GQ Icon: Mick Jagger

Interview with Bill Prince of GQ Magazine in June 2010

Outcast, addicts and in the red: in 1971 the Rolling Stones hit personal lows but creative highs recording the now-classic double album Exile On Main St. This month’s reissue doesn’t just mark the return of their greatest album, but the moment its iconic front man came of age, says Bill Prince.

1 June 2010

The next time you’re at a loss for something to do, you might want to gather together some friends and play the “Exactly!” game. In its purest form, it’s a kind of applied snobbery, a crash course in cultural one-umpanship that, remarkably, some always delivers the Unassailable Truth.

It works like this: someone picks an idea – the novels of Martin Amis, say,or Surrey batsmen of the Fifties (although it’s best to stay off topics for which there could be an empirical – ie statistical – winner). The others have to make their bid for the best example until everyone cries “Exactly!” all at once. Trust me, it happens – particularly when the winning idea seems somehow implausible, and yet on closer inspection reveals itself to be the One True Answer.

So, for instance: the albums of Michael Jackson. Thriller? Nooooooo. Bad? Come on… Off the Wall? “Exactly!” It’s endless fun: Robert De Niro’s best performance in a Scorsese film? Easy: The King of Comedy. The best Godfather? It’s Part II, obviously.

But now try it with the albums of the Rolling Stones. Sticky Fingers? Can’t argue with the track listing, and it’s clearly their most popular album, but honestly, where’s the fun in choosing that? Let It Bleed? Ah, the connoisseurs choice. Only… well, at times it feels like it’s the work of more than one band, so it can come over as, well, a bit bitty.

How about Some Girls? Mmmmm, interesting; it’s a past-their-first-flush choice, which gives it a certain edge, and it contains their last great ballad (“Beast of Burden”). But it’s also channelling so much of what the Stones saw going on around them at the time – disco (“Miss You”, the title track) and punk (“Shattered”) – that it doesn’t feel… Exile On Main St? “Exactly!”

That’s not just me you hear exclaiming loudly. You can ask Primal Scream’s Bobbie Gillespie and just about any other tasteful Stones lover I’ve ever met. Because Exile meets the countless unseen markers of the “Exactly!” game perfectly. It’s definitely and undeniably the Stones, containing everything you ever want to hear by them whenever you need to hear it: rock, rock’n’roll, country, blues, country blues, and everything in between.

But in many ways it’s an oddity. For starters it remains their only double-set to date – 18 tracks spread over four sides in its original vinyl format, its gatefold sleeve festooned with photographer Robert Frank’s blown-up 16mm footage of the band (“Exactly!”). And except for the endlessly collated “Tumbling Dice”, it contains no radio hits to speak of – which is a shame, since “Sweet Virginia” and “Ventilator Blues” deserve classic status – and yet it still encapsulates everything the Stones stand for, the (it was written and recorded between 1968 and 1972, giving it, after Tattoo You, the longest gestation period of any Stones album) and now.

Don’t just take my word for it: “I think you might say Exile is an anomaly,” Mick Jagger told me last December, as he limbered up for its imminent re-release, this time augmented with additional outtakes and four recently discovered tunes from the same period.

“Because we’d been very tight and focussed before that, and very tight tight and focussed after that. Maybe it was a bit like Their Satanic Majesties Request, only better – you know what I mean. I don’t think we repeated it.

“It’s a very mixed bag of musical styles; it doesn’t include any pop music,– there’s almost no pop in it. There are no pretty tunes as such. There’s no great ballad on it – in fact, there are almost no ballads. There’s ‘Shine A Light’, but that’s a gospel song really. But there’s everything else, there’s a bit of blues, straight covers, kind of hard rock… But it’s a kind of exhibition of styles.

“It’s also sprawling and quite long. You could almost go into it and find something you don’t know, which is always interesting in a piece. Also, it doesn’t have any unity of time and place.. In other words it’s not a concentrated two-month period. If you make a record over a concentrated two-month period, you’ll somehow encapsulate what you felt. Whereas if you record something over a three-year period, you’re not – but you’re going to get something else.”

