MCLEAN, Virginia / USA Today / Life / Music / News / May 14, 2010
By Edna Gundersen, USA TODAY
When the Rolling Stones crafted Exile on Main Street, "we were hunkered down in an improvised bunker in a foreign country with a truck as a control room," Keith Richards says with a gruff laugh. "It was basically a last stand."
And a lasting one. Exile, a 1972 landmark considered a creative peak by a band on a hot streak, returns to stores Tuesday to launch a catalog reissue campaign.
Main Street, French Riviera, 1971: Mick Jagger, left, and Keith Richards at work on the Rolling Stones' double album Exile on Main Street. By Dominique Tarle
Recorded mostly in France, the British group's fabled double album arrived on the heels of milestones Let It Bleed in 1969 and Sticky Fingers in 1971. Exile's murky, rhythmic thicket of seductive rock, blues, soul, gospel and country rejected '60s flower power and set the stage for '70s excess and decadence, encapsulating the turmoil of a generation while embodying a masterful density that would transcend the times.
NEW ALBUM: Just waiting on Jagger
"You hear the upheaval," Mick Jagger, 66, says of the sonic Polaroid captured in Exile's grooves. "The Vietnam War was going on. It was a fraught period and joyful in other ways, a time of change and turbulence and excitement in a lot of people's lives. It was very up and down, not just hype."
Multiple formats to choose from
The remastered set is available in multiple forms: a single CD, download or double vinyl with the original songs; a double CD or download, adding 10 previously unreleased tracks; and a $160 super deluxe edition that throws in the vinyl version, a hardbound book, postcards and a DVD including footage of Stones in Exile (a Stephen Kijak documentary about the making of the album, which arrives in stores June 22). Signed limited-edition box sets are priced $2,000 to $2,500.
In addition to Good Time Women (an early version of Tumbling Dice) and alternate takes of Soul Survivor and Loving Cup, the bonus cuts include newly unearthed tunes Plundered My Soul, Dancing in the Light, Following the River, I'm Not Signifying, Pass the Wine (Sophia Loren), So Divine (Aladdin Story) and brief instrumental jam Title 5.
"At first we weren't aware there was anything left over, but there always is," says Richards, 66, who lobbied for light tweaking. "On one track with acoustic guitar, you hear a string break. I filled that gap. I wanted to keep it as much in place, in that era, as possible."
Varying amounts of guitar, vocals and percussion sealed other cracks, with results seamless enough to fool Jagger's friends.
The additions "are in the style of Exile and quite believable," he says. "Not that I was trying to fib about it, but when I played it for people and they said, 'Oh, you found it like that?,' I said, 'Uh, yeah, yeah.' It was a bit strange finishing songs 40 years later."
Bare-boned piano ballad River required lyrics and vocals. Both Jagger and former guitarist Mick Taylor made fresh contributions to the caustic midtempo Plundered.
"We were not on the original," Jagger says. "Obviously, we were off in a bar somewhere when it was recorded. I asked (Taylor) to come back and do overdubs. It really makes the track complete."
After recording at Jagger's country estate and Olympic Studios in London, the band fled England to avoid crippling income taxes, and Jagger and Richards spent a month roaming the French Riviera in search of a proper studio.
'People love drug stories'
"We went around Nice, Cannes, Marseilles, uh-uh, we couldn't find one," Richards says. "Suddenly, it was my basement. Fine with me. I didn't have to leave home to go to work."
With a state-of-the-art mobile recording truck parked outside, the band set up at Nellcôte, his rented seaside villa near Nice, in mid-1971. "The history of the joint is a little murky," says Richards, theorizing it housed Nazi officers during World War II. "There were certain swastika things going up the staircase."
The basement, so humid that instruments went out of tune in the course of a single song, both hampered and enhanced Exile's ramshackle brilliance.
Nellcôte "had a certain denseness that imprinted itself on the record," Richards says. "It had a sound you couldn't ignore. The bulk of the tracks were cut in the basement, but it was fun to get above ground and finish recording in Los Angeles."
Three countries, expanding content and a revolving door of guests that included Dr. John, Billy Preston, Bobby Keys and Nicky Hopkins lend Exile a chaotic feel. It's mythologized as the band's drug-fueled effort.
"Which one wasn't?" Richard cracks. "That's a little overplayed. And the debauchery as well."
Chemical consumption aside, "the songs are not into that stuff at all," Jagger says. "People love drug stories, especially from that period."
After the Stones wrapped up Exile sessions, Atlantic balked at releasing a double album and demanded pruning. "We had a big fight," Richards recalls. "We were in a position to insist, so we did. A single album probably would have sold better initially, as the record company quite rightly expected."
Reviews ranged from positive to scornful, with Rolling Stone's Lenny Kaye finding the band "missing the mark ... the great Stones album of their mature period is yet to come."
Critics missed the mark, history suggests, since Exile has steadily gained stature over the decades.
"Critics are always proved wrong, even if they said it was the best," says Richards, who doesn't join the consensus that declares Exile the band's finest work. "Whoa! That's a hard one. If I had to put the babies against the wall and shoot one, I couldn't."
Listeners needed time "to catch on," Jagger says. "When it came out, it was on two LPs, so it had four sides. It took people a while to discover. The reaction the first week was a letdown. But here we are, almost 40 years later, and people like it." [rc]