Times Online May 14, 2010
The Rolling Stones: Exile on Main Street
Few records by anyone, let alone the Stones, come with more myth attached to them than the Stones’ narcotically abetted tenth album
If Mick Jagger’s verdict on 1972’s Exile on Main Street — “It’s overrated, to be honest” — tells us anything, it’s that sometimes the people least well placed to appraise a record’s virtues are the musicians who made it. In recent years there has been a trickle of remastered Stones albums. But few records by anyone, let alone the Stones, come with a greater myth attached to them than the Stones’ narcotically abetted tenth album.
For all that, however, it’s not as if you can’t see what Jagger was getting at. Johnny Marr once couched the same sentiments in more complimentary terms when he said that “the power of what [the Rolling Stones] were doing was about the spirit and the vibe rather than the composition”. For the measure of Marr’s point, you need look no farther than Rocks Off, Rip This Joint and the fantastically falling-apart lead single Tumbling Dice on side one of the original vinyl release. Even if you didn’t know that these clattering bar-room rockers were recorded in the damp basement of Keith Richards’s Villefranche-sur-Mer retreat, you could hazard an educated guess. A horn section that packs all the sonic punch of a comb and tissue paper may account for Jagger’s reluctance to use Richard’s basement in the first place.
But the pleasures of Exile are cumulative. At the time Jagger urged that its four sides were best enjoyed in separate bursts. Forego the CD remaster for the vinyl companion and you’ll find that he’s right. The influence of the renegade country star Gram Parsons is palpable on the songs that comprise the second side of Exile on Main Street. Jim Price’s wild mercury organ flourishes on Torn & Frayed and the slow-build country gospel of Loving Cup capture the Stones puréeing their inspirations with the sort of oblivious abandon that has invariably sounded cringeworthy when other groups — hello, Primal Scream — have tried it.
What follows is, by anyone’s criteria, some of the uneasiest listening to be found on a Stones album. Richards’s contention that Jagger reserves his most soulful expression for his harmonica is borne out by his demonic playing on Turd on the Run. On the skeletal blues-rattle of the I Just Want to See His Face, nothing bearing the Stones imprint has ever sounded quite so pregnant with the spook.
Claim that it’s all that good and you run the risk of inflating the myth to bursting point. Exile’s flaws are no more apparent than on a final side reliant on generic blues workouts such as Stop Breaking Down and All Down the Line. At the same time, what would you have the temerity to remove? Or in view of the extra disc now bolted on to the original set, the question becomes: what would you add?
Good Time Women eliminates itself because it’s Tumbling Dice minus the woozy uplift of its later incarnation; ditto So Divine (Aladdin Story) for a guitar motif that sails too closely to Paint it Black. Plundered My Soul and the panoramic Following the River — both with new Jagger vocals — leave you feeling that, whatever album they belong to, it isn’t this one.
Jagger may have a point about some of the original album’s failings. But at this point, it’s hard not to recall Paul McCartney’s rejoinder when asked if the White Album would have made a better single record. “Look, it’s the bloody Beatles’ White Album — shut up!” If Jagger excuses the impudence, the album may be different, but exactly the same rationale applies.