In the new issue of Rolling Stone, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards talk about plundering their vaults for the upcoming rerelease of their 1972 masterpiece Exile on Main Street. Here’s more from our conversations with the two Rolling Stones and producer Don Was.
Tell me how this new edition of Exile on Main Street came together.
Universal wanted to rerelease Exile, and they asked me if there were any tracks that we didn’t use when we released it originally. And I said, “Well, I doubt it very much.” One, ’cause I thought we probably used most of the tracks anyway, ’cause it was a double album. And secondly, ’cause I couldn’t really be bothered. But then they said, “Please, will you look?” I was quite surprised to find the tapes in such a good state. They all had to be baked in ovens [to] last forever. I added bits and pieces here and there.
What sort of bits and pieces did you add?
I added some percussion. I added some vocals. Keith put guitar on one or two. I added some acoustic guitar and some other things. Charlie [Watts] didn’t need to come in. The drums were all perfect. “Pass the Wine,” for example, was very, very long, so I edited it down. In the spirit of Exile we added some girl background vocals on “Tumbling Dice” and “Shine a Light.” We had some nice background vocals on the originals. But I think in the end it’s very much sounding like it was in those days, so to speak.
Tell me the process of sorting through all this old material.
Keith and I listened to it. We picked things that we rather liked. And then I started doing research on my own and I found out that quite a lot of these pieces were really not from the Exile period at all. They were either earlier or later. Some of them much later. There was one moment where Keith said to me, “God, I think Mick Taylor sounds really good on that one” and I said, “Yeah, it sounds fantastic.” Then I went online and found out that it’s actually B.B. King playing on it and it was done like 10 years ago.
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Exile was recorded over quite a long period. Some of it was recorded in Olympic Studios in England, some was recorded in France, and then there was stuff done in L.A. So I set myself a sort of time frame for it. The first recording was “Loving Cup” in 1969, and then the last sessions for Exile were done in 1972. So that was my time period.
Are there songs on the set that you just couldn’t recall making in the first place?
I recall making it all. It was just where and when and with who was another matter. Who’s playing what? It wasn’t always put down who’s playing guitar and who’s playing keyboard and that sort of thing. There are still a few mysteries. Most of it was recorded on an eight-track, some of it was recorded on a 16-track. We kind of figured it out because of that.
Tell me about “Following the River.” That’s a brand new vocal, right?
I just started from nothing on that. The core tape of it was the piano and the drums, bass, and guitar. There was no top line or lyric. I started from scratch — I mean, that’s what I do, and I’ve done it many times before. And it’s daunting in the beginning, but after a while you get into it.
So how do you go about writing lyrics?
You just sit down and write it as you would anything else, you know? Sometimes you write the lyrics while you’re sitting down playing the piano or guitar, and the lyrics come to you while you’re writing the song. And sometimes you write the melody first and you have to write all the lyrics. And sometimes you get half the lyrics. And sometimes there’s a track that you didn’t turn up on the session. And they say, “Mick, we’ve done this great track. Will you write the words?” And that was this one.
I’ve heard you say in the past that you thought Exile is a bit overrated. Do you still feel that way?
Well, that was like maybe when people started saying, “Is this your favorite album?” I was one to say, “Well, I don’t think it really is. I’m a great fan of Sticky Fingers.” This is very different album ’cause it’s so sprawling. It doesn’t contain a lot of hit singles for instance. Over the years a lot of the songs have been played onstage and they’ve acquired another life. So it’s a very different kind of album than Sticky Fingers or Let It Bleed in that way. The production value is a different. It’s just a different vibe. But, I mean, there are really great things on it. And I spent the last six months living with it, so I know it pretty much inside out now.
Do you have more respect for it after those six months?
Nah, I always had a lot of respect for it. It was difficult, because people didn’t like it when it came out. I think they just found it quite difficult because of the length of it. People didn’t access it quite so easily at the time. It got kind of mixed reviews. People found it a bit impenetrable and a bit difficult. Everyone said, “It’s my favorite, it’s my favorite, I love it!” and I said, “Well, it’s not mine.” It was just sort of toss off remark and it’s come back to haunt me, really.
How did this new Exile set come together?
Well, basically it’s the record and a few tracks we found when we were plundering the vaults. Listening back to everything we said, “Well, this would be an interesting addition.”
Are these songs you had forgotten about?
I must say yes, it’s been quite awhile. That’s what longevity does to you. “Start Me Up” we’d forgotten about for five years before we put it out.
And you and Mick added new parts to some of them?
