In spring 2010, Rolling Stone magazine ran a cover story on the making of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 album Exile On Main St., timed to run in connection with a recently released box set giving it the deluxe treatment and celebrating its legacy. But when it was originally released, Rolling Stone sang a very different tune about Exile, with reviewer Lenny Kaye dismissing it: “You can leave the album and still feel vaguely unsatisfied.”
The majority of reviewers reported being similarly unimpressed. In the 2003 book According To The Rolling Stones, Keith Richards acknowledged Exile was “pretty much universally panned.” Scanning the album’s track list, it’s easy to see why; save for the live staple “Tumbling Dice” there are no hits here. But that’s one of its strengths; this is a long, prime-era Stones album devoid of songs rendered too familiar by repeated airings on classic rock radio and greatest hits compilations.
Four decades later, it’s the story of Exile’s making that has become rote. Forced out of England by draconian tax laws, the band repaired to the south of France and ended up recording an album in the basement of Nellcote, a beautiful, gigantic mansion that used to belong to a Nazi. Gram Parsons was there and they did heroin and rode around in speedboats and blah blah blah blah blah.
The point is that the album that eventually emerged, once Mick Jagger was able to wrest it out of Richards’ hands and fix everything about it in an L.A. studio, was a moody, complex, and wonderfully evocative beast, with each one of four sides arranged as a perfect suite all its own. But well after it’d been hailed a thousand times over as the Stones’ masterpiece, Jagger himself remained unimpressed. In 2003 he said, “Exile is not one of my favourite albums...it’s really not good.” Of course, Jagger is canny enough to ensure every new Stones album is marketed as its best since Exile to capitalize on the album’s cache.