‘People took so many drugs, they forgot they played on it’ – stars on Exile on Main St, the Rolling Stones’ sprawling masterpiece

Recorded during several hedonistic months in a fabulous Côte d’Azur villa, Exile on Main St is seen as the Stones’ epic, creative peak. As the classic album turns 50, stars tell us how it got their rocks off

In 1971, facing tax problems and an uncertain future, the Rolling Stones decamped to Villa Nellcôte on the Côte d’Azur, where they partied with various celebrities, musicians, girlfriends, wives, kids, animals, drug-dealers and hangers-on for several hedonistic months. Recording in the damp, labyrinthine basement with a mobile studio parked outside and musicians seemingly turning up at random, they somehow produced Exile on Main St, a rough-hewn, sprawling, eclectic, 18-song double album that is widely regarded as their creative peak. Here, as it turns 50, stars salute its enduring greatness.

‘Among the grit and dirt, there’s a Rimbaud-like romance’
Chris Robinson, the Black Crowes

We were American hardcore punk kids, but when we discovered Exile we called it the Bible. In our infancy, we wanted to capture that magic and mystery. It’s English guys looking at American blues, country rock, soul and gospel through their own aesthetic of drugs, satin shirts and sparkly shoes. The Stones had the guts to remove themselves from society and live outside the law, but among the grit and dirt, the overdoses and arrests, there’s a romanticism that goes back to Baudelaire and Rimbaud. We recently covered Rocks Off. I love its romantic decadence: “I was making love this time with a dancer friend of mine. / I couldn’t seem to stay in step, but she comes every time that she pirouettes on me.” It’s a holy relic, so playing it felt like walking with John the Baptist.

‘They broke the mould’ … from left, Anita Pallenberg, Keith Richards, Gram Parsons and a friend at Villa Nellcôte.
‘They broke the mould’ … from left, Anita Pallenberg, Keith Richards, Gram Parsons and a friend at Villa Nellcôte. Photograph: Dominique Tarlé

‘Shake Your Hips enters my body and my butt starts moving’
Cat Power

Exile feels slanted and open-ended with human error, which makes it gorgeous. There’s mystery and mythology – tax exiles, drugs coming into the house, living free as fuck. All sorts of people coming and going, but somehow holding it together enough to record these songs, outside of the recording studio. They broke the mould with that album. Shake Your Hips goes right into my body and my butt starts moving. Exile is the outlaw of their catalogue.

‘They’re unburdened by being the world’s biggest rock band’
Martin Fry, ABC

It’s my favourite Stones album, such a bizarre and funky record with so much diversity, from Tumbling Dice to the almost gospel of I Just Want to See His Face. There’s a carefree magic unburdened by their status as world’s biggest rock band. It’s not particularly commercial, but it’s elegant and beautiful. Mick Jagger’s lyrics are fantastic. It’s not a good times record. It’s questioning and paranoid. It sounds like they’ve been through a kaleidoscope. In that period people obviously took a lot of drugs, and some would just show up and forget they played on it. I’m still trying to unravel it.

‘Exile speaks to today’s opioid crisis in America’
Valerie June

I heard Shine a Light on a mixtape on a road trip and went: “What is this? Is there more?” As someone raised in the African American south, the gospel and blues influences are so rich for me. I love the slow build of Shine a Light and the bass [played by Mick Taylor, not Bill Wyman]. The song’s about Brian Jones but also about drug addiction. To me, 50 years later, it speaks to today’s opioid crisis in America and shines a light for them.

‘Why don’t we call ourselves the Rollin’ Stones?’
Dick Taylor, the Pretty Things

Mick, Keith [Richards] and I were in Little Boy Blue and the Blue Boys, then we met Brian Jones at the Ealing jazz club. I remember us playing Muddy Waters’ Rolling Stone Blues, then standing in front of the fireplace in the Bricklayer’s Arms in Soho when someone said: “Why don’t we call ourselves the Rollin’ Stones?” – without the “g” at that point. After I joined the Pretty Things, I followed the Stones’ progress. By Exile they’d been through the British blues explosion, the psychedelic period, huge success and trauma, and Exile partly returns to the blues but vastly changed by their experiences. I love their cover of Robert Johnson’s Stop Breaking Down. It’s almost shambolic, but falls into place. The whole album is an amazing work.

The trailer for a Stones documentary on the recording experience.

‘They took blues, gospel and soul – and made them better’
Brian Fallon, the Gaslight Anthem

They were the biggest band in the world but went off to France and pretty much almost killed themselves making this album that is insane yet somehow makes sense. They were in tax trouble. Keith and then Mick Taylor got into heroin. Keith didn’t show up some days, or Bill or Charlie [Watts, drummer] wouldn’t be on some tracks. I don’t think they’d have chosen to make a record like that but maybe that jeopardy and desperation is part of why it sounds like it does, although Mick subsequently took the tracks to Sunset Sound in Los Angeles to save it. I don’t know what was added there, but Exile is shrouded in mystery and enigma. It’s like they’ve heard blues, gospel and soul down a telephone, misheard it, but played it their way and made it better. I love Sweet Virginia. Instead of copying the country songs about losing your wife or dog, Mick is singing: “I hid the speed inside my shoe.” It’s quintessential Rolling Stones.

