Because of the background noise, which necessitates turning the volume up in one’s headphones to potentially damaging levels, I tend to avoid listening to music – or indeed watching too many films – when flying, but as I was shuffling through the iTunes-style album list on my entertainment console thingy on the flight to Japan, I was tempted into the metaphorical dusting off of a timeless classic. Ever since I inherited a battered old copy from my father – on double-vinyl and in a gatefold sleeve held together with sellotape – Exile On Main Street has officially been in my Top Five Best Albums Of All Time (along with Something / Anything, Pink Moon, Blood On The Tracks and possibly Kid A, Blue or Coltrane’s Ballads, although I would need to do a bit of research to tell you for sure), and listening to it once more – for the first time ever on headphones, I think – merely served to confirm this.
From the moment the horn section comes in about halfway through Rocks Off (under no circumstances to be confused with the Primal Scream track of the same name – of which more later), you somehow know that you are in the presence of greatness, and while almost every subsequent track seems to sound roughly the same, there is barely a second over the course of around seventy minutes of music where the quality of the music drops below superlative.
It’s funny, because the Stones were often seen as a poor man’s Beatles, but despite producing probably hundreds of classic songs, I would argue that the Beatles never made an album as good as Exile. The Stones too have essentially always worked better as a singles band, but on this particular occasion, everything came together to produce – and this, I believe, is the acid test for anything that dares to call itself a ‘classic’ – something timeless, something that seemed to exist outside the era in which it was produced, and which continues to reside there, never sounding tired or dated.
Alan Yentob dedicated an episode in his Imagine series to Exile this year, to showcase some recently unearthed cine film and audio out-takes from the recording of Exile (there is now the inevitable reissue with ‘bonus’ tracks, which I shall not be paying money for, or possibly even listening to at all, for there is no better way to spoil something you love than to have to endure it unedited, before the artist in question applied their discretion, good taste and artistic ability to shaping it into the finished artifact), and although the documentary was rather dull, it did shed enough light onto the recording process to confirm the old adage that creative excellence often arises out of adversity.
After years of being ripped off by various managers and accountants, the Stones relocated to the south of France for the inevitable ‘tax purposes’ in the early seventies, and rigged up a mobile recording studio next to Keith Richards’ villa in Villefranche Sur Mer. Although Richards was living there with his wife and young child, this didn’t seem to prevent the place from turning into a full-time party venue, with all kinds of musicians, hangers-on, groupies and drug dealers wandering in and out at all times of the day and night. Not only that, but the recording itself took place in the damp, dingy, poorly lit and poorly wired basement, where it was difficult for the musicians to see and hear what each other was doing. The magic, though, was in the timing, and at this point, the Stones’ ability as songwriters and musicians, the recording quality and techniques on hand, and the general atmosphere and ambience – both around the world and in that particular out-of-the-way corner of Europe – combined and converged at just the right moment.
While most of the songs on Exile sound deceptively similar, oddly, they sound completely different from anything the Stones have done before or since, and Richards in particular managed to conjure up a uniquely dense and satisfyingly swampy sound. It is blues-ey (the version of Robert Johnson’s Stop Breaking Down – quite apart from being spectacularly good, and a showcase for some of the best slide guitar playing ever committed to vinyl by a white man – is one of only two cover versions on the album, and manages to fit seamlessly into the overall feel), and obviously it is rocky (the only thing that still jars when I listen to Exile is the chorus of Soul Survivor, which sounds uncannily similar to a number of Richards’ other signature rock riffs), but it is a million miles away from the southern-fried, Black Crowes-style sound that the aforementioned Primal Scream were copying so slavishly – and pointlessly – in their post-Screamadelica period.
Obviously there are the horns, which on countless occasions match Stevie Wonder, Al Green or James Brown for their infectious originality. Then there are the guitars, at least three of which appear to be being played at any one point in the record, but without ever sounding intrusive (there are also, mercifully, no cock-rock, gurning-face, five-minute guitar solos anywhere on the record – the longest goes on for probably four bars). There is Jagger’s singing, whose ‘Aah wuz baahwun in a crassfaah hurricayeen!’ cod-American-ness just this once doesn’t grate, possibly because it is further down in the mix than usual (on a level playing field with the morass of other competing musical elements, in fact), or possibly because his often misogynistic lyrics are largely incomprehensible, aside from the odd snatched phrase (‘got to scrape the shit right off your shoes’ springs to mind as a good example of something that stands out but doesn’t necessarily insult fifty per cent of the human race). There is his harmonica playing, too, which is superb, and which I almost hadn’t noticed before (isn’t it funny how, given the time to play music every day, professional musicians with a bit of talent seem to be able to turn their hand to almost any instrument?). There are the backing vocals, as good as any soul record, and containing complex enough three-part harmonies that you never get bored of trying to join in. There is Charlie Watts’ drumming, which is as deceptively simple – and therefore underrated – as Ringo Starr’s (another recent documentary, this time in the Classic Albums strand, made a brilliant argument for Ringo’s talent, as showcased on John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band). And all of these elements combine to form an endlessly fascinating whole, something which, as I have already implied, is like the aural equivalent of wading through a swamp: hot, sweaty, dense, disorientating and colourful.
The basic formula for the eighteen songs goes like this: start off with a riff or a groove of some sort, usually a simple guitar line, but sometimes percussion or ensemble driven. Keep the first verse fairly low key, and probably the first chorus and second verse too. During the second chorus, herald in the horn section with a killer drum break and perhaps some extra backing vocals. Drive the song onwards and upwards, and then fade out early enough to leave the listener wanting more.
It sounds simple, but like I say, no one has ever done it this well, and nor were the Stones to do so again, as they plodded on to become little more than a lumbering, stadium rock parody of themselves. Again, it is a telling point that none of the songs from Exile – apart from Tumbling Dice, which was the only single, a minor hit by the Stones’ standards and little known among the general record-buying public – ever makes it onto Best Of compilations, and this, I believe, is because the album stands apart from the rest of their output. It functions as a work of art in itself, not as a disparate collection of unrelated songs, and while almost every one of those songs is superb, it really is the fact that they have been recorded together and collected on the same album that makes them great. Exile On Main Street is, to coin a cliché, even better than the sum of its parts, and something that I was more than happy to risk exacerbating my tinnitus with by listening to at dangerously high volume on BA flight 0005 to Tokyo Narita.