‘Exile On Main St.’: The Rolling Stones’ Decadent Splendour, In Their Own Words

The band remember the album that, for many disciples, remains their defining hour.

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Rolling Stones artwork - Courtesy: Dominique Tarle
Rolling Stones artwork - Courtesy: Dominique Tarle

It’s the album that, for many disciples of the Rolling Stones, remains their defining hour. It’s a record of such enduring appeal that it topped the UK chart twice, 38 years apart, playing host to such favorites as “Rocks Off,” “Sweet Virginia,” “Shine A Light,” “Happy,” and “Tumbling Dice.” It could only be Exile On Main St.

The celebrated circumstances of the making of this storied double-album were so challenging, and its gestation so drawn-out, that few Stones diehards could have imagined how Exile would claim such an exalted place in their history. It took its name, with knowing irony, for the band’s own, enforced tax exile status from their own country. This started immediately after they finished a UK tour at London’s Roundhouse in March 1971.

The Rolling Stones - Tumbling Dice (From "Ladies & Gentlemen" DVD & Blu-Ray)

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“You were very resentful about having to leave your own country, because that’s really what it came to,” said Keith Richards to this writer, in a Sunday Times feature at the time of the deluxe reissue of Exile in 2010. “Yeah, you could have stayed and made tuppence out of every pound,” he joked, of the punishing tax laws that forced the Stones to relocate. “Thanks a lot, pals.”

“It was the only thing to do,” added Charlie Watts. “What do they call it, a break in earnings? It worked out, thank goodness.” Both he and Bill Wyman settled in France. “My family were very happy there, and I was.”

The Stones began sessions for songs that finished on the album at Mick Jagger’s Stargroves estate as early as 1969. They continued at Olympic Studios in London. But Exile was chiefly recorded, with considerable difficulty, at Richards’ Nellcote villa in the south of France. The challenges were myriad, from sheer audiophonic limitations to endless delays caused by the Stones’ lifestyle of the time.

‘It was magical’

The sessions were captured in their celebrated and much-used Rolling Stones mobile truck, but only after certain modifications. Wyman, describing the villa in the Sunday Times piece, said: “It was very Mediterranean, and very beautiful, on top of this point with its own boat. When Keith rented it, the garden was very overgrown, so it was magical.

“It was fantastically exotic, with palm trees. We had to saw a couple of them down to get the truck [the Rolling Stones Mobile] in to record. We ran the cables down into various rooms that we tried sound in.”

“The basement was the strangest place,” Richards said in the same article. “It was large, but it was broken up into cubicles, it kind of looked like Hitler’s bunker. You could hear the drums playing, for instance, but it would take you a while to find Charlie’s cubicle.”

The Rolling Stones - Happy - Live (1972) Official

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Mick Jagger, remembering the coterie that surrounded the Stones, added: “Everyone’s life was full of hangers-on. Some of them were great fun, they’re all good for a bit, but when you really come down to it, you don’t want them around, because they just delay everything.

‘It’s a rock‘n’roll environment’

“But that was the lifestyle then. It was just another way of living. There’s a lot of people with a lot more hangers-on now than we ever had. There was lots of drugs and drinking and carrying on. But you know, it’s not a factory. It’s not a mill in the north of England. It’s a rock’n’roll environment.”

But from such unpromising circumstances came a record that continued the Stones’ blinding run of form of the era. Released on May 12, 1972, it went to No.1 on both sides of the Atlantic — their sixth chart-topper in their own, temporarily estranged country —and in many other countries from Spain to Canada. It was certified platinum in the US by 2000, and the chart-topping deluxe reissue went platinum in the UK.

Lenny Kaye, reviewing Exile on its first release, admired its “tight focus on basic components of the Stones’ sound as we’ve always known it, knock-down rock and roll stemming from blues, backed with a pervading feeling of blackness that the Stones have seldom failed to handle well.”

‘The decadent air of the early 70s’

When it was reissued, media queued up to sing its praises. “Until they invent time travel, there’s no better way to inhale the decadent air of the early 70s,” wrote Q magazine. “Never bettered, this is the world’s greatest rock’n’roll band’s crowning triumph,” said Clash.

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“I was always proud of it,” concluded Richards in the Sunday Times piece. “It showed the boys at their best, not just the music, which is obviously very important, but the way the band itself hunkered down and circled the wagons.”

Buy or stream the deluxe edition of Exile On Main St.

1 Comment

1 Comment

  1. pheet007

    May 12, 2019 at 10:58 pm

    The Stones are a band I was always aware of, duh, but until recently didn’t really have that much interest in. But after hearing them on the radio one day, I had an epiphany: they still knew how to play real rock and roll music where most modern bands today have little understanding of that style and mentality. Motorhead and AC/DC definitely were and in AC/DC’s case, are rock and roll with its spirit of rebellion, blues backbone and attitude. I daresay rock and roll exists in metal and extreme music probably much more than any other genre.
    But I bought a greatest hits CD from the Stones that had the tunes from 1964 to 1971, and I immediately dug it in ways I had never before. So I bought “Exile On Main St.” knowing its reputation as their high water mark. The fans and critics are right: it is an amazing album, made even more so by being a double length album with only one hit, “Tumblin’ Dice”.
    The band would be suffering through the hazy daze of heroin addiction recording this album, with Keith Richards in particular severely hooked, only cleaning up in 1979. But it would be the last straight true rock and roll album before Jagger, out of necessity and feeling the blues and rock and roll sound had been sufficiently explored, and probably rightly so, started incorporating other song styles into the work from the ’70’s.
    The album kicks off mightily, slowing down only for “Sweet Virginia”, a country flavored tune and then picking up with a ferocious blues groove that would have made Muddy Waters delirious with the somewhat questionably titled “Turd On The Run”. The rest of the album is Rolling Stones excellence, including Richards’ own vocals on “Happy”, one of the quicker paced and rocking tunes of the album.
    Add the licks of Mick Taylor, the best overall musician to ever be a Rolling Stone, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts’ indelible and ridiculously tight rhythm section and you have one of rock and roll’s best albums of all time.

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