Rolling Stones: Exile on Main St.

Rolling Stones: Exile on Main St. (1972)

Jordy: The history of the writing, recording, and mixing of this album is so convoluted as to render it fairly moot to the modern listener.  When it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter one fig who was having tax, drug, or lady trouble or who wasn’t getting along with whom or who was bored with rock and roll.  What matters on Exile on Main St. are the songs and there are a lot of them here so let’s get to it.

Glenn: Songs is right, Jordy, and this record has the best of them. When I think Stones, I think nasty rockers, I think bluesy stompers, I think country-swing ballads, and I think soulful midtempo gospel jams. Exile has the Stones’ best attempts at each. I can’t think of a better Delta blues rip than this version of “Stop Breakin’ Down.” “Rocks Off” and “Rip This Joint” rock harder and nastier and murkier than anything else in the catalog. The second side, which might be my favorite, contains their absolute best countryish work: “Sweet Virgina,” “Torn & Frayed,” “Sweet Black Angel,” then topped off with the burned-out gospel yearning of “Loving Cup.” And my favorite “experimental” Stones cut is here, too: the murky-as-hell “I Just Want To See His Face,” which might actually be my fave tune on the record.

You know, we could probably just spend this review listing song titles and saying, “Yeah. Hell yeah.” When it comes down to picking four essential cuts, however, it’s going to be tough. Do we interpret Exile on Main St. as a scuzz-rock classic, a country-soul record, a gospel-rock record, a swampy bit o’ darkness a la Neil Young’s TtN? Or do we choose the best of each style represented here and then tell our readers to go listen to the damn thing, preferably at high volume and preferably with a glass of something strong in hand?

Jordy: True, Glenn.  Naming essential tracks here will be tough as Exile has been justifiably panned (including by some Stones themselves) for lacking hits.  It’s disparate to be sure.  But I would compare it to Pavement’s Wowee Zowee: long, inconsistent, exploratory, and really interesting.

But if I must bite the bullet, I’ll echo Glenn’s praise for the side two country tunes.  “Sweet Virginia” and “Torn and Frayed” show how the best of Gram Parsons rubbed off on Keith.  “Sweet Virginia” is braced by a respectable country shuffle and, despite what Mick might say, I really like how his voice is muddied in the mix.  “Torn and Frayed” is exactly how I think rock harmonies ought to sound: “Doctor prescriiiibes, drug store supliiiiies!  Whoooo’s gonna help ‘im to fix it!”

I’ll also plug “Shine a Light” if only for the Billy Preston piano and these skuzziest (to borrow a term) of rock lyrics:

“Well, you’re drunk in the alley, baby

With your clothes all torn

And your late night friends

Leave you in the cold, grey dawn”


Check out the reissue of Exile in about 14 different formats (including [excited squeal] vinyl!)

Glenn: I want to point to Lester Bangs’s excellent review of this record, available as part of a Google Book. Here’s a tasty snippet:

Exile is dense enough to be compulsive: hard to hear, at first, the precision and fury behind the murk ensure that you’ll come back, hearing more with each playing. What you hear sooner or later is two thing: an intuition for nonstop getdown…and a strange kind of humility and love emerging from a dazed frenzy. If, as they assert, they’re soul survivors, they certainly know what you can lose by surviving….Exile is about casualties, and parting in the face of them.

But the best part of this review is that though Lester makes the case that Exile is the most personal Stones record — the one that makes you feel you know the band personally — it also points out that Stones followed it by ascending into impersonal, larger-than-thou rock royalty, with a limited tour and skyhigh ticket prices. In other words, the Stones as we know them today.

That, finally, is I think the appeal of Exile. It shows the Stones not as out-of-tune ravers ala ’64-’66, not as Between the Buttons fey wizards, not as Salt of the Earth (blech, could that be the worst Stones song ever?) blues-rockers, but as the wizened old party animals, quick with with a riff or a “Ha!” or a drum fill, ready to boogie, with some sort of resigned calm behind it all — the Stones of today. And while the Stones of today sicken me because they represent all the corporate bullshit that rock has become ever since, say, 1957, on Exile they exhilarate.

Adam: I’m not really sure what to say about this album.  I’ve owned it for several years, but never have listened to it all that much.  I always felt it was too long and took too much effort to really get into it.  Maybe I subconsciously don’t like that it doesn’t contain any “hits.”  I find Beggar’s Banquet and Sticky Fingers to be much more palatable for some reason.  That’s not to say that Exile is a bad album.  That’s not the case at all.  There are, as Jordy and Glenn have attested to, some really great songs on this album.  I remembered liking “Sweet Virginia” after only hearing it once or twice, and I really like Keith’s vocals on “Happy.”

