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The Rolling Stones released Exile On Main Street in May 1972, having been preceded by the Top 10 hit “Tumbling Dice”. Exile On Main Street hit #1 worldwide just as The Rolling Stones embarked on their famed 1972 American Tour, their first in the U.S. in three years, and during which they played many songs from Exile On Main Street.
However things were not as simple as they seemed for The Rolling Stones, but then they rarely were.
By 1972 The Rolling Stones had found themselves as Exiles On Main Street. Although they had just signed with Atlantic Records for a huge advance and with the healthy sales of “Sticky Fingers” they should have been in good financial shape. However all this had done was enable to stave off the UK’s inland revenue who were chasing them for an astronomical tax bill built up over the previous 7 years of stardom.
Much at Mick Jagger‘s insistence, they took their weary bitterness at the situation on the road in 1971 for a “goodbye” tour of the UK before uprooting themselves to the Côte d’Azur. They all found places to live and began to re-create their lives amongst the sun and palm trees in the South of France.
Keith Richards rented a chateau called Villa Nellcôte and The Rolling Stones set up their studio in the basement. Nellcôte had been the Gestapo HQ during the Second World War, complete with swastikas still cast into the floor vents! It was soon dubbed “Keith’s Coffee Shop” in reference to the Coffee Shops in the Netherlands which sell coffee and some narcotics although it soon left this description behind as the Nellcôte became evermore squalid and decadent.
By now heroin was becoming a daily part of Keith Richards life. Bill Wyman said that by now The Rolling Stones were falling into the abstainers (Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts, and Mick Jagger) and those that indulged in the shape of Keith Richards, Jimmy Miller, Bobby Keys, Mick Taylor and engineer Andy Johns. With visitors to Nellcôte including Gram Parsons and Hunter S Thompson, the consumption of narcotics was never going to be anything other than enthusiastic! One of those visitors was a young Frenchman called Dominique Tarlé, whose photographs documented the goings on during the recording on one of the greatest rock albums of all time.
As recording got underway, Mick Jagger, now married to the now pregnant Bianca Jagger (ne Macias), disappeared for days at a time. Added to his current state of domestic bliss, the fall-out from the UK tax man chasing them and their enforced exile and the vagaries of the pop business had taken it’s toll on Jagger. He was jaded and not as focused as he could have been.
Without the constraints of expensive recording studio time and Mick Jagger‘s frequent absence allowed Keith Richards to potter away and experiment; he would sit for hours playing with new sounds and riffs, while the others sat around and “picked their nose” according to engineer Glyn Johns. This meant Exile On Main Street was far more Keith Richards‘ record than Mick Jagger‘s. However, deciding to record the album in the basement of Nellcôte was never going to make it an efficient process.
The recording sessions were almost exclusively nocturnal, starting around 8pm and running through until 3 or 4 in the morning. Many evenings would start with nothing prepared and Keith Richards would simply experiment with sounds and rhythms and see what came up. Keith Richards drove Exile On Main Street, but not in a bossy, go-getting way, but in his own quest for the sound he wanted. If he was ever pushed to do something he did not want to do he would simply not go along with it. According to Bill Wyman if he was asked why he would simply say “because I don’t want to”.
Since Keith Richards, Bobby Keys, Mick Taylor, Charlie Watts and Jimmy Miller formed the core of the band that recorded most of the tracks between them, it proved to be a tortuous process. Rumors at the time suggest that getting “Tumbling Dice” took over 100 takes and even then, during the mixing, Mick Jagger commented “those cymbals sound like dustbin lids”!
Such was Bill Wyman’s distaste for the company kept at Nellcôte, he was only on eight out of the eighteen tracks. Unbelievably Charlie Watts found the perseverance to shut himself away in the drum isolation booth for hours at a time bashing out take after rejected take through the long hot summer of 1971 on the Côte d’Azur.
In other words it was a near perfect demonstration of how not to record an album.
On Release of “Exile On Main Street“
However disheveled and decadent the process, the result is now widely regarded as one of the great albums of all time, making number 7 in The Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time for example.
