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

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Clips & Pix: The Rolling Stones & Buddy Guy/Champaign & Reefer

Earlier this week, I found myself in blues heaven. More specifically, I had rented Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase the Blues Away, an excellent documentary about Guy’s life. One of the great scenes (and there are many of them!) is an excerpt from Shine a Light, the 2008 Rolling Stones concert film directed by Martin Scorsese, showing the Stones perform with Buddy Guy, which is also captured in the great clip below.

The footage shows the Stones and Guy playing Champagne & Reefer, a Muddy Waters tune. Check out the interaction between them – it’s just fascinating! Sure, part of it is show, but you can feel how excited the Stones are to play with one of their blues heroes. And the joy is mutual.

Waters included Champagne & Reefer on his final studio album King Bee from 1981. The producer was none other than Johnny Winter who had also produced Waters’ two previous studio albums.

Muddy Waters - King Bee - Amazon.com Music

The Rolling Stones, along with other British artists like Eric Clapton and Jeff Beck, have been huge fans of American blues artists like Guy, Waters and Howlin’ Wolf, to name a few, and like to play their songs. It’s hard to believe there was a time when these blues luminaries were largely unknown in America outside of Chicago, even though they had performed and recorded there for many years. The Stones, Clapton and Beck were instrumental to raise their popularity in this country, something Guy also stresses in the documentary.

Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase the Blues Away certainly deserves its own post, and I hope I’ll get to it one of these days. For now, I can refer you to Amazon where the film is available for rent. I watched it three times within the 3-day span the rental covers. If you dig Guy and the blues, I can highly recommend it.

Sources: Wikipedia; Buddy Guy: The Blues Chase the Blues Away (Devin Amar, Matt Mitchener, Charles Todd – 2021); YouTube

The Venues: Beacon Theatre

In July 2017, I introduced The Venues, a category featuring famous concert halls, such as The Apollo Theatre and well known TV music programs like The Ed Sullivan Show. For some reason, the category fell off the bandwagon after the third post in November that year – not quite sure why. In any case, I felt the time was right for another installment. One of the venues that came to my mind immediately is the Beacon Theatre in New York City, in part because the beautiful historic theater on Manhattan’s Upper West Side is associated with two of my favorite bands: The Allman Brothers Band and Steely Dan, which both had frequent annual residencies there. The Dan still does! But first things first – a bit of history.

The Beacon Theatre opened as the Warner’s Beacon Theatre on December 24, 1929. It was designed by Chicago architect Walter W. Ahlschlager as a venue for silent films. But when the original owners financially collapsed, Warner Theatres acquired the theater to be a first-run showcase for Warner Bros. films on the Upper West Side. By that time, the movie genre of silent films had already become obsolete. The Beacon, which subsequently was operated by Brandt Theaters, remained a movie theater over next few decades. It would take until 1974, when Steven Singer became the first owner who turned the Beacon into a venue for live music.

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Fortunately, an effort in 1987 to convert the theater into a night club was blocked in court, given its historic and protected architecture. In 1982, it had been added to the National Register of Historic Places. Through the ’80s and ’90s, the Beacon Theatre continued to fill a spot in the midsize category venue in New York between the larger Radio City Music Hall and various smaller clubs and ballrooms. In 2006, sports and entertainment holding company The Madison Square Garden Company started operating the Beacon. In November that same year, the theater began a 20-year lease by Cablevision, which also leases Radio City Music Hall and owns Madison Square Garden.

Between the second half of 2008 and early 2009, the theater underwent a complete renovation. As reported by The New York Times, the work involved about 1,000 workers, lasted seven months and cost $16 million. The result can be seen in the above photo and is certainly stunning. I was fortunate to experience the mighty venue myself when I saw Steely Dan there in October 2018.

