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Exile On Main St.
The Rolling Stones

Rolling Stones 2900
Released: May 1972
Chart Peak: #1
Weeks Charted: 43
Certified Gold: 5/30/72

Mick TaylorCharlie WattsBill WymanKeith RichardsMick JaggerThe Rolling Stones are into a new thing: music. Well, that's not quite fair, because they've always been more than competent, but Exile on Main St. does tend to bury Mick Jagger's vocals in the band's sound and stress the group's eclectic musical abilities at the expense of words and messages. Which is too bad; we miss Jagger's mean, smartass trenchancy in most of these tunes. The zingers are on the jacket covers, in photos of assorted freaks, in penciled notes ("I gave you the diamonds, you give me disease") and in the montages of Mick and the band. In the process of exposing the black roots of the Stones' music (Gospel, blues and boogie), the album shows how well the Stones can play in a variety of styles. "Shake Your Hips" is a dark, heavy-sounding boogie with a fine ricky-tick riff; Gospel comes on strong in "Just Wanna See His Face" and "Shine a Light"; there are good vocal tracks, like "Let it Loose" with Clydie King, Vanetta Fields, Dr. John, et al.; and the straight-ahead rockers, such as "Soul Survivor," were never better. But where are the Stones of yesteryear?

- Playboy, 9/72.

Bonus Reviews!

Listen to the Rolling Stones. Hear them play. Hear them play all the rock chords they know...all nine of them. Hear Mick sing de blooz. ("Owah bayuhbee, bee miyuh giruh!.") He's paid his dues, you bet. It must hurt like hell to sing through pouting lips. Listen to the horns; sometimes they sound like kazoos, sometimes like cheezy violins. What? Those are violins? Well, anyhow, the chick singers moaning "ooh" and "aah" sound authentic, don't they. Listen to them all swing on "Tumbling Dice..." or was that "Hip Shake"? Hmmmm. Maybe it was "Turd On the Run"? Oh well, it doesn't matter. They all sound the same.

From the sound of things, the Stones weren't exiled on Main Street...they were deported.

- Ed Naha, Circus, 9/72.

The Rolling Stones - Exile On Main St.
Original album advertising art.
Click image for larger view.
There are few things this year that have been as eagerly anticipated as the new Stones LP (with the exception of their upcoming tour). Their satanic majesties produce a cacophony of sounds, having changed quite perceptibly since Sticky Fingers. Their sound is less clear and the lyrics less discernible but the ragged guts and driving beat is still apparent and it's sure to end up gold.

- Billboard, 1972.

The best album by one of the two best rock & roll bands in the world. Aural film noir, the richly textured Exile is to most records what The Big Sleep and Casablanca are to made-for-TV movies. And "Tumbling Dice," an anthem about taking a chance on chances, probably the Stones' greatest song.

- Paul Nelson, Rolling Stone, 12/15/77.

More than anything else this fagged-out masterpiece is difficult -- how else describe music that takes weeks to understand? Weary and complicated, barely afloat in its own drudgery, it rocks with extra power and concentration as a result. More indecipherable than ever, submerging Mick's voice under layers of studio murk, it piles all the old themes -- sex as power, sex as love, sex as pleasure, distance, craziness, release -- on top of an obsession with time more than appropriate in over-thirties committed to what was once considered a youth music. Honking around sweet Virginia country and hipping through Slim Harpo, singing their ambiguous praises of Angela Davis, Jesus Christ, and the Butter Queen, they're just war babies with the bell bottom blues. A+

- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.

When informed that Exile on Main Street was the highest-placed Rolling Stones album in a 1987 critics' poll of the Top 100 Rock Albums, former bassist Bill Wyman remarked with irony that it had received the roughest reception of any Stones album at the time of release. It set itself up for the obvious criticism of all double albums that it would have been better had the best tracks been distilled on to one disc. There were remarks that the sleeve was particularly obnoxious, featuring a gallery of freaks in passport-quality photos and the Stones' name only in handwritten scrawl. Though a number one in both the US and UK, Exile stayed near the top for a shorter time than its predecessor, Sticky Fingers, and "Tumbling Dice," the lead single, did nowhere near as well as "Brown Sugar."

So what, say today's critics. Exile is one of the Stones' greatest albums, with some of their hardest rockers and plenty of bad boy attitude to go around. "Turd on the Run," "Ventilator Blues" and "Rocks Off" showed they were not yet ready to clean up their act. Besides, this record contains Keith Richards' best vocal performance, "Happy."

"Emotion and style, beauty and sleaze, depth and glamour," prominent German journalist and broadcaster Wolfgang Doebeling once exulted. "In short, pure genius."

In 1987, Exile on Main Street was chosen by a panel of rock critics and music broadcasters as the #11 best rock album of all time.

