The year of Richard Nixon’s re-election was a watershed one for the Rolling Stones, and just three years before, few – including the Stones themselves—could have imagined it would be. The year 1969 had been an annus horribilis for the band, after the messy debacle of Altamont—intended as an American edition of their recent free show in London—and the tragic demise of guitarist Brian Jones, once the group’s focal point, now found floating in the pool at his estate in the English countryside.
But never mind all that. The Stones chugged on, quickly replacing the star-crossed Jones with ex-Bluesbreaker Mick Taylor, then offering up terrific albums like the stellar live set Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out, the abrasively catchy Sticky Fingers, then culminating with the aptly-titled Exile On Main Street. One has to concede that the band, instead of imploding, went from strength to strength.
The Stones were indeed ‘exiles’, though not by royal decree. The British government had levied an astonishing 93 percent tax rate on the band and that, coupled with the murky recording contract they were attached to, forced them to depart the British Isles if they wished to retain any of their earnings.
They were loath to leave, as that meant abandoning the genteel country squire lifestyles they were enjoying, and they realized that other groups which had fled England were summarily dismissed by their notoriously tribal fans. Still, they mounted a brief “Farewell” tour, then decamped to the Cote-d-Azur. What happened to them after this domestic relocation is the subject of the engrossing new documentary Stones In Exile, which details the making of “Exile”, now considered by many to be their greatest achievement, and the band’s struggle to stay focused amidst the decadent epicureanism that generally accompanies wealthy young men to the South of France.
For starters, they didn’t go alone. Photographer friend Dominique Tarle followed them to the Riviera, eventually spending six months documenting the band’s adventures on the Mediterranean. Keith Richards’ then-paramour Anita Pallenberg also came along, the couple’s young son in tow. In fact, all of the Stones brought along loved ones, and session musicians hired for the recording did the same. The band had plenty of company in their jetset Eurotrash idyll, and Mick Taylor recounts with glee how excited he was to fly down in the group’s private jet.
Adjustment issues dogged them immediately. Drummer Charlie Watts felt particularly out-of place, and Bill Wyman talks about having to import the British food items he was so accustomed to, as they were unavailable in France at the time. Beyond that, the Villefranche area was hardly London, and it was exceedingly difficult for the group to find suitable recording facilities. At some point, they decided on Keith’s villa, known as Nellcote, and with a basement the boys felt would suffice.
Troubles were just beginning, however. Producer Jimmy Miller had great difficulty assembling the various players, and that may be why different instruments were ultimately recorded in separate rooms, a rarity for rock recordings in the early ‘70s. Miller wasn’t the only disenchanted one; Marshall Chess, scion of the Chess Records empire head of the band’s vanity label Rolling Stones Records, was equally dismayed by the group’s unproductive work habits.
Still, the Stones soldiered on, though drug usage amped up considerably as the days dragged on, and the young Jake Weber, just a schoolboy at the time, found himself rolling joints for the adults, an activity one suspects that child welfare would have frowned on, to say the least. Rumors of the groups’ Dionysian, drug-fueled parties eventually caught the ears of the local constabulary, and the band decided to skip town again, heading back to dear old England, where Olympic Studios would be used to finish the album.
It should be mentioned that Stones In Exile was produced by the band, and I’m always a bit suspicious of biographic material produced by its subject. Upon viewing, few would deny that the film – directed by Stephen Kijak(Cinemania) – is somewhat hagiographic, and seldom provides any condemnatory scenes. Robert Frank’s – whom Jagger enlisted to shoot the band after seeing Frank’s haunting collection, The Americans —photography is depicted, as well as some shots from Cocksucker Blues, but it’s virtually impossible to pick them out from other footage, and the never-released doc is unmentioned, as well as the controversy surrounding it.
Unlike the recently-released The Rolling Stones: Rare and Unseen, there’s no shortage of music here, from the bratty, insistent “Shake Your Hips” to the gospel-tinged “Shine A Light”, we get to haer much of that seminal album, which initially met unkind reviews, but is now firmly entrenched in the rock pantheon, and declared by many to be the Stones’ best work. The tour which accompanied this double set would reportedly scale new heights for stage design – and bacchanalia – and spawn two documentaries, the aforementioned CSB and Ladies And Gentlemen, The Rolling Stones.
Extras are copious, as we get brief but telling interviews from Richards, Wyman, Taylor, Watts, Ron Wood, and Anita Pallenberg. Wyman asserts that Mick Taylor was a superb musician, playing rings around the others, and Watts announces, that despite his misgivings about leaving his homeland, he still owns his home on the Cote-d-Azur. Pallenberg is perhaps the most amusing, dressed in a leopard-print coat and giggling over the decadent times of the band’s tenure on the Riviera.
Also included is a trip to Stargroves, a leafy rural estate that Mick Jagger owned for the first half of the ‘70s. Some early recording for “Exile” was conducted here, and Jagger and Watts prowl the grounds, reminiscing.
Fan interviews conclude the extras package, and we hear from a refreshingly diverse group, including the shaggy-faced Don Was, who allows that Exile On Main Street “scared me”, Will I Am, Jack White, who appeared with the Stones in the concerts filmed for Shine A Light, Sheryl Crow, stating that “Exile” is “the rock ‘n roll bible”, and Liz Phair, who laments that Mick Jagger was decidedly frosty towards her when introduced, and probably didn’t realize that her eccentric “Exile”-derived Exile In Guyville was in no way a ‘dis’ of the Stones album.
The Rolling Stones, in 1972, were arguably the biggest British act in America – remember, the Fab Four had called it quits – and Jagger’s image as a Luciferian Pied Piper only endeared him even more to their young constituents. Perhaps that’s appropriate, as some of their colleagues feel that the group was transitioning into darker sentiments, as the hippie movements of the ‘60s began to yield to banal reality. Jagger insists that “there was no master plan” to explore darker territory with Exile On Main Street, but it does seem that the camera of Robert Frank tapped a certain sinister vein of the band’s, pulsing brightly after Altamont, Jones’ drowning – still shrouded in mystery, the Manson killings, the F.B.I.’s war on dissent, the list goes on. I’m reminded of Zachary Lazar’s the novel Sway, a thoughtful speculation of behind-the-scenes doings of the Stones, Charles Manson, Kenneth Anger, and Bobby Beausoleil, which unites these seminal ‘60s figures in a provocative fashion that surprisingly has yielded no lawsuits.
Stones In Exile also makes it plain that the group has always skillfully regurgitated African-American roots music for White audiences who had forgotten the originators of those styles, at least not in the US. By exiling themselves to small-town America’s “Main Street”, the Rolling Stones reminded an increasingly urbanized – and suburbanized—society of the skeletons in its musical closet, serving up a rich, steamy gumbo of sounds the band certainly didn’t invent, but undeniably put their own stamp upon. As irony would have it, though, the Stones’ massive success only helped sever the connection of African-Americans to a music that could not exist without them.
I don’t truck with those who insist that the Stones slided into irreversible decline after “Exile”, as Jack Hamilton does in his recent piece for The Atlantic, “How Exile on Main St Killed the Rolling Stones”, but Mick Jagger’s appointment to Her Majesty’s House of Knights does seem a changing times and entry to his Geritol years. Who could have ever guessed that the ragged street corner satyr would become “Respectable”?