Another Rolling Stones Classic Hits Big Milestone

Exile On Main St. Turns 50

Today 50 years ago, The Rolling Stones released what many of their fans consider one of their best albums. While my no. 1 Stones album remains their 1971 predecessor Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main St. has substantially grown on me over time, and I would now put it on my top 3, together with the live album Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!

Exile On Main St. took a significant amount of time to make. It seems to me the fact it came to fruition at all bordered on a near-miracle. Work on the album started in England in 1969 during the Sticky Fingers recording sessions. Many of the tracks were recorded at Olympic Studios in London and Mick Jagger’s country house Stargroves.

By the spring of 1971, the Stones found themselves as tax refugees from the British government. Jagger moved to Paris with his new wife Bianca, Keith Richards rented Nellcôte, a 16-room mansion on the Côte d’Azur in Southern France, while the other members of the band settled in Southern France as well. Since the Stones couldn’t find a suitable studio to continue work on the album, they ended up using Richard’s basement at Nellcôte and the group’s mobile recording truck.

The work at Nellcôte was very different compared to previous albums. Richards had begun using heroin daily, which frequently prevented him from attending sessions. Jagger and bassist Bill Wyman oftentimes were absent as well. Time and again, this forced the band to record in altered forms. In addition to Jagger, Richards and Wyman, guitarist Mick Taylor, drummer Charlie Watts, keyboarder Nicky Hopkins, saxophonist Bobby Keys and producer Jimmy Miller, a capable drummer who filled in for Watts on a couple of tunes, participated in the Nellcôte sessions.

The basic tracks that were recorded at Nellcôte were subsequently taken to Sunset Sound Recorders studio in Los Angeles where vocal and instrumental overdubs were added between December 1971 and March 1972. This second stage of the recording included keyboarders Billy Preston and Dr. John, along with top-notch session vocalists. Unlike in France where he was often MIA, Mick Jagger took charge during the LA sessions.

In spite of what looks like a chaotic process, especially during the first stage in Southern France, the outcome was pretty remarkable. I’d say it’s time for some music. In its original configuration, Exile On Main St. is a double-LP album. I’m going to feature one track from each side. A Spotify link to the entire album is included at the end of this post.

Let’s kick things off with Rip This Joint, the second track on side one. Like all other songs, the uptempo rocker is credited to Jagger and Richards. Wikipedia notes it’s one of the fastest songs in the Stones’ catalog. It became a concert staple between the early to mid-’70s before it disappeared from the Stones’ setlists completely until the mid-’90s.

And we’re on to side two and the first track Sweet Virginia, one of the Stones’ country-influenced tunes. Among others, the song features great harmonica and saxophone parts by Jagger and Keys, respectively. The backing vocalists include Dr. John. “‘Sweet Virginia’ – were held over from Sticky Fingers,” Richards said in 2003, according to Songfacts. “It was the same lineup and I’ve always felt those two albums kind of fold into each other… there was not much time between them and I think it was all flying out of the same kind of energy.”

This next tune always makes me, well, Happy. The first track on side three features Richards on lead vocals. It also was the Stones’ first such song to chart. It did best in France where it climbed to no. 5. In Canada, it reached no. 9. In the UK, it missed the charts. Perhaps folks there weren’t happy about the group’s tax refugee status. “It just came, tripping off the tongue, then and there [at NellcôteCMM],” Richards said per Songfacts, citing his 2010 autobiography, Life. “…There has to be some thin plot line, although in a lot of my songs you’d be very hard-pressed to find it. But here, you’re broke and it’s evening. And you want to go out, but you ain’t got s–t. I’m busted before I start. I need a love to keep me happy, because if it’s real love it will be free!” Got it? Now you know how to write a great song!

The final tune I’d like to call out is Shine a Light, the second-to-last track on side four. The song’s original lyrics date back to 1968 when Jagger wrote a song titled Get a Line On You about then-Stones guitarist Brian Jones and his drug addiction. After Jones’ untimely death in July 1969 at age 27, Jagger changed some of the tune’s lyrics and the title. Shine a Light features Billy Preston on piano and organ. It also became the name of a 2008 Stones concert documentary by Martin Scorsese.

When Exile on Main St. originally came out, critics had mixed feelings about it. But as isn’t uncommon, sentiments subsequently changed and the album has since been regarded by many critics as The Rolling Stones’ best work. I’m sometimes a bit puzzled how drastically opinions can change. Rolling Stone ranked Exile on Main St. at no. 7 on their 2003 and 2012 lists of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. In the 2020 revision, the album held up pretty well at no. 14, making it the Stones’ highest-ranked album on the list. In 2012, Exile on Main St. became the fourth Stones album to be inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame.

Exile on Main St. is among the Stones’ best-performing records. It topped the charts in the UK, U.S., Canada, The Netherlands, Norway and Sweden, and climbed to no. 2 in Australia and Germany. The album also received Platinum certification in Great Britain, the US and Australia.

