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The Stones' grand return from 'Exile'

By Mark Morgenstein, CNN
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Mick Jagger: We work very hard
  • "Exile on Main Street," 1972 Rolling Stones classic, being re-issued with bonus material
  • Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, guitarist Mick Taylor reworked some unreleased songs
  • Album has been hailed as Stones' best, influenced countless followers
  • Jagger to CNN's Larry King: Stones "in the right place at the right time"

Tonight: The Rolling Stones' Mick Jagger joins Larry King for an exclusive revealing interview about success and longevity. Watch "Larry King Live" Tuesday night, 9 ET on CNN.

(CNN) -- In the new documentary "Stones in Exile," Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards defines the art form he's epitomized for almost 50 years.

"Rock 'n' roll is basically just your blues put under a little bit of white hillbilly melody," Richards says in the film. "It's the coming together. It's that lovely -- which music's always about -- it's one culture hitting another."

That's one definition. But to millions of music fans, since 1972 you only need four words to define rock 'n' roll: "Exile on Main Street."

On Tuesday, the Stones are re-issuing the sprawling mix of blues, country, gospel and hard rock often called their finest album. The new release also includes 10 tracks that have been in the vaults for decades. Eight are previously unheard songs from the "Exile" sessions, while the others are alternate versions of the classics "Loving Cup" and "Soul Survivor." There's a two-CD deluxe edition as well as a "Super Deluxe Edition," retailing for $179.98, which includes the original albums on vinyl, the original CD, a CD with the new tracks and a DVD with lots of old footage from the early '70s.

Talk show host Jimmy Fallon devoted an entire week of his show to the Stones and "Exile." He got a sneak preview of some of the new tracks.

"I went to [Mick Jagger's] hotel room. He played four of them for me. It's phenomenal. I was like, 'This is crazy.' Once you hear that sound, especially, I thought the harmonies -- the vocals of the girls in the background -- it's so 'Exile,' Stonesy to me," he says. "I loved it and I was like, 'Wait. I couldn't understand that for a second. Is this new? Or is this old?' "

The confusion is understandable. The previously unreleased songs are both new and old. Most of the basic tracks come from sessions originally produced by the now-deceased Jimmy Miller almost 40 years ago, recorded in the basement of Nellcote, Richards' expat mansion in the south of France. Don Was, who has co-produced the Stones' albums since 1994, says Jagger, Richards and even guitarist Mick Taylor, who left the band in 1974, touched up the tracks over a two-day period in New York last September.

Was waded through about 300 hours of sessions transferred to a hard drive before he and the Stones decided which songs to resuscitate. "To a certain extent, we wanted to pick songs that needed the least amount of touching up. So we wanted to go with stuff that the sound, in the end, people would want to hear over and over again, but was faithful," he says.

Was made sure the songs added to the reissue really were cut for the original "Exile."

"We turned away a lot of stuff that maybe was [recorded] even three months before we started the official 'Exile' period," Was says. "And some great stuff that turns out it's from 'Goat's Head Soup,' " the 1973 Stones album released right after "Exile."

Adrift in France

By now, how the Stones ended up recording most of their masterpiece in the basement of a French villa is part of rock 'n' roll legend. It's the primary focus of "Stones In Exile," directed by Steven Kijack.

In 1971, the Stones exiled themselves. The crushing tax rate in Great Britain and the loss of their '60s songwriting catalogue to their former manager, Allen Klein, had left the Stones with little money, despite their post-Beatles status as the unchallenged World's Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band. As Jagger tells CNN's Larry King, the band's discomfort at home wasn't solely a result of the financial turmoil.

"In England, in those days, and even now I think, once you become a success -- a worldwide success -- you no longer belong to the little place where you started, to the little part of West London where you were brought up. You lose something of that when you become a success," Jagger says.

Fallon is incredulous, even 39 years later. "You almost don't understand that they had to leave the country. Like, 'Wait. What? They're the Rolling Stones.' But it's like they just had to make what they had. Keith has this castle, this mansion in France, that he's hanging, living in. And they just pull the truck up to the place and put mikes in there."

