The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

Black Sky Thinking

Death Of The Rock Gods: The Stones, Pussy Galore & Exile On Main Street
Huw Nesbitt , June 8th, 2010 08:52

With the anniversary of Exile On Main Street garnering 523,456 column inches, Huw Nesbitt explains why Pussy Galore's bastardised version is the better listen

The recent surfeit of press over The Rolling Stones reissue of Exile on Main Street is liver curling to say the least. Four years ago you couldn't even buy their LPs in HMV without forking out for the Japanese imports. Now this - an extra disc of outtakes on top of the already lengthy double album recorded in an former Nazi dungeon in France, in 1972 - forced down your gullet, begging for thanks. Right now every idiot hack in town is lining up outside west London press agencies, waiting to throttle Keith Richards with questions like, "Were you feeling okay back then?" and, "What was it like snorting the contents of your ball bag?" Who'd have thought such ontological terror could be sustained by simply buggering off to the continent to avoid the long arm of HM Revenue & Customs?

But whatever you want to say about this record, it was, undeniably, a certified classic the moment it hit the shelves - probably because it's the closest the Stones ever came to being remotely sincere in their entire lives. Oh yeah, you've got the likes of 1968's 'Sympathy for the Devil' as well; an apparent lament for the passing age of hippy innocence. But how seriously can you take that when the following year they press-ganged a bunch of biker crooks into stage minding them for the blood bath that became Altamont? Like the Beatles, the Stones waded too far out into the ditch of their own egos, only to discover that not only couldn't they walk on water, but their own bullshit, too.

And aside from a few other carve ups (Jean Luc Godard's Sympathy for the Devil, Brian Jones copping it), by the time they finished recording Exile..., that period when they were still considered gods of the rebellion had died. Even the title, "Exile on Main Street", points to feelings of exclusion where they once belonged. Tracks like 'Rocks Off' (Keith whinging about impending smack overdoses, heartbreak), and 'Soul Survivor' (musings on failed mutinies, more heartbreak) all sum it up perfectly: the hit makers were on the rocks.

Luckily, this brought out the best in them, and Exile... is without doubt not just the best Stones record, but one of the best rock albums of all time. But it's far from perfect, and the constant, sycophantic, reappraisal of their oeuvre through cynical franchises updating their masterpieces is a sham. And here's why.

Because apart from this being a brilliant record, it was also one that failed on its own terms, stopping short of the complete rejection of the showbiz myth that it threatened. Mick and Keith might have been disenfranchised, but alongside sentiments of addled disillusionment and isolation were signs that, deep down, they were longing for redemption ('Shine a Light'), struggling to cope with absence of dead mentors like Elvis Presley ('Rip This Joint'), and equally haunted and enthralled by that other hair rebel, Jesus Christ ('I Just Wanna See His Face'). If anything, Exile... was a con show, on the one hand demanding pity, while the other riffled through your wallet, nicked your girlfriend and signed you up for the sequel. They flirted with the void, but it was all just boyish Byronism, and they never committed... something that Pussy Galore had no qualms about when they returned to finish the job with their own cover of the 'seminal' album some fourteen years later.

Alongside Sonic Youth, Pussy Galore were the archetypal American noise band of the 80s, dedicated to degrading the aesthetics and principles of the music industry by subverting the mainstream and DIY scenes alike. At one point they even shovelled their ire atop of Ian MacKaye of Fugazi's Dischord label. Formed by some local losers called Jon Spencer (The Blues Explosion), Julia Cafritz, later ex-Sonic Youth sticksman Bob Bert and Neil Hagerty (Royal Trux), they blazed a trail between 1985 and 1990, brokering the provocative aggression of early DC hardcore with grim experimentation. They also had a sense of humour, which is rarer than rocking horse shit in American indie...

And what they recognised through their cover version, was that Exile... wasn't just the book-end peak by some 60s mavericks, but the end of the road for rock music in general, and that the band which wrote the swan song couldn't even bring themselves to admit it. Galore's version, however, simply doesn't falter. It's built from four track tape feedback, guitars that are out of tune and time, voices telling you to go fuck yourself, versions of previous epics retroactively aborted back to unformed foetuses drowning in sonic uterine discharge, convulsing over exploding tape heads... Pussy Galore weren't just ambivalent about success, but about the meaninglessness of their careers too. The Stones might have once been gods to some, but they didn't have to strength to utter a complete articulation of the truth, because all they really wanted was the joy bang to never end.

Naturally, Pussy Galore's version is hilarious, too. It's a spoof, originally released on 550 cassettes. Nowadays you can probably pick it up for free online or as a bootleg, and it's just as important as the original. It's unpleasant, and you probably won't want to flick it on every day. But if nothing else it serves as a searing critique of the demise of what was once a fruitful rebellion, turned withering cash cow.

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.