When asking most fans which is the greatest of The Rolling Stones’ 30 studio albums, the answer generally seems to flit between 1972’s Exile On Main St. or its 1971 predecessor Sticky Fingers. The albums are intrinsically slathered with Rolling Stones DNA, but both come across as very different from one another, both musically and in their mode of creation.
Sticky Fingers is a clean-cut rock out with punchy hits like ‘Bitch’ and ‘Can’t You Hear Me Knocking’ juxtaposed by the more mellow acoustic finesse of tracks like ‘Wild Horses’ and ‘Sister Morphine’. The album has a darker and dirtier feeling to it in comparison with the “happy” Exile On Main St.
Perhaps this difference comes with the fact that while recording Sticky Fingers, the band lived in England, where the government had a punitive 93% tax sting on high earners such as themselves. By 1971, when the Stones were looking to record new material for their tenth record, they found themselves out of the money-grabbing paws of the UK government in the South of France.
They had relocated on tax exile to a 16-room villa named Nellcôte on the Côte d’Azur that Richards had rented. They decided to continue writing and recording in the financial freedom that France could offer. The only issue was that the villa was in the picturesque rural sweeps of South France. Where were they going to find an adequate recording studio?
They made the swift decision – amid the haze of endless soirée’s compounded with an ample supply of France’s finest grape juice – to empty the equipment from their van and set up an ad-hoc recording studio in the basement of the villa. The villa had stood on the plot since the late 1890s and in its seven decades, it had already earned its spot in the history books.
Nellcôte served as the headquarters of the local Gestapo during the Nazi occupation of France in the early 1940s. Reportedly, during the occupation, the Nazi leaders who stopped at the mansion even took the time to install floor vents in the basement, which brandished swastikas.
It was in this basement, oft nicknamed “Hitler’s Bunker”, where the Stones decided to set up their equipment to practice and record the new music. With the ad-hoc setup, naturally, the album was going to have a more rough-around-the-edges feel to it. It, therefore, seemed an appropriate time for Keith Richards to grab the tiller.
On previous albums, the more driven and pernickety Mick Jagger had been the central driving force behind most of the material. As Richards explained perfectly in the 2010 documentary Stones in Exile, “Mick needs to know what he’s going to do tomorrow,” he said, with his voice muffling into a laugh. “Me, I’m just happy to wake up and see who’s hanging around. Mick’s rock, I’m roll.”
In France, it appeared that Jagger rolled with Richards’ punches for once, and so too did the rest of the band and the rolling roster of groupies and collaborators who came and went during the band’s five months there. The album was recorded on a strange schedule dictated by Richards’ irregular sleeping patterns. Much of the new material was recorded over long, drawn-out late-night sessions. Some collaborators have since noted that they had forgotten much of what they had contributed to the album as they had been so tired and intoxicated.
“A lot of Exile was done how Keith works,” drummer Charlie Watts explained in Stones in Exile, “which is, play it 20 times, marinade, play it another 20 times. He knows what he likes, but he’s very loose.” He added, “Keith’s a very bohemian and eccentric person, he really is.”
The basement at Richards’ villa was broken up into a series of smaller rooms which made it difficult to arrange all of the equipment while allowing enough room for the musicians to squeeze in. They were ultimately forced to set up with different components of the studio being filed away untidily into the various rooms. Bill Wyman even recalled having to play his bass in a small, packed out room while his amplifiers sat out in the hallway.
The sound engineer and producer Jimmy Miller worked from the mobile control room installed in the back of the band’s van. With no other means of efficient communication, he had to continuously dash back and forth from the basement to yell instructions to the musicians while recording.
To make matters worse, the sardine tin often reached uncomfortable temperatures, and the humidity would frequently throw their guitars out of tune. Richards once described working in the villa’s sticky basement as “like trying to make a record in the Führerbunker. It was that sort of feeling… very Germanic down there – swastikas on the staircase… Upstairs, it was fantastic. Like Versailles. But down there… it was Dante’s Inferno.”
Despite having to brave the elements and circumnavigate endless logistical quandaries, the Stones managed to successfully finish writing and recording the material for Exile On Main Street, one of the finest rock ‘n’ roll albums of all time. It is a product of its setting, a product of the time and, ultimately, one of the most sincere products the band ever delivered.