Listening to ‘Exile on Main Street’ (2010 Version)

Someone has been busying themself among the Rolling Stones archives of late.  First we had the expanded version of their 1969 live album ‘Get yer Ya-Yas out’ with extra tracks, the sets from supporting acts Ike and Tina Turner and B.B. King plus a short DVD.  Now we have an expanded version of 1972’s ‘Exile on Main Street’ with the original CD,  just over 40 minutes of unreleased tracks and alternate versions on a second disc and an additional DVD of contemporary documentary footage.  The whole of this new package weighs in at over £100 retail, which strikes me as excessive – for that money, I’d expect the band to perform a private gig in my kitchen!

I should say immediately that I haven’t seen the accompanying DVD, though the Stones were always entertaining enough company if you look at the other filmed materials from this era – notably the Mayles Brothers ‘Gimme Shelter’ and Jean-Luc Godard’s bizarre ‘Sympathy for the Devil’.  Even so, it seems to me that the prohibitive price tag means that the boys are thinking about topping up their pension funds somewhat.

Disc 1 of the CD set is the 18-track double album we know and love.  At just over 65 minutes it was always a bit on the short side and I find myself wondering why some of the 7 genuinely ‘new’ tracks from Disc 2 could not have been included in the original package.

‘Exile’ -era Rolling Stones

OK, well, I think that’s probably enough carping about this new version of ‘Exile’.   Before going on, it might be as well to reflect on the position the Stones were in  around 1971/2 when these tracks were recorded – largely  in London, the south of France and the USA.  By this juncture, they were  being ushered on stage by announcers as ‘The greatest rock’n’roll band in the world’ and whilst it’s a bold claim, it’s one that could be justified during this brief period.  They had survived Swinging London, drugs busts and the loss of Brian Jones.  They had ‘outlived’ The Beatles and the screaming teenyboppers who had drowned out their mid-60’s shows.  More pertinently, since the catastrophe of 1967’s ‘Their Satanic Majesties Request’ they had returned to their R’n’B roots and produced a series of stellar albums – ‘Beggars Banquet’, ‘Let it Bleed’, the aforementioned ‘Get yer Ya-Yas out’ and ‘Sticky Fingers’. The songwriting partnership of Jagger & Richards was operating at full tilt and the musical chops of the band had been considerably upped by the addition of the peerless Mick Taylor as a replacement for Jones and the judicious use of some top sidemen – notably pianist Nicky Hopkins.

‘Exile’ is often thought of as the Stones’ ‘French’ album because they had fled the UK to avoid a crippling tax bill and had temporarily nested in Provence.  Much of the recording for ‘Exile’ was indeed done at Keith Richards’ rented property at Nellcote, but there were also sessions  at Keith’s house in Sussex, at Olympic in Barnes, in New York and also in Los Angeles.  The Stones were also still gorging on a glut of A-grade songs that had been around for a while but had been withheld whilst they saw out their Decca contract.  It was a weird time for the band, uprooted from their London haunts, but it was also a time of great creativity.

Charlie & Keith enjoying the country air at Villa Nellcote….

So, time to turn our attention to Disc 2, which is the stuff that will interest most long-time Stones fans.  What we have here are 10 ‘new’ tracks from the archive, of which 2 are alternate versions – ‘Loving Cup’ and ‘Soul Survivor’, an early version of ‘Tumbling Dice’ , here called ‘Good Time Women’ and a short instrumental fragment, simply called ‘Title 5’.

That leaves us 6 genuinely new tracks and the good news is that they are all excellent and, in my view can happily sit alongside the original 18 tracks of ‘Exile’ without looking out of place or sub-standard.  Having played this stuff a few times now, I have already developed a couple of favourites – ‘Following the river’ is a piano-led, slow burner and ‘So divine’ (Aladdin Story) begins with what sounds like the opening riff of ‘Paint it black’ before moving on to a solid mid-tempo number held down by some excellent vibes-playing from trumpeter Jim Price.  Apart from the quality of the songs, what really stands out here is the guitar interplay between Keith Richards and Mick Taylor, which is just terrific throughout.  Whether Taylor left the band because he was not getting any songwriting credit (that’s one version) or in order to escape a downward spiral of substance abuse (that’s another version) is unclear, but what cannot be doubted is that during his years in the band he drove them – and Keith Richards in particular – on to new and higher levels of expertise.  No matter how genial a geezer Ronnie Wood is, he’s simply not in the same league as Mick Taylor when it comes to musicianship and it’s no coincidence that the Stones’  long fall from grace began when Taylor left the band in December of 1974.

Some time back I wrote about Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Valleys of Neptune’ and would admit that I wanted to be kind – it’s never easy to trash your heroes.  No worry about that here, because the new tracks from the ‘Exile on Main Street’ sessions can hold their own in pretty august company and add to our appreciation of what was probably the last truly great Rolling Stones album.

Jimi Hendrix and Mick Taylor backstage somewhere around 1970

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