For an album that received such a lukewarm-at-best reception upon its initial release (even the almighty Rolling Stone magazine used the words “overdone blues cliché” whilst making snide comparisons to Tommy James), the lone double-studio album produced by The Rolling Stones has certainly enjoyed a critical reappraisal (and then some) over the ensuing 38 years.
Why, even Mick Jagger, who in ’72 complained, “This new album is … mad. It’s very rock ‘n’ roll. I didn’t want it to be like that. I mean, I’m very bored with rock ‘n’ roll,” today insists the recording of Exile on Main St. “was a wonderful period; a very creative period.”
And of course Rolling Stone now places those very same blues clichés near the tip-top of most every Greatest Album of All Time list it regularly publishes.
Now, come 2010, the (in)famous Exile has been fully refurbished, restruck, and reconstituted through and through by a crack crew of audio surgeons headed by honorary Glimmer Twin Don Was, digitally polished to an immaculate sheen, “correcting” the original soupy subterranean mixes (“The cymbals sound like dustbin lids” Jagger again complained as “Tumbling Dice” was first being readied for release) so as not to have the album stand as too sore a sonic thumb alongside Lady Gaga and Justin Bieber, I suppose. Personally, I much prefer dustbins to “Just Dance” … but I digress.
Meanwhile, as part of this gala Exile resurrection comes an accompanying behind-the-scenes documentary film, Stones in Exile, which was released in late June on DVD (and contains an hour-plus of bonus footage not seen in the TV broadcast version). The documentary gathers together all five early ’70s Stones within a wealth of vintage studio (meaning the basement of Keith Richards’ villa on the French Riviera, where most of the album’s basic tracks were recorded) and onstage footage (via the post-Exile tour film Ladies and Gentlemen… The Rolling Stones, which itself is due for re-release later this year). Why, even snippets from the beyond-cult 1972 road-film-from-hell Cocksucker Blues are cunningly slipped between shots of various waterskiing and overdubbing Brits-in-, yes, exile.
Not so surprisingly, however, some subjects (such as the rampant drug use which eventually resulted in Richards’ total submission to heroin) are only delicately alluded to, whilst other key players in the scenario — houseguest Gram Parsons, most obviously, who schooled Richards especially in nuances of the country blues which permeate the entire Exile album — are ignored altogether. Plus, the Stones in Exile bonus footage could have been much better filled with, say, a complete study of the original, highly innovative Main St. record cover shoot by Cocksucker director Robert Frank, as opposed to rambling heads the likes of Caleb Followill and Sheryl Crow.
Still, the contemporary footage of Jagger and the immaculate-as-ever Charlie Watts wandering around Olympic recording studios and Jagger’s former Stargroves estate – sites of the initial Exile sessions – are both fascinating and entertaining. Of course, Richards appears throughout the proceedings in ghostly, stark black-and-white, the multitude struggles of ’72 still etched deep into his face, whilst good ol’ Bill Wyman remains ever the Stone Alone with the most revealing, reproachful, yet detailed reminisces of the bunch (a man still upset, it seems, at not being able to locate a proper brew of British tea in the south of France, for example).
So while I may indeed have my doubts over the, um, validity of a vintage-2010 Exile on Main St. album per se, this Stones in Exile film, far on the other hand, is a perfectly under-polished production that more than succeeds in placing one square down the very depths of Richards’ basement during the festering summer of ’71 … yes, with all the horror and gorgeous excess, not to mention utterly magnificent, guttural music such a locale entails.
And somehow, still, continues to inspire.
— Musician/writer Gary Pig Gold is the co-founder of the To M’Lou Music label.