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Shining a light on a loose masterpiece: Stones In Exile (2010) ~ Review

June 5, 2010

Soul survivors: Mick and Keith during the making of Exile On Main St. – for once the two seem without booze, maybe that’s why Mick’s face suggests Keith’s playing a bum note

Whichever way you wrap it, 1972’s Exile On Main St. has always been the oddest of their great gifts The Rolling Stones have bestowed on us over the decades. A double album that was crafted during the period the band should surely have slowed down following their spiritual leader Brian Jones’ death in 1969, it’s also stripped back, bluesy and hopelessly loose – just when you’d have thought they’d have retreated into the safe embrace of studio technology and trickery, instead of taking the seemingly harder and more dangerous route of going back-to-basics. Plus, for all its (rightfully) accumulated acclaim over the years, the album only contains one tune that turned out to be a genuine hit single.

Yes, it’s always been a bit of a curate’s egg – if one of which exquisite trinket maker Carl Fabergé would have been proud. So, good news it is then that the brand spanking new 61-minute documentary that looks at the album’s making, Stones In Exile, goes a damned good way to explaining why.

As if in keeping with the undiluted, rather shambolic genesis and ethos behind the album in question, this docu film, directed by Stephen Kijak, was both premiered at the Cannes Film Festival and shown on BBC1 in the UK last month, at almost exactly the same time. A bit weird to my mind that, I must say. Still, it did mean I didn’t have to worry about having to rub shoulders with the movers and shakers on the Promenade in the vain hope I may get hold of a ticket from a tout – no, instead I could watch the whole thing at home in the comfort of my favourite armchair and with a nice cup of coffee. Who could ask for more? Well, going to Cannes would have been cool, I guess.

Exile On Main St.‘s origins were not promising; in fact, they were downright ominous. Owing to businessman Allen Klein (who was famously involved in screwing up The Beatles’ finances, which helped bring about their demise) sticking his finger into The Stones’ money matters towards the end of the ’60s, following the legendary Andrew Loog Oldham’s departure as their manager, the band were facing financial – as well as legal – problems. And problems that  for a rock ‘n’ roll band, which at the time was undisputedly living the archetypal rock ‘n’ roll lifestyle, were seemingly too complex and difficult to get their heads around.

Let It Loose: As he says in the film, Keith proves he was more ‘roll’ and Mick more ‘rock’ during the recording of Exile On Main St. – but a hell of a smack was about to hit him 

Basically, it boiled down to the fact that the four main members of The Stones hadn’t paid tax for several years and were required to clear their debts with the Inland Revenue as quickly as possible. However, there was another problem. Britain’s finances too were in a mess at this time and UK residents at the highest end of the wage earning scale, as The Stones were now, were required to pay as much as 97 percent in the pound (£) to the taxman. In short, living and working in Blighty, the band actually couldn’t make enough money quickly enough to pay the state back what they owed. There was one solution, therefore – leave the country and set up home elsewhere. As it happened, guitarist Keith Richards and his German actress wife Anita Pallenberg, fresh with a toddler daughter, had just started renting out a sixteen-room mansion called Nellcôte on the seafront of Villefranche-sur-Mer, not from Nice on the French Riviera. France it was for The Stones then.

However, perhaps surprisingly for peeps who had become well accustomed to jet-setting here, there and everywhere by now, leaving Britain behind was a bind for the band. And covered nicely in the film is this point, for while drummer Charlie Watts mentions that moving country naturally meant there was a language barrier to tackle, guitarist Bill Wyman recalls he had to have all his favourite British food sent over – you could get hold of PG Tips that way, all right, but you still had to contend with French milk. The band quickly decided their next money-making venture would be an album and, without any studios to meet their requirements in the south of France, they opted for the next best thing. Oddly, this turned out to be attempting to record the thing at Richards’ villa. It was probably one of those ideas that sounded brilliant at the time. Over a bottle of Jack Daniels. The trouble was they quickly discovered that it would be completely impractical to play and record in the house’s large ballroom, as they had planned. This ensured that recording would have to take place throughout the dank and dirty cubby hole-like rooms that made up the mansion’s basement. To say this arrangement wasn’t ideal would be a gross understatement.

