Released May 1972
by Madeline Bocaro
© Madeline Bocaro, 2022. No part of this site may be reproduced or re-blogged in whole or in part, in any manner without permission of the copyright owner.
I am on an Exile binge this year, on its 50th anniversary – rocking the album in my headphones every night during my walk. Tonight, during my ecstasy, a cat crossed my path. I pitied the poor creature for not having the pleasure of enjoying this masterpiece in its lifetime, and for not even knowing what it’s missing. I am so happy that I am not a cat!
When Exile on Main St. was released in 1972, I was thirteen. The creepy album cover freaked me out, before learning what it was. This was the follow-up to Warhol’s amazing Sticky Fingers zipper album art. It is a photograph by another great artist, Robert Frank. (Frank also directed the Stones’ unreleased documentary film of their 1972 tour Cocksucker Blues).
The photo titled Tattoo Parlor, 8th Avenue (a collage of circus side-show freaks) was shot by the late, great Robert Frank in 1958. It’s an outtake from his book The Americans. One of the featured photos in the composite (of Congo the Jungle Creep) was taken by the legendary Diane Arbus. The freakiest one is Three Ball Charlie who out-does a chipmunk by fitting three balls of various sizes in his wide mouth!
I also didn’t realize the album title’s significance until later – you can’t really hide in exile in the “main street” of a town. The photos of the band are ironically taken in the seedy Main St. section of Los Angeles, an unusual place for rich tax exiles to be seen. (The Stones album title Beggar’s Banquet was another strange pun. Beggars don’t usually get invited to a banquet, to which they must R.S.V.P.).
Reluctantly leaving their beloved home in England (for tax reasons – hence, the title Exile…) the Stones became outsiders more than ever before – not unlike the outcasts on their album cover. Although they were the hottest band in the world, they were not logistically able to live normally, or within society at all. Of course, being The Rolling Stones, they took this situation to an extreme.
Most ironically, these wealthy tax exiles recorded their double album in depravity and squalor in the basement of the magnificent decaying waterfront mansion Nellcôte, which Keith rented in the south of France. Their only extravagant expense was on drugs. It was an endless all-day/all-night party of heroin, friends, women, children, strangers and criminals. Unpaid drug dealers eventually stole the band’s instruments and ratted them out to the authorities, hence another exile – from France.
Photos: Norman Seeff
In this cauldron of chaos, the band created their own down-home southern swamp, which imbued the music with something extremely seductive and magical.
The shambolic, yet cohesive result was a ragged swagger of blues, gospel, country, soul and rock n’ roll – all extremely tight, yet seemingly falling apart. (Allegedly, the Beatles’ album title Rubber Soul was an extension of their mocking moniker for the Stones, “Plastic Soul.” This was supposedly the way black musicians referred to Mick Jagger). However, there is nothing plastic about Exile. It all sounds raunchy and free – true anarchy. It’s amazing that they got one album out of this sordid situation, let alone a double disc with so many miraculous moments. It was a chance for us to hear gritty music without a bearded guy wearing a cowboy regalia singing it. Instead, we got the grungy glamour of Jagger singing in an American southern accent, and the heroin chic of Keith! As much as Jagger tried to be authentic in his words and phrasing, Mick, Keith and all the musicians (at times swapping instruments) created an entirely unique twist on several familiar genres, with a magical glimmer lighting up the darkness.
There were frequent absences by various band members, both mentally and physically. Mick (who was now married to Bianca), Charlie and Bill commuted each day from their homes to Nellcôte. Keith (living at the mansion with Anita Pallenberg) didn’t make it downstairs to many sessions due to his dates with heroin – yet despite all of this, a double album ensued. This was not unlike the intermittent absences to the studio by the Beatles, and the fractured recording of their double (white) album in 1968. It’s amazing that both bands produced so much impactful material out of their most disorganized recording sessions.
