I’m riding a mighty big bandwagon when I tell you that Exile on Main Street is my favorite Stones record. It’s like championing the virtues of Sgt. Pepper’s or Dark Side of the Moon. Really, those are great albums? Wow, who knew. But here’s the thing… my favorite Stones songs—“Street Fighting Man,” “No Expectations,” “Get off of My Cloud” (hell, I even love “Shattered”)—do not appear on Exile. It is a perfect (double) album without one perfect single on all of its 18 tracks. Exile is a string of beautifully flawed pearls—gospel sketches, country weepers, barroom stompers, bare-bones blues. And this is why I think that any band approaching the album with ideas about cover versions should just go ahead and play the whole damn thing.
This is what Pussy Galore, one of my favorite New York scuzz-rock bands, did in 1986, with a cassette-only release that “sounds like it was recorded in the tank of a Lower East Side toilet.” If that seems like hyperbole, you have no idea how trashy, and thus, in a way, how perfectly apt, their take on the 1972 classic is (find out here). But now let’s take the case of Phish, who offer their own live version of Exile (above) from their 2009 “Festival 8” tour. I’ve never been much of a Phish fan, I’ll aver, but I must also cop to a grudging respect for them. Partly that’s due to their respect for music not their own. Per a longstanding tradition, Phish dons a different musical “costume” every Halloween show, playing a full album from a band they admire. For example, we’ve previously featured their 1996 live cover of the Talking Heads’ classic Remain in Light. Does it work? Not entirely, but their love for the material shines through.
They seem much more at home with the Stones, and the almost note-for-note live set is a hell of a lot of fun to watch, I have to say. Phish is not by any stretch a hip band, and they avoid any kind of experimentation in this loving tribute. But that’s kind of what makes it great. While the unpretentious enthusiasm, tight musicianship, and professionalism might seem to mark this as the antithesis of what L.A. Times Randall Roberts calls Pussy Galore’s “criminally unpracticed rock and roll stunt,” what unites them both is that both groups “obviously loved the original album,” whether their take on it is mangled parody or well-rehearsed, fun-loving rock out.
The original Exile is, yes, a masterpiece. It’s also a great conversation piece. Ask any die-hard Stones fan about its recording and you’re sure to hear anecdote after decadent anecdote (as fully documented in the 2010 film Stones in Exile). The band recorded the album in 1971 at Keith Richards’ rented villa, Nellcôte, in the South of France, where they’d relocated to evade taxes in Britain. During months of all-night sessions, thousands of dollars of heroin flowed through the house, along with visitors like William S. Burroughs, Terry Southern, and Stones’ country-rock muse Gram Parsons (who managed to get himself thrown out). It’s a true testament to the band’s fortitude and razor-sharp creative focus that their extended stay in a rock star playground produced such a brilliantly economical record, instead of the bloated mess it could have been.