On Its 25th Anniversary, Hear Liz Phair’s Groundbreaking Exile in Guyville Juxtaposed Song-By-Song With the Album That Inspired It, the Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street

Images via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons. Liz Phair left, Mick Jag­ger right

In 1971, post-Alta­mont fias­co, the Rolling Stones went into exile… not on some dusty small town drag, but on the French Riv­iera, where the band decamped for pur­pos­es of tax eva­sion and began record­ing in Kei­th Richards’ rent­ed vil­la near Nice. Every­one knows what hap­pened next—a slop­py, soupy, ragged, glo­ri­ous hash of coun­try, blues, and coun­try-blues, fil­tered through a haze of booze and hero­in and the Stones’ devo­tion to rock and roll as macho endurance exer­cise: Exile on Main Street.

The album, with its cov­er col­lage of Amer­i­cana grotes­querie and kitsch, may have “killed the Rolling Stones,” Jack Hamil­ton argues at The Atlantic, but it launched a thou­sand imi­ta­tors in the ensu­ing decades, a thou­sand would-be Kei­th Richards get­ting strung out and mak­ing dirty, raunchy rock, “pitched per­fect­ly between earnest­ness and irony.” Four­teen years after the album’s release, dar­lings of trashy New York noise rock, Pussy Galore, cov­ered the album song-for-song. The effort “sounds like it was record­ed in the tank of a Low­er East Side toi­let,” writes Ran­dall Roberts.

Pussy Galore gui­tarist Neil Hager­ty sure­ly deserves the Richards mantle—taking sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll, and lo-fi record­ing to absurd lengths with his lat­er project Roy­al Trux. But one of the ironies of the testos­terone-fueled Exile on Main Street’s influ­ence on these bands is that they fea­tured two of the tough­est women in under­ground music, Julie Cafritz and Jen­nifer Her­re­ma—women who labored obscure­ly in a “com­pli­cat­ed world of men with gui­tars,” as Alli­son Stew­art puts it at The Wash­ing­ton Post.

In 1993, Liz Phair stepped into this world with her career-defin­ing Exile in Guyville, “one of the sharpest, bold­est rock albums of its era, or any era,” which just hap­pens to be a song-for-song response to the Rolling Stones’ opus. Next to the Stones, the pro­duc­tion of Phair’s Exile sounds pristine—you can actu­al­ly make out the lyrics! Her explo­sive debut was a defi­ant con­ver­sa­tion, “clear­ly in a tus­sle with the sort of male-dom­i­nat­ed music scene,” she tells The New York Times.

Using the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main St” was sort of like using their avatar. I thought that was the quin­tes­sen­tial guy rock band, you know? So I sub­sti­tut­ed in my head the char­ac­ters from “Exile” with the char­ac­ters I knew from around the neigh­bor­hood. Sort of talk­ing to them vis-à-vis the con­ver­sa­tion I was hav­ing with the Rolling Stones.

The exer­cise began with Phair tak­ing Exile on Main Street as a text­book, of a sort: “I was a visu­al arts major and I con­coct­ed the idea that I need­ed a template—learn from the greats,” she tells Rolling Stone. After her then-boyfriend sar­cas­ti­cal­ly told her, “you should total­ly do that,” she became intent on meet­ing the chal­lenge of writ­ing her own take on the album. But Guyville was about much more than the Stones, who pro­vide an arma­ture for her explo­rations of “a mil­lion Guyvilles,” as she tells Stew­art.

“It’s in the stu­dios, where you try to get movies made and cast. It’s any­one being white-priv­i­leged, being what­ev­er it is that gives you invis­i­ble safe­ty or invis­i­ble ben­e­fits. ‘Guyville’ could be a catch­phrase for any obliv­i­ous com­mu­ni­ty that has no idea that they’re shov­ing peo­ple to the side.” Twen­ty-five years after the album’s debut, Phair’s com­men­tary seems as tren­chant as it was then, when she found her­self one of a select few women in an indus­try dom­i­nat­ed by a lot of sleazy guys: “The mar­ket forces… were gross. It was like, ‘Look hot­ter! Get more naked!’ Like as if it was a Jell‑O wrestling con­test.”

The major dif­fer­ence now, she says, is that women have a sig­nif­i­cant pres­ence in every genre: “I feel like every day on Twit­ter I find some new female band I’m inter­est­ed in, and I can have my entire music diet be female song­writ­ers and musi­cians.” Though she was then and now a reluc­tant “fem­i­nist spokesmod­el,” Phair deserves ample cred­it for help­ing to break open the music industry’s Guyville, by tak­ing on one of its most sacred objects. Exile in Guyville was re-released in a box set this month by Mata­dor. In the playlist above, you can hear the con­ver­sa­tion in full, with each song on Exile on Main Street fol­lowed by Phair’s Exile in Guyville rejoin­der.

As you lis­ten, be sure to read her inter­view at Rolling Stone, where she explains how she trans­lat­ed the ear­ly 70s clas­sic into an ear­ly 90s idiom. She also tells the sto­ry of meet­ing Mick Jag­ger, who, she says, gave her a belit­tling look that said, “Yeah, all right, I’ll let you off the hook this time for com­plete­ly mak­ing a name for your­self off our name, but don’t think I don’t know.” Her response: “I wasn’t mad. He’s Mick!”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Chrissie Hynde’s 10 Pieces of Advice for “Chick Rock­ers” (1994)

Hear the 150 Great­est Albums by Women: NPR Cre­ates a New Canon of Albums That Puts Women at the Cen­ter of Music His­to­ry

Four Female Punk Bands That Changed Women’s Role in Rock

Hear Demos of Kei­th Richards Singing Lead Vocals on Rolling Stones Clas­sics: “Gimme Shel­ter,” “Wild Hors­es” & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (1) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.