By now it should be obvious that a good chunk of my recent listening has been an examination of the Stones’ classic period (late 60s to early 70s).
Conventional wisdom is that Exile On Main Street is the final album in a very hot streak, that thereafter (IE starting with Goat’s Head Soup) the wheels fell off and the Stones were never again consistently on top form.
One problem with this period of the Stones is that it’s been analysed endlessly – and so there’s very little left to say. The history too is well documented. By the time they recorded Exile they were in financial trouble again (this time it was major tax problems that forced them out of Britain) and having got rid of their big drug liability Brian Jones they found themselves with another in Keith Richards who started mainlining during the making of this album and would soon end up in even hotter water than Jones. Some pundits assert that the reason that the Stones went into decline after Exile is that Keith’s addiction reduced his work ethic and dulled his creativity. That explanation is certainly a plausible one.
Many critics have labelled Exile as the Stones greatest work, but it is a far less obvious success than Sticky Fingers was, lacking that album’s slickness. Even allowing for the recording practices on the immediately preceding albums, Exile is a sonic surprise with a murky mix, that, amongst other things, often sees Jaggers vocals down in the mix, not up front but fighting to be heard. I think it’s calculated – not just an oversight or poor decision by the also mainlining producer Jimmy Miller – and whilst it’s striking it’s not inappropriate. I found I had to listen harder to this one, that I often had to go to the music because it wasn’t going to reach out and grab me as, say, Let It Bleed did.
But once I did go to the music things got quite interesting. For a start there is some really terrific playing from Mick Taylor. Not just his solos, but the way he meshes his guitar part with Keith’s. I was quite struck by this because it’s what the old guitar pairing of Richards and Brian Jones used to aim for – two guitars working together to create a whole greater than the two parts – and Richards and Taylor, nominally rhythm and lead guitarists do it so well here. Towards the end of the record Taylor gets some prominent slide parts and really makes the most of them with a meaty tone and authoritative playing, no more so than on the inevitable Robert Johnson cover “Stop Breaking Down”.
The rhythm section is very good too – though if the liner notes are accurate then Bill Wyman was absent a lot of the time with Richards (no surprises there), Taylor and even a session player (Bill Plummer) taking a share of the bass duties. Keith is missing on a couple of tracks – which means that Mick gets his guitar out again – and even Charlie Watts gets replaced on occasion and so maybe we should use the term “rhythm section” loosely or in the plural. The only omni-present Stones here are Jagger and Taylor, and it seems a lot of the time Jagger laid his vocals down after the rest of the track had been recorded.
But he’s not phoning in (despite the alleged stand-off with Keith). Mick’s vocals are full value here. And generally the band rock tightly and perhaps with more energy (despite all the drugs) than anywhere else, right from the opening “Rocks Off” (with one of my favourite Stones lyrical lines: “The sunshine bores the daylights out of me”) which is quickly followed by the flat out rockabilly of “Rip This Joint”. There’s more auxiliary players than usual and they’re all excellent – notably the backing vocalists and the Price/Keys horn pairing.
Again I was given to musings over the Stones as an early example of what is now called Americana because this album has none of the cod-English experiments they once tried (“Lady Jane”, say) and is a tasty stew of American styles. The one political number here – “Sweet Black Angel” (though in the lyric Jagger couldn’t help having Angela Davis as a pin up on his wall) is couched in the pidgin English of the rural south. Mick and Keith’s affection for the blues still shines through, and they go more country than ever before on some tracks, even giving guest pedal steel player Al Perkins the solo on “Torn and Frayed”. Frequently there is a gospel feel to the backing vocals and even occasionally the lyrics (Jagger had been in a baptist church, which is almost as fantastic – but true – a story as Keith turning up early for a recording session).
Keith is in great form again driving the up tempo numbers (“All Down The Line” kicks off with a Keith rhythm part and he never lets up) and adding assorted other bits of Keithery EG the ear-catching intro to “Tumbling Dice”).
For me this is perhaps the most sincere and unguarded album (and one of the most rocking) the Stones ever made. More than anywhere else they sound like a bunch of young English white boys paying homage to old American black men. As I observed earlier there’s this strange quality to the album where you have to go to it rather than have it reach out and grab you, but if you make that first move then the rewards will come.