‘Mick thinks it’s sloppy. Dude, the sound is genius!’
Jennifer Herrema, Royal Trux

Exile is the child in the attic of Stones albums. I know Mick thinks it’s a bit sloppy and could have sounded better but I think: “Dude, the sound is the genius!” That’s what makes it so real. I love side two, the honky-tonk/country side. It’s happy but there’s a lot of melancholy to it. Torn and Frayed is such a beautiful song, seemingly about Keith Richards. “Doctor prescribes drug store supplies. / Who’s gonna help him to kick it?” He is a torn and frayed dude.

‘Shine a Light has that killer first line’
Mike Scott, the Waterboys

Exile is a completely unpolished record: absolutely real, ragged and beautiful. It’s heavily influenced by Delaney and Bonnie and Joe Cocker’s Mad Dogs and Englishmen, and the Exile horn section of Bobby Keys and Jim Price were in both of those bands. The record itself is like a swamp, or going down into the basement of Villa Nellcôte. Shine a Light, about Brian Jones, has that killer first line: “Saw you stretched out in room ten-oh-nine.” Mick Taylor plays this fantastic virtuoso guitar solo which I always thought was for Brian, his deceased predecessor. Let It Loose has another killer first verse: “Who’s that woman on your arm? All dressed up to do you harm / And I’m hip to what she’s gonna do / Give her just about a month or two.” And the cyclical Keith Richards guitar riff. Wicked.

The Stones play Happy live in 1972.

‘I bought it with the food shopping money’
J Mascis, Dinosaur Jr.

When I was 13, I bought the album with money my mother gave me to go food shopping. It was harder to get into than other Stones albums but harder to get sick of because there were so many songs. I aspired to play guitar like Keith or Mick Taylor, and I definitely copied Mick when I started singing. I love Rocks Off, Tumbling Dice, All Down the Line, Let It Loose. My favourite track is probably Happy, with Keith singing and Mick harmonising. Rather than listen to American blues, I listened to this mysterious version from England. They were emerging from the shadow of the Beatles to be the best band in the world.

‘Writing about a Black Panther was brave at a time of arrests’
Lloyd ‘Bread’ McDonald, the Wailing Souls

Most Jamaicans aren’t really into rock music but the Rolling Stones were among my favourite groups growing up. Years later, a record producer, Richard Feldman, introduced us to Sweet Black Angel for us to cover. We loved it. Then I realised it was about Angela Davis, a revolutionary lady who was imprisoned [for 16 months] before charges were eventually dropped. This was the time of the Black Panthers and arrests for speaking freely. It was brave of them to write a song about her, but they were rebels in their own way. When we covered it we changed a line to suit the times we were in, and added women singers to make it different.

‘Turd on the Run is nasty. People didn’t write songs like that’
Jon Spencer, Jon Spencer and the Hitmakers

In Pussy Galore, we covered Exile in its entirety because Sonic Youth had joked in interviews about doing the Beatles’ White Album. I hadn’t actually heard the Stones’ original then. Neil Hagerty would play us the songs on his guitar – then as soon as we could play it, it was a take. The original has the same shagginess. Turd on the Run is raw rockabilly-blues, a pretty nasty song about a love affair gone wrong, and seems almost omnisexual or pansexual. In 1972 people just didn’t write songs like that. It’s punk rock.

Laid back … Keith Richards takes a nap as a horizontal producer Jimmy Miller records trumpeter Jim Price and saxophonist Bobby Keys.
Laid back … Keith Richards takes a nap as a horizontal producer Jimmy Miller records trumpeter Jim Price and saxophonist Bobby Keys. Photograph: Dominique Tarlé

‘Even the producer started using heroin’
Norman Blake, Teenage Fanclub

When we started the band, we were trying to achieve the guitar tone on tracks like Tumbling Dice and Happy. I love the way the Stones worked in that period, recording at night – because Keith wouldn’t surface until later – and just jamming things out. Keith and Gram Parsons were getting up to all sorts of madness. Even the producer, Jimmy Miller, started using heroin. There’s all these amazing people on it, like Billy Preston, Nicky Hopkins, Bobby Keys, Dr John. Mick probably pulled it all together. The cover reflects the album, all these bits cobbled together that somehow make a brilliant whole.

‘I’d play Rocks Off at house parties’
Alexis Taylor, Hot Chip

I came across Exile because Pussy Galore covered the entire album on cassette, and there was a certain mythology around that. Once I listened to the original, I heard tunes and phrases others had borrowed. Rocks Off became a chorus for Primal Scream, shares a line of lyric with the Lemonheads, and Exile was a huge influence on Royal Trux. The recording quality is raw and rehearsal-room, not pristine or glossy, and all the more appealing for it. Rocks Off was one of the first “rock” records I played at DJ sets and house parties and is still in my record box.

‘Exile had their best stage look: Mick in his blue catsuit’
Justin Hawkins, the Darkness

Exile coincided with their best stage look – Mick in the blue Ossie Clark catsuit with white Derby shoes. He looks awesome. There’s this undercurrent of strained relationships, tax avoidance and a smattering of heroin abuse. Mick is a chameleon in his singing. In Sweet Virginia he becomes a southern gentleman. Last year, we took a few days off and went to see Villa Nellcôte. Now I want to keep going back. I love that album so much it’s determined my holidays!

The Rolling Stones’ 60th anniversary tour reaches the UK at Anfield, Liverpool, on 9 June. Details at rollingstones.com.

Photographs by Dominique Tarlé whose exhibition – La Villa: The Rolling Stones 1971 – is at La Cours des Art, Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, 12 May-20 July. The book of the same name is out now.


Interviews by Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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