Hanging on to Côte tales: Behind the drug-fuelled scenes of the rolling Stones' dirtiest record

Nearly 40 years on, who better to tell the full down-and-dirty story behind 'Exile' than the man trusted to get it all on tape in the South of France?
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For many bands, the descent into drug-fuelled debauchery signals the beginning of swift creative decline. But for the Rolling Stones, the haze of the early 1970s arguably produced their finest work.

Nearly 40 years later, Exile on Main St – a gloriously louche and wilfully hedonistic double-album often cited as one of the greatest rock'n'roll albums of all time – is due to be reissued, complete with 10 previously unheard additional tracks. A BBC documentary will also air later this month, exploring the making of what is frequently considered the Stones' masterwork.

The story of Exile goes back to the summer of 1971, when, in order to avoid what they considered unreasonably hefty tax bills in Britain, the group decamped, in semi- voluntary "exile", to Villefranche-sur-Mer in the South of France. Keith Richards had rented the Villa Nellcôte, a palatial 19th- century seafront mansion complete with white marble sphinxes on either side of the 10ft-high wrought-iron gates and its own private Mediterranean beach.

During the course of the summer, Richards, his then long-standing amour Anita Pallenberg and their young son Marlon, together with the band – who were mostly also living at the villa – were joined by an assorted coterie of famous friends, producers, engineers and guest musicians. In among these were Gram Parsons and nefarious characters such as the infamous "Spanish Tony" and "racing driver" Tommy Weber, who managed to both impress and shock even some of the Stones camp by bringing a kilo of cocaine to the ' South of France strapped under the clothes of his two small sons.

Mick Jagger would later refer to the scene at the villa as "a bunch of drunks and junkies" and what seems most extraordinary is that anything got recorded at all.

Charged with the task of capturing the Stones' frequently erratic musical meanderings on tape was sound engineer Andy Johns, then a 20-year-old budding engineer and über Stones fan.

Johns had, however, never been your average fan. By the time he was 14, he was on first-name terms with the entire band, thanks to his older brother – the recording engineer Glyn Johns (most famous for engineering The Beatles' Let it Be sessions). The elder Johns had recorded the Stones' first studio demo tapes before they even had a record deal and soon thereafter shared a flat with original Stones keyboard player Ian Stewart.

Andy had quickly followed Glyn into the music industry, working as an assistant engineer to producer Jimmy Miller on sessions for the Stones' 1967 album Their Satanic Majesties Request as well as working with Traffic, Mott the Hoople, Blind Faith and Free. He would later go on to engineer Led Zeppelin IV.

By the time he was invited to the South of France to engineer the Exile on Main St sessions, Johns had been approved to join the High Court of the Stones' Riviera Camelot, but acoustically, he had his work cut out. While guitarist Richards, drummer Charlie Watts and guitarist Mick Taylor (recently drafted into the group to replace Brian Jones, who had drowned in his own swimming pool) played in a small, swelteringly hot room in the basement, bass player Bill Wyman was marooned under the stairs with guest keyboard player Nicky Hopkins wired up to a piano in another room.

With only two small windows high up at ground level and what Johns recalls as "a rather desultory, six-inch wide fan that revolved at around 20 revolutions per minute", the soaring Mediterranean temperatures meant that the basement became incredibly humid, sending guitars frequently out of tune and inspiring Jagger to write the aptly named and suitably swampy sounding, "Ventilator Blues".

Cables then fed out of the windows to the band's mobile recording truck, which was parked on the semi-circular gravel driveway, where Johns sat manning the controls, attempting to capture any stray musical pearls from the mayhem.

Aggravating the situation further was the lack of a clear direction, as although producer Jimmy Miller was technically still in charge, his relationship with the band was rapidly deteriorating. "They'd kind of stopped listening to him by then," remembers Johns. "He was being squeezed out. That's why it was a bit of a mess. Nobody was in control. Mick more or less saw himself as the producer, but in the end it was usually Keith's decisions."

From Johns' point of view, amid this atmosphere of barely organised ramshackle chaos, the acoustics were often the least of his problems. Richards, then famously in the throes of a grand-scale heroin habit, would frequently disappear for hours at a time, explaining euphemistically that he "had to put Marlon to bed", or he would simply nod out mid-session.

One evening at about three in the morning, Jagger returned from a trip to Paris and Johns and the band played him the base track they had recorded to the album's opening number, "Rocks Off". "That doesn't sound so bad," said Jagger, which, according to Johns was, "from him, a very high compliment".

Richards then appeared, asking to hear the track again himself. "I put it on and he went to sleep halfway through," remembers Johns. "I thought, 'Great, I can split,' so I jumped in the old Peugeot and drove back to Villa Scutiti [a small villa along the coast which Richards had rented for him]. As I walk in the front door, the phone's ringing and ringing. I knew who it was. It could only be one person. 'Where the fuck are you?' says Keith. I said, 'Well, you went to sleep Keith and I thought, it's 3.30.' 'No, no, no – I've got this great idea for a guitar part. You've got to come back.'

