Tuesday, 21 December 2010

The ROLLING STONES: Exile On Main St.


(#112: 10 June 1972, 1 week)

Track listing: Rocks Off/Rip This Joint/Shake Your Hips/Casino Boogie/Tumbling Dice/Sweet Virginia/Torn And Frayed/Sweet Black Angel/Loving Cup/Happy/Turd On The Run/Ventilator Blues/I Just Want To See His Face/Let It Loose/All Down The Line/Stop Breaking Down/Shine A Light/Soul Survivor

”Say now baby, I’m the rank outsider.”

One reads so much about the darkness, the near nothingness, that engulfed the recording of Exile that it’s easy to get misled – that is, before the music itself begins to mislead the listener. For such a supposedly grim and dank record, the surprise comes in how light the record sounds, how completely assured and planned are its eighteen struts of bedpole-tipping and aisle-bending. Noticeable too is the sheer zip of the thing; its sixty-seven minutes fly by quickly, it plays like, if not quite a greatest hits collection, then a compilation of B-sides (as others have also previously noted). Hardly any time is wasted; only one track exceeds five minutes and most clock in at considerably less. There is no escaping the feeling that the Stones, contrary to all other reports, knew exactly what they were doing, even if that meant being the Stones better and longer than anybody else.

And that was perhaps their point. Is Exile really the white Riot? A caged crawl along an imaginary window ledge, wondering whether any of it, the fame, the money, has been worth anything, whether it was all an illusion, a schemata to keep the real world out and away from gurgling, self-consuming faces? Sonically there isn’t the uncommon fusing of weightlessness and heaviness that we get through Sly’s most tortured and torturing fifty minutes; Exile is the Stones assessing everything they’d learned in the preceding decade, bottling it up and gushing it out with a oneness (add the “l” for “loneness” if you’re so inclined) that was only theirs.

Is it their best album? Certainly it is their only album, and one of only a very few albums, about which this tale will have to write twice; and yet, outside Stones cognoscenti, who knows more than (if they’re lucky) three or four tracks on it at the most? The definitive portrait of the Stones as a working rock group from which its rhythm section is absent for about half the record. The contradictions are enough to crucify the unwary.

There’s “Rocks Off” for a start, and in my days of compiling tapes for friends to introduce them to a certain strand of rock I would always kick off Side A with this and follow it up with the New York Dolls’ “Personality Crisis.” The rock is treble-heavy, and Jagger’s voice swoons and croaks around the song’s fibres (“Your mouth don’t move but I can hear you speak”). He’s lost, can only escape from the pirouetting come rush by dreaming; the city, the world, overwhelms him (“Headed for the overload/Splattered on the dusty road”), and he wishes to be kicked until he can feel pain no more – Keats checks in on Lou Reed’s credit card. Jim Price’s horns shake and shine like the Brotherhood of Breath, Charlie Watts disintegrates the song in its closing moments, subdividing the beat into Tony Williams fractions (though using the snare rather than the ride cymbal).

Maybe there’s a little too much eagerness here to not be construed as forced. “Rip This Joint” is the most furious rock and roll song that could be heard in 1972, so fast and unforgiving that its spits at Pat and Dick, at Alabama and Little Rock, are liable to whizz past the ears too readily (“WAOW YEAHH!!” Jagger exclaims at strategic points). Its pounding is a desperate one; tear those nails out of the coffin that Don McLean built (Bobby Keyes’ tenor is the definition of “ripping”). Yeah, they seem to say, you think we’re finished, you lousy little pseudo-poets? Not for the last time on this record, I think of what might have happened if Funhouse had gone triple platinum and Iggy had decided to go for the stadiums.

And then there’s “Shake Your Hips,” a shake-up of a Slim Harpo song from the time of Aftermath; Jagger does bad, bad things with his echoing purrs, almost willing his prey to be a robot, betraying things about the story of R&B that maybe 1972 R&B wanted to forget; even the knitting needle percussion is sexy, the tenor/bass creaking bedhead unison an invitation to slur up instructions, the whole crawling down to our level, wanting a word in our ear; the fuckness brilliance of not hiding or cleaning up desire. The Stones were still prepared to podie their pants in ’72; the song is almost like a prĂ©cis of Meltzer’s Gulcher, while mentioning nothing about American football or supermarket prices.

It continues; “Casino Boogie” settles down to accommodate Mick Taylor’s old bluesbreaking ways while it sings about the lights going out, trapdoors vaporising to accommodate the noose, “grotesque music, million dollar sad”, and “Tumbling Dice” (the single, and the one song on Exile that “most people” know) which is just another of Jagger’s love ‘em but why they’re all cheating fucks anyway self-immolating laments which never quite frees itself from its own maze of structural and emotional locks.

