Fifty years of Exile on Main Street

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.


Charlie Watts, 1941-2021 – the solidest Stone

Credit: Terry Murden/Shutterstock
CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD salutes the most grounded member of the Rolling Stones

There can be few terms in the English language more debased than ‘rock star’. Nowadays, it seems, the press makes a fetish of every halfway plausible such chancer to appear over the horizon, regardless of whether their art will endure, or their generally slim recorded oeuvre instead be among the detritus one eventually takes to the nearest Oxfam shop. But the Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, who died on 24 August aged 80, truly merits a place in the pop pantheon. He wasn’t just an original among the standard tub-thumpers of his profession. He was unique. Back in 1963 the Stones’s first manager, Eric Easton, fastened on the essential thing about Watts, which was that he was “totally unpretentious” and “perfect at his job”. Those same two qualities would remain intact for the next 58 years.

It was a curious path that took the impeccably polite, suave young drummer into a group that were to hear themselves described as ‘morons’ by a High Court judge, and to read newspaper accounts citing their UGLY LOOKS! UGLY SPEECH! UGLY MANNERS! among other unattractive characteristics. Watts, born on 2 June 1941, grew up in and around Islington, north London, at a time when the area was still a byword for urban decay rather than the spiritual home of Britain’s left-wing intelligentsia. His father, also called Charles, was a van driver for a precursor of British Rail, and his mother Lilian had been a factory cleaner. “He’s always been a good boy”, Mrs. Watts informed the press in 1967, the year of the Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request:

Never had any police knocking on the door or anything like that. And he’s always been terribly kind to old people. He was always a tidy dresser. That’s why I get nonplussed when he’s called ugly and dirty. When he’s home you can’t get him out of the bathroom.

Ten years later, Watts’s father remained equally perplexed by his son’s public image, especially because Charlie (who never learned to drive) still came up on the tube every Friday night he possibly could, “with a lovely fresh cake for me and his Mum”.

Watts himself was later to remark,

Part of my problem was that I was never a teenager. I’d be off in the corner talking about Kierkegaard. I always took myself too seriously, and thought Buddy Holly was a great joke.

And it’s true there was something a bit melancholic about the London lad with the long, Buster Keaton face who only ever wanted to read about cowboys or play the drums. He acquired his first kit at Christmas 1955, after at least a year of practicing nonstop on his mother’s pots and pans. At 18, Watts had only one ambition, which was to somehow find himself at Birdland in New York, wearing a hipster suit and sitting in behind the likes of Stan Getz or Miles Davis. Instead, he drifted in to a smoke-filled suburban London blues club one evening, to be confronted by the embryonic Rolling Stones. They courted him for about a year before he agreed to join, and even then he contained his excitement. The Stones’ roadie and sometime piano player Ian Stewart remembered that he’d simply driven up to the Watts’s front door one night in his van. “I said to Charlie, ‘Look, you’re in the band. That’s it’. And Charlie said, ‘Yeah, all right, then, but I don’t know what my mum’s gonna say.’”

In March 1971, the Rolling Stones began a short tour of Britain prior to their taking up residence in the south of France. To this day there are different views of the primary motivation behind the group’s decision to embark on an extended Somerset Maugham-like exile on the Riviera. Keith Richards would long rue the fact that “the Establishment – a lot of fuckin’ judges and politicians – kicked us out of our country”, while others believe that Keith’s ire might have been better directed at the Stones’ highly paid business managers for allowing the band to run up an unpayable debt to the Inland Revenue and thus necessitating a period of non-residence in the UK. Either way, there was a so-called ‘farewell tour’ to mark the occasion. Everyone’s parents came to the final show at the Roundhouse in London. Mick Jagger was later forced to admit that “It was weird wigglin’ around in front of me mum”, and that the general atmosphere of the night had been “crazy – everyone was out of their brains on dope”. Against this debauched backdrop, Charles and Lilian Watts sat together in the front row, wearing their Sunday-best clothes, and courteously handed round biscuits to their neighbours. You could see again how their boy Charlie might have developed into the personality he did.

