What do you get when one of the greatest rock bands of all time records an album in an old Nazi mansion while being fueled by heroin, cocaine, whiskey, and brandy, and surrounded by scantily clad women? You get The Rolling Stones 1972 release “Exile on Main St.” In 1971, The Rolling Stones were angry. After years of massive success, they found their former manager had swindled them out of millions of dollars. Just as soon they kicked their manager to the curb though, the U.K. police came knocking looking for overdue taxes. The Rolling Stones decided it made more sense to abandon the country they had called home for their entire lives and move to France. After a farewell tour across the U.K. to sold out audiences, they boarded a private jet and left the country. As they were settling in, they knew it was time to record another album. They searched high and low for theaters or recording studios they could take over but nothing quite fit what they wanted. The few studios in the quiet town were woefully under equipped for a band like The Rolling Stones and they worried about the language barrier. Eventually they decided the basement in a home Keith Richards was renting would do nicely. A massive hillside estate, it had once been home to Nazis during the French occupation. Above ground it was a beautiful typical French countryside estate. Below ground the many rooms were adorned with swastikas. But they pulled up their mobile recording studio and started setting up.
The set up was not ideal but they made do with what they had. The basement was incredibly hot and often they would strip down to almost nothing to do takes. With a lack of sound proofing, they spread the band out into different rooms in the basement. Guitars in the kitchen, horns in a small bedroom, drums in the main living area. When they worked, it could be hours before they took a break. Many members lived in various locations throughout the countryside but would commonly crash in rooms upstairs. Pretty soon the band and other sundry folk would crash for a night or two. Some stayed much longer. Photographer Dominique Tarle who famously documented the entire session swung by early on for a few pictures. As he was leaving, they offered to let him stay and document the process. This was of course as he simply took pictures. For Tale, the buffet of drugs was off limits.
Unencumbered by most demands of daily life or legal concerns, the band and their entourage lounged, drank, and jammed. There was no official timeline, and no one seemed in any rush. They’d take 3 weeks to track one song then move on and jam another tune for a few weeks before spending another 2 weeks recording that one. Once, Keith Richards woke up in the middle of the night, dragged whoever he could out of bed, and tracked “Happy.” These were truly musicians doing as they pleased. When listening back to this, its hard not to hear that free spirit. They were burning the candle at both ends and loving the ride.
After finishing up some vocals and overdubs in LA, the record was released in 1972 to rave reviews. Nearly 50 years later, “Exile on Main St.” is considered the best Rolling Stones album ever and one of the best rock albums ever. Many critics believe its depth of musical styles are exceptional. Earlier records may have lacked the experience time brings while later Rolling Stones releases may have felt contrived. “Exile on Main St.” was the perfect combination of grit, drugs, sex, and talent all rolled in to one massive release.
Written by Columbia Jones