Keith Richards Discusses the Making of The Rolling Stones' 'Exile on Main St.'
Guitarist Keith Richards recalls the making of the Rolling Stones' 1972 masterpiece.
The preeminence of “Happy,” at the top of the album’s third side, coupled with the preponderance of great Keef guitar hooks on Exile, has led some observers to describe the disc as “Keith’s album.” But the guitarist is having none of that. “I don’t really get that,” he says. “Mick was incredibly involved. Look how many songs there are. And he wrote the bulk of the lyrics. He was very involved. I don’t think I was putting in more than anybody else. Charlie was amazing. Everybody was in great form.”
Exile does contain some of the most sympathetic guitar teamwork that Richards and Mick Taylor ever committed to disc. They mesh seamlessly, almost telepathically, on track after track. With the exception of “Happy” and possibly “Ventilator Blues,” Richards left the bulk of the slide guitar work to Taylor. But where Taylor’s leads can stand out a little too assertively on some earlier Stones recordings—particularly the live Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out album—here he’s dug in deep, roiling along with Keef and fully integrated into the guitar juggernaut. Perhaps this is in part due to the album’s ad hoc recording circumstances, combined with the fact that Taylor had been a Stone for about two years at this point and was well settled in. And maybe by living close by and actually sleeping over at Nellcôte on many occasions Taylor had fallen into sync with Richards on some elemental level.
“I also think it was because we were writing songs on the spot,” Richards says. “So I automatically fell into doing the chording and figuring out the whole thing, which gave Mick Taylor a freedom. He just came up with line after beautiful line. What a player, man.”
Exile is also awash in great guitar hooks based around Richards’ signature five-string open G tuning (omitting the low E string and tuned, low to high, G D G B D). He’d first used this tuning on “Honky Tonk Women” in 1969 and had integrated it into his approach more and more thoroughly on Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers. But it really explodes on Exile and is the secret behind riff-mad classics like “Rocks Off,” “Tumbling Dice” and “Happy.”
“I was really bathing in that stuff at the time, finding out more and more about the tuning as I was going along,” Richards acknowledges. “In a way, with a lot of the five-string stuff on Exile, I’d just found that space. You’re listening to me in school!”
For a few magic months at Nellcôte, everything seemed to fall into place. With sax player Bobby Keys and trumpeter Jim Price right on the premises, the horn charts on Exile are a deeply organic part of the music, rather than an overdubbed afterthought, as horn parts all too often tend to be.
“I think that’s another one of the beauties of the album,” Richards says. “The fact that the horns are actually playing with the band. There is something to be said for having it all in one room. Bobby and Jim were amazing, ’cause they had to make up their parts virtually on the spot. The songs were coming out two or three a night. Sometimes I’d lay an idea for a song on them at the end of a session, early in the morning, so they’d have it in their heads by the time they got back the next day. There were only two of them, a sax and a trumpet, but Jimmy played great trombone as well, so we’d double them up until they became a section.”
Many extraordinary musicians passed through Nellcôte during the Exile sessions. The list of those who were there but didn’t play on the album is as impressive as the roster of gifted players who did. John Lennon stopped by at one point, drank a bottle of red wine and vomited. Country rock pioneer Gram Parsons and his girlfriend Gretchen were long-term houseguests. The American musician and tunesmith was a major factor behind the Stones’ pronounced country influence in the early Seventies; he was also a close friend and drug buddy of Keith’s. There has been much speculation about Parsons’ uncredited, behind-the-scenes role in writing many of the Stones’ country-tinged classics. But if he was hanging around Nellcôte for so long, how come he didn’t end up playing on Exile? Or did he?
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