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‘Exile On Main Street’ at 47: The Roll of the Dice

Remembering the time the boys moved to France to make one of their most critically acclaimed album

Joel Arambur May 12, 2019

Mick Jagger (left) and Keith Richards (right) in June 1972 at Winterland in San Francisco. Photo: Larry Rogers/CC BY-SA 2.0

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The Sixties ended with The Rolling Stones as one of the biggest bands in the world, and they were minting money like never before as well. In the U.K., Mick Jagger and co.had to pay 93 percent of their earnings in taxes.

That’s when their financial advisor, Prince Rupert Lowenstein, suggested the band move to France, with much lower tax rates. And thus, The Rolling Stones became tax exiles, which is where their 1972 album gets its name from. Keith Richards in his 2010 memoir Life writes, “When we first came up with the title, it worked in American terms because everybody’s got a Main Street. But our Main Street was that Riviera [French Riviera] strip. And we were exiles, so it rang perfectly true and said everything we needed.” And Mick Jagger told CNN, “We had to leave England to acquire enough money to pay the taxes. Because in those days, in England, the high tax rate was 90 percent so — That’s very hard.”

And so in the Summer of 1971, the newlywed Jagger moves to Paris with his wife Bianca Jagger, while Keith Richards rented a villa named Nellcôte along the south coast of France, where the band would gather over the next six months to record majority of the album in the basement using the infamous Rolling Stones Mobile Studio, amidst all the junkies and visitors that kept flowing in and out of the mansion.

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In the book Exile On Main Street by Robert Greenfield, bassist Bill Wyman recalls, “Not everyone turned up every night. This was, for me, one of the major frustrations of this whole period. For our previous two albums we had worked well and listened to producer Jimmy Miller. At Nellcôte things were very different and it took me a while to understand why.”

While half of the album was recorded in France, the writing and recording of the songs started in 1969 in England in Olympic Studios, including leftover material from the Sticky Fingers recording sessions. Jagger in an interview with GQ recalls, “They were tracks we’d made or hadn’t finished, or hadn’t released on the previous album, Sticky Fingers, before we moved to France.”

Furthermore,after leaving France on November 1st, the band set for Los Angeles where they added plenty of overdubs to the existing tracks at Hollywood’s Sunset Sound Factory. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Mick Jagger says, “Exile was recorded over quite a long period […] So I set myself a sort of time frame for it. The first recording was ‘Loving Cup’ in 1969, and then the last sessions for Exile were done in 1972. So that was my time period.”

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When released, as their first double-sided album, on May 12th 1972, it attracted a lot of hostility from the critics but over the years, it has been accepted as one of the greatest Stones album by the same people. The sound attributed to the album ranges from rock ‘n roll to country-blues with extremely raw recordings which gives the Stones’ music its unique unfiltered vibe. In the book, According To The Rolling Stones by The Rolling Stones themselves, Richards is quoted saying, “When [Exile] came out it didn’t sell particularly well at the beginning, and it was also pretty much universally panned. But within a few years the people who had written the reviews saying it was a piece of crap were extolling it as the best frigging album in the world.”

The album charted at Number One in Canada, Netherlands, Norway, Spain, U.K. and the U.S. and has a massive legacy to it. In 2003, it was ranked seventh on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time and in 2012, the album was inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame. Just to tell you how well the sound sustained, the album was re-released in 2010 and charted at Number One in the U.K. once again, while it reached Number Two in the U.S.

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