Vocals: Page (lead), Sharon Jones and Sandra Williams (backing)
Original Artist: The Rolling Stones
Original Album: Exile on Main St (1972)
Historian: Jeremy D. Goodwin
"Ventilator Blues" is a steam-driven blues grind whose pieces fit together so well, it's difficult to deconstruct its elements and reveal the source of its power. Charlie Watts' deceptively simple drum part feels pasted-together, but locks in tightly with Mick Taylor's slide guitar riff to suggest the sound of heavy machinery pounding out a repetitive drone. The song is characterized by a sense of growing tension and menace throughout the verses, building into a chorus that's all release, before resolving back to the corkscrew tension of the next verse.
The smoky, swampy track stands out in The Rolling Stones’ catalog as the only song crediting Taylor as co-songwriter alongside Jagger/Richards. This may be because Taylor wrote the circular riff around which the rest of the song rotates, though an indelible riff was not usually enough to break the Jagger/Richards stranglehold on publishing rights.
The Rolling Stones, "Ventilator Blues" – Exile On Main St
The lyrics, delivered in the second person, paint a picture of a man who feels the pressure of his life closing in all around him, his options evaporating like steam. The "heat is bursting," his woman lets out a "scream," and it sounds like the night might very well end in murder. "When you're trapped and circled with no second chances/Your code of living is your gun in hand," Jagger sings. The chorus promises: "Don't matter where you are/ Everybody's gonna need a ventilator."
The "ventilator" could be a gun, or broadly speaking, anything that can just, please, relieve the tension. Musically, the chorus feels like pipes bursting and water exploding everywhere, but the lyrics make clear that the hoped-for release has not yet arrived. The song ends with a haunting challenge. "What you gonna do about it, what you gonna do? Gonna fight it?"
The song is one of the six off Exile on Main St mainly recorded in late 1971 in the close air of Richard's basement, while the band were living in France as tax exiles. The recording was later finished off at Sunset Sound Studios in Los Angeles.
It has been suggested that the humid and stale condition of the basement studio provided inspiration for the song’s title. In Robert Greenfield’s gossip-filled chronicle Exile On Main St.: A Season In Hell With The Rolling Stones, engineer Andy Johns is quoted, “There was one little tiny fan in the window, up in the corner. Which didn’t work very well. Therefore, ‘Ventilator Blues.’ It’s one of my favorite tunes. It’s about the fan in the window.” Since this obviously is not an adequate summary of what the song is “about,” the memory is enlightening only to the extent it shows how the band transcended this inside joke to create something strange and beautiful, about much more than “the fan in the window.”
In addition to the five Stones, the track is thought to feature Nicky Hopkins on piano, Bobby Keys on saxophone, and Jim Price on trumpet and trombone. In the 2003 oral history According to the Rolling Stones, Watts says Keys authored the distinctive rhythm part and calls it "the clever part of the song." "Bobby stood next to me clapping the thing and I just followed his timing...it threw me completely and Bobby just stood there and clapped while we did the track," Watts says.
The Rolling Stones are believed to have played the song in concert only once, on the opening night of the landmark 1972 tour supporting the album, at Pacific Coliseum in Vancouver, British Columbia. Interestingly, Watts implies the band has tried to work it up for concert performance but never gotten it to gel. "We always rehearse 'Ventilator Blues.' It's a great track, but we never play it as well as the original. Something will not be quite right; either Keith will play it a bit differently or I'll do it wrong. It's a fabulous number, but a bit of a tricky one." In the legendary bootleg film of the 1972 tour, Cocksucker Blues, Jagger is heard listing "Ventilator Blues" as one of his favorites from the album when asked by a journalist.
By the time Phish kicked into "Ventilator Blues"—the third song on Side 3 of Exile—it had reached the stretch drive of its "musical costume" Halloween set at Festival 8.
Phish, "Ventilator Blues" – 10/31/09, Indio, CA
It sounds like it takes Page a verse to grow into the vocals, but by the time he digs into "everybody's gonna need a ventilator!" he's fully on track. Trey translates Taylor's slide guitar riff to his Languedoc, and the performance benefits from the full compliment of the guests on hand that night: Dave Guy on trumpet, David Smith on trombone, Tony Jarvis on saxophone, plus Sharon Jones and Saundra Williams on vocals.
In this performance, the outro of the song (during which Jagger repeats "Gonna fight it? several times in the recorded version) features Jones and Williams repeating that line like a mantra for over two minutes (nearly the entire length of the Exile cut), while the band wails underneath. They even toss in a couple more after the music has clearly shifted into the next song, "I Just Want To See His Face," underlining the seamless nature of this nifty transition.