It’s precisely that “something else” that seals Exile On Main St’s reputation as the Rolling Stones “Exactly!” album – outlandish yet incontrovertible. Coming after a brace of stellar albums, 1969’s Let It Bleed and the hugely successful Sticky Fingers, the sheer heft of 1972’s Exile should speak of a band at the peak of their powers, certainly willing to dispense with anything that might constrain its lazily uncoiling atmosphere. And yet, for all the chart success then being enjoyed by Sticky Fingers, Exile’s recording, started at the now sadly defunct Olympic Studios in Barnes and continuing at Jagger’s country home, Stargroves, near Newbury, Berkshire, coincided with what in retrospect looks like one of the more fragile moments in the Stones’ often precarious career.

According to the late Charlie Gillet, author of the definitive account of the birth of rock, The Sound of The City, the Stones found their sound in 1965 at Hollywood’s RCA studios, where they recorded “(Can’t Get No) Satisfaction”, and “at last found a way to express on record the threat and derision which they put across in person”. Such was their transatlantic appeal, the band went on to become the second-highest earning British band after the Beatles. And if, he says, “They carved a niche and sat tight in it,” so what? No one else has ever been allowed in.

But for all their success, by the dawn of the seventies the Stones were facing a number of serious problems. These had begun early on 3 July 1969, when, less a month after being given his marching orders by the band, co-founder and former musical lynchpin Brian Jones was found dead in his swimming pool in circumstances that some still maintain point to foul play.

Two days later, as planned, the Stones debuted Jones’ replacement, Mick Taylor at a free concert in Hyde Park, after which they departed for a fractious American tour that culminated in a disastrous free concert held at the Altamont Speedway in northern California, on 6 December 1969. Here, the band’s security, the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels, meted out violence of such unstinting ferocity that an audience member Meredith Hunter, lost his life.

As claim and counterclaim flew (all however, now agree it was officially “the end of the Sixties”), the band retreated back to London, only to discover that between their manager, Allen Klein, and record company, Decca, the Stones finances were a shambles. Richards later calculated they’d lost around £20m of their Sixties earnings, a decade during which, the guitarist claimed, the band had enjoyed just ten days of free time between 1962 and 1966.

With the help of a jet-set society friend of Jagger’s, Prince Rupert Löwenstein, they’d extricated themselves from their contract with Klein and negotiated their own record deal with Atlantic Records (named, with characteristic immodesty, Rolling Stones Records), only to run into another problem after it became clear that none of them had the wherewithal to pay their taxes, then levied at 97 per cent in the pound for the country’s highest earners. Löwenstein announced the whole band (and thus, for practical purposes, the relatively penurious Mick Taylor) would have to decamp to France.

Today, even Jagger is a little hazy on why, in the middle of all this drama, the band decided to embark on the marathon recording sessions for Exile. “I’ve no idea why we went back into the studio so quickly.” he says. “I’ve no idea why we didn’t go on tour. I think it was because Keith had so many drug busts that he couldn’t get a visa – that was one of the problems. So we couldn’t go to America. So there was a tremendous amount of pressure. Then we had to leave England, which had been our home, where we had this way of working, and then we made this decision which was  sort of foisted on us because we were painted into a corner – to go to the south of France. And it was kind of destabilising.”

“It was a very difficult thing to swallow at the time.” drummer Charlie Watts confirmed to me last year. “Imagine someone saying you’ve got to sell your house in the country – which is the only asset you’ve got – and go and live a foreign country. But it was all done and dusted in six months; we had no alternative.”

After a “farewell” UK tour, an occasion Jagger remembers as “rather sad” on John Battsek’s Stones In Exile, a documentary released to tie-in with the re-release on 17 May, the Stones relocated to the French Riviera in April 1971. It was here, at Nellcôte, a neo-Palladian villa near Villefranche-sur-Mer long rumoured  to have been the headquarters of the Gestapo during WWII, that Richards’ heroin use went into overdrive, partly, it’s said, in reaction to his model-turned-actress girlfriend Anita Pallenberg’s on-set affair with Jagger during their filming together on Nic Roeg and Donald Cammell’s rock’n’roll gangster film, Performance.

