BY ED KING ROCK EXPERT They had to go and make it longer, didn’t they? The Rolling Stones couldn’t leave the legacy of the sprawling Exile on Main Street alone. In this newly remastered, expanded edition rock’s most notorious tax exiles add 10 previously unreleased/unfinished tracks. Shotgun-worthy Don Was helped shepherd these outtakes into the 21st century, with Mick Jagger writing new lyrics and adding new vocal parts, in some cases. Considering that the Stones have been reviving leftover jams as new material for more than half their career (e.g., “Start Me Up” had been sitting around for 6 years before being revised and released as the band’s modern-day theme song), why didn’t they just release these tracks as a new Stones album and do the necessary work of trimming Exile on Main Street down from a flabby double album to killer EP it essentially is? Lord knows this collection of 10 never-before-released tracks, kicking off with the funky “Pass the Wine (Sophia Loren)” and the pleading “Plundered My Soul,” would have been the band’s “best album since Exile.”
OK, the newest “best Stones album since Exile” wouldn’t have been that easy to concoct – some of these outtakes are early versions of eventual songs from the album. I especially dig “Good Time Woman,” an early sketch of what would become the sublime “Tumbling Dice,” a song I could bring to my lab and never cease to find fascinating in the way each part contains the DNA code for the whole of the song. Surely there would be dozens of sketches left on the floor of Compass Point Studios for them to fill out side two. Then the Stones could have really shaken up the rock world by taking a washcloth to the abundance of blackface greasepaint smeared across the two LPs of the original release.
Considering how much slack I’ve cut lesser bands over the years, it may be unfair to find fault the Stones for dragging down what could have been the greatest EP in the history of rock with a bunch of overblown gospel-blues jams and fun rave-ups, but do we really need to spend any more time stoned and nodding along to Bobby Keys’ sax solo on “Casino Boogie?” Does making it through “Sweet Virginia” earn us a hole-punch on our Educated, White, Middle-Class Dude Who Really Digs American Traditional Music card? How many times does that card need to be punched before we’re awarded an actual album of American traditional music?
I was so excited the day I finally purchased this album in high school and dropped the needle on “Rocks Off!” The charms of “Rip This Joint” and “Shake Your Hips” were undeniable. But then the album required frequent needle-lifting. Who was I joking, I already owned actual Leon Russell albums; I didn’t need to hear my Rolling Stones – the greatest singles band of the ’60s – do phony Southern rock like “Torn and Frayed.” I’d rather listen to The Allman Brothers. Hell, I’d rather listen to the stoner in my high school who led a Southern rock band of his own with his brother and a couple of other long-haired guys. They even included “Honky Tonk Women” in their set! “Sweet Black Angel” sounds cool, especially on this remastered edition (and I usually don’t like hearing my old vinyl Stones albums cleaned up in any way), but it’s essentially one of a series of hokey, sensitive folk songs Jagger had been singing since “Back Street Girl” through “Factory Girl.” I’ve got to admire the lengths to which Jagger went in turning on the ladies. The man takes a 360 approach.
Another song that wouldn’t have appeared on my dream EP edition of Exile is “Loving Cup.” Again, I’ll admit that with the parts sounding so distinct on this remastered edition that this isn’t a complete waste of time, but imagine sitting at rehearsal as a non-songwriting member of the Stones. You’ve already been learning the aforementioned keepers as well as the rip-snorting “Happy” and the poor man’s restatements of the album’s rocking tracks, “All Down the Line” and “Stop Breaking Down,” and now Mick and Keef want to play you “Loving Cup.” If you could have seen into the future you might have suggested that they save this song for that 2010 reclamation project, you know, the latest “best album since Exile.”
Lord knows I’ve tried. I’ve gotten stoned and chugged from a shared bottle of Jack Daniel’s while singing backing vocals around a single mic with my best mates. I’ve stared at the freaks on the album cover and the details of handwritten studio notes, letting the authenticity wash over me. Each time I put on this album, however, I find myself lifting the needle to the songs that do what I feel the Stones do best. I’d be an idiot to say that this is anything but a classic album, but it’s a classic album the way Derek and the Dominos’ Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs is an excellent album. Those of you too young to think of Eric Clapton as anything but the feather-haired, tweed jacket-wearing tool whose career started with the Michelob “After Midnight” ad are already sniggering, right? Believe me, Clapton also swilled from the shared bottle of Jack while making a heartfelt double album. If I have to choose one of these albums over the other I’ll choose Layla because that was the best that band was capable of giving. The Stones already did better and would do better again, when they finally put an end to their minstrel show and got back to making the sharp, urban R&B-informed rock ‘n roll of Some Girls. There, I said it, I prefer a Ron Wood-era Stones album to Exile on Main Street.
For the record, as much as I enjoy making this argument to rile people up I truly believe what I say about the album. I really wish I liked it better. I’d be a much cooler person – seriously, much less of the tight-ass that I am. But that’s the way god made me.