The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street turns 40

Categories: Music History

Known today as one of the greatest albums in the Rolling Stones catalogue, Exile on Main Street contains not only some of the best Richards guitar licks, but a host of Jagger's greatest lyrical contributions. "The sunshine bores the daylights out of me," he declares on the opening track, "Rocks Off," cleverly stating his distaste of French summers (which, at Villa Nellcote, were blinding) while simultaneously laying out the ethos of the Rolling Stones party lifestyle. "Tryin' to stop the waves behind your eyeballs," he says with an Opry twang on the countrified "Sweet Virginia," singing about speed addiction.

"They were the worst bloody band on the planet, the worst bunch of musicians in the world, they could be for days at a time," remembers Exile engineer Andy Johns. "Really fucking horrible. And you sit there wondering how on earth are we going to get anything out this. They would play very badly, and that's how they played most of the time, very poorly, and out of tune. Most of it had to do with attitude. They did take a long time in those days, so Bill and Charlie were kind of waiting for the real spark to happen before everyone really bothered. ...But, when it happened, they were transformed almost instantly from this dreadful band into the Rolling Stones and blow you away. It was almost magical."

After six months of recording, the band was spent and ready to get out of France. They'd had their equipment stolen by junkies, and the tensions between the band and the French police were getting serious. "Suddenly it was getting cold and autumn," remembers Richards. "So we got all this stuff we recorded into a truck. And I think Mick and I were looking at each other and thinking we'd drained it. We'd drained each other and everybody else."

"We always went to L.A. to finish our records," explains Jagger. And Exile was no exception. While the band had laid down some pretty impressive tracks in Nellcote, there were still vocal overdubs and mastering to be done, as well as some bits and pieces of songs that required assembling and lyrics -- some of which were done utilizing William Burroughs cut-up method, a technique they'd learned from the man himself during his visit to Nellcote earlier that summer. The party continued in L.A. hotel rooms, with televisions thrown from balcony windows and celebrities like Marc Bolan and Neil Young joining in on the fun.

After its release,Exile on Main Street was criticized for being too long, too directionless and without any real hits. With the exception of "Tumbling Dice," the critics were right at least about Exile's lack of radio appeal. In its day, it was considered a failure. Though in the years to come, the album would be championed for the same reason it was once vilified.

Similar to the trials that Wilco would endure decades later attempting to release Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the machinery of the music industry had difficulty placing Exile on Main Street

Exile on Main Street is now known to many as the last great Rolling Stones album (this depends mostly on your feelings about Some Girls). It is heralded as the measuring stick which all future kitchen-sink double albums (such as Prince's Sign o' the Times or OutKast's Speakerboxx/The Love Below) are compared. The fact that the record took several years to be recognized for the gem that it was proves that -- like waiting for Keith Richards to come out of the bathroom and record a song -- some things take time, but they're worth the wait.

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