‘Exile On Main Street’ Is Beautiful And Visceral – But It’s Not ‘Keith’s Album’

Unless you are currently smacked out in the salubrious confines of a French Chateau, you will by now surely have noticed that The Rolling Stones’ ‘Exile On Main Street’ is being given the full reissue treatment.
It comes out today, in fact, housed in the customarily lavish box/suitcase/tower block. Look at the size of the fucking thing!

This alone is probably good news for people who fetishise rock and roll albums like they were stamps. But for people who occasionally leave the house, this is not what has made the reissue of ‘Exile…’ such a joy. After all, barely a week goes by without some classic album or other being sold back to the public in some fancy new packaging. No, what has made the lead up to this release vastly more exciting and entertaining than that of yer standard album reissue is the fact there is such a great, ongoing story to it, complete with publicly anointed hero, villain, and fabulous supporting cast.

In the last few weeks, you will have doubtless read the tale about 1,273,912 times elsewhere, so to summarize, briefly: despite everyone in the world now having come round to the belief that ‘Exile On Main Street’ is the quintessential Stones album, Mick, the villain, supposedly thinks it’s a pile of dogshit. Hated making it. Hated not being in control, hated Keith, the hero, being in charge in Keith’s house with a succession of smacked out Keith-mates (the fabulous supporting cast, including particular Mick-riler Gram Parsons) passing through the doors.

Keith, meanwhile, has supposedly always thought it’s amazing for all the same reasons. This is all vastly exaggerated bullshit, of course, but it’s a script that has ultimately led to the now-accepted view of the Jagger/Richards partnership. A widely recognised fact in music magazine publishing is that if you put Mick on the cover, you don’t sell any issues. Put Keith on the cover, however, and you shift shitloads. Go to your local newsagent and have a look on the shelves right now if you don’t believe me.

This is because the great rock-periodical-buying public have decided that the latter is the shambling, unregimented true spirit of rock’n’ roll personified, while the former is a loathsome accountant who is partial to doing the funky chicken only if the money is right. Or as Keith put it more succinctly, in a recent interview with the Observer: “Mick’s rock. I’m roll.”

Adding more alleged credence to this view are the ten extra tracks on the ‘Exile…’ reissue, some of which Mick has added new vocals to. Now the simple fact is that these songs didn’t have vocals on them before, but many still see this as the Stones’ singer messing with an “important” part of rock’n’roll history (even though a lot of them are great).

Again, this contrasts neatly with the opinion of The People’s Stone. “My point of view on the new stuff,” Keith last week told the Wall Street Journal, “is I didn’t want to repaint the smile on the Mona Lisa.”

Ooooh Keith, how you charm us with your constant succesion of one liners! But come on, people: isn’t it time we stopped falling for this “I don’t give a shit”, lovable rogue routine? Yeah, Mick has since ‘Exile…’ been the financial brains of the Stones, but why is this a bad thing? No one gives Bowie any shit for always caring about how many pennies are being dropped in his piggy bank.

And this is a band who were plagued by terrible, crippling business decisions throughout their career. They’d probably all be a lot less well off had Mick not decided to take matters into his own hands, and Keith would have been a walking chemistry set without any chemicals.

Also, on an album that is supposed to be “Keith’s album”, Mick’s contribution to ‘Exile…’ is more than sterling, thank you very much. Yeah, Keith was the ringleader down in Nellcote, and yeah, Mick wasn’t there a lot, because his wife was heavily pregnant and he could’nt be arsed with a load of drug-poncing yes men-and-women mincing in and out.

But when the basic tracks were brought to Los Angeles to be finished? It was he who rushed around getting the best people to put down overdubs on the record. As he himself put it in 2003: “At the time (producer) Jimmy Miller was not functioning properly. I had to finish the whole record myself, because otherwise there were just the drunks and junkies. I was in LA trying to finish the record, up against a deadline. It was a joke.”

Of course, people like to think that what’s great about ‘Exile On Main Street’ is that it’s, y’know, “off the cut” and all that. But a much more likely truth – albeit one that is nowhere near as romantic – is that without Mick presiding over it to such an extent, ‘Exile..’ would quite likely have been an unlistenable row.

The gospel choir on ‘Tumbling Dice’ and ‘Loving Cup’ and ‘Shine A Light’? Mick’s doing. The formidable hammond organ playing of Billy Preston? Ditto. The lyrics, meanwhile, are awesome, and very much fired up rather than smacked out: “I’m zipping through the days at lightning speed/Plug in, flush out and fire the fuckin’ feed…” You kind of get how he was feeling, right? Trying to energise the best rock and roll band ever can’t be easy. Especially when everyone’s giving you shit for being too straight.

And on the fact that he supposedly hates it? Well, let’s see what the great man himself had to say to the Chicago Tribune last week: “I was being slightly annoying because people would always say, “Isn’t that your favourite?” And I would be a bit rebellious, just to annoy people who kept asking me if it was the best Stones record. I don’t have favourite records. I’m more familiar with songs when you put them on a set list for a show. It’s not a period, it’s just a song. And since you don’t play the whole record in a concert, you don’t really hear it as a record. You pick your favourites and find out what works live. For that reason, I don’t have a favourite Stones record.”

So go put ‘Exile On Main Street’ on tonight, and celebrate the fact that it’s a beautiful, visceral piece of music made by The Rolling Stones. But if the try-hard know-it-all sat next to you starts waffling on about how it’s “Keith’s album”, then tell them to shut the fuck up.

Read more about ‘Exile On Main Street’, and check out rare Stones photos, in the current issue of NME, on sale from May 12