Mick Jagger’s opening line: “I’m the man on the mountain — yes, come on up.” Onward, Mr. Watts weaves around the beat, smashing down on his high-hat, forming weird and clattering snare-drum fills. He both shapes and follows the group’s euphoria and the music’s subtle acceleration. The Stones gather around the song like pickpockets, jostling and interfering with it. Keith Richards, playing rhythm guitar and singing backup, quits harmonizing and starts to shout.
This performance represents to me the sound of “Exile” in idealized form: a dark, dense, loosely played, semiconscious tour through American blues, gospel and country music, recorded in a basement in France. “Exile” was made around the Stones’ creative peak and in unusual circumstances: they were tax exiles, forced to live away from home.
It is often called one of the best rock records ever made, and framed as an after-the-fact concept album: a wise horror show, an audio diary of rock stars finally facing the rigors of marriage, children and addiction. (“ ‘Exile’ is about casualties, and partying in the face of them,” the critic Lester Bangs wrote in 1972. “The party is obvious. The casualties are inevitable.”) The notion of the record as story also comes from the strong documentary images around its creation— Dominique Tarlé’s black-and-white pictures of the Stones at Villa Nellcôte, shirtless and dazed in the stifling air of a basement in the South of France. These images dot the 64-page booklet and the DVD film included in the reissue’s deluxe edition and have been part of the avalanche of press around the reissue, released by Universal on Tuesday.
Recently, thinking about this alternate “Loving Cup” and why it’s not on the original album made me wonder what the ideal of “Exile” really is. I find most of “Exile” good, but not great. (That era of Stones music, fantastic. The album, not so much.) I can’t see it as a masterpiece, not only because I distrust the idea of masterpieces, but because I especially don’t want one from the Stones, who make songs and albums like birds’ nests — collaborative tangles with delicate internal balances — and have a history of great triage work, assembling bits and pieces recorded over a long period. But “Exile” remains the preference of the most judicious Stones fans. Why? What is its essence?
It’s a tricky question. “Exile” can seem like a unity of sound, place and time; much has been made of the fact that one of its greatest songs, “Ventilator Blues,” was inspired by the discomfort of the basement studio at Nellcôte, Mr. Richards’s rented mansion on the French Riviera, with its one small air vent. You can make yourself hear that heat, if you want.
But the recordings for “Exile” didn’t all happen in that basement. They stretched from 1969 to 1972, across the making of two other excellent and, to me, superior records — “Let It Bleed” and “Sticky Fingers.” It’s not always the band you know and, perhaps, love: there are a number of “Exile” tracks whose parts are not played by the usual suspects. (That’s Jimmy Miller, the producer, playing drums on “Happy” and “Shine a Light,” not Mr. Watts. That’s Mr. Taylor, or Mr. Richards, or Bill Plummer playing bass on about half the record, not Bill Wyman.)
As it happens, the “Loving Cup” described above was not recorded in Nellcôte’s basement but at Olympic Studios in London in the spring of 1969. (The album version — more laid back, not as good — comes from Los Angeles, after the French sojourn.) The Nellcôte experience was important to “Exile,” there’s no question. But the work of several Stones researchers indicates that more than half the album was recorded at other places, under more normal working conditions.
The new reissue both enshrines “Exile” and questions it. The first disc — a sharper version of the album itself, sounding far better than its last remastering in 1994, with deeper bass and greater detail — strengthens the idea of “Exile” as an inviolable document, dense and atmospheric and brilliantly post-produced, a thing unto itself. But the second bonus disc blows that idea apart, with new vocal tracks by Mr. Jagger over old instrumental tracks of “Exile”-related provenance, and other material that seems to come from the general era. So now you’re getting “Exile” from two perspectives: first as a finished 18-track entity, a masterpiece, if you want; then as something broader and more amorphous. If I’m reading the signs correctly, these two perspectives have some relation to how Mr. Richards and Mr. Jagger think about the album.
Mr. Jagger, who has criticized the album’s production over the years and wondered aloud about the strength of its songs, is more willing to dispense with Nellcôte as the album’s central force.
“You mean what is the album’s esprit?” he asked, rephrasing a question in a recent telephone conversation. The idea of Nellcôte as the album’s unifier is “three-quarters true,” he explained.
“It wouldn’t be the same record without Nellcôte,” he added. “But then it wouldn’t be the same record without what we did in London. Nellcôte was more hothouse, it was more living-in-the-studio. But what would the difference have been if we recorded ‘Ventilator Blues’ at Olympic or at Nellcôte? Who knows, and who cares?”
Miller, the album’s producer, died in 1994. So Mr. Jagger commissioned the producer Don Was to investigate extra studio material from the period. (“When Mick first called me about it,” Mr. Was said, “it was like he was asking me, ‘Can you do me a favor, man? Can you take the garbage out?’ ”) But then Mr. Jagger got caught up in the search himself, trying to determine what other tracks might qualify as extra matter for “Exile.” Mr. Jagger said he thought only in terms of time period, not by style, sound, location, or any other criterion. For him, “Exile” is less a specific sequence of tracks than an era of recording, starting with that “Loving Cup” at Olympic Studios.
