The Taxman. That’s why.
Exile On Main St., released on May 26, 1972, may or may not be the greatest Rolling Stones album, but it is undeniably the most Rolling Stones album the band has ever done.
A gritty, grinding amalgam of everything that influenced them, it took running away from home to an entire new level. It codified the rock’n’roll image for a new decade and beyond, and affirmed a paradox: as the Stones fled England’s Mr. Wilson, Lord Treasurer and Her Madge — in an effort to keep their zillions away from Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and preserve the wrecked elegance of their jet set life-and-death-style — they ended up making their toughest album in a dirty French basement.
There are worse places, one presumes. It was still in France, man. And let us add a double irony, that as the Stones made the album that, once and for all, established them as the kingpins and template of rock’n’roll, they were unknowably affirming that the only way left to go was down. I have dubbed the period that inexorably followed as Slutty Stones, when every successive album slid degree-by-degree into a lurid ‘70s self-parody, as the etiolation of body and talent crept over them.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with the Nazi mansion.
Villa Nellcôte, built during the Belle Époque (1890s) at Villefranche-sur-Mer on the Côte d’Azur in southern France, and rumored to have been used as the home-away-from-home by the Gestapo during the Nazi occupation of France — which is almost certainly untrue. But it was a good enough story for Keith Richards. The Stones in 1970 were fleeing any number of things. “Keith particularly was being arrested quite regularly, if I remember rightly,” Mick Jagger once told GQ Magazine. “He couldn’t go to certain places, nor could I.” Bummer. They were fleeing the horrible voodoo of Altamont and the stabbing of Meredith Hunter by the Hells Angels they had hired for “security.” And they were lamming it out of England to escape the Labour Government’s scorching 93 percent tax rate on zillionaires — that’ll cut into the chandelier and coke budget! The South of France beckoned. Keith rented the mansion. There were swastikas on the basement floor vents. What could go wrong?
Nothing. Many things. Everything.
The Stones being the Stones, they decided (well, Keith did) to record an album in the dank labyrinthine basement of the mansion, a warren of rooms so humid that the guitars wouldn’t keep tune and the boys couldn’t see one another. Bill Wyman’s amp was in a hallway. Producer Jimmy Miller was in the mobile studio outside, running cables through the windows. “I mean, it’s France, man,” Keith would say. “They were still using horses to plow. A telephone call would take half an hour.” They had to steal electricity from a local railway grid. And if that isn’t the very definition of rock’n’roll, I dunno what is.
To push the jet set wrecked-elegance needle over the red line, Jagger married Nicaraguan supermodel Bianca Pérez Morena de Macias during this somewhat fraught period. ‘Twas party time.
Given the eternal-weekend mindset, the unlimited funds, the supremely naughty sorceress-muses upstairs, the suspension of exile itself, and the great final surge of astonishing creativity of a fugitive band having reasserted its untouchability, it’s not surprising what happened. Drugs. So much and many drugs. A Batman comic’s worth of rogues, clowns, scammers, and villains orbited the musical rogues. And it’s not easy to get any work done when there’s so much bad behavior unspooling that houseguest Gram Parsons is asked to leave because he’s too fucked up even for the Stones.
The Beatles were disbanding. The ‘60s were kaput. The Stones had a 10th album to make and a reputation to uphold. The result was as an unwieldy fusion of rock’n’roll, blues, country honk, and gospel tailored around one endless bender.
It has often been said that Exile was the album that punks loved. It was Keith’s album, made on the edge of everything, with a weary and wearying series of songs running at dizzyingly alternating speeds. Think of the difference between the off-kilter lurch of “Rocks Off” (the opening song, with that ugly riff!) and the speed-freak “Rip This Joint”, the classicist “All Down the Line”, and the grind of “Tumbling Dice” — all of it sounding like it was played in a juke joint with the listener on the other side of a dirty paper wall.
So, Keith in the basement, surrounded by wasters, gets his way. It was Keith’s album, so Jagger had to fight to be heard, which made him better — which also makes it Mick’s album. No major white rock band had sounded as raw and transcendently ugly before. But no white singer had ever spent an entire 18 tracks yowling with this passion and swagger and ennui.
He still doesn’t like the record. Jagger has said it “sounds lousy,” with producer Jimmy Miller “not functioning properly”, forcing Jagger to “finish the whole record myself, because, otherwise, there were just these drunks and junkies. Of course, I’m ultimately responsible for it, but it’s really not good.”
We often don’t recognize ourselves at our best, but at our least pretty. I’ve always found it insulting — and indeed, shallow — that even people who love the record will offhandedly slag its genesis. You know, gotta love the junkies! Great works like Exile are not created because of, or despite, the use of altering substances. They are created, and there are also altering substances. Why wouldn’t that happen? Have you been to your local pub lately? Anybody getting altered in there? And what album did they crank out this week?
Exile sounds like 1972, but it also sounds like every previous decade of American music, black and white. The Stones muscled and ground up everything from Robert Johnson to Hank Williams to Buck Owens to Aretha Franklin into their own version of it. This is the nature of creativity, and indeed, the nature of rock’n’roll. The reason punks derived inspiration from the album, and still love it, is that so much of it rang true, from the cellular level. It was louche in a way nobody had ever quite done before, in sound and style. Certainly, nobody under chandeliers in a mansion.
But it was not hailed to the Empyrean by critics, nor does it necessarily enjoy unanimity today. There were complaints — it had no hits, there was too much filler… and these people are, identifiably, mistaken. No, “Shine A Light” is not a “throwaway”. No, their steely, grinding, electric cover of “Stop Breaking Down” does not “miss the mark”. And at least two of these songs, both classics of form, style, and message — “Happy” and “Tumbling Dice” — remain in the set list to this day.
“Happy” is the story of an outlaw who accepts and delights in being Existential on Main Street. “Tumbling Dice”, from its downward grinding riff to its ineffable lyric, is about taking a chance — and as that decade was opening, and as this one is, 50 years later, how can that not resonate as reasonable? We’re never far from the edge. This album is a reminder. No major rock’n’roll band (do those still exist?) will ever dirty up this good again.