In addition to being America’s only rock ’n’ roll magazine, CREEM happens to be the world’s best rock ’n’ roll magazine—and, it could be argued, the world’s most masturbatory. Because we like ourselves a little too much, every now and again, we’re going to review past CREEM reviews in a series called CREEMAINS. Expect the most deliciously spoiled CREEM, like in our take on Lester Bangs’ 1972 review of the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main St. A lot has changed in 50 years. Lap it up! And read more Lester Bangs in the CREEM Archive, here.
Picture a world far different from ours today: there’s no internet and social media, financial stability is in abundance, guitars are the most powerful force in music, and a 30-year-old British man with charisma lives and walks among us. Not only this, but he, Mick Jagger, is being exiled from England, along with the rest of his band, the Rolling Stones.
Admittedly, it would be a spicier story if the Stones had their passports revoked for serious drug charges, or they were thrown from the country for making music that rocked too hard. Instead, the biggest band in the world left their Queen and country to emigrate across the smallest stretch of sea to France to avoid paying the left-wing government’s tax on very high earners.
This period of brutal (self-)banishment and the subsequent struggle abroad—set up in a mansion in the South of France with their loved ones—produced what is widely considered the Stones very best album, 1972’s Exile on Main St. Activities included sunbathing, bingeing drugs and alcohol, and casually making an album when it suited. Or, as Jagger said, just “accumulating material,” knowing they’d use it one day. Unfortunately, this tenth album was panned at the time as their worst. Rolling Stone, for example, talked of the album’s “blunt impact” and admitted that “when you’ve been given the best, it becomes hard to accept anything less.” Rambling on at 18-tracks, Exile followed albums of crisp baseball-striking hits like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “Brown Sugar,” and “Gimme Shelter.” Naturally, it was criticised for not having a clear direction, or style, or those smash singles. (Though, retrospectively, “Happy,” sung by guitarist Keith Richards, is one of their all-time greats.)
The listener most affronted—perhaps “morally disgusted” surmises the mood of his review best—by their offering was this magazine’s infamous critic Lester Bangs. “This is at once the worst studio album the Stones have ever made, and the most maddeningly inconsistent and strangely depressing release of their career,” he begins of Britain’s greatest rock’n’roll export since the Beatles, adding that the first time he listened to Exile, “I became utterly depressed.”
You could go so far as to say a boilerplate for stan behaviour was cast the day Bangs wrote this review. It wasn’t just a bad album to his expert ear, but it did not arrive precisely as he had expected and wanted: “I am damned pissed off that it isn’t what I thought it would be, in sound, content, impact, you name it.” He proceeds to tell a story of skipping out of work early to drive 500 miles to watch them play live. “For that alone, they owe me more than this,” he concludes, bitterly.
Bangs’ analysis gets somewhere when he takes umbrage with the fact that this was a bunch of Brits making distinctly American music. The album attempts to bring together blues, rock ’n’ roll, swing, country and gospel—or, as Jagger himself reflects, the Stones were “runaway outlaws using the blues as its weapon against the world.” Okay, son. The result is both hazy and a rat king of sounds—you’d have to pick the beast apart with each tail but it’s so impenetrable and raw, you get the feeling you’d be bitten if you did. Can you blame Bangs for getting stuck on said observation, attacking this piece of Americana with vigour and finding the words about his home country to be lacking? “The lyrics pretend to mean something, and want you to think that some sort of statement about America is being made, neither of which is true. Lines like ‘Thank you for your wine California... yes, I got the desert in my toenails ... but come on down Sweet Virginia’ are totally fraudulent.”
The result is both hazy and a rat king of sounds—you’d have to pick the beast apart with each tail but it’s so impenetrable and raw, you get the feeling you’d be bitten if you did
In fairness, what do they mean, those words? There’s a song called “Turd On The Run,” giving new meaning to throwing shit at the wall to see what sticks, remarks our critic. Maybe this is a little ungenerous of Bangs, you might think, but his suspicions were validated in the 2010 documentary Stones In Exile where Jagger laments that they [insert British accent here] simply must get this album done! So, they write random phrases and throw them in a pile then pick them out at random to make lyrics. That’s how you end up with lines like “no sleep / Skydiver inside her, slip rope, stunt flyer” on “Casino Boogie,” I suppose.
The whole album runs out of gas about two-thirds of the way through, Bangs realises, which again I agree with. Though in the same way the record feels bloated and unfocused, it’s mostly hard to concentrate on what Bangs is actually saying beyond emoting (I’ve read his wilting and fist-shaking review through three times in fits of laughter—not so much at him as with him). “It’s all so strange, I almost wish the record hadn’t come out,” he writes in a bewildered daze. I like to think that Bangs would be screaming, crying, throwing up to find that critics have done a U-turn on an album that’s now frequently voted one of the best rock albums of all time.
In fairness, what do they mean, those words?
At the heart of his rant, Bangs does envision what came to pass, something that later-fawning revised reviews take for granted: that this album was part of the end of a spritely, carefree era of rock ’n’ roll. When he signs off with the suggestion that the world will have to look to younger bands to provide rock “in a serious way,” he’s right. Punk was just about to sweep in with the Ramones and the Clash, alongside T. Rex, to show what the genre meant next.
Who, really, could have predicted the rest of the Stones career after that missionary journey from riches to richer, their tireless trajectory that flies in the face of every word Bangs wrote? His perceived-as-knackered-and-ancient-at-30 bunch are still one of the U.K.’s strongest musical exports. Even the most famous male pop star on the planet Harry Styles directly emulated Jagger in his solo career from the start, for just a percentage of that boyish joy de vivre and shagger energy. Apologies to Bangs, but the Rolling Stones really don’t gather moss, they keep on rocking and rolling with 79-year-old Jagger’s eight kids in tow. The youngest, at the time of writing, is five-years-old. Talk about vitality.