1000 Albums Project

ALBUM 384

Exile on Main St., by The Rolling Stones
Suggested by Debra Riley Wootton

Music can be a tribal affair.

This is made painfully apparent if you look at Heavy Metal. The rawness and anger appeals to a certain demographic, and adherents don the uniform and play their role with reckless abandon. In doing so, they eschew all other musical types or brands in deference to the volume of their chosen oeuvre. Oddly, for Metal at least, certain bands and songs actually make a living leaning into this tribalism, writing songs about how Real Men Play on Ten, or how Heavy Metal is the one true music and everyone else is a freak or a poser. Hardly enlightened or inclusive, and preaching to the choir is some low hanging fruit.

As we granulate, this tribalism moves down from the broad into apparent Battles of the Bands, where a popular group claims individual dominance over its nearest rival. So what was, say, Mods versus Rockers in one generation transcends into Blur versus Oasis, or Take That versus East 17, or Taylor Swift versus Kanye West. I’m a Blur fan over Oasis, as Blur were the better musicians, though I concede that Oasis likely wrote the better songs.

Perhaps the blueprint for this musical rhino-horn head-fighting is the eternal Beatles versus Stones conundrum, unless, I suppose, you count Mozart versus Salieri. These two bands have laid a fair few barbed comments at each other’s doorsteps down the years, like hunted shrews from friendly feral cats. The Beatles claimed plagiarism, of a sort. The old adage was that if The Beatles did it, the Stones did it six months later.

Personally, as a self-respecting slightly-Scouser, I have to side with The Beatles. The Stones have written some great songs, but The Beatles have an indelible back catalogue. It might help that the band split early and crystalised their legacy, while the Stones still power on today.

Exile on Main St. is rated the Stones’ best work, but at first glance it’s hard to figure why. It’s bereft of their keynote speeches, their Jack Flashes or their Honky Tonk Women, their Satisfactions or their Sympathies for the Devil. What id does have is authenticity, with an almost blisteringly passionate spine of blues-based rock and roll tracks that take us on a rollercoaster, up zenith and down nadir, with the characterful gurn of Jagger and guitar work that’s electric in every sense.

This double album is a journey, from the upbeat piano-driven barfight of Rip This Joint through to the back-room sleaze of Casino Boogie, from the understated exultance of my standout Tumblin’ Dice through the swaggering drawl of Ventilator Blues to the straight-up gospelicious Shine a Light, the band plot a course through a varied and emotive landscape and deliver sucker-punch songs that linger long in the memory, in their shape and feeling if not by name.

That’s my only issue, I think, aside from the song title Turd on the Run which irritates the nuts off me. There are countless songs by the Stones I’d rather hear, in isolation, than anything on this album. But as an album, as a single work, Exile In Main St. is almost perfect. I rate it at a high 8/10. While there are no hits to be found, what is here is very substantial indeed.

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