The Stones might have imagined they'd be lying on a beach in the sun, but that "dirty, filthy basement" Jagger sang about on the 1969 "Let It Bleed" turned out to be prophetic. "There was no air down there," Andy Johns recalls. "There was this one little tiny five- or six-inch fan in a window up in the corner that revolved about 20 times a minute. It was just dreadful." And dark. "It was a strange atmosphere," Richards recalls. "It was very, very murky — and dusty. It wasn't a great environment for, like, breathing. Mick Taylor and I would just peer through the murk at each other and say, 'OK, what key is it in?' It was very Hitleresque — the last days of Berlin sort of thing." The basement was divided up into small rooms, and the musicians moved amps and drums from one to another in search of interesting sounds; one photo from Nellcôte shows saxophonist Bobby Keys and trumpet player Jim Price playing in a narrow corridor. "Keith and Mick Taylor were using these fabulous Ampeg amplifiers," says Johns, "with just two 12-inch speakers, but they were like 300 watts or something ridiculous. It was so loud. So I had to build little houses for both of the guitar amps." But despite the baffles and the separate rooms, the sound was still harsh, and it bled from track to track, which didn't make the later process of mixing them any easier; Clearmountain says you can still hear the ghosts of old vocals on certain guitar tracks.
Meanwhile, the mobile unit with the actual recording equipment stood parked outside, half-smothered in foliage. "The talkback wasn't working," Johns remembers, "and I'd have to run out of the truck, into the hallway, down the iron staircase — spiral staircase — and go, "Fellas! Fellas! Stop, stop, stop!" The musicians had to do the same thing in reverse. "Oh, man, a lot of legwork," says Richards. "If I wanted to hear a playback, it was back from the basement, up to the ground level and — it just became part of the routine." At least this annoyance was predictable — unlike the electricity. "The whole band was running all their gear off of the truck," says Johns. "And somebody had the bright idea that to save Keith money, we'd tap into the electric supply out in the street so it wouldn't show up on his bill." This gives a vivid picture of what the Nellcôte state of mind must have been; Richards was paying a reported £1,000 a week in rent. "It was like a big transformer thing, but if the voltage dropped below a certain level it would all just cut off. I mean, it's France, man. They were still using horses to plow — a telephone call would take half an hour. Apart from the fact that everything would go out of tune every two minutes because of the heat, then you had to deal with the electricity going down — and this would be when they were actually playing in tune. For the first time in four hours."
And the electrical outages had their human equivalent. "The talent, when it surfaced," says Johns, "had to cut through this sort of armor plate of boredom three inches thick. There was so much waiting around and hanging about. Bill would be there on time, I would be there on time, Charlie. But Keith's schedule was quite different to everyone else's." Wyman was particularly frustrated by the absenteeism and absented himself in turn. On some of the Nellcôte tracks, Richards or Taylor plays bass; months later, in Los Angeles, upright bassist Bill Plummer overdubbed four songs. Jagger was a frequent absentee, too; he'd moved with Bianca from Biot to Paris and was flying back and forth to the sessions. "Bianca was pregnant and having labor pains," Jimmy Miller recalled in 1977. "I remember many mornings after great nights of recording, I'd come over to Keith's for lunch. And within a few minutes of seeing him, I could tell something was wrong. He'd say, 'Mick's pissed off to Paris again.' " The all-night bouts of recording, at least, weren't unique to Nellcôte. "Our sessions start with all good intentions," Watts says. "They're usually Mick's good intentions. After about three days, you're working till two or three in the morning. Mick will turn up early as usual, and then Keith will come in much later. And two weeks down the line, Keith will be coming in at 8:00 at night. So you carry on." Richards' explanation is so disarming that you can understand why they've carried on for all these years — in addition to the fact that without his guitar, there is no Rolling Stones. "It's not me being arrogant or anything," he says. "It's just that I was asleep."
