What also helps create that vibe or tone are Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ vocal harmonies on most of the songs, and often during the verses, which was unusual for the band up until then when most harmonies would come only in the chorus. And it’s those harmonies — Jagger belting it out in his shouty vocal style and Keith’s nasal, high-pitched whine — that carry the songs into that “we don’t give a fuck, we’re having all kinds of fun” space. “Rocks Off”, “Torn & Frayed” and “Loving Cup” are standout examples of the Jagger/Richards harmonizing, and those three are among the best songs on the album.
Suffice it to say, Richards was at his peak and so was the band.
Exile on Main St. arguably marked the last truly great album from the Rolling Stones, and it’s certainly a culmination of them coming together and leaving nothing on the table.
That muddy sound and “who cares” attitude is part of what makes Exile so great — it’s inherent rawness, clearly heard on “Sweet Virginia” where the chorus sounds like (and probably featured) a bunch of drunk partiers belting it out and not caring in the least how it sounded. That’s part of the album’s je ne sais quoi as well.
No doubt the Stones were enjoying themselves during the recording: Gambling in French Casinos, touring around Saint Tropez on yachts while ingesting a steady amount of drugs brought by dealers to Nellcôte. Richards’ dealer would hand deliver high-grade heroin to Nellcôte and, at that time, Richards was peaking as a songwriter. But his smack habit began to take over more and more following the Exile tour, and the recording of its follow up, Goat’s Head Soup, which led to Jagger taking more control of the band, but that’s another story.
Another standout track that defines the album is “Tumbling Dice”, an ode to gambling that showcases the easy-going swagger the Stones were feeling as they were indeed tumbling dice, not caring where they land. They were merely making music while enjoying the rock and roll lifestyle.
Heck, even the guy who produced the album, Jimmy Miller, was using heroin and, after working with the Stones on their three previous albums, had lost some of his leadership abilities. While he knew recording in the Nellcôte basement made for a bad sound, nobody cared and neither did he, probably in part due to his heroin indulgence. Moreover, by this time, Jagger and Richards weren’t really listening to what their producer had to offer.
Some of the Stones’ most underrated songs are lurking on Exile including “Ventilator Blues” a grinding blues track featuring some heavy guitar and growling Jagger vocals.
With its wide variety of styles and super-loose swagger, Exile on Main St. is a Rolling Stones tour de force and it’s this rock dad’s favorite album.
For more of one of the best Rock writer’s we’ve ever read and are fortunate enough to work with, check out Cam Maxwell’s Rock ‘n Roll Insight here.