Thoughts on Exile: Revisiting the Rolling Stones Classic

posted by Tom Moon on May 24, 2010 at 5:17 pm
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For classic rockers, the catalog is a cash machine.

Most grizzled vets have discovered that it’s possible to re-sell the same music over and over again. Improbable though it may seem, there is still demand out there for Foghat's "Slow Ride" and countless others. And, for the artists, the work-to-payout ratio is ridiculous: Simply find a few “rarities” or alternate versions of album tracks, unearth photographs from roughly the timeframe, and bingo – what’s old can be new, or nearly so, again.

The Rolling Stones are no exception – the current catalog upgrade program is at least the third of the CD era. But unlike most acts, the iconic British band has been fanatically stingy with unreleased material -- the 2005 Rarities was the band's first vault project. Sure, the CD reissues have offered perhaps upgraded sound (there’s some contention about this) and packaging, but in each case, it's the exact same music. That changed last week, with the double-disc “expanded” version of Exile on Main Street, the 1972 gem made under mythically debauched conditions and containing some of the most inspired playing the Stones ever captured on record.

This iteration is notable for what the band didn’t do – “sweeten” or correct a mix that vocalist Mick Jagger has complained about loudly for decades. (There’s been a beefy remastering, but the vocals are still somewhat obscured at times, and the guitars still register with that unruly wallop). It’s also notable for what it includes – alternate recordings of a few of Exile’s most inspired pieces (a deliciously unhinged “Loving Cup,” “Soul Survivor”) and a stack of tunes the band recorded during the Exile sessions but opted to keep on the shelf. Some of these are “exercises” – one sounds like a pale “Paint It Black” knockoff.

Still, if you love rock and roll, you need this. Because it provides a slightly wider prism through which to view and appreciate the creative tumult of the Rolling Stones. It catches the band at a key point on the timeline, the moment after they’d coughed up a trilogy of rock classics and were downright fearless, determined to expand the scope of the enterprise with explorations of country, gospel and blues.

You need this because it is one of those rare records that can slap you sideways before any of the words or the guitar chords can even register. No matter where you drop in, you feel this thing. Can the same be said of the new Hole?

You need Exile because it is an example of musicians creating in spite of the atmosphere of copious indulgence that surrounded them – on the alternate “Loving Cup,” the Stones sound too blotto to care about tiny details, yet not so far gone that they can’t dig deep and play. Cue this up to hear how looseness can be a high virtue.

You need this for “Plundered My Soul,” one of the newly unearthed tunes. Over a settled, medium-slow groove that has been dismissed by critics as “generic” Stones, Jagger tells of a woman he badly misread, and the misery that followed. Another song in the key of dejection, it is a sly little marvel, with that intensely visceral sound harnessed to a tight, disciplined, endlessly memorable refrain.

You need this because every so often, it’s nice to come face to face with boldness, to be reminded what boldness sounds like. As impressive as the songcraft is – and the basic hammer-and-nails verse-chorus stuff is unassailable here – there’s something more fundamental underneath. What drives Exile is an attitude. It describes a stance (or a series of them), ways of being in the world. Thirty years on, it’s somehow life-affirming to discover that the oppositional framework extended beyond the original texts. That there was more confrontation where “Rip This Joint” came from. And we need to be reminded. Because that energy has long since leeched out of corporate rock culture, and if current recordings are any indication, it’s not coming back anytime soon. On top of everything else, Exile can serve us as a kind of benchmark, reminding how potent rock and roll once was and measuring just how empty it can get when an intangible X-factor, like boldness, leaves the world.


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