The Rolling Stones’ Magnum Opus: Exile On Main Street

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This post responds to a challenge laid down by Vintage Voltage’s John Boudreau to write about my favorite Rolling Stones album. Being asked to pick a favorite Stones record is somewhat akin to being asked to pick a favorite child. How can you possibly do it? Well, I have only one child so forget all that Sophie’s Choice baggage! My favorite Stones record, unequivocally, is Exile on Main Street. That is the Stones record I will pack for the desert island.

It is Exile for several reasons. First, it is its length. While longer may be better in some pursuits, it is not always better when it comes to records. Many a double album – or triple album in the case of the Clash’s Sandinista! – would have benefitted from a good editor. Not so with Exile. Every track on the double album is masterful. You get the sense that producer Jimmy Miller, stunned by what he was hearing, gave the order to just keep the tape rolling.

I am also partial to Exile because it so prominently features both horns and piano, giving the album a fuller and more compelling sound than many other Stones’ albums.

But more than anything else, Exile is my favorite Stones record because it is a history lesson in rock ‘n’ roll. If I was tasked with explaining to a being from another planet what rock ‘n’ roll music is, where it came from, Exile would be my textbook. Side 1 in particular is like a seminar. You can draw a direct line from “Rip This Joint” to Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis; and “Shake Your Hips” – the Stones’ cover of Slim Harpo’s swamp blues tune – is an equal tribute to John Lee Hooker’s spare electric blues riffs.

Exile features straight-ahead blues, with the band’s cover of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down”; undertones of honkey-tonk in the piano-infused “Torn and Frayed”; and rockabilly’s fusion of country and blues in tracks like “Sweet Black Angel.” When I close my eyes and listen to the opening acoustic guitar and harmonica interplay on “Sweet Virginia” (above), I am transported to a juke joint somewhere in the Mississippi Delta; when the chorus arrives, with its gospel-inspired choir, I imagine I have happened upon a Southern Baptist worship service, albeit one liberally employing expletives.

The seamless coupling of “Ventilator Blues” with “I Just Want To See His Face” is perfect: the former a plea for salvation that sounds like it was conceived on a chain gang and the latter a song of redemption steeped in gospel. The tracks are literally blended together, with one fading into the other, as if two sides of the same exquisite coin.

Not only is every root element of rock ‘n’ roll present on Exile and performed to perfection, but Exile also showcases what makes the Stones a foundational classic rock band: their ability to build on the roots of the American musical tradition and transform it into a completely new art form. For me, there is no better example of what the Stones are all about than “Tumbling Dice” (below). While it is deeply rooted in traditional blues – being structured around the classic 1-4-5 chord progression – the Stones added new elements, including bended chords, a free-wheeling backbone riff, and percussion-less interludes (the return of the snare drum at the end of the track is sublime), that constituted a new style of musical expression. The addition of such elements (and others) to the archetypal blues fabric came to define classic rock.

Exile also features the Stones’ pop sensibilities. “Rocks Off” and “Happy” are two of the Stones’ best pop songs, while “Let It Loose” is as good an example as any of the rock ballad genre. And although this may be cheating a bit, the alternate take of “Loving Cup” from the 2010 reissue of Exile is the perfect exemplar of the Stones’ signature bawdiness. You know from the introductory soulful piano, single bass drum beat, and first screechingly-raw guitar note that this will be filthy. And it is. The track unfolds as if in slow motion, adding extra tension and building to its climax of crashing cymbals, grinding guitar and pleading vocals. And while lyrically the Stones never claimed to be poets, their lyrics perfectly suit the earthy feel of their music. “Loving Cup” is a prime example: “I would love to spill the beans with you till dawn/Give me little drink from your loving cup/Just one drink and I’ll fall down drunk.”

Because it so masterfully explores every seam in the bedrock of American music and then transcends them all in fashioning a new art form, Exile is the quintessential (and hands down best) Stones record.

Vintage Voltage makes an eloquent argument for Let It Bleed, which is certainly a solid choice. Among other noteworthy attributes, it contains the number one track on my Top Ten Rolling Stones Playlist.  Check out the Vintage Voltage review here and let us know where you stand on this most important debate by leaving comments.

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2 thoughts on “The Rolling Stones’ Magnum Opus: Exile On Main Street

  1. Matt, great stuff. (No surprises there.) So interesting that we both concluded similar things about our respective albums, as far as them being a run through rock & roll history. I think there’s a cliché about a lot of Stones songs sounding the same–and there’s evidence to support it–but we both tuned into their versatility as a group, which I don’t think I ever fully appreciated.

    “Sweet Virginia” is one of my favorites too, both to listen to and to play.

    Trying very hard to decide whether I like “You Got the Silver” or “Happy” better as a Keith lead vocal moment…

    • Thanks, John. And thanks for giving me an excuse to listen exclusively to Exile for several days. What a pleasure it was to re-immerse myself in it.

      “You Got The Silver” vs. “Happy” is a real tough one. Not sure I can resolve it either.

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