Where do we go from here?: The eternal question of those at a creative or monetary watershed moment while looking forward. And for the Rolling Stones, how to follow up the whirlwind bounceback of the past 2 years as they convened to record their new album in 1971. At this juncture, the band was finally getting financially secure and free of the same kind of mismanagement that plagued pop music acts in the 60s when everyone realized they could ruthlessly make a buck off long-haired kids playing rock and roll. True, the Stones had weathered the storm, but they were getting the crunch from England's heavy taxation system of its upper class now. Therefore, the group's management decided they would become tax exiles, moving business accounts to various overseas offshore holding companies and so on. The Stones would do very little recording in the UK over the next two decades, instead working sessions in the US as well as exotic locales like Jamaica or European destinations such as Paris or Munich. In 1971 they had basked in the success of a few lucrative tours plus the healthy sales of Sticky Fingers.
It was an era of business transitions, ditching Allen Klein and then leaving Decca Records for Atlantic, the US based label that made its bread off of R&B recordings but was now expanding into the rock field. Atlantic's head Ahmet Ertegun was the willing partner they found in negotiating the Stones' very own label, Rolling Stones Records, which came to feature their iconic tongue drawing as its eye catching logo. But not too far off was a critical backlash as the Stones made records underwhelming when put up next to their seminal 60s works- although in retrospect when discounting their 60s works, their 70s output is quite enjoyable on its own merit. Underneath the surface were problems with cohesion that had not been there before. Each member seemed off on their own trip, with the jet-setting Mick Jagger trying to piece it all together under an auspice resembling the old Rolling Stones. It was a time of chaos that produced the masterful Exile on Main Street, made amidst intriguing web of lurid sex, drug smuggling, vengeful dealers, visits to detox centers and tangled business dealings.
On May 18 in North America, the Stones' new distributors, Universal Music, will be unveiling a deluxe edition of Exile on Main Street, featuring 11 bonus cuts as well as the original album re-mastered to meet 2010's standards for remastering. There will be the usual plethora of limited time discs with the usual liner note, photo and bonus track goodies but even the basic deluxe edition is loaded with additions onto the original 18 track release. There will also be the classicist's choice through limited edition vinyl copies, though they're curiously different in that you will only get the original 2LP set and not the bonus tracks. Well, bah humbug to you to, Stones. Back in the late spring of 1971, the Stones settled in a Keith Richards-rented villa in Nelcotte, France. Recording with the Stones state-of-the-art mobile studio truck, they were situated in the damp, stone-walled basement to play. The setting was made eerier by the building's history as the local Gestapo headquarters when Nazi Germany occupied France in World War II. With gold swastika-shaped floor air vents and the knowledge the basement was for all intents and purposes a former torture chamber, Exile right away had the bizarre circumstance behind it that only a legendary work could come up with.
What eventually, after many months, arrived was a sprawling double album. The group was interested in cutting an album that showed their diverse tastes in rock, blues, country, etc. There would be less of Mick's contemporary aspirations as there had been on Sticky Fingers and would be to come, and that's a positive because the final product is now regarded as one of the greatest albums ever released. As far as rock goes, it has my #1 and personally I've listened to thousands of albums. No non-compilation LP can define what rock and roll was in its first 2 decades better than Exile. Nothing else combines all the thrilling elements for the rock and roll stew in my estimation. With the album, the Stones blues roots are on display not to mention their love of R&B, country & western, bluegrass, folk and their own sinister brand of riff-rock perfected over the previous decade of existence. And hey, they even sneak in shades of gospel, calypso and the usual raunchy lyrics. Recording amidst a sporadic production rate resulted in plenty of guest musicians and some cuts featuring an absecne of members, namely Bill Wyman who grew tired of the gaps in recording and retreated to a rented sailboat and went off to enjoy the Meditteranean wth his latest girlfriend.
Jimmy Miller, who had produced their past three studio releases dating back to 1968's career reviving milestone Beggar's Banquet, was again enlisted to produce. Richards was off-and-on involved and often held up recording with his constant trips to go "put his son (Marlon) to bed," so to speak. These breaks often took hours in which he actually was indulging in his infamous junkiedom. By '71, the Stones weren't as keen on being #1 as often as they had been in the 60s when they were one of many contenders and had the heavy challenge of matching up to the Beatles. Naturally, without the Fabs in the way, they used the 70s to rack up their biggest sales and best charting LPs yet, though #1 singles wouldn't be frequent after 1969 (only "Brown Sugar" and "Miss You" topping the US or UK charts). The Stones became, like every other elite in rock, album oriented artists for the most part. Exile troughs through America's rich musical history, excluding anything jazz or classical that is, and while critical gripes lay with its 18 tracks and "filler," years have proven kind and now even the most minor tracks are praiseworthy. There's very little formulaic here, especially when the next 3.5 decades have proven the Stones to be nothing if not mechanical producers of generic riff-rock.
