Class Albums: The Rolling Stones' "Exile On Main Street"

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What sort of conditions does a band need to pull off their greatest album? Do they need to be fresh and a new voice in music? Do they need a slow buildup from some smaller albums? Do they need to be playing together in a way that they never had before?

Or can a band create something extraordinary while everything thing is going wrong and falls apart around them?

The Rolling Stones would tell you that the perfect moment you’re waiting for is meaningless and a truly great album can come out of your lowest low. The unimaginably prolific band was in a bad place when they set out to make their tenth studio album, 1972’s Exile On Main Street. The title of the album is quite literal as the band found themselves in trouble with the British government for failing to pay their taxes. To avoid having their assets seized, the band fled to the south of France to live in exile.

Once settled in their new French homes, the Stones went about searching for a recording studio to get started on their new album. However, due to lack of suitable options, or due to laziness, they decided to record in the basement of Keith Richards’ villa in Nellcôte. Things did not get easier for the band however. The recording environment wasn’t up to standards, Richards was heavy into a heroin habit by then, and various band members were seemingly unconcerned with actually getting the record made.

For anyone witnessing the band at this point would be forgiven for thinking this was the end of The Rolling Stones. However, the album began to slowly get pieced together. Band members would sometimes record their parts separately due to fluctuating schedules and some of the best tracks were born out of casual jam sessions.

The album was released to mixed reviews from critics, but the public embraced it. It reached number one on the charts and helped kick off the Stones’ famous 1972 America Tour. The years gave critics time to reassess the album and their tune has changed considerably. Not only is it now considered by many to by the Stones’ greatest album, but it’s considered one of the greatest albums of all time.

Apparently there is a fine line between disaster and success.

Best track

As always with this feature, picking the best song is a difficult task. “Rocks Off” is an excellent start to the album and Richards has never been better than he is on “Happy”, but the choice has got to be “Tumbling Dice”. The song is unpolished, raw and tells the story of a bad bet just asking for you to take one last chance on them. If that doesn’t sum up this album perfectly, I don’t know what will.

Revisit the masterpiece, and if you’re curious, check out Stones in Exile, a documentary about the odd circumstances that created this album.