The Rolling Stones shine a light on ‘Exile on Main St.’ reissue


Keith Richards remembers the period in the early 1970s when the Rolling Stones were working on “Exile on Main St.” as a fairly down time. The parts he remembers at all, that is.

Rolling Stones: A photo caption with Sunday’s Arts & Books section article on the reissue of the Rolling Stones’ “Exile on Main St.” said the 1972 album debuted at No. 1. It did not debut at the top of the chart, but it eventually spent four weeks at No. 1. —

That’s partly due to the fact that the recording sessions took place as the Stones guitarist and songwriter’s heroin habit took hold in a big way, a habit that took him nearly a decade to shake. But it wasn’t strictly the drugs he was referring to when he spoke recently about that fabled phase in his and the group’s life.

It’s a period he and Mick Jagger have been revisiting in depth while preparing an elaborate new reissue of the landmark “Exile” double album as well as a new documentary of that period, “Stones in Exile,” being released simultaneously.

“The word ‘debauchery’ comes up an awful lot,” Richards, 66, said with a sly chuckle. “Drugs did too — there was quite a bit of that. But when you’re making a record, you’re totally focused on that. You don’t really consider what else is going on; you don’t have time for it. Debauchery is the last thing on your mind … I’m down in a bunker trying to make a record.”

Indeed, the word “down” came up more often than “debauchery” or “drugs” during the conversation with Richards, one of a small handful of interviews he and Jagger agreed to in conjunction with Tuesday’s reissue of “Exile,” widely considered to be one of the group’s finest.

There was a siege mentality to the making of “Exile,” recorded as it was mostly in a foreign environment after the band members relocated to the South of France to avoid paying massive income tax bills back home in England. Richards rented Villa Nellcote, a 19th century mansion in Villefranche-sur-Mer, Nice, that had been used by the Gestapo during World War II, which added to the dark undercurrent.

By the time the band decamped for Los Angeles to put finishing touches on the basic tracks recorded in the mansion’s basement, the band felt relief. “It was a joy to get to L.A. after being locked down in that bunker for months,” Richards said, adding with an edgy laugh: “Tell it to Hitler.” In fact, the “Main St.” of the title refers to the downtown Los Angeles thoroughfare.

Most of the Stones’ catalog has been remastered and reissued at various times over the years. But the arrival of an expanded reissue of “Exile on Main St.,” including 10 bonus tracks recorded around the same time, constitutes a Big Event in any Stones fan’s book.

When Rolling Stone published its list of the 500 greatest albums of all time in 2003, “Exile” ranked No. 7. Critic Robert Christgau puts it at the top of his assessment of the Stones’ recorded output, bestowing an A+ rating on what he called “a fagged-out masterpiece.” And “Late Night With Jimmy Fallon” just devoted an entire week of shows built around the reissue.

‘A special album’

Jagger has dissed “Exile” periodically, grousing at various times about the way his vocals were buried in the sonic mix, the ramshackle manner in which much of it was recorded and the retro feel of many of the songs at a time when the singer was pushing for greater musical experimentation.

But after spending a good chunk of the last year revisiting the period, the vocalist who defined rock swagger calls it “a special album.”

“I don’t really have a favorite Stones album, to be honest,” Jagger, also 66, said in a separate interview. “You have songs you like one day, songs you like on another day … but there’s not one [album] I treasure above all others. It depends on what you’re in the mood for. But ‘Exile’ is very good .... It’s got a lot to offer, there’s a lot of depth in it and it holds up.”

The Stones’ self-imposed exile to France stemmed from a tax rate in England that could exceed 90% for those with the greatest incomes, which led many entertainers to establish homes elsewhere.

“It affected everyone” in the band, Jagger said of their flight. “You made light of it at the time, but when you look back, it was quite disruptive in a lot of ways.”

As Richards recalls,

“It required a lot of improvisation. At the same time, I don’t remember anybody being apprehensive about it. You just make due. It proved to us you could make records not just inside a studio.”

Asking a favor

When Jagger called three-time Grammy-winning producer Don Was last year looking for assistance in assembling the “Exile” bonus material, it was the lifelong Stones fan’s dream come true.

Was, who’s on tap to discuss the reissue on June 3 at the Grammy Museum, first saw the band live at age 12 in Detroit on their first U.S. tour in 1964; decades later the group enlisted him to produce “Voodoo Lounge,” “Bridges to Babylon,” “Stripped,” “Live Licks” and “A Bigger Bang.”

“Mick called up and asked me to help, almost as if it were a chore,” Was, 57, said. “I’m just glad he couldn’t see me salivating over the phone. Whatever you think of ‘Exile,’ it’s become so ingrained in the musical vocabulary of all rock ‘n’ roll musicians who have come subsequently .... That thing is seminal.”

Indeed, Jagger said he was happy for the attention. “When Universal got the catalog, they said, ‘We want to put out the albums with special rereleases — Would you help us?’ And when you say OK, you know it’s never going to be like two weeks’ work .… A lot of the work could be delegated to other people, but when it comes down to it, you’ve got to put your back into it and pick the best things. But I quite enjoyed the result.”

Richards’ instructional note to Was was unequivocal about his philosophy on how to handle the previously unreleased material.

“At the very beginning, Keith sent me a fax in calligraphy script with a whole lot of flair,” Was said. “It just said, ‘Don’t try to make it sound like ‘Exile’ — it is ‘Exile.’ The idea was to do as absolutely little as possible, and not try to reinvent the wheel. Keith said, ‘Don’t rewrite the Bible.’ ”

The Glimmer Twins

By some accounts, “Exile” reflects more of Richards’ stick-to-the-basics musical aesthetic. The album’s signature songs, such as “Rocks Off,” “Rip This Joint,” “All Down the Line,” “Sweet Virginia” and “Torn and Frayed,” tap his deep affection for American roots music. It also included “Happy,” which at the time was virtually unprecedented in featuring the tight-lipped guitarist taking on a lead vocal.

Despite well-chronicled clashes between Jagger and Richards over the years, the creative chemistry that’s allowed the team to endure for nearly half a century was undeniable to those who witnessed it in action.

“During the recording of ‘Exile on Main Street,’ I was given unlimited access by the Stones,” photographer Jim Marshall wrote in a recollection of the L.A. sessions on his website before he died in March. “I had just photographed them for Life magazine and knew Keith and Mick pretty well.

“Jagger could be in the control room and start to say something to Keith,” Marshall noted, “and before the words even came out of his mouth, Keith was doing it on the guitar. I’ve been to a lot of sessions, but I’ve never seen two guys work in sync this way before.”

Said Was: “I’ll go with that, absolutely. Whoever coined that term, ‘the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world,’ they really are.

“This is from someone who’s followed them closely since the beginning,” Was said. “In many ways, they are better than anyone.”