How the Stones made Exile On Main Street sound so sleazy

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The Rolling Stones recording Exile On Main Street in France - Dominique Tarlé
The Rolling Stones recording Exile On Main Street in France - Dominique Tarlé

In the summer of 1971 the Rolling Stones should have been on top of the world. Months earlier, their Sticky Fingers album had been their first to reach number one in both the US and the UK. Yet the band was in crisis. A disastrous relationship with former manager Allen Klein had left them broke, with each member (bar newish guitarist Mick Taylor) owing £100,000 in back taxes. Further, when Klein was fired in 1970 he took the rights to the Stones’ pre-1970 song catalogue with him. So the band moved to France as tax exiles in the hope of rebuilding their battered finances.

It was here, in the basement of Keith Richards’s rented mansion in Villefranche-sur-Mer on the Côte d’Azur, that the Stones set to work on a new album. Between June and October 1971, they recorded track-after-track of raw, bluesy rock. The sprawling Villa Nellcôte was a place of extremes. The weather was so hot that the instruments warped themselves out of tune, the set-up was so shonky that there were regular electricity outages, life was so sleazy that The Times reported in 1972 – citing police ­– that 50 grams of heroin had been delivered to the mansion every week, and the makeshift studio was so dark that Richards took to referring to the subterranean sonic bunker as a “dungeon”.

But sprawling, hot, shonky, sleazy and dark perfectly capture the Stones’ output at Nellcôte. If ever music mirrored environment, it was here. The resulting album, Exile On Main Street, is often hailed as the band’s masterpiece.

Released 50 years ago this month, Exile should not have worked. It remains the Stones’ most daunting album. In only contained one hit, Tumbling Dice, and none of its 18 songs had the commercial polish found on Sticky Fingers or 1969’s Let It Bleed (homes to the songs Brown Sugar and Gimme Shelter respectively). The album is badly mixed, with Mick Jagger’s vocals far too low in muddy soup of noise. It’s too long and was, to quote saxophonist Bobby Keys, as “unrehearsed as a hiccup”.

But Exile On Main Street has an astonishing outlaw energy. The LP’s ragged grittiness ­has not been beaten in half a century. “The Stones really felt like exiles,” Richards has said. “It was us against the world now. So, f––– you! That was the attitude.” Rolling Stone magazine has rightly called Exile “rock and roll’s most rock and roll album”. Here we look at its standout tracks.

Rocks Off

Does a more filthy “Awww yeah” exist in music than the one Jagger croaks at the start of Rocks Off, Exile’s opening track? Doubtful. From those first bars, you know you’re in new territory. While the production on the last recorded track fans would have heard ­­prior to this – Sticky Fingers’ closing number Moonlight Mile – was crystal clear, the production on Rocks Off was rough and ready. This was partly because Exile was recorded using a foliage-covered mobile recording unit parked outside the villa, with cables running down through the basement window. The band were reportedly so keen to economise that they’d occasionally rig the unit up to the street’s electricity mains to save Richards money on his bills. Exile was the Stones at their most illicit and dirty.

Part of the sound, though, was deliberate. The villa’s basement was actually a warren of rooms (Nellcôte was a former Gestapo HQ). Band members would constantly move around in search of the best sound; they’d sometimes only find each other by following instrument-specific coloured cables on the floor (yellow for horns, and so on). Richards said he achieved the “weird echo” on Rocks Off by facing his amp directly into the corner of a tiled room.

Rip This Joint

A speedy rockabilly blues number, Rip This Joint remains one of the fastest songs the Stones have ever recorded. Lyrically it’s a musical road trip across America sung from a foreigner’s point of view. Jagger sings about visiting Memphis, Santa Fe and New Orleans in pursuit of “ripping this joint” and saving the listener’s soul. “Ah, let it rock,” he screeches towards the end, before a rip-roaring sax solo from Keys.

Exiled: Mick Jagger on the French Riviera - Dominique Tarlé
Exiled: Mick Jagger on the French Riviera - Dominique Tarlé

Not that the frontman was that keen on the song at the time of recording. “[Mick] didn’t like Rip This Joint – it was too fast,” Richards wrote in his 2010 autobiography Life. “I think we may have popped it once since then, but Rip This Joint, in terms of beats per minute, is something like a world record. Maybe Little Richard has done something faster.”

While the song appeared in Stones’ live sets in the early-to-mid 1970s, it disappeared for decades. However they revived Rip This Joint on their 1995 Voodoo Lounge tour and have played it occasionally since. A live version appeared on the Stones’ concert album Totally Stripped: Jagger restarts the song after 11 seconds after he appears to trip over its peskily fast lyrics.

Tumbling Dice

Tumbling Dice is Exile’s best-known song. It reached number five in the UK and number seven in the US when released as the album’s lead single in April 1972. The band had recorded an embryonic version (called Good Time Women) at Jagger’s Stargroves manor house in Hampshire during the Sticky Fingers sessions in 1970. That song was reworked and slowed down to become Tumbling Dice, possibly so named because Nellcôte also became a makeshift gambling den with roulette wheels dotted around.

Despite already being partially formed, the song still took time to develop. According to Exile’s engineer Andy Johns, Richards spent six hours just playing the song’s reprise one afternoon. “We had more tape on Tumbling Dice than anything else,” Johns told Rolling Stone in 2010. Drummer Charlie Watts also had a tough time on the song, which shifts rhythm at the three minute mark. So producer Jimmy Miller ended up playing the drums for the last minute of the track.

Keith Richards and Gram Parsons at Villa Nellcote - Dominique Tarlé
Keith Richards and Gram Parsons at Villa Nellcote - Dominique Tarlé

The song’s mix is weird, particularly Jagger’s muted vocals. Producer Don Was, who worked on a 2010 Exile reissue, has said, “By all record-making standards, the vocals are insanely low. You listen to Tumbling Dice, and it’s ridiculous. Ridiculous – but it’s one of the greatest rock and roll songs ever recorded.”

