jump to navigation

This Weekend I will mostly be listening to…Exile on Main Street. October 3, 2020

Posted by guestposter in This Weekend I'll Mostly Be Listening to....
trackback

A very welcome guest post from SonofStan…

The Rolling Stones. You’ve probably heard of them, and this one is usually considered their best record (though it wasn’t universally well received on release). So what is there to say about it?

All I can offer is that I was provoked: in a piece in this slot back in April, IEL talked about the Doors and in the comments WbS suggested that the Doors were ‘vastly better than the Stones’. Now my view of the Doors is much like Churchill on liberalism: anyone who doesn’t like the Doors when they’re 20 has no heart and anyone who still likes them when they’re 30 … maybe stop there. Some of you will be aware that I’ve been researching how we arrive at our judgements of taste around music and one of the things I’m interested in the way we build up a personal canon, a sense of what’s important. And for some – me, for example – this looks a bit like a mental league table, or at least a categorisation of artists and records according to some criteria, often obscure, certainly influenced by others, but internalised as ones ‘own’ taste. And in my table, the Stones are infinitely more significant than the Doors.

Funny thing is, a year ago, I probably would have been annoyed about the comment, but no more: but, over the past months, I’ve become obsessed with this record, and a few other Stones songs to an extent that I find perplexing. Either I’ve finally succumbed to the lure of classic rock and am about to become one of those guys who goes on about ‘real music’ in YouTube comments, or ….well actually I don’t have an ‘or’.

It started, I think, with Knives Out, an entertaining piece of hokum with Daniel Craig doing the worst Brit version of a southern accent since, well probably Mick Jagger. The credits played out over “Sweet Virginia” and next day at work, I played it on YouTube. Then I followed it up with “Rocks Off”, and everything changed. It’s a song I’ve known for over 40 years, but it hit me like a ton of freshly moulded bricks. The mysteries of the song are many: here is a singer whose persona is usually one of often offensive sexual bragging singing about impotence and doubt, about being unable to keep (it) up, both literally and figuratively, being out of step, haunted by voices on the street. The desperation of the voice, the way it comes in and out of focus, de-centred, fighting the guitars and horns for attention, the defeat in the midst of the exuberant riffing and extraordinary drumming, is transfigurative.

Once I got past “Rocks Off”, 50 plays later, I cued up the rest of the record on the tube. Then I went out and bought the CD and played it to death in the office for a few weeks. This was better, but still not quite the ideal form of the record I remembered. Back in Dublin, I dug out the album on vinyl, and found myself doing something I’d barely done since my teens: listening to a whole double album through on headphones, in order, and over and over.

There are a few things everyone knows about Exile. It was recorded in the south of France, in a chateau rented by Keith Richards, the logic being than he couldn’t be habitually late for recording if it was happening in his own house. The sessions were – it is generally believed – a nightmare world of drugs, debauchery, and cruelty, in a basement with no air con. There were limits though: Gram Parsons was sent away as a bad influence. It’s Keith’s favourite Stones record, but not Mick’s and it’s easy enough to see and hear why. Nevertheless, no Stone, not even Keith, plays on every track. The record is as much about Bobby Keys and Jim Price on horns, Ian Stewart and Nicky Hopkins on piano, and producer Jimmy Miller on drums and percussion as it is about the band whose name is on the cover. By some alchemy though, all these disparate line ups produce a record that sound exactly like itself at every moment, and like nothing in either the rest of the Stones’ catalogue or anyone else’s. It’s also the last real Stones record: after Exile, they set out to invent stadium rock. Jagger, at any rate, understood that their future – and the future of the music industry – lay in touring, and that the marketing of the band’s ‘classic’ period would be their meal ticket as their own tribute act. There’s probably an album’s worth of decent material in the 40 years of recording that followed, but nothing to match anything on Exile – or at least nothing that sounds as simultaneously haunted and alive.

