"Headed for an overload
spattered on a dusty road..."
This record was recorded in a large private house or mansion in the south of France. Legend has it that during the recording, a flunky arrived every week with a suitcase full of heroin for Keith. Maybe so; it's a fact that it was the last good record they made for five years, until Keith got his shit together again. It was the last good record they made before Mick started writing songs about being a rich guy with a lot of fans. It was the end of some kind of an era for the Stones.
Be all that as it may, it was one hell of a record. I've got a closer and more interesting relationship with Exile on Main Street than with most of my friends.
"When you're drunk in the alley baby, with clothes all torn
and your late night friends will leave you in the cold gray dawn..."
The whole process must have been chaotic.
The sound is muddy, a big murky organic Fender amp sound, and there's a lot in the mix: They've always hired keyboard players and the odd saxophone, but there's a full horn section on a lot of tracks and a mess of backing singers on most -- and is that a steel drum at the end of "Loving Cup"? Hard to say.
Members of the band drift in and out. The transcendent "Shine a Light" is nearly ruined by producer Jimmy Miller subbing on drums. The song requires a fine touch, but Miller had no touch at all. Still, it's a thing of beauty in spite of that, and I just can't hear it without asking God for an Echoplex . . . He never answers. Miller drums on "Happy" too, but he can handle that one. He's just down for "percussion" on "Loving Cup", but I don't hear much Watts in there. Lead guitarist Mick Taylor, not long for the band, plays bass on "Tumbling Dice", "Torn and Frayed", "I Just Want to See His Face", and "Shine a Light"; Keith plays bass on "Casino Boogie", "Happy", and "Soul Survivor". Bill Plummer plays upright bass on a few tracks. That doesn't leave much Bill Wyman. Keith can't play bass worth a damn, by the way.
"I Just Want to See His Face" sounds like they left the tape running on a jam, and by gosh, it sounded so good they overdubbed some backing singers and released it. Listen closely: It's all of a piece, recorded rather carelessly in one shot, except for the backing singers. They're recorded much more carefully than the rest, in a different room, and they'd obviously rehearsed. It sticks out like a sore thumb.
The feel of the band is their best dire "don't give a damn if I go off the road" swagger, but some of the songs are fast, tumbling, headlong blitzes: I may be confused (I am: See Some Girls), but I can't think of much else in their catalog that moves like "Happy", "Rip this Joint", "Rocks Off", "Shake Your Hips", or "Turd on the Run".
Covers! They've always got covers, right? "Shake Your Hips" is the Slim Harpo song that ZZ Top had semi-borrowed a year or two earlier for "La Grange", and "Stop Breaking Down" is a Robert Johnson tune. Did they record any Johnson songs after this? I can't think of any.
"Well I never kept a dollar past sunset,
always burned a hole in my pants."
Best of all, it's just a big old sprawling filler-free record, very much like London Calling: A survey course in American music; a great band at their peak, trying to do everything at once and getting away with it. It never lasts. A year later, Keith was a zombie and the band was in deep freeze. Even after they recovered, they were never half so ambitious again.