From deep within the bowels of the double-record tour de force Exile on Main Street (1972) comes this down and dirty slide guitar blues with inspired lyrics. Apparently the relative newcomer at the time, blues-trained guitarist Mick Taylor, originated the main slide riff on this one and was thus given songwriting credit -- though this was not usually cause enough for cracking the solid Mick Jagger/Keith Richards hold on publishing credit. Perhaps the two were feeling particularly generous. The instrumental arrangement clearly aims for the Chess Studios approach; listeners have Nicky Hopkins -- like Muddy Waters pianists Otis Spann and Pinetop Perkins -- playing a rhythmically complex piano part on the verses, weaving in and out of the swooping guitar lick on the first verse and then building as the arrangement continues, playing nervous, jittery right-handed upper-register trills. The pianist creates scary tension on an already claustrophobic and malevolent-sounding song. The chord progression alone -- an incessant loop of the slide guitar part, with the rest of the instruments droning on one chord -- rises until, as the lyrics suggest, something has to give, and the chorus releases the tension in an ascending horn-driven crescendo, only to get cornered back into that verse. Yet, like most of the sprawling, masterful examination of American roots music that is Exile on Main Street, the Rolling Stones refuse to just regurgitate hero worship straight on; they take "Ventilator Blues" and make it something very much their own, double-tracking Jagger's lead vocals -- a common studio practice that the Stones generally seemed to shy away from -- and adding a quiet percussive strum of an acoustic guitar underneath the hard-rocking track.
Charlie Watts shows again why being the master of simplicity on the drums usually adds power to a track, keeping fills to a minimum and skipping snare beats to give the song an extra tension. Bill Wyman had apparently shown up to the Exile sessions in time to lay down his well-placed bass notes like Willie Dixon. Jagger takes the Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf inspiration of the song's origins and does his best to betray the fact that he is a skinny middle-class English kid, convincingly delivering the time-bomb lyric with appropriate swagger, spitting out "When you're trapped and circled with no second chance/Code of living is your gun in hand, we can't be/Browed by beating, we can't be cowed by words/Messed by cheating, ain't going to ever learn." He sounds like a man with his back against the wall, capable of anything: "Woman's cussin' you can hear her scream/Sounds like murder in the first degree," this last bit complete with Americanized accent "foist degree." D.C./New York punk-blues deconstructionists Pussy Galore trashed up "Ventilator Blues" for their at times inspired song-by-song interpretation of Exile, giving it the Ivy League hey-noise-is-cool touch on Exiles on Main Street (1986). On the other end of the spectrum, sheriff and legendary Louisiana/Texas bluesman Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown burns up the song acoustically, demonstrating its original potential as a timeless and authentic traditional blues, on Paint It Blue: Songs of the Rolling Stones, the Stones tribute by contemporary blues artists.