Saturday, May 12, 2012
40 Year Itch : Basement Tapes
All rock records should be made in dank basements of old Nazi strongholds on the Cote d'Azur, with reliable heroin connections in Marseille and Gram Parsons hovering in the paneled hallways. That way they might sound half as good as Exile On Main St.
-Barney Hoskyns, The Observer, 2004
Recorded in the cold and humid basement of tax exile Keith Richards's villa in the South of France, Exile On Main Street is often hailed as the greatest rock album of all time. How it ever got recorded with all the drugs, the booze, the never-ending house party, with anywhere between twenty and thirty visitors making noises upstairs, is a tribute, to of all people, Keef himself. Sure he was strung out and sleeping the day away, but at the oddest hours, Keith was a self described task master churning out song after song:
"Rocks Off", "Happy", "Ventilator Blues", "Tumbling Dice", "All Down The Line" --that's five string tuning to the max. I was starting to really fix my trademark; I wrote all that stuff within a few days. Suddenly, with the five-string, songs were just dripping off my fingers".
Keith might have a line or two in mind to go with these riffs but it was up to Mick to come up with the lyrics. As Keith wrote in his autobiography:
"Most of what I had to do was to come up with riffs and ideas that would turn Mick on. To write songs he could handle. They had to be good records but translatable to being played on stage. I was the butcher cutting the meat"
To this day Mick has referred to Exile as "a bit overrated"...with , again in his opinion, none of the great songs that made Sticky Fingers and Let It Bleed such classics. But Mick wasn't always around for Exile. He would occasionally disappear with his new very pregnant bride Bianca . Keith was living the album-- producing two songs a day on a heroin habit which he said helped him shut out all of the daily stuff and concentrate on the music. "Happy" wasn't even recorded with the Stones but with producer Jimmy Miller on drums, Bobby Keys on baritone and Keith doing everything else.
Even when that legendary summer at Villa Nellcote ended, the Stones still spent four or five months in LA mixing and over dubbing, recording two new cuts ( "Torn And Frayed and "Loving Cup"), adding percussion in some places, backing vocals in others. Richards and Jagger were both at the monumental recording of Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace album at LA's New Temple Missionary Baptist Church, and were inspired to add gospel inflections to songs like "Let It Loose" and "Shine A Light".
Released on May 12, 1972, the album got mixed reviews. Naturally some critics compared it unfavorably to The Beatles double album. Lenny Kaye, writing for Rolling Stone, said "here are songs that are better, there are songs that are worse, and others you'll probably lift the needle for when the time is due."
To listen to Exile in its entirety --even the remastered 2010 deluxe version--is to immerse yourself in a thick stew of roots oriented rock n roll at its most ragged. For the most part, the songs don't sound over practiced ( though sounds can be deceiving-- "Tumbling Dice" was played more than 100 times before they captured that languid intensity we hear today). The bloom of inspiration shines on just about every cut. Still, I'll try to follow Lenny Kaye's lead and, at the risk of losing some of that claustrophobic basement funk, condense Exile into one epic ten song LP:
1 Rocks Off
2 Rip This Joint
3 Tumbling Dice
4 Sweet Virginia
5 Loving Cup
7 Let It Loose
8 All Down The Line
9 Shine A Light
10 Soul Survivor