A Rolling Stones Summer In Villa Nellcôte
Updated: Sep 26, 2023
Commissioned in 1854 by a businessman named Eugene Thomas, in 1971 Villa Nellcôte, in Villefranche-sur-Mer on the Côte D'Azur was the temporary residence of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, his partner Anita Pallenberg and their son, Marlon. Upstairs, a beautiful entourage socialised, often illicitly. In Nellcôte's many-roomed