- Paul Gambaccini, The Top 100 Rock 'n' Roll Albums of All Time, Harmony Books, 1987.

Rock vérité -- basement rock & roll, call it what you will -- it is the scuzziest, dirtiest, most chaotic album release of a great rock band at the height of its powers, driving home ironically detached cynicism with undiminishing arrogance. It is one of the ten greatest rock records of all time (Rolling Stone ranked it third in its August 27, 1987, critics' survey of the best recorded releases of 1967-87). Literally recorded in a basement with a mobile unit, it may have been another calculated statement, but like most of the Stones' messages at the time, this one rang true on many levels. Exile on Main Street is tough, dense music which pertains to its times and to the continuing spirit of rock & roll. The CD improves the clarity of the sound (which some may find equivalent to colorizing a black-and-white movie), but the murky power persists, pulsing with its carnival rhythms. All that, and it's got "Tumbling Dice," too. A+

- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.

Mud: That's the word that best describes Exile on Main Street, a double-album chronicling the scarifying morning after the heady sixties finally slammed shut. The Rolling Stones are the greatest band in the history of rock and roll, greater than the Beatles mostly because they lasted longer (it's no accident that the Stones' peak years came after the Beatles were safely out of the way). But there is mud all over everything here: words are mumbled, indistinguishable sound washes between speakers like waves of fog, and when clear ideas do inadvertently pop up, they weem worn and blurred. More than anything else, this is a record about imagination in the face of the sixties' collapse.

The Rolling Stones had already traveled farther than any band when they recorded this masterpiece of grunge. Except for Their Satanic Majesties Request, their brief, unfortunate flirtation with psychedelia (while the Beatles were around, their influence extended even to the Stones), all the albums the Rolling Stones recorded, from Around and Around to Sticky Fingers, were full of trashy vitality, enlivened versions of soul and blues classics side by side with the most brilliant, nasty distillations of lust and rebellion the band could imagine. But the Rolling Stones were a significantly different band in 1971, when they recorded Exile on Main Street, than they were in their salad days. For one thing, they had fired the man who started the band, Brian Jones, who promptly drugged himself into oblivion and death. For another, their age was dragging on them. Nowadays rockers in their late twenties seem relatively young, but in 1971 a twenty-eight-year-old rocker seemed ancient. The Rolling Stones felt old when they recorded this record, and they found solace in the blues.

Mick Jagger sings lead on all but one number here, and his performances are his steadiest and least affected ever. Much of this double-record was recorded in the basement of guitarist Keith Richards's house, and the informal surroundings saw to it that Mick didn't prance (the unlikely setting also contributed to the muddy sound). Mick talks directly. And Keith! Keith Richards is the greatest harmony singer in the history of rock and roll, mostly because he is the only one who can sing in several keys at the same time. Like his Fender lines, his voice darts through spaces in arrangements and fills without cluttering. His solo vocal piece, "Happy," is one of the lighter songs on Exile on Main Street, though the chorus line "I need love to make me happy" is a pretty damn desperate one under the right circumstances.

Of course, that's assuming you can get at the words. After you figure out all the lyrics -- a task that takes years -- then you have to figure out what they mean, which is impossible. "I only get my rocks off while I'm sleeping," "My mouth don't move but I can hear you speak," "The sunshine bores the daylights out of me": Those lines are all from only the first of these eighteen dissolute compositions. Sex and independence are the major issues here, but what comes though clearer than any words (except on "All Down the Line" and a luxurious cover version of Robert Johnson's "Stop Breaking Down") are the caressing bass of Bill Wyman and the shotgun drums of Charlie Watts. The music completely overpowers the lyrics on Exile on Main Street. You decipher "Wham bam, throw a ham/Alabam dn't give a damn"; I'll just sing along.

When its advocates term Exile on Main Street one of the sleaziest albums of all time, we're not only talking about the words. Producer Jimmy Miller has since disowned the sound of this record, blaming its sonic impenetrability on recording circumstances. But how this record sounds is inextricable from what it's whispering behind its mammoth snarl. Be it an all-out rocker like "All Down the Line," a frank blues like "Let It Loose," or a dark fusion of the two like "Torn and Frayed," the Rolling Stones turn Exile on Main Street into an extended deliberation on how to live like teenagers forever. For all its maturity, Exile on Main Street is about grown men discovering that the road can go on forever, though they occasional line does leap out -- "You can be my partner in crime" is about the friendliest -- such an existence seems not only desirable but necessary, even if it is drenched in doubt, fear, and mud.

- Jimmy Guterman, The Best Rock 'n' Roll Records of All Time, 1992.

Originally rock's most musically successful double album, this epic collection has aged magnificently. Includes the hit "Tumbling Dice," as well as "Rocks Off," "Happy," "Rip This Joint" and "Sweet Virginia." * * * * *

- Bruce Eder, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.

