Earlier this fall, Keith Richards spent two days at Electric Lady Studios in New York adding guitar overdubs to some unfinished tunes from the sessions for the Rolling Stones' 1978 classic, Some Girls. "It was a time trip," Richards says. "You're immediately transported back to Paris in 1977." What does he see back there? "A couple of bitches that I'd forgotten about," he says with a cackle. "Stuff like that."
The Some Girls reissue — due November 21st and packed with extras including 12 previously unreleased tracks — was a time trip for the entire band, sending it back to a period when Richards was awaiting trial for heroin possession, Mick Jagger was hitting the New York club scene hard, and the Stones were forced to confront changing times. "We were getting a certain kick up the ass from the punks," says Richards. "Not that I'm a really big punk fan, but their energy, and the fact that you realize another generation was coming up on top of you, was a kick up the ass. It felt time to get down to the nuts and bolts of it and not play around with glamorous female voices and horns and stuff."
"There was a lot of good genre-mashing going on before it all got a bit too separate," adds Jagger, who was soaking up everything from the Clash to dance music at the time. 'You had the end of punk and the beginnings of hip-hop — that kind of semi-rap thing, which you get a bit if you listen to 'Miss You' and 'Shattered.'"
Beginning in October 1977 the band hunkered down at a live rehearsal space in Paris' Pathé Marconi studios and jammed for months on end. "Everybody was exploding with riffs," says Ronnie Wood. "The motto was 'More fast numbers.'" They churned out their most eclectic album ever, ranging from after-hours disco glitter ("Miss You"), to speedy punk ("When the Whip Comes Down") and soulful ballads showing off Richards' and Wood's newfound guitar-weaving majesty ("Beast of Burden" and "Just My Imagination").
With producer Don Was (who helmed last year's Exile on Main Street reissue), the Stones returned to Some Girls earlier this year, scouring hundreds of hours of tapes from the original sessions, using long-circulated bootlegs as a guide to highlights like "Claudine," a stripped-down boogie about French singer Claudine Longet, accused of murdering her boyfriend, ski racer Spider Sabich, in 1976, and "Tallahassee Lassie," a raucous Chuck Berry-style number cut during a stop on the Some Girls tour.
At Electric Lady, Richards recorded new acoustic- and electric-guitar parts to several tracks, even playing piano on the riff rocker "Love You Too Much." "You don't want to fuck around too much with new ideas," says Richards. "You've really got to control yourself and go, "This is 1977.'"
Jagger has a different philosophy. "The tracks could be done, like, last week, as far as I'm concerned," he says. The singer added vocals to some of the lost tunes at his home in France and elsewhere, including the country-tinged "Do You Think I Really Care" and the band's boozy run through Hank Williams' "You Win Again." "Thirty-five years later, Mick could punch in an existing vocal," says Was. "Nobody can do that."
But some tapes were best left untouched, like Richards' mesmerizing take on the country tune "We Had It All" — a vulnerable performance he gave as he struggled to stay clean and his relationship with Anita Pallenberg crumbled. Says Richards, "We looked at that one and said, 'It is what it is.'"
In fact, Richards was hesitant at first to go back to the vaults at all. "[Exile] was a one-off at the time," he says. "But you listen to Some Girls and realize there's a lot of stuff to play with. I got into it." And Richards had one other key motive for taking on the project: "It's also another one of my secret attempts to try and pull these guys back together."
So this month, Richards will meet Wood and drummer Charlie Watts in a London studio. "We're just going to play a little together, because we haven't played for three or four years," Richards says. "You don't necessarily want to rehearse or write anything — you just want to touch bases. That's a good start: me, Charlie and Ronnie. Mick's welcome, and I'm sure he'll turn up, but right now we just want to get our chops down."
Beyond that, the Stones' plans for their 50th anniversary next year remain unclear. "I just hope we can perform live," says Wood. "It'd be great to see if that old spark is there."
For now, the closest fans will get is the stellar Some Girls Live in Texas DVD (part of the deluxe reissue and sold separately) — shot on a hot night in Fort Worth during the Stones' brief summer 1978 tour. "As soon as I heard about the DVD, I thought we must have toured with that album," says Wood. "We were just so high."
"There's so much material," he says. "If they never went in the studio again, you could have a new Stones album every year for the next 50 years, and it would all be good."
This story is from the November 24th, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.