Amidst all the surrounding Stones-related tales about Mars Bars, drug busts and Margaret Trudeau, Watts remained the calm eye of the storm. He bought the former Archbishop of Canterbury’s country home in Sussex, raised sheepdogs, and collected American Civil War memorabilia. He was the politest man in rock music. Once, in Detroit, a record executive named Mo Schulman invited the drummer up for a drink in his hotel suite, which was awash in champagne, caviar and an impressive variety of recreational drugs. When Schulman was then urgently called away on business, he affably told his guest to help himself from the display. “Anything you want”, he stressed. Charlie took a bottle of beer, leaving both a five-dollar bill and a polite thank-you note on the counter. A few years later, again on tour, the Stones were living it up one night in the pinball room of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy Mansion with its underwater bar and hot and cold running Bunnies. Charlie took one look at the Satyricon-like scene, rolled his eyes, said, “Uh-oh, this is star situation”, and retired alone with a good book.

I saw this same unaffected modesty for myself when Watts once quite unnecessarily wrote to thank me for a small cricket-related gift. His actual handwriting was always a bit of a challenge, but the signature was clear enough. It read “Charlie W”, or possibly “Charlie R” (his middle initial), followed by a pair of brackets, in which he neatly inserted – as if his current occupation might not be generally familiar – “Of the Rolling Stones”.

Watts was always the steadying influence of a band that often seemed to be on the brink of a messy, Beatlesque breakup. For large parts of the 1980s, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were united only in their mutual affection for the dapper, self-effacing man doing the locomotion behind them on stage. Richards called Watts “the secret essence of the whole thing”, and “the perfect drummer for the material”. Watts’s light touch and crisp, jazzy sensibility distinguished some of the band’s most iconic songs. Sitting impassively at his minimalist kit, he lit the fuse to ‘Satisfaction’, ‘Honky Tonk Women’, ‘Brown Sugar’ and many others. Variety once wrote of him on stage, “He looks like the mild-mannered banker who no one in the heist movie realizes is the guy actually blowing up the vault.”

That’s not to say Watts was ever a pushover. He may have been the most genial of all rock musicians, but there was no way he was going to let the buggers tell him what to do. In the winter of 1984, the Rolling Stones and their sundry friends and aides convened for a few days in Amsterdam, not so much to make new music as to take advantage of the Netherlands’ uniquely generous tax provisions for those entities at least notionally based in the country. Following a lengthy presentation by the band’s business advisers, Keith Richards apparently felt the need to take Mick Jagger out on the town and get him drunk. The latter’s usual transition from gregariousness to mindless exuberance was abnormally swift. A blotto Jagger returned to the group’s hotel in the early hours of the following morning. At that stage he made the decision to pick up the phone to dial Charlie’s room, and to then rashly refer to him in the course of the ensuing conversation as “my drummer”.

At that Watts got up, showered, shaved, dressed in a Turnbull and Asser shirt, silk tie and three-piece suit, went downstairs, seized Jagger, and punched his lights out. “It was like a scene in a movie”, Keith Richards later said of a room containing 30 or so well-oiled musicians and their friends. Anyone familiar with The Island of Dr Moreau, with its apes and dogs surgically turned in to semi-human form, has only to think of these same fauna dressed in 1980s pastels to get a bit of the flavour. The band’s ever-present security crew froze in place – nobody seemed quite sure what the protocol was for separating one Rolling Stone from another – leaving Keith himself to grab Mick as he “landed on a plateful of smoked salmon and slid along the table towards the window”. Richards later remarked that he had been moved less by humanitarianism per se than by the fact that Jagger happened to be wearing his own favourite silk jacket at the time. His intervention possibly saved Sir Mick from being defenestrated into the canal below, but its real motivation was to “stop my gear being ruined”.

“Don’t ever call me your drummer again”, Charlie observed on his way out. “You’re my fucking singer.”

On another occasion, in 1992, Watts emerged from a period of seclusion to record his own big-band album, broadly in the style of Cab Calloway, which he promoted by a short American tour. Sitting behind his kit for a show at New York’s Blue Note club in his immaculate zoot suit without removing his jacket or loosening his tie, it was hard to remember that this silver-haired gentleman was the drummer in the world’s most notorious rock and roll band. A night or two later, the ‘silent Stone’, as he was billed, was to have appeared as the musical guest on NBC television’s Late Night with David Letterman. This highly coveted spot would have exposed Charlie and his album to an audience of some six million potential customers, but it came with an important condition. In keeping with NBC policy, the show’s in-house band would have to accompany him. The subsequent discussions had not proceeded far before it became apparent that Charlie would not be open to this arrangement. Minutes before the programme’s scheduled air-time, he left the building with a muttered “Sod it” and wandered off alone into the warm New York night.

