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Steve McManus
Exile on Main Street

The greatest rock-n-roll albums are almost flawed by their own complexity.   Their music is so encompassing and so overwhelming that the albums themselves are difficult to listen to in their entirety.   There is simply too much music to properly digest in one sitting.  Very few albums fall into this category, but “Exile on Main Street” by the Rolling Stones, originally released in 1972 and re-released this week with some unearthed tracks, is certainly one of them.   The double album, 18 tracks in length, takes the listener through almost the entire history of American music and contains heavy influences of blues, soul, country, gospel, and of course rock-n-roll.  

The majority of the album was recorded at Keith Richards’ mansion in the south of France while the Stones were literally in exile, escaping the British tax and drug laws.  Part of the beauty of “Exile on Main Street” is that it is very poorly mixed and doesn’t have a great sound.  And by all accounts it should have come even worse than it did.   Drug use among band members was rampant, and no one was ever really sure which members of the band would show up for scheduled recording sessions.    The track “Happy” was spontaneously recorded with Keith Richards on vocals because he was actually early for a session and jammed with the others who were there rather than wait for anyone else to show up.  It has gone on to become his signature track.


There is a gem on every turn of “Exile on Main Street.” “Rip This Joint” is one of the fastest songs that the Stones have ever recorded and leaves you feeling that you just got punched in the face by the music – and you still have 16 more songs left.  “Sweet Virginia” sounds effortless and smooth, and “Tumblin’ Dice” is considered their best song by many fans and critics.  Perhaps the most unique song in the entire Stones cannon is “I Just Want See His Face.”   But a track that especially stands out is buried toward the end of the album – “Stop Breaking Down,” a Robert Johnson cover.  Try turning this one up to 11 on your speakers and see if they can handle the searing guitar and harp work and Mick’s howl at the 1:36 mark.  Bands usually cover songs to say “this is who influenced us” but by this point in this album and in their career the Stones are saying, “This is who we are.”


“Exile on Main Street” is the culmination of perhaps the greatest four album run in rock history, with “Beggars Banquet,” “Let it Bleed,” and “Sticky Fingers” coming before it.  But this album is their crowning achievement because it demonstrates that even though they list blues and R&B musicians as their primary influences, they could play just about any type of American music they wanted too.  If the Stones were to magically appear at 2:00am at some smoke-filled backwoods juke-joint roadhouse to play one of their albums, “Exile on Main Street” is the one they would play.

Listen to The Rolling Stones “
Stop Breaking Down

And to the Robert Johnson original “Stop Breaking Down