CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD remembers a basement-born, band-defining album
According to most accounts of the genesis of the Rolling Stones’ iconic album Exile on Main Street, there was a richly symbolic moment early in the recording process.
One of the group’s satellite members, in most versions the pianist Nicky Hopkins, reported for duty in the Stygian bunker-studio in the south of France where the Stones found themselves in the summer months of 1971, along with an extended cast of friends, hangers-on and others of a more narrowly entrepreneurial mien, perhaps most prominently the great country-rock pioneer and one-man cocaine industry Gram Parsons, who was eventually evicted for having come to assume he was a de facto member of the band.
More specifically they were in the cellar of Keith Richards’s rented house named Villa Nellcote, which stood perched on a clifftop overlooking the sparkling Cap Ferrat. The other Stones – Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman and Mick Taylor – were similarly domiciled, in varying degrees of luxury, with no immediate plans to return to their native land, hence the evocative eventual title of their new album.
To this day some disparity exists as to the reasons for their French sojourn. Keith himself insists that it was the logical result of a vindictive British ‘establishment’ campaign to rid itself of the Stones, while others saw it as a prosaic reaction to certain more material matters concerning the Inland Revenue. During the winter of 1970-71, the group’s newly appointed financial adviser, the portly, Mozart-loving Prince Rupert Loewenstein of the bankers Leopold Joseph, had hammered out a deal whereby the Stones would collectively spend between £150,000 and £200,000, or roughly £3 million in today’s money, each year of their chosen exile, and that the French government in return would waive any claim it might have to tax the band’s corporate earnings. So much for the anarchic spirit of rock and roll.
Anyway, working on the basis that it was easier to bring the band and its accessories to Keith Richards than it was to ask Keith to assume the vertical position long enough to report to a commercial studio, everyone went downstairs into the Nellcote cellar and plugged in their instruments, leaving Exile to become the greatest and most profitable record ever to emerge from a basement. And it was in this grim, chthonian spot that Hopkins, or whomever it was, had his sudden moment of insight into the uniquely troubled history of his present working environment. ‘I looked around me that first night we were down there,’ this individual reported, ‘and there were actual swastikas carved on the walls. The place had been local Nazi headquarters during the war. Somehow that really set the tone for me.
It’s a good story, with an almost theatrical quality to it: as in a stylised Hollywood film, a young man stands gazing up at the symbol that brings a frisson midway between horror and a strange exhilaration at the task that lies ahead of him. Keith Richards’s own abiding memory of the recording sessions might be said to display something of the same spirit. ‘It was a sick scene, man’, he recalled.
The basic vibe was like Hitler’s bunker. It was about 110* down there, no air conditioning, sweat pouring off the walls, people crashed out, shirtless, out of their minds. Hazy blue light, crappy equipment, everyone zonked, and yet somehow out of this chaos came maybe the greatest moment in Stones history.
Again, there’s a sort of cinematic vividness to the scene. Rock music’s own Boris Karloff figure lurches around in the sinister old Nazi redoubt – a cell or even torture chamber of some sort, he later theorised – conducting his similarly dead-eyed accomplices through the most gloriously debauched weeks of even their career. It seems an almost churlish technicality to note that the Germans occupied that particular part of France only from May 1943 to June 1944, and that Nellcote itself remained in private hands throughout the war, or that, for all the undoubted privations of the subterranean workplace, the estate itself was one of the loveliest on that stretch of the Riviera, with spacious formal salons decorated with antique brocade chairs, their floors inlaid with purple and white tile, and white silk curtains flowing from the windows, which offered a commanding view of hills almost obscenely bright with bougainvillea. But, anyway, there you have the enduring and pervasive legend of Exile‘s birthplace – a grim Nazi dungeon bathed in candlelight.
Even so, we can perhaps take Keith’s point. The album we know as Exile on Main Street, then going by the somehow fitting working title of ‘Tropical Disease’, was largely recorded by distinctly low-fi means, at the home of a musician then as legendary for his chemical intake as for his songwriting, in the last non-air-conditioned studio the Stones would ever inhabit, where the group sat around in their underwear bathed in a ghastly grotto-blue light, keeping their customary vampiric hours, and, perhaps not surprisingly, the work that ensued tended to be a bit on the dark and sludgy side as a result.