Sweet Virginia

A laconic acoustic shuffle, Sweet Virginia brings to mind the Bakersfield country-rock of Gram Parsons, who was at Nellcôte as part of the Stones’ sizable entourage. The track reflects the homespun and chaotic nature of the album’s sessions. With ramshackle backing vocals sung ­– it seems – by a merry cast of thousands, the track references both drug use (“I hid the speed inside my shoe”) and the grubbiness of such habits (“got to scrape that shit right off your shoes”). The Stones seemed to be aware of both sides of this debate. There were, according to multiple accounts, drugs aplenty that summer. Richards and his girlfriend Anita Pallenberg indulged heavily. Parsons, who would go on to die of a drug overdose in 1973, was eventually asked to leave the villa.

The Stones originally recorded Sweet Virginia at Olympic studios in London’s Barnes in 1970. Due to this, former manager Klein sued them for breach of settlement after Exile’s release. He claimed that the song was composed when the band was under contract to him. His company duly acquired publishing rights.

Torn and Frayed

Exile’s saddest track. Another Parsons-esque country-rock song, Torn and Frayed features sublime pedal steel guitar by Al Perkins. But Jagger’s lyrics also deal with a sad and pressing issue: the spiralling drug use of an unnamed guitar player. “And 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,” Jagger sings. The song also references “dressing rooms filled with parasites” and doctors prescribing drugs to “help him kick it”. The lyrics could, of course, relate to any guitarist, perhaps even Parsons. However, over the decades, listeners have inevitably assumed the lyrics were directed at Richards.

The Rolling Stones recording in the villa's 'dungeon' - Dominique Tarlé
The Rolling Stones recording in the villa's 'dungeon' - Dominique Tarlé

This is something that Richards took issue with in his autobiography. The Stones, he wrote, rarely referenced drugs in their songs. “They would only crop up in songs as they did in life, here and there,” he wrote. “There were always rumours and folklore about songs, who they were written for, what they were really about… Whatever you write, somebody is going to interpret it in some other way, see codes buried in the lyrics.”

Torn and Frayed is the Stones at their bleakest. It’s amazing to think that just four years previously they were writing pretty, whimsical songs like She’s a Rainbow.

Happy

It wasn’t all doom and gloom. At Nellcôte, the Stones’ would record from late in the afternoon until dawn, after which they’d often jump into Richards’ boat, called “Mandrax” (another name for the downer drug Quaalude), and motor down the Riviera for breakfast in Monte Carlo or even Italy. En route, they’d listen to takes and play them to people they met. (Despite this alluring lifestyle, bassist Bill Wyman still missed home comforts such as Branston pickle. He also bemoaned dealing with French milk in his tea).

The song Happy, also released as a single, featured Richards on lead vocals. The upbeat track, with its distinctive ascending guitar lick, came to him one afternoon when no-one else was around. (Jagger was often absent having just got married to heavily-pregnant Nicaraguan-born model Bianca Pérez Morena de Macías – they based themselves in Paris.) So Richards asked producer Miller to play the drums. With Keys on baritone sax, the basic track was cut in four hours. Happy was something of a love song for Pallenberg: its chorus of “I need a love to keep me happy” sounds like “Anita’s love will keep me happy”.

Richards regularly sings the song live. “That’s a strange song, because if you play it you actually become happy, even in the worst of circumstances,” he has said.

All Down The Line

During Exile’s recording Andy Johns, who was in charge of the mixing desk, became exasperated with the album’s unusual sound. He told Jagger that he “can’t f–––––– tell what this is going to sound like” on the radio. So Jagger, taking the bull by the horns, said, “Well, let’s have someone play it on the radio.” According to Johns, Jagger hired a Cadillac limousine with a telephone in it and Johns, Jagger, Watts and Richards piled in.

As they were driving around, Jagger made a call on the phone. Moments later the DJ on the car radio cleared his throat: “Hey, you folks out there, we have a surprise for you.” All Down The Line was then played. “What do you think?” Jagger asked John when the song had finished. When the engineer said he couldn’t really tell, Jagger made a second call and the song was played again.

According to the 21-year-old Johns (who was the younger brother of Beatles engineer Glyn), at this stage Jagger told him he’d had it with the album and told him to sort the sound out himself. In France, Johns put together a mix in two days.

Shine A Light

Although Jagger was absent for some of the Nellcôte sessions, he took full control of Exile’s final stage at Sunset Sound studios in Los Angeles in late 1971 and early 1972. Indeed, if the French Exile sessions were Richards’ domain, the Los Angeles ones were Jagger’s. In LA, vocal, guitar, bass and keyboard overdubs were done. It was also in this final stage of Exile’s journey that it acquired its distinctive soul and gospel elements, and there is no better example than Shine A Light.

The influence was clear. While in LA in January 1972, Jagger, Watts and organist Billy Preston went to the New Temple Missionary Baptist Church to hear Aretha Franklin record her live gospel album Amazing Grace. You can see the trio crouching in the background as they watch Franklin’s stunning performance in 2018’s Amazing Grace documentary film.

Tumbling Dice, Loving Cup, Let It Loose and Shine A Light were all given gospel backing vocals (the latter also features Preston on piano and organ). Shine A Light is about former guitarist Brian Jones. It’s a gloriously uplifting counterpoint to Exile’s darker moments.

Photographs taken from the exhibition La Villa, at La Galerie de L’Instant, La Cour des Arts, 13 Rue Michelet, 13210 Saint Remy de Provence; until July 20 2022

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