One of Exile's greatest tracks, however, happened when everybody but Richards was missing in action. "It just happened on an afternoon when nobody was there," he says. "I had an idea, and there was nobody around. Then Bobby Keys turned up with the baritone sax, and Jimmy Miller." Miller, a more-than-accomplished drummer, sat down behind Watts' kit — and out came the basic track for "Happy." "We'd already finished it before the rest of them turned up." But it wasn't all happy accident. Another canonical track, "Tumbling Dice," took far longer to nail. "We had more tape on that one than anything else," says Johns. "There must have been at least 30 two-inch reels on 'Tumbling Dice.' I mean, Keith sat there one afternoon just playing the reprise for about six hours. Just round and round and round and round. Sitting in a chair with his legs up on something." Richards doesn't remember this, but he admits it sounds plausible. "If I haven't got it right, I'll just do it until I get it," he says. "I must bore other guys to death, man." Richards wasn't the only one confounded by the song. "Charlie had a hard time playing the out-section," Johns says. "You know, where it breaks down before the end? He had a mental block on it." So, again, Miller got behind the drums; the finished version has Watts, double-tracked, up until the point where the rhythm section drops out, then Miller, double-tracked, for the long, stately conclusion. I can't top the description by the guitarist John Perry, in his 1999 track-by-track analysis of Exile: the drums' re-entry, he writes, "sets the whole great edifice in motion, like a liner finally leaving the slipway and fully entering the water."
Miller came to think of Exile as "Keith's album," and most of its indelible guitar moments — that unbearably sad intro to "Tumbling Dice," the rhythm and overdubbed solo on "Happy," with its jabbing, pleading sound — belong to him. Mick Taylor never got a chance for the full display of his chops, as he had on the long coda to "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" from Sticky Fingers; he's just rolling up his sleeves and getting to work on "Rocks Off" when the track pointedly fades out. From the perspective of 2010, Taylor's overdriven, Claptonesque leads on such songs as "Shine a Light" can sound dated — his scorching slide guitar on "All Down the Line" is one brilliant exception — while Richards, playing with more heart than technique, remains timeless. Johns remembers a night at Nellcôte when Richards chewed Taylor out for playing too loudly. "I don't know what it was about, some internal politics, you know. 'Cause Mick Taylor was playing rings around him, you know? He was faultless." Today, though, Richards says he loved working with Taylor. "Before that it would have been Brian and me. Brian got more difficult as he went along. Especially after I stole his old lady — you can imagine. But with Mick Taylor, I had to sort of figure out a new way of playing. It was far more like a separation between lead guitar and rhythm guitar. Working with Brian, we used to just, like, pass it between, and there was no particular division there. But Mick Taylor was such a virtuoso, and I was just very raw. I'd say, 'I got the chords, baby, and I got the rhythm, and I got the riff — come up with something.' He still amazes me — if I had my way he'd still be in the band." Generous as this is, Ron Wood's job is probably safe; still, Taylor freed Richards from being miscast as a conventional lead guitarist — as on 1968's "Sympathy for the Devil" — and allowed him to give his grungy antiheroics full play. Richards came away from Nellôcte more fully himself; Taylor came away with the one co-writing credit during his tenure with the Stones, for the slide-guitar-based "Ventilator Blues."
The Stones finally left France in November 1971; the long summer was over, but the place was getting too hot for them. (The following year, The Times of London reported that "three young Frenchmen, who police said provided 50 grams of heroin to the Stones and their entourage each week" during the Nellcôte summer, showed up at a hearing in Nice to tell their stories. Eventually, Richards and Pallenberg got suspended sentences, in absentia, for using and trafficking in cannabis.) The band spent the next few months in Los Angeles, adding Jagger's vocals, background singers and instrumental tracks from the likes of Plummer and keyboard player Billy Preston, and, most grueling of all, mixing the whole thing. It didn't turn out well — or, if you prefer history's verdict to Miller's and Jagger's, it turned out brilliantly. "By all record-making standards," says Was, "the vocals are insanely low. You listen to 'Tumbling Dice,' and it's ridiculous — ridiculous, but it's one of the greatest rock & roll songs ever recorded. It's beyond judgment." Back in 2003, Jagger said he'd love to remix Exile, "not just because of the vocals, but because generally I think it sounds lousy." Today he just seems resigned. "I was right there in the room, so I'm just as much to blame for it as anyone else. If you want to hear the vocals louder, then I should stick it all up on iTunes so you can mix it yourself."
That "anyone else" would be Andy Johns, who manned the mixing desk — "Jimmy was sort of there, but he was burnt out too" — and soon found he had a mess on his hands. "I'm not saying I recorded the tracks poorly," says Johns, "but the sound was unusual, shall we say. And Mick was sort of driving me up the wall. One night I said, 'Look, man, I can't fucking tell what this is going to sound like on the radio.' He went, 'Well, let's have someone play it on the radio.' So he hires a limousine with a phone in it — obviously, this is long before cellphones — and I'm in this bloody great Cadillac limo with Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts and Keith Richards, and it's all on me now because Andy mentioned the radio. And Mick picks up this telephone and says, 'All right, have him play it now.' And we hear, 'Hey, you folks out there, we have a surprise for you, blah blah blah blah blah.' The song finishes — I think it was 'All Down the Line' — and Mick looks at me and says, 'What do you think, then?' I say, 'I can't really tell.' 'Well, I'll have him play it again.' So he gets on the phone — 'Have him play it again.' This is power, right? And it's very surreal for me. I mean, is this really happening? I'm only 21." According to Johns, Jagger finally told him, " 'I've had it with this bloody record. Here's the tapes, there's you, there's the mixer. You got two days.' And I sat there without splitting for two days and mixed the rest of the album on me own pretty much." The result speaks for itself — though it says different things to different people — loud and clear. Or at least loud.
