For a time in 1971, the Rolling Stones found themselves in France, writing their twelfth album, Exile on Mainstreet. Here, in The Wall Street Journal, Marc Myers tells the story of that period in the history of one of the greatest rock n’ roll bands of all time.
The Rolling Stones in the spring of 1971 were a band on the run. Victims of bad business advice and Britain’s steep, punitive tax rates, the Stones had brought in a new business manager, Prince Rupert Loewenstein, who urged them in early ’71 to become tax exiles in Southern France
By June, the band was recording in the dank, partitioned basement of Keith Richards’s rented French villa near Nice, their 16-track “Mighty Mobile” studio truck parked outside. The Stones were under pressure to complete an album for their new Stones-owned label in advance of a planned American tour the following June and July.
The result was “Exile on Main St.,” their 12th studio album released in the U.S. and their first double LP, which turns 50 on May 12. The record reached No. 1 on the Billboard album chart and was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 2012. At the time of their exile, the Stones were joined in France by saxophonist Bobby Keys, keyboardist Nicky Hopkins and producer-percussionist Jimmy Miller.
Initially belittled by rock critics as directionless, “Exile” was soon breathlessly hailed as rock’s boldest album. Not only did the brash recording burnish the Stones’ reputation as “the greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world,” but it also partially erased their nasty image after the violent Altamont free concert in December 1969.
Each song on the album seems to have a dual personality, like a radio dial lodged between two stations. At the music’s core is the classic Stones approach—with Keith Richards’s jutting guitar, Mick Taylor’s guitar fills, Bill Wyman’s bass and Charlie Watts’s snapping drums topped by Mick Jagger’s gritty blues vocals.
But each song also has a thick spread of American rock and soul styles underneath, punched up by horns, piano and gospel background vocals. The album’s 18 songs embrace the Delta blues, Bakersfield honky-tonk, Southern rock, Memphis soul, Laurel Canyon folk-rock and even the San Francisco jamming style developed by the Grateful Dead.
By 1971, the Stones were steeped in American pop styles picked up while touring since June 1964. But “Exile” also has a distinctly dark tone. As Mr. Wyman noted in his 1990 memoir, “Stone Alone,” the months in France were a “tense” and “rootless” period when practically all band members “dabbled in drugs,” except for Messrs. Wyman, Watts and Hopkins. Mr. Richards was more blunt in “Life,” his 2010 memoir: “Two songs a day written on a heroin habit.”
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