In 1971, faced with huge, unexpected tax problems, the Rolling Stones fled the U.K. for the Côte d’Azur to record their next album, which became “Exile on Main Street.” With all sorts of rock, country gospel and blues scattered among its 18 original and sometimes sloppy cuts, “Exile” at the time of its release in 1972 was seen as a misstep by the Stones, especially on the heels of the release of the band’s seamless “Sticky Fingers” a year earlier. But “Exile,” which is being reissued on May 18 with 10 previously unreleased tracks, is now considered a classic.
“Most critics disapproved, but the sales were good,” said Marshall Chess, who had been president of Rolling Stones Records at the time.
It’s said that “Exile” was all but lost to drink, drugs and the chaos of the life at Nellcôte, the 16-room mansion at Villefranche-sur-Mer rented by Keith Richards to serve as band headquarters. Part of the album’s legend is that Mr. Richards rented the place because Errol Flynn’s yacht, which he wanted to buy, was anchored in a nearby port. Perhaps, but when we spoke by phone recently, he said that he chose the south of France so the Stones could return quickly to the U.K. if family emergencies arose.
“Some of the cats didn’t want to go—Bill and Charlie,” said Mr. Richards, referring to bassist Bill Wyman and drummer Charlie Watts. “But they did for the glory, duty and honor of the band.”
“It was a pretty creative period,” Mick Jagger said, also by phone. “It had its ups and downs. We had legal problems, but they weren’t so huge that they loomed over our work.”
The band, including guitarist Mick Taylor, along with pianist Nicky Hopkins, saxophonist Bobby Keyes and producer Jimmy Miller, set up a makeshift studio in the mansion’s dank basement, a cache of minor celebrities, drug dealers and hangers-on upstairs.
“It was pretty gruesome,” Mr. Richards said. “But there were two ways to look at it. One, you’re actually doing it in a murky basement. Or you’re in a studio, which wasn’t that unique for the Stones.” Once the band got to work, he said, “it never mattered to me or the other guys.”
Mr. Jagger considers the “Exile” period to have begun before the band settled in the south of France. “It had a long gestation period,” he said. “All Down the Line,” “Loving Cup” and “Shine a Light” were written well before the Stones left home. The version of Robert Johnson’s “Stop Breaking Down,” Mr. Jagger told me, was recorded earlier at London’s Olympic Sound Studios “while we were waiting for Keith to come.”
At Nellcôte, Mr. Richards said, “I’m upstairs writing during the day or on the weekends. Every song you write, you have to sell it to the band first. That’s the first test.” As an example, he cited “Good Time Women,” another previously unreleased track in the new package. “We played around with it for days, if not weeks. It wasn’t quite working. So then you go back and try to work it out.”
Mr. Richards came up with a different opening. “I said, ‘I’ve got something here.’ The way it slid off the fingers. I had to get the tempo right before I laid it on the band. I knew Charlie would pick it up instantly.” With the new riff up front, the band rerecorded the song as “Tumbling Dice,” the only hit single from “Exile.”
Working through the night, recording songs, partial songs and riffs that had the potential to develop into a song, the Nellcôte sessions dragged on. Said Mr. Chess, “The way the Rolling Stones works is the opposite of deliberate.” Reconnecting with their musical influences at times provided a sort of focus. “They were reacting to soul music. All of their influences are in there.”
Soon the band relocated to Los Angeles’s Sunset Sound Recorders to continue recording. The frantic second number, “Rip this Joint,” was among the tracks cut there.
“Yeah, that one,” said Mr. Richards with a laugh. “You know, ‘It’s got to be fast, Charlie.’ Let’s go as fast as we can go and still get out the other side.”
“Exile” began to come together. Mr. Jagger brought in Billy Preston, Dr. John and a group of soul singers to augment the core band. Nellcôte’s raw performances were edited and in some cases rerecorded. “A lot of my vocals were done in L.A.,” Mr. Jagger recalled. Soon, a final product began to emerge.
Released in May 1972 as a two-record set, “Exile on Main Street” reached the No. 1 slot on the U.S. and U.K. charts.
Nearly four decades later, Mr. Jagger dug into the old tapes to unearth material for a new “Exile.” He said a few backing tracks had to be reconstructed. “Some of them are pretty together—’Following the River’ and ‘Plundered My Soul’ didn’t need to be touched.” But other instrumental tracks hadn’t taken shape. “When you look at it more analytically, you find the verse and the chorus.”
Mr. Jagger added new vocals to some of the unreleased tracks. The alternate versions of “Loving Cup” and “Soul Survivor” are as they were back in ’72, he said, but he and producer Don Was reworked “So Divine.” “It had no vocal or top line,” Mr. Jagger said. “I wrote lyrics.” “I’m Not Signifying” is pretty close to the Stones’ original rendition; Mr. Jagger added a harmonica part.
As for Mr. Richards, he wasn’t much interested in toying with history. “My point of view on the new stuff,” he said, “is I didn’t want to repaint the smile on the Mona Lisa.” (via WSJ)