- 12 May 22
Make Me Burn The Candle Right Down: The Greatest Rock N' Roll Record Of All Time. Words: Pat Carty. Image: Dominique Tarlé.
It’s a basement. In the south of France. In summertime. The windows, if there are any, are slits. It’s hot. Nothing stays in tune. The singer is distracted. The guitar player gets restless. The taxman has chased them out of their own country. There are swastikas carved in the walls. Everybody’s stepping on their accelerator. Everybody gonna need some kind of ventilator. They are making the greatest rock n’ roll record of all time.
We’ll come back to that basement, but the greatest record of all time? Just be thankful I didn’t claim it as the pinnacle of all human achievement, which is probably what I really think. A chorus of ‘What Abouts’ rings around the hall. What about Blue, Sign ‘O’ The Times, Revolver, Hounds Of Love, Quadrophenia, London Calling, I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You, Voodoo, Catch A Fire, The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle or a thousand others? You might be shouting for anything from Robert Johnson to Skinty Fia. Shout away. I’m telling this story. About the greatest rock n’ roll record of all time. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of deserved second place candidates, but there’s only room at the top for one.
I’m not exactly sure where I heard it first. It could have been in my Uncle James’ house – the family hippie – or it could have been the copy I bought in Heartbeat City, Tullamore roughly three and one half decades ago. I do know that, like the critics who greeted its release with less than jumping up and down enthusiasm, I didn’t quite get it at first. My love affair with The Rolling Stones had started at about thirteen years old. I bought a cassette of the Rewind post-sixties hit collection on a family holiday in a record shop somewhere in Cork, probably because they were selling it off. Why did I prefer this to the Stock, Aiken & Waterman pop on the radio or the indie guff I was supposed to like? I don’t know, really. I could give you a load of manure about it being more ‘real’, or its connection back to blues and soul, etc. but I wouldn’t have known anything about that at the time.
Anyway, I probably bought Exile because I read somewhere – might even have been in this very magazine – that this was the best one, but I didn’t think so once I got it home. Murky, uneven, samey, no hits apart from the one song that was on Rewind; I thought I’d wasted my money back when I had even less of it than I do now. You stuck with a record that time though, because you didn’t have a lot of them and there wasn’t any vast, just-a-shot-away library in the ether.
Exile worked its way in, through repeated listens, and became more than a record to me. I’ve been living with it now for about thirty-five years. It’s no exaggeration to say I’ve played it at least once every week since. It’s accompanied me around the world. Survived relationships, houses, marriages, two fires, a few burglaries. I know it far better than I know most of my relatives. It, foolishly, became a design for life. There were bad decisions, dangerous courses of action that threatened both liberty and life. All because of a rock n’ roll record. I became its drunken apostle, giving multiple copies of it away, forcing it on people, insisting that they had to hear it. Testifying. Proselytising. Eulogising. I’m still at it.
Make Up Your Mind ‘Cause I Gotta Go
Being the biggest band in the world – The Beatles were gone, Zeppelin were selling more records but hadn’t colonised the general public’s imagination in quite the same way – was one thing but having to go cap in hand for walking around money probably took some of the good out of it. It must still boil the blood of a former student of the London School of Economics but The Rolling Stones signed a bad deal with Allen Klein in the 1960s. Klein had earned his reputation by securing a big payday for Sam Cooke – his ABKCO company ended up with the rights to Cooke hits like ‘Wonderful World’ in return, which was a pretty good deal when Klein could later allegedly demand $200,000 for the use of the song in the movie Witness, and get it.
By strong arming Decca, Klein secured the best record contract there then was for The Stones in the mid-sixties – certainly better than the one The Beatles had – but he also ended up with the rights to their sixties material, rights his company still holds to this day. Keith Richards would later, in typical cavalier fashion, call it “an expensive education” but that is a serious understatement from a man who’s rarely been averse to exaggeration. It’s a long story, but by the time the Stones had extracted themselves from Klein’s grip in the early seventies they also had some problems with the tax man, who Klein may have - again allegedly - decided not to bother too much with. Top earners back then could end up in a tax bracket over 90%. Under advisement from Jagger’s new pal, merchant banker Prince Rupert Loewenstein – that was his real name, and he was a real prince who would work with The Stones until 2007 and is the man responsible for making them super rich – they decided to leave England just so they could earn enough to pay back what was owed to her majesty. France was nearby, Jagger spoke the lingo, there was more sun; that would do nicely.
