It was 50 years ago today (May 12th, 1972) that the Rolling Stones released their groundbreaking double album, Exile On Main St. The collection chronicled the band's last days in England and living decadently in exile in and around the French Riviera during the spring and summer of 1971.
Exile On Main St., which was the band's fourth album co-produced by the late-Jimmy Miller, spent four weeks at Number One, and included the hit singles “Tumbling Dice” — which peaked at Number Seven, and “Happy” — which reach Number 22 — along with such classic tracks as “Rocks Off,” “Torn And Frayed,” “Rip This Joint,” “Loving Cup,” “Let It Loose,” “All Down The Line,” “Shine A Light,” “Sweet Virginia,” and others.
Despite the fact that Exile On Main St. sounds as if the songs were recorded all at once, some of the tracks stretched as far back as 1968 and were sketches either written, or partially — or even fully — recorded during the Stones' sessions for Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed, and Sticky Fingers.
According to legend, there are dozens of hours of loose jams recorded by the Stones during the infamous basement sessions held at Keith Richards' rented house, Nellcote. Nellcote was a Gestapo headquarters during the Second World War — a fact, which was figured out after the band noticed the swastikas on the floor vents. Amazingly, Keith Richards actually started the Exile sessions clean, and only reverted back to using heroin after a nasty go-cart accident in which he ripped his entire back open.
Back in 2010, the Stones issued an expanded reissue of Exile On Main Street. The album's “deluxe” CD edition featured 10 bonus tracks: “Loving Cup,” “Pass The Wine (Sophia Loren),” “I'm Not Signifying,” “Dancing In The Light,” “So Divine (Aladdin Story),” “Soul Survivor,” “Following The River,” “Plundered My Soul,” “Good Time Women,” and “Title 5.
The “super deluxe” package included the vinyl version, the documentary DVD Stones In Exile, and a 50-page collector's book with photos from the Exile era.
Back in 2010, Mick Jagger spoke about the legendary set, telling The Sydney Morning Herald, “I don't know if it was my favorite. I don't have a favorite album. I don't know how you could have a favorite — a favorite movie, a favorite anything — because one day you might not be in the mood for a really grungy album like this one and you might want something smoother and more polished: you might prefer Tattoo You some days.”
He went on to praise Exile's dual guitar interplay between Keith Richards and Mick Taylor: “One of the great things about it is that you've got Mick playing brilliantly and Keith also — but they have diametrically opposed styles: Mick's got this very fluid, melodic style and Keith's got this very rhythmic style, so they work very well together.”
Mick Jagger told us that although the album remains among the most legendary of the band's golden era, newer fans discovering the album are at a slight disadvantage: “I mean, it's never quite the same. Y'know, when you discover something yourself. The thing is when you discover a new bar — you think you've discovered it and then you find out that everyone knows about it. So if you're 16 and you found this record, you'll say 'Oh! This is really interesting; have you ever heard of a record called Exile On Main St.?' I found this, it's like, really rare' And you say, 'Well everyone knows about that!' So, y'know, that's how you wanna discover things.”
In November 1971, Jagger and Richards moved the album's sessions from France to L.A. to record overdubs and mix the set. Dr. John, who added keyboards at the time, had said that he remembered very little of his time working on Exile On Main Street. We asked Keith Richards if he too draws a blank when he thinks back to the long hot summer of '71 and recording Exile: “Yeah, I can remember it — and I can smell it still (laughs); that basement was pretty dirty. But apart from that, I know what Dr. John means. I think he was around for some of the making of it, y'know?”
Keith Richards talked about the long-growing legacy of Exile In Main Street over the years and explained that despite it's place in rock culture today — it wasn't released to great fanfare in 1972: “At first it was received (with) a little bit of doubt and skepticism, but then it just started to pick up and then it kept going and going and going until some people now say 'it's the best album you've ever done' — well, I don't know about that (laughs). But I'm still very proud of it. I could never pick, I mean, 'what do I think is the best?' — I could never think in those terms, y'know? Well that was the best of what I did then (laughs), y'know?
We asked Mick Jagger about the Stones' legendary tapes recorded at Jagger's home called Stargroves in 1970, prior to the Exile sessions: “I looked at a lot of that, I listened to a lot of that stuff, too. And some of that is on this record.”
In the expanded DVD edition of Stones In Exile, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts shed light onto the band's sessions at Stargroves, much of which found its way on to Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main Street , and Goats Head Soup: “(Mick Jagger): In a small little box, you get very bad drum sounds, so you have to trick the drum sound up with all kinds of echoes. In a big ambient room like this, you get a very big drum sound, and in those days (Charlie Watts): You could move things in big rooms, that's what's so good. Like, the brass didn't sound good here, so you go up there, or you go (Mick Jagger): We used all the rooms to record in, so we put amps in all these different rooms to get all these different sounds.”
Don Was, who's been the Stones' primary producer since 1993 had the dream job of not only digging tracks out of the archive for the deluxe Exile reissue release — but he was behind the boards as Jagger, Richards and former guitarist Mick Taylor put the finishing touches on some nearly-finished Exile-era tracks. We asked him what boundaries he set for himself before working on such an important project: “You bring respect, man. I'll tell you, the boundaries are laid down by Keith. Keith sent me a fax at the very beginning. He said, 'You don't have to make it sound like Exile — it is Exile.' And that was it. That was the guiding principle.”
Although bassist Bill Wyman is no longer a partner in the Stones franchise, he is considered the band's primary in-house historian and still contributes to their archival projects. Wyman explained in the 2010 Stones In Exile DVD that although Exile On Main St. proved to be among the greatest of the Stones' '70s albums, the sessions were far from being the most productive or professional of the era: “I suppose we had the band there — the whole band there — probably 30 percent, 40 percent of the time. The rest of the time it was just bits. Me and Charlie (Watts) and Mick didn't come — Mick Taylor didn't come — and me Charlie and Keith (Richards), so we'd work on something. 'Next day Keith wouldn't come because Mick (Jagger) wasn't there, so then Mick'd come and he'd see that Keith wasn't there and the next day he wouldn't come. And sometimes we'd all get there to a session and Keith wouldn't even come! He was upstairs sleeping! Charlie'd come five hours, y'know, me and Mick Taylor had come two hours, Mick had come an hour and Keith is upstairs, and he didn't come down to the session! And it was like, madness.”
Back in 2012, the film rights to author Robert Greenfield's 2006 book, Exile On Main Street: A Season In Hell With The Rolling Stones were optioned by Virgin Produced for an upcoming biopic. Greenfield, who during his tenure as a Rolling Stone associate editor, followed the Stones on their 1972 tour and wrote the classic 1974 book on the band's legendary road trek, STP: A Journey Through America With The Rolling Stones. So far no further info on the picture has been announced.
The Rolling Stones' 14-stadium European run kicks off on June 1st in Madrid, Spain and plays through July 31st in Stockholm, Sweden.