Keith Richards: 'I'm probably more aligned to Lucifer and the dark side'

Stories surrounding The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St have become the stuff of rock legend. As the 1972 classic is reissued, Keith Richards separates fact from fiction with Pierre Perrone

When Keith Richards announced he was going to write his autobiography three years ago, most people didn't believe the Rolling Stones guitarist could remember enough to justify the $5m fee.

Yet, here he is telling me it will be published this October. "I'm waiting for some proofs to come back. It's kind of weird reading about your own life. Who'd be interested in that?" he laughs, sounding not unlike Jack Sparrow, as portrayed by his friend Johnny Depp in the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. "But then, I realise there is a lot of interest, so... Talking to some of the people that were there and their version of events to try and correlate it all was very interesting, a kind of kaleidoscopic bunch of experiences," he says. He's left his home in Weston, Connecticut, an hour's drive from New York, something he often does with his wife, Patti Hansen, to visit their two daughters. Now he's at the Mercer Hotel, a luxury establishment in New York. No one bats an eyelid when he lights up. The old devil.



Ostensibly, we're supposed to discuss the remastered, expanded version of the Stones' masterwork Exile on Main St, the album whose genesis in the basement of Nellcôte, the villa Richards rented in Villefranche-sur-Mer, on the French Riviera, in 1971, has become a cornerstone of the Keef legend. But he's as happy recalling the four years he used Switzerland as a base during the Seventies – "Switzerland was about the only country that would accept me at the time, so I'm always very grateful to the Swiss. I actually learned to ski, which was an amazing sight, believe me, to see Keith Richards ski!" – or enthusing about Jamaica, where the group recorded Goats Head Soup, the follow-up to Exile. "I have very strong roots in Jamaica. I love the joint, I love the people, even though they're crazy. Takes one to know one." Whatever the era, and the fact that he looks older than 66, as if every line on his face and every vein on his arms and hands could tell a story, his recollections are sharp and give the lie to doubters who say he has not been the same since April 2006, when he fell from a tree in Fiji and had to undergo surgery in New Zealand.



That accident added yet another chapter to the already hefty tome of Stones lore, one that Richards has contributed to over the last 45 years, blurring the line between truth and fiction for his own amusement as much as to help cover his tracks. "Someone asked me how I managed to clean up. I was sick of answering that question so I told him I went to Switzerland and had my blood changed. I was just fooling around. That's all it was, a joke."



Exile, the quintessential Stones album and favourite of hardcore fans, is so close to his heart, though, he won't tell fibs about it. So how did the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world end up on the Côte d'Azur in 1971? "The full weight of the British establishment came down on us. First they thought they could get us with the dope busts and it did not work," states Richards, referring to the police finding minute amounts of cannabis resin, Italian prescription pep pills in Mick Jagger's coat and Marianne Faithfull naked in a rug, at his Redlands property in Sussex in February 1967, and the subsequent trial and prison sentence (his conviction was overturned for lack of evidence). "Then they put the financial screws on us," he continues, hinting at the parlous state of the band's finances after a costly split from Allen Klein, their notorious American manager, and the punitive tax bracket their high incomes put them in.



"There was a feeling in the air that we'd reached a schism, a breaking point with certain people, Klein included. To keep the band going, we had to leave England. There was a lot of determination that we could do what we do anywhere. France was convenient," he explains. "We figured that either in Cannes, Nice or Marseilles, maybe we could find a studio that we liked. After that fell through, everyone looked at me. I thought: 'I know what they want, they want my basement.' That's how I ended up living on top of the factory."





The factory, or "old Nellcôte" as the guitarist fondly remembers it, "was a fantastic place upstairs. The basement was another story. It hadn't been used for years. It was ugly and dark and damp. It was funky, I'll give you that," he laughs. "I don't think we really bothered to clean it up much. We just kind of moved in. It was a great room to work. It was a little crazy, a bit of an experiment because we'd never recorded outside of a studio before."



They had used the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio to capture their farewell-to-the-UK dates in March 1971 and to cut demos at Stargroves, Jagger's country pile in Berkshire, but it really proved useful when parked on the French Riviera. "Having the truck made it possible. The thing actually worked," stresses Richards. "We were amazed. It was a lovely machine, for its time. You'd do a few takes, and then everybody would stamp up the stairs, get in the truck and have a listen. It was a pretty unique way of making a record. There was something about the rhythm section sound down there – maybe it was the concrete, or maybe the dirt – but it had a certain sound that you couldn't replicate. Believe me, lots of people have tried."



An infectious rhythmic swagger infused "Tumbling Dice", the lead-off single from Exile, and "Happy", Richards' signature song. "Sometimes, you come up with something you could play all night. 'Tumbling Dice' has got such a nice groove and a flow on it," he muses. "Living on top of the whole scene had its advantages. 'Happy' epitomised that. One afternoon, Jimmy Miller [the producer] was on drums and Bobby Keys on baritone sax, but that was about it. The guys didn't usually start work until after dark. I said: 'Look, I've got this idea. Can we just lay it down for later?' By the time the rest of the band arrived, I'd done a few overdubs and we had finished the track. I'd captured it before anybody else knew it existed. I play 'Happy' quite a lot. It's not usually my genre. I'm not known for happy and joyful stuff. I'm probably more aligned to Lucifer and the dark side. But it was a damn good afternoon and I still love it."