Bill Janovitz, formerly of Buffalo Tom, wrote a maddeningly inconsistent book in the 33 1/3 series about Exile: maddening, because he’s far too impressed with the legends, but useful and forensic in working out who played what on what song, and with generally good understanding of what’s going on in the peculiar sound-world of the record. Really, the drugs and sex and such are of no interest: the sound of the record is enough for a lifetime. Mick Taylor is quoted in Janovitz’ book as saying that when he joined, he couldn’t get over how bad the Stones were as musicians, but when they got it right, generally after hours or days, there were things they could do that no one else could. On Exile, most tracks have at least two rhythm guitar parts, often playing lines that, taken separately, make little harmonic or even rhythmic sense but, as they mesh, have a sense of both moving forwards and falling backwards at the same time. You can hear this most clearly on “Tumbling Dice”: the signature riff is distinctive enough, but when anyone covers it, even the Stones themselves, the lazy other rhythm part, strumming loosely through the changes like someone playing along to the record half -heard from the other room is missing, and consequently the song sounds nothing like itself. This curious ‘propulsive delay’ creates a weird sense of envelopment, sometimes claustrophobia: often, particularly on side 3, there is a feeling that you may never get out of this place. It’s a feeling familiar from say the Velvets of “Sister Ray”, or early Can, or maybe PIL, but the Stones achieve it with relatively short songs, knitted together into a whole that is more of a whole the more disparate the fragments become.

Jagger has tended to be a bit dismissive of Exile, and its status in the Stones canon and on one level, it’s not hard to see why. His voice is mixed way down on many of the songs and a lot of the lyrics are nearly indecipherable. Nevertheless, it contains some fantastic singing, and particularly great examples of Jagger’s ability to inhabit a persona. On “Rip This Joint” he does Little Richard to perfection, for example. Weirder though, and something I can’t quite explain, is what he does in the next track, “Shake Your Hips” by Slim Harpo, one of two covers on the record. On the lines “met a little girl/ in a country town/ she said ‘what do you know?/ it’s Slim Harpo” he haunts the original in quite uncanny way: to the point where the country girl’s wonder might be interpreted as wonder at Jagger’s ability to be Slim Harpo. But the whole song is also sung not as if Jagger were really an African-American blues singer, but as a performance of African-American blues singing by a virtuoso impressionist. There is sometimes a more than uncomfortable echo of blackface minstrelsy in much of Jagger’s singing, but, and this is the mystery: because he knows it, and because he doesn’t insist on the authenticity of the performance, it avoids -not all the time – appropriation. Jagger overdoes it on songs such as “Prodigal Son”, originally by the Rev. Robert Wilkins, on Beggars’ Banquet to emphasis the provisionality of his licence to sing such songs. Authenticity, as Allan Moore (not that one) writes, is always ascribed, never inscribed: no performance is intrinsically ‘authentic’. Jagger never solicits belief in any kind of ‘first person’ authenticity: we’re never supposed to think that this is a window into Mick’s innermost thoughts – in fact, the secrets of Mick’s soul have nothing to do with the Stones, one way or the other. Which may be why he can be great soul singer….

Jagger can do whiteface as well, of course: my gateway back into this mess was “Sweet Virginia” and that and “Torn and Frayed” inhabit the world of cosmic American music that the Byrds built with Sweetheart of the Rodeo and Parsons extended with the Burritos. Which is the other great mystery of the Stones at this point: how they managed to be so effortlessly American. Or maybe not so mysterious: the other great proto-Americana band of this era, the Band, were, after all, Canadians. The Stones’ journey through country music is less noted than their adventures in RnB, but you can tell there is a real love there too. There’s a great version on You Tube of “Bob Wills is Still the King”, live in Austin, where Ronnie Wood just about holds down the pedal steel part until the solo, and promptly falls to pieces. Jagger does it straight, and quite affectingly.

Anyway, it is, unarguably I think, the Stones’ greatest record, and also their last great one. A few picks and a bonus to support my ‘Jagger as a great soul singer’ contention.

Rocks Off (with visuals by Robert Franks, who did the Exile cover)

Shake your Hips

Just Want to See his Face

And a great version of “Drift Away” from the It’s Only Rock ‘n’ Roll sessions – better than anything on that record to my mind.

Comments»

1. alanmyler - October 3, 2020

Brilliant piece SoS, about an album I don’t know at all. I’ve only listened to Hot Rocks, their compilation hits album. So I’ll give this a play. I love your description of immersion in the album. This is how I listen to music too, endless repetition until I know every note. I spent a year listening to the Fall box set in the car after I think it was Donagh Brennan wrote something about them. So yes, thanks for this.

Liked by 1 person

WorldbyStorm - October 3, 2020

It is a great piece SoS. Reread it this morning and I’ll give it a spin. The thoughts about appropriation are really interesting too.

Ah, every once in a while alan I get that too, an album I’ll wear the grooves out of (not literally on a turntable) to the point where it’s second nature.