 In 2014, Watts became the first rock star to celebrate a golden wedding anniversary. He married his childhood sweetheart Shirley Shepherd when they were both in their early twenties, and the couple remained together to the end. In later years the Wattses lived on a sprawling farm in north Devon, which they shared with a stable of 23 Arab horses and several dozen cows, sheep and dogs. ‘The squire’, as he was known locally, could sometimes be seen walking in a waxed jacket and gumboots around the nearby village of Dolton, unmolested by the few residents who associated him with the Rolling Stones.

While Shirley tended to the farm, Charlie was content to sit inside listening to jazz records or watching old cricket videos, a routine he sometimes varied by perching, in motoring cap and goggles, behind the wheel of his stationary 1937 Lagonda Rapide. When compelled to go on tour with the Stones, he typically assumed the air of bemused detachment that was as much a part of the whole spectacle as Mick’s rooster-on-acid gyrations or Keith’s laconic riffing. For years, Charlie enlivened the experience of clocking on and off for group rehearsals by the expedient of hanging an old-fashioned shop’s ‘Open’ or ‘Closed’ sign in front of his kit. Drummers, like goalkeepers, are a bit different.

The Stones’ final public appearance with Watts was a filmed segment for the first We’re-all-in-this-together Covid broadcast in April 2020. Seated on his living room floor, Charlie played along on a spirited version of ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’, drumsticks in hand, using a trio of musical storage cases and a nearby couch for percussion. It was an effortless, funny, and musically deft performance, and absolutely right for the occasion. Only the drummer in the world’s greatest rock band, it seemed, might not wish to keep a set of drums at home. Somehow that summed up the man.

50 years of Sticky Fingers

CHRISTOPHER SANDFORD recalls the shambolic genesis of the Stones’ masterpiece

At about eleven on the Monday morning of 9 March 1970, a somewhat distressed-looking olive green, midsized BMC lorry of the kind typically used to haul heavy goods around the country, crunched up the gravel driveway of a sprawling manor house located just outside the village of East Woodhay on the Hampshire-Berkshire border. The driver of the truck was a burly 31-year-old with the uncompromisingly Scots name of Ian Stewart, and he was there not to deliver industrial equipment but to help record a rock and roll album.

For the next several hours Stewart and two assistants threaded dozens of multicoloured cables through the home’s heavily studded front doors and into the entrance hall, in due course installing drum kits and guitar amplifiers, knocking together crudely fashioned isolation booths like the old sensory-deprivation chambers in TV’s Double Your Money, and plugging in a forest of microphones against a backdrop of musty chandeliers and ancestral portraits that stared down in silent reproach at the cast of shaggy-haired residents gradually emerging from all corners of the home, whose doll-like smallness gave them the air of elves curiously inspecting a room in an advancing state of preparation for a party.


The somewhat implausible name of the house was Stargroves, and at that time it was owned by Mick Jagger. Jagger and his band the Rolling Stones – for it was they – had elected to record in this manner in order to relieve themselves of the tedious 9-5 restrictions of a traditional commercial studio. By doing it their way the five band members and their auxiliary musicians could plug in whenever the mood took them, and the 8-track console installed in the back of the truck parked outside would capture the results.

It was a good idea, and it almost worked. Jagger himself, along with his colleagues Bill Wyman, Charlie Watts and Mick Taylor duly spent much of the next six weeks cutting the basic tracks for what became the group’s ninth British LP, and the first to be released on the band’s own label, and which, after toying with the likes of Sour Grapes and – for some compelling reason – The Vagina Album, they named Sticky Fingers. For his part, the Stones’s narcotically-inclined guitarist and on his day leading creative force Keith Richards sometimes made it to the recordings, and sometimes didn’t. If a session was called for, say, ten o’clock at night, Keith might stroll in around three in the morning accompanied by his entourage of spliff-wielding Rastafarians, waif-like young women and sundry other advisers and assistants notable for their heavy use of mascara and the leather satchels clutched in their arms.