When it came time to move, Keith Richards was transported with all his furniture, accoutrements, records, guitars, recreational pick-me-ups and everything else and deposited in the same arrangement in the South of France. Is this a true story? It hardly matters. It’s a good one. What most likely happened is that Keith left it until the last minute. The Stones had played a farewell tour of England, Sticky Fingers was finished and ready to go, Bill Wyman, Mick Taylor, Charlie Watts and Mick Jagger had all left but Keith waited until the last day – April 4th as April 5th, 1971 was the end of the British tax year – to catch a plane to Nice. Chances are he probably carried himself into first class. If you want more of this always on the run self-mythologising, just pick up a copy of Keith’s book Life.
There are, of course, different levels of broke. Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor rented houses in Grasse, a village in the hills north of Cannes, Charlie settled in Arles in a house that he actually bought and kept for decades, and Jagger, after first hopping between hotels in Paris and the south, found a place in Biot, a hilltop village between Nice and Cannes. Most importantly for our story, Keith Richards and family moved into the Villa Nellcôte in the Avenue Louis Bordes, at Villefranche-sur-Mer, with the rent a nice, round £1000 per week. In 1972. If you would like some idea of how flash it is, it sold to a well-heeled Russian chap for $128 million in 2006.
Here is where the legend of Exile really begins. Keith Richards is twenty-eight and lives like a medieval prince. His partner is the impossibly beautiful German-Italian actress and model Anita Pallenberg. Their son Marlon is approaching his second birthday. As well as various Rolling Stones, the house on the bay will play host to a revolving set of racing drivers, drug peddlers, musicians and many others. One can get a sense of just what a paradise this must all have been in Dominique Tarlé’s famous photographs of the period. The property even had its own private dock onto the Mediterranean. Richards bought a speedboat, one of those fancy Italian Wooden Riva jobs, and christened it The Mandrax, because of course he did. Pallenberg later spoke of the difficulty of keeping the house together. For Richards it was quite possibly heaven.
When thoughts turned to recording, and continuing the hottest artistic streak that anyone has ever had - the one that started with the recording of ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ on April 20th, 1968, the one that rescued the band from the misguided Beatlisms of Their Satanic Majesties Request - the band checked out some French studios but none of them had it, that feel that Richards claimed he could identify just by snapping his finger to hear what a space sounded like. The basement at the villa was made up of a series of rooms, rooms that had doubtless been used for nefarious purposes back when the house had been the local Gestapo headquarters and allegedly still had swastikas on the vents to prove it. In 1968 the band had decided to get around the hassle and the bills associated with studios by building their own, in the back of a truck. The Rolling Stones Mobile Studio, constructed by Dick Sweetman’s Helios Electronics company, famed for their mixing consoles, was probably first used at Mick Jagger’s Stargroves country estate and would go on to be used by most of rock’s royalty. Why not, then, do it at Keith’s house? At least he’d be guaranteed to show up, right? The truck was driven to France.
I’ll Be In My Basement Room…
And so the musicians would descend to the basement whenever Keith saw fit, recording in the different rooms - the horn players here, the piano over there - as engineer Andy Johns and producer Jimmy Miller went back and forth to the truck outside, and the music very slowly began to take shape. Elsewhere in the villa the party raged while the basement rocked through the night at such volume it could be heard in the surrounding, rather well-to-do village. The stories of that summer in that place have become the stuff of legend, a sort of rock n’ roll Camelot, stories regaled to journalists and biographers ever since, perhaps exaggerated, as these things so often are, in the retelling. Stories that turned the heads of a million fifteen-year-olds, including this one.