Using a mixture of anecdotes from those involved, archive filmed footage, music from the album and photography captured by a snapper who had turned up at the villa before everyone else merely to get a few shots of Richards and Pallenberg, but instead stayed the entire summer, the documentary does a fine job of getting across the totally disorganised, haphazard and frankly nuts recording work that went on at Nellcôte. In truth, it was like one long jam-session that went on alongside a months-long party. As frontman Mick Jagger admits, they could get away with doing it because they were young – surely no music artist over the age of 30 and in their right mind would consider recording an album that way. Indeed, it’s unlikely any music artist would be able to get away with recording an album that way nowadays at all. Still, somehow – and despite all the distractions – The Stones magically pulled it off. And, boy, were there distractions too.

Booze, drugs, wives, kids and numerous hangers-on (besides saxophonist Billy Keys and manager Jimmy Miller) were everywhere. The film effectively suggests the album was almost secondary to the party. Yet – and for me this is sadly where Stones In Exile pulls its punches somewhat – it doesn’t really get into the nitty-gritty of what really went on. Yes, we learn that only some musicians were around some of the time, and when there they’d jam and play day or night (whenever they were awake, often); and that the music from the basement was so loud that it could be heard from the beach, but curiously none of the neighbours complained; and that everyone would eat together for lunch prepared by cook ‘Fat Jacques’; but the more juicy, controversial stuff, which clearly went on, is rather glossed over. The closest we really get to it is being told that the band members’ kids pretty much fulfilled the roles of  joint-rollers and that everybody was on ‘Keith’s time’ – an allusion to his and Pallenberg’s descent into heroin addiction during this summer.

“‘Happy’ was something I did because I was for one time early for a session. There was Bobby Keys and Jimmy Miller. We had nothing to do and had suddenly picked up the guitar and played this riff. So we cut it and it’s the record, it’s the same. We cut the original track with a baritone sax, a guitar and Jimmy Miller on drums. And the rest of it is built up over that track. It was just an afternoon jam that everybody said, ‘Wow, yeah, work on it'”. ~ Keith Richards on the recording of the Stones standard Happy, which to this day he himself sings on stage while on tour  

One could certainly argue that had the film aimed to be more revelatory then it would have unlikely had the full involvement it does from The Stones – why would verteran rockers like them want to reveal what really went on back then? It’s certainly water on the bridge between them all now. Yet, knowing – if you’ve read around the album’s making – as you would, that Richards may well have moved on to heroin in reaction to Jagger sleeping with his wife while the two of them made the 1971 film Performance together, you may feel a little short-changed not to get more on the obvious antagonism and genuine strains the relationship between the band’s two leaders must have been under at this time. Not to mention the strains that must’ve been showing between the other members too.  

Despite this, the documentary certainly continues to deliver nuggets. For instance, Jagger wrote the album’s hit Tumbling Dice after a conversation with a maid about how to throw dice when gambling. And, when the album’s second half of recording had upped and shifted to LA’s Sunset Sound Recordings studio (as was the norm for Stones albums of this period), following the time at Nellcôte exhausting itself in more ways than one, Mick remarks that he and Keith came up with the lyrics for Casino Boogie by writing phrases on pieces of paper, mixing them all up and pulling them out at random. By then, with difficult tracks as well as easier ones, it was just a matter of getthing them finished and recorded.

Stones In Exile, then, while providing a window – if not a microscope – on to what was going on in the fascinating lives of The Rolling Stones as they made this seminal album, finds its focus in examining exactly how the album itself was made. It was conjured up out of nothing, as good art often is, of course, but with the odds truly stacked against it; and yet, in their characteristic shipshod manner (and then some, in this particular case), Mick, Keith and co. somehow managed to unearth a diamond that to this day may just glimmer brighter than all their other albums.

Funny really then, that – as the film backs up – Mick still seems somewhat non-plussed with it, as if he wonders what all the fuss is about. Mind you, the most driven of The Stones (and its eventual leader), he was always about jumping into the next thing as soon as the last was over. Perhaps that’s why he is such a Soul Survivor – as usual, answers on a postcard as to how exactly Keith is, of course.

You can buy Stones In Exile on DVD here; or if you’re in the UK – and, no doubt, for a short time only – you can watch it on the BBC iPlayer here

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