Rolling Stones

‘Exile on Main Street’: The Rolling Stones’ best album described in their own words

50 years on, perhaps the most infamous opinion of Exile on Main Street, The Rolling Stones’ tour de force 1972 double album that saw rock and roll at its most ragged, raw, and wonderful, belongs to none other than Mick Jagger. In a now-infamous 2003 recollection, Jagger was befuddled by the intense response and immense lasting legacy of Exile amongst the Stones faithful.

“Exile is not one of my favourite albums, although I think the record does have a particular feeling,” Jagger said. “I’m not too sure how great the songs are, but put together it’s a nice piece. However, when I listen to Exile it has some of the worst mixes I’ve ever heard. I’d love to remix the record, not just because of the vocals, but because generally I think it sounds lousy. At the time Jimmy Miller was not functioning properly. I had to finish the whole record myself, because otherwise there were just these drunks and junkies. Of course I’m ultimately responsible for it, but it’s really not good and there’s no concerted effort or intention.”

Jagger cuts to the chase later in the interview and admits that he’s mostly not fond of Exile because, “There aren’t any real hits on it, apart from ‘Tumbling Dice’.” Jagger admits that he finds the album as a whole interesting and entertaining, but when dissected song by song, he finds the LP lacking compared to some of the other albums in The Rolling Stones’ catalogue.

By and large, fans, critics, and band members themselves had agreed to disagree over the past five decades. Exile is the kind of album that feels both immediately of its time and strangely timeless – while the melodies and riffs sound as fresh today as they were all the way back in the early ’70s, you can practically feel the heat in the room during ‘Ventilator Blues’ or the dingy heroin-filled halls during ‘I Just Want to See His Face’. When you listen to Exile, you hear France in 1972, specifically the basement of Nellcôte where the majority of the backing tracks were recorded. But when you lock into Exile, you feel the excess, the freedom, the outlaw spirit, and the disfunction, elements that never go out of style.

Exile was a double album. And because it’s a double album you’re going to be hitting different areas, including ‘D for Down’, and the Stones really felt like exiles,” Keith Richards observed in the book According to the Rolling Stones. “We didn’t start off intending to make a double album; we just went down to the south of France to make an album and by the time we’d finished we said, ‘We want to put it all out.’ The point is that the Stones had reached a point where we no longer had to do what we were told to do. Around the time Andrew Oldham left us, we’d done our time, things were changing and I was no longer interested in hitting Number One in the charts every time. What I want to do is good shit—if it’s good they’ll get it some time down the road.”

As implied by Richards, Exile received mixed reviews upon its initial release. Although it was lauded for its scope and intensity, critics like Rolling Stone write Lenny Kaye found the album inconsistent and even immature. “I don’t know what (record reviewers) want,” Jagger admitted in 1972. “We put together a side you can listen to in the morning or fall asleep to late at night and it says, ‘Side two is the only one without a barrelhouse rocker.’ Well, I mean, you can’t please everyone, can you? Actually there’s several nice things in it. It’s only that they’re always waiting for another Let It Bleed… God, when that one came out, the critical reaction was no better than lukewarm.”

Even though critics weren’t enthusiastic about the effort, Exile was an immediate smash hit with audiences, topping out at number one on both the UK and US album charts. The Stones celebrated by embarking on their first American tour in over three years, bringing their own rock and roll circus to the States and solidifying their place as the world’s biggest and most dangerous rock band.

Exile is an album with chaos embedded in its DNA, and the recording kicked off with a ludicrous incident: Richards crashed a go-kart right before the sessions were set to begin, scraping off a good chunk of his back skin and causing him to retreat into the dulling embrace of heroin. The openness of hard drug use immediately caused factions to form. “This was, for me, one of the major frustrations of this whole period,” Bill Wyman wrote in his book Rolling With the Stones. “I felt like I wasn’t in the club – not that I wanted to join.”

“What you have to remember was that when Keith was in his drug period, the time was his,” Charlie Watts recalled in According to the Rolling Stones. “What that meant was that you could get somewhere at a particular time, but Keith wouldn’t be there: you could make a record, but he wouldn’t be on it… Everyone would sit from 9 o’clock until 11 or 12 and they would happily wait, but that was what a lot of musicians did then. Keith wasn’t the only one doing it. There were a few people like that – it’s just a lot of them haven’t survived.”

The entire band had flown to the south of France as tax exiles, influencing both the title of the album and the general atmosphere. Sessions took place in the basement of Richards’ rented villa, but as Watts observed, there were times when Richards was in such a haze of drugs that he couldn’t even make it down a flight of stairs to where the recording sessions were taking place. The recording of the album often took a backseat to the indulgences that were taking place at the villa.

“It was a dingy little basement, quite damp,” Mick Taylor recalled to Classic Rock. “It wasn’t a proper recording studio at all. We ran all these cables down into the basement, which was divided up into small rooms. And there was only one room which we could all fit into and where we could play together. There was a place where Charlie played the drums, but it was in a separate section of the room. For vocal overdubs, Mick had to do them in a tiny room along the corridor. It was like a labyrinth, really.” 