The open G riffs and licks were still fresh in 1972 but that seemed to matter little to critics who were hung up on the Stones not matching a "Sympathy for the Devil" or "Gimme Shelter"- though "Tumbling Dice" survived as the choice, classic cut to be forever included on every Stones retrospective compilation. What also was deemed a problem with the double set was its mix but no other Stones album sounds like it and that's a flat out positive to this writer. Mick's vocals are buried in the mix but not to the point of being inaudible or overcome by other instruments, and though they are indecipherable that's the case with everything Mick sang before getting a vocal coach and enunciating in the 80s and beyond. That was just carrying on the fine blues tradition of singing vague, mumbly lyrics to enhance the mystique. What it comes down to is that Exile is a masterpiece that ages like fine wine and not one listen to it has ever sounded worse than the previous, in fact sometimes it gets better with repeated listens. Then again I have heard all its tracks dozens and dozens of times so I have a rather large perspective on this aspect of the record.
The seediness behind its making was well reflected in the lyrical matter of the album, at least what lyric sheets tell us because after all these years I still can't recite half of what's said on Exile. I honestly have formed the memory of certain lines out of my own interpretation of what Mick garbles at times. Like any legendary work, Exile contains the ultimate opener in the shape of "Rocks Off," one of the Stones best at that. It involves the sleaze from the get-go, discussing sexual dalliances with a "dancer friend" of Mick's. Keith's snarling "oh yeah" on the opening bars really prepares you for the furious swagger. His riffing hardly ever sounded better than on "Rocks off" while he provides ragged harmony for Mick, singing of the usual themes of sauntering around with lady friends. Full of glorious chestnut lines like "Your mouth don't move but I can hear you speak," and "The sunshine bores the daylights out of me," the cheeky "Rocks Off" is also one of the Stones wittiest, most clever tunes (and what's Mick got for us in recent years? "Sparks will fly/Sharks will cry"? Really, Mick?). It's got a full compliment of guitar, bass, drums, piano and horns, which was becoming the favoured routine for a Stones recording at this point.
The same Keith-characterized rock has its fingerprints all over "Tumbling Dice," the album's biggest hit single. It's a countrified sort of testament to the kind of wildheart rebellion Keith specializes in. It's cocksure stuff but that's the essence of the Stones in their glory days. It's essential listening, one of rock's most moving, honest, fun and multi-layered compositions ever. Its multiple vocal parts are like Beach Boy complexity adapted to gospel. The same rough-hewn passion can be attributed to the horn-dressed "Happy." Keith sings lead on it and it became one of his war badges to wear going forward in live appearances. It's pretty autobiographical material as it were. Keith proclaims that all he needs is love to keep him happy (... yes Keith, but don't neglect to mention all those drugs too, as regular to his diet as water or food in those days). "All Down the Line" is maybe the most energizing song on the album, an orchestra of riffing guitar, sax and trumpet flourishes, Mick's hollered vocals and Charlie Watts' thumping backbeat. It even tops what the Delaney & Bonnie and Friends or Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen tours had done shortly before it, no coincidence since Bobby Keys and Jim Price provided horn sections for both while also being utilized on Exile very nicely.
"All Down the Line" boogies hard, albeit at quite a fast pace. Early takes of the song had it structured in a different key, as more of a country-rock affair with acoustic guitars, sounding not unlike the verses of "Street Fighting Man." The weakest of the four archetypal Stones rockers is the closer, "Soul Survivor," still a dirty and defiant little song and one that emphasizes the Stones restless refusal to give up or flame out. The Stones hit the boogie of the 50s full force on several cuts too, namely the rousing "Rip This Joint" with Keys cutting a rip-roaring sax solo that would rival King Curtis. It's not quite a Chuck Berry takeoff, like most of the Stones own hits, but more of a Little Richard screamer. The heart of this album is really the blues, and what'd you expect from the Rolling Stones anyway? Their cover of Slim Harpo's "Shake Your Hips (Hip Shake)" stands as an underrated, but wholly impressive take on the Mississippi blues. There's gutbucket blues harp, shuffling time kept by Watts's tapping of the drum rims with his sticks and a menacing guitar riff that would later be copped by ZZ Top for "La Grange" but that's fine since Keith copped it from several John Lee Hooker songs anyway.
