Thursday, May 27, 2010

All Down The Line

Last night I finally got round to watching the documentary that had been shown in the Imagine slot on BBC1 about the recording of Exile On Main Street. It featured a lot of footage that had been shot for Cocksucker Blues along with other bits and pieces from home movies and stills shot by a lucky French photographer, Dominic Tarlé, who had turned up initially to shoot some pictures of Keith and Anita and ended up moving in for six months (in the doc he used the almost Bill Clinton defence of I never took drugs really!). As a historical record it was great but as a snapshot of a band at its most chaotic and brilliant it was better.

Watching it with a mixture of voyeuristic delight, similar to watching a YouTube clip of a car crash, and jealousy, in the sense that you wished you'd been there, I was taken with the darkness of it all. The complete and utter feeling of plunging towards night that was evoked, even though the doc was heavily censored; no Gram Parsons, Ian Stewart or very little reference to the destruction that was left in the wake of four months or so surrounded by junk dealers. But God it looked like the place you wanted to be. Like engineer Andy Johns said, he was twenty one and there was no other place anyone wanted to be. You just wondered how the hell they pulled it all together.

For me Exile remains the last word in rock albums, in fact it finished a quartet of Beggars Banquet, Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers; these four albums made all future rock albums redundant; and this come from someone who recorded albums with a rock punk, albeit punk. It made all future Stones albums redundant as well. After Exile they never made another complete piece of work. We can all point to tracks we loved from later albums but there is nothing left to be said. People just didn't make records like those anymore, they had nothing left to say and the whole drug fuelled careering into disaster so epitomised by Keith Richards became sad sorry fan-copy activity when done by Johnny Thunders, Stiv and Dee Dee (all people I love). Richards opened a door into a whole period of hassle for the rest of the band as he waded in the waters of opiate; but at least he sort of kept it together unlike so many others who followed in his wake.

For me these times became a watershed moment in rock music. Rock had to change but so many bands only wanted to be The Stones. They based their look, their chops and their drug intake on the blueprint drawn up by Mick 'n Keef never thinking that new roads need laying. Even punk bands descended into the same errors that so many R&B rock outfits had, getting feather cuts, emulating their heroes but never quite cutting it in the same way. The fact is most of them thought that the drugs needed to come first instead of the music; for all his intake Richards never lost sight of the music.

It also helped to be really really rich with hangers on who want to sort it all out for you.

So now they've remastered and re-released Exile again, adding extra tracks that have been added to in modern studios. I'm sure it's great but I'm not going to bother. For me the album was complete, I don't need extra versions or songs that didn't make the finished album. I got a remastered version a couple of years back and I play it every other week but I still miss the scratch that was on my vinyl copy, right in the middle of Just Want To See His Face. I love the strained sound quality the record has, the sense of sweat and confusion.

Everytime I hear it it triggers memories for me of all night sessions and my own out of control times. Much as I still love and buy music no modern records offer me the same sense of being there as so many albums of that period can do. Within a few years of Exile's release SSL mixing desks came into prominence and with it the end of bleed through. Every track was gated and compressed. Those background sounds, those loose asides that peppered records of that time disappeared and then Fairlight and Pro-tools finished the job. There are still bands out there who deliver a sense of being in a gang but it's never on the record. It has all been so cleaned up.

Exile is the last word of fabulous decadence. The end of days for rock as an idea, a force for bigger ideas. No other band could have done this over four albums; from Street Fighting Man through Gimme Shelter and Moonlight Mile to the last fading note of Soul Survivor there's a body of work that others can only dream of. Resplendent in ragged glory, dropped chords and loose harmony they offer us a defining moment.

The Kings are dead, we're a Coffee Republic now.

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