With the release of a remastered version of the Rolling Stones’ album Exile on Main Street, the music press (and the regular press) has filled up with articles praising the album as the greatest of the Stones’ albums, if not the greatest rock album of all time. The re-release has even topped the British charts.
Far be it from me to add to the hype. But I wanted to say a few words.
First up, it is a fantastic album (old news), and the remastered version sounds great. But seriously, I’d much rather listen to the original vinyl version than this new CD. I’m far from a vinyl-is-always-best nerd, but this is just one of those albums that can’t be separated from the context of vinyl. The rawness of the original just doesn’t translate into 21st century technology. It’s like putting a new Porsche engine under the hood of a Model-T. It might be a kind of cool thing to do, but you are missing the point.
For Exile, you need a needle dropped onto plastic and the 12-inch cover in your hands to come close to getting what is going on.
On the question of whether it is best Stones’ album, I have my doubts. It is certainly important and influential, but the best? I’m never sure what that means, beyond a bunch of people deciding that that is the case. The more honest measure is simply which album you prefer (and “best” is mainly just “favourite” tarted up to make some critic sound knowledgeable) and I think I prefer Sticky Fingers or even Let It Bleed. If you really pressed me, I’d probably pick Let It Bleed, the sway factor being provided by the presence of “Gimme Shelter” which is by far my favourite Stones’ song.
In fact, if “Gimme Shelter” was on Exile instead of on Let It Bleed, that alone might make Exile my favourite. In fact in fact, it seems to me “Gimme Shelter” would fit perfectly on Exile and the more I think about it the more I think it should be on Exile.
See how silly these games can get…?
So anyway, here’s what I reckon is great about Exile, whether it is best or favourite or whatever. What it does brilliantly is somehow reach down into the various influences that are the building blocks of sixties rock n’ roll and distil them in a way that is close to perfect; it recombines those elements with the tools and sensibility of sixties rock and spits out something timeless.
So you get all the primal elements — blues, gospel, boogie-woogie, country — and they get integrated into sixties rock through the filter of a band that are arguably that genre’s greatest exponents. What comes out is not necessarily something new, but it is certainly something exemplary.
Imagine that first moment, lost in the mists of time, when someone combined flour and water and yeast and came up with bread. That’s what Exile is like. Transcendent and nourishing.
The highlight of the album for me — and this has changed over the years — is “Tumbling Dice”. It was a track I didn’t always warm to, but something about this remastered version really shows it as its best and it sounds fantastic. Plus, it is almost the definitive example of the process I was talking about above. You couldn’t find a better example of what happens when country meets rock n’ roll. What a track.
Two more things. Go and watch the doco Stones in Exile which is available on iView. It is a fairly straight, unwanky account (as unwanky as these things can get) of how the album was recorded and it includes some nice interviews with the band.
But if you really want to hear something fantastic, a brilliant account of the Stones and Exile and why they both matter, go listen to this interiew with producer Don Was over on the All Songs Considered website. Was has been the Stones’ producer of choice since 1994 and it was he who went through the old acetates and picked out the material for the bonus disc that comes with this re-release of the album. His account of that process, but more importantly, his description of what it is that makes the Stones the Stones is one of the best things I have ever heard on the topic. In fact, it is one of the best descriptions of music I’ve ever heard, period. The only other person I’ve heard describe music so well is Joni Mitchell. A joy of an interview.
For me, Exile is a master class in rock n’ roll, a Rosetta Stone of rock, the one album to bring them all and in the darkness bind them. If some music archaeologist of the the twenty-ninth century wanted to understand rock n’ roll, Exile is the album he or she should excavate. You might enjoy it too.