The Forgotten L.A. History of The Rolling Stones' Exile on Main St.
Exile on Main St. billboard on Sunset Boulevard, designed by John Van Hamersveld, based on photos by Robert Frank
Courtesy John Van Hamersveld
Wearing mirrored shades, red shirt and leather jacket while puffing a joint and standing inside a Bel-Air Spanish revival home, Keith Richards put his hands together to form a folded shape. “We can make some postcards,” he said. Then he fell to the floor, zonked.
Richards, Mick Jagger, Rolling Stones Records head Marshall Chess, packaging designer John Van Hamersveld and photographer Norman Seeff had been trying to figure out what to do with images Seeff had shot of Rolling Stones singer Jagger and guitarists Richards and Mick Taylor gussied up in fedoras and jackets, on a confetti-doused set with a ship in the background. Postcards, using Seeff's photos as Richards suggested, became an integral part of the Rolling Stones’ double-LP 1972 masterwork, Exile on Main St.
The making of Exile on Main St. is one of rock’s most infamous storylines: the Stones, tax-dodging expats in the South of France, recording in Keith Richards’ rented mansion’s basement, surrounded by girlfriends, groupies, drug dealers, glamorous friends and dangerous hangers-on as the band recorded what many consider to be the best rock & roll album ever created.
All of which definitely happened. But Los Angeles also played a major part in Exile's creation, on multiple levels. Musically, the Stones and producer Jimmy Miller finished up the album at Hollywood’s Sunset Sound, doing vocals, overdubs and mixing. Exile’s iconic and often-imitated collage-style packaging was designed by Van Hamersveld inside the white walls of his second-floor space at Chapman Park Studio in Koreatown, on Sixth Street and Alexandria Avenue. And while the album's front cover featured the infamous “freak show” images Robert Frank had shot for his late-’50s photography book The Americans, the back-cover photos of the Stones were taken by Frank on Main Street in downtown Los Angeles.
In fact, Van Hamersveld says now, before those back-cover photos, “The album was just Exile.” After the photos, and Los Angeles, the album became Exile on Main St.
Venetta Fields got the phone call to come do Exile backing vocal sessions at Sunset Sound around midnight one evening in November 1971. She got the call after another singer had passed on the session because it was starting so late.
Fields had recently seen a suede patchwork coat she fancied in a local shop. “The coat kept being on sale, and I was going to Vegas to work with Nancy Sinatra, so that’s why I wanted the coat,” Fields says, via phone from her home in Bendigo, Australia, about 150 miles northwest of Melbourne. “The Stones were a cash gig. So I had the cash to go get the coat.” Looking back now, she thinks she was paid around $500 for her three hours or so of Exile studio work.
Along with Clydie King and Sherlie Matthews, Fields contributed sanctified backing vocals on four tracks, she says: "Shine a Light,” "I Just Want to See His Face,” "Let It Loose" and the hit “Tumbling Dice,” which became a signature Stones tune. “It was just another session, another day at the office,” Fields says. “I didn’t really care for the Stones musically, that wasn’t my type of music.” Born in Buffalo and later an L.A. resident for almost 20 years, Fields’ singing influences include Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald and Barbra Streisand.
Fields drove from her Malibu condo to the Stones session in her green Corvette. When she arrived, Jagger was the only Stone who stayed following their own overdubs. “I knew who Mick Jagger was but it didn’t faze me,” says Fields, who was in her early 30s when she worked on Exile, and had already worked with stars like Ray Charles, Streisand and Ike and Tina Turner.
Inside Sunset Sound’s Studio 1, the farthest studio from the facility’s Sunset Boulevard frontage, King, Matthews and Fields grouped around a microphone in their normal formation, with Fields in the middle. “I always sang the high parts, Clyde sang the middle parts and Sherlie sang the bottom parts. Mick told us what he wanted but basically he let us do what we did.” Was that adding an authentic gospel vibe to the tracks? “It was more than that,” she says. “It was black soul. We wondered about the English, why they wanted us, but they wanted blackness on the vocals.”
There in Studio 1, a narrow, 800-square-foot space, Fields, King and Matthews delivered and then some. Forty-five years after Exile’s May 12, 1972, release, their gospel-infused backing vocals are among the album's most endearing sonic qualities.
Fields took her Stones cash and bought that patchwork coat — and went on to a career so storied, including touring and studio work with Pink Floyd, Steely Dan and Leonard Cohen, that at one point she literally forgot all about her Stones connection. “When I was with Humble Pie, Steve [Marriott, the group’s frontman] and I had an argument,” Fields says. “He told me that I sang on Exile on Main St. and I told him that I didn’t. Because I didn’t regard it then. It was just another session that turned out to be historical. I had no idea. But I’m very proud to be a part of Exile on Main St.”
The Rolling Stones work on Exile on Main St. at Sunset Sound, with a reflection of the Exile billboard on Sunset Boulevard visible in the foreground window.
