How The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street Earned Its Rep

1971: The Year Music Changed Everything brings The Rolling Stones in from Exile for the story of their iconic work.

Keith Richards in 1971
Photo: Apple

Apple TV+’s docuseries 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything makes it seem like The Rolling Stones’ Exile On Main Street album was more fun to record than listen to, and that sets a high standard. The record distills the band’s sounds, from acoustic world music political ballads, through deep heartfelt blues, to honky tonk so funky you have to shake your ass. The group plays country, Southern blues, R&B, and the almost-punk-before-punk “Rip This Joint.” “Tumbling Dice,” is a radio staple. Keith Richards even took the lead vocals on a track to keep you happy. There was so much material, it came out as a double album. What could be more fun than that?

Richards’ Nellcôte mansion, on the Côte d’Azur in the South of France, was the hardest rocking musical getaway paradise in 1971. It was a Rock and Roll Main Street, and even the most mainstream players mainlined the exile vibe. Guitar god Eric Clapton and underground country legend Gram Parsons mixed drinks and drugs with movie stars like James Caan and Faye Dunaway, while playwright Terry Southern stopped taking note, according to Robert Greenfield’s book Exile on Main Street: A Season In Hell With The Rolling Stones

William S. Burroughs inspired Mick Jagger to cut and paste a word collage together to form the lyrics to “Casino Boogie.” Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr dropped by the almost-week-long afterparty for Jagger’s wedding to Nicaraguan-born model Bianca Pérez Morena de Macias in Saint-Tropez. John Lennon, who was on methadone treatment, reputedly threw up at the foot of the grand staircase and passed out in it.

“The sunshine bores the daylights out of me,” Jagger sings on “Rocks Off,” the album’s opening song. The Rolling Stones strolled through their recent past darkly. The murder of Meredith Hunter at the Altamont speedway concert in late 1969 signaled, to many, the death of decade’s peace-and-love counterculture. But the band’s troubles went all the way back to the Redlands drug bust of 1967, and the death of Brian Jones. Adversity worked well, creatively, for the Stones, and they continued to pump out classics like “Gimme Shelter” in 1969, and controversy like “Brown Sugar” in 1971. Sticky Fingers, their ninth album, hung nicely at the top of the charts on both sides of the Atlantic.

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The songs, and Allen Klein’s aggressive managerial money-making maneuvers, put the band in the 93% tax bracket for Britain’s highest earners. The Stones owed more than they could pay. To avoid penalties, they moved to France. Mick went to Paris. Mick Taylor, Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts bought or rented places along the French Riviera. Richards and his girlfriend, German-Italian actress and model Anita Pallenberg, moved into Nellcôte, a villa in Villefranche-sur-Mer, near Nice. During the Nazi occupation of France during World War II, the seaside mansion was the headquarters of the local Gestapo. Swastikas were carved into floor vents, staircases and ventilator grates.

As pointed out in 1971: The Year That Music Changed Everything, the Stones had recently signed with Atlantic Records, and the label wanted an album. The band scoured the Riviera for a suitable recording studio, but wound up parking their mobile studio next to Keith’s house. Richards transformed the basement into a recording studio, and the band stole electricity from the railway tracks across the street to power amplifiers and the mobile recording truck. 

The layout wasn’t the best. Bill Wyman, who is only credited for eight of the album’s songs on bass, plugged into an amp which was mic’d up in the hallway. Producer Jimmy Miller ended each take by running from the truck into the basement to check sound. The humidity caused the guitars to go out of tune. This gave the album its working title: “Tropical Disease.” The song “Ventilator Blues” was inspired by the conditions.

The band also had to deal with Keith’s erratic schedule. “I never plan anything,” Richards says in the documentary Stones in Exile. “Mick needs to know what he’s going to do tomorrow. Whereas I’m just happy to wake up and see who’s hanging around. Mick’s rock; I’m roll.” Richards, Taylor, Watts, pianist Nicky Hopkins, saxophonist Bobby Keys, drummer Jimmy Miller, and horn player Jim Price would jam all night while engineer Andy Johns ran the reels. Sessions would start when the guitarist rolled out of bed, or before he slipped off to put his son Marlon to sleep. After that Keith might pull a disappearing act, playing guitar in the un-mic’d second floor bathroom, or passing out. Richards was open about pot and alcohol, sharing liberally, but quiet about his heroin use.