Do I dare make the comparison between Exile and The Beatles?  Both are over-long double albums that transcend genres.  But I don’t have the same complaint about The Beatles that I have about Exile. I don’t find The Beatles to be a difficult listen at all.  Probably because I just skip over all of the bad or boring songs…maybe that’s what I should do with Exile. It surely deserves more attention on my part.

Phil: I grew up in a musically sheltered environment and therefore came to music that other people have known for years later in life, and when I was listening to Paul Simon and music by/for emos, I couldn’t stand the Stones. It is only just now that I am beginning to understand my mistake.

Last summer was a big one for me as far as expanding my musical palette: I got way into blues and jazz, and the summer before I bought all the Buck Owens records I could find, so I think my musical nerves had been prepared to finally give the Stones a shot. And the Stones are, to my thinking, the quintessential blues/rock crossover band. “Shake Your Hips” is  just a blues song, plain and simple.  Which is probably why I like it.

Exile is a big sprawling thing, but I hesitate to call it a mess; there is a coherent, underlying sensibility to the record even if it hops over a few stylistic lines (the songs come from genres and styles similar enough to remain consistent). The feeling of the record comes through, just as Glenn says: these guys are good at what they know how to do and this is these guys doing a damn fine job.

But the most exciting part of the album for me is “I Just Want To See His Face.” It sounds like a camp revival meeting at the beginning, all rhythm and choir and Mick Jagger sounding like a preacher under the influence of some un/holy spirit. This is music that excites me. It’s like the Doors, but not as rambling and incoherent, or like late-1980s U2 experimentation but more clear-headed. Even if you can’t understand Jagger at first, the music seems like a firm statement and, at 2:53, a concise one as well. (AA Bondy, recently of Fat Possum records, interpolates this song into a longer thought process on his American Hearts LP, which is worth checking out.)

But, God forgive me, “Rocks Off” just reminds me of Billy Joel. Or maybe I should say, Billy Joel reminds me of “Rocks Off.”

Essential Tracks:

“Rocks Off”
“Sweet Virginia”
“Torn and Frayed”
“I Just Want To See His Face”


Filed under 1970s, Rock

5 responses to “Rolling Stones: Exile on Main St.

  1. You know, I also think that either “Loving Cup” or “Tumbling Dice” are essential for understanding Exile.

    • Johnny Kim

      I was gonna say – those were my two absolute essentials. I know I’m waaay late on this, but I wanted to check in on you guys. I was studying for the bar all summer.

  2. Jeff Wheeler

    “for/by emos” don’t denigrate your heritage, Phil. A lot of that stuff is still pretty damn compelling.

    I think this is the best Stones album. Apart from like Hot Rocks it’s the only one I listen to. I don’t skip any songs either, because I think they’re all ace. I would also venture to say this is their most American album–when we use the term ‘stylistic diversity’ to describe someone who mixes country, rock, blues, and soul, we are essentially saying “they play southern US pop styles,” most of which have a common origin and are principally categorized only by the instrumentation and the race of the performer (mostly the latter). I think by this album the Stones have understood and are playing a much more solid form of southern music than the blues of their first LPs, which was VERY distinctively British (and somewhat amateurish). And it’s good too, it’s not just trying to be disgusting (“Let it Bleed,” “Brown Sugar”) but it’s pretty human too like you said.

    I think it’s EASILY their best record.

  3. It’s very interesting to read these thoughts on Exile as it takes another turn in the spotlight these days…
    For a long time, it’s been portrayed by many, including Mr. Jagger, as “Keef’s album’ and I think there’s a lot of truth in that…I’ve long felt it was the only really essential Stones album, and certainly the one that reveals the most about their influences and just how great a band they were underneath all the veneer that characterizes so much of their other output… to the point where in the last couple of decades all one would hear is the veneer, with precious little in the way of ‘stones’ of any kind behind it all.
    It certainly bears up to more listenings than most of their other albums. It’s an album of secrets, and layers. It goes over edges and it justifies a lot of the hype that would come to surround the band and ultimately Rock itself.
    Its ‘flaws’ and alleged excesses are an integral, essential part of its beauty- a rare statement of faith in the listener, that one would hear both the sound and the spirit in these songs.
    It didn’t come with the pretentious posings of a ‘rock opera’ or even ‘a concept album’… but it is a more cohesive piece of work for a’that and has aged with considerably more grace than most of the records that aspired to those labels…

    for what it’s worth,



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