In a 2002 Rolling Stone magazine interview, Richards described "Exile" as the first grunge album. Greg Dulli, whose band the Afghan Whigs recorded for the legendary Seattle grunge label Sub Pop, doesn't disagree. He says "Exile" embodies punk's do-it-yourself ethic.

"That's punk rock to me," he says. "They left their country to go to their hated rivals' country and plunked down in a mansion in the south of France on the sea. And whatever they had at the time is what they did."

The "Exile" sessions have been described as chaotic and drug-addled. Perhaps that's not surprising for a group of young, rich, successful icons who truly felt displaced.

Feelings of anomie and world-weariness pervade "Exile" in both some of Jagger-Richards' best lyrics and most murky music. That rawness left some critics at a loss when the album first released.

In many quarters, "Exile," which spawned only one major hit ("Tumbling Dice"), was dismissed as inferior to the Stones' acclaimed and more sonically clean predecessors, 1971's "Sticky Fingers," 1969's "Let It Bleed" and 1968's "Beggars' Banquet." But over time, and repeated listening, a consensus formed. The album isn't so much about individual songs -- it's about a cumulative feeling.

Was says, "The great thing about 'Exile' and really the genius of the Stones as songwriters and artists overall is they understand how to leave enough room in the song. They're impressionistic enough to let you fill in your own meaning. 'Tumbling Dice' can mean a thousand things to a thousand people and yet, it can be everyone's anthem for a million different reasons. 'Exile' as an album, because it is so spread out, you can attach your own importance, your own meaning to it, because whatever you are going through at that time, you can project onto that album."

'A reckless, lawless kind of emotion'

It's a feeling that has affected and influenced musicians for decades now -- and not just obvious imitators such as The Black Crowes. On Fallon's week-long tribute, artists as diverse as Green Day, Taj Mahal, Keith Urban, Sheryl Crow and Phish paid homage to "Exile." Jack White and rave about the album in "Stones in Exile."

Liz Phair was an unknown Chicago indie-rocker when she released "Exile in Guyville" in 1993. But the album she's described as a song-by-song response to "Exile on Main Street" catapulted her to stardom and became one of the seminal albums of the decade. Phair credits "Exile on Main Street" with providing a blueprint.

"The whole record is extremely emotional and it articulates emotion. It's just sort of a reckless, lawless kind of emotion," Phair says. "They gave of all sides of themselves: musically, lyrically, emotionally. They took on authority. They were living their own rules. There's something earned about rock stardom where you actually have to kick out the rules of society and make your own and that record embodies that so perfectly."

Was chimes in, "It was a little like 'Lord of the Flies' because these young guys were doing whatever they wanted. It's kind of anarchistic. That was my impression of it. I don't know if there's a shred of truth in that, but that's what it meant to me. It was an affirmation to go your own way and create your own radical world. I'm certain that's not what they had in mind, but it's a very rock 'n' roll message that resonated on those levels."

"Stones in Exile" shows just how much the Stones were living in their own radical world. The film, which debuted in a shortened version on "Late Night with Jimmy Fallon" last week, is entered in the current Cannes Film Festival. The movie documents how the circa 1971-72 Stones were doing more than just defining great music: They were defining what it meant to be a rock star.

Dulli's boa-wearing stage persona owed an incalculable debt to images he saw of the Jagger and Richards in publications such as Rolling Stone and Creem. "Whenever I read about the Rolling Stones, who were my favorite band, I wanted to dress like them," says Dulli. "I wanted to date models. I wanted to do the various drugs that they did and fly on private planes. To me, the Rolling Stones invented rock 'n' roll debauchery and put the style on it and cultivated it."

Jagger and Richards are now 66 years old, men of wealth and taste. They've been playing with drummer Charlie Watts, 68, since 1963.

Jagger tells CNN's King the longevity that allowed this grand return from "Exile" is due to a combination of factors.

"The Stones are very lucky. You always need a lot of luck. And I think they were in the right place at the right time. And when we work, we work very hard," he says. "So I think you need all of those things. It's no good just being hard-working. There's a lot of people hard-working. But you've got to be hard-working, on your game and be lucky."

The Stones were never more on their game than when they produced "Exile."