Like

6to5against - October 3, 2020

Thanks for this. I was reading about Exile in Keith Richards autobiography over the summer, which was the first time I’d really listened to it, but this has brought me back to it again.
In his book, he makes a lot of his guitar tuning, and said around then he was tuning GDGBD, leaving one string out altogether. The duplicated notes then resonate as he plays, as a sort of drone. I can’t claim to actually hear that, but maybe it’s working away in the background, adding something to the overall effect that most us can enjoy but only a few can identify.

Liked by 1 person

WorldbyStorm - October 3, 2020

Now I’m going to have to listen even more closely! 🙂

Like

sonofstan - October 3, 2020

Yes, it’s a tuning a lot of blues guys used, though usually with the bottom string left on, so it’s DGDGBD – Furry Lewis notably. It’s also, especially in the KR version, very close to banjo tuning. Open tunings are amazing for rhythm playing, as long as everything stays in the same key so you can exploit the ringing overtones.

Liked by 1 person

2. WorldbyStorm - October 3, 2020

BTW Rocks Off is a classic. Without question. And listening to it again it seems to me at least a couple of Replacement tracks rewrote it!

Just thinking SoS re your original points above, I’d not dissent that the Stones were more significant than the Doors, not least because they were in the field ahead of them, but for my own preference I’ll listen to the Doors much more often and be inclined to explore their output more if I wasn’t aware of it already. I think in part because while I’m not averse to the blues I have a greater fondness for jazz and jazz adjacent music and the Doors always had that bubbling away in the background, at least to my ears. But another thing thinking about your points re age, I liked, not loved, the Doors in my teens then went for the best part of thirty years loathing them. The whole thing around Morrison left me cold and it was only hearing Morrison Hotel and particularly Blood in the Streets perhaps ten years ago or less they clicked with me. I still find some of the schtick all but unendurable (The End I can really take or leave). But perhaps along with the jazz there’s their facility for near enough outright pop.

Whereas the Stones. Well, I’ve always been more in the Beatles camp, but something about them has never quite connected with me. Possibly the Jagger (particularly 70s/80s glittering set) mythos overwhelms my ability to treat them on the terms they should be (I have a very similar problem with Bono and Mercury). I also don’t find them quite tuneful enough sufficiently enough of the time.

And maybe there’s a sense that what came next from them? This is terrible because it links into faux-deterministic attitudes to music, that there’s progress forward (which I’m fairly certain isn’t true) and which even if I disagree with inflects my thinking on them. Their lineage seems to in a way end with them – oh sure there’s heaps of bluesy Stonesy bands and even more use of choppy Stonesy riffs and I like them and they’re great, but it almost feels like they represented an end in music rather than an opening out, … where does that strand of music go next, whereas other less lauded groups did seem to push the ball further along and pass it to another generation. Whereas I think I could make a reasonable case that the Doors had an influence on groups subsequently in other camps.

I’m 100% sure this is entirely subjective and likely wrong on my part.

Like

sonofstan - October 3, 2020

” Possibly the Jagger (particularly 70s/80s glittering set) mythos overwhelms my ability to treat them on the terms they should be (I have a very similar problem with Bono and Mercury)”

Like I sorta said, I think Keith won the battle with Exile, by making their best record his record, but then lost the war as Jagger turned them into a live behemoth and a corporate monster where the spectacle dwarfed any remaining musical ambitions. Some of this was a consequence of how they were shafted by Decca and Allen Klein. Setting up Rolling Stone Records was prescient, and the switch to the emphasis on live even more so.

Liked by 1 person

WorldbyStorm - October 3, 2020

That sounds very plausible to me re Richards/Jagger. I think the problem is and this again reminds me of U2 – who by way are not half the band the Stones are – is something akin to th3 Edges guitar sound and the early albums which were solid to great in places, everything that came later was so outsized it’s difficult to get past it. But that said you’ve got me listening to this album and really enjoying it so perhaps stuff does manage to bypass the later behemoth.

Like

sonofstan - October 3, 2020

I was going to say something about the Stones and politics inthe original piece, but couldn’t get it right: not claiming there’s anything especially radical about them, but what they don’t do is that kind of rock liberalism that U2, more than anyone, are guilty of.

Liked by 1 person

WorldbyStorm - October 3, 2020

If anything they embraced the jetset seventies / eighties thing – Princess Margaret style

Like

Michael Carley - October 3, 2020

I think Richards has a (appealing) cynicism that means they wouldn’t go for that sort of thing.