Before long, certain other challenges inherent to the concept of a group of young rock musicians working without external supervision also asserted themselves. As the weeks wore on, there were frequent arguments and absences throughout the band. The rhythm section of Wyman and Watts were both married men with children, and more than once they expressed their distaste for working through the night in a colleague’s remote country estate located some 80 miles from their own suburban-London homes. Several witnesses later noted that even the consummately professional Jagger would periodically down tools, if the phrase weren’t so inappropriate, whenever one of his specially favoured female companions appeared at Stargroves. “Suddenly”, Ian Stewart once told me, “there were days when Mick disappeared upstairs”.

Perhaps all rock and roll albums should be made with comparatively primitive technology installed in the back of a truck parked outside the door, with creative differences being not so much aired as shouted out, because the result of the Rolling Stones’s labours, as buffed up by the band’s wunderkind producer Jimmy Miller at various locations over the course of the next twelve months, and formally released on 23 April 1971, remains arguably the masterpiece of their long career.

It would require a life of more than mere detachment from the whims of popular culture, and devoted instead to the most austere monastic seclusion, for the reader not to be on terms of at least passing familiarity with the album’s opening number ‘Brown Sugar’. A – or the – classic frothy Stones raveup, it had curious origins. In the summer of 1969, hard on the heels of events such as the firing and almost immediate death of the Stones’s founding genius Brian Jones, and the band’s perhaps ill-advised free concert in front of 300,000 fans in Hyde Park just two days later, Mick Jagger had flown to Australia with his girlfriend Marianne Faithfull to take the lead role in Tony Richardson’s film Ned Kelly – the idea presumably being that one rebel, no matter how slight his screen-acting experience, should play another. The production got off to a bad start when Jagger was forced to walk a gauntlet of protesters on arrival at Sydney airport, indignant that their nation’s 19th-century outlaw hero should be portrayed by, as one of the signs had it, a “pommy faggot”. Following that there was the near-fatal overdose of Jagger’s costar and travelling companion, which again saw the words ‘Stones’ and ‘drugs’ deployed in close proximity to one another in the world’s tabloid headlines. Tony Richardson promptly dropped Faithfull from the cast of Ned Kelly, which would go on to grace all the ‘Worst Movies in History’ lists following its limited release in June 1970. Adding injury to insult, Jagger was badly hurt when, once out on location, a prop pistol exploded in his hand. The unit nurse stitched him up and told him to keep his right arm immobile. Preferring to doctor himself, Mick instead picked up a guitar one afternoon and idly strummed a two-bar phrase around the C, G and F chords, then threw in some hurriedly improvised bondage-fantasy lyrics. This happy collision between boredom and physical therapy would be the best thing to come out of Ned Kelly. Once back in London, Jagger and Richards swiftly worked up the riff into ‘Brown Sugar’.

Next up on Sticky Fingers was a hidden gem called ‘Sway’, a solid if largely unremarkable reminder of the band’s blues roots until Mick Taylor suddenly swooped in with a bottleneck slide guitar during the bridge, and a dramatic, virtuoso outro solo that may represent the finest 30 seconds of his five-and-a-half year tenure as a Rolling Stone. Another swift gear change ushered in ‘Wild Horses’, a lovely ballad in its way even if Ian Stewart, doubling as the band’s primary roadie and occasional pianist, had pronounced himself unwilling to perform on any ‘Chinese shit’, as he termed music with minor chords, when called upon to accompany the track. Essentially a love song from Keith Richards to his partner Anita Pallenberg, Jagger rewrote the lyrics as a plea to Marianne Faithfull to rejoin him after she’d stepped out with one of Anita’s exs (all very fraternal were the Stones in those days), the painter Mario Schifano. It perhaps wouldn’t be hard to locate the names of certain rock and roll bands who over the years have embarrassed both their audiences and themselves by their misguided attempts at the romantic air – somehow I’m always reminded on these occasions of the baroque strains of Spinal Tap’s immortal ‘Lick My Love Pump’ – but what’s extraordinary here is that the Stones are at their most convincing when they aim at the sublime.