The Myth of Keef is at the centre of it all. The Human Riff, The Walking Laboratory, The World’s Most Elegantly Wasted Human Being. Richards had certainly dabbled in heroin before, but he was relatively clean when he came to France. Then he had a go-karting accident where a lot of skin was painfully scraped off his back. He went on Methadone and the next step from there was the hard stuff. Was he following in his heroes' footsteps, or was it because, as he would later claim, the drug’s fog would allow him to deal with everything that came his way, or did he just like getting out of it? Whatever the reason, Nellcôte wasn’t far from Marseille, so it wasn’t hard to secure a supply. Fat Jacques, the cook who would eventually blow up the kitchen, would disappear once a week to top up the stash. The drugs slowed ‘Keith Time’ down even further. He would work when the mood took him and would keep at it until he was ready to stop which might be hours or days later. For all intents and purposes, this meant the other Stones had to move in. Charlie Watts lived hours away for a start so it just wasn’t practical to do anything else. This didn’t stop Keith missing sessions, much to the annoyance of Bill Wyman, who is absent from several tracks on the finished record, probably because if Keith couldn’t be arsed to come down the stairs then he wasn’t going to go jumping in his car.
One of Keith’s live-in mates was fixer ‘Spanish’ Tony Sanchez who even sounds dodgy on paper. His book, Up And Down With The Rolling Stones, should probably be taken with a large pinch of salt, or certainly a pinch of something salt-like, but it does detail Richards’ wild lifestyle. On one occasion they get in a fist fight at the Beaulieu-sur-Mer harbourmasters office that very nearly results in Richards being shot after he pulls out his son’s toy gun. At another juncture, he and Anita set fire to the bed while they’re still in it. He attracted local ne'er-do-wells that would eventually rob the place, including several priceless and irreplaceable guitars. Such was his reputation that it was inevitable the authorities would swoop in, which they did not long after Keith and Anita had left. They found enough contraband to issue a warrant that would follow Richards around for years and force him to continue paying that £1000 a week long after he was gone.
Before that though it was, for a glorious summer, one long party, or a season in hell as writer Robert Greenfield put it. The bill for booze, food, and drugs came to £6000 a week, offset slightly by the £250 rent Richards charged the other Stones to stay. Depending on which book you pick up, Richards would spend time with Marlon in the morning, maybe walk the dog, perhaps a bit of water-skiing but once lunch came around Anita took over the parenting duties and the party would start. Or he would wake up, drop a downer and then shoot up before his afternoon breakfast.
On top of all that expensive food and booze there was music constantly playing. Keith had ordered in the requisite Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and Eddie Cochran records from a shop in St. Tropez. It’s often been said that Richards record collection, to this day, hasn’t really changed that much since the early sixties – apart from the addition of the odd soul and reggae record – and he reacted to James Taylor’s Mud Slide Slim being put on the turntable by a visitor with loud scorn and threw Astral Weeks in the swimming pool. Keith lived like this because he could and out of this apparent chaos he created his masterpiece, although there’s a convincing case to be made for this as Keith’s final artistic hurrah. He pulled something God-like out of himself during these intensive months of work and play, but he'd never be able to do it quite as well again.
Because Jagger has usually been seen as a cold and calculating businessman - and Richards is worshipped as some sort of personification of rock n’ roll by sad idiots like me – he usually gets the shit end of the stick in history lessons like this. Keith would complain that Jagger would absent himself from the sessions – this from the man who sometimes couldn’t make it down the stairs – but Jagger had just got married, rather famously to Bianca at a huge celebrity/paparazzi bash in St Tropez on May 12th, at the reception of which Keith honoured his best mate by classily throwing an ashtray through a window before passing into unconsciousness. Bianca was also pregnant and gave birth to their daughter Jade that October so of course Mick would want to spend time with the woman who quite wisely decided early on that the atmosphere in Nellcôte was not for her. Jagger was also busy planning the Stones next tour on his visits to Paris which makes Keith’s pram emptying seem even more questionable.
Despite all this, Jagger’s firm hand – and, and this is never stated enough, his artistic genius - is especially evident when the sessions moved to Los Angeles at the end of the summer. While Exile is renowned as the album recorded in that French basement, the truth is a bit more complicated. The band rightly saw it as a continuation of Sticky Fingers. Some tracks had been recorded before they even thought about going to France, at Stargroves and Olympic Studios, but held over – although Klein would still later claim his pound of flesh - and the mixing and most if not all of the overdubbing, including the vocals and extra musicians, was done in LA’s Sunset Sound. Recording in a basement is one thing, but a record still needs to sound like a record, even one as daringly mixed as Exile. It should also be noted that the the two cover versions on the album, from Slim Harpo and Robert Johnson, were Jagger's idea, not Keith's.