In addition to pop and rock concerts, the Beacon Theatre has hosted political debates, gospel choirs, comedians and many dramatic productions. The 2008 Martin Scorsese picture Shine a Light, which captured The Rolling Stones live in concert, was filmed there. In January 2016, Joan Baez celebrated her 75th birthday with a show at the Beacon. She also played the venue in May this year as part of her now completed 2018/2019 Fare Thee Well Tour. Time for some music that was performed at the Beacon.

Let’s kick things off with the Grateful Dead, who performed two shows at the theater on June 14 and 15, 1976. Apparently, the following footage of Not Fade Away was captured during a soundcheck there, not one of the actual concerts but, hey, close enough! Plus, it’s a fun clip to watch. Not Fade Away was written by Charles Hardin, a.k.a. Buddy Holly. His producer Norman Petty received a co-credit. The tune was first released as a single in October 1957. It was also included on Holly’s debut album The “Chirping” Crickets, released in November of the same year.

Next up: The Black Crowes and Remedy. Co-written by lead vocalist Chris Robinson and his brother and rhythm guitarist Rich Robinson, the tune appeared on the band’s sophomore album The Southern Harmony and Musical Companion from May 1992. The footage is from late August 1992 when The Black Crowes played a series of four shows at the Beacon.

James Taylor is one of my favorite singer-songwriters. One tune I dig in particular is Fire And Rain.  He recorded it for his second studio album Sweet Baby James, which was released in February 1970. The song also came out separately as a single and became Taylor’s first hit, peaking at no. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100. This clip was captured during a show on May 30, 1998.

Here are The Rolling Stones with Jumpin’ Jack Flash from the aforementioned Martin Scorsese concert film. Credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the tune was released as a single in May 1968. The film includes footage from two shows the Stones played at the Beacon. This performance is from their second night there on November 1, 2006.

Starting from 1998, The Allman Brothers Band played spring residencies at the Beacon for 19 years in a row except for 2010 when the theater wasn’t available. This performance of Dreams is from their March 2013 series of gigs. The Gregg Allman song first appeared on the band’s eponymous debut album from November 1969.

On April 1 and 2, 2016, Bonnie Raitt played the Beacon Theatre as part of her extended Dig In Deep Tour, named after her most recent studio album from February 2016. I caught her during that tour in August 2016, which thus far was the first only time. Her gig at New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark remains one of the best shows I’ve seen. Co-written by Gordon Kennedy  and Wayne KirkpatrickGypsy In Me is one of the tracks from Dig In Deep. Not only is Raitt a superb guitarist and great vocalist, but she also is as genuine as it can get. There is no BS with this lady. What you get is what you see!

From The Allman Brothers Band it wasn’t a big leap to former member Derek Trucks, his wife Susan Tedeschi and the group they formed in 2010: Tedeschi Trucks Band. My knowledge of their music is fairly limited, and I definitely want to explore them more closely. Here’s their take of Ain’t Wastin’ Time No More, another great tune written by Gregg Allman. It first appeared on the Allmans’ third studio album Eat A Peach from February 1972, long before Trucks joined them in 1999. The song was also released separately as a single in April that year. This clip was captured on October 11, 2017 during what looks like a six-date residency the band did at the Beacon that year.

The last and most recent clip I’d like to feature is footage of Steely Dan from their 2018 U.S. tour, which ended with a seven-date residency at the Beacon. Of course, I couldn’t leave out the Dan! This performance of Pretzel Logic was from their final gig on October 30. Co-written by Walter Becker and Donald Fagen, Pretzel Logic is the title track of Steely Dan’s third studio album that appeared in February 1974.

Until last year when I saw them twice, which included the Beacon for an October 20 show dedicated to my favorite album Aja, I had never seen Steely Dan. Both concerts were fantastic. Fagen and co are currently touring again, which will bring them back to the Beacon in October. While the thought of returning to this beautiful venue is tempting, I can’t justify it to myself, given I saw them twice last year and other shows I’ve been to or still consider for this year.

Sources: Wikipedia, The New York Times, setlist.fm, YouTube