Richards got clean in the spring of 1971, but hurt his back in a go-kart accident, according to Greenfield’s book. His vehicle flipped while racing his friend Tommy Weber at a track in Cannes. Richards took morphine for the pain, and within a few months, was using again. For sessions, he’d down a Mandrax, which is like a Quaalude, with whiskey. Charlie Watts was drinking brandy until he was past sloppy, and Jagger was taking speed to keep up with the hours Keith set. It was Richards’ place, and Mick was almost a hostage. When he left, it seemed nothing got done. Richards, left alone, could be downright dangerous. He almost burned himself, Anita and the entire house down when he fell asleep with a lit cigarette.

Richards was buying pure, uncut heroin from Castilian dealers. He was getting it by the kilo, and it became part of the social regimen of the villa. He shared so regularly with Gram Parsons that Mick got jealous, professionally. Parsons wanted Richards to produce his next album and join him on tour, which would have left the Stones without their guitarist for two years. Parsons was quietly asked to leave. Drugs split the Stones into two camps: Jagger, Wyman and Watts stuck to pills, booze and softer drugs. Richards, Taylor, producer Jimmy Miller, sax player Bobby Keys and engineer Andy Johns shot dope.

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It cost them their gear. Wyman’s bass, Keys’ saxophone and nine of Richards’ guitars were stolen by dealers from Marseille who were owed money, while the entourage was watching television during the day. The Stones’ lawyers bribed local police to keep the party going, but even the most corrupt French cops, like Captain Louis Renault in Casablanca, have their limits. Besides, the Stones were welcomed in France because they were rich rock stars who were going to spend lots of money. If all their cash went to illegal and nontaxable drugs, the French government didn’t have much use for them.

The tipping point seems to have come with Anita Pallenberg. She maintained a steadily rocky relationship with the Stones. Richards stole, or saved, her from a paranoid and abusive Brian Jones, and there were rumors Jagger had an affair with her while filming Nic Roeg’s Performance in 1968. According to Greenfield’s book, Mick also slept with her while Richards was on the nod during the Exile sessions. Police came knocking to ask about a claim that Pallenberg had given heroin to the 14-year-old daughter of the villa’s chef. 

The French police left without validating the charge, but said they’d be back to have a better look around the mansion. Richards and Pallenberg took off on his speedboat, fittingly named Mandrax II. The rest of the band slipped out soon after with the tapes. Pallenberg and Richards were charged with possession of heroin with intent to traffic in 1973. They were then exiled from France for the next two years.

The party continued when the Rolling Stones reconvened in Sunset Sound studios in Los Angeles. The band tossed TVs off the balconies of hotel rooms with Marc Bolan and Neil Young. The tapes for the album stretched from 1969 to 1972. The band edited hours of jams into song structure. Jagger scatted melodic placeholders for unfinished lyrics, and recruited session players like Billy Preston and Doctor John to fill in any sonic emptiness. The words to “Tumbling Dice,” for instance, were written last minute. The song has an unusual structure, as the verses become shorter, the choruses get longer. It may have Watts’ best drum performance.

Exile on Main Street contains some of Richards’ best guitar work. The album really belongs to Keith. “Happy” is almost entirely his. He’s on vocals, guitar and bass, with Miller on drums, Keys on maracas, overdubs from Taylor, and backing vocals from Jagger. “Sweet Black Angel” is a political love letter to civil rights activist Angela Davis. “Shake Your Hips” put the hair on ZZ Top’s lips. The album cover set the visual tone for punk. Some people claim it’s the Rolling Stones’ best work. It is a classic which catches them at their hedonistic peak. Its dirty, loosely played backing created an identifiable sound. The Stones’ first double LP, it is best heard in its entirety, and earned its street cred.

1971: The Year Music Changed Everything is available to stream on Apple TV+ now.

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