Exile on Main St’s legendary status surrounding its conception is probably only surpassed by The Basement Tapes. (Both also by the way, are about the only two rock and roll records that seem to have a deep understanding of American music. Dylan with American folk music, and the Stones with blues, gospel and soul.) The story is well kn0wn – that The Rolling Stones fled England to France to escape high taxes. They wrote songs, drank and did a lot of drugs. But what makes Exile so special?
For me, it’s the rock and roll album. It embodies everything that is great about rock – it’s dirty and dangerous. On Exile, The Stones take almost every single blues, country, soul and rewrite it as their own. If Exile has one flaw, it would be that a lot of the songs make little sense on their own. There’s no “Gimmie Shelter” or “Sympathy For the Devil” here.
If you’ve never listened to Exile on Main St, do yourself a favor and buy the remaster. Turn up the stereo and get lost in one of the greatest albums ever put to record. Here’s a few of my favorites from the album.
Second to “Like a Rolling Stone” for greatest opening song on an album. There’s a short opening riff by Richards a quick drum snap, followed by Mick’s jubliant, “Ooooh yeah.” And then they’re off. Whether the song is about masturbation, or doing heroin (or both) is up to debate. You can barely hear Jagger’s vocals during the verses, but the screams of “I only get my rocks off while I’m sleeping!” is pure rock and bliss. To add to the insanity, none of the background vocals are in sync – there’s a lot of inaudible shouting. The background horns don’t seem to fit in either – it’s a loud glorious ramshackle of sound that only ends when the song fades out.
The ultimate camp-fire rock and roll singalong. It starts off as a country song, with just an acoustic guitar and harmonica. When the drums comes in, the song sounds fairly standard for the Stones of this time. The true virtue of this song is the chorus – “Come on. Come on down, Sweet Virginia. Come on honey child – beg you. Come on, come on down – you got it in ya. Got to scrape the shit right off your shoes”. If it weren’t already catchy, the background singers (again not quite in sync with Jagger or each other) turn the song into a full fledged party. If you listen in on your head-phones you can hear people talking, laughing, and just having a great time. The saxophone solo provides a slight break, but on the second chorus, Jagger possibly realizing what is taking place, encourages the party. On the third chorus, Jagger is barely heard at all, and it becomes the best drunken singalong you’ve never been a part of.
Shine a Light
The absolute masterpiece of Exile, and the saddest as well. Again taking a genre that isn’t their own (in this case soul), The Stones breathe new life into a lament about a dead friend – Brian Jones. While the Stones had previously explored gospel on “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”, “Shine a Light” truly embodies soul and gospel. It feels less forced, and more natural – which is saying something considering that “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was recorded a few years earlier. The chorus of “May the good Lord shine a light on you/may every day your favorite tune” seems to come from a gospel song as well. It’s kind of hard to believe that this is the same guy that wrote, “I can’t get no satisfaction”. Mick Taylor provides a fantastic solo, bringing one of the Stone’s finest ballads to a shining close.