With the band now scattered variously between Nice (bass player Bill Wyman), Cap D’Antibes (Charlie, when he wasn’t at his home six hours away) and the Provençal interior (when he was), and a freshly married jagger jetting between a house in Biot and Paris, where his wife, Bianca, was expecting their first child, jade, it fell to Nellcôte to play the most crucial – for the “Exactly!” game anyway – role in the making of Exile.

Robert Greenfield’s book on the subject, subtitled A Season in Hell With The Rolling Stones, and built from articles he prepared for Rolling Stone after spending ten days at Nellcôte, paints a vivid picture of the protracted recording process undertaken there. It was a job made infinitely harder by the amount of both drugs and hangers-on the villa attracted. Anita, Keith’s girlfriend, the only French speaker and with a growing addiction of her own, ran the household. She hired a chef, Fat Jaques, who prepared the endless lunches that preceded  the nightly sessions – long, languorous, fashion-plate moments perfectly captured in Dominique Tarle’s black-and-white pictures. “It was like a tribe,” says the photographer, who arrived at Nellcôte for a photo session and stayed the entire time. “Everyone had their families there. And the tribe got bigger and bigger.”

But “below stairs”, the conditions in which the Stones’ long-serving producer, Jimmy Miller, was expected to work were less favourable. The Rolling Stones Mobile Studio, a Bedford truck containing the recording equipment the band had used at Stargroves, was drive down to the Côte d’Azur, only to prove both a porr match for the area’s electricity supply and the long, hot Provençal summer then under way. To compound the problem, musicians were spread throughout Nellcôte’s warren-like basement, unable to communicate with the truck outside, forcing the young Andy Johns (younger brother of Beatles engineer Glyn Johns and credited as engineer on the album) to race to and fro to communicate the producers wishes.

“That Nellcôte thing was very, very difficult” remembers Jagger. “The house looks great, but I can assure you the basement did not look very good. Things were getting done, but they were very disorganised… We should’ve recorded in the drawing room, which is what we did in my house in England before, but we didn’t. We were very impatient and we ended up in Keith’s basement, and the basement was crummy in every possible way. But it wasn’t the ideal recording environment. It was very hard to record there. Probably the sound in there was adequate, but there were power problems, which made it very difficult. And we took ages and ages and ages to get it to work. And then of course, you had all these hangers-on. We did get stuff done, but it was pretty chaotic. But we made it more difficult for ourselves by making it a double album, I think. That just doubled our workload.”

Everyone, meanwhile, was at the mercy of the head of the household’s erratic timetable, as likely to be interrupted by a lull in his all-importnat supply chain (being organised by some local toughs knowns as Le Cowboys), as it was the bedtime of Marlon, his infant son with Anita. “It was very druggy, so it was totally unstructured,” says Watts. “We went on to Keith time. When he woke up we’d go and record something, and if he was awake for 15 hours we’d play for 15 hours.”

“It affected us up to a point,” concedes Jagger of Richards’ control over recording at Nellcôte. “But the thing is, if you look at Exile, there are a lot of musicians [on it]. You’ve got two piano players; you’ve got two horns players; Jimmy Miller playing drums sometimes. Mick Taylor playing bass if Bill wasn’t there – you’ve got all kinds of combinations going on. So it doesn’t really matter if Keith wasn’t there.”

Eventually, after a walk-in robbery during which eleven of Keith’s guitars were stolen, a series of increasingly serious bust-ups with the local police (including an unproven allegation made by staff that their children had been supplied with drugs) and a sense that the whole process might be jeopardised if a halt wasn’t called, the Nellcôte sessions were wound up at the end of the summer. “It was like, ‘Anything goes – we need to get this done,'” remembers Jagger in Stones In Exile, a feeling evidently shared by Richards, who says simply: “We drained it.”