If side one of Exile rocks, like the Pequod, then side two is where Exile reaches its lowest depths – and I mean “deep” as in “profound.” Did long-term French villa visitor Gram Parsons play on this sequence? Who can remember (he’s not listed on the credits), but I can’t imagine the spiritualised grace of the sequence being conceived without his influence. “Sweet Virginia” – pretty much about as extreme a difference 1972 could muster from, say, “Virginia Plain” – is a campfire singalong with acoustic guitars, barrelhouse piano, tenor sax, drums and Jagger’s harmonica, all slightly out of step with each other; it is akin to Christian Wolff tackling Folkways. Eventually there’s an emphatic on-beat, there are handclaps, Jagger’s “yeooowwww” on the final chorus being as peaceful and orgasmic a resolution as Molly Bloom’s. “Got to scrape that shit right off your shoes” indeed. “Torn And Frayed” is better still; listen to the way in which the harmonies dissolve into Jim Price’s organ, which hovers in the middle distance, underscored by Al Perkins’ steel guitar, slightly deviated by Nicky Hopkins’ piano, which appears to reach back into 1967 and “We Love You.” But then Keith Richards slides in with an elegant shrug for his brief solo, Jagger suppresses something resembling rage in the “way” of his “steal your heart a-way” before the song moves into Staxville for the fade, Steve Cropper licks and all; it’s impossible to not be touched by the simple belief in their work, as the Rolling Stones, which underpins the song; sure, the admin and the business might be shit most of the time, the drugs will never work, but come back to that guitar and that ripped coat you’ve had since you were nicking neighbours’ milk bottles in Edith Grove. “Sweet Black Angel” was for Angela Davis, with Richard Washington (billed as “Amyl Nitrate”) on marimbas, Jimmy Miller on distant clip-clop Tonto drums, a genteel acoustic shuffle with a purely rhythmic harmonica. The “judge” lines are delivered staccato, like Archie Shepp re-orchestrating Gilbert and Sullivan.

But finally it’s back to love and simple happiness; “Loving Cup” sums up the questing mood of its side with a clarity and truthfulness which are extremely moving. The gospel piano intro gives way to Miller’s dramatic drum entry, and we reach the nub, the core, of Exile; for maybe the first and last time on a Stones record, the revolution comes in the phrase “What a beautiful world.” Redemption, the uplifting of the uprising; we are here and we are fucked but fuck it we are happy and you can’t kill us. Jagger gasps a parched scream, horns blast their way in with ambiguous harmonies, and the mood changes, slowly and subtly, from the spiritual to the carnal (it is the sexual-religious equivalent of the near-unnoticeable transition from West to East that marks the Beach Boys’ “Cabinessence”). So low down are these Stones, yet so high up are they also; they have never sounded so much of either than here.

Did someone mention “Happy”? The second track that some people are most likely to know from Exile, and doesn’t Keith’s voice come across like Neil Young? Horns are strident, Taylor’s guitar rebounds like a safe house pinball machine. “Keep on dancing!” he exclaims as he aims for absurd high notes – and keeps getting them. “Turd On The Run” rolls, so to speak, but Jagger’s momentarily cornered; realising that it might all be for nothing, but where Keith can happily shrug off Lear jets, Jagger obsesses about diamond rings, Vaseline and disease, about throwing the bastard to the sharks, and is he singing to himself? “Ventilator Blues” is driven by sinisterly low-pitched bass, piano and drums, and even more unsettlingly settles for a refrain of “What’cha gonna do about it?” against Richards’ worrying guitar and Hopkins’ grave piano; a recall, conscious or unconscious, of the first hit by the Small Faces (“Don’t forget it!”). This leads without a break into the uncanny “I Just Want To See His Face” in which the Stones, essentially, do John Coltrane. It’s all there; the damaged veins of spiritualism, Miller making like Elvin with his drum accents, Richards’ quivering electric piano, the ghosts of 1964 Impulse! and Blue Note making themselves felt (and simultaneously getting ready for trip hop), the two basses (Bill Plummer on acoustic, Taylor on electric). “It’s all right!” strikes an unexpected Elvis – oh, come on, Crudup – gong.

Spiritual? “Let It Loose” could almost be the Stones’ condensed All Things Must Pass with its slow, Leslie cabinetted guitar, its “Dear Prudence” descents, its hymnal piano; the mood is Harrison and/or Clapton, the search perhaps truer. There ensues a brilliant sunrise of horns and Jagger’s most sheerly passionate vocal on the record. Other voices – among them, Shirley Goodman, Tami Lynn and Dr John – drift in and out; the salvation becomes commensural and as the whole dissolves into an unexpected refraction of the closing moments of side one of What’s Going On?, at least one message is clear; here, with the way we are and the way things are, anybody can be a Rolling Stone. Membership – before the gates subsequently closed again - was as open as that of the Scratch Orchestra.

