Forty years ago, the Rolling Stones decamped to the South of France, living as tax exiles as they recorded their tenth album.
The sessions became notorious for their bacchanalian excesses, taking place amidst a nine-month, non-stop cocktail party in a sprawling villa that had supposedly once been a headquarters for the Gestapo.
The result was a sprawling double album, Exile On Main Street, which has gone down in history as one of the band’s best.
Next week, they are re-releasing the record with 10 new tracks – including several recently rediscovered songs. An accompanying documentary, Stones In Exile, will premiere in Cannes, before screening on BBC One on Sunday, 23 May.
Frontman Sir Mick Jagger met up with BBC arts editor Will Gompertz to explain why the band had gone back to the archives – and whether the band would ever get back together.
The new tracks on Exile On Main Street have been promoted as "recently rediscovered". How lost were they?
Well, they weren’t really lost. It was just no-one had really looked at them. There wasn’t a bag at the bottom of someone’s drawer.
Where were they?
They were in our tape store, mouldering away. Tapes don’t have a very good shelf life – so you bake them in the oven, get them out, play them and transfer them to somewhere else.
And then the process started of listening to them and going, "that’s really a good one".
What sort of state were the songs in?
They were mostly instrumental tracks with no vocals on them. They didn’t have vocals, they didn’t have melodies… because I wasn’t there. I was playing maracas or I was playing harmonica or something.
But some of [them] were complete. There’s a track called I’m Not Signifying and all I did was play harmonica on it. It’s quite an early track.
It sounds early. It could fit onto the Beggars’ Banquet album.
It might have been recorded for Beggars, but it was definitely re-recorded in the [Exile] period. A lot of these songs were done more than once.
Did you put them to one side because you didn’t like them at the time?
We had so many tracks, and you can only do so much. You’d say, "we’ll save that one, or put it aside" not knowing that we’d put it aside for 40 years!
So I just found some of these ones and finished them off – I wrote the words and the lyrics.
Would you describe these records as new ones or old ones?
They’re both, really. [Record producer] Don Was, who’s a real Stones aficionado, said, "you’ve got to do them in the mood of Exile". We had tremendous arguments late at night about whether that was correct, artistically.
How do you get yourself back into the mood you had in 1971?
By listening to Exile, of course! But it’s not particularly difficult, technically. It’s just an attitude in your head when you’re singing. Don Was said that in those days there wasn’t a tremendous amount of subtlety. You just started and then, wham, barraged on ’til you finished.
But what about writing the lyrics now, as opposed to where your head was then?
Now that’s a different thing. Of course it’s totally different. But you can put your head in a "mood". That’s what any writing is like. You’ve got to be able to.
People say, "is a song written from your own experience?" The answer is "of course it isn’t!" Bits of it are your experience, bits of things you’ve learnt off other people, bits you’ve nicked from other people’s lives, and bits you read in a newspaper. And all this goes to make a song, a novel or a play.
And so with all this, you’re playing a part. And in a way, I suppose, I was playing the part of myself in 1971.
How accurate is the mythology surrounding the recording of Exile On Main Street?
The wild nights, the orgies, the drug taking! I remember it well. Every bit of it!
I mean, it was a lot of fun – but there were a few bumps. It was a bumpy period, historically. There was a war going on, the Nixon thing was happening. Tax was through the roof. It was very difficult. The end of the ’60s felt very strained.
But despite all the excesses, it was quite a creative period. When you’re quite young, you can get away with that.
What was the environment like down at the house?
I think it was quite simple, really. The basement was for work, and nobody came in there who wasn’t working.
Upstairs was quite a lot of socialising and carrying on. All day.
It was great fun and it got a bit out of hand, and then we left. It felt like forever, but actually it was only six or seven months.
How much did the environment contribute to the album?
It was very social, we had a lot of children. They weren’t singing on the record, but there was quite a family thing.
If you record in that atmosphere, you’re going to get a different kind of record. It’s almost impossible to quantify how that is, but you just are going to get a different record. Every endeavour is influenced by its environment.
How was your relationship with Keith at that time? This was his house
It was his rented house! He rented it for a year and he never went back!
What was the hardest point in those years?
It was really problematic getting into the United States. It was massively difficult. The uncertainty of knowing whether you could go to America to tour was one of the major uncertainties of that period.
Things have obviously changed a great deal since those sessions. What’s your feeling on technology and music?
Technology and music have been together since the beginning of recording.
I’m talking about the internet.
But that’s just one facet of the technology of music. Music has been aligned with technology for a long time. The model of records and record selling is a very complex subject and quite boring, to be honest.
But your view is valid because you have a huge catalogue, which is worth a lot of money, and you’ve been in the business a long time, so you have perspective.
Well, it’s all changed in the last couple of years. We’ve gone through a period where everyone downloaded everything for nothing and we’ve gone into a grey period it’s much easier to pay for things – assuming you’ve got any money.
Are you quite relaxed about it?
I am quite relaxed about it. But, you know, it is a massive change and it does alter the fact that people don’t make as much money out of records.
But I have a take on that – people only made money out of records for a very, very small time. When The Rolling Stones started out, we didn’t make any money out of records because record companies wouldn’t pay you! They didn’t pay anyone!
Then, there was a small period from 1970 to 1997, where people did get paid, and they got paid very handsomely and everyone made money. But now that period has gone.
So if you look at the history of recorded music from 1900 to now, there was a 25 year period where artists did very well, but the rest of the time they didn’t.
What about the future. Are you going to get back together and write more music?
I think that would be a very good idea. I’ve been writing quite a lot of music.
Is Keith keen to get the guitar out?
I’m sure he is. And I’ll be seeing him next week, so I’m sure we’ll get together and start doing that.
The expanded edition of Exile On Main Street is released on Monday, 17 May. Stones In Exile will be shown on BBC One on Sunday, 23 May.
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