"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.