Exile on Main Street -- released in May 1972 -- is as close to a perfect rock album as there is. There are a couple of songs that one might regard as filler, but within the context and atmosphere of the album, they fit quite well.
One thing about Exile that I wish I didn't know is that less than half of it was written at Keith Richard's villa in the south of France. Many songs were written and initially recorded as much as three years earlier (the band played Loving Cup at Hyde Park in July 1969 two days after Brian Jones's death). Wikipedia states that all lead and backing vocals (and much more) were recorded in Los Angeles in early 1972. Sigh -- so much for the romantic notion of the band banging out the album in Villefranche-sur-Mer during the summer of 1971.
Still, it's an amazing album. But what would it have looked like if it had been merely a single record? Exile's 18 songs are divided up 5-4-5-4 on the four sides of vinyl. My choice for a single LP is also 5-4, although one could cheat and include 5 songs per side.
AThe time of that album is a mere 37:22, so let's slot Ventilator Blues after Let It Loose.
Torn and Frayed
Shine A Light
All Down The Line
Let It Loose
Back in June 1992 -- for Exile's 20th anniversary -- I published the following article in Request magazine (this summer, Exile turns 35!?!):
In the summer of 1971, the Rolling Stones squeezed into the cramped, humid cellar of Keith Richards' villa in the south of France. Legend has it they hot-wired electricity from the French railway system. When they emerged, the Stones had recorded the 18 songs that make up one of rock 'n' roll's greatest albums: Exile on Main Street. Released on May 12, 1972, Exile on Main Street celebrates its 20th anniversary this year.
The Stones were at the peak of their genius in the early '70s. Their last four albums -- Beggar's Banquet, Let It Bleed, Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out!, and Sticky Fingers -- and their well-publicized hedonism had made them the reigning bad boys of rock. Fleeing England as tax exiles, the Stones were the ultimate outlaws celebrities, and they had the coke spoons and press clippings to prove it.
Recording in a basement may have given producer Jimmy Miller fits, but it gave Exile on Main Street its unique sound, a chaotic mix of rough rhythms and defiance. The Stones' other albums, no matter how great, are mere collections of songs. Exile on Main Street charges forward as a whole: raw, decadent, violent. Mick Jagger, his vocals barely afloat within the murky wash of sound, explores themes of impotence, boredom, frustration, and death. In these often indecipherable lyrics, satisfaction isn't an issue.
This cornerstone of rock 'n' roll was widely panned when it was released; some writers bemoaned "the end of the Stones." Iconoclastic critic Lester Bangs referred to Exile on Main Street as "meaningless" and "emotionally sterile"; six months later, he apologized in print, apparently having seen the light.
These days, every rock band with an earthy, ramshackle sound owes a debt to Exile on Main Street. For years, lazy critics have leaned on the album as a reference point, comparing almost any band that retains a little grit in the mix -- U2, Tom Petty, the Replacements, Green on Red -- to Exile on Main Street. Of course, its unkempt raunch has also spawned one-trick ponies like the Georgia Satellites and the Black Crowes; Aerosmith and Guns N' Roses wouldn't exist without it. Back in 1986, New York's Pussy Galore, after hearing a rumor that Sonic Youth was covering the Beatles' "white album," banged out a cover version of Exile on Main Street in three days. The resulting incoherent, screeching mess can only be termed affectionate.
"When I was a junkie," Richards once said, "I learned to ski and I made Exile on Main Street." It's tough to imagine Richards on the slopes, especially when he was skeleton-thin and had black teeth. But his assorted addictions during the Stones' glory years is proof that drugs don't always hinder the creative process.
Three years ago, critics made a big fuss about the 20th anniversary of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Exile on Main Street most likely won't be getting the same treatment, which is a damn shame. It's a better album and a lot more fun to listen to. Twenty years down the road, Exile on Main Street has yet to be equaled.