Photos: Norman Seeff
Recording began at Mick’s home in England, Stargroves and at Olympic Studios in 1969. Nine songs were completed in the basement of Nellcôte. The album was produced by Jimmy Miller from America (who played drums and more on some of the tracks when band members were absent). It was mixed in L.A. in July 1971, mostly by Jagger, who in hindsight thinks it sounds “lousy” although it has a “particular feeling.” At the time, Mick felt that it was his responsibility to finish the record himself, rather than have it done by “drunks and junkies.” Public reaction (as with all true masterpieces) was general disdain. Over the years, closed minds opened to finally realize its glory.
In a 2010 documentary about the album called Stones in Exile,
Mick Taylor and Keith Richards acknowledged its greatness…
“It’s just acquired a kind of magical glow, probably because of the way it was recorded – the rawness of it, the edginess of it…”
– Mick Taylor
“I always thought in the back of my mind that what we were doing wasn’t just for now. You’re sort of making the record even when you’re asleep, so I was dreaming the damn thing.”
– Keith Richards
‘Let It Loose’ is my favorite Stones song ever. It is luminous! Jagger says that it doesn’t really mean anything. Still, it is evocative and gorgeous. When the horns kick in, it becomes a sort of weird shimmering mariachi gospel. Theoretically, this should sound ridiculous, but it’s sublime! A couple of lines are taken from an American folk standard, ‘Man of Constant Sorrow’ (“Maybe your friends think I’m just a stranger. Some face I’ll never see no more.”)
“I think Keith wrote that, actually. That’s a very weird, difficult song. I had a whole other set of lyrics, but they got lost by the wayside. I don’t think that song has any semblance of meaning. It’s one of those rambling songs. I didn’t really understand what it was about, after the event.”
– Mick Jagger, Uncut 2010
Exile is extremely eclectic. Although they are great, the two hit singles (‘Happy’ and ‘Tumbling Dice’) are not the best songs on the album by far. Mick had anticipated the driving ‘All Down the Line’ to be the first single. It was the first song to be completed, as it was being worked on since in 1969. There are the glorious tracks ‘Rocks Off,’ and the Robert Johnson cover ‘Stop Breakin’ Down.’ We have several spine-chilling tracks imbued with darkness and sorcery ( ‘I Just Want to See His Face’ and Slim Harpo’s ‘Shake Your Hips’). Their future album title, Voodoo Lounge would have been more fitting for this collection of possessed tracks. I love how ‘Ventilator Blues’ sounds like a slow, mean version of the Beatles’ ‘Come Together.’ Mick even sings, “When your spine is cracking…” (echoing “spinal cracker”).
It’s incredible that The Stones are so fluid and tight throughout, despite the druggy haze of the recording sessions. We have the methodical meanderings of Mick Taylor on guitar. The overall elegance is in the horns of Bobby Keys and Jim Price!!
Watch a great documentary about Bobby Keys: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uy_PVlSSr5g
‘Loving Cup’ is simply stunning. How did these English boys come up with, “I’m the man on the mountain, come on up / I’m the ploughman in the valley with a face full of mud…” It’s amazing that this song was three years old by the time it was recorded for Exile. It was performed live at Hyde Park on July 5, 1969, two days after the death of Brian Jones with the debut of Mick Taylor on guitar, when it was still titled ‘Give Me a Little Drink.’
At Hyde Park, Jagger wore a flowing short white dress by Mr. Fish (the same designer who made Bowie’s long dress worn on the cover of his album The Man Who Sold the World). Jagger’s dress (quite possibly the first rock ‘n’roll puffy shirt) had been allegedly designed for Sammy Davis Jr. How fortunate for history’s sake that Sammy decided against it, because it looked wonderful when coordinated with the white butterflies, which Mick released after reading a Shelley poem in honor of Brian!
Watch: ‘Loving Cup’ – Montreux 1972 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a7zqFo7SX7s
I love when Jagger tries to sing like a hillbilly! ‘Turd on the Run’ is an outright hoedown. We almost expect Tennessee Ernie Ford to appear at any moment. ‘Torn and Frayed’ is the blueprint for ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ released in June 1974 by American southern rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd (on their second album), who oddly enough were so inspired by these English boys’ authenticity, that they stole their riff!