There was one flaw in the masterplan: the flow of visitors documented by the photographer Dominique Tarlé in the coffee-table book Exile: The Making of Exile on Main St – a favourite of Richards. "Ah, Dominique, great guy. We liked Dominique because he was the most invisible photographer. You never knew he was there, he melted in and became part of the band. I was amazed by the book. I didn't know he'd taken that many pictures. A lot of people that you didn't intend to be there, like Gram Parsons, ended up at Nellcôte, and stayed for a month. Gram is on Exile in spirit. The good die young."



Nevertheless, the guitarist is adamant that extra-curricular activities didn't deter the group from focusing on music. "Yes, you can call it a vibe, it was a thick one," he says with a smile. "Of course, there were drugs, but it didn't affect the work. We were making a record, we didn't have time!"



The months spent at Nellcôte have been described as hedonistic but he recalls comedy moments. "There was a chef, Big Jacques, who blew the kitchen up. There was a great explosion," he gesticulates. "We had a couple of local Villefranche boys working for us. Yes, they did hook us to the railway line a couple of times when the power went. The gendarmes were very reasonable in their Mediterranean way. Sometimes, they just wanted to come around and have a look. You stand outside the front gate with the sergeant. 'Monsieur, excusez-moi.' Usually, things would settle down and you'd say: 'Come in, have a cognac.' We did have a robbery and we got some of the guitars back. Justice prevailed. We'll leave it at that. The lady caretaker was great. How she put up with us all... The smile on her face all the time. I don't quite know what she was smiling at but she handled us very correctly. I have fond memories of playing and working there. There could be worse places to make a record."





Kicking off with the out-and-out rockers "Rocks Off" and "Rip This Joint", Exile also saw the Stones explore a more gospel-flavoured, soulful direction. "Yeah, strangely enough, once we were in the middle of France, we started to dig deep into American music. After all, basically, that's what we do," reflects Richards. "But we started to pull on different aspects of it, country music for instance, gospel. Maybe, because we weren't in America, we missed it."



In fact, even if Exile is presented as the album the Stones made on the lam, chunks of it had already been recorded at Olympic Studios, London, where they'd made three previous albums. Exile was completed at Sunset Sound in LA between November 1971 and February 1972. "In order to mix it and to do certain overdubs, we needed rather more sophisticated equipment than what we had in our truck. That was the reason we took it there: to polish it, give it a little touch of Hollywood. The great thing about LA, especially in those days, you could make a phone call at three in the morning and say: 'We need a couple of voices.' Within half an hour, there'd be a couple of chicks ready to go, still wearing their nightdresses," he adds with a glint in his eye. "It was like that. You'd have an idea and it would actually happen, which was kind of cool."



Exile is now seen as the high watermark in the band's canon, but it wasn't in 1972. "Maybe because it was a double album. We had to fight the record company about that. We insisted it was a double," recalls Richards about Atlantic, which distributed the recently launched Rolling Stones label around the world. "We knew that there was going to be a reaction to it, just because it was very different. There was no hit singles. It was an album by itself. There was a lot of determination in the band to step up to the plate and make an interesting record. They'd kicked us out of England. We were the exiles. That's why the album ended up being called Exile on Main St. We were very aware that we were suddenly out there, with our backs to the wall. We had to make it up as we went along. There was no script, nobody had done it before. We were reinventing the Stones as we went along. It was a miracle it happened, quite honestly. The Stones had this streak of what do you want to call it, luck, bonne chance.



"In a way, we were growing up along with the audience," says the guitarist. "The tracks we found in the vault are mostly as we left them 39 years ago. I can hear stuff and go: 'Oh, my God, did I actually play that?' Sometimes you just take off. The spirit, the feel of it, it's well worth putting it out, because it's the flavour of the era. I stroked an acoustic guitar here and there. Mick did new vocals for 'Plundered My Soul' and 'Following the River'. We had to draw the line somewhere. We decided that, if we were going to repackage and put Exile out as a box-set, then we should add some of the other stuff that we had left over. When you make records, these things sort of fold over. There's stuff from Sticky Fingers that went into Exile at one end and out of the other into Goats Head Soup. Nobody writes an album from track one to track 12 and says: 'that's it'. It's a continual process and hopefully it will continue."



Stones fans have been spoiled with the expanded Get Yer Ya-Ya's Out! and now Exile, but what's on the cards? "Nobody's going to make a decision about what we're going to do until we get further into 2010," says Richards. "No doubt the guys are going to want to talk about whether we're going to record and go on the road in one form or another. Maybe we're going to talk about doing it differently. There's going to be a lot of that. I would tell you if I knew."





'Exile on Main St' is reissued by Polydor on 17 May. The documentary 'Exile of the Stones' is on Radio 2 on 19 May at 10pm

Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Albert Hammond Junior of The Strokes performs at the Natural History Museum on July 6, 2006 in London, England.

music
Arts and Entertainment
Howard Mollison, as played by Michael Gambon
tv review
Arts and Entertainment
Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush in The King's Speech

The best TV shows and films coming to the service

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003