Like

sonofstan - October 3, 2020

yeah, he was savage about Jagger’s knighthood.

Liked by 1 person

alanmyler - October 3, 2020

One of these days I’m going to do a TWIBLT on U2. Would you post it if I did? Or have you ever done one on them before?

Like

WorldbyStorm - October 3, 2020

There have been ones before but no problem! It’d be interesting.

Like

Gearóid Clár - October 3, 2020

Is agree with a lot of WBS’ points above ‘re The Doors – the good and the bad – as well as the Stones aversion. A lot of Morrisons lyrics are pretty bad, but the overall sound on songs like Love Her Madly and My Eyes Have Seen You still get me going. I have to admit, a lot of my aversion to the Stones was down to teenage prejudice. The blog post was well written and I’ll be giving the album a good listen during the week.

On The Doors, I think I mentioned before that I was reading Mark Lanegan’s autobiography recently. He writes about how he hated always being compared with Morrison. I gotta say though, I went back and listened to the early Screaming Trees albums and Lanegan’s first solo album and it is pure Doors. Good stuff though.

Last point: I read Mick Wall’s bio on The Doors a few years back. His Metallica bio was interesting, so I thought I’d give it a go. The Doors one was pure hatchet job on Morrison and intensely patronising re Manzarek, it just made me wonder why bother write it. I wouldn’t expect or want a fawning bio, but this was almost like gonzo journalism. Awful stuff.

Like

WorldbyStorm - October 3, 2020

Yeah, I don’t know how I’d rate Mick Wall. Interesting the differnce between the two bios. That’s one I’ll definitely avoid now.

Yeah, Morrison was dismal in places. I think I’m the same re teenage prejudice (though I do like bands that mess around with Stones style riffs).
I’ll have to relisten to the Screaming Trees stuff. I guess now I think about it that does make sense. Which reminds me, it took years for me to cop Echo and the Bunnymen were so heavily influenced by Morrison. And the Cult too come to think of it, and of course Astbury wound up as singer for the reformed Doors in the 2000s.

Like

sonofstan - October 3, 2020

The Doors/ Stones fite is a bit of a red herring anyway: I know I jumped into it, with both feet though. The real band the Doors should be up against are Love – same scene, same label, and to my ears much more interesting.

Like

3. GearóidGaillimh - October 3, 2020

I love Sweet Virginia. I laughed at the end of Knives Out when I recognised the opening of it.

Liked by 1 person

WorldbyStorm - October 3, 2020

BTW I really like Knives Out.

Like

4. Joe - October 4, 2020

Great post SoS.
I’m another who doesn’t know this album at all. And I’m not into music the way some like SoS and Wbs and others on here are.
I like the Stones though. All their single hits of the seventies were great. And I had a double album of their stuff from the sixties and seventies on vinyl that I really liked. Where is it now and have we a record player that actually works?

Interesting idea – researching how we arrive at our judgements of taste around music. For blokes, it all starts in our pre-teen and early teen years doesn’t it? You pick your football team and your music/bands. And there has to be a lot of randomness about that … you pick Liverpool because your best friend does too or because your best friend has picked ManU. You like T Rex because your brother does. You diss heavy metal because it’s for middle class boys (You’re middle class yourself but you’re a wannabe prole…). That’s how it starts anyway.
Another thing is boys like lists … lists of things they like/things that are good and lists of things that are crap. I still love looking through and analysing the English football league tables and results (reminds me, must buy the Sindo).

The Stones though SoS. I’ll always remember the OCS dances where we’d all be dancing politely through the DJs set and then the climax of the night was when he played Satisfaction. And the circles would form and the coolest or hardest lads would be in the middle strutting their best Jagger. A great record.

And playing favourite albums … I got into Springsteen when I was 16ish. My older brother had discovered Born to Run after a student summer in Holland. That record and The Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle and the two Joan Armatrading albums (the orange one and the purple one) saved my life in first year in college. I didn’t manage first year in Belfield well at all but I’d come home to the sitting room and have it all to myself with those records as I did a bit of study.
That house with that sitting room has just been sold and these last few weeks I’ve had the Wild, the Innocent and the E Street Shuffle on the cd player in the car nonstop.

So I’ll have to get a hold of a cd of Exile on Main Street now. And try to get into it. Sadly I’ll never get it or get into it now at sixty like I would have at sixteen.

Liked by 1 person


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: