Looking back on what many consider to be the Rolling Stones’ greatest album
Hip deep in decadence, set up in a moist, unpleasant basement, surrounded by opiates and opiate consumers, stuck with the consequences of terrible contract and away from home for reasons not entirely of their choosing, the Rolling Stones were not in the best situation to record a follow-up to their classic Sticky Fingers.
That didn’t stop them from producing a double album which would not only cap a classic run of releases, but would be regarded by many as the band’s masterpiece — Exile on Main St. — released 50 years ago today.
The Nellcôte sessions were a result of circumstance, not planning.
Some of Exile’s material dated back to sessions for 1969’s Let It Bleed and 1971’s Sticky Fingers at Olympic Studios in London, Muscle Shoals Studios in Alabama and using the Stones’ mobile recording studio at Mick Jagger’s Stargroves manor house in Hampshire.
Indeed, Exile might well have been put together in England if not for two people — Allen Klein and Harold Wilson.
The latter’s Labour government had put a “supertax” in place (George Harrison’s “Taxman” lyric of “one for you, nineteen for me” wasn’t far off). The Stones were looking at tax bills that they, even at their level of success, couldn’t afford to pay.
Not helping matters would be Klein. The band’s former manager, through some small print trickery that slipped the band’s notice, wound up holding the publishing rights to the band’s songs from 1965 through 1970, a rather lucrative setup for someone who had zero creative input in the band.
Facing onerous tax bills with reduced publishing income to pay them, the Stones moved to various locations in France, with the idea of finding a suitable studio there.
When that didn’t happen, a Plan B emerged. They’d use their mobile studios in the basement at Nellcôte, the leased mansion where guitarist Keith Richards and girlfriend Anita Pallenberg were living near Nice.
This proved to be more challenging than first thought. The space was such that numerous lines had to be run between different rooms. Carpet was put down to control acoustics.
The dank conditions meant sitting guitars could easily fall out of tune. The physical separation between the players required some adjustment.
As well-known in rock lore as the Stones’ time at Nellcôte became for all the drugs and visitors (both fellow musicians and dealer/hanger-on types), the band fell into routine, albeit a rather loose one. They basically recorded on weekdays, with whoever was there at a given time, while the weekends were taken off.
For all the notoriety, some band members indulged much less than others. Jagger, for one, was living in Paris with his new wife, Bianca, who was pregnant with their daughter Jade at the time. He was also working on the band’s next tour, as well as its extrication from Klein.
Bassist Bill Wyman, not keen on the atmosphere at Villa Consommation D’Héroïne, er, Nellcôte, wasn’t present for a number of sessions. His bass parts were taken over by Richards, lead guitarist Mick Taylor and guest Bill Plummer. He’d later insist he played on more than the eight tracks he is credited on.
Exile’s reputation as a Keith album isn’t completely undeserved, given its sound, style and that it was sometimes recorded on Richards Time, whenever he’d gotten a song to where he’d wanted and/or was “sober” enough to record.
Take “Happy,” one of the two singles and the biggest hit with Richards on lead vocals. Producer Jimmy Miller was listening to tapes from the previous night’s session when Richards came down one afternoon. No other band members were there.
Richards told Miller he had an idea, so the producer said to lay it down. The next thing Richards knew, Miller had come down from the truck and started playing the drums.
“I’m just hammering away, figuring this thing out,” Richards told Guitar World in 2014. “Suddenly I hear these great drums behind me, and now it’s starting to rock. It’s one of these ‘three feet off the ground’ feelings. And then, suddenly, I hear this baritone sax, and there’s Bobby Keys honking away. Suddenly it’s becoming very happy.”
The result was a blast that remains Richards’ signature tune, the Philosophy of Keith built around that instantly recognizable riff and accented by those joyous horns.
Keys’ presence is a reminder of the X-factor in Exile’s artistic success—the contributions of outside players—the “Sixth Stone” Nicky Hopkins on keyboards, Keys, Miller on occasional drums and percussion, trumpet player Jim Price, the numerous backing vocalists, pianist/road manager Ian Stewart and more. They’re all integrated into an album that feels more organic than its creation would suggest.
A Keith Album, it may be, but it’s far from a dry run for Richards’ later solo albums.
For whatever disappointment Jagger had in his vocal presence in the mix or in what he perceived as a lack of experimentation in the material, he wrote most of the lyrics and remains committed vocally. Taylor’s chemistry with Richards had picked up even more with terrific results. And drummer Charlie Watts’ trademark combination of precision and swing remains the anchor, even in the murk.
Despite the often-shambolic circumstances of its creation, Exile was the result of a fertile period, expanding because the band kept coming up with songs.
The Stones have been known to revisit an unfinished song after a while. Their 1981 hit “Start Me Up” had been a reggae song called “Never Stop” from the sessions for 1975’s Black and Blue, but while putting together Tattoo You, they found the one take of over 40 that had been a punchier rock version and built that into what became the hit.
