Almost ten years ago, after seeing the first Lord of the Rings movie, I decided to read The Hobbit one summer since I had never read it, and though I have largely forgotten it, there is one passage that has always haunted me. It’s when Bilbo and the dwarves get lost in the forest of Mirkwood, which is so dark that after a while they can no longer discern night from day. Eventually, they notice a group of elves doing whatever it is they do around a campfire. But when they approach the fire, the light is extinguished and the elves are nowhere to be found. This happens a couple more times, and then Bilbo falls asleep in exhaustion, only to find when he wakes that he and the dwarves have been captured by spiders. (Find out what happens Christmas 2013 in a movie theater near you in The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug.) That fleeting image of a surreal celebration around a campfire — emerging slowly out of the darkness and then vanishing upon closer inspection, multiple times — is the perfect way to describe how the Rolling Stones’ sprawling double album Exile on Main St. unfolds. Every song flickers into existence and disappears before it can be fully understood, making Exile on Main St. one of the most challenging listens in the rock & roll canon.
There’s also a distinct lack of hit material here — only “Tumbling Dice” and “Happy” receive classic rock radio airplay nowadays, and those are considered fairly minor classics compared to the Stones’ other material. Making the situation all the more alienating initially is the deliberately dense and messy production, so it really takes several listens for the album to take shape. But once it does, man, is this album a treat. It may very well be the best rock & roll album ever made. I have never tried to actually rank albums by how great they are (I leave that to people who were actually there when this music was around), but if I did, I’d probably stick Exile on Main St. at number two, right after Sgt. Pepper. I have always seen Exile on Main St. as rock & roll’s last hurrah.
Rock had come into its own in the back half of the ’60s and peaked in 1971 with a slew of iconic albums like Led Zeppelin IV, Who’s Next, Imagine, What’s Going On, and Tapestry. There would be great albums in subsequent years, but Exile on Main St., released in May 1972, was when the tidal wave created by the Sgt. Pepper tsunami crested. After Exile on Main St., we started seeing popular music branch out into more permanent genres without nearly as much crossover. Until this point, bands like the Beatles and the Stones had enlivened their music by incorporating different styles into an eclectic mix. After Exile on Main St., it became easier to judge albums as “good for that kind of music;” it’s when rock and pop ceased to be synonymous.
Though we saw some great music in the ’70s, it was actually a decade of decline, particularly in the second half. One of the reasons we saw more genre-specific music is that music just became less organic; it became far more commercial and a lot less regional. Certainly, many of the post-Exile classic rock acts that rose to prominence in the ’70s — Aerosmith, Kiss, AC/DC, etc. — owe their entire sound to Exile on Main St.; it really isn’t an overstatement to label Exile on Main St. the blueprint of ’70s rock. The Stones had spent their previous three albums — Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers, released in 1968, 1969 and 1971, respectively — absorbing the roots of American rock quite credibly into their sound en route to producing three masterpieces.
But nothing could prepare the world for the flat-out blues-and-boogie assault of Exile on Main St., the release of which capped an unprecedented run of four of the greatest albums of all time. It wasn’t well-received then, but like so many great artistic achievements, it wasn’t properly understood at the time of its release. I feel like an entire book could be written about this album. The story alone — how the band, owing a fortune in taxes to the British government after getting screwed by their manager Allen Klein, fled first to the south of France and then to Los Angeles to write and record Exile on Main St. — is the stuff of legend. Then there’s Jimmy Miller’s production, a viscous, grimy, old-fashioned muck that gives the album the atmosphere and feel of a roadside bar — one that keeps appearing and reappearing along the highway on a long, hot, sticky summer night.