On 1 November, the Stones left the south of France bound for LA, where they habitually congregated to put the finishing touches to their albums. At Hollywood’s Sunset Sound Factory studios the Stones did more recording, added overdubs and Jagger’s vocals. And, after a foray into LA’s book stores turned up a copy of his celebrated The Americans, the legendary Swiss-born photographer Robert Frank was approached to produce the art work for Exile’s gatefold sleeve.

“Charlie was very keen on Robert Frank,” says Jagger. “And when we asked him what his ideas were, it seemed a very easy thing for us to do. We knew it was going to be a gatefold cover and he had an instant idea for using collages and found material that we liked. So that was pretty cool. But it’s always good to work with people of a different kind of vision from the run-of-the-mill. It’s hard to do, because it’s very hard working with artists – often their ideas are totally impractical. But Robert’s idea for Exile was a good one. He’d obviously seen a record cover before.

By the time Exile On Main St was released, on 12 May, 1972, rehearsals for the upcoming tour were underway in Montreux, Switzerland to facilitate the first of a decade’s worth of largely fruitless drug cures Keith and Anita were enrolled in nearby. Just as jagger had taken control of the band in the aftermath of Altamont, so he did so again, making tour arrangements and instigating a new, markedly more professional approach to performing. According to the American promoter Bill Graham, “The biggest difference between 1969 and 1972 in terms of the Stones was Mick Jagger’s ability to control an audience. [After Altamont] he was a marked man. He was always on and in the spotlights. He drew a very physical audience. All it would have taken was one maniac. Yet Jagger performed performed with a kind of looseness without ever giving up control. He knew just how far toward the edge of the stage he could go. He knew just how to throw those rose petals into the house each night.” Graham also noted that, after discussions with Jagger, the Stones even did encores for the first time.

And so the legend began: Jagger became the self-appointed owner of the good ship Stones, with Richards its increasingly gnarled captain, dictating course, obviously, but ultimately speed as well. It was to be clearly felt on the next three albums – Goats Head Soup, It’s Only Rock’n’Roll and Black and Blue together enshrined that period’s mood of dissolution. It didn’t help that Jimmy Miller, who had served as producer on all three of their truly titanic records, jumped ship after the miasmic sessions of Goats Head Soup in Jamaica,  followed by Andy Johns, by then similarly wrecked. Without them, the next two Stones records seemed increasingly lacklustre, until finally the band re-convened once more – this time in Paris – for the sessions that would become Some Girls.

By then, Mick Taylor, another casualty of the Stones touring party, had gone, to be replaced by Ronnie Wood, and the legendarily dissolute saxophonist Bobby Keys had been unceremoniously discarded after breaking the cardinal rule concerning rock’n’roll behaviour: the ability to turn up, whatever the distractions. But Jagger, enthused by a new musical brush fire then sweeping the airwaves, had a more stripped-down model in mind, anyway. Of course, Some Girls isn’ta disco album for the same reason “Shattered” doesn’t make it a punk record. But, whatever the album’s genesis, by the time it was released in 1978, a fresh musical wave had struck – arguably the first since British beat boys took on the blues and won –and the Stones have been fighting a rearguard action ever since.

But that they are even able to do so, let alone that there should remain an audience to see and hear them succeed (and only a sourpuss or a scold would sugest that on their night, they don’t) is down to Jagger – too often portrayed as the businessman in the enterprise, but in reality the single most successful performer in rock history, a man who’s kept their world spinning for nearly five decades even when the closest to him have conspired against him. Or as that seasoned Stones watcher Nick Kent puts it in his published memoir, Apathy For The Devil: “Without his relentless input, the group would have petered out after the recording of Let It Bleed. And yet somehow he always ends up the villain whenever the Stones saga gets recounted – the control freak, the cold fish, the cunning, heartless, greedhead. It’s become on big fairy story – the Rolling Stones as perceived by the world’s media – with Jagger as the resident evil goblin.”

And if that sounds like another round of the “Exactly!” game –Who’s the coolest Stones? – then so be it.

More from GQ Magazine and Bill Prince can be read here.