proud to say that it not only continues to suck, but is easily the worst thing The Stones ever did.
Looking at this disaster in the context of their history and their true talents, you might ask, “What the fuck were they thinking?” Well, they weren’t. While use of psychedelics failed to knock The Beatles off their game during Sgt. Pepper, those same substances turned The Stones into completely different people, cut off from their fundamental foundation of rhythm and blues. The playfulness of Between the Buttons gives way to meaningless druggie meandering (see “tripping,” referenced above). The outcome of this orgy of undisciplined experimentation is something that the band members themselves described as “rubbish” (Jagger), “chaos” (Jones) and “a load of crap” (Richards).
You can’t help but suspect body snatchers as soon as you hear the first verse of the opener, “Sing This All Together.” Sounding very much like it was recorded at a picnic where the iced tea was laced with Golden Sunshine, the song is so stupendously weak that it takes your breath away . . . and then they reprise the sucker later in the album for a gag-inducing eight-and-a-half minutes!
The next track, “Citadel,” at least has the virtue of opening like a Stones number, with a nice little chord riff on a good old-fashioned electric guitar. Suddenly the song is mercilessly ambushed by glockenspiel, mellotron and saxophone, crushing the last faint heartbeat of the groove with deadly finality. Lyrics? Muddleheaded mush:
Flags are flying, dollar bills
Round the heights of concrete hills
You can see the pinnacles
Candy and Taffy, hope we both are well
Please come see me in the citadel
We tiptoe with great caution to arrive “In Another Land,” Bill Wyman’s contribution to the mess. One of the more coherent songs on the album, it has a certain anthropological charm as a piece of fairytale psychedelia along the lines of Pink Floyd’s “See Emily Play.” It ends with Wyman snoring, no doubt in anticipation of “2000 Man,” which begins life as a rather nice acoustic number then suddenly undergoes a series of tectonic shifts that could only have come from the minds of the terminally spaced. That turkey is followed by the reprise of the aforementioned exercise in spaced out silliness, “Sing This All Together (See What Happens).” The parenthetical addition to the title is literal, as The Stones pretty much left the studio doors open to let people in on the “happening,” allowing them to trip out on the funny instruments or cough or laugh or pass around joints.
Through the invisible rivers of time, I can feel the anger of those who had retained their sanity during the 60’s and bought this album based on The Stones’ track record. “I paid $3.99 for this shit?” I hear them groan through the ether of the time continuum.
Lucky for them, a far more successful adventure of musical experimentation comes next, salvaging 39 cents of their investment. “She’s a Rainbow” may be one of the more un-Stones like songs in their oeuvre, but it’s a lovely mélange of piano, strings and lush harmonies with a strong theme supporting the more experimental, offbeat and off-key passages. It’s also one of the few tracks on Their Satanic Majesties Request that is performed with some degree of energy and commitment.
Sadly, any rekindled hope that you hadn’t pissed away your money on this turkey is snuffed out rather quickly with “The Lantern,” a silly song with no idea what it’s supposed to be. “Gomper,” on the other hand, knows what it’s supposed to be and fails miserably as a sort of Eastern-influenced piece designed to charm those who were fond of Nehru jackets.
“2000 Light Years from Home” begins sort of like the music to a hippie horror flick, then lumbers on to describe the visual wonders of space travel. Why? Who the hell knows? Perhaps this song was “far fucking out” for a generation living in the time just before men walked on the moon, but for a generation who’s been there, done that—and oh, by the way, The Enterprise went to far more interesting places—it’s as boring as Astronomy 101. At this juncture I am so ready to blow up that fucking mellotron that I can hardly muster up the courage to listen to the next track, “On with the Show.” The only good thing about this pathetic attempt at English Music Hall is that it’s the last track on the album.
Whew! Didn’t think I was going to make it!
If you’ve read my reviews, you know that I generally support artists who explore new ground beyond the tried and true. That said, great art never emerges from mindless experimentation justified by a naive and childish impulse to break the boundaries. All great art is a combination of creative spark and discipline, of magic and structure. While you can go seriously overboard with structure and remove any signs of life from an artistic effort, it’s just as disastrous to believe that you can create meaning without form.
As physicist Freeman Dyson once wrote, “Without discipline there can be no greatness.” The Stones cast discipline to the wind in Their Satanic Majesties Request and the results were disastrous.
Lucky for us, they would get their heads screwed back on pretty quickly.