Listen: Exile on Main St.

Written by Billy Delaney

Just after the opening chords of “Rocks Off” on Exile on Main St., the 1970 masterpiece by The Rolling Stones, you can hear somebody, presumably Mick Jagger, mumble a drawn-out, slightly drunken “Ah-oww yeah.” It nails how you feel in that moment, especially when listening on headphones, and foretells the amazing ride you’re embarking on.

I’ve loved this album for years and was excited by all the recent hoopla around the 30th anniversary re-release. In May 2010, Mick and Keith canvassed the American media landscape, showing up on almost every talk show you can think of in just about every conceivable medium. I personally heard and saw either Keith or Mick on the Jimmy Fallon show, NPR’s Morning Edition and a one-hour radio special broadcast all over Sirius satellite radio. I also read reviews in The New York Times and Rolling Stone, and I’m sure there were many others that didn’t cross my path.

Most of the discussion has been around the making of Exile, a classic rock story that has taken on almost mythological characteristics. In case you don’t know, it basically goes like this:

  • The Stones owed millions of pounds in taxes to the British government
  • Sticky Fingers was #1 on the charts but they had to leave the country to avoid the taxman
  • Thus, they were “exiled” to France, where they rented out a mansion, took a bunch of drugs, cavorted with a bunch of hot women, and created one of the greatest rock-n-roll masterpieces of all time

I first heard this story back in high school and I used to think you could actually hear the acoustics of Keith’s French country kitchen in “Sweet Virginia”. I remember when Phish came out with Farmhouse, Trey said he wanted to replicate the vibe of Exile in his barn.

Looks like a party to me...

All of that sounds great…but most of it isn’t true. “Sweet Virginia” was actually recorded in 1969 in London during the Sticky Fingers sessions. In the NPR interview, Mick was pretty clear that they really weren’t partying as hard as many seemed to think and that most of the time it was just Mick, Keith and Jimmy Miller, their producer, down in their makeshift basement recording studio jamming by themselves. Only about a third of what you hear on Exile was actually recorded at Nellcote, Keith’s rented mansion in France; the rest was recorded in either London or L.A., before or after that summer in France. There were women there, but both Mick and Keith were married. The hot chicks you hear about and see in photos were actually their wives.

Still, like all stereotypes, there is basis in fact. Check out these amazing photos of the Exile sessions in the south of France; it’s clear there was some beautiful bacchanalia going on. Who wouldn’t want to be a part of that? On Bob Dylan’s “Theme Time Radio Hour” (which is amazing, by the way) on Sirius, he tells the story of how Keith Richards recorded “Happy” all by himself in that basement after being up for three days. Maybe it’s not true, but it sounds plausible and you’d sort of think Dylan would know.

It’s generally a waste of time to parse fact from myth, and regardless, there’s no denying this is one of the greatest albums of all time. According to Rolling Stone‘s 500 greatest albums of all time, it’s the #7 and the highest ranking of all Stones albums. Phish went so far as to play the whole thing from start to finish as part of their “musical costume” last Halloween. I was lucky enough to be there and couldn’t recommend downloading a copy of it highly enough. As part of that performance, Trey talks about why Exile was such a special album for him.

So, all the hoopla aside, we at The Smatter recommend reacquainting yourself with this classic mix of blues, country, boogie woogie, gospel and rock-n-roll, or getting to know it for the first time if it has somehow eluded you.

I went ahead and bought the remastered Exile on Main St. double album on vinyl, and it’s absolutely excellent. I put the needle down on those opening chords of “Rocks Off”, and just as I was thinking it, I heard Mick mumble that drawn-out, blissfully drunken “Ah-oww yeah.” Classic.

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