Sources: Wikipedia; Songfacts; YouTube; Spotify

28 thoughts on “Another Rolling Stones Classic Hits Big Milestone”

  1. ” I’m sometimes a bit puzzled how drastically opinions can change. ” Yes I am also. Abbey Road had mixed reviews as well when it was released. I think they compared it more to what was coming out at the time and expecting a huge leap from their last album. The Stones never leaped in sound…they are the Stones.
    I love this one…but yea I liked Sticky Fingers better…but my favorite is Beggars Banquet but they are contained in that stretch of 5 albums. This album probably was the peak of their career.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Ahh critics… back in Toronto, in the good old days (when two daily newspapers ran big entertainment sections and had their own in-house critics for every sort of amusement) I got to know which ones I tended to agree with and which I thought were BS, and would thus just read the ones I usually concurred with. On my page now, I often cite Robert Christgau only because A) somehow he seems to be quoted everywhere else, and B) he’s so negative and crusty it’s almost amusing.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Max, you mentioned looking silly forever in a bad review. I have a classic example of that. Rolling Stone critic John Mendelssohn described their self-titled 1969 debut album as “weak, unimaginative, limited, monotonous.” I believe he also slagged off their 2nd album. Now, of course, you can buy entire collector’s tribute magazines BY Rolling Stone about Zep. To their credit, if I recall correctly, they reproduced Mendelssohn’s review as a sort of mea culpa. Mendelssohn doubled down on his review years later because (I assume) he is the kind of guy who cannot admit he was wrong. Maybe one day Christgau will admit most of HIS reviews are dogshit.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. That should be embarrasing to him. Rolling Stone really turned on Zeppelin at first I guess because they thought they were hyped…how foolish it looks now.
        Oh Christgua can be out and out cruel.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Christgau sucks. Sometimes I don’t even think he likes music. I’d be happy to debate him on a stage any time, anywhere. Then I would punch him in the nose and celebrate with cake.

        Liked by 3 people

      3. Jim…I would pay good money to see that!
        What critics do you think is fair? I like some of Lester Bangs…I like some of Dave Marsh when on the rare occasion he writes a sentence without mentioning Bruce Springsteen…and I love Bruce but geez.

        Liked by 2 people

      4. We will make Christgau pay for the cake. As to critics, Bangs is long gone of course but i enjoyed him at the time. I read Rolling Stone religously for years and generally speaking, liked their critics. Two that you might not know are Steve Morse (not the guitar player) and Jim Sullivan. They used to both write for the Boston Globe back in rock’s heyday. Now they periodically come back as guests. I don’t much like Greil Marcus as he seems phony. I guess my favorite writer – not critic – is Peter Guralnick.

        Liked by 2 people

      5. I really like Guralnick. He wrote the two best books about Elvis I’ve ever read. He was fair and not one sided. Great detail in those books.
        As far as Rolling Stone….I read it until the advertisements out numbered the real pages by the mid eighties.

        Liked by 1 person

      6. Yes, I read those as well and may re-read someday. Search my site by his name. Scroll a few pages in and I’ve recommended three more of his books, one very recently.

        Liked by 2 people

  2. I know Keith talked a lot about the time during which this was recorded at the estate. He mentioned Graham Parsons being there for at least awhile and I’m sure with Keith and Graham together the heroin binging would ramp up. So strange to think it’s been 50 years since Exile… was released…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Keith is a true survivor. Frankly, I’m amazed he’s still around, given the drug excesses he has been through.

      I don’t mean to judge, it’s just an observation. So many other music artists like Gram didn’t make it. Not only is it a human tragedy, but it’s also an incredible loss of so much talent!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Beeindruckendes Album, weil rau, unfertig und chaotisch. Auch wenn ich das ganze Doppel/Konzept-Album Prinzip nicht so mag, würde ich „Exile On Main Street“ getrost als ein Meisterwerk bezeichnen.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Definitif! Wenn man sich den chaotischen Produktionsprozess vor Augen fuehrt, insbesondere in Suedfrankreich, grenzt es wirklich an ein Wunder, was fuer ein starkes Album dabei herausgekommen ist. Verruekterweise hatte das Chaos wohl letztlich einen positiven Einfluss!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Nof just my favorite Stones album of all time but my favorite album of all time. I listen to it no less than every couple of months and I’ve read about it so much I sometimes feel like I was there. Actually read a book about the making of it as well. Mick has always downplayed it as being their best, probably because he doesn’t want to admit they didn’t really get any better since then.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Oh, yeah. Some years ago I realized I hadn’t listened to it in a while. I did and -bang! I said to myself, “I forgot how great this album is. This is now my favorite.” (Beating out “Layla.”) Sure, I can see the argument for ‘Sticky Fingers’ or for that matter, ‘Let it Bleed.’ But what other Stones album has the following – straight-up rock ‘n roll, Little Richard style rave-up, gospel, blues, commercial hits (“Tumbling Dice,” “Happy), country, a tribute to a Black activist (“Sweet Black Angel”), soul, horn-driven rock, even more blues. It’s just a fantastic showcase of literally everything they knew how to play and it’s all good. As one reviewer said in a recent retro – “This was no longer somebody else’s music. It was finally and fully theirs. They’d never get there again.” Now, I gotta go listen to it. The extended outtake version is on Spotify but it doesn’t really add a lot of value.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Definitely a “classic” classic rock album and it had its real highpoints. I don’t think I’d pick it as my favorite of theirs but it might be the one I think is kind of most representative of their real sound…perhaps the one album to pick if you wanted to quickly give a newbie an idea about what the rS were like. I almost updated an older post I did about the album and ran it today, since I noticed it was its 50th anniversary, but changed mind when I got up today. Turns out you did it, and did it better than I had too.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks! Frankly, I almost would have forgotten about the anniversary, which would have been somewhat embarrassing, since I had called out the date in album 50th anniversary preview post in January.

      I literally put this post together last evening. I wish I would have had a bit more time. Well, I didn’t want to miss it, so did the best I could.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. it was good. We all only have so much time… by now I have a pretty big archive of back articles so while I try to write something brand new every day, I admit I quite often just re-run an older one , updating it if possible, for a second one some days.

        Liked by 1 person

  6. I agree that ‘Sticky Fingers’ tops this, solely because its shorter and tighter. ‘Exile’ goes on a bit too long… Trim it down to 10-12 songs and it would probably be their best. Still great, though. I would say its the most ‘Stonesy’ Stones album.

    Liked by 1 person

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