Return from Exile
The Stones release a buffed-up version of their underground classic.
Thursday, May 27, 2010
It may be the greatest house concert record – or the greatest rock album, period – ever made.
The Rolling Stones’ masterpiece, Exile on Main Street, largely produced in the dingy basement of a Rococo mansion Keith Richards was renting in the south of France – was re-introduced with 10 previously unreleased tunes this week. A half-hour DVD documentary about the making of the record comes out in June.
All this for a double album that contained no hits like “Satisfaction,” “Streetfighting Man” or “Sympathy for the Devil,” and that was produced in the midst of an openly decadent heroin-and-coke-strewn scene, under the nominal guidance of Richards, who spent much of his time – to Mick Jagger’s chagrin – disappearing into undisclosed locations to ingest undisclosable substances.
Carmel-based Robert Greenfield, author of Exile on Main Street: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones, which chronicled the making of the record, regards the latest wave of Stones nostalgia with bemused affection.
“Mick originally wanted to call the album Tropical Disease,” Greenfield laughs. “The Stones were in tax exile from their problems in the United Kingdom at the time, so the album was made in an atmosphere of utter chaos and insanity – which is the way Keith likes to work.”
Greenfield is finishing a new book on Atlantic Records co-founder Ahmet Ertegun, who signed the Stones to the label and introduced them to high society. “It came out after a series of more commercial records – Sticky Fingers, Beggar’s Banquet and Let It Bleed. Mick likes to know what he’s going to do before it happens, and Keith likes to keep it impromptu and play something 20 times until he feels like he’s got it right. But with the exception of ‘Tumbling Dice’, it had no obvious singles, and Mick felt the songwriting was not up to their previous level.”
Despite the creative and personal differences, Greenfield says there’s a reason the Jagger-Richards collaboration has withstood the test of time. “People keep saying they’re the greatest live band ever, but what’s lost is how good they were as songwriters. Maybe Lennon and McCartney were better, but who else? They’ve written so many good songs, but over time, this has come to be seen as their masterpiece.”
On top of the musical accomplishments, the Stones remained masterful marketers, attending a glossy party for the re-release at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, gracing a cover story in Rolling Stone, giving interviews to Vanity Fair and celebrating “Stones Week” on Late Night With Jimmy Fallon.
“Exile is the Stones’ last great album,” Greenfield notes. “Some Girls was a great comeback, and after that there were things like Tattoo You and Goat’s Head Soup.”
But while Richards may have been the moving spirit behind the 1972 masterpiece, he adds that he has no doubt that it was the decision of Jagger, the one-time London School of Economics student, “to resurrect and resuscitate this album” in this fashion, even with Richards’ long-awaited autobiography coming out in October.
“The bottom line is that here we are in 2010, and Mick and Keith are out selling like they’ve never had a hit,” adds the local rock historian, who still keeps in touch with Richards. “The two of them are a force of nature. They will tour again.”