Album: Exile on Main St.
. . .
OK, here we go. Exile on Main St., arguably — and I’m going to spend the next several days making that argument — the Rolling Stones’ finest hour. Famously recorded in the basement of Keith Richards waterfront villa in the South of France — the evil Allen Klein’s machinations having forced them to live outside of the U.K. for a year in order to get their tax shit together — and finished in Sunset Sound Studios in Hollywood, Exile on Main St. is the perfect combination of Keith Richards’ natural tendency towards chaos and Mick Jagger’s natural need for order.
And it begins at the beginning, with the least-known album opener of the Stones classic period — no shame when the other three were “Sympathy For The Devil,” “Gimme Shelter” and “Brown Sugar” — the table-setting “Rocks Off,” which almost instantly sucks you deep into, well, the morass of sound that typifies nearly every track on the record.
“Rocks Off” opens with a patented Keith Richards circular riff, a Charlie Watts snare slam and Mick Jagger’s guttural “oooohhh yeeeahhhh” and the kicks into gear with Keith’s guitars playing off of each other in each speaker. Apparently, during the recording, Keith kept falling asleep during takes (heroin alert!) causing engineer Andy Johns, outside in the Rolling Truck Stones Thing, to eventually head back to where he was staying, 40 minutes away. The second Johns got home — probably about 5:00AM, sun already rising, Keith rang Johns up because he’d come up with the second rhythm guitar part, asking Johns to immediately come back to capture it.
That’s what it was like to record Exile on Main St.
On the other hand, the two rhythm guitar parts sound amazing together, setting up the opening couplet of “Rocks Off.”
I hear you talking when I’m on the street
Your mouth don’t move, but I can hear you speak
As Charlie kicks out a killer drum roll as Mick finishes, “hear you speak,” Nicky Hopkins, who’d only played on a single song — “Sway” — on Sticky Fingers, announces that he was going to be a huge part of Exile on Main St, his piano barreling into the middle of “Rocks Off,” at the same time Keith joins in on harmonies.
What’s the matter with the boy?
He don’t come around no more
Is he checking out for sure?
Is he gonna close the door on me?
And I’m always hearing voices on the street
I want to shout, but I can hardly speak
Just want to point out that as Mick sings “hardly speak,” there’s a “hooooooooo” sound that I can’t figure out what the hell it is. It it a backing vocal? A guitar? A horn? Who knows? It shows up a couple of times later in the song, including seconds later just before Mick finishes the verse with a rare admission of sexual inadequacy.
I was making love last night to a dancer friend of mine
I can’t seem to stay in step
Because she comes every time that she pirouettes over me
And just before they hit the chorus, more elements of the Exile stew are added: Bobby Keys on sax and Jim Price on trumpet and trombone, all of which together makes the chorus of “Rocks Off” both unintelligible and thrilling, a chaotic catastrophic jumble of sounds that is so fucking awesome you might not even notice that Mick is continuing to admit issues in the bedroom department.
And I only get my rocks off while I’m dreaming
(Only get them off, only get them off, only get them off)
I only get my rocks off while I’m sleeping
(Only get them off, only get them off)
I’m not sure if there’s a bunch of vocal overdubs or guide vocals going on — and the horns are also adding harmonies, too — but listen hard enough and you can hear Mick killing it on “dreeeeeeeeeeeeeeminnnnng,” and tell it’s Keith singing “only get them off,” or you can just let it all wash over you as they slam into the second verse without even taking a breath.
I’m zipping through the days at lightning speed
Plug in, flush out and fire the fucking feed
Heading for the overload
Splattered on the nasty road
Kick me like you’ve kicked before
I can’t even feel the pain no more
Welp. While Exile is far less of an overtly druggy album than Sticky Fingers was, there is no mistaking what that lyric is all about. I mean after you’ve listened to it enough times to actually discern what they’re even singing: one of the charms of Exile on Main St. is that the vocals are buried deeper than ever. Or, more accurately, they’re overwhelmed by every other fucking thing happening in the songs.
After the second chorus, there’s a breakdown, genius producer Jimmy Miller adds a weird oscillation effect, making it sound like the whole song was underwater and breaking apart, the only rhythm a tambourine, guitars fragmented, ghostly Keith backing vocals floating around Mick’s lead.
Feel so hypnotized, can’t describe the scene, oh
(Can’t describe the sceeeeeeeene)
It’s all mesmerized, all that inside me, oh
Luckily, they’re rescued by the horn section, Keys and Price reaching into the murk and pulling them out, and kickstarting the full band back into the final verse.
The sunshine bores the daylights out of me
Chasing shadows, moonlight mystery
“The sunshine bores the daylights out of me,” is, of course, one of the greatest lines in Stones history, and I also appreciate the callback to “Moonlight Mile” that follows it.
After that, they’re once more heading for the overload and then we get a whole bunch of repeats of the chorus — Charlie mixing up the beat just because he could — with eventually Keys and Price singing it on their horns as Mick gets one last “whoooooooooooo” in before the fade. Oh, and poor Mick Taylor finally pops his head out of the mix, playing a buried lead just as the song fades. Presumably he was there the whole time, looking for a way in, or a way out.
While not as famous as the album openers that preceded it, “Rocks Off” is an absolutely extraordinary way to open Exile on Main St, a good way of instantly weeding out the faint-hearted, and an absolute thrill-ride from start to finish.
Fan-made video for “Rocks Off” using footage shot of the Stones in LA & NYC, 1971
“Rocks Off” live 1995
“Rocks Off” live in London, 2003
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