"Rocks Off," the first track of the Rolling Stones's Exile On Main Street, opens with a scratchy Keith Richards Telecaster riff punctuated by a single Charlie Watts snare hit. Mick Jagger lasciviously intones an "oh yeah," pitched perfectly between earnestness and irony. This sequence lasts all of five seconds, but you'd be hard-pressed to find five seconds that better articulate the brilliance of the Rolling Stones, much in the way that Exile, the band's 1972 shambling sprawl of a double-album that has recently enjoyed a re-issue, perfectly captures a too-brief period during which Rolling Stones were finally and indisputably the Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World.
Then it all ended nearly as soon as it began. Exile on Main Street may well be, as many claim, the finest album of the Stones's career, but it's also the sound of a slow implosion, of things falling apart, both the end of the Rolling Stones as the world had come to know them and the end of an era of rock and roll music as well. After Exile the band's dual appetite for drugs and infighting grew increasingly consumptive: 1973's Goat's Head Soup had moments of brilliance but also felt disjointed and fragmentary, while 1974's It's Only Rock 'n' Roll seemed half-baked and half-hearted. By the time the forgettable Black and Blue was released in 1976 the Stones were sounding more and more like hucksters, lazily plumbing fans' memories of former glories. It's an image they've never entirely managed to shake since, despite a career of unprecedented longevity. The lineup may have changed—Ron Wood replacing Mick Taylor in the mid-1970s, Darryl Jones supplanting Bill Wyman in the mid-1990s—but the chords remain the same, with returns dwindling artistically just as steadily as they increase financially, the line between song and shtick growing blurrier and blurrier.
None of this had been foretold in 1972, of course, when the Stones were capping off a startling run of creativity that began with the sonic riot of "Jumpin' Jack Flash" in 1968 and culminated in Exile on Main Street. The Damoclean sword under which the band made Exile has since assumed appropriately mythic proportions: recorded in a French villa that had once been a Gestapo headquarters, abetted by nightmarish amounts of drugs, the marathon recording sessions were infused with criminal depravity and an overall air of violence. Attending all this, albeit less spectacularly, was a world-weary exhaustion that had been encroaching upon the band since at least the mid-1960s. From the Redlands drug bust of 1967, through the departure and subsequent death of guitarist Brian Jones, through the murder of Meredith Hunter at Altamont in late 1969 and its renewed controversy via the Maysles' Gimme Shelter in 1970, the Stones had spent their period of creative windfall outrunning forces larger than themselves, and they'd run themselves ragged.
This exhaustion surely wasn't helped by dope, and by the recording of Exile it had grown oppressive and nearly unbearable. It was also the most compelling component of the music the Stones were making with an urgency that verged on a death wish. "The sunshine bores the daylights out of me," drawls Jagger in one of the most beautifully mordant and oft-quoted lines of "Rocks Off," and the snarl in his voice leaves little doubt that he means it. Only once we get past the cheeky pun of the sentiment do we realize the depths of its terror.
Exile found the Stones finally becoming that which they'd always wanted to be, that which they'd always worshipped: existential bluesmen crafting art-for-art's-sake out of nothing more than desperate necessity. For all of their country flirtations in this period the band was always, at its core, a group of rhythm and blues musicians. And during the recording of Exile on Main Street they became, for a small meaningful moment, the greatest R&B band in the world. If this sounds hyperbolic, listen to the uptown din of "All Down the Line," with its raucous out-chorus ("won't you be my little baby / for a while"--the Ronettes with a time limit) and soaring horn lines. Or the heart-stopping ferocity of "Happy," Keith Richards' autobiography distilled into three minutes. Or the glorious, lusty grandeur of "Tumbling Dice," simply the finest soul tune Jagger and Richards (or damn near anyone else) ever wrote and arguably Charlie Watts' finest hour.