One could also argue that on songs like ‘Torn And Frayed’ and ‘Shine A Light’ that Jagger is singing to and about Keith. So is it Mick’s record like the one that came before it or is it, as reputed, Keith’s golden hour? The truth is it’s both. It’s a Rolling Stones record where the two figureheads, the glimmer twins, rock n’ roll’s longest running marriage, were working together at the peak of their abilities, and Exile might mark the last time they really did.
Let It Loose
The music the four sides would contain is the culmination of a process that began on a train platform in October, 1961 when Richards saw his childhood friend Jagger carrying The Best Of Muddy Waters and Chuck Berry’s Rockin’ At The Hops, purchased by mail order directly from Chess Records’ Chicago offices, under his arm. It’s the combined sound of everything they had listened to since - deep southern soul, folk and electric blues, the country of Nashville and Bakersfield, and gospel - played by an extended configuration of The Rolling Stones, mostly centred around Keith Richards’ guitar, tuned to open G.
That open G is the first sound we hear, playing the opening riff to ‘Rocks Off’ - E to A to Bb to B - before Charlie hits the snare like someone firing a gun just behind your ear and a voice – presumably Mick or Keith’s – mutters a filthy “Oh, Yeah!” During the sixties, Richards had pretty much stuck to standard tuning (EADGBE), the one we all struggle with when we first pick up the instrument. It was while working with Ry Cooder, who contributes to a couple of songs on Let It Bleed, that Keith first came across this approach he would make his own. The guitar is tuned DGDGBD so the chord of G – root(G), third(B), fifth(D) – is played when the strings are struck. Richards refined this even further by removing the unnecessary low D string. Playing in this manner allowed him to construct an extensive and miraculous series of riffs and chord sequences based around transitions between the first, fourth and fifth chords, utilising the drones and ringing of open strings.
Take ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ as an early example, or the riff the drives ‘Brown Sugar’ or one hundred others. Richards had found the sound that would define him. Cooder might have grumbled but, amazing musician that he is, he never wrote anything nearly as awe-inspiringly great as, say, ‘Start Me Up’ so that’s the end of that story. Exile is the crowning glory of Richards open guitar style - the riff the opens ‘Tumbling Dice’ and the rhythm of the chords that almost lazily drive it along, the glorious moment near the end where Keith combines with pianist Nicky Hopkins to close out ‘Soul Survivor’, the whole of ‘All Down The Line’. None of these would have been the same in standard tuning.
‘Happy’, often seen as Richards’ signature song, is built around such a riff. The song came to him one morning when none of the other Stones were around but recorded it anyway, with producer Jimmy Miller behind the drums and Bobby Keys blowing some sax. Richards put down a couple of guitar tracks, some bass, sang the Cole-Porter-Rock-N'-Roll lyrics and, apart from some Jagger thrown in at the end later, it was done.
You've Got A Cut Throat Crew
The Stones were an eight-piece band at this point thanks to Hopkins, Bobby Keys, and Jim Price on trumpet. Hopkins, a session man who The Kinks and The Who also surely owe a few bob, first togged out for The Stones on 1967’s Between The Buttons and that’s him deserving a writing credit on ‘We Love You’ and ‘She’s A Rainbow’ but Exile is surely his finest hour, and seven minutes. He’s all over it but special mention must go to the chords that open ‘Loving Cup’, that section of ‘Soul Survivor’, and the soulful glory of ‘Let It Loose’.
Bobby Keys – born In Texas on the same day as Keith Richards – made his debut on ‘Live With Me’ on 1969’s Let It Bleed but is most famous for the sax blast in the middle of ‘Brown Sugar’. He would tour with the Stones for the rest of his life although he did have to take several years off after Jagger issued his marching papers for filling a bathtub with Dom Pérignon, thereby costing the band a small fortune. When he wasn't recording in the basement, he was chasing Alain Delon's estranged wife Nathalie around the countryside. Jim Price was Keys’ mate, who made his debut on Sticky Fingers’ ‘I Got The Blues’ before becoming part of the touring band. Recording in various rooms and hallways of that basement, the horn section are a crucial part of Exile, constructing their own arrangements behind almost everything on the record but they especially shine on ‘Let It Loose’, ‘All Down The Line’ and ‘Ventilator Blues’ where Keys’ clapping is even credited with helping Watts get the rhythm right.