Billy Preston brings his golden gospel keyboards on the overdubs to ‘Shine a Light,’ a beautiful song about Brian Jones, following the dark circumstances surrounding his exit from the band and from this earth. Jagger calls him “My sweet honey love.”
There are songs about two sweet girls. Jagger also calls ‘Sweet Virginia’ “honey child” in this album highlight – a muddy, bluesy tune with an unconventional line (in reference to drug trafficking) for a country song, “And I hid the speed inside my shoe.” This prefaces ‘Far Away Eyes’ (Some Girls, 1978). The title references the Mamie Smith recording ‘Sweet Virginia Blues.’ According to Keith, it was held over from Sticky Fingers. ‘Sweet Black Angel’ is a tribute to activist Angela Davis. John Lennon and Yoko Ono included a song (‘Angela’) about her on their 1972 album Some Time in New York City.
Angela Davis is an American counterculture activist, feminist and was Black Panther party member. She was a philosophy professor at UCLA. Angela was jailed in 1970 facing murder charges involving guns that she owned. She was acquitted of all charges in June. Prior to her arrest in 1970, Davis was the third woman ever to be listed on the FBI’s Most Wanted list. Bob Dylan’s 1971 song ‘George Jackson’ is about Angela’s boyfriend, who was shot and killed by guards at San Quentin prison in August ’71 when he attempted a prison escape. This incident indirectly sparked the riots at Attica State prison. Angela continues her work today as a lecturer and activist.
Mick & Bianca supporting Angela Davis, Paris 1972
The original release of Exile on Main St. planned for May 12, 1972 was delayed for two weeks – timed to hit international markets simultaneously.
A nice CD version of Exile… is the 2010 remaster, which comes with a bonus disc including ten tracks of unreleased material and alternate versions. Two tracks are outtakes from the original sessions (an early version of ‘Tumbling Dice’ called ‘Good Time Women’ – a precursor to ‘Tumbling Dice’) and a version of ‘Soul Survivor’ with Keith singing. The alternate, slower ‘Loving Cup’ is edited from two outtakes. The first two minutes are from a take which has long been available on bootlegs. The second half is from a different take. The remaining tracks were overdubbed with new vocals, backing vocals, harmonica and some guitar. Jagger sings a completely new 2010 vocal on an outtake called ‘Following the River.’ This re-release entered the UK charts at No. 1 – thirty-eight years after it hit the same spot upon its release.
The entire Rolling Stones Records catalog was best served by the Virgin reissue CDs.
A live concert from the Exile tour is preserved on the film Ladies and Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones, directed by Robert Frank. This was released in theaters in 1974. The band is on fire.
On the Exile tour, Mick featured his slinky Ossie Clark jumpsuits (one blue and one white) a much sexier twist on the ones made by Bill Belew for Elvis. Mick’s stage-wear is less stiff and more comfortable, in a light-weight velvet velour / lycra fabric with Perspex / metal studs and transparent sequins. They are worn with a colored silk sash tied around the waist. Throughout the 1970s designer to the stars, Ossie Clark created several jumpsuits for Jagger with various sleeve lengths (also sleeveless) with deeper and deeper necklines – more like crotch lines. A white one was auctioned by Christies in 2012 for 20,000 GBP. It has a lot of wear and tear in the pelvic region. Another white jumpsuit (a spare) was given by Sir Mick Jagger to the V&A museum. Mick appeared on a LIFE magazine cover in 1972 wearing the long-sleeved white jumpsuit.
Clark also designed the red-satin lined black cape that Jagger wore onstage at Altamont in December 1969 (4 days after the arrest of the Manson Family) during ‘Sympathy For the Devil.’ According to Jagger, the ohm symbol on his t-shirt represented infinity, and not something demonic.
Designer Ossie Clark led a fascinating life, with a tragic death at a young age. There are several fascinating books about him. One of Ossie’s pieces is featured in the film Cabaret – an outfit worn by Liza Minelli as Sally Bowles during her rendition of “Maybe This Time.”
The Rolling Stones – Am I Blue?
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