"You don't get a take till Keith starts looking at Charlie and moving nearer to him, and then Bill gets up out of his chair and stands up. Then it transforms into the Rolling Stones," says Andy Johns, the engineer who recorded much of the Stones' Exile on Main Street almost four decades ago. "The rest of the time, it's just rubbish. But if Bill gets out of his chair, and Keith's looking at Charlie, you know you're getting pretty close. And it goes from 'What the hell is this?' to 'Fucking hell!' It's an off-planet experience." Though Johns' résumé as engineer and producer includes more than 200 projects, with Number One albums stretching all the way from Led Zeppelin IV to Godsmack's IV, he has never quite escaped that sweltering basement in the South of France, with Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Mick Taylor, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts — still young and lithe, shirtless and sweating — grinding out limping, out-of-tune versions of songs in progress over and over and over again, until the Rolling Stones suddenly materialized. Then again, the Stones have never quite escaped it either.
The 1972 Exile on Main Street will be rereleased this month in a beyond-deluxe package that includes a remastered CD with the original album, another disc with 10 outtakes, some with newly added lyrics and vocals, a 64-page book and a documentary DVD. For those who want to re-experience Exile in its purest form, there's also a remastered vinyl version of the old two-disc LP. "If I remember how this worked," Jagger says, with his famous tongue in his cheek, "you'd put a side on, and then you'd go and have something to eat, and then you'd put another side on."
We can argue some other time about whether or not Exile is rock & roll's greatest album: Back in 2003, a survey of critics, musicians and industry types led this magazine to rank it no higher than Number Seven, behind Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Pet Sounds, Revolver, Highway 61 Revisited, Rubber Soul and What's Going On. But even if you go by that list, the rugged, defiant, sometimes depressive, sometimes exuberantly nasty Exile is certainly rock & roll's most rock & roll album. None of the others comes as close to rock & roll's ideal synthesis of blues, country and R&B, and none approaches its gritty energy.
Unhappily, the vintage of those records — Exile is the most recent — doesn't speak well for rock's continuing vitality. And if it depresses you to think that the music's defining masterpiece came out the same year as the first hand-held calculator, how must its creators feel? Their obsession with Exile ended when everyone else's began — that is, when the last of the tracks finally got mixed — and they're long since burned out on the subject. But they're being good sports; their brand-label, Universal Music Group, has invested a fortune in this conspicuously backward-looking venture. The first words out of Richards' mouth are, "Exile on fucking Main Street, right?" He laughs when he says it, but he has spent the past year "stuck in trying to remember the past" while working with the writer James Fox on an autobiography due to be published in October. "If they'd look up the court records," he says, "they'd have more facts than I do." The other Stones and their circle have been sharing recollections for Richards' book, the new documentary required still more interviews, and now that the Exile package is finally coming out, it's the reporters' turn. "It's just gone on a bit," Watts says. "I'm sure Mick's fed up with it, because he's not a great lover of yesterday."
None of the Stones are. Though Watts has heard "the bonus tracks, I think they call them in this day and age," he says he hasn't listened back to the original album. "But I never listen to our stuff — any of that." When Universal first suggested the Exile reissue, Richards says, his reaction was, " 'I dunno, puttin' out an old record?' And then they sort of made the point that 'Hey, it's a very interesting album, it has a sort of aura about it.' " (It's hard to fool those record executives.) And now that he's revisited it, he seems more affectionate than reverent. "I mean, it's not like I've never listened to it since we cut it, of course," he says, "but listening to it all the way through now, I think it still holds up on its own. 'Torn and Frayed' I kind of liked. I love 'Sweet Virginia.' And 'All Down the Line' was a killer for me, to be able to pull that off." Jagger knows all about that "aura" — he agreed with the rest of the band that Exile was the right choice for a splashy reissue — but don't ask him to explain why fans and critics are fixated on the record. "I guess it's different things to different people," he says. "I don't know why, really. They like the kind of breadth of it, the different styles of it, the quirky bits, the rough-and-ready sound. Who knows — there's a lot of things people like about it. I think it's kind of sprawling, so that you can always find other little nugget things that you haven't heard, maybe?" This might be modesty — in effect, he's been asked to toot his own horn — but it sounds like faint praise; writers have sweated bullets for years trying to come up with fresh adjectives for Exile, and as far as I know, "quirky" is a first.
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