On Next Saturday, Mick Jagger will host the season finale of “Saturday Night Live” and will be backed by rock behemoths Foo Fighters and Arcade Fire when he performs as the musical guest. But in terms of career-defining Jagger moments, this Saturday, May 12, is more notable — it marks the 40th anniversary of “Exile On Main Street,” the Rolling Stones’ landmark double album.
Over time, “Exile” has been widely hailed as the band’s masterpiece. It’s a status very well-deserved; the 18 songs on “Exile” represent one of the most compelling journeys through the roots of American rock-and-roll. (Nevermind that it was largely recorded in the south of France by a bunch of British dudes.)
The history of the album has been thoroughly explored — Robert Greenfield's book “Exile on Main Street: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones” (which will soon become a feature film) and “Stones in Exile,” a 2010 documentary are good starting points — and part of the album’s legend is that the initial critical response was decidedly mixed. A dip into The Washington Post archives supports this, to an extent. There were no mixed signals in Tom Zito’s review from July 2, 1972. It was as much of a pan as you’ll ever read. Here are some choice excerpts:
“Exile seems to make final the decline and fall of the Rolling Stones.”
“The basic problem with Exile is repetition. It would be bad enough as one disk, but two make it nearly unbearable.”
“One can only wonder if the Stones are deluding themselves into thinking this is good music.”
“Of the album’s 18 cuts, perhaps three are worth more than a few paltry listenings: a rocked-up version of John Lee “Sonny Boy” Williamson’s “Stop Breaking Down” (for which the dead man is given no credit) that has the only notable guitar solo on the entire album; a haunting, sentimental “Let It Loose” that evokes the musical texture of the Stones’ earlier “Back Street Girl”; and a gospel-tinged “Shine a Light” wherein Billy Preston plays piano and organ. There are some few other moments: a nice riff on “Ventilator Blues” and the delightful sound of Charlie Watts rocksteady drumming (he seems to be the only consistently good member of the group) crashing in over Nicky Hopkins’ piano on “Loving Cup.” But I’m stretching to say nice things about the album.”
The salute to Watts is welcome (eternally underappreciated, he has always offered perfect stone-faced sturdiness in the midst of a bunch of stoned faces) but the callouts to individual components of specific songs is interesting, as well. Zito appears to have done this because he could only find small portions of each tune that he liked. I’m intrigued because “Exile” is so densely packed with memorable moments that I’ve spent countless hours dissecting and debating the best bits of each song.
So in honor of “Exile” turning 40, here are my five favorite seconds from the album’s five best songs.
One of the great album openers ever, it really gets supercharged at the 3:35 mark when Watts changes up his drum beat, Jagger is nearly drowned out by backing vocals and overwhelming brass then Nicky Hopkins comes in bashing on the piano. The contributions from sidemen, including Hopkins and horn players Jim Price and Bobby Keys, are essential to the full-bodied power of the album. This song also has one of rock’s great fade outs (a very short list), with Richards launching into a solo just as things get quiet.
Many of the songs on “Exile” really take off near the end. Here, you’ve got Jagger shouting the chorus while Richards and a bevy of guests (including Dr. John) shout along in the background and Bobby Keys wails away on sax. It’s one of the best examples of the power-in-numbers soul that helps define the album.
Another song with a perfect climax near the end, once again triggered by Watts — he switches to cymbals, Jagger moans “just as long as the guitar plays” and three guitar lines start swirling around each other on cue. The most prominent is the pedal steel by Al Perkins, another valuable guest on an album full of them.
One of Zito’s complaints is that Jagger’s vocals are buried throughout (“the vocals have been mixed down so low that they might just as well have been sung in some obscure Italian dialect”) but Mick comes up big here with one of the best couplets on the album. “Yes, I am nitty, gritty and my shirt's all torn/But I would love to spill the beans with you till dawn,” captures the ragged, up-til-dawn mood of “Exile.”
One song where the beginning is the highlight. Richards’ opening riff basically announces, “Here comes a classic” and when Watts comes in the groove is firmly established. He jumps in the pocket right away. Add in the sweeping female backing vocals and it’s the most instantly mesmerizing song on the album.