Today, May 18, marks the re-release of the greatest rock album of all time, The Rolling Stones’ 1972 classic Exile On Main Street. The Institute of Idle Time ranked it #12 in our Decades book, and the fact that it was edged out of the top ten to make room for two Radiohead albums still gives me stomach cramps.
Anyway, here’s what I wrote about it in Decades:
“Attempting to finally choose between The Beatles’ Revolver and The Stones’ Exile On Main Street as my favorite album of all time was brutal. I told myself that Revolver represented the high-water mark of all that was British during rock’s first golden era, and Exile represented the culmination of everything that was great about American rock music – completely forgetting in that moment of thought that the Stones are, of course, British too! That clinched it. The Rolling Stones completely bury their British identity in the alluvial soil of North American roots music: the greasy R&B of Chess Records, plaintive Appalachian hillbilly wails, house-rocking gospel, pre-reggae Caribbean folk. Enough to actually exceed the original American examples and fuse those archetypes into a voodoo stew cooked up in a haze of heroin and humidity in the basement of a mansion on the French Riviera in the summer of ‘71. Decadence oozes from the speakers, and vocals buried low in the mix taunt the listener with dark, half-understood snatches of lyrics. Instruments bleed into each other in a swampy mess as the drumbeat rides an effortless, swinging groove (a Rolling Stones trademark, see Aftermath). My favorite album of all time.”
Much of the album’s appeal for many people is its creation myth — that sweltering basement in the Cote d’Azur — but I don’t care a fig for that. It’s just that — a myth. Only a third or so of the album can be rightfully said to have originated in that basement. The other two thirds came from 1969-70 sessions in London, and late ’71 overdubbing and mixing sessions at Sunset Sound in boring old L.A. The Sunset Sound sessions saw the addition of such crucial elements as Bill Plummer’s old-school doghouse bass on several cuts, Al Perkins’ heavenly pedal steel on “Torn And Frayed,” and pretty much all the lead and backing vocals on every song.
The Stones were certainly no strangers to using sidemen to flesh out their sound, but one thing that makes the Exile album — and its subsequent tour — unique from other projects of theirs is that the “sidemen” were an integral part of the songs and their sound from conception. Nicky Hopkins (piano), Bobby Keys (sax), and Jim Price (trumpet) were part of the core ensemble from the first note recorded to the final mixing tweak. For about two years, the Stones rehearsed, recorded, and toured as a true eight-piece band. Ace session musicians like Plummer and Perkins, and other guests such as Dr. John and Billy Preston, added some last-minute spice, but the Big Sound was already in place.
And it’s only fitting that my favorite album produced my favorite song — I don’t think a song gets much better than “Tumbling Dice.”
And, as Captain O.G. Readmore says, learn more at your local library. The terrific “33 1/3” series of books on landmark rock albums has one dedicated to Exile written by Buffalo Tom‘s Bill Janovitz, that breaks it down song-by-song from the perspective of both fan and musicologist.