I never hated the Stones like I did Bruce Springsteen, but, I never really liked them either. As a teenager listening to punk and indie rock, the Stones smacked of excess: over-zealous studio production, arena tours, and a river of heroin.
When I was 22, I went back to Kentucky for a long weekend. There, Vann Genodeff and I went to Florence Y'all, a popular mall in Kentucky. Vann mentioned that he'd been listening to the Rolling Stones lately. Good friend that I am, I made fun of him. Then, he bought me a copy Exile on Main Street.
I was wrong. Vann was right.
Exile on Main Street's production is understated (some would call it outright crappy), and most of the songs would sound ridiculous in an arena. The Stones recorded over a 4-year period---largely in the basement of Nellcote, a French mansion occupied by the Gestapo during World War II. Throughout the sessions, Nelcotte's old ventilation system made funny noises, which affected the recordings and supposedly inspired the song Ventilator Blues (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0wEvKIrGcNI).
Upon its release, Exile on Main Street was a critical flop, largely because of its ragged production quality. Yet, in recent years, it's regularly listed among the top 20 albums of all time. Why the critical sea change? I believe Exile on Main Street is similar to punk rock. They both started in the 70s when arena rock and slick production were just hitting their stride. Enormous crowds flocked to see mega-bands playing meticulous songs. But punk rock and Exile on Main Street didn't quite fit. While much of punk can be traced to a conscious reaction to Bay City Rollers, Chicago, and the like, Exile was more the result of Mick Jagger's failed attempt to move away from rock 'n roll and Keith Richard's ongoing heroin addiction. Today, critics have a few decades of not-so-slick production under their belts and appreciate both punk and Exile on Main Street much better.
The album wasn't just a happy accident, though. The Stones, like nearly all British rock bands at the time, had worshipped early blues and folk music and bent those genres to reshape rock 'n roll. Now Jagger was trying to navigate the murky waters beyond rock 'n roll. Although he didn't find quite what he was looking for, the end result was rock-infused blues rather than blues-infused rock.
Exile on Main Street is still one of Jagger's least favorite albums---perhaps because he never reached his destination. However, the place he stumbled upon may be better than what he was seeking.
If you're interested in checking out Exile on Main Street, I recommend the following:
Shake Your Hips http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EVJUJxCQp0I
Sweet Virginia http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jmbRWvUrnLs
Better yet, just buy the album, get in your car, and drive south.