There are other supporting roles. Engineer Andy Johns, younger brother of Glyn, and a man who was working on Hendrix records while he was still only eighteen and would go on to produce Television’s Marquee Moon, performed miracles under impossible conditions and often told the story of escaping back to his digs once Keith had fallen asleep at the desk only to be greeted by a where-the-fuck-are-you phone call. He returned, at God knows what hour of the night, to capture the crucial second guitar on ‘Rocks Off’. Producer Jimmy Miller can never be given enough credit for his work with The Rolling Stones. It can’t be a coincidence that his tenure began with ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ and ended with Goats Head Soup. A drummer himself, that’s him playing the cowbell on ‘Honky Tonk Woman’, the drums on ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ and ‘Happy’, and percussion behind several other numbers. The Stones found their groove when Miller walked in the door in 1968 and when he left, he took a good part of it with him.
What A Beautiful Buzz
I’m getting lost in the basement rooms. The Stones never sounded as sleezy as they did zipping through the days at lightning speed on ‘Rocks Off’. They never rocked as hard as they did on ‘Rip This Joint’, a road movie by way of Little Richard that rattles along at a fierce pace. They never sounded as joyous as they did when the collective chorus pleads “won’t you be my little baby for a while” – with a grin that suggests they couldn’t really give a hoot whether you do or not - during ‘All Down The Line’, complete with its out of tune intro, left in because it sounded right. Even allowing for their brilliant interpretation of ‘Love In Vain’ on Let It Bleed, they never covered Robert Johnson as well as they did on ‘Stop Breaking Down’, recorded before they even got to France and, apparently, without Keith Richards because that’s Jagger playing the Keef guitar part, and adding some career-best harmonicaing. Just as they previously recorded the greatest ever Chuck Berry covers with their version of ‘Bye Bye Johnny’ and ‘Let It Rock’, this cut shows up Clapton’s, or anyone else’s, attempts to tap into Johnson’s otherworldly, sold his soul to the devil, chilling blues magic for the pale imitations they are.
‘Tumbling Dice’ has got everything the perfect Rolling Stones single should have. There’s the descending opening riff, and Jagger’s buried in the mix – as they are everywhere on this album, because it’s not an album of individual performances – vocals telling some vague story about how loving is like gambling and all the ladies think he’s tasty. There’s possibly the best breakdown and outro in the history of popular music, there’s the verses and choruses of no fixed length being pulled and pushed as the players saw fit, and there’s a perfect, brevity-is-the-soul-of-wit guitar solo from Mick Taylor, the man who proves again on ‘Shine A Light’ that he was the best musician to ever have the words ‘Rolling’ and ‘Stones’ on his C.V. There’s the magic trio of Clydie King, Venetta Fields, and Sherlie Matthews on backing vocals and if that wasn’t enough, Keys and Price take it home while Hopkins sits in the pocket in the background, grounding the whole affair. Most important of all, and this is true of the entire record, it’s got this almost supernatural groove that no other band has ever been able – some have got close, Little Feat at their best, The Black Crowes’ second album - to successfully imitate. You could put a thousand Primal Screams in a room with a thousand guitars for a thousand years and they’d never get within an ass’s roar. Is it the way Charlie and Keith pulled at the beat from opposite ends? Is it Jagger’s unique vocal presence, somehow incorporating ever genre of music he’d been steeped in? Is it the combined might of the added players, or is it simply inexplicable, unrepeatable genius?