This was not always the case though. The initial reception to Exile On Main Street was lukewarm from the media and while the album went to number one on both the UK and the USA’s Billboard album chart, it quickly fell away and failed to make Billboard’s top thirty best sellers of the year chart for 1972.
Even more galling was that The Rolling Stones pre-Atlantic Records greatest hits set, “Hot Rocks 1964-1971“, outsold Exile On Main Street in 1972 even though it never made it higher than number 4 on the Billboard chart!
On the initial reviews, Keith Richards said, “When Exile On Main Street came out it didn’t sell particularly well at the beginning, and it was also pretty much universally panned. But within a few years the people who had written the reviews saying it was a piece of crap were extolling it as the best frigging album in the world.”
Indeed, on first listen Exile On Main Street is a ragged record, a mish-mash of stunning tracks, the bizarre, the folly and frankly some pure filler. The mix is all over the place, at times even Mick Jagger is barely audible over the hand-claps, horns, hoots and toots that seem to be thrown in a seemingly random manner across tracks. However after a few listens the seemingly random selection of songs and sounds reflects perfectly The Rolling Stones at that time.
Exile On Main Street can leave a new listener underwhelmed, just take a look at some of the comments for Exile on Main Street’s entry in The Rolling Stone Magazine’s 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.
But give Exile On Main Street a chance and it will get under your skin in a way few albums can. In the words of critic Robert Christgau, “It took me perhaps twenty-five listenings before I began to understand what The Rolling Stones were up to, and I still haven’t finished the job.”
To many this was the last of the great Rolling Stones albums. The heavy drug usage had not yet taken it’s toll and while they produced some very good albums after “Exile On Main Street” many of them used reworked pre-1972 material and none are as good as “Exile On Main Street” overall.
- backing vocals
- electric guitar
- slide guitar
- electric guitar
- slide guitar
- Ian Stewart – piano
- Nicky Hopkins – piano
- Jim Price – trumpet, trombone, organ
- Bobby Keys – saxophone, percussion
- Billy Preston – piano, organ
- Clydie King – backing vocals
- Bill Plummer – upright bass
- Mac Rebennack (Dr. John) – backing vocals, piano
- Richard Washington – marimba
- Al Perkins – pedal steel guitar
- Jerry Kirkland – backing vocals
- Tami Lynn – backing vocals
- Kathi McDonald – backing vocals
- Jimmy Miller – drums, percussion, maracas
- Vanetta Field – backing vocals
- Shirley Goodman – backing vocals
- Joe Green – backing vocals
- Jimmy Miller – Producer
- Glyn Johns – Engineer
- Andy Johns – Engineer
- Nick Watterton – Engineer
- Joe Zaganno – Engineer
- Jeremy Gee – Engineer
Originally Exile On Main Street was released as a double album, the only non-compilation album The Rolling Stones released as a double album. We have shown the track-listing from this original release.
- “Rocks Off” – 4:32
- “Rip This Joint” – 2:23
- “Shake Your Hips” (Slim Harpo) – 2:59
- “Casino Boogie” – 3:33
- “Tumbling Dice” – 3:45
- “Sweet Virginia” – 4:25
- “Torn and Frayed” – 4:17
- “Sweet Black Angel” – 2:54
- “Loving Cup” – 4:23
- “Happy” – 3:04
- “Turd on the Run” – 2:37
- “Ventilator Blues” (Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Mick Taylor) – 3:24
- “I Just Want to See His Face” – 2:52
- “Let It Loose” – 5:17
- “All Down the Line” – 3:49
- “Stop Breaking Down” (Robert Johnson) – 4:34
- “Shine a Light” – 4:14
- “Soul Survivor” – 3:49
Exile On Main Street was released in May 1972 on Atlantic Records/Rolling Stones Records in the USA (initially distributed through the Atlantic Records subsidiary Atco Records until 1973) The Rolling Stones have since had several distribution deals since then for their post 1970 back catalogue, the most recent was their 2008 deal with Polydor Records.