A sort of reverse happened with “Tumbling Dice,” Exile’s other hit single. The oldest song on the album, it had been a cleaner, more uptempo track called “Good Time Women.”
Jagger came up with new and improved lyrics which paired well with the decision to slow the song’s tempo, which gives it that recognizably soulful essence that trying to turn it into an even more uptempo rocker would have obliterated.
Watts delivers one of his best drum performances, albeit not on the whole song. The ever-precise stalwart had trouble getting the feel right on the outro, so Miller wound up playing it
Likewise, “Loving Cup” was a song that perhaps the band wanted to work on more. Or perhaps they wanted to hold off on using it to keep royalties away from Klein, a move that might have been easier if they hadn’t first recorded during Mick Taylor’s initial session with the band and performed it at their free 1969 Hyde Park concert.
VIDEO: The Rolling Stones perform “Loving Cup” on Beat Club
In this case, the seeds of what the song would become were more in place. Jagger finished the lyrics. The pace was picked up slightly, and the horn section over the close punctuates the shuffle. It gave the song the way out it needed, as opposed to the Hyde Park version which ended with Jagger moaning “all over the place” as it limped to a conclusion.
This is definitely an album more steeped in the blues and Black American music as a whole, with two outright covers—Slim Harpo’s “Shake Your Hips” and Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down”, for starters.
For all their obvious love of Black music and their ability to incorporate it into a reflection of their lives, the Stones still were capable of stepping into cultural appropriation and lyrical misfires (“Brown Sugar”, the title track to Some Girls) on occasion. It happened on Exile.
“Sweet Black Angel” is more political than they usually were—about unjustly imprisoned activist Angela Davis. But good intentions and lovely music don’t mean one doesn’t cringe when Jagger, a white dude from Dartford, Kent, sings a certain word in the lyrics—with the hard R.
That’s a stumble otherwise avoided on the album, however, as the band sticks to basically chronicling the state of the Stones circa 1971 honestly in all its decadent sleaze and occasionally heartfelt emotion.
It begins with “Rocks Off”—the junkie existence (“The sunshine bores the daylights out of me”) turned into a rocker. Its horn-punctuated blast belies the grimness (“I only get my rocks off when I’m dreaming”).
“Rip This Joint” is the kind of tossed-off rocker that the Stones would later knock out in their sleep. Here, the affair, which owes a debt to what was classic rock to them in 1971, holds together tightly while sounding loose. Keys lets loose with some killer soloing and Plummer’s upright bass is its secret weapon.
The band’s forays into country sounds weren’t always successful, especially when Jagger would lay on a phony drawl a little too thick. “Torn and Frayed” is much more successful, bearing the influence of Richards’ friend Gram Parsons, who had left the Flying Burrito Brothers and was one of the residents at Nellcôte for a period (spending it mostly in a drugged haze) before being asked to leave (the askee depending on who tells the story).
The song, about a traveling musician may contain a bit of commentary about the less-than-savory folks in the less-than-savory Stones’ orbit (“dressing rooms filled with parasites”).
But any sense of mean judgment goes away when Jagger hits that chorus (“But his coat is torn and frayed/It’s seen much better days/Just as long as the guitar plays/Let it steal your heart away”). The lovely pedal steel guitar that makes the song comes from Parsons friend Al Perkins, who’d replace “Sneaky” Pete Kleinow in the final incarnation of the Flying Burrito Brothers later in ’72.
The Parsons influence wasn’t just on Richards, as Jagger keeps the faux twang from being too annoying on “Sweet Virginia,” complete with that chorus made for drunk singalongs or a Faces album (which, in 1971 was basically the same thing).
As you might expect from a basement along the French Riviera that’s not getting much air circulation during the summer, the humid and dusty spaces at Nellcôte were not exactly pleasant to record in.
The conditions inspired “Ventilator Blues” (which eschews literalism for outlaw metaphor). It’s Taylor’s lone official songwriting co-credit during his time in the band, thanks to that tasty British Blues Cover Band riff that leads one to want to ask Taylor, “So how many times had you listened to ‘Spoonful’?”
If much of Exile puts you right there in the middle of the long days into longer nights of its creation, the stretch run feels like the morning (or more likely afternoon) after the night before.
Hardly nursing a hangover after that long night, this stretch is full of deep cuts that carry Exile to the finish line of its classic status.
“Let It Loose,” which wraps up Side 3 of the original album, is a loping gospel blues with a terrific Jagger vocal, aided and abetted by some of the finest backup singers of the day. Bizarrely, the band never performed it live.
“All Down the Line” was the first song finished, even though Andy Johns had a challenge mixing it, having one potential final mix ruined when, as he told it, Atlantic head Ahmet Ertegun showed up with sex workers on each arm and stood in front of the left speaker. Jagger was sure that the most straightforward rocker on the album, with its fiery performance, was a surefire single. It was given a test drive on L.A. radio while the rest of the album was being finished and the decision was made to keep it as an album track.