There wasn’t much to be done and I really didn’t want to get in the way of what was there. It was missing a bit of body here and there, and I stroked something on acoustic here and there. But otherwise, I really wanted to leave them pretty much as they were. Mick wanted to sort of fix some vocal things, but otherwise, basically they are as we left them 39 years ago.
Do you think the basement cuts from France sound different than the songs you recorded in the States or in England?
Oh, definitely. That was pretty unique way of recording. We did a lot of work on the stuff when we took it to L.A., ’cause we did a lot of overdubs and stuff on it there, but there was something about the rhythm section sound down there — maybe it’s the concrete, or maybe it’s the dirt, but it has a certain sound to it that you couldn’t replicate if you tried.
Exile was initially greeted with mixed reviews.
Oh, at first, yeah. We kind of expected that just from the fact that it was a double album. First of all, the record company wanted to cut it in half. So we said, “Oh, this is not looking good.” But also we insisted, “No, this is what we did. This is Exile on Main Street, and we insist that it’s a double album.” So it kind of got a slow take-off, but ever since then, it’s been up there. Also, it’s the first album with no particular single on it, you know? There was no “Brown Sugar” or whatever. We made it as an album, rather than looking for a hit single.
Many now consider it your best album. Do you agree?
I would put it up there with ’em. It’s very difficult for me to pick my babies apart, you know? But, Beggar’s Banquet, Exile, Sticky Fingers, Let it Bleed — I mean, it was part of that period where we were really hitting it, you know?
As you and Mick started work on these old songs, did you start thinking about new songs?
Oh yes. You’re always thinking of new songs. Or rather, the new songs are thinking of you. I never sit down and say, “Oh, it’s songwriting time.” But every now and again, a certain note or a certain chord sort of rings a bell, and you sort of grab a guitar and go, “I must remember that.”
Does Mick want to cut a new album?
Hey, you’re asking me? You better ask Mick that one [laughs]. But my feeling is that, generally, people get itchy at a certain time. I’m sort of waiting for a phone call, you know?
How did the process of sorting through the Exile outtakes begin?
They just sent me hundreds of hours of multitracks to go through, which was the best gig ever. It was all mixed up. It was labeled by number code and it wasn’t an accurate directory of what it was. You’d be listening to some blues jam and then all of a sudden there’s a version of “Wild Horses” with a string quartet, then another reel with all the takes of “Honky Tonk Woman” leading up to the final one. It was mind-blowing for a Stones fanatic such as myself.
I also got very involved with the guys who bootlegged the stuff. I wanted them to have some surprises too, not just better mixes of stuff that they were very familiar with. We found songs that had vocals, for example, where only instrumental tracks had ever surfaced.
Why did you have to bake the master tapes?
It’s not really like a solid piece of tape, like you think of Scotch tape. It’s more like sandpaper. You have all these oxide particles and they get moved over the magnetic recording heads and rearranged into patterns that when it passes over the playback head — the playback head recognizes those patterns and transduces it into sound waves. Tapes from the ’50s and ’60s are OK. But I guess they started saving money, and tapes from the ’70s, ’80s, ’90s — the particles tended to coagulate together and fall off the surface. So baking somehow makes them adhere to the surface without altering the pattern. It holds the particles in place at least for one time through so you can transfer it to something digital.
How much new overdubbing did the band do?
The essence of these things never got changed from 1969 to 1971. Beyond finding the best stuff to put out, the second responsibility was really to make sure nothing happened to alter the spirit of Exile. On “Following the River,” the vocal was there but he knew what he wanted to do with the words — he just never got around to it. So he sang it again. And in one case there is a great ballad that never had lyrics. He wrote it and finished it.
I heard a rumor somewhere that you guys brought in Mick Taylor to overdub some things. Is that true at all?
I’m not saying it’s not true. I’m simply not going to deny.
What else can you tell me about the unheard songs?
Well, as a bass player, I can tell you that Bill Wyman is a genius. He blew my mind, the stuff I heard him play here. He really doesn’t get enough credit. The drums were amazing, but everyone knows that Charlie’s the greatest.
How do you pick one alternate version of “Tumbling Dice” when they spent hours and hours working on that song?
It’s hard to do. That version of “Tumbling Dice” was chosen because it’s got the other lyric. The actual version that’s on Exile, it’s got to be one of the top five all-time great rock & roll singles. There’s so much wrong with it. Now a lot of the things that happened somewhat randomly, like the vocals being mixed down low, people have imitated. It’s become part of the vocabulary of rock & roll record-making. But it’s wrong, by all standards. But it’s absolutely perfect. It’s a perfect record.