Courtesy John Van Hamersveld
Al Perkins recorded his lovely, lyrical pedal-steel parts for countryfied Exile track “Torn and Frayed” at Sunset Sound, too. Then a member of The Flying Burrito Brothers, Perkins had recently acquired a used ZB Custom double-neck from Tom Brumley, Ricky Nelson’s steel player, before his December 1971 Exile session. Perkins had been woodshedding on his new instrument at his Aqua Vista Street apartment in Studio City, preparing to tour with Manassas, Stephen Stills' new band.
Called to the nighttime Exile session, Perkins parked his Pontiac LeMans in the parking lot behind Sunset Sound and took his steel out of the trunk. Inside Studio 1’s control room, he set up at the right end of the facility’s custom Bob Bushnell–built console. Perkins didn’t use an amp on the session, instead going through a tube limiter, then directly into the console — which is surprising, as his “Torn and Frayed” tone is so rich and warm.
“They wanted me to feel as if I was playing live with them,” Perkins says by phone from the Nashville area, where he now resides. “When they started running it down, I asked for a vocal and they said, ‘Well, we don’t have a vocal right now, so Mick’s going to sing a vocal.’ They gave Mick a hand mic and he literally sang the song each time I did a pass. We didn’t do that many, I think maybe about three passes, and he would do all his stage routine right there in the studio. And here I was trying to concentrate on a brand-new guitar. [To] have him dancing around was a little unusual, to say the least.”
Since he’d only had the ZB Custom steel for about three weeks, Perkins was “fighting it a little” and “kind of playing it safe.” He laughs as he remembers, “They said, ‘You can play anything you want, you can stretch out.’ And I was thinking to myself, ‘I am stretching out' — trying to learn all the parts of that new steel guitar."
Producer Miller and recording engineer Andy Johns were at the other end of the console, as were Richards and his girlfriend, model-actress Anita Pallenberg. "It seemed to me like Keith and Anita had just come from a costume party of some kind,” Perkins says. “Keith was dressed in that swashbuckler, pirate kind of look and Anita was dressed in stretchy material for exercising, with yellow and black stripes around her body, and it was accentuated because she was expecting.”
As perfectly suited as Exile's packaging is to the shaggy music it contains, Van Hamersveld says he didn’t hear any Exile tracks until near the very end of his creative process, when Jagger played a tape for him and photographer Norman Seeff at Seeff’s office. “You have to realize that all of this is intuitive,” Van Hamersveld says via phone from his Palos Verdes home. “Each person brings something to it. I brought something to it. Robert Frank brought something. Norman brought something.”
Photo prints torn and pasted into a modular collage on a grid for the Exile on Main St. album packaging
Courtesy John Van Hamersveld
Van Hamersveld, who'd already made quite a name for himself designing the Endless Summer film poster and album covers for The Beatles' Magical Mystery Tour and Jefferson Airplane's Crown of Creation, got connected to the Stones via Chris O’Dell, Jagger's assistant, whom he had met years before when she worked at The Beatles' Apple Records. Van Hamersveld's job was to design Exile's packaging around its front-cover collage of “freaks” — actually a single photograph Robert Frank shot inside a tattoo parlor “somewhere on Route 66,” an outtake from The Americans chosen by Jagger.
The individual “freak show” photos, which date back to the 1920s, Van Hamersveld says, had been shot as previously arranged by a tattooist. “And then Robert Frank comes along with a camera, flips it up and takes a picture of it,” Van Hamersveld says. “Boom! And leaves. Having these freaks up on the wall while they’re tattooing people — it’s the bottom of the culture and Robert Frank is there taking a picture of it. That’s the beauty of it.”
Van Hamersveld cropped the front cover down from the original 11-by-17-inch Frank photo, then assembled the back cover and gatefold interior collages from Frank’s Stones photos. Though he’d already done a Beatles cover, following up the Stones' landmark Sticky Fingers cover, with its working jeans zipper conceived by Andy Warhol and designed by Craig Braun, was a thrill. “Warhol was a great influence in the ’60s because he showed how you could actually use technology,” Van Hamersveld says. (That said, his favorite Stones cover he didn’t work on is Tom Wilkes’ 1968 Beggars Banquet design.)
It was Jagger who hand-lettered Exile’s titles and credits, using pens and paper Van Hamersveld had sent him. “And then those pieces of paper I pasted down, with tape, so that’s how you get that rough look. It doesn’t come from a typographer — it comes from Mick Jagger, with a pen in his hand.”
Van Hamersveld played a recording of the Stones’ “Sympathy for the Devil” as he assembled the Exile design in his studio. He used the most basic of design tools: photostats, tape and glue. He says most of the eight days he spent working on the design were focused on concept development. The paste-up production model for the printer took about two days of work and now resides at Seattle’s Experience Music Project, he says.
The back and front cover gatefold of the original Exile on Main St. LP, designed by John Van Hamersveld, featuring photos by Norman Seeff and Robert Frank
Rolling Stones/Virgin Records
Van Hamersveld also designed the Sunset Strip billboard for Exile, using four Robert Frank “freak show” images depicting five figures, each signifying a specific member of the band, including “Three Ball Charlie” for drummer Charlie Watts. “So that was in a sense interpreting those five different personalities," he says, referring to Jagger, Richards, Watts, Taylor and bassist Bill Wyman.
