Review Summary: The Stones produce a musical triumph.
The back story behind The Rolling Stones’ greatest achievement, “Exile On Main Street,” does not need to be told again. By now, the Stones’ escape to a French villa from Britain in order to avoid taxes has become the stuff of legend. It is what came out of that chaotic period in their lives that is truly remarkable: eighteen songs that blow up in its listener’s face in order to capture the state of the band at the time, as well as the dreadful circumstances they were thrust into.
The greatest element of “Exile On Main Street” is its large diversity of songs within the album. There are up-tempo rockers (“Rocks Off,” “Happy”), blues numbers (a cover of Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips,” “Ventilator Blues” and “I Just Want To See His Face”), country ballads (“Sweet Virginia”) and even some moments of gospel and soul (“Tumbling Dice” and “Shine A Light”). The Stones never stick to one formula of music throughout “Exile” and use experimentation to their full advantage, creating an LP filled with joy and despair, mayhem and fun. It is a fitting documentation of one of the greatest rock bands in history at one of the darkest, most confusing times in their storied careers.
“Rocks Off” and “Rip This Joint” work as a powerful duo of attention-grabbing songs. Behind Nicky Hopkins’ frantic piano work, Mick Jagger takes hold of “Rocks Off” immediately from the verses and runs off with it, leading to a thunderous chorus where Jim Price and Bobby Keys’ brass section take over, adding a large amount of energy into an already lively track. “Rip This Joint” is basically a continuation of “Rocks Off,” although it may be considered to be a notch higher in terms of overall force in the song. Riding behind the powerful saxophone of Keys, Jagger screams the vocals throughout the song, almost like a bluesman possessed. For less than two and a half minutes, the Stones are downright relentless and never let up, making it arguably one of best songs on the entire album.
“Sweet Black Angel” aptly displays the Stones’ experimentation, using a washboard rhythm and delicate blues guitar picking to propel the song. This country-blues ballad is one of the few blatantly-obvious political songs performed by the Stones and its message proves more powerful than the overall music. Written about civil rights activist Angela Davis, Jagger garbles the lyrics to add to the songs overall bluesy effect, until ultimately yelling at the end: “Ain’t someone gonna save her, free de sweet black slave, free de sweet black slave.” “Ventilator Blues” continues along the blues path, featuring an opening slide guitar riff from Mick Taylor and the nervous piano playing of Hopkins. Jagger croons angrily throughout this track, sounding as if he’s begging for a fight at any second. Jagger’s fiery singing provides one of the highlight vocal performances on the entire LP. “I Just Want To See His Face” utilizes both the blues and soul to create a dark and gloomy atmosphere. It sounds as if Jagger sang this song in the South of America rather than inside a cold, damp French villa. With his sludgy vocals, Jagger’s performance recalls the great delta-bluesman Robert Johnson, and when coupled with the background gospel vocals it sounds like a dreary, haunting church number that could make even the devil cower in fear.
Keith Richards shines greatly on “Exile” in several different ways. While showing flashes of brilliance on guitar throughout the LP, Richards’ vocals also shine. “Happy” displays an excellent vocal performance by the Stones’ lead guitarist. Always known for being the backup singer to the charismatic Jagger, Richards proves that he can hold his own as a lead vocalist when he needs to rise to the occasion. At some moments he’s roaring as if he has had too much to drink during the recording and at other times he’s wailing at the top of his lungs, but he never tires. The amount of skill each member of the Stones possesses is on full display throughout “Exile” and the diversity in their repertoire is astounding.
While camped out in hiding from British taxes in a murky French Villa, The Rolling Stones managed to create an epic that has been highly regarded as one of the greatest achievements in rock history. Utilizing various elements of music from several different genres, the Stones further established themselves as one of the rock supremacies of the world. In a time where they faced drug addictions, the British government, and truly dire circumstances, the Stones channeled their emotions into eighteen songs and produced “Exile On Main Street,” a musical triumph unlike any other. Prepare for the ride.