"So I get in the car again, drive for another 40 minutes, and he played this spectacular counter-rhythm part on another Telecaster. If you listen to it you'll notice there's an interplay between the left and right side with the rhythm guitars, which I guess Keith and Brian [Jones] had taught themselves how to make two guitars sound like one. It was just a wonderful thing; I'm so glad he called, because it turned out perfectly."

Also visiting the villa was Richards' friend, the some-time Byrds member and country-rock musician Gram Parsons, with whom he had discovered a shared enjoyment of Nashville and needles. While Parsons' wife Gretchen lolled on a mattress on the terrace playing canasta with Jagger, Parsons attempted to lay down some guest backing vocals on "Loving Cup" in the basement kitchen.

"Gram had a great voice," remembers Johns, "but he was, shall we say, somewhat inebriated and he was shouting into the mic, 'I can't hear anything man, I just can't hear a goddamn thing.' So I scramble out of the truck, go downstairs, run down the corridor into the kitchen and he's got a foot pedal from a Fender Twin [amp] reverb up against his ear – not earphones, a foot pedal. I said, 'Gram, these are not earphones, it's a foot pedal, no wonder you can't bloody hear anything!' 'Oh surry man! Hey Jeez, I can hear now!'"

At other times, the villa's past as a Nazi headquarters during the Second World War – complete with gold-plated swastikas on the heating vents in the basement's blue marble floor – seemed to contribute to the sessions' already muddied atmosphere. "I was sitting downstairs in the basement where they used to torture people into insanity," remembers Johns, "and there was a residue of that entropy and that vibe with lights going on and off and fires breaking out. First there was one in Keith and Anita's bedroom and then another in the kitchen. But this being the Rolling Stones, they could handle it."

In amid the blur of the recording sessions, there were, however, also moments

of relative normality during the day. Johns would often play cards or look through Asterix books with two-year-old Marlon Richards, while at lunchtimes the villa's Cordon Bleu chef would prepare lavish displays of fruits de mer – lobster, caviar and salmon served alongside salads and what Johns remembers as "tomatoes which looked like roses", all laid out on the lawn under an awning – until Richards eventually got fed up of haute cuisine and demanded a cheeseburger. The chef promptly packed his bags and left.

A few months later, after a visit from the local gendarmerie suggested that a mass drug arrest of Richards and crew was not far off, the band left the South of France themselves. Final additional vocals were recorded when the album was remixed in Los Angeles, but the band's sojourn had left its mark.

Somehow, the indolent Côte d'Azur lifestyle and the Stones' own ineffable survival instincts seemed to override the bleaker aspects of their stay to produce the album's singularly heady mix of rock'n'roll drive and sensual abandon.

The album's strength also lies in the unmistakably narcotic fug still audible in the album's grooves. For the now 59-year-old Johns, who has lived in LA for the past decade, rather than proving a hindrance, this hypnotic drive "carries you along and there's no escape. It's fantastic. You're in for the ride and you're not gonna get off the merry-go-round until it finishes."

'Exile on Main St' is reissued on 17 May with 10 previously unreleased tracks by Universal Music Group. 'Stones in Exile' airs on BBC2 on 23 May as part of its 'Imagine' series

My personal 'Exile' by Nick Coleman

Those who bought Exile on Main St in 1975 knew they were getting into something. It was nearly three years old by then and the process of revision was only just beginning that would transform its critical reputation from "impenetrable crap" in the year of its release (1972) to "the greatest rock'n'roll record ever made" (any year you care to name since the end of the 1970s). I bought it in early 1975 as a 14-year-old because Nick Kent had written about it in NME in such a way that I was convinced it would unlock the secrets of the universe. Well, the hipniverse.

What did I get?

Four sides of American music. Four sides of American music played by an English band with total disregard for the conventional procedures of influence. Exile was not an homage, nor was it, quite clearly, pastiche. It certainly wasn't a riposte, nor a parody, nor even a doglike faithful copy of the blues/ gospel/rock/soul/ country music that had done so much to throw new shapes into the British cultural landscape in the 1960s. It was something else altogether. It sounded to me like the best American music ever played by white men, English or not. But then what did I know? I was 14.

After all, it isn't even the "best" Stones album. Not objectively. That honour goes to Let it Bleed, which has more well-written songs on it and is much better produced. Ugly old Exile is a long way from being their most attractive effort either: Sticky Fingers was the sexy, sophisticated, lordly one that girls liked. And Beggars Banquet had its advocates. But Exile had something else. Something to do with its unreadability and its temperature.

It has a strange sound: opaque, concrete, grey. Brittle but murky. Indeed, so murky is its sound and so unclear its motives, starting with the emetic groans which launch "Rocks Off", that you never really get to grips with anything textual at all, apart from "Plug in, flush out and fight and fuck and feed" – which, when you boil it down, is all the thematic material Exile ever bothers to express. Exile doesn't need themes. It has rhythm. Rhythm as text and subtext. Rhythm as weather. "Tumbling Dice" is an entire summer's worth of sweltering, concentrated in four minutes of sweaty push and pull.

There are those, Mick Jagger included, who will try to tell you that the record's reputation was built on the legend of its manufacture; that what everyone gets excited about is the story behind the album. But they're wrong. It's the music. The sound. The playing. The feel. It is the most exciting music ever made by Englishmen.