When the moment seemed right, punk rockers The Clash drew battle lines by declaring, ‘No Elvis, Beatles or The Rolling Stones in 1977’. I first heard that blunt statement of intent sometime in the early 1990s when anti-establishment vibes were riding high in the record charts via the grunge scene, which was really the culmination of an alternative aesthetic that had first become pronounced in the 1960s.
I figured there was something a bit subversive about The Clash bagging out baby boomer heroes while more challenging musical innovators like The Velvet Underground and The Stooges remained on the margins of popular taste. In retrospect, this was a rather precocious way of looking at things which stemmed from a somewhat uninformed view that anything that sold millions of records was a bit suspect, even though a band like The Beatles was at least as artistically innovative as The Velvet Underground.
But in the mid to late 1970s, The Clash probably had a point. The Beatles were long gone, Elvis was a bloated parody of his former self, and The Rolling Stones hadn’t put out a record worth a damn since Exile on Main St in 1972. The Stones had also figured out after the Altamont debacle that the way to proceed in live performance was to play in vast stadiums that kept the audience well and truly at arm length – not a very magnanimous gesture. This happened as the 1970s rolled on and in some ways the band coasted on the artistic magnificence of Exile on Main St.
Nevertheless, that album capped a string of masterpieces recorded between 1968 and 1972, and for a time it was almost as if the music became rawer and more intense as the band’s popularity increased. Before stadium spectacles entered the picture, artistic innovation, rebellion and dreams of a better world fed the youth of the counterculture, and The Stones were there every step of the way.
Such albums as Let it Bleed and Sticky Fingers contained moments of unadulterated hedonism and misogyny, but also formed a quest to discover freedom through a stimulation of the senses. Earlier advocates like French poet Arthur Rimbaud had been enthusiastic about such things in the late nineteenth century, attracting fans in later years like Jim Morrison. Rimbaud wrote in an 1871 letter about seeking out enlightenment through a ‘disordering of all the senses’, in order to reveal the unknown – a noble goal.
It is sometimes a bit tricky thinking about these sorts of things in relation to The Rolling Stones when one sees Mick Jagger embracing former US President Bill Clinton as he does in the recent Martin Scorsese directed concert film, Shine a Light. Maybe the rock’n’roll Rimbaud role is better suited to Keith Richards who has never really basked in the limelight, and whenever he speaks, the words roll out in a cigarette and whisky slur. With one well-timed riff, Richards captured all the raw untrammelled energy of the 1960s generation before Jagger opened his mouth.
You could say that Exile on Main St. is Richards’ crowning achievement, and when I first realised this album made a punk rock statement as incisive as anything from The Stooges or The Sex Pistols, I had to race to my girlfriend’s house with a copy of the album in one hand and a six-pack of beer in the other. When those deliciously effusive opening chords of ‘Rocks Off’ burst from the speakers, we locked bodies and I edged her towards the couch where we had a delightful time, and I was quite happy to shed clothing as the album gave up its tasty delights.
The thought occurred that maybe The Clash had gotten it wrong, and despite The Stones’ lofty status in the mainstream entertainment industry – with every whim indulged – this band nevertheless showed us that flashes of brilliance can occur in the most unlikely of circumstances, which happened during the recording of Exile on Main St And although in the soon-to-be-released DVD Stones in Exile, an excerpt from Robert Frank’s non-fawning Cocksucker Blues, has Keith Richards, that songwriting mastermind, throwing a TV out a hotel window and then giggling about it like a pubescent child, it somehow doesn’t matter because after having listened to Exile on Main St a thousand times, and now in enhanced remastered form, I am prepared to forgive him almost anything.
On this album, The Stones burst open constraints on the inner consciousness that Arthur Rimbaud had also concerned himself with before swapping poetry for gunrunning. But Rimbaud’s quest became illuminated in the Delta blues of Robert Johnson, Charlie Parker’s rapid fire bop, and the enthused rock’n’roll of Chuck Berry and Bo Diddley, eventually seeping into each monumental riff and energised rhythmic accent on Exile on Main St., which locked in this album as a defining statement in popular music at a time when the utopian vision of the counterculture had long faded.
All this stuff bubbled to the surface as I listened to the newly released remastered edition of Exile, and although the Stones had chosen the coastal beauty of the south of France to record it rather than Rimbaud’s Abyssinia, a testing of the limits nevertheless suffuses each and every groove. Mick Jagger exudes unrepentant decadence on such a track as ‘Casino Boogie,’ but then reaches out to anyone with a heart on the beautifully romantic ‘Loving Cup’, which is probably a better track to get one’s love interest in the mood than ‘Rocks Off’. The horns in that latter song are, however, powerfully catchy and when that track segues into the edgy abandon of ‘Rip this Joint’, whose scattershot rhythm and wild delivery makes good on the song title, well, the listener is hooked.
By the time we get to dance with the devil trance-outs like ‘Ventilator Blues’ with the religious fervour of ‘I Just Want to See his Face’ right next door, it seems that detailed craftsmanship and loose abandon so happily coexist that I might momentarily forget all about The Stones as jet-set loving, eminently bankable, image-obsessed rock stars.
While on the run from the British tax system, the band bunkered down in Keith Richards’ Nellcote mansion and enjoyed the good life of women, booze and drugs just like any decadent libertine with a great deal of money and time on their hands would, but then disappeared for days at a time into the basement to craft this extraordinary homage to the blues and rock’n’roll traditions with a good measure of honky tonk swing, country and gospel, and a killer horn and rhythm section to make it all work that much better.
Keith Richards became obsessed with creating maximum impact, which is also revealed in some fantastic bootlegged tracks from the sessions like the rough and ready workout, ‘Hillside Blues’, but also extending to bonus tracks on the remastered edition like ‘Plundered My Soul’, which sound uniformly fantastic and are almost as good as anything from the original album.
It is quite amazing that despite the endless partying and enviable debauchery documented in great detail in the Stones in Exile DVD and Robert Greenfield’s 2006 book on the making of the Exile album which he aptly titled, A Season in Hell with The Rolling Stones, sessions for the album nevertheless continued at a feverish pace. And the superb quality of the finished product demonstrates that from chaos great art can come, which must be heartening for those like myself who don’t really have it in them to go down to the basement with a guitar in hand, and can only respond to the seemingly endless chaos of everyday existence by looking towards that Sunday morning sleep in.