Excess all areas - The making of Mick 'n' Keith's decadent masterpiece
It was the ultimate house party. Five rock stars holed up in a French villa with drink, drugs and sex on tap. The only rule was that there were no rules. Yet out of this carnage, the Rolling Stones managed to produce one of their finest albums -- the sprawling double LP Exile On Main Street, which wowed the music world on its release in May, 1972.
Now the sleaze and sin that surrounded the Stones in the 1970s is set for the silver screen after Richard Branson's Virgin Films acquired the rights to the book Exile on Main Street: A Season in Hell.
When the British Labour government imposed punitive taxes on high earners in 1971, the Stones fled England for France. Along with their families and a huge entourage, they moved into Stones guitarist Keith Richards's rented villa, Nellcote. But relations soon deteriorated between Richards and lead singer Mick Jagger.
"The Stones really felt like exiles," Richards said. "It was us against the world now. So, f**k you! That was the attitude."
The band had decided to record an album in the basement of the 16-room house, which had served as Gestapo headquarters during World War Two. Swastikas were still visible around the house. For those who ventured deep down into the basement, the summer heat was intense. It was so humid that the guitars would often go out of tune.
"Upstairs, it was fantastic," said Richards. "Like Versailles. But down there ... it was Dante's Inferno."
The hothouse atmosphere around the drug-fuelled band was exacerbated by the wives, girlfriends and hangers-on who smoked, snorted and drank whatever they could get their hands on. But the drugs and drinking were only part of the problem. The fault line between Jagger and Richards fuelled the dark turmoil that engulfed the making of the album.
"Mick needs to know what he is doing tomorrow," Richards has said. "Me, I'm just happy to wake up and see who's hanging around. Mick's rock, I'm roll."
But when everyone was ensconced in his French villa, they were soon rolling the Richards way.
The recording and day-to-day life flowed to the groove of his gypsy soul. Partners were swapped, drugs were ingested and mayhem was embraced.
The 'working' day began late and the afternoons stretched into haziness from white wine and hash. During daylight Richards could often be found unconscious upstairs with a needle still stuck in his arm while the rest of the band were downstairs waiting in the heat with a furious Jagger.
Most of the music was recorded in the dead of night when Richards would finally stir. The album, as saxophonist Bobby Keys says, was "about as rehearsed as a hiccup".
Six weeks into the recording, Jagger decided to marry his Nicaraguan girlfriend Bianca. Socialite Tommy Weber flew in for the wedding and arrived with a kilo of cocaine. When asked how he managed to get drugs past customs he revealed the money belts strapped underneath the clothes of his two small sons, who were to be pageboys at the ceremony.
At the time, Richards was involved with Anita Pallenberg. A friend of Jagger's ex, Marianne Faithfull, she was furious about the wedding and tried to ostracise Bianca by spreading the false rumour she had been born a man.
Bianca eventually left for Paris, and Pallenberg got her revenge by sleeping with Jagger.
"It was like a royal court where the nobles were sleeping with each other's women," says Robert Greenfield, author of Exile on Main Street: A Season in Hell who had spent time at Nellcote on assignment for Rolling Stone.
When Pallenberg became pregnant, rumours about which Stone was the father created more tension.
"It was tossed around whose kid it was ... " says Marshall Chess, an executive with Atlantic Records who was at Nellcote that summer. "[Anita] thought it was Jagger's kid. There were major problems between Mick and Keith over it. A cold f***ing wall went up between the two of them."
Everyone eventually accepted the child, Dandelion Angela, the couple's second, was Richards', but the rumours had damaged his relationship with Jagger.
The presence of country star Gram Parsons, who died of an overdose two years later, also fuelled the feuding.
Richards would jam for hours in the afternoons with Parsons, driving Jagger mad. It infuriated him that Richards could come up with endless music when playing with Gram, but little when he jammed with him.
Jagger decided it was time for some payback and made a play for Gram's girlfriend, Gretchen. "It wasn't about me, that's for sure," she said. Eventually, both Gram and Gretchen were asked to leave after the band began to complain of his drug-induced obnoxious behaviour.
John Lennon is said to have thrown up at the foot of the stairs while visiting with Yoko Ono. Richards blamed the sun and wine, but it most likely had more to do with the ex-Beatle's methadone habit.
To keep his own habit well-supplied Richards welcomed the drug dealer Jean de Breteuil, who allegedly supplied Jim Morrison with his last and lethal dose, into the house. He brought with him some ultra-pure heroin from Thailand which Richards snorted from a gold tube he wore around his neck before promptly passing out.
"It was obvious drugs were at the centre of the problem," says Bill Wyman. "Whatever people tell you about the creative relationship of hard drugs and the making of rock 'n' roll records, forget it. Believe you me, they are more of a hindrance than a help."
In December the French police arrived to charge the Stones and their pals with heroin possession only to discover the band had high-tailed it to LA after being tipped off.
The band's lawyers eventually smoothed everything out while the album was being finished in LA.
The resulting record captured the Rolling Stones at not only their sexiest but also roughest. The album that oozes both darkness and light, would be a pinnacle the Stones would never reach again.
"There was cocaine, a lot of joints," says Jake Weber, who was just eight when his father used him as a drugs mule before being a pageboy at Jagger's wedding. "If you're living a decadent life, there is always darkness. But, at this point, this was the moment of grace. This was before the darkness: the sunrise before the sunset."
Exile on Main Street: A Season in Hell is published by Da Capo Press