“It’s a good story to say that what was created at Nellcôte was a result of the incredibly decadent atmosphere,” Mr. Jagger said. “Well, yeah: it’s probably true that the atmosphere affected the feeling of the music, and the sound of the studio. But you’ve no idea how much or how little. And in the end, it’s just a sort of myth, really.”
Can he hear the sound of the Nellcôte studios when he listens to the album?
“I’ve no idea which is the Nellcôte stuff and which isn’t, to be honest.”
Mr. Richards feels differently. “All of the bone and the muscle of the record was done down in that basement,” he said when asked the same question. The rest of the work he considers “fairy dust.”
It’s the opposite interpretation, but if you read the literature — particularly Robert Greenfield’s book “Exile on Main St.: A Season in Hell With the Rolling Stones” (Da Capo Press) — it makes sense. Nellcôte was Mr. Richards’s house, and he was one of its mainstays that summer, with his girlfriend Anita Pallenberg and their son Marlon. The other band members came and went; Inasmuch as “Exile” has an esprit of place, Mr. Richards lived in it, and Mr. Jagger visited.
“I don’t think we were conscious of making a record that was gonna be about that place and the way we felt at the time,” Mr. Richards said in a phone interview. “But the word ‘exile’ does describe pretty much the atmosphere and the conditions that we were recording in. I mean, we’d all had to leave our places in England. Not that the Stones were particularly patriotic — I know better than that — but it was really a jerk, when you’re working with a team of guys and you all have to uproot at once.”
Mr. Richards contributed little to the extra tracks on the bonus disc and distrusted altering even the outtakes and unused tracks; as he said to another reporter earlier this year, “I didn’t want to interfere with the Bible.”
“My job was to enforce the no-fiddling rule,” he told me. “I didn’t want to play around with it at all. It’s all analog, and of course the remixing involved a change to digital, but otherwise, if anybody came up with a bright idea, I said no.”
It’s not clear that Mr. Jagger heard him. He put new vocals on four of the bonus tracks: “Plundered My Soul,” “Following the River,” “Dancing in the Light” and “Pass the Wine.” In “Plundered” — after some newly tracked guitar in the opening by Mr. Taylor — you hear a 66-year-old voice singing recent lyrics: an aging aristocrat describing a younger man’s appetites, over what appears to be the Stones sounding worn and wracked in their 20s.
Mr. Was believes that nobody, not even the Stones themselves, can remember when the backing tracks for “Plundered My Soul” were recorded.
The strange thing is that “Plundered My Soul” is very good: the most soulful and energetic Stones track I can think of in almost 30 years. Until recently, the Stones have been reluctant to release their unheard archives. Perhaps that’s because they’re so good at putting old scraps into new patchworks — the then-three-year-old songs retooled in 1972 for “Exile,” the then-nine-year-old songs ( “Tops” and “Waiting on a Friend”) given new vocals and new life in 1981 on “Tattoo You.”
The rest of the bonus disc is very good, too, patchwork, mysteries and all. According to Mr. Was, two tracks come from Nellcôte — a petulant shuffle called “I’m Not Signifying” and an alternate version of “Soul Survivor,” sung by Mr. Richards. One other, a nasty R&B instrumental called “Title 5,” came from a tape box marked “1969,” though Mr. Was suspects it was made earlier. So do I.
I don’t know if a great album must serve as an accounting of where the band members’ heads were at, or where they were geographically, or when they made it. But in the Stones’ case, I do want to hear the group sound, as much as possible. I want a minimum of detours, absences and static longeurs, with introductions and bridges and codas. The Stones wrote and arranged carefully, but this is a record that favors jamming over composing; though only one track is longer than five minutes, many quickly drag from indirection: “Happy,” “Casino Boogie,” “Stop Breaking Down,” “Shine a Light” — half the record, really.
Still, because of its rolling eccentricity, “Exile” always wants to be heard in full, or at least in small groupings, including the two great segues: the hard “Rocks Off” into the harder “Rip This Joint”; the angry gnarl of “Ventilator Blues” into the menthol drift of “I Just Want to See His Face.” Throughout, I love Mr. Jagger’s yapping voice, determined to be heard, feeling its way through cultural appropriation. I think Mr. Richards’s limping rhythm in “Tumbling Dice” is one of the great energies in popular music, even if I’ve never worked up much love for the song.
But back to the alternate take of “Loving Cup,” which still seems like the star of the whole enterprise.
I asked Don Was what he thought. “There’s a sound that’s identified with ‘Exile’ that’s become part of the vocabulary for every rock ‘n’ roll musician subsequently,” he said. “And this is the ultimate track of the style that characterizes ‘Exile.’ It’s not sloppiness; it’s width, in terms of where everyone feels the beat. You’ve got five individuals feeling the beat in a different place. At some point, the centrifugal force of the rhythm no longer holds the band together. That ‘Loving Cup’ is about the widest area you can have without the song falling apart.”
What leapt out was the phrase “the style that characterizes ‘Exile,’ ” especially in connection with a track that’s not actually on the record. For me, “Exile” works best as a suggestion, not a fact.