Next up: the gloriously eccentric ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’, a rock-guitar groove that swerved halfway through into a mariachi jam session. It was pronounced No. 25 on one of Rolling Stone magazine’s incessant lists of The 100 Greatest Rock Songs of All Time, but even without that particular bauble it would be hard for any normally sensate listener to remain wholly unmoved by Keith Richards’s shattering opening guitar bolt and the collective locomotion of his four colleagues and their sidemen – Bobby Keys on tenor sax to the fore – that followed. Side One, as such things were then designated, ended with the Stones’s somewhat frazzled take on Mississippi Fred McDowell’s classic spiritual ‘You Gotta Move’, which they’d initially cut in embryonic form at around three one morning in December 1969 while crouched around a microphone positioned in a toilet bowl (for that ‘shitty sound’, as Keith approvingly put it) at Muscle Shoals studio in rural Alabama.

Flip the disc over, and you had the horn-drenched blowout of ‘Bitch’, after which things calmed down with three songs – ‘I Got the Blues’, ‘Sister Morphine’ and ‘Dead Flowers’ – with seemingly little in common but their border-jumping from the world of roots rock and roll into those of country and soul, and back again, not to mention their assorted drug references and the basic premise of ‘Morphine’ itself, with its gory allusion to Marianne Faithfull’s recent miscarriage.

The whole thing wound down with the soporific ‘Moonlight Mile’, a weirdly insinuating slab of orchestral blues with lyrics one earnest American reviewer described as a “rare case of Mick Jagger letting go of his public persona, offering a behind-the-scenes glimpse of the weariness that accompanies the pressures of keeping up appearances as a sex-drugs-and-rock and roll star”, and another perhaps overextended himself by comparing to W.B. Yeats. The song had a curious and on the whole less exalted genesis. Keith Richards had first strummed the moody chords to ‘The Japanese Thing’, as the track was then known, while sitting on the kitchen floor, a bowl of cereal in his lap, late one night at Stargroves. Initially there had been something of a skeleton crew present at the moment of creation, with just Charlie Watts on drums and the trumpet player Jim Price improvising on piano. Mick Jagger was upstairs in his boudoir, Bill Wyman had also retired, and nobody knew exactly where Mick Taylor was after his co-guitarist had informed him, “Don’t bother to play on this – you’re too bloody loud”. Six months later, Keith was too stoned to make it to the final session for ‘Moonlight Mile’, which the two Micks put together in his absence. Taylor later expressed a certain surprise to see his name omitted from the song’s all-important writing credit, an early milestone down the road to his decision to defect from the band in December 1974.

Kali – unlikely inspiration for the Stones’ slavering lips and tongue logo

Even without the bulging Andy Warhol-designed crotch on the front cover, and the particularly lubricious advertising campaign that met its release, Sticky Fingers could be said to definitively capture the debauched essence of the Rolling Stones in all their strung-out 1970s glory. It was also the first product to feature the band’s iconic trademark, inspired, apparently, by the Thug goddess Kali, and actually drawn by a young Royal College of Art student named John Pasche. Pasche was paid his standard design fee, fifty guineas. That tongue and lips logo, slavering in a cunnilingual leer, would soon be recognisable to millions of people around the world who never bought a rock record or attended a concert: it remains today the ultimate pop-culture accessory.

The last sight that many Britons thought they would ever have of the Rolling Stones was of the band camping its way through ‘Brown Sugar’ on Top of the Pops. Mick Jagger vamped it up in a pink satin suit, Keith Richards’s chugging guitar drove the teenaged audience into a synchronised boogie, and the rest of the band mimed frantically away as best they could. By the time the clip aired on the evening of 15 April 1971, the Stones themselves were already safely ensconced in their new South of France domiciles, either victims of a merciless Establishment backlash, or, more prosaically, of the Inland Revenue’s attentions to their back earnings, depending on which version of events you prefer. Either way, the sessions for their next album moved from Mick Jagger’s relatively sedate Home Counties estate to the more ramshackle charms of Keith Richards’s digs on the Riviera, and the last of the band’s indisputably great albums would duly emerge under the title Exile on Main Street. But that’s another story.