"Mick called up and asked me to help, almost as if it were a chore," Was, 57, said. "I'm just glad he couldn't see me salivating over the phone. Whatever you think of 'Exile,' it's become so ingrained in the musical vocabulary of all rock 'n' roll musicians who have come subsequently .... That thing is seminal."
Indeed, Jagger said he was happy for the attention. "When Universal got the catalog, they said, 'We want to put out the albums with special rereleases — Would you help us?' And when you say OK, you know it's never going to be like two weeks' work .… A lot of the work could be delegated to other people, but when it comes down to it, you've got to put your back into it and pick the best things. But I quite enjoyed the result."
Richards' instructional note to Was was unequivocal about his philosophy on how to handle the previously unreleased material.
"At the very beginning, Keith sent me a fax in calligraphy script with a whole lot of flair," Was said. "It just said, 'Don't try to make it sound like 'Exile' — it is 'Exile.' The idea was to do as absolutely little as possible, and not try to reinvent the wheel. Keith said, 'Don't rewrite the Bible.' "
The Glimmer Twins
By some accounts, "Exile" reflects more of Richards' stick-to-the-basics musical aesthetic. The album's signature songs, such as "Rocks Off," "Rip This Joint," "All Down the Line," "Sweet Virginia" and "Torn and Frayed," tap his deep affection for American roots music. It also included "Happy," which at the time was virtually unprecedented in featuring the tight-lipped guitarist taking on a lead vocal.
Despite well-chronicled clashes between Jagger and Richards over the years, the creative chemistry that's allowed the team to endure for nearly half a century was undeniable to those who witnessed it in action.
"During the recording of 'Exile on Main Street,' I was given unlimited access by the Stones," photographer Jim Marshall wrote in a recollection of the L.A. sessions on his website before he died in March. "I had just photographed them for Life magazine and knew Keith and Mick pretty well.
"Jagger could be in the control room and start to say something to Keith," Marshall noted, "and before the words even came out of his mouth, Keith was doing it on the guitar. I've been to a lot of sessions, but I've never seen two guys work in sync this way before."
Said Was: "I'll go with that, absolutely. Whoever coined that term, 'the greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world,' they really are.
"This is from someone who's followed them closely since the beginning," Was said. "In many ways, they are better than anyone."