The Rolling Stones rose to fame while filming their classic, Exile on Main St. Album.
Indeed, the drug-fuelled debauchery resulted in Keith Richards – in the grip of a heroin addiction – missing from his French mansion where the Stones recorded the sprawling double LP released 50 years ago on May 12, 1972.
“Keith had his son Marlon with him and he was like, ‘Oh, I’ll put Marlon to bed.’ And then you didn’t see him for a day and a half,” said Anthony DeCurtis, who wrote the liner notes for the 2010 reboot of Exile on Main St. and the 2021 book The Rolling Stones: Unzipped. “And I think that started to create problems in the band. One of your main songwriters and in many ways the band’s musical driving force is someone with a drug problem. And I think that comes through in the lyrics.”
But the Stones have overcome Richard’s addiction and other struggles – while taking their notorious excesses in the south of France to a new level – to make what is widely regarded as the finest album from their legendary catalogue.
“In many ways, ‘Exile on Main St.’ is to the Rolling Stones what the ‘White Album’ was to the Beatles,” said John Covach, music professor at the University of Rochester, whose course The Music of the Rolling Stones: 1962-1974 is available online at Coursera. “It’s a double album, it’s got a ton of material, it’s got a bunch of different styles… The album is kind of like a classic Stones album.”
“That’s a pretty pure creative statement,” added Alan Light, co-host of SiriusXM Volume’s “Debatable.” “It’s really much more of a record for deeper fans.”
Even for them, the Rolling Stones felt particularly rebellious when they fled their native England to avoid hefty taxes in 1971 while filming “Exile” in the Villa Nellcôte basement while producer Jimmy Miller manned the control room in a truck parked outside .
“The ‘exile’ part was because they were tax exiles,” DeCurtis told the Post. “They had financial problems, and if they worked in England, they would be taxed very heavily,” DeCurtis said. “And so they decided to essentially just move to France.”
Richards rented the 16-room Mediterranean villa where he lived with his then-partner, actress and model Anita Pallenberg, and their son, Marlon. Meanwhile, Mick Jagger was newly married to his then-wife Bianca Jagger.
However, that didn’t stop the band from having plenty of sexual shenanigans. “They would take speedboats to go to brothels when they were done filming early in the morning,” DeCurtis said. “So there was a kind of out-of-control feeling to the whole environment.”
But out of this chaos emerged musical clarity in the Stones’ embrace of American blues, soul, country and gospel. Indeed, said Covach, “‘Main St.’ relates to American life.”
The American influence extended to the album cover. “They were looking through books at a used bookstore and came across Robert Frank’s photo book called ‘The Americans,'” Covach said. “The Stones saw that and were like, ‘Well, we need this guy to take the pictures.'”
And when they finished recording the album in Los Angeles, the Stones took inspiration from none other than the Queen of Soul herself, Aretha Franklin. “Mick and Charlie [Watts] Go see Aretha when she was shooting the ‘Amazing Grace’ movie,” Light said. “They’re just about to finish this album and they want to see her in this gospel performance.”
Five decades later, the Stones are still stirring souls themselves with “Exile on Main St.”
“This was definitely an album that took you on a journey from start to finish,” Light said. “As a result, it’s largely become the critical favorite from the catalogue.”
DeCurtis added, “‘Exile’ is an album that got better the more you put into it, and the more time you put into it, the more powerful it seemed.”