Then there’s the oddball album tracks that could go nowhere else. ‘Ventilator Blues’ with that guitar riff doubled by the horns, Nicky Hopkins’ trills, and its strange time signature that the band could never get right again and would only play live once, might be their greatest blues song and the closest they ever came to the sound and feel of their Chess Records inspirations. And that segues into ‘I Just Wanna See His Face’ which sounds like it’s arrived in a time machine from another era altogether, from a gospel meeting by a river in the long ago. There’s hardly a song there at all as the title is repeated again and again by Jagger with encouragement from the backing vocals and we can’t even be sure who’s playing that electric piano line. Is it Richards as the credits state or is it Derek And The Dominos man Bobby Whitlock who claimed he both played it and co-wrote it in Olympic Studios? What about the influence of Dr. John on this track and his 1971 album The Sun, Moon & Herbs in particular? Keys, Price, Jagger and Whitlock are all on that great record, and Dr John turns up on ‘Let It Loose’. We’ll never know, it doesn’t matter anyway, take it easy, relax your mind.
What about using the William Burroughs cut-up technique on ‘Casino Boogie’ – “skydiver inside her, slip rope, stunt flyer”? What about the raggedy turkey chase of ‘Turd On The Run’ – “I hung on to your pants but you just kept on running while they ripped off in my hands”? What about the one-chord boogie of Slim Harpo’s ‘Shake Your Hips’? These songs couldn’t have really fitted on any other Stones album but a double album gave them room. When I heard it first, and maybe this is what happened to those other critics back in 1972, perhaps it was these songs that threw me off, as they’re not as obvious as ‘Rocks Off’, ‘Tumbling Dice’, ‘Loving Cup’, ‘Happy’ or ‘All Down The Line’, but once the album gets under the skin, it has to be heard as a whole, the big songs no longer make sense without the others. You might skip a track on Revolver or Pet Sounds or The Bends but you’d be committing a crime by doing so here. Jagger himself has always wondered at the high regard in which Exile is held, complaining about the mix and the lack of hits, but the mix is what makes it great, a complete work of art with no weak links. You just got to live with it a while.
One of those times I gave Exile away, a friend of mine who is, for reasons that are lost to history, called The Weasel fell in love with it too, marvelling at how soulful it is. If ‘I Just Wanna See His Face’ is an excavated soul cave painting then ‘Let it Loose’ – just listen to when Charlie pounds out of Hopkins’ piano break and the horns come through at about 2:22 - and ‘Shine A Light’ are fully-realised soul/gospel epics, fit to stand beside the records that inspired them. The Stones had been covering soul music since early in the career, and had the favour returned on Otis Blue, but here the lessons have been fully absorbed. It might be heresy to say it but the real work was done in L.A. after Nellcôte, when Jagger brought in the backing singers that lift these songs. It was here that Billy Preston turns up and takes Jagger to Sunday service, it was here that Jagger attended the recording of Aretha Franklin’s Amazing Grace live album at the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church with the Southern California Community Choir, a recording that would make Richard Dawkins a believer. Not that all that would matter if Jagger’s own voice was not at the centre of it, howling out the line he lifted from the traditional ‘Man Of Constant Sorrow’, “maybe your friends say I’m just a stranger”, that voice delivering riiighttt on time, pleading, hollering, calling out his friend and partner for getting drunk in the bar, the same man he loves who’s stretched out in room ten o’ nine, whose late night friends will leave him in the cold grey dawn. Let the good lord shine a light on you, he begs. If that’s not soul music and soul singing, then I don’t know what is.
Staying in California, the glimmer twins brought in Bill Plummer, a musician who was good enough for Miles Davis and Willie Nelson, to play upright bass on several tracks including ‘Rip This Joint’ and ‘All Down The Line’. I’m paraphrasing wildly here but Keith Richards has said more than once that he’s as much interested in the roll as the rock and he reckons that upright bass might be where it lives. As a result, these two tracks don’t just rock, they swing. Charlie Watts as a jazzer was always going to be at home with this and if Exile was the only record he ever played on, we would still be talking about him as the greatest rock n’ roll drummer there’s ever been. Listen again as he two hits his way into ‘Rip This Joint’ as Plummer walks around him. Listen to his entrance on ‘All Down The Line’ and his slight shuffle behind the verses. Listen to the whole of ‘Loving Cup’ where he switches it up, several times. You don’t even have to take my word for it as there’s a section devoted to this divine four minutes in Mike Edison’s book.
