- 12 May 23
51 years ago today, The Rolling Stones released the seminal album Exile on Main St. – widely regarded as the band’s last masterpiece. To mark its anniversary, we're revisiting Peter Murphy's retrospective 'Classic Album Review'...
Originally published in Hot Press in 1999...
The Age of Aquarius may have ended with the murder of Meredith Hunter at Altamont in 1969, but The Rolling Stones were still hell-bent on waking the dead three years later. Exile On Main Street is widely regarded as the band’s last masterpiece, the final instalment in a staggering four album flush that had begun with Beggar’s Banquet in ’68. That it was less than ecstatically received upon its release is neither here nor there: the music is still rank with the reek of utopian ideals dying on the vine.
As the title suggests, this double-set was the first fruit of the Stones’ tax exile years, a sundering from which the group never fully recovered. As the decade(nce) progressed, both Glimmer Twins seemed to become replicated, bodysnatcher-like, by the haggard survivors that still tour the planet as we speak, Jagger shape-shifting from bohemian androgyne to jaded deal-maker and socialite, Lord Richards into Nosferatu, all humanity sucked out of him by the monkey on his back.
So this is an album of syphilitic, aristocratic blues, the template for guttersnipe high-life in the ’70s. It was recorded in the basement of Nellcote, Richards’ chateau in France, and the climate resembled that of a frat house overrun not by drunken jocks, but professional parasites, leeches and drug dealers.
With Jagger busy swanning around in the company of his new bride Bianca (cruelly dubbed "The Wanker" by the rest of the Stones camp), Kaiser Keef and Jimmy Miller were left supervising the sessions, the guitarist even deputising on bass when Bill was absent. And given that Richards was hatching the faders, it’s no accident that Jagger’s vocals are buried up to their fat lips in a murky quagmire of a mix which obscures some of the singer’s finest lines but also lends the music a scuzzy allure.
The party kicks off with the damned anthem ‘Rocks Off’, a debauched distillation of the Stones’ raison d’etre: "I’m zipping through the days at lightning speed/Plug in, flush out and fight and fuck and feed". The rest of the first act pulses with a similar kind of ruined glamour, all blaring horns, coloured girls going "do-de-do", and at the heart of it all, that strip-joint rhythm guitar propelling ‘Rip This Joint’, Slim Harpo’s ‘Shake Your Hips’ and ‘Tumbling Dice’ (the latter distinguished by Keith and Mick Taylor’s skilful interplay, later defined by the former as "the ancient art of weaving"). Even Charlie ‘n’ Bill were burning like there was no tomorrow, which, for more than a few of the band’s entourage, was very much the case.
But underneath all the braggadocio, patchouli oil, Krishna scarves and hatchet-cut hair, the stench of decay is overpowering. As side two unfolds, and Gram Parsons’ influence trickles down through the junkie-country of ‘Sweet Virginia’, ‘Torn And Frayed’ and ‘Sweet Black Angel’, one senses that this is the kind of record Doc Holliday might’ve made had he been a guitar man rather than a gunslinger – you can just envision the old crow in bed, ravaged by tuberculosis, croaking, "Gimme little drink/From your lovin’ cup".
Exile On Main Street signified the fall of a heathen aristocracy palsied by narcotics, heralding the beginning of a new dark ages for the former counterculture. Plague and pestilence lay ahead, and the landscape would soon be overrun by Dickensian punks and space-age disco divas. And, although tracks like ‘Happy’ and ‘All Down The Line’ undoubtedly rock the house, the bedtime-in-Babylon vibe is all too apparent in the paranoid ‘Let It Loose’ and the sinner’s prayer ‘Shine A Light’.
To put Exile on the deck in the cold light of 1999 is to invite the vampires across the threshold. Upon reciting any of its rotten incantations, the listener is repossessed by a powerful curse; the lust to get fucked up as quickly and effectively as possible, and to spend the next week stumbling from porterhouse to whorehouse to poorhouse. No surprise then, that Exile On Main Street became a prized talisman and yardstick for acts like Aerosmith, Guns N’ Roses, Primal Scream and Spiritualized – it is the sound of souls being hocked, an aural spell that conjures certain sorrow.
ODD FACT: Truman Capote was, at great expense, commissioned to write an account of the 1972 Exile On Main Street American tour. He never produced a word. Robert Frank’s film Cocksucker Blues remains the definitive document of the Stones’ excesses on the road.
WHAT THEY DID NEXT: Went to hell in a hurry, is what. Keith and Anita Pallenberg’s two-month-old infant Tara died in his crib in Switzerland, and the couple became sitting ducks for the Feds, eventually getting busted for real in Toronto. Gram Parsons expired, and sax-player Bobby Keyes, another drug buddy of Keith’s, got the sack. The tours became increasingly more inflated and soulless affairs, subsequent albums like Goat’s Head Soup, It’s Only Rock ‘N’ Roll and Black ‘N’ Blue were, at best, workmanlike, and the group’s decline was only (temporarily) halted by the abrasive Some Girls in 1978.
STAR TRACK: Isolating one of these tunes is like trying to haul a cadaver out of a swamp, but ‘Sweet Virginia’ is pretty spectacular.
ACE LYRIC LINE: "The sunshine bores the daylights outta me!" – ‘Rocks Off’
MAGIC MOMENT: Jagger, borne aloft by a syncopated gospel lurch, exults, "What a beautiful buzz!" during ‘Lovin’ Cup’
RELATED ALBUMS BY OTHER ARTISTS: Robert Johnson’s King Of The Delta Blues Singers; The New York Dolls’ Too Much Too Soon; Primal Scream’s Screamadelica.