Wednesday 22 May 2019

Was Exile on Main St the Rolling Stones greatest ever album?

As the Stones roll into Dublin for their first Irish concert in 11 years, our music critic looks back on the making of what many believe is still their greatest album, Exile on Main St

That 70s show: Exile on Main St marked for many the apex of the Rolling Stones' creativity
That 70s show: Exile on Main St marked for many the apex of the Rolling Stones' creativity
Exile on Main Street
John Meagher

John Meagher

Musicians decamping to another country for tax-saving purposes is nothing new. Ireland welcomed a slew of big-names in the early 1990s and all those years David Bowie spent living in Switzerland in the '80s wasn't simply because of the alpine scenery.

The practice began about half a century ago. It may have been the Swinging Sixties, but musicians had to cough up a huge proportion of earnings to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs - as much as 93pc for high-earners - and they were looking for ways to avoid it. George Harrison expressed the frustration he and his peers felt in 'Taxman' from the Revolver album in 1966.

And if the Beatles felt irked by having to pay so much in tax, the Rolling Stones felt exactly the same and after the release of their extraordinary ninth album, Sticky Fingers, in 1971 they offered the middle finger to the revenue collectors and departed Britain en masse. It subsequently turned out they had spent all the tax money they owed and needed to leave the country promptly.

Mick Jagger, newly married to Bianca, moved to Paris while Keith Richards rented a crumbling mansion, Villa Nellcôte, in Villefranche-sur-Mer, near Nice on the French Riviera. The rest of the members relocated to the south of France.

They had already begun work on what would become Exile on Main St, the sprawling double album that's seen by many as the band's greatest work and regularly comes top of those best ever albums polls.

Unable to find a suitable recording studio in their adoptive country, they turned Richards' basement into a makeshift studio and with a floating cast of guest musicians - including Gram Parsons, purveyor of the self-styled 'Cosmic American Music' - in tow, they delivered the most ambitious work of their long, long career.

Nellcôte, which had had a Gestapo association in the Vichy France of the war years, would prove to be a wonderfully atmospheric - and decadent - place to record and many have suggested that the place had a major influence on the murky and dark songs that emanated.

Keith Richards later called it the first grunge record, and while it does have hallmarks of a genre that would take over the world 20 years after its release, its sound encompassed a huge array of styles and influences including hard rock, country, soul and gospel.

As the work of a band that had already secured their place in the rock canon forever more, they no doubt felt they could do what they wanted and if that involved a quadruple album of percussion-and-chanting, their label, Atlantic Records, would surely have obliged.

While it's long been acknowledged as a classic of 1970s rock and the point that marked the apex of the band's creativity, reviews at the time of release were decidedly mixed. Rolling Stone praised the record for its "tight focus on basic components of the Stones' sound as we've always known it", including blues-based rock music with a "pervading feeling of blackness", but suggested the song quality was uneven. It predicted that "the great Stones album of their mature period is yet to come".

Others noted that the album didn't have the immediacy of the band's previous work, nor was it as accessible.

Years later, when talking about the album, Richards noted its slow-burning qualities. "When [Exile] came out," he said, "it didn't sell particularly well at the beginning, and it was also pretty much universally panned. But within a few years the people who had written the reviews saying it was a piece of crap were extolling it as the best frigging album in the world."

Rolling Stone seemed to have changed its tune, too. Exile on Main St was named by the magazine as the seventh best album ever released in a 2012 guide to their top 500 albums. And that iconic 'chequerboard' cover was surely an inspiration to Dublin designer Steve Averill when it came to creating the artwork for U2's Achtung Baby.

In his book on Exile on Main St, Bill Janoviz, the American music writer and lead singer with Buffalo Tom, described it as "the greatest, most soulful, rock 'n' roll record ever made" because it seamlessly distills "perhaps all the essential elements of rock & roll up to 1971, if not beyond".

John Perry, in his book Exile on Main Street: The Rolling Stones, noted how, despite sounding like an emblematic record of the 1970s, it was an album that was "entirely modern yet rooted in 1950s rock and roll and 1930s-1940s swing".

The album has never been Jagger's favourite, mainly because its direction was so driven by Richards, even though he had begun a long and damaging relationship with heroin. He once described it as sounding "lousy" with "no concerted effort of intention" and quipped that "at the time, [the producer] Jimmy Miller was not functioning properly. I had to finish the whole record myself, because otherwise there were just these drunks and junkies".

It's true that his vocals are often submerged in a soupy mix. Yet it's that very messiness and lack of premeditation that has connected with so many rock aficionados over the years. "A lot of Exile was done how Keith works," drummer Charlie Watts said around the time of the album's remastering in 2010. "Which is, play it 20 times, marinade, play it another 20 times. He knows what he likes, but he's very loose."

Jagger and Richards reportedly had a strained relationship while making the album on the French Riviera, especially as rock legend has it that Jagger slept with Richards' then girlfriend, the model Anita Pallenberg, while Keith was strung out on drugs. The rumour was first put out by the US journalist Robert Greenfield, who had been with the Stones during the recording of the album and subsequently wrote about his experiences in the book, A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones.

"Mick needs to know what he's going to do tomorrow," Richards said in the entertaining documentary, Stones in Exile. "Me, I'm just happy to wake up and see who's hanging around. Mick's rock, I'm roll." But they rolled together creatively in France.

Subsequent albums that decade would follow Jagger's lead and move away from the blues-based sound that anchors Main St.

A handful of its songs are likely to be aired in Croke Park on Thursday for the Stones' first Irish concert in 11 years. Last year's leg of the No Filter tour featured such perennially popular Main St songs as 'Tumbling Dice', 'Rocks Off', 'Virginia' and 'Happy'.

The album continues to inspire scores of musicians, including Ryan Adams who covered the entire thing in a special live show in New Orleans last weekend.

Exile on Bourbon St, as he called it in deference to the Deep South city, was well received and it's likely that this most prolific of performers will release either a live cut or a studio recording at some point.

Read more: Don't start Peter Aiken up on how much he worships the Rolling Stones 

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