“Exile On Main Street spends its four sides shading the same song in as many variations as there are Rolling Stone readymades to fill them, and if on the one hand they prove the group’s eternal constancy and appeal, it’s on the other that you can leave the album and still feel vaguely unsatisfied, not quite brought to the peaks that this band of bands has always held out as a special prize in the past… I still think that the great Stones album of their mature period is yet to come”.
That’s what Lenny Kaye said about the album at the time – and he nailed it. Spot on. But he was in the minority then – and maybe he still is now.
Oh, I loved this album. I surely did. Because it sounded a little bit dangerous and it was jam-packed with things, a double-album on long-play single cassette, and when the Rolling Stones were new to me and I was on a quest to devour all that I could from them I lapped this up. But I always loved Black And Blue just a little bit more – and Sticky Fingers and definitely Some Girls. And if Some Girls isn’t “the great Stones album of their mature period”, the one Lenny Kaye was looking for (and it probably is) well then they never really delivered there.
But the Stones know a thing or two about not delivering. Check those YouTube clips of them out and about now – circulating via their official channel. They sound god-awful. But the myth of the Rolling Stones has been selling the Rolling Stones over and above the music since…well, since Exile On Main Street. And that’s why I’m giving up on this album; that’s why I’ve given up. Sure, there’s some things to like on here but it’s beyond over-hyped and the story of its greatness has been wildly exaggerated – by The Stones (of course) and by so many hangers-on.
Exile is that weird fetish for so many – they don’t actually listen to it but need to know of it to feel like they know the Stones. It’s the album to name. When they released their, to date, last studio album, A Bigger Bang (and god, please, let us hope it remains their last) the obvious thing to compare it to was Exile – even though they sound nothing alike. The idea being that Exile was some giant mark of quality. Actually it’s a cutting-room set of leftovers and jams and also-rans shaped into an album by a band drug-fucked and barely speaking to one another. Nothing wrong with that – on its own. But it’s the legacy it’s been afforded by people who haven’t listened widely across the Stones’ canon that makes it so annoying.
I’d plump for the following year’s Goat’s Head Soup. A far more honest record. A far better record. But you never see it mentioned – and all the Stones ever play from it is Angie. Arguably the worst song from that album. Or if you do see Goats Head mentioned it’s the instant dismissal; unfair. It’s the one album from The Stones I can always listen to. There’s sadness, darkness, hopefulness, there’s joyful experimentation – there’s a tinkering spirit to it. It’s flawed – and fantastic as a result. It is the seventies hangover of the sixties hedonism; it’s the post-Woodstock/post-Altamont malaise finally set in. It’s one of several moody, depressed (but not depressing) records from that period (1973-74) that sounds beautiful in its helplessness now (cf: Guy Clark’s No Other, Neil Young’s On The Beach).
But Exile – instead – gets all this kudos. And all these books and now documentaries too. And it’s all a bunch of talking loud and saying nothing. Somewhat fitting – given that’s essentially what the album is. Oh, I like a few key cuts still. Totally. I’m a huge Stones fan and at times this band has meant more to me than almost any other group. But you have to be harshest to the ones you love. You have to. Or else they don’t mean anything at all.
And I first started getting put off Exile when I read a terrible book about it, written about a decade ago. It offered nothing. We were supposed to be enthralled that a music journalist had been in on some of the sessions. These sessions mostly involved a drunk, strung-out Keith on his own. How awful to watch. And so the book was a disaster. And not a must-read car-crash; more a complete waste of time. Nearly a decade later I felt much the same way about Keith’s appalling memoir, Life. Ghastly stuff from a nasty man. A man who believes in the Myth of Keith Richards more than anyone else. Or, hey, at least as much as your average Exile On Main Street fan.
We’re supposed to buy into this sleazy, bluesy image and sound – a pre-punk, proto-punk scrawl of guitars but actually Exile is at its best when Mick is dominant. And this is a harsh reality that too many supposed Stones junkies won’t accept: Mick is the guy that keeps the Stones on track – he’s been the most important figure in the band, post-Altamont. Keith is a death-cheating buffoon. And so we all become the teenagers swayed by the lure of the guy that would never please mum and dad. And we fall under Keith’s spell. It’s all a load of bullshit. Mick brings the most interesting musical elements to the band too – the touches of gospel and country on Exile, later the disco and country to Emotional Rescue and Some Girls. Talk up Gram Parsons all you like. Talk up Keith too. Mick is the guy that did the networking for The Stones. For better and worse. But in these days it was (mostly) for the better.
Keith could never have kept The Stones happening. And his approach to songwriting is just a mad slap-dash, a half-idea tossed off and leave Mick to touch it up. Jagger then gets no love for the ideas he has brought to the Stones – for the showmanship that is, ultimately, the reason crowds still flock.
The Stones released three killer albums right before Exile and two very good ones after (as well as the patchy but not-without-its-charms Only Rock’n’Roll). So why does Exile get all the love? At the end of the day it’s just another double-album that would have been better off trimmed and sharpened. But instead we’re supposed to bask in its four sides of glory.
Nah, I can’t do it. I’d take in any of their albums from the 1960s and 1970s before Exile. And a couple of the 1980s albums too (three – even. I really dig Undercover; I know I’m probably alone there – but hey. Fuckit, I kinda knew that once I started bagging Keef).
I think we are taught to love Exile On Main Street as if it marks The Stones’ oh-so-clever-but-nonchalant exile from the mainstream. I’d happily take side four – on its own – as a superb EP. The rest of it? Well, sure there are songs I dig. I like Shake Your Hips and a couple of the others but I always fucking hated Tumbling Dice. Loathsome. Bothersome. It somehow immediately sounded like every Rolling Stones covers band that covered it before there were any bands covering it. And the song Happy can go and get fucked as well. It’s nothing. It’s Keith phoning in his usual sub-par vocal and we’re all smiling because he can sing with a cigarette in his mouth still. Goat’s Head Soup is the album you should play whenever you think you want to hear Exile on Main Street.
This was originally published as part of a series on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook Page