Few records hold the mystique of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. Myths have grown and books have been published in an attempt to explain the sprawling album. The story generally goes that 1972 found the band, literally, as tax exiles, seeking refuge across the English Channel in France. A villa in Villefranche-sur-Mer named Nellcote is rented. Music is made. Sex and drugs abound. Somehow in all this debauchery a record is produced, and that record is Exile on Main St. When Universal Music acquired the rights to reissue and remaster the Rolling Stones catalogue, the big news was the long-promised expanded edition of Exile. It’s arrived, in a variety of forms, and it remains as fascinating and frustrating as ever.
Decadence seems to be synonymous with Exile in every aspect. Stuffed with 18 tracks, it distills the Stones to their purest essence: dark, boozy, cocksure, swaggering, menacing, and above all, rocking. Exile’s territory was hardly new to the band; most of the songs veer between blues, country, soul and R&B, creating that familiar Stones sound. Yet mixed reviews greeted the now-acknowledged masterwork on its initial release. Why? Besides its lengthy running time, one can only speculate that its legendarily-murky mix was a big factor. Mick Jagger’s throaty vocals are often buried in a dense instrumental blend. In addition to Keith Richards’ and Mick Taylor’s guitars, Charlie Watts’ drums and Bill Wyman’s bass, Nicky Hopkins makes an indelible impression on piano. Jim Price’s trumpet and Bobby Keyes’ saxophone are both prominent pieces of the Exile puzzle. Billy Preston even contributes his trademark organ. Dr. John pops up on backing vocals. The thick mix has been a source of controversy since the album’s release; how would it be handled for the deluxe reissue? Even when a melody sounds rollicking, it has a bleak, world-weary, wrenching feel.
Purists can breathe easily that the notoriously sludgy mix has been left intact in this new edition remastered by Stephen Marcussen and Stewart Whitmore. Interviews have borne out that a remix was briefly considered (and this author would find one illuminating as a companion to, rather than replacement of, the existing mix – especially in a high-res format!) but vetoed. “I Just Want to See His Face” still sounds as if it was recorded in a tunnel. But it’s a testament to the enduring quality of Jagger and Richards’ edgy, intense songs that Exile (assembled ultimately from not only the France sessions but work in London and Los Angeles) remains a gripping listen from start to finish. “Rocks Off” is an appropriately sleazy opener complete with pulsating horns, while “Happy” (enhanced by Paul Buckmaster’s strings) and “Tumbling Dice” are as exciting as they were the first day we heard them. “Shine a Light” received prominence recently as the title song of Martin Scorsese’s 2008 concert film of the Stones, and it retains its primal power as Exile’s penultimate track.
But if the first disc (available as a stand-alone CD, for those interested) should make purists smile, the second disc of the Deluxe Edition is the most talked-about part of the reissue campaign. Jagger & co. have long been reticent to revisit the past, rarely opening the vaults and releasing the kinds of rarities compilations offered by so many of their contemporaries. Their few excursions into this area, such as 2005’s Rolling Stones Rarities 1971-2003 (EMI/Virgin 0946 3 45401 2 4) generally induced yawns from the fans, who already owned much stronger material via private trading circles. But with Disc 2 of Exile’s Deluxe Edition, the Rolling Stones successfully beat the bootleggers by offering 10 tracks containing multiple new overdubs not just by Jagger and Richards, but even by long-departed guitarist Mick Taylor in a very unexpected reunion with thrilling results.
Of course, the end result is an excessive album made even more so. But by and large, these 10 tracks share the same sonic landscape as the original LP, and are worthy additions to the Stones’ canon. Much of this material will be new to even the most devoted Stones fan. While some tracks, such as the bluesy “I’m Not Signifying” have been bootlegged before, the great majority will be new to most listeners. The driving “Plundered My Soul” grabbed me immediately, its first chords transporting me to the sound of 1972. “Pass the Wine (Sophia Loren)” wears its funky groove proudly. Arguably as interesting are the alternate takes of “Loving Cup” and “Soul Survivor,” the latter of which features Keith Richards’ lead vocals rather than Jagger’s more familiar pipes. It’s jarring at first, but Richards’ less urgent, equally committed tone brings a new dimension to the song. “Good Time Women” morphed into “Tumbling Dice,” and it’s always a treat to hear a song in the early stages of its development. The brief “Title 5” instrumental offers some tight playing from Richards, Watts and Wyman. Don Was oversaw the new sessions with Jagger and Richards, and to my ears at least, he did original producer Jimmy Miller proud. There will always be a contingent wishing that the original, unfinished tracks had been released instead of these hybrid tracks, and a release alongside the finished versions would indeed have provided a terrific comparison. But as new music by the Rolling Stones circa 2010, based on work produced by the Stones in 1972, they hold up remarkably well. Much like Brian Wilson in 2004 revisiting and revising SMiLE, Mick and Keith can’t accurately say that what they’ve recorded now reflects what might have been in 1972. But that will always remain what might have been; if anybody is entitled to finish the tracks, it’s definitely the Glimmer Twins, and as what is, these songs are at the very least a worthy appendix to the original 18 on Exile. (And when did anybody ever think we’d get new music from the Stones featuring Mick Taylor, anyway, not to mention Bill Wyman? Wyman didn’t participate in the new sessions, but his presence is felt mightily.)
Universal is offering Exile in editions designed for every appetite and wallet size. In addition to the bare-bones single-CD remaster and the 2-CD Deluxe Edition, there are retailer exclusives available. Best Buy is carrying a 3-CD version containing a short interview disc as a bonus. Target brings us the latest of Universal’s Rarities Editions, replicating only Disc 2 of the Deluxe Edition, and a perfect buy for those fans only interested in the new/old tracks. (Target is also selling a fan pack with T-shirt and guitar pick.) A so-called Super Deluxe Edition offers the 2-CD set (no interview disc) plus a 2-LP set, a 50-page hardbound book and a 30-minute documentary DVD with clips from, among other films, the still commercially-unreleased Cocksucker Blues. (A full version of the documentary Stones in Exile will receive its own DVD release on June 22 courtesy Eagle Vision.)
On the downside, the powers-that-be have deigned to include no new liner notes, and the 8-page booklet is skimpy. The players are noted on every track, but there is no further recording and/or discographical information present. Fans purchasing a reissue of a nearly 40-year old album with such an intriguing story deserve better. But clearly The Rolling Stones intend the music to speak for itself, and regardless of whether you’re a Stones diehard or a casual fan, there should be something on one of Exile’s two discs to entice you. One can only hope that its success will lead the band to leave the vault door open for further expanded reissues. From Let It Bleed to Sticky Fingers, there’s plenty out there to fill TSD readers’ very own loving cups.