45 Years Ago: The Rolling Stones Release Their Dark, Druggy Masterpiece, ‘Exile on Main St.’
The sprawling double album is a dangerous undertaking in rock because the possibility for overload is too great. Even the biggest fans of, say, the Beatles or Bruce Springsteen will admit that the White Album and The River could have been better as a single album with the fat trimmed. But the Rolling Stones‘ Exile on Main St., which was released on May 12, 1972, not only doesn’t suffer from a lack of filler, but its length is actually one of its selling points.
Always influenced by American music, Exile found the Stones going deeper into country (“Torn and Frayed”), folk (“Sweet Black Angel”) and even gospel (“I Just Want to See His Face”). They didn’t abandon the blues — they covered Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips” and Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down” with gusto — so expanding Exile allowed them the explore some of those musical ideas in greater depth than they had previously done.
And there was still plenty of time for some straightforward rock ‘n’ roll too. “Tumbling Dice” and “Happy” were Top 40 hits, but “All Down the Line” also got some airplay. Exile also kicks off with one of the great one-two punches in rock history: “Rocks Off” and “Rip This Joint.”
But the most incredible thing about Exile is that it even got made. In 1971, the band was forced to leave England due to tax issues. Most of the group moved to the south of France, while Mick Jagger stayed in Paris to be with his new wife, Bianca. The Stones’ mobile studio set up shop outside Keith Richards‘ villa, Nellcote, and the band went to work.
Sort of. The work they did wasn’t always on the album. Nellcote turned into a constant party with plenty of friends and hangers-on with occasional bouts of recording whenever enough members would show up and were capable of playing their instruments. Even though the recording was being done in his house, Richards, whose heroin addiction had recently taken hold, was rarely in a condition to lead the sessions. Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman don’t even play on several songs.
By December, the sessions moved to Los Angeles for overdubs and some new tracks. With Jagger around more, he was able to take control and see the project to completion in time for its release in May.
But it’s the decadence of the basement at Nellcote, which will soon be the subject of a film, that is found within Exile‘s grooves. Its murkiness, with Jagger’s vocals further down in the mix than usual, can make it impenetrable on first few listens, but eventually its brilliance sinks in as you peel back the layers and discover everything underneath. Later reissues, most recently in 2010, have improved the sound with state-of-the-art technology, but kept the mystery intact.