The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main Street turns 40

Categories: Music History

Yet the Stones weren't exactly living as the traveling Joad family. The group all immigrated to the south of France and centered themselves around Richards's Villa Nellcote, an enormous mansion right off the water in Villefranche-sur-Mer, a small village just next door to Nice. A luxurious palace filled with mirrors and sea air, Nellcote also held a dark past.

During the Nazi occupation of France, Richards's new home had served as a Gestapo headquarters, a space in which the Nazis had not only gotten comfortable (they'd remodeled the floor vents to be shaped as swastikas), but one where they had indulged in some predictably sadistic behavior. One afternoon, a pair of friends found a metallic box with a large swastika on it in the basement. Finding morphine vials inside, the two decided to pitch the box into the ocean -- lest Keith Richards find it.

When Richards was eventually told about his new home's evil past, he characteristically shrugged and said, "It's all right. We're here now. Fuck those people." Subsequently, Richards didn't hesitate to set up a recording operation in the Villa's basement -- a section of the house that, according to one biographer, had been used regularly as an interrogation-via-torture facility by the Nazis against many innocent French citizens during WWII.

In addition to the heat turning the basement into a humid sauna where guitars wouldn't stay in tune and tired men sweated out Jack Daniel's, there were many reports of power randomly going in and out, small fires erupting and strange sounds heard in dark quarters, all rumored to be unsettled spirits of Nazi torture casualties. Working at random, unscheduled hours, the band would struggle through dozens of takes, experimenting with songs from all different angles.

"A lot of Exile was done how Keith works," remembers drummer Charlie Watts, "which was play it twenty times, then let it marinate another twenty. Keith's very much like a jazz player in lots of ways. He knows what he likes. He's very loose. Keith's a bohemian, an eccentric in the best terms."

Not everyone was so patient with Richards's erratic production schedule.

"Atlantic distributed Rolling Stones records. The deal was we'd get a dollar an album and a big budget to produce the album," said Marshall Chess, founding president of Rolling Stones Records, a vanity label established after the band's contract with Decca had expired. "[Atlantic said], 'Could you get the Rolling Stones to make an album every year or every eighteen months?' And I said, 'Yeah, I can do that.' Then I started to watch their creative process, and was amazed that Keith could fall asleep while he was doing a vocal. Mick wouldn't show up.... I was coming from [a work schedule of] making three sides in three hours: These guys were taking two weeks to get one track done!"

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