Exile on Main Street got some bum reviews when first issued for its muddy sound and decadent atmospherics. It's now rightly hailed as a masterpiece, and from the passionate yearning of the gospel-tinged "Let It Loose" to the demon fury of "Rip This Joint," it remains a towering survey of the Stones as they reinvent their influences. * * * * *

- Greg Kot, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.




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Gritty, grimy, glorious -- it doesn't get any Stonesier than this sprawling killer recorded during Keith's heroin days in a castle in the South of France. The perfect soup captures them at their most elegantly wasted, translating their sex-and-drugs lifestyle into some of the raunchiest R&R offset by horns aplenty and pal Gram Parsons, who strongly influenced their flirtations with C&W ("Sweet Virginia," "Torn and Frayed") -- you can almost smell the Jack Daniels coming through. * * * * *

- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.

On Exile on Main Street's brassy opener, "Rocks Off," then the honking, careening "Rip This Joint," Mick Jagger sounds like he's just shoved his band into a hive of bees. On sleazy, leering covers of Slim Harpo ("Shake Your Hips") and Robert Johnson ("Stop Breakin' Down") he sounds not so much like he's imitating the blues as that he's parodying them as only one who knows them can. On the magnificent barrage of country soul stompers ("Sweet Virginia," "Torn and Frayed," and "Loving Cup"), he slurs and drawls with such abandon that the room looks crooked even as one listens sober. Then there's the joy of Keith Richards' gooseneck vocal on "Happy," butting up against the whooping, exuberant "Turd on the Run," the truncheon banging frenzy of "Ventilator Blues," the closet gospel hollering of "Just Wanna See His Face." Factor in a pair of beautiful ballads ("Shine a Light" and "Let It Loose"), the casino two-step of "Tumblin' Dice," the horn-pumped swagger of "All Down the Line" -- even the throwaways on this album are masterpieces of a sort: parts of an immaculate whole consisting, oddly, of trash. There are relatively few great songs here, and yet a whole raft of spectacular performances. Never again would the band sound as cohesive, nor anywhere near as anarchic. The paradoxes are many, but what is indisputable is that the Stones here deliver what rock 'n' roll forever promises: a vital toxiety and a sound powerful enough to wake -- or bury -- the dead.

Exile on Main Street was voted the 12th greatest album of all time in a VH1 poll of over 700 musicians, songwriters, disc jockeys, radio programmers, and critics in 2003.

- Matthew Specktor, VH1's 100 Greatest Albums, 2003.

A dirty whirl of blues and boogie, the Rolling Stones' 1972 double LP "was the first grunge record," guitarist Keith Richards crowed proudly in 2002. But inside the deliberately dense squall -- Richards' and Mick Taylor's dogfight riffing, the lusty jump of the Bill Wyman/Charlie Watts rhythm engine, Mick Jagger's caged-animal bark and burned-soul croon -- is the Stones' greatest album and Jagger and Richards' definitive songwriting statement of outlaw pride and dedication to grit. In the existential shuffle "Tumbling Dice," the exhausted country beauty "Torn and Frayed" and the whiskey-soaked church of "Shine a Light," you literally hear the Stones in exile: working at Richards' villa in the south of France, on the run from media censure, British drug police (Jagger and Richards already knew the view from behind bars) and the country's onerous tax code. The music rattles like battle but also swings with clear purpose -- unconditional survival -- in "Rocks Off" and "All Down the Line." As Richards explained, "The Stones don't have a home anymore -- hence the Exile -- but they can still keep it together. Whatever people throw at us, we can still duck, improvise, overcome." Great example: Richards recorded "Happy" with just producer Jimmy Miller on drums and saxman Bobby Keys -- while waiting for the other Stones to turn up for work. Exile on Main Street is the Stones at their fighting best, armed with the blues, playing to win.

Exile on Main Street was chosen as the 7th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.

- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.

By 1972, the Stones were outlaws -- albeit on the run from the taxman rather than the demons that had been on their tail three years earlier -- and a pack you only ran with if you had the strongest constitution. When they arrived at Keel's villa in the South of France, they brought with them only their hardiest compadres, but the 12 months it took to record and then mix Exile On Main St. took a toll on all concerned, and eventually on the band. Drugs and booze were a given; the fractious hell of living and working en masse in an unsuitable mansion, once a Nazi headquarters, was their choice. Mick's decision to disappear with Bianca only added to the grumbling.

