The Rolling Stones: Soul Survivors

Exile on Main Street is remastered and re-released this week.

By Neil Ferguson
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted May. 18, 2010

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Photo by Alex Fine

Q: What links such wildly disparate elements as erstwhile junkie noiseniks Pussy Galore, Tom Waits, ?uestlove, the muso-fascist police of Pitchfork.com and Jimmy Fallon?

Answer: They’re all utterly, unequivocally united in their love for the Stones’ sprawling masterpiece, Exile on Main Street (remastered and re-released this week, pop pickers!), and quite rightly so. Because, put simply, Exile remains one of the classics that truly deserves all the hype and more, a record that transcends it’s influences, and sounds even better now than it did 38 long years ago. It is, without a doubt, the single most soulful and downright funky release the Stones ever produced and is therefore one of the greatest slices of vinyl ever laid down. Period.

A bold, some might say, rash statement, but one that remains closed to argument.

And why does it sound so good, even now? A lot comes down to the circumstances under which it was recorded. Back in ’71, the Stones fled to the South of France to escape the British taxman. They decided to cut an album and, finding nowhere suitable to record, decamped en masse to Keith Richards’ domicile of choice, Nellecote, a sumptuous villa on the Cote D’Azur, and a former Gestapo headquarters. Musicians, friends, socialites, international jetsetters and heavy-duty Corsican dope dealers came and went, and what started out as recording sessions in Richards’ basement became, in effect, the biggest house party of his life. It was F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned, but with obscene amounts of hard drugs.

Hangers-on aside, these were not the most ideal of recording conditions—the band hunkered down in a dank, sweaty basement for all-night sessions that were prone to power cuts and instruments detuning due to the oppressive humidity. They rarely saw daylight. You can hear it on the record as vocal tracks bleed into one another, the mix often muddy, Jagger frequently sounding as if he’s singing with a mouthful of molasses. And yet, out of chaos came a certain raffish, ragged glory, a triumphant last hurrah, before ennui, cynicism and nasty habits got the better of the band.

Above all, Exile remains the high-water mark of the Stones’ love affair with America. Their friend Gram Parsons (who was a house guest during this period and whose influence is all over the record), frequently talked of creating “Cosmic American Music,” the irony being that his dissolute English buddies beat him to it. While the outside world turned to Glam and Prog Rock, the Stones retreated inward, looking toward a romanticized America—one of down-home juke joints, late-night dives, fetid swamps and dusty highways (it’s no mistake they hired The Americans photographer Robert Frank to design the album’s cover).

It’s their love letter to Chicago’s South Side, to the wrong side of the Memphis tracks, to New Orleans, Nashville and Detroit, too. Throughout—from the spooked speaking-in-tongues intensity of “Just Wanna See His Face,” to the country soul of “Sweet Virginia,” from the lugubrious grooves of “Casino Boogie,” (complete with one of the filthiest, most shit-kicking Texan horn sections ever)—it’s the sound of a band playing out of their skins, playing with a complete and utter abandonment they would never recapture again. It’s the sound of a party that never ends, it’s soul food for the ears. And through its inward rejection of the outside world, it’s unrepentant us-against-the-world feel, it remains that rare thing—a truly timeless record that only gets better with age.

And it is out now on Universal. It comes in three different versions: 1. The basic, no frills remastered version (which is pretty much all you need). 2. The “deluxe” version (featuring 10 extra unreleased outtakes—most with newly added vocals—all great, but hardly essential). 3. The “super deluxe” version which is made with gold and platinum and rubies, costs roughly the equivalent of a second mortgage, and is obviously aimed at the borderline psychotically-obsessed Stones fan with more money than sense.

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