In fact, many of Exile’s best tracks worked in close connection with the chaotic and increasingly paranoid atmosphere at Nellcote, which the local police, alerted by the nightly arrival there of men in dark suits wearing sunglasses with briefcases chained to their wrists, kept under constant supervision that hot Riviera summer. ‘Rip this Joint’, to give one example, was comfortably the fastest thing the Stones had ever recorded, sounding as if they were in a collective race to finish it before the gendarmes kicked down the door. Sometimes it seemed the band were happy even to live with their mistakes, such as that heard in the guitar intro to ‘All Down the Line’, which was shrill, nutty and out of tune – if also perfect for the song. By the time it came to ‘Casino Boogie’, Keith himself once informed me, ‘Jagger and I had run ourselves ragged’ and resorted to William Burroughs’s cut-up technique for the lyrics, which perhaps helps explain lines like: ‘Sky diver inside her, skip rope, stunt flyer/wounded lover, got no time on hand.’ Friends could almost hear the banished Gram Parsons on the countryfied ‘Sweet Virginia’, like a musical phantom limb after an amputation. Likewise, ‘Soul Survivor’ seethed with subversive energy and a riff that lingered long after it was over. According to Keith’s inamorata Anita Pallenberg, the final part of Exile was recorded with power diverted from the French railway system. Mostly, though, it drew its electrical charge from an interior source, the tension between Jagger and Richards.
Apart from the central issue of drugs (Keith enthusiastically pro, Mick broadly anti), the Stones’s venerable songwriting firm faced a number of other creative and logistical challenges during the making of Exile. Agreeing to work in one of their own homes was no guarantee that the band members would actually all be present at the same time. Jagger particularly disliked the communal vibe – ‘you didn’t know whether you [were] recording or having dinner’, he later complained – and he also had his heavily pregnant and vocally unhappy wife, the former Bianca Perez-Mora Macias, to consider. Before long, Bianca decamped to Paris, effectively forcing Mick to commute across France for the remaining sessions. More than once, she threatened to leave him for good. The band sometimes called her ‘Bianca the Wanker’ behind her back. The drummer Charlie Watts was his normal congenial self, but his rhythm-section partner Bill Wyman was unhappy both about money and being forced to leave England in the first place (‘You’re getting up my nose’, Keith would remark to his lugubrious colleague, if so by no means the only substance to do so), although Wyman would at least go on to find that the Riviera was the ideal spot to indulge his hobby of photographing topless women. More than once, Bill sat in a boat anchored off the nude beach at St Tropez, aiming his camera at the obliging sunbathers, although often even this mild ruse wasn’t necessary. According to the journalist Robert Greenfield, who visited the Stones in exile, Wyman would ‘simply ask the most attractive woman at the dinner table to slip in to another room for a moment and remove her blouse so he could snap a quick photo to add to his collection.’
Mick Jagger for his part had now exchanged cheek for chic, dressing like a Frenchman in a beret and tight suede maxicoat, also the subject of some in-house chafing around Nellcote in his absence. His sometime host Keith was meanwhile living up, or down, to his most gloriously debauched 1970s rock star image. By the autumn Nellcote was beset on every front. The local flics were making their interest in the house and its hollow-eyed tenants more obvious by the day. Burglars walked in one morning while everyone was sleeping off the previous night’s session and walked out again with most of Richards’s prize guitars. The resident cook somehow managed to blow the kitchen up. The men in sunglasses began dropping by with generous offerings of what the musicians called ‘cotton candy’, otherwise known as pure Thai heroin. A stoned Anita duly set her and Keith’s bed on fire. One of the band’s chauffeurs broke down the door to find them lying there, comatose, with the mattress in flames all around them. ‘A wake-up call,’ Keith later ruefully admitted, in every sense of the term.
Shortly after that, Jagger, Richards and their immediate families and entourage deemed it expedient to catch a midnight flight from Nice to Paris, and then on to Los Angeles, where in time they were joined by the rest of the band. In their haste to decamp, they abandoned most of Keith’s sizable record collection, his two boats, and his E-type Jaguar. Some doubt exists about the exact nature of the mass breakout. In one version, the French authorities had let, perhaps even invited, Keith to leave the country on condition that he continue to rent the house while abroad, as proof that he meant to return. In another popular account, the local force was unaware that its wrecked-looking prey had moved on. In either case, neither Richards nor anyone else in the Stones would ever see Nellcote again.
