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 Nellcôte – CMM],” 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