With an open-door policy, various celebrities, entourage members, locals, drug dealers, cops, and even strangers wandered in and out of Nellcôte. “There were a lot of people who came to visit that I don’t remember, for whatever reason,” Taylor recalls. “I don’t remember John Lennon and Yoko coming, but apparently they did. I do remember Gram Parsons though. He and Keith got on very well. I’d met Gram Parsons in 1969, when he was with the Flying Burritos, but knew him originally from when I’d been playing in Los Angeles with John Mayall in ’67 or ’68.”

In Parsons, Richards found a kindred spirit, not just musically but chemically as well. “Gram knew songs that I’d forgotten or had never known,” Richards said. “He introduced me to a lot of players, and he would show me the difference between the way country was played in Nashville and in Bakersfield – the two schools – with a completely different sound and attitude. But apart from that he was just a very special guy. He was my mate, and I wish he’d remained my mate for a lot longer. It’s not often you can lie around on a bed with a guy having cold turkey, in tandem, and still get along.”

“I think Keith was pretty out of it for some of that period, which shouldn’t have helped, but maybe it did,” Watts observed. “Maybe that was where the creative energies came from. I don’t know, because although I was very close to Keith, I was never a part of that aspect of his world, and he would never push it on me. It was like with Gram Parsons – I was very unaware of what they were doing. It was just what they did. It wasn’t like being at a swimming pool: ‘Hey come in and join us.’”

When they actually got around to making music, sessions were often fractured and featured whoever happened to be in the room at any given point. With Jagger newly married, Wyman disliking the atmosphere of the sessions, and Watts living nearly an hour away, a series of guests contributed to the album, including long-time saxophonist Bobby Keys, horn player Jim Price, frequent keyboardist Nicky Hopkins, session bassist Bill Plummer, producer Jimmy Miller filling in on drums, and original member/touring manager Ian Stewart on piano.

“We cut at least thirty tracks in France,” Miller recalled. “Mick was close to becoming a father and kept skipping off to Paris to see Bianca, which left Keith to lay down the rhythm riffs. On many of the tracks, Mick came in later. It was mid-summer on the Riviera when we cut most of the album and very humid and very hot working in the basement studio. Guitars didn’t stay in tune and it was often difficult to get a really good drum sound. Many of the actual songs came quite late on. We had an awful lot of rhythm tracks with no songs written to them.”

The scattered sessions often revolved around Richards’ absences, but on one particular day, Richards was the only one who showed up.”‘Happy’ was something I did because I was for one time early for a session,” Richards remembered in 1982. “There was Bobby Keys and Jimmy Miller. We had nothing to do and had suddenly picked up the guitar and played this riff. So we cut it and it’s the record, it’s the same. We cut the original track with a baritone sax, a guitar and Jimmy Miller on drums. And the rest of it is built up over that track. It was just an afternoon jam that everybody said, ‘Wow, yeah, work on it.’”

Exile was an album that freely showed off its raw origins. Songs like ‘Torn and Frayed’ and ‘Sweet Virginia’ took a gentle approach to the drug-fueled atmosphere, while ‘Rocks Off’ and ‘Loving Cup’ found the Stones at their most lascivious. Gospel invaded the band’s sound on ‘Let It Loose’ and ‘Shine a Light’, while pure rock and roll swept up tracks like ‘Rip This Joint’ and ‘All Down the Line’. All told, Exile was the Stones at their most eclectic and most successful experimental while still retaining their signature rock punch.

“This new album is fucking mad. There’s so many different tracks,” Jagger observed at the time. “It’s very rock & roll, you know. I didn’t want it to be like that. I’m the more experimental person in the group, you see I like to experiment. Not go over the same thing over and over. Since I’ve left England, I’ve had this thing I’ve wanted to do. I’m not against rock & roll, but I really want to experiment. The new album’s very rock & roll and it’s good. I mean, I’m very bored with rock & roll. The revival. Everyone knows what their roots are, but you’ve got to explore everywhere. You’ve got to explore the sky too.”

In time, nearly everyone involved in the making of Exile saw it as one of the Stones’ peaks. “My favourite two Rolling Stones records, during the period I was with them, are Exile On Main Street and Sticky Fingers,” Taylor observed in 1993. Richards agreed, saying in 2001: “I don’t often play Stones stuff but if I see a copy of Exile hanging about, I nick it and play it. I still love that record very much. I would say there is the best of the Stones in there.” Even future Rolling Stone Ronnie Wood considers it the band’s best. “Beggars Banquet and Exile (are my favourites),” Wood claimed in 2002, “but if you want one I’ll stick with (Exile).”

“It’s a funny thing. We had tremendous trouble convincing Atlantic to put out a double album,” Richards reflected during the album’s 30th anniversary in 2002. “And initially, sales were fairly low. For a year or two, it was considered a bomb. This was an era where the music industry was full of these pristine sounds. We were going the other way. That was the first grunge record. Yes, it is one of the (Stones’) best.”

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