So, Exile On Main St. was Richard's baby, but he could not have made it without the strongest backup the band ever had: Jimmy Miller (production and percussion), Bobby Keys on saxophone, Jim Price on trumpet and trombone, and Nicky Hopkins on piano and everywhere, contributing to a loosely layered sound that hides just as much as it highlights. The noted photojournalist Robert Frank was enlisted to come up with the "And you think we're the freaks?" cover. He then followed them on tour, but when the band saw the footage intended for the Cocksucker Blues road movie, they cannily spotted the difference between sexy and sexist and had it shelved.

And the music? The band hated it, but if you like rock, its entire DNA is here, spread over four sides, and better than "The White Album." Not everything you hear about it is true, but believe the legends. The Stones never rolled this well again.

- David Hutcheon, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.

At various times during the long run of the Rolling Stones,the band's rhythmic direction has been dictated primarly by singer Mick Jagger (Some Girls), or drummer Charlie Watts (12 x 5, Voodoo Lounge), or the songwriting tandem of Jagger and guitarist Kieth Richards (Let It Bleed). One record, however, is primarily Richards's vision -- the constantly surprising Exile on Main St. Throughout its four gloriously ragged LP sides, the Stones appear not as rock stars but as scrappers, tearing through mean old blues tunes and throwaway two-chord riffs in search of a less restrictive rock and roll language. The result: one of the most intense studio albums in rock history.

Exile is Richards's record almost by accident. The Stones left England several months before work began on the album, fleeing tax laws. Richards's French villa was available, and the group set up a mobile recording studio in the basement. Jagger wasn't around for the early sessions: His wife Bianca was about to give birth. Richards grumbled loudly about Jagger's absence, but it turned out to be a hidden blessing: It allowed the guitarist to work on his own terms, which at the time meant copious amounts of alcohol and illicit drugs. As the guitarist Mick Taylor recalled later, the setting was perfect for Richards. "Al he had to do was fall out of his bed, roll downstairs and violá he was at work."

Faced with having to start the train by himself, Richards came up with the loose, spectacularly disheveled roar that infects the originals (notably "Happy," "Torn and Frayed," and the "living room version" of "Tumbling Dice") and the covers of storied blues ("Shake Your Hips," "Stop Breaking Down"). He sets up the mean groove that prevails throughout, a rhythm attack that's dark and dense and raw. The sense of new possibility no doubt helped inspire Jagger: It's possible to imagine the singer and lyricist turning up at the sessions, hearing the band ripping with merciless intensity, and realizing that the ante has been upped. His response: lyrics bristling with attitude (if not outright hostility), sung in a surly, visceral mood that equals and frequently exceeds that of the bloodthirsty music Richards and company are throwing down. Though Exile does contain a few "singles," it is much more a wall-to-wall album experience, a debauched marathon in which every track transfers a different jolt. If you haven't heard it straight through, you can't fully appreciate the extremes to which rock and roll can be pushed.

- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.

(2010 Deluxe Edition) The Rolling Stones' greatest album is also the best record ever made about the rock & roll life: a double-LP blur of songs about rushing between beds and gigs, high times and emotional whippings, literally cut on the run in France, then Los Angeles, in 1971 and '72. "Rocks Off," "Torn and Frayed" and "Let It Loose" are the Stones at the peak of their blues-and-danger era, Mick Jagger pleading and sneering thorugh a hypnotizing chaos of jellied reverb, blowzy horns and Keith Richards and Mick Taylor's tangled-snake guitars. It was a long haul to that nasty perfection -- "Loving Cup" was first recorded in 1969; "Sweet Virginia" was a salty-country leftover from Sticky Fingers -- and the outtakes unearthed and, in some cases, retouched for this reissue reveal more (not a lot but unough to be grateful for) about the process and detours. "Good Time Woman" is "Tumbling Dice" as an infant -- the chorus is there, but the funk is not. "I'm Not Signifying" is a fine New Orleans R&B uproar, but there was already plenty of electric gris-gris on Side Three. The highlight of the bonuses is a striking variation on the closer, "Soul Survivor," sung by Richards instead of Jagger in an enraged bray, as if the guitarist had just got up from a vicious beating. I would gladly pay extra to hear a tape of the two debating which version to use. * * * * *

- David Fricke, Rolling Stone, 5/27/10.

The Stones add 10 outtakes (some with new overdubs) to Exile's ragged perfection. But the extras have their own jolt, like the creeping gris-gris of "I'm Not Signifying" and Keith Richards' vividly wounded alternate vocal for "Soul Survivor."

- David Fricke, Rolling Stone, 12/23/10.

Given the legendary louche circumstances in which Exile on Main Street was made (heroin! French villa! More heroin!), it's a miracle this double set of bles-, country-, and gospel-influenced rock contains any great songs. In fact, they're all great songs -- even the one called "Turd on the Run."

Exile on Main Street was chosen as the 3rd greatest album of all time by the editors of Entertainment Weekly in July 2013.

- Entertainment Weekly, 7/5/13.

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