Debauched, decadent -- and magical
Neil McCormick finds out what really happened when the Rolling Stones made their re-released masterpiece Exile On Main Street
La Joconde (Keith and Anita), Vila Nellcôte, 1971 © Dominique Tarlé
The Rolling Stones's Exile On Main Street is an album so shrouded in myth that it practically defines the bohemian, decadent, counter-culture appeal of 70s rock 'n' roll. It is wild, electric music played by narcotic demi-gods with one foot in the 20th Century and the other in some ancient, mystic swamp of steamy, primal passion.
From the freak-show photo montage on the original gatefold cover to the four sides of black vinyl crammed with a weird concoction of ragged R&B, country, soul and gospel, this was a voodoo jam from a band of outlaw rockers on the run.
The myth goes something like this: It was 1971. The greatest rock 'n' roll band in the world was forced into exile, chased away from Britain by Labour's 93pc tax on the rich (and the revelation that their accountants hadn't been paying it).
Desperate, they decamped to the south of France, where the heroin-addicted Keith Richards set up a studio in the basement of the rented Villa Nellcote.
A dizzying cast of characters passed through the doors and passed out beneath the chandeliers of the 16-bedroom former Nazi stronghold, including film stars (James Caan, Faye Dunaway), musicians (Gram Parsons, Bobby Keys, Nicky Hopkins), cult novelists (William Burroughs, Terry Southern) and an endless parade of local Marseilles groupies and drug dealers -- and their children.
Jake Weber was just 8 years of age when he was used by his father as a drug mule to deliver cocaine to Mick Jagger for his wedding to Bianca, and he also rolled joints for the adults.
Richards and Mick Jagger weren't getting on. Jagger was often absent, flitting to Paris with new bride Bianca. Richards was operating on his own timescale, missing sessions for days on end in smack-addled stupors or keeping the band jamming while he relentlessly worked over two chords.
Charlie Watts and Bill Wyman dug deep into a well of patience and sent emissaries across the Channel to stock up on PG Tips and HP sauce. Baby-faced guitarist Mick Taylor slid into heroin addiction and alcoholism.
Jam sessions went on for days, with hundreds of takes of rambling songs that were never finished. It ended with a drug bust and Richards was banned from France for two years.
But miraculously, when the Stones decamped to Los Angeles to listen back to the tapes, they discovered they had captured something magical. Out of decadence and adversity came the Rolling Stones' defining masterpiece.
That is the story, anyway.
The truth may or may not be more prosaic. Nobody is really sure, because there are -- as in all the best legends -- so many conflicting recollections. Jagger has always been a bit baffled by the album's popularity with fans (perhaps because it is viewed as Richards's baby) and has cast doubts on how much of the album was actually recorded in Nellcote, claiming sessions he oversaw in London and Hollywood were more productive.
Richards stands by the story. "If you believe Mick, you'll believe anything," he spluttered in a recent interview. "His recollection is quite honestly bullshit . . . he doesn't feel he's under any obligation to tell the truth."
A new BBC Two documentary, Stones In Exile, attempts to separate fact from fiction but can chiefly be recommended for lots of pictures of the Stones at their most decadently cool.
Potentially more damaging to the myth is Universal's imminent release (on Monday) of the remastered album, with a bonus set featuring 10 tracks allegedly recorded during the Exile sessions. Watts claims these were mainly instrumental backing tracks to which Jagger has added new vocals.
The result might be hailed as a return to form if billed as a new Stones album but it is far too clean, perfectly separated, bass-boosted and polished to pass muster with the original, with Jagger high and clear in the mix.
"Lead singers never think their vocals are loud enough," Richards commented.
The bonus disc reeks of 21st-Century air-conditioned luxury recording facilities, but go back to the original and you can practically smell the basement squalor.
The start of the 1970s was a moment when rock paused to take stock, looking backwards after the futuristic charge of the 60s. It was as if the Stones had time to reflect on all the great cultural waves of American music; all the blues and gospel and country influences they had instinctively absorbed suddenly pouring out in rip-roaring jam sessions.
At times, it sounds like a brawl in a Harlem dance hall, with cheap liquor and twirling skirts, peppered with Bobby Keys's wild tenor sax and Nicky Hopkins's barrel-house piano.
The influence of other musicians on Exile is profound but at its heart is Richards himself. If you want to know what it is that makes him so special, listen to the ever-shifting nuance of his hypnotic playing on Ventilator Blues, in which he bends every possible twist out of a two-chord trick.
If you were to judge each track on its own merits, you might not find a lot to recommend it. But when you tuck into Exile, what you are getting is a flavour. The mixes are gluey and dense, inseparably stuck together, with everybody playing their socks off, solos weaving in and out and Jagger shouting to be heard above the din.
He has never sounded better, precisely because he is buried in the mix; part of the tapestry of the band rather than its focus. Taken as a piece, it is a hypnotic, galeforce, rock 'n' roll album, an explosion of joyous abandon that has rarely been equalled.
You might, if you look closely enough, be able to unravel the myths of its creation -- but you can never unpick the magic of the music.
Stones in Exile is on BBC 2 on May 24. l Exile: Photographs of the Rolling Stones at Villa Nellcote by Dominique Tarle is at Atlas Gallery, London, from July 15. l Repackaged versions of the album are released on Monday