Last September, Mick Jagger entered a New York studio to finish a song the Rolling Stones started more than 40 years ago. "The original tape was pretty sparse," Jagger says of the track, a killer gospel-tinged tune called "Following the River," recorded during the 1969 sessions for Exile on Main Street. "There was no top line or lyrics, so I just had to start from scratch. It was pretty daunting."
To get Jagger in the right frame of mind, producer Don Was played him the vocal track from the Exile classic "Shine a Light." "I wanted to get him into that tonality," Was says. "It's remarkable that his voice hasn't changed that much."
The track is one of 10 previously unheard gems on a new deluxe edition of Exile, out May 18th, which also contains a remastered version of the LP. When the band's label, Universal, first approached Jagger about creating the set, he was hesitant. "They asked me if there were any tracks that hadn't been used, and I said, 'I doubt it very much,'" he says. "Secondly, I just couldn't be bothered — but they said, 'Please, will you look?'" Jagger tasked Was, who has produced every Stones album since 1994's Voodoo Lounge, with sorting through hundreds of hours of tapes. "For a Stones fanatic like myself, it was just a field day," Was says. "It was just surprise after surprise."
The tapes were wildly disorganized, and many actually predated Exile. "I'd be listening to some blues jam, and then all of a sudden there's a version of 'Wild Horses' with just Mick and Keith and a string quartet," Was says. "Another reel had all the takes of 'Honky Tonk Women.'" Before cherry-picking the best Exile stuff, Was made sure he had a comprehensive list of everything that has been bootlegged. "There's an Exile underground, and I wanted to give them some surprises too," he says, "not just better mixes of stuff they are familiar with."
"Following the River" is the only track that received a brand-new vocal, though others — "Pass the Wine," "Plundered My Soul," "Aladdin's Story" — needed additional guitar parts or other sonic improvements. "When I cut new parts, I was just trying to stay out of the way of the tracks," says Keith Richards. "I stroked an acoustic here and there, but I didn't want to interfere with the bible." Bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts weren't needed for overdubs, but Was doesn't deny rumors that guitarist Mick Taylor, who left the group in 1974, was brought back to cut new parts for the release. "I'm not saying that's not true," Was says. "I'm simply not going to deny it or say it didn't happen."
In addition to the newly unearthed tunes, there are also alternate versions of Exile tracks, including an early take of "Tumbling Dice" with different lyrics and a 1969 recording of "Loving Cup." "It's very funky and raw," says Was. "In general they made the right choices on the original, but maybe they should have used this version on Exile."
The bulk of the album was recorded in the summer of 1971, in the basement of the Villa Nellcôte, a mansion Richards was renting in the South of France. The group had fled England to avoid exorbitant British taxes. "We felt like exiles," says Richards. "We couldn't find a studio in France worth shit, and I had this big house and a mobile recording truck. Once we got settled in the basement, you couldn't dig me out. It was a pretty unique way of recording. Maybe it's the concrete or the dirt, but it has a certain sound that you couldn't replicate if you tried."
As Was made his way through the tapes, he was surprised to find that the legendarily chaotic, drug-fueled sessions had produced so much good music. "Everything in the legend may or may not be true, but when they went downstairs to make a record, they were a great rock & roll band and very professional," he says. "The myth says this is a sloppy record, and it's not sloppy at all. It's artistically really solid." He also dispelled the biggest mystery surrounding Exile: whether frequent houseguest Gram Parsons ever sat in. Says Was, "I didn't hear him anywhere, and that was one of the things I was looking for."
A new documentary about the making of the album, Stones in Exile, will air on an unspecified TV network in conjunction with the reissue's release. "It's mostly archival footage," says Jagger. "There's stuff from [the unreleased 1972 documentary] Cocksucker Blues in there, and a lot of voice-overs and some interviews with us now, but mostly it's taken from that time period." Richards just saw a cut of it for the first time. "I didn't know there was that much footage," he says. "It was a revelation to me as much as anybody else."
So what's next for the Stones? Richards says he's in the process of writing songs but that "there's no definite plans" for an album. "I wouldn't be surprised if we did something later this year," he says. In the meantime, he is working on a memoir that will come out in October, and Johnny Depp recently began filming a documentary about the guitarist. "The film tells the story of my life, the deal with the devil and all that," Richards says. "Johnny is so damn easy to talk to, so it was no sweat."
Asked about recent reports that he has quit drinking, Richards just laughs. "Listen, the rumors of my sobriety are greatly exaggerated," he says. "And we'll have to leave it at that."
This story is from the March 18, 2010 issue of Rolling Stone.