The song's fade-in makes you feel like you just stepped into a bar and happened upon the magic. Mick's vocals are full of Southern bravado and there's even a bit of sax amongst the crawling snake blues of "Hip Shake." Less white hot are the shuffling "Casino Boogie," the harrowing "Ventilator Blues" (of which Mick Taylor receives a rare songwriting credit) and a Robert Johnson cover, "Stop Breaking Down." The double time of "Turd on the Run" is a chugging track that may just be the most authentic up temp blues you'll hear a rock band do, all done without solos of any kind, proving the Stones as one of the few groups that didn't need instrumental noodling to porve their talents. On the albums before and after Exile, the hot and flashy lead guitar of Taylor is up front and centre but it took a back seat on Exile as any lead licks he got in were usually buried in the mix, if attempted at all or not edited out first. As a result, no matter how the personnel differed from recording to recording, this album feels more like a true collaborative effort than most Stones records. Any heavy overdubbing doesn't show as it all sounds rather organic of the moment. However, the blues does not totally define or even dominate the double disc album.
The Stones dedication to gospel- first flirted with on 1968's "Salt of the Earth" matures on Exile, as well as their foraying into soul. They cut their original mid-60s R&B leanings to shreds as by 1972 it was a well-oiled outfit experienced and comfortable with each other, the Wyman-Watts rhythm section in particular. On Exile, the Stones scored pleasing results by bringing in experienced female backing singers who only enhanced this unholy, yet rewarding marriage between gospel and a hard living rock and roll band- Clydie King, Shirley Matthews and Venetta Fields among those enlisted. Thanks to this comes the incredibly glowing, positive spiritual spotlight of "Shine a Light," as good as any rockers ever captured gospel. Stones confidante Billy Preston was brought in for a divine churchy piano bit that melded beautifully with one of Mick Taylor's few guitar leads on the entire set. Meanwhile, the stirring "Let it Loose" hits on all cylinders like a fantastic ballad Otis Redding never lived to record, standing as a milestone among the Stones more tender avenues of songwriting.
The horn breakdown, the gorgeous Nicky Hopkins piano, the mini-choir (including Mac Rebennack, aka Dr, John), Mick's impassioned vocals and a guitar line from Keith for the ages, plugged in through the Leslie amplifier of the organ. Less based on such Southern rawness is "Loving Cup," which still has more in common with Memphis soul than most Stones cuts. Once again there's the elegant piano of Nicky Hopkins- a talent sorely missed since his death in 1994- this time providing more of a folk flavour. But the groove and the twin horns of Keys and Price really remind you of a vintage Redding song once again, namely in the middle eighth. The Stones had gone for this mood on Sticky Fingers' "I Got the Blues" but came up just a bit empty. Not so with "Loving Cup," another spotlight for some genuinely wonderful lyrics, such as in the chorus ("Gimme little drink from your loving cup/Just one drink and I fall down drunk") plus sometimes those naughty Stones make thinly veiled allusions to sexual intercourse ("But I won't fight you, if you want to push and pull with me all night"). An anomaly is the swampy "I Just Wanna See His Face" not a particularly varied track or a great number in any way other than for the production and arrangement work, which stuns in several ways, first off with a trance-like electric piano groove that later builds up a bit near the end, played by Keith no less.
Mick's vocals are made incomprehensible by mixing, or just because he sang far off from the mike. The backing vocals are also a presence that pushes the song along, as an upright bass played by Bill Plummer (who also played the same on "Rip This Joint") and Charlie hitting the low toms provide a rumbling, spooky bottom. And for a modern twist, the Stones have revisited the Exile sessions for the bonus disc. The teaser currently out there is "Plundered My Soul," which may be too retro to become a top 40 hit, but if 2002's "Don't Stop" managed it, this can too if only rock radio jumps on it. The original track is an outtake but Mick went back over and with a few instrumental touches and a couple of female backing singers, made the necessary overdubs to get it sufficient for inclusion. But happily, it sounds as if Keith's original harmony from 1972 remains. Also, apparently Taylor himself was brought in to provide overdubbed leads just to give it that 1971-72 authenticity.
