I recall when I first listened to Exile on Main Street it was all too much for me and I could not exactly say why that was, but, even the cover art seemed overwhelming. I was not philosophically opposed to double albums. There were many that I admired: Blonde on Blonde, Electric Ladyland, The White Album and so forth. Yet, this album initially felt like a drug overdose when listened to in its entirety.
I now think I know why I felt that way. Exile on Main Street is like a journey through American folk music history. Quite a feat for a band from across the pond. The first song, Rocks Off, seems to point from the past into the (then) future. It starts with a twisted variation on a basic rock and roll riff and hence sounds familiar but is played with the anarchic attitude of punk rock which was, at the time, a few years away. Well, one could argue that the Stones were the archetypical punks anyway. They certainly were the inspiration for legions of garage bands. The track sounds as if it will unravel at any minute yet it holds together.
Things only get wilder on the next track, Rip This Joint. At a point in the 1970’s where rock music was becoming dominated by sensitive singer-songwriters and super smooth production there is nothing slick or sentimental about this record. The journey continues with a joyful rendition of Slim Harpo’s Shake Your Hips , containing fine performances by Keith on lead guitar, Mick on harmonica, and Bill Wyman on bass who manages to evoke Harpo’s other hit King Bee. This is followed by Casino Boogie featuring Mick Taylor’s superb blues guitar lead. Side one ends with the radio friendly yet still somewhat raw Tumbling Dice. Here even though Keith includes a Chuck Berry influenced lead, this one reminds me melodically of early Motown.
Side two begins with Sweet Virginia, one of the many Stones songs influenced by country music. And, this brings me back to my point about the Stones and American folk music: They were one of the few bands of their time that understood that Blues, Country, Rock and Roll, Soul and R&B were all points on a continuum and were not mutually exclusive or opposed to one another. The Beatles started out playing Rock and Roll, Rockabilly and R&B but they did not play the blues. Other British bands dealt exclusively in either R&B or Blues. Even in the US where this music originated few had an appreciation for all of these art forms. Young African-Americans who consumed Soul and R&B music viewed the Blues as old people’s music. And you couldn’t blame them for feeling that Rock and Roll had been co-opted by white folks. Meanwhile Country fans were loath to listen to Soul or Blues. The Rolling Stones managed to navigate through all these styles while always sounding like themselves, not slaves to their influences.
The Country (and Gospel) influence continues on Torn and Frayed which contains a pedal steel guitar solo (Al Perkins) among strummed acoustic guitar, funky Fender picking and gospel tinged organ (Billy Preston). The next ingredient comes from a different part of the New World. Sweet Black Angel, a song about radical Angela Davis, has the flavor of Jamaican Mento, including the Rhumba Box. Loving Cup ends side two with horns (Bobby Keys and Jim Price) that would have been at home on a Stax recording. This song, in the tradition of certain early soul artists, such as, Arthur Alexander and Solomon Burke, syncretically blends gospel, country and even Latin American influences.
Disc Two begins with Happy, one of those rare songs where Keith sings lead. It is, like Rocks Off, a rock and roll tune yet it is fresh and unique in its approach to the genre. After an uptempo boogie (Turd on the Run), the group delivers an original blues (no mean feat in 1972 when some artists were simply mimicking), Ventilator Blues. I Just Want To See His Face is a highlight of the album. This song features Billy Preston’s hypnotic electric piano, the righteous background vocals of Clydie King, Vennetta Fields and Merry Clayton (Whose vocals on Gimme Shelter are unforgettable), upright acoustic bass, and storefront church percussion courtesy of either Charlie Watts or Jimmy Miller – I’m not sure who. Jagger is very effective leading the choir against the sparse instrumentation. The effect is mesmerizing.
The highlight of Disc two, for me, is Let It Loose. Based on a weary yet moving descending chord progression, played by Keith Richards using tremolo, with mournful lyrics that seem to briefly quote from the folk song “Man of Constant Sorrow” this song again evokes Americana or roots music but manages to sound contemporary while still retaining the identity of the Rolling Stones. They sound loose, tough and soulful while Nicky Hopkins’ piano beautifully adorns the melody and the background singers add an otherworldly dimension.
After All Down the Line, a leftover from Sticky Fingers, a Robert Johnson tune follows, namely, Stop Breaking Down. Then, Shine A Light brings more Gospel into the mix with Preston’s organ and Doctor John’s piano providing authenticity along with stellar performances from Jagger and Mick Taylor. Shine a Light sounds like it should end the side and it is a fine tune, but it is not yet the end. Finally, Soul Survivor brings us back to a Stones sound reminiscent of their last Album, 1971’s Sticky Fingers or maybe even 1968’s Beggars Banquet.
Perhaps it was all too much at the time, and, maybe it still is. Witness how long this review has been. Nevertheless, I believe that the careful listener to this album will be rewarded. The remastered edition from 2010 contains bonus unreleased tracks and alternate takes as well as improved sound.