They’ve been called “the greatest rock band in the world” for more than 40 years. Pretty forthcoming statement given their illustrious career continually expands into a new decade. To sum up every album and its significance to rock ‘n’ roll, and cultural impacts, would be like going through an encyclopedia. We’ve previously covered the Sticky Fingers record and its paramount placement in our world. Here, we’re yet again focusing on another major feature in the Stones’ catalog of excellence. This time, on one of the greatest follow-ups to ever be released. Exile on Main St. takes it 50th turn around the sun with pride as its statement-like tracks have aged like wine.
“Since I’ve left England, I’ve had this thing I’ve wanted to do.”, says Mick Jagger, “I’m not against rock ‘n’ roll, but I really want to experiment. The new album’s very rock ‘n’ roll and it’s good.” But Jagger’s sentimental love of his new “experiment” wouldn’t be as well received by others. At the apex of their creativity, Jagger, Richards and company were all deemed as generational talents with their escalation of classic rock. As the experimenter of the group, though, Jagger became bored with rehashing the same guitar-driven tracks that made them one of the most popular bands of the 1960s. Now approaching a new decade, the Stones decided to go with a direction that Jagger would describe as “mad”. To find out just how “mad” we’re talking about, you’d have to unravel 18 tracks of complex dissonance that psychiatrists would sweat on analyzing.
Addiction, gambling, violence and debauchery compartmentalize a double album extravaganza. Lyrically, the legendary team of Jagger and Richards explored the dark complexity of hedonism that had been touched on previous works. The weariness of these “dark, dense jams” edifies the albums’ hit singles including, “Tumbling Dice”. As a forerunner of the album, “Tumbling Dice” is credited for bridging the groove of 50s rock into what “modern” rock could become. Retrospective reviews of the track encompassed praises for its ingenious, erratic tempo and the irregularity of lyrics that Jagger had created from fillers of previous works. Along with high regards from envious peers that included Aerosmith and The Clash, the single became a top 10 hit internationally. But commercial performance didn’t always equal appreciation from critics. The sprawling that took over the album would be felt by fans alike who voiced a similar opinion with publicized writers.
The arrangement of each track reflected the intracity of every lyric that unraveled a hard rock sound that few would appreciate at the time. Jagger’s vocals were noticeably underpinned and driven out by the mix with listeners being perplexed. Among the series of melancholic tones with horn and string instruments, Richards bounces off impressive licks with Mick Taylor’s solos. The opening track, “Rocks Off”, sets one of the most forefront of moods for an album when discussing intravenous drug use. Distorted psychedelia from the in and out fades of guitar and vocals create the hazy dive into addiction. This maddening blend features a raw and unhinged riff that Richards slashes through into a euphoric blissful end. But its subject matter and blazing musicality was only compounded by Richards’ own addiction with heroin. While its intoxicating draw accoladed the start of a monumental piece of art, fans weren’t ready for a progressive change in the bands’ music.
The disoriented style of the music was on par with the album’s vivid album cover which depicted variations of the themes expressed within. But was it too much too soon for an audience who adored the rootsy classics and swing style of rock The Stones produced up until then? If you asked Rolling Stone critic Lenny Kaye in 1972, he’d affirm it had been. He wouldn’t be the first or the last to call in to question how the Stones inconsistency with the qualities of the songs. All the while being plagued by an underlying cynicism for every track. But by the late 1970s, critics began singing a new tune on their reappraisal of the album. The misunderstood dark setting in the record revel the Stones harnessing blues, gospel and country into their repertoire. They were no longer trying to imitate or recreate the styles. They were making it their own. With these reassessments, Exile on Main St. was then written down as the best released work by the Stones. Period. The new affirmations from critics and relistening to these tracks led fans to resonate with the material and jam out to “Happy” all night long.
It’s so easy to reminisce and talk about the days when classic rock brought out the “free love” and bliss everyone evoked. But the world changes. So does music. The remarkable change into the underbelly of how rock can be personified led a group into another level of epic writing. But the 50th anniversary of Exile on Main St. doesn’t just recognize how it was a landmark work for the Stones. It doesn’t even solely recognize how paramount it was for ascending rock into a new tier. It stands as an essential piece for all of music on how to break the norm and “shine a light” on what would be the new standard for a new generation of writers.
Written by Trenton Luber