The Rolling Stones were not The Beatles, but by 1972, they didn’t need to be, and with Exile On Main Street they did something even The Beatles couldn’t do, by releasing a double album that was neat, cohesive, and deserving of its run time. Yet it was also something of a masterstroke of survival as it showed the band – never the chummiest, by any means – coming together to create something that was expansive and explosive in its design.
And yet if the album can claim a hero, it’s Keith Richards, who spent much of the time billowing through the record, his guitar painting the mosaic in question. Mick Taylor and Charlie Watts supported the musical director, creating a backchannel that was pounding in its backpedal and performance. It didn’t hurt that the music was diverse and solid in its exhibition, much of it stemming from the band’s lifelong experiences as individuals. Mick Jagger was 29, no great age, but worldly enough to write a tune as lilting as “Shine A Light”, which in turn persuaded Noel Gallagher to pen Oasis’s most inventive tune, “Live Forever” in 1994.
The song contrasted the jaunty “Shake Your Hips,” a shimmering dance number that demonstrated the band’s penchant for hard rock. Taylor was making his presence known as a guitarist, not least on “Tumbling Dice,” imbuing the tune with country flavors, as well as a galloping bassline.
Bill Wyman played bass on “Let It Loose,” a probing guitar painting that was later heard on Martin Scorsese’s brilliant The Departed, and Richards was growing more confident as a vocalist, as was evident on “Happy”. Richards was enjoying working with Jimmy Miller, the album’s producer, and sometime-drummer. The band was also getting more confident in their positions as voices for the counterculture, as “Sweet Black Angel” saluted the efforts of civil rights activist Angela Davis, who was facing murder charges at the time of recording. And then there’s the twangy “Torn and Frayed”, which showed Jagger at his most vulnerable, exhibiting a sense of truthfulness that wasn’t heard in their 1960s output.
“This new album is fucking mad,” Jagger recalled. “There’s so many different tracks. It’s very rock & roll, you know. I didn’t want it to be like that. I’m the more experimental person in the group, you see I like to experiment. Not go over the same thing over and over. ” In later years, Jagger came to distance himself from the double album, feeling that there was better material in the future, but for Richards, it was the band at their zenith, accomplishing a sense of pride and place in a decade that was swiftly confining lesser artists to the past.
Punk was on the horizon, and those acts of a progressive disposition (Genesis, Queen, Pink Floyd) had to radically change their sound to survive. The Stones didn’t have to. Exile On Main Street was uncompromising, showing a confidence that stemmed from the band’s eagerness to show themselves to the world.
As there is much to enjoy, from “Ventilator Blues” to “Rip This Joint”, the album shows the quintet at their most diverse, leading many to declare it their masterpiece. I wouldn’t go that far (Sticky Fingers is a more consistent effort), but it’s certainly a very fine one, showcasing the band at their most rollicking. It certainly made an impression, as they’ve spent the last 50 years declaring their more recent offerings as their “best since Exile.” And that’s a very high bar to live up to.
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