The Rolling Stones: The Main Attraction
The “great pressure” he refers to came from Britain’s graduated tax laws, which required big earners like the Stones to pay some 90 percent of their income. That, combined with the band’s frequent drug busts and harassment from the police, forced them out of England. But the early Seventies were a time of heavy change for the Stones in many regards. They’d moved away from their manager, the notoriously belligerent Allen Klein, and launched their own label, Rolling Stones Records. Mick Jagger married Nicaraguan beauty Bianca Pérez Morena de Macias and settled down to a life of quiet domesticity in France, with the other Stones living nearby.
Richards had been together with Anita Pallenberg since 1969, after he’d won the striking blonde German/Italian fashion model away from Brian Jones. But, unlike Mick and Bianca, Keith and Anita had never felt the need to sanctify their union via anything as bourgeois as marriage. Their son, Marlon, was about a year and a half when they settled into Villa Nellcôte, a grand maison with stately neoclassical columns, capacious salons and a killer view of the Bay of Villefranche. Built in 1899, Nellcôte had been inhabited by a succession of financiers and diplomats before it became the domicile of Keith Richards and his bizarre ménage. “Anita and I went looking at a couple of places, but Nellcôte kind of chose us immediately,” he says. “It was just an incredible joint. It was like a mini Versailles, and it didn’t cost a lot.”
While the other Stones lived fairly quiet lives at home, Nellcôte quickly became Party Central, with an endless stream of friends, friends of friends, drug dealers, celebrities and gangsters passing through the villa’s grand portals. Guitars, amps, records, stereo gear, empty bottles, books, discarded foodstuffs and assorted pets were soon all over the floor and furnishings beneath Nellcôte’s magnificent crystal chandeliers. Richards says that Marlon, now in his early Forties, has no memories of the place. “He was too young, probably around two years old,” the guitarist says. “He was running around bare-assed. Although he probably remembers the smell.”
Nellcôte’s basement became the Stones’ recording studio by default. The original plan was to find a commercial facility nearby. “We figured there’s gotta be some decent studios in Cannes or Nice or somewhere around there, even if it was Marseilles,” Richards says. “But we checked them all out, and it was pathetic. This was 1971. No doubt they’ve got great joints there now, but then, no. It was, like, forget about it. So then it became, ‘Let’s rent a house and see if we can do it there.’ Which is where the idea of bringing our mobile truck came in.”
That would be the Rolling Stones Mobile Studio. Though mobile recording facilities are now commonplace, they were in their infancy in the early Seventies. The innovative Stones had put their own recording truck together, in 1968, though initially it was more as an income source than for their own use. The unit had been loaned out to Led Zeppelin for their third and fourth albums, and the Stones had used it when recording tracks for Sticky Fingers at Jagger’s home, Stargroves. It had also been used for “location recordings for TV and the BBC, and stuff like that,” Richards explains. “But suddenly we realized, We got a truck, man—a mobile control room. But then we couldn’t find a house to record in. So we ended up using my basement.”
Below Nellcôte’s ground floor lay three levels of basement, subdivided into chambers of various sizes and shapes. Together with pianist/road manager/de facto sixth Stone Ian Stewart, Richards set about hanging microphones and carpets to control acoustic reflections. Home recording was virtually unheard of in 1971. The equipment was bulky and expensive and, thus, strictly the province of rock royalty like the Beatles and Stones. People didn’t really know much about recording in spaces that weren’t acoustically designed for that purpose. The Stones were moving into uncharted territory when they ventured below stairs at Nellcôte.
“There were all these little subdivisions in the basement, almost like booths,” Richards recalls. “So what would happen was that, for a certain sound, we’d schlep an amp from one space to another until we found one that had the right sound. Sometimes the guitar cord wasn’t long enough! That was in the beginning, anyway. But once we started to work there, my little cubicle became my cubicle, and we didn’t change places much.
“But at first, it was just a matter of exploring this enormous basement, saying, ‘What other sound is hiding ’round the corner?’ ’Cause you’d have weird echoes going on. Sometimes we wouldn’t be able to see each other even, which is very rare for us. We usually like to eyeball one another when we’re recording.”
Summer came to the French Riviera as sessions got underway. The basement was very hot and humid, and keeping guitars in tune was sometimes a challenge. The environment no doubt inspired the album’s working title: “Tropical Disease.” But it’s the dust that Keef recalls most vividly.