The Rolling Stones: The Main Attraction
Originally published in Guitar World, June 2010
Critics snubbed it upon its release in 1972, but Exile in Main Street has become one of rock's greatest landmarks. Keith Richards recalls the making of the Rolling Stones' masterpiece and how the album's new reissue project became a walk down memory lane.
"To me, Exile on Main Street was probably the best Rolling Stones album as far as the connection between the band members," Keith Richards says. "We were coming up with song ideas like crazy. And the ideas were catching on. Everybody was going flat-out."
The anniversary reissue of the Rolling Stones’ landmark double album this May will provide a heavy blast of nostalgia to those who were around when Exile was first released, in 1972. The newly remastered tracks, as well as the session outtakes, will also be a revelation even to those who know the album inside and out.
But perhaps no one feels the nostalgia, or the revelations, as profoundly as Keith Richards. There’s no denying that the album is quintessentially Keef in its swagger and the cocky sprawling grandeur of its musical scope. Hedged all about by rough edges, Exile’s elegantly wasted, slightly messy nonchalance is what imparts a frisson of raw truth to the overall beauty of the thing. Perhaps it’s not coincidence that Exile was recorded, amid scenes of legendary rock star decadence, in the vast, dank cellars beneath Richards’ home at the time, a palatial villa called Nellcôte, on the sunny French Riviera.
“I’m listening to these tracks, and suddenly I’m back in that old basement in the south of France,” marvels Richards, phoning in from another tropical paradise, a small island in the West Indies. “It’s amazing, especially for me, that ability to transport myself back in time.”
The Stones guitarist played a key role in preparing the Exile reissue, which will be released in three formats. The basic package is a CD containing newly remastered versions of the 18 tracks from the original album. The Deluxe version includes a bonus disc with 10 previously unreleased tracks from the album’s era, while the Super Deluxe release adds on two 30-gram vinyl albums containing the original album and bonus tracks, a DVD on the making of Exile and a 50-page collector’s book with photos.
The Exile reissue project reunited Richards and his lifelong Glimmer Twin Mick Jagger with Jimmy Miller, the Rolling Stones’ late-Sixties/early Seventies producer who recorded and mixed the original album and many other great Stones records. A rock-solid drummer in his own right, Miller has always had some kind of primordial connection with the Stones’ profoundly rhythmic essence. Richards says, “I look back on it all, and I’ve got to say Jimmy Miller was the perfect producer for the Rolling Stones.”
Also onboard for the reissue project was the band’s present-day producer, Don Was, who sorted through hours of tapes to resurrect the bonus tracks. These include alternate takes of “Loving Cup” and “Soul Survivor,” plus an early version of “Tumbling Dice” titled “Good Time Women.” There’s also a cache of previously unreleased tracks, including “Dancing in the Light,” “Plundered My Soul,” “Following the River,” “Aladdin’s Story” and “Pass the Wine,” which has appeared on bootlegs under the working title “Sophia Loren.” For the Exile reissue, every effort was made to unearth fresh material from the vaults. In some cases, Jagger wrote and recorded brand-new vocals for what had previously been instrumental tracks. Richards overdubbed some guitar on a few tracks, but he stresses that he did as little as possible to the original recordings.
“I brushed a little acoustic guitar,” he says. “I can’t even remember on which song now. The original guitar track sort of stuttered and fell apart halfway through, so Don said, ‘Well, we better replace that.’ But that’s all I did really. As I said to Don, these tracks already are Exile, because they come out of that dusty basement. You can’t really screw around with them that much. Just tack them on. They are what they are, right from the same place.”
For Richards, the project triggered fond memories of those who have since departed the Stones, including original bassist Bill Wyman, and those who have since departed this life, such as session piano great Nicky Hopkins. “To hear Nicky Hopkins’ piano on ‘Sophia Loren’ was a treasure,” he says quietly. “And Bill’s solid as a rock, man. What a bass player! I’m actually more and more impressed with him, listening to this. You can get used to a guy, but listening back, going over this stuff to make this record, I’d say, ‘Jesus Christ, he’s better than I thought!’ ”