These days, Jagger and Richards downplay the stories of drama, drugs and dysfunction that cling to Exile on Main Street, which enhance its mystique while obscuring its achievement. "People like to think Nellcôte was chaotic," Jagger says, "but some of the sessions at Olympic in the Sixties were incredibly chaotic. Full of people hanging out and, you know, being a disaster. Being a lot of fun, but sort of deficient as a recording machine. Maybe some of the sessions at Nellcôte were like that, and some were just really good solid workdays." He's certainly right that the slow-chugging machinery at Nellc&ôte wasn't an aberration by the Stones' standards: The notes to Sticky Fingers — partly recorded at Olympic — give a shout-out to "Glyn and Andy Johns [Glyn is Andy's older brother], Chris Kimsey, Jimmy Johnson and everyone else who had the patience to sit thru this for 2 million hours." Richards seems to be reading off the same page as Jagger. "They talk about debauchery and everything," he says. "I mean, you can't write and record and also be debauched at the same time. I'd pub-hop now and again, and everybody's partying, you know, just the same old, same old, people getting drunk, people getting stoned, but there was nothing beyond any of the sessions we did to make Let It Bleed. No belly dancers or orgies. Though people would like to imagine that. And so would I. But no, we were too busy working, man. Actually, I was gonna bring the belly dancers in, but they got stuck in Paris." By all accounts, things went well past the point of pub-hopping, but everybody made it out alive and with their work done. After all, even serious addiction didn't keep great jazz records from being made between the late Forties and early Sixties — or great rock records from the Seventies to the present. Though granted, some people didn't make it out alive.
Anyhow, why does anybody care four decades later? By now, shouldn't Exile simply stand by itself as a creation, uncontaminated by all the backstory? If we had video of Edith Wharton, an earlier Côte d'Azur exile, pacing back and forth while writing The Age of Innocence at her villa in 1920, would five people go on YouTube to watch it? The Rolling Stones, though, like all rock stars — and a number of writers, come to think of it — sell personality as well as product. This is the devil's bargain familiar to anyone who's both an artist and a celebrity; if the Stones ever rebelled against that convention, their business sense won out long ago. So naturally the new documentary uses the myth to make noise for the Exile reissue, with home-movie-looking footage of Nellcôte showing the lads in good-bad-boy mode, water-skiing, sashaying in funny hats, splashing naked in a shower and, naturally, strumming guitars in the basement, as the voice-over interviews begin hinting at "the darkness" to come. That's the narrative we all know: trouble in paradise, starring rock & roll's rebel angels.
But those reels and reels of old audiotape in the Stones' vast warehouse — which reminds Don Was of "the room at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark" — also have a story to tell. By Jagger's estimate, 10 of Exile's 18 basic tracks came out of the five-month siege at Nellcôte: that works out to one absolute keeper every two weeks. So what did you get done in the past two weeks? "Maybe the legend is only 70 percent true," Was says, "or maybe there's more stuff that we couldn't even believe. But no matter what actually transpired at Nellcôte, when they went downstairs to make a record, no one fell apart. For all the ephemera that surrounded them, to have this kind of output, to be able to make that double album, and now with another 10 songs — and there's more, we just stopped at that point — I mean, to work at that level you have to be so good." Some of the material that's been bootlegged, on such underground releases as Taxile on Main Street, suggests the Stones weren't always so good. When they weren't hitting their sweet spot, they could sound a whole lot like, say, a bunch of impaired people jamming in somebody's basement. There must have been hour upon hour, day upon day, of tedium and despair. But this, apparently, was how they needed to work: by feeling around in the dark for magic. Did the Stones spend too much of their time at Nellcôte stoned and lollygagging? Well, what's too much? And whose time was it? Ultimately, it's never been any of our business, however luridly fascinating the legends may be, and however much the Stones themselves may invite our attention with the noise of publicity. What they actually managed to accomplish — no less than the quintessential rock & roll album — ought to shut everybody up. Of course, it never will.
This story is from the May 27, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.
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