The Rolling Stones – Reflecting on the 50th Anniversary of “Exile on Main St.”

May 12, 2022

By Austin Saalman


Nearly two years in the making, The Rolling Stones’ sprawling double LP Exile on Main St. was greeted with mixed reviews upon its release, Rolling Stone’s Lenny Kaye lamenting, “The great Stones album of their mature period is yet to come.” Indeed, the album felt to some like a backward stumble, rather than the great leap forward anticipated in the wake of the previous year’s masterful Sticky Fingers. Frontman Mick Jagger himself remarked of the album, “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.” In this respect, Exile on Main St. delves deeply into the group’s roots, recalling both the best and worst of its mid-’60s output, albeit overhung with the murky haze of druggy delirium and countercultural hedonism unique to the paranoid Nixon era. Of course, time has treated Exile kindly, with retrospective evaluations declaring it not only the Stones’ finest album, but also among the greatest ever recorded.

From a personal perspective, the former assertion doesn’t seem entirely accurate, as Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers remain tough competition. Still, Exile boasts a number of the Stones’ top songs and successfully captures the smirking sleaze of its era’s gamblers, dopers, johns, oddballs, and would-be rock idols. The faces of such generational underdogs and outcasts are personified in its timeless front cover collage, with each image the visual avatar of one of the album’s tracks.

Hallucinatory opening cut “Rocks Off” comes on hot with Jagger’s throaty “awww-yeahhhh,” suggesting the title’s transgressive double entendre. “I hear you talkin’ when I’m on the street,” he insists. “Your mouth don’t move but I can hear you speak.” On this scrappy account of post-hippie excess and disillusionment, Jagger shares with the listener a few of his numerous exploits, setting the album’s stage: “I was making love last night/To a dancer friend of mine/I can’t seem to stay in step/‘Cause she come every time that she pirouettes over me.” Despite its often crass overtones, “Rocks Off” is a brilliant opener, Jagger confessing, “And I only get my rocks off while I’m dreaming/I only get my rocks off while I’m sleeping.” Likewise, numerous Exile tracks are portraits of the Thelemite debauchery in which the band was partaking, Jagger declaring on the R&B-inflected dancehall drug-run “Rip This Joint,” “Dick and Pat in ole D.C./Well, they’re gonna hold some shit for me.” Meanwhile electric gospel rocker “Tumbling Dice”—one of the Stones’ greatest songs—conjures imagery of pointed collars, tinted glasses, and cigarette smoke wafting through casinos in Vegas, Miami, and Los Angeles, with ramblin’, gamblin’ Jagger at the forefront, strung-out, declaring, “This low down bitchin’/Got my poor feet a-itchin’/Don’t you know the deuce is still wild/Baby, I can’t stay, you got to roll me/And call me the tumbling dice.”

Three of Exile’s finest cuts arrive in the form of successful country ballads: pure in heart Gram Parsons homage “Sweet Virginia,” downtrodden acoustic dirge “Torn and Frayed,” and West Indian-flavored country blues number “Sweet Black Angel,” a tribute to activist Angela Davis. Such high points lend Exile on Main St. much of its magic, continuing the Stones’ flirtation with country & western begun on Beggars Banquet, before cementing their abilities on 1969’s “Country Honk” and 1971’s exceptional “Dead Flowers” and “Wild Horses.” In 1978, the group would venture into Bakersfield to pay tribute to the likes of Buck Owens and Merle Haggard on the absolutely stunning “Far Away Eyes.” The Stones’ adaptability may have come as a surprise to some, as the group’s serious musical education was often obscured by its riotous antics.

Elsewhere, the sunny “Loving Cup” balances some of the album’s more feral rage with a bit of soulful introspection, adding a necessary sense of intimacy, while Keith Richards makes a rare vocal appearance on raucous standout “Happy,” named by radio personality Howard Stern as his favorite Stones song in a recent interview with Jagger. Here, Richards’ stoned vocals drift through the halls of sharp electric guitars and gritty brass, lending a new dimension to the famously laconic and notoriously troubled guitar virtuoso. In its steely swagger, “Ventilator Blues” is also worth remarking upon, the track serving as one of Exile’s heavier cuts. Defining the album’s jagged edge and penchant for chaos, Jagger declares, “Ain’t nobody slowing down no way/Everybody’s stepping on their accelerator/Don’t matter where you are/Everybody’s going to need a ventilator.”

This is followed by “I Just Want to See His Face,” which stands as a sort of fragmented psychedelic spiritual, lacking the wallop packed by the album’s stronger cuts, such as the stomping “Let It Loose” and ethereal epic “Shine a Light.” Detailing the plight of the group’s founder and former leader Brian Jones, “Shine a Light” was begun in 1968 and reworked in the aftermath of Jones’ untimely death the following year. This immortal musical eulogy, co-written by the late Leon Russell, is an affecting tribute to the fallen rock and roll idol. Here, in a tone both critical and adoring, Jagger describes Jones in his final days: “Berber jewelry jangling down the street/Making bloodshot eyes at every woman that you meet/Could not seem to get high on you/My, my sweet honey love,” before the track’s heady gospel chorus explodes into a wash of sheer bliss as he sings, “May the good Lord/Shine a light on you/Make every song you sing/Your favorite tune/May the good Lord/Shine a light on you/Warm like the evening sun.” This song, specifically, may reveal Jagger at his most tender, his vocals exceptionally raw, riddled with vulnerability and regret. Journalists of the time eagerly reported upon the in-fighting between Jones and his bandmates, his eventual ousting from the group, and continued decline into drug and alcohol addiction, but Jagger attempts to set the record straight, offering his friend a proper farewell, and the result is astonishing.

What remains reveals Exile on Main St. to be, like most double LPs, a patchwork of masterpieces and filler. The group’s blues rock reinterpretations of Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips” and Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down” fall short of their originals, while the jumbled “Casino Boogie”—certainly reflective of the era in which it was written and recorded—feels inferior to “Tumbling Dice,” and both “All Down the Line” and “Soul Survivor” dither amidst the album’s thick confusion. Moreover, it is especially challenging to argue the necessity of “Turd on the Run’s” existence.

Still, Exile on Main St. is a rock and roll epic, as dingy and flawed as the Stones themselves. Retrospective reviews are correct in their assessments: this is a significant album, and one of its decade’s finest. In its time, Exile, despite Jagger’s initial concern of “going over the same thing over and over,” demonstrated a courage within the group to readjust the scope of its ambition, which would allow it to perfect such underrated gems to come as Goats Head Soup and Some Girls.

While not The Rolling Stones’ key release, a title which one might argue still belongs to Let It Bleed or Sticky Fingers, Exile on Main St. is a great album, an important piece of rock and roll history. The Rolling Stones saw their glory days in the late-’60s and early-’70s, outshining nearly all of their peers with each effort, and for that, they deserve the continued fanfare. Exile on Main St. is now 50, and still speaks volumes about rock, where it comes from, and its ultimate destiny. Rich, atmospheric, and devious on many levels, the Stones’ initially misunderstood monument to rock and roll excess has found a comfortable place within musical history and is well worth the experience five decades on.

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