“Exile On Main St stands apart from other Stones albums, even other Stones albums from that period,” says The War On Drugs’ Adam Granduciel. “It’s not just that it’s a double album. It’s not just the circumstances in which it was recorded. There’s something about it – a vibe, a feeling. It has such a sound. The horns, the R&B, the blues. I listen to Exile all the time and still get blown away by it.”
Released 50 years ago in May, Exile On Main St (working title: Tropical Disease) brought into focus the Stones’ gifts for music, myth-making and self-publicity in one fairly explosive package. On the run from the taxman, in April 1971 the Stones decamped to Villa Nellcôte – Keith Richards’ rented waterfront residence at Villefranche-sur-Mer on the Côte D’Azur – where, as a beautiful entourage socialised upstairs, the band alchemised their masterpiece in the mansion’s spacious basement.
“You can dive into the mythology of Exile, look at photos and imagine what it might have been like to have been there for a weekend,” says Kurt Vile. “What the days would have been like, and the nights, down in that murky basement, making music, hanging out with Gram Parsons. It’s pretty amazing.”
While the sessions at Nellcôte provided Exile with its source material and muggy atmosphere, the album was the result of several years’ worth of work, beginning at Olympic Studios in London during June 1969 and finishing with the overdubbing-and-mixing sessions at Sunset Sound, Los Angeles, in March 1972. Despite the dark mythology of their problematic tax situation, the nocturnal lifestyles, break-ins and drug busts at Nellcôte, Exile proved to be a testament to the band’s iron will. “It was about proving that it doesn’t matter what you throw at The Rolling Stones, we can come up with the goods,” Richards later told Uncut.
“Exile is like a punk rock record,” says Royal Trux’s Jennifer Herrema. “It was a one-take situation for most all of the songs. I think that was important. Nothing had to be perfect – even though Exile is perfect! – and then they took it from France to LA to make it sparkle. The album artwork by Robert Frank features photos from his book The Americans… it all sums up ‘exile’ for the Stones. Like, where do we belong? Nowhere, but everywhere.”