Rolling Stones: Mick and Keith remember making 'Exile on Main St.'
The Stones were on a remarkable creative roll when they went to work on “Exile on Main St.” In the four years before it was released, they’d put out what remain as three of their best studio albums: “Beggars Banquet,” “Let It Bleed” and “Sticky Fingers,” as well as one of the most celebrated live recordings ever, “Get Yer Ya-Ya’s Out!.”
There were downs as well: Guitarist Brian Jones had been fired from the band in 1969, then drowned under mysterious circumstances a few months later. During the band’s performance that December in Altamont in Northern California, Hells Angels hired to provide security stabbed a fan to death, an incident that sent the hippie euphoria from “three days of peace and music” at Woodstock a few months earlier crashing back to Earth.
And then there was the whole tax problem that spurred the group, along with many other British entertainers, to establish homes elsewhere to escape the 90%-plus income tax rate that George Harrison had famously groused about in the Beatles’ 1966 song “Taxman.”
“It affected everyone,” Mick Jagger told me recently as we discussed the factors that went into the making of “Exile,” which comes out Tuesday in an expanded reissue that we explore in depth in Sunday's Arts & Books section. “You made light of it at the time, but when you look back, it was quite disruptive in a lot of ways. You got on with it, but it was quite a difficult period.”
As Keith Richards recalls, the group chose southern France as its new base of operation, expecting to continue working in the recording studios they thought they’d find there. “We checked all over -- in Nice, Cannes, Marseille -- and there wasn’t one that was worth it. The next idea was, ‘Let’s hire [rent] a house, a space, and bring over the [mobile recording] truck.’ Then we couldn’t find the right house.
“It required a lot of improvisation,” Richards said. “It proved to us you could make records not just inside a studio. You could actually work anywhere if you had the right people and the right equipment, which was enlightening, at least for me.”
Although material that wound up on “Exile” spans recording sessions form 1968-72, the most intensive work was done in 1971 and ’72. Guitarist Mick Taylor, regarded by many Stones’ enthusiasts as the most flavorful of Jones’ successors, had joined the fold and was adding new kick to their studio recordings and live shows.
Looking back at what else was going on in the world at the time, from the Vietnam War to civil rights demonstrations and widespread social unrest, Jagger said, “Historically, it was a period of a lot of upheaval. With the challenges and other things we were going through, this [move to France] was one more challenge, even though it was pretty minor compared to what most people went through.”
When I asked the Stones creative partners where they’d rank “Exile” in their personal assessments of their creative legacy, Jagger demurred, saying that he doesn’t keep such lists, and that he is drawn more to different individual tracks at different times, depending on his mood.
Richards prefaced his answer with a similar qualifier: “It’s sort of like choosing among the babies, isn’t it?” Nevertheless, he went ahead and named it as one of his four favorite Stones albums, along with “Beggars Banquet,” “Let It Bleed” and “Sticky Fingers.”
-- Randy Lewis
Cover of "Exile on Main St." Credit: Universal Music
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