Exactly two weeks later, on 14 December 1971, a squad of twelve policemen rammed open the gate and poured in to Nellcote through the doors and windows. According to published reports, they turned up enough heroin, coke and hash to throw the book at the home’s principal tenant. A maid told them that everybody had suddenly left one night, taking their mysterious cannisters of tape with them. A year later, a court in Nice charged Richards and Pallenberg with possession, tried them in absentia, and imposed a sizable fine.
Mick, Keith and the technicians spent most of the winter of 1971-72 at Sunset Sound studios in Los Angeles, turning ‘Tropical Disease’ into Exile on Main Street. The album may have had an underlying note of film-noir in its conception, but it still got its Hollywood ending. Horns and washes of pop-blues hollering would flesh out tracks like the ever-popular ‘Tumbling Dice’, ‘Shine a Light’ got the full gospel-organ treatment, while ‘Let it Loose’ was subjected to a week-long revision by the Stones’ friend Mac Rebennack, aka Dr. John, and a soul-sister chorus. Bill Wyman wanted nothing to do with any overdubbing, and would appear on only eight of Exile’s eighteen finished tracks. In his absence, the Indo-jazz pioneer Bill Plummer came in to play upright bass. ‘The Stones weren’t exactly the Mormon Tabernacle Choir’, Plummer later confirmed.
There was a lot of lubricating going on, and of course it’s always a thrill to be asked to play on a song called “Turd on the Run”. But they also knew exactly what they wanted. I did four tracks in about four hours, shook everyone’s hand, went home. There was a big crowd at the back door, I remember, and people were worried it was the Hell’s Angels. Mick and Keith were being hassled by them.
Plummer’s rollicking bass helped make Exile a major hit in Britain, the US and twenty-four other markets. He was paid his standard session fee of $125, or about $2000 in today’s money. Thirty years later, someone in the Stones organisation thought to send him a commemorative gold disc, which arrived snapped in half in the mail.
Wrapped in an arresting cover designed by the Swiss filmmaker Robert Frank showing a collage of circus performers and freaks, Exile on Main Street was released on the world in May 1972. The album’s legacy would loom large over both the Stones legend and the whole subsequent history of rock and roll, ushering in several decades’ worth of lo-fi tributes and parodies. It did a brisk enough business, if judged a failure by some of the reviewers – one of those ‘honourable’ failures, however, that rather endear a band to its critics, who noted that among other flaws the record sounded a touch murky, a discordant note coming at a time when studio technology was already aiming for the crisp, digitally-sharp result we expect of our music today. Although time has been kind to Exile, now one of those official classic-rock double albums, like Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, whose reputation ought to be sealed up in an eternal amber of chart and sales statistics, it initially flummoxed some of the same sages who had flocked to its more accessible predecessor Sticky Fingers, and who were left scratching their heads, not nodding them.
Writing in Rolling Stone, the journalist and future Patti Smith guitarist Lenny Kaye said, ‘There are songs that are better, songs that are worse, there are songs that will become your favorites and others you’ll probably lift the needle for when their time is due … You can leave the album and still feel vaguely unsatisfied, not quite brought to the peaks that this band of bands has always held out as a special prize in the past.’
Other critical assessments were that Exile was an ‘hour of bluesy clatter’, sounding as if ‘recorded down a pit’ (not far off the mark), with an ‘overall vibe [like] a gang-fight inside a rusty trash-can’, while some of the era’s moral guardians, among them the venerable Mary Whitehouse of the UK’s National Viewers’ and Listeners’ Association, had more specific reservations about the likes of ‘Turd on the Run’, or for that matter the jaunty chorus of ‘Sweet Virginia’ which remarked on the need, in reference to low-grade heroin, to ‘scrape that shit right off your shoes.’ The album itself was a summer number one and spent six months on the chart before returning to the top on its re-release thirty-eight years later. You could do worse than listen to the song ‘Loving Cup’ as a brief taster of the insinuatingly loose-limbed feel of the record as a whole. Sticky Fingers may have been more organic, it’s true, but Exile was a flawed, sprawling masterpiece, and the last great extreme work the Stones have ever done.
CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD’s biography of the Rolling Stones, originally published in 2012, was updated and re-released by Simon and Schuster in June 2022