It looked more like Hitler's bunker than a regular basement," says Keith Richards, recalling the downstairs of Nellcôte, his mansion in the South of France where much of the classic Rolling Stones double album was recorded during the winter of 1971. On tax exile from their native England, the Stones were feeling a tad, well, exiled. "We were acutely aware that we'd been booted out by our own country," Richards says. "They were trying to shackle us and couldn't get us in jail, so they tried to do it economically. We had this recording truck, and I had this house with this enormous basement. We started to rehearse there while looking for another studio. Then we suddenly realized: This particular basement suited our needs. We were coming up with so much stuff, it was pointless to uproot."
The resulting masterwork remains a dense double dose of rock, blues and soul that defined the Stones at their decadent best. Mick Jagger calls the brilliant rawness of Exile "a reflection of what the group was then. We did enjoy making this slightly out-of-focus record where anything goes." Although Jagger told Rolling Stone's Jann Wenner that the word stoned described the band at that time, he also points out now that "there was a lot going on, but obviously we got down and did the work, too."
For all the album's after-hours looseness, it marked the apex of a remarkable series of recordings the Stones made with producer Jimmy Miller, which had commenced with Beggars Banquet and also included Let It Bleed and Sticky Fingers. "That was the first time we ever worked with a musical producer," Richards says. "Before Jimmy, we worked with Andrew Oldham, who was a great inspiration and sparker of ideas but stone bloody deaf, quite honestly."
Even with the infusion of creativity from then-Stones guitarist Mick Taylor, as well as pianist Nicky Hopkins, and hornmen Bobby Keys and Jim Price, Jagger says that for the Stones, "Exile was a very difficult record to make, whereas Beggars Banquet and Let It Bleed were easier, even though Brian Jones had been a problem."
For Richards, the vibe of the basement recording space made its way into the Exile grooves. "It was really funky down there with mildew, and all divided up," he says. "I had to walk down a corridor for like five minutes to find Charlie [Watts]. It was madness. But when it all came together on tape, there was something there – it's an organic thing, and you get used to the quirks of the room and use its eccentricities in your favor."
Richards still sounds happy recalling the Exile sessions: "I can see it now – the South of France, my house, there's Gram Parsons and a few other cats hanging about. There's the truck parked outside the front door, and then in the evening, you go down in the basement and play around with it. It's the only time I lived on top of the factory. Maybe that's the trick. Maybe I should shove the band down in the basement again."
This story is from the May 15th, 1997 issue of Rolling Stone.