So what was Jagger like to collaborate with on the Exile album packaging? “You’re dealing with a shy person: ‘I guess we’ll do that.’ What people don’t understand is it’s an extroverted act, a psychological person who comes out of this shy person and gets onstage and does this thing and then retracts into this shy person.” Van Hamersveld says that whenever he’d meet with Jagger, the singer “would have his dealer next to him. They always had dealers with them.” Van Hamersveld had previously gone through a hardcore drug phase himself, including heroin, but by the time he met with the Stones he was about two years clean, had cut his hippie hair short and was swimming laps every day at the Ambassador Hotel.
But even with a changed lifestyle, Van Hamersveld could summon the darkness Exile’s packaging called for. “It was very timely, that we could show how decadent rock & roll had become. So you send that out in front of all those people, the mirror of what their life is like. It was fantastic as a message.”
Van Hamersveld would go on to design other unforgettable album art, including Kiss’ Hotter Than Hell, Blondie’s Eat to the Beat and The Grateful Dead’s Skeletons From the Closet. While Van Hamersveld was working on packaging for Public Image Ltd.’s 1984 LP This Is What You Want ... This Is What You Get, singer John Lydon told him how much Exile’s packaging had an impact on punk rock.
Exile's iconic cover "is basically the punk movement in graphic work," says Van Hamersveld, his mind still X-Acto knife sharp at age 76. "It’s the start-out point.” Exile was seminal for the rip-and-tear graphic design look that's been used in a bazillion fanzines and Xeroxed, collaged show flyers since. As delighted as Van Hamersveld was to see the original Exile cover zooming through the press, “When it first came out, people hated it: ‘What the fuck have you done?’”
Al Perkins first heard the finished Exile on a cassette player through headphones, while flying aboard Manassas’ “loud plane,” a Fairchild F-27. “I thought, ‘Wow, this is a very varied album,’” Perkins says. Though Gram Parsons had already left The Flying Burrito Brothers by the time Perkins joined them, Perkins would later record pedal-steel on Parsons' highly influential solo albums, including “Streets of Baltimore” on the debut GP and all of posthumous sophomore disc Grievous Angel. Perkins believes the Parsons connection might be why he landed the Exile gig.
Parsons was famously present during the Stones' debauched stay at Nellcôte, Richards’ French Riviera rental at which much of Exile was recorded. (Initial recordings of some Exile songs had previously taken place at London's Olympic Studios and Jagger's English country manor, Stargroves, between 1969 and 1971.) Rock theorists have long hypothesized about Parsons' involvement on twangy Exile numbers like “Sweet Virginia,” but Don Was, the Stones’ latter-day producer who worked on bonus tracks for the album’s 2010 reissue, says he found “not a trace of Gram Parsons” while sifting through the original recordings.
“I was looking for that,” Was says with a laugh, from his office at the Capitol Records building. “Gram was at the house, but there’s nothing to indicate that he played on any of the songs or sang on anything.”
It’s intriguing how Exile, all 67-minutes-plus of it spread over two vinyl LPs, sounds so cohesive, since it started in a basement and finished in an elite Hollywood studio. (The many classic recordings made at Sunset Sound include the early Van Halen albums and parts of Purple Rain and Pet Sounds.) “The seamlessness comes from them,” Was says of the Stones. “If Exile proves anything, it’s that you can put Charlie Watts in a dank basement or the best recording studio on earth and he’s going to sound like Charlie Watts. And that’s because each one of those guys has such a distinctive musical persona that’s just larger than life. They’re giants.”
In addition to backing and lead vocals, other Exile recordings at Sunset Sound included guitar and bass overdubs and keyboard parts. Around 200 reels or so of 2-inch, 16-track tape from the Nellcôte Exile sessions were shipped back to the States for completion in L.A.
“I wasn’t there at the time,” Was says, “but from listening to the tapes of all these things, here’s what I can tell you: Even though the scene at Nellcôte had to be at least as extraordinary as we think it is, when they went downstairs, the party stayed upstairs. Despite what was going on upstairs, there’s the degree of professionalism downstairs. They were making a really good record.”
Exile and the mystique surrounding it so inspired Was as a young man that, upon hearing it in the early ’70s, he dropped out of the University of Michigan to pursue music. “To live the record,” Was says, “and make the record part of your lifestyle, that was kind of a new idea then, and it embodied the whole spirit of rebellion that was a cornerstone of rock & roll. If you’ve got to go off to the ends of the world to be yourself, do it.”
Producer Don Was worked on the 2010 reissue of Exile.
Outside of the Stones themselves, the number of people who can remember Exile's recording process firsthand is dwindling. Producer Jimmy Miller died in 1994, at age 52; engineer Andy Johns followed him in 2013 at 62. All of the Sunset Sound staff assistant engineers who worked on the album are dead, too — though Craig Hubler, the facility’s general manager since 1983, can confirm that the album was mixed in Sunset’s Studio 2 on a Sound Techniques console that also was used on Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”
Was believes Sunset Sound played a huge role in Exile’s final results. “If you like Exile, then you like Sunset Sound, because the album would’ve sounded different if it wouldn’t have come through that signal chain. I love that place.”
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Los Angeles, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.