I was asked the question, “Why does the album Exile on Main Street best epitomize rock and roll?” My first instinct was to question the question. Does it best epitomize rock and roll? The only way to know is to figure out what rock and roll is. Once we know that, we can analyze Exile and determine how well it epitomizes rock and roll.
Rock and roll has many definitions. There are some things they all agree about, though. For example, it started in the 50s in America. It became the pop music of the 50’s and 60’s. There are also things that people disagree about. Some say that Rocket 88 was the first rock song. That seems absurd to me. Rocket 88 was a mediocre version of what everyone else was doing at the time. Others say that Rock Around the Clock was the first rock song. That’s a little more acceptable, since it was thought of as Rock and Roll at the time. I’d vote for Maybellene. It’s country, blues, and R&B rolled into one. The subject matter appeals to kids. It was a hit on black and white charts. Johnny B. Goode is the perfect Rock & Roll song, but Maybellene was the first.
So, what does that tell us? Basically that Rock and Roll is an amalgam. These songs have very little in common. The thing that they do share is that they mix different styles. That, more than anything else, is what defines rock and roll. Rock Around the Clock has elements of swing and R&B and jazz, but it’s played by a country band. Maybellene is based on an old country song, but played by a blues band.
Another thing they have in common is the subject matter. Before rock and roll, music was for adults. Singers sang about big legged women and strange fruit. Rock and roll started singing about school days and surfin’ safaris. This did change as rock matured (if matured is the right word). The sex, drugs and rock and roll cliché began to take hold. But it was still a very adolescent view of the world. Then, socially conscious lyrics started to emerge. This was a combination of the times, with civil rights and Viet Nam dominating the headlines, and the addition of folk* music to the rock and roll musical combination.
So where does that leave us? Rock and roll isn’t really a musical style per se. Rather it is kind of a catch all for any music that doesn’t quite fit into a category. If it’s bluesy, but not really blues, it’s probably rock and roll. If it’s jazzy, but not really jazz, it’s probably rock and roll. If it’s folky. . . I think you get the idea. And it certainly helps if it is directed towards kids and young adults.
Now, when looking for an album that epitomizes rock and roll, I think we need to look at the late sixties and early seventies. Before that, rock was a singles music. Elvis, Little Richard, Ray Charles, and Buddy Holly were really singles artists. Albums didn’t become important until the LP record was invented and bands like the Beatles, Beach Boys, and Stones started experimenting with the longer forms. That puts us in the mid-sixties at the earliest. And by the mid-seventies, rock became very fragmented. It’s not that it died, there are still plenty of rock bands around. However, it moved off to the side to make room for disco, hip hop, and electronic music. And it was no longer enough to be a rock and roll band. You had to be Prog Rock or Punk Rock or Southern Rock or or or.
Given all of that, the three albums that jump immediately to mind are Layla and Other Assorted Love Songs, Eat a Peach, and Exile On Main Street**. There are certainly other options, but those jump out. A lot of people may be surprised by the lack of Beatles, Zep, Dylan, and others. The reason for these three rather than any of those others is that the Beatles and Dylan are the Beatles and Dylan. As great as they can be, when I listen to them, I hear the Beatles and Dylan, not rock and roll. Led Zeppelin, quite frankly, is almost as famous for stealing as they are for playing. And personally, I think a mix tape featuring all of the originals would make for more satisfying listening.
Traffic made some pretty amazing albums, but I don’t think they’re famous enough to best exemplify rock and roll. Born to Run could be argued, but isn’t Bruce trying to make a Stones record with that one? Bowie is too focused on the theatrics. I think I’ll just stick to those three. They fall in the right era, they are about the music, they are well played, and they are cohesive albums***.
The first one I will drop from my three finalists is Layla and Other Assorted Love songs. It is my favorite of the three albums. The band plays at an incredibly high level throughout. The songs are well written and the choices for covers fit beautifully. The reason I’m dropping it is that it doesn’t have the breadth of the other two. It is firmly rooted in blues. While blues is the most important influence on rock and roll, an album that ignores the other influences just can’t be considered rock’s epitome.
Eat a Peach is the next to go, but this one is hard for me. It has blues, country, jazz, and folk. It is extremely well played. The worst thing I can say about the album is that the drum solo in Mountain Jam isn’t really to my taste. I would recommend this album to anyone.
Ultimately, the reason I’m going with Exile on Main Street is that it just has more. It has blues, country, jazz, and folk. But, it also has gospel, Caribbean/Latin, boogie woogie, and proto punk. It is also well played, although not at the same level as the other two. Lyrically, almost every song is about either sex, drugs, or rock and roll. Many of them are about all three at the same time. The one exception is “Sweet Black Angel”, which is about Angela Davis, and covers the socially conscious ground. If you listen to Exile on Main Street, you will hear everything that came before rock and many of the developments that came later. As an epitome, you can’t ask for much more than that.
* On a completely unrelated note, I hate the term folk music as a reference to what you hear in coffee shops with acoustic guitars, banjos, etc. Virtually all music that wasn’t specifically written for the concert hall is folk music. Hip hop is folk music. Polkas are folk music. Country is folk music. And rock and roll is folk music.
** Exile is not my favorite Stones album. For enjoyment, I’d put it on a level with Voodoo Lounge. I prefer Some Girls, Let It Bleed, Beggars Banquet, Get Yer Ya-Yas Out, and some days Aftermath and Between the Buttons. But none of those make the same kind of, “This is the ultimate Rock and Roll record,” statement that Exile does.
*** I have always thought it odd that the reason they were originally called albums is because they were collections of individual songs, like photo albums. But now, album oriented music is a label used to separate it from singles oriented music.