“Stop Breaking Down” is the better of the two covers, a livelier, crisper performance than “Shake Your Hips.”
VIDEO: The Rolling Stones perform “Shine A Light” with Bonnie Raitt
“Shine a Light” is Exile at its most beautiful, a gospel love song from Jagger enlivened by Billy Preston’s piano and organ playing. One of two songs Watts was absent for (along with “Happy”), it has Miller’s feel-driven style subbing in for him nicely.
Keith gets the last word with “Soul Survivor” (the 2010 deluxe reissue contains a version with his vocal and tossed-off lyrics). It’s a riff-driven statement of complaint (“You ain’t giving me no quarter/I’d rather drink seawater/l wish I’d never brought you/It’s gonna be the death of me”) and defiance, accented by Hopkins’ insistent piano.
If you’d guessed that the circumstances of Exile’s creation in France weren’t sustainable, you would be correct.
Eventually, it became more difficult to keep the more illegal goings-on at Nellcôte away from the attention of both Richards’ neighbors and the police.
At one point, dealers stole Keys’ saxophones, Wyman’s bass and nine of Richards’ guitars as payment (in broad daylight while the band was watching television upstairs) for what they felt they were owed.
The scene thinned out and, sensing the situation, Richards and Pallenberg left. Richards’ tingling junkie senses were accurate. The home was raided a couple of weeks later. Nobody was there, but the drugs left behind led to multiple charges. Most were dropped, but a guilty verdict on one led to a suspended sentence, a 5,000 franc fine (roughly $7,500 in U.S. dollars these days) and a two-year ban from France.
Recording would resume again at Sunset Studios in Los Angeles that fall, with the album finally finishing in the early months of 1972.
If the Nellcôte sessions were more centered around Keith, Mick took over in L.A., having more time to do so (as well as not being addicted to heroin). He concentrated on overdubbing his vocals. Indeed, the heart of the album had been recorded in France. What remained was overdubs, tweaked lyrics, backing vocals and the like. It also took a while to mix everything.
To the credit of Johns and Miller, they didn’t clean up the final product too much. All the sounds mingle together in an intoxicating stew that suits the material better than a cleaner mix, one with, say the vocals and drums pushed up, would have. And for all its murky reputation, the parts are all there, revealing themselves with repeated listening.
It’s a classic case of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Although it must be said the parts are much better than some thought at the time and that Jagger himself probably thinks to this day.
The decadence of Exile kept going on the band’s ’72 tour, which was only partially documented in Robert Frank’s documentary “Cocksucker Blues.”
Heroin and cocaine are notoriously unreliable performance enhancers for musicians in the long-term. Richards’ use of the former continued in copious amounts throughout most of the rest of the ’70s. Taylor also became addicted and left the band in late 1974 due in no small part to his realization that being a Rolling Stone in the 1970s wasn’t a helpful environment to get clean.
Richards’ addictions kept going and he never returned to Nellcôte. The mansion eventually wound up owned by Russian oligarch Viktor Rashnikov through one of his daughters and is currently being frozen by France after the Vladimir Putin-ordered invasion of Ukraine.
In a touch of irony, given the substances indulged at Nellcôte, Stargroves went through a number of owners before, according to the Sunday Times, winding up in the hands of a member of the Sackler family. Yes, the Sackler family of Purdue Pharma/Oxycontin infamy.
The band was back in the studio by the end of 1972, this time in Kingston (“Jamaica was one of the few places that would let us all in!” said Richards). The result — 1973’s Goat’s Head Soup was a bit of a step down, but had plenty of moments and could have had more based on material left out from the sessions. By the time of 1974’s It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll and 1976’s Black and Blue, they began to sound progressively more derived of sleep and creativity.
While the band regained some spark with the run of 1978’s Some Girls through 1983’s flawed and nihilistic Undercover, they eventually became known more for live tours with mostly familiar setlist choices and cash-in live albums rather than studio releases (only three in the last 25 years and one of those was a covers record).
That’s a shame, because there was a period where one wouldn’t have guessed that the Stones’ creativity would go so quietly into that good night. For a long time, they were an album act that produced a number of stone-cold classics and even the flawed ones (like Their Satanic Majesties Request) could contain interesting moments and a classic or two.
Exile stands on the short list of the best. Its ramshackle tightness is a testament to their creativity in the face of obstacles both self-imposed and beyond their control. It succeeds because of and in spite of the environment in which it was written and recorded.
Even if you’re not familiar with the circumstances of Exile’s creation, it puts you right in the middle of that dirty, groove-filled basement as witness to it all, to the point where you can close your eyes and picture someone else, possibly famous, passed out next to you.