Now that I think about it, is ‘Loving Cup’ the best song on Exile? Not because of Hopkins who is on fire, or the horns in the middle eight that deserve the Nobel prize for raising the hairs on your arm, or even for Charlie. It’s because of Mick and Keith singing together. “I am nitty, gritty, and my shirt’s all torn, but I would love to spill the beans with you ‘till dawn.” Mick’s soul shout and Keith’s country honk. It is an essential part of any truly great Stones record, and once they stopped doing that, once they stopped singing to each other, they stopped being truly great.
The song, just like the other seventeen, is located at the crossroads where soul and country and blues and rock n’ roll and gospel meet. This is the cosmic American music that Gram Parsons was always going on about. Gram Parsons, the rich boy with the country soul and voice that could bring a tear out of the hardest heart, the man who would create his own kind of country music on GP and Grievous Angel before taking it all too far in The Joshua Tree Motel. He was there in the year leading up to Nellcôte and was a house guest at the mansion before his habits got the best of him. He was Keith’s sounding board, showing him the difference between the Nashville and the Bakersfield country sounds. He may have been seen as an annoyance and even a usurper by Jagger, certainly according to Keith in his biography anyway, but his sensibility pervades Exile. The hours spent at the piano or on the guitar singing Merle Haggard and George Jones songs with Richards were vital. By all accounts he’s not actually on the record itself, but ‘Sweet Virginia’ and ‘Torn And Frayed’ – grown up country songs miles away from the comedy accents on ‘Dear Doctor’(Beggars Banquet) and the self-conscious shit kicking of ‘Country Honk’ (Let It Bleed) – and ‘Loving Cup’ betray his influence. Without the lessons he thought them, would they have employed the high and lonesome sound of Al Perkins’ steel guitar on ‘Torn And Frayed’?
What am I leaving out? Let’s go back to where we started with that fifteen-year-old and the hundreds of thousands of others like him. For him and them, Exile On Main St. provided a roadmap, sending them back to investigate the records that inspired it. Its grooves hold a taste of everything that’s great in rock n’ roll – that fifties swing, that roll, country, blues, soul, gospel. There’s no reggae on it, or disco for that matter, because The Stones hadn’t got there yet, but every other cornerstone is represented. Every article or interview I could find about it back then lead me somewhere else, to some other blues record, some other soul song, some other country singer, and it rarely, if ever, steered me wrong.
What about its influence? Is there a band since that hasn’t tried to cop some of its moves? To pick just one, what is The Clash’s London Calling, with its big rock and roll songs like ‘Death Or Glory’ and ‘Clampdown’ mixed with more left-field fare like ‘Jimmy Jazz’ and 'Koka Kola’ but a Westway Exile with added reggae, and I’d bet Joe Strummer and Mick Jones, Stones devotees, would be the first to admit it. You can hardly blame any of those lesser copyists either because no band ever looked as rock n’ roll as The Stones did in 1972. Jagger was beautiful, so much so he single-handedly redefined the world's notion of male beauty, and Richards was, as Little Richard is quoted as saying in Stanley Booth’s essential The True Adventures of The Rolling Stones, “really a funky-lookin’ cat”, perfecting a look that grown men have struggled to imitate ever since. Then they wrap all that in Robert Frank’s sleeve art, brought on board at Charlie’s suggestion after he came across Frank’s 1959 masterpiece, The Americans, a photo book wherein Frank, according to Jack Kerouac, “sucked a sad poem right out of America onto film.” The cover isn’t a collage but a photo of a collage, an outtake from The Americans called ‘Tattoo Parlour’. Its collection of circus performers and freak show attractions is somehow perfect – and a direct inspiration for Achtung Baby about twenty years later. Add to that the group photos, taken by Frank and Norman Seeff and you have a cover, with extra fold-out double-album real estate, that has served as a rock n’ roll recruitment poster for the last five decades.
Have I won you over yet? It’s the greatest record ever made, a concept album about rock n’ roll itself, a snapshot of the greatest rock n’ roll band there will ever be at their absolute peak, an album of Mick singing to Keith and Keith playing to Mick, the best songs they would ever write. In this age of antiseptic mainstream music, it can still serve as the blueprint, it’s the motherlode, let it kick you like it kicked before, it’s the first and last record you’ll ever need. Just as long as the guitar plays. Let it steal your heart away.
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