On May 18, the Rolling Stones' 1972 classic Exile on Main Street will be re-released in three editions: the remastered album, a version with bonus tracks and a superdeluxe set with vinyl, DVD and booklet (rumors of a super-duper-deluxe set complete with hypodermic and burnt spoon remain unconfirmed). Time has justified Exile's mythological standing as a masterpiece of murk, an über-bluesy collection of spooky grooves. Fans know of (and have mythologized) the band's infamous sessions at Nellcôte in the south of France. And while it's true that most of the album's basic tracks were recorded there, where the Stones had been taxed into self-exile, Exile was actually wrapped and mixed right here in Los Angeles.
After the French heat got hip to Nellcote's pharmaceutical follies, the Stones fled and arrived in L.A. on November 29, 1971. “L.A. added a whole dimension to Exile's mixing and assembly,” recalls Marshall Chess, who, as president of Rolling Stones Records, was privy to the inside. “The sunlight, the drive to work, the way the girls look. L.A.'s got a very strong set.”
Chess says Mick Jagger was in charge of sessions at Sunset Sound Recorders, still open for business today at the same spot: 6650 Sunset Boulevard, at Cherokee.
“We utilized Dr. John and Billy Preston for help. Dr. John got us backup singers. Billy brought that gospel sound to the vocals. They were crucial to the overall sound of the tracks. In some ways they might've been called part-writers. A lot of times it'd be stagnant and Billy Preston would put his shit on it and it would change the riff and texture.” Chess remembers “Happy,” “Casino Boogie,” “Ventilator Blues,” “Torn and Frayed” and “Loving Cup” getting extensive overhauls at Sunset Sound.
Former Beatles employee Chris O'Dell was personal assistant to the Stones at the time: “Keith [Richards] was going through his usual Keith stuff. They weren't organized in the studio. I remember many nights being there for hours. It felt like it didn't ever click. Maybe that's the way they recorded. I was used to the Beatles and how refined their sessions were.”
O'Dell leased homes for Jagger, Richards and Mick Taylor in Bel Air, while Bill Wyman and Charlie Watts usually stayed at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. “They were the toast of the town. They got invited to everything that happened,” O'Dell recalls. “Mick's a very social person. Always has been.” The boys partied with Papa John Phillips and Natalie Wood and visited Ike and Tina Turner's studio in Inglewood.
O'Dell's then-boyfriend, former Band road manager and Mean Streets producer Jonathan Taplin, recommended photographer Robert Frank for the album cover and sent Jagger a copy of Frank's heralded photo collection The Americans. Frank was flown in from New York and they all went down to L.A.'s Skid Row on pregentrified Main Street to shoot — hence the album's title.
“I just remember how easygoing it was, just walking down the street and people following us and everybody getting high,” says O'Dell. “The street people came out and went, 'Heeeyyy, are you Mick fucking Jagger?' He'd laugh and they'd follow us.” Frank used a Super-8 movie camera and the Stones stills on Exile's cover are frames from that film.
Chess says 1 a.m. business meetings with lawyers were not uncommon, and fondly recounts regular jaunts with Keith to Canter's on Fairfax for strawberry shortcake with real whipped cream. Both he and Keith bought Ferrari Dinos at Hollywood Sports Cars, a legendary dealership that's no longer in business. But there was a dark side too.
“After Altamont there were death threats from the Hell's Angels,” says Chess. “When we got to L.A., Mick and I bought pistols. I had a .38 hammerless Smith & Wesson. Mick was paranoid about the Angels.” But overall, Chess says, L.A. was a positive experience that put the icing on one of the great rock & roll albums of all time. “They were drawn to all things American. The Stones love American music and fit really well in L.A.”
Bringing it all back to 2010, it's the jones for new music on the bonus tracks that has Stones freaks scratching. Don Was, the Stones' producer since 1993, was brought in last year to mix and oversee overdubs for unfinished outtakes. He recounts his marching orders: “Keith sent me a fax sayin', 'You don't have to make it sound like Exile. It is Exile.'”
Was explains what he believes to be the key to Exile's off-kilter sound: “It reminded me of what Miles [Davis] was doin'. There's this apparent looseness to it, but it's holdin' together. The thing that makes [the Stones] great is that they all feel the beat in a little different place. If you listen to the tracks individually, you go, 'This is a mess.' When you put it all together, it creates this looseness, but it still grooves. There's a centrifugal force that holds the band together. With Exile, they pushed the centrifugal force as far out as you can and still have the center hold.”