“All Down The Line” is generic Stones rocking, but a fine example nonetheless, given extra vivacity by Keith McDonald’s androgynous backing vocal which at times threatens to obscure Jagger altogether, and by the horns, which render bebop lines rather than straight lines. And yet, at its centre, that same Anne Boleyn Secondary School sadness: “Won’t you be my little baby for a while?” asks Jagger, over and over, as though grasping for oxygen.

And then we get back to the source of everything (here); “Stop Breaking Down” finds them back with Robert Johnson, back where they began (the sleeve’s “Trad. arr.” credit notwithstanding). And yet this is not quite the old blues; Jagger’s harmonica bleeps out Morse code, the underlying carpet of troubled funk gives a prediction of “Superstition,” although Jagger’s concern here is the personal rather than the political; he’s had it, had more than enough of cheating and stealing and phoniness. Watts rolls over Taylor’s solo, while Richards places a Concorde drone under Taylor’s bottleneck. “Shine A Light” starts a little like “Sour Suite” by the Guess Who but soon moves into unexpected “Let It Be” solemnity (and there, on cue, is Billy Preston and his keyboards). The song alters the quiet and loud; and yet, all the while, there is this weariness, an exhausted plea for the next life: “Come on up, come on up now, come on up now.” Is he thinking of jumping?

(Secret answer: “Never.”)

I’m thinking of a lot of things here, not least My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (for Robert Johnson, read Gil Scott-Heron), where Kanye summons up everything he believes he’s learned over the past decade and lets it leak out over a marathon of self-loathing and occasional life-denying (is it a “masterpiece”? Scrambled-up anti-reportage might be closer), since Exile - or, at least, this version of it – concludes with “Soul Survivor,” the record’s most ostensibly “Rolling Stones” track, with a tiger of a riff which appears to have leapt straight out of the “Gimme Shelter” cage (and the riff then mutates into a predication of Elton John’s “The Bitch Is Back”), but continually rising and rising until revolution, and not just of the record, seems more than a distinct probability, even if it comprises revolt against the self (“You’re gonna be the death of me!”), and again, that urge to chase the whale; “I’ll stowaway at sea/You make me mutiny.” The Stones, running away, or being driven, from their home (by the Inland Revenue), holing up at an old Nazi compound with neither food nor heating, and yet theirs is the most conspicuous and gaudy display on anybody’s Main Street. But theirs, in 1972, was maybe still the most unique; the word “concentrated” springs to mind, as if the Stones bunkered down and put everything they knew into its purest use, being the purest they could ever hope to be. And the purity paralleled their peak; where were the Beatles in 1972, where was anybody? Perhaps I can answer that question further as this tale is about to devolve into records by “everybody” and nobody in particular. But here we still are, the Stones say, still untouchable, unreachable, at the top of the mountain and we can’t get down but the loneliness – as in, who else is up here with us? - is also our oxygen. Keep those tears hid out of sight, since you down there at the bottom, all those freaks and antiques on Robert Frank's covers, all you Vietnam mourners, all you juke joint Coke-dippers; you are our mirrors. Look at that title again; not "Street," but "St." Saints? Why not? Everyone needs sympathy.

4 comments:

david said...

Ah, the Kanye album. It starts so strongly and finishes brilliantly, but loses me somewhere in the middle. I'm hardly a Stones fanatic but this is an album I know very well indeed. There's so much of it you're less likely to get sick of it than you are with LIB etc (an advantage of the double album). Most people born before 1960 will be particularly familiar with the songs that were on the free sampler given with the NME (bookended by the improvised 'Exile Main St Blues'). My copy has long since vanished but, if memory serves, the tracks featured were T Dice, Happy, Shine A Light & All Down The Line. Btw, this is an album you have to hear on vinyl - all of the cd versions (including the latest compressed atrocity) sound shite.

Marcello Carlin said...

Ah yes, the NME freebie; slightly before my music paper-buying time (my first NME was in '74 with the free Python flexi). My vinyl original is back up home in Scotland and alas it is unwise to venture up there this Christmas so I had to rely on the CD bah pah and indeed gah.

Robin Carmody said...

A very fine piece; reading it, like listening to the album, can be a great moment of burning out residual Stalinism (those who once accused me of that weren't wholly wrong). One related piece that always sticks in my mind is Peter Shapiro's assessment in the 'Rough Guide to Rock', which very much works on the (unstated, but implicitly so) political wish that they had just stopped there (although I like their sub-psych excursions more than he does).

The change from this to the next number one album is one of the most symbolic transitions TPL will ever see, I think; as if one world has gone as far as it can go, and now here comes pure commerce.

David Ellis said...

A masterpiece of an album and a masterpiece of a review. Thank you Marcello.