Ron Wood is the only post-1969 Stone member not heard on the cut, if we're to believe the credits given. It's glossed up but that doesn't take away from "Plundered My Soul," which is perhaps the best Stones single since "Start Me Up." "Plundered My Soul" has even received a music video. It deserves to since it stands out amongst the "new" tracks pulled from the vaults. They all follow the same formula of having overdubs and though this does rob us of the authenticity of the 1971 sessions, it's the best we can hope for. Mick is still a tremendous rock frontman but with age and his latter day cleaner habits, his voice lacks that grit and nasal rasp it used to carry. No big issue is caused by this though. Many of these have floated around on bootlegs for years. There are minor but enjoyable bits that, when stacked up even against the best the Stones offer us now, sparkle in the frame of 2010. What could be deemed average by their 1972 standards is quality insight today. Take "Pass the Wine (Sophia Loren)" for example or the slinky piano blues "I'm Not Signifying" (aka "I Ain't Gonna Lie" on many bootleg collections).
That world-worn, late at night rumination style the Stones were capable of in the early 70s is revived via the quaint "Following the River," a track that may be smooth and easy going but lacks any melodic ideas to consider it a buried treasure of any kind. Also previously unreleased is the earthy but ordinary "Dancing in the Light." The seamier side of the album's blues and country honesty shines through better on "So Divine (Aladdin Story)." There are organic glimpses into the creative process through alternate takes of "Loving Cup," "Soul Survivor," "All Down the Line" and an early incarnation of "Tumbling Dice" called "Good Time Women." One will find "Good Time Women" a boogie extravaganza but nothing too special. But a key change and a true fleshing out of the vocal lines and riffs built it up into a masterpiece out of what originally came off like a more engaging version of their 1969 tune "Country Honk." These early versions show Taylor's guitar was a bit more active than the ones picked for permanent status on the record. The energy is not the same for most, nor is the vocal attack from Mick but these are rough, but pleasant run throughs for sure.
The bonus inclusions are capped off by a modest instrumental called "Title 5," an up-tempo jam with heavy emphasis on chordal boogie, packing a punch that sounds more like the flash and pomp of ZZ Top rather than a Chuck Berry rocker. This is just the tip of the iceberg as Late Night with Jimmy Fallon is dedicating the whole week of May 3-8 to the album by bringing in guests each week to perform a song from the album. Phish, who have several times performed the album in its entirety, are already announced guest for the week. The Stones PR machine is in full working motion, folks, when you see high profile overtures like that made. Credit their long-time manager, native Torontonian Michael Cohl, a man responsible for their record-breaking tours that could fund the Third World! There's even a film about the making of the album and the events surrounding it, called Stones in Exile, set to debut at the Cannes Film Festival. Everything in the works except lunch boxes it would appear. The Stones have learned that when the creative embers aren't glowing, one can always cash in on the prized jewels in the back catalogue.
It appears that Exile, the double album everyone disparaged upon release and said should be a single (common complaint about The White Album too), is being made into quite the cash cow. Nonetheless, the Stones brought the goods to the table since "Plundered My Soul" is a very exciting look into the overhaul. Perhaps the Stones should take that road again and go fix up tracks from the vaults for their next studio record. After all they did that in 1981 and Tattoo Youemerged as the best post-Some Girls album they've ever done. I doubt it would be done since Mick is always one to create new, modern and contemporary fare for the Stones to tour behind. So, if you're a Stones enthusiast or a classic rock lover, then by all means bite into a little rock history and drop the necessary coin for this one. To look at the bonus features, I can say musically they earn a 3.5 star rating, the presentation of the standard 2010 edition deserves a 4.5 star rating. But overall, with the epochal original double LP in tow, this is a five star purchase indeed (I'd give the original Exile a 6 star rating if I could!). You'll be justly rewarded.
1. Rocks off
2. Rip This Joint
3. Shake Your Hips (Hip Shake)
4. Casino Boogie
5. Tumbling Dice
6. Sweet Virginia
7. Torn and Frayed
8. Sweet Black Angel
9. Loving Cup
11. Turd on the Run
12. Ventilator Blues
13. I Just Want to See His Face
14. Let it Loose
15. All Down the Line
16 Stop Breaking Down
17. Shine a Light
18. Soul Survivor
2010 Edition Bonus Disc:
1. Pass the Wine (Sophia Loren)
2. Plundered My Soul
3. I'm Not Signifying
4. Following the River
5. Dancing in the Light
6. So Divine (Aladdin Story)
7. Loving Cup (Alternate Take)
8. Soul Survivor (Alternate Take)
9. Good Time Women
10. All Down the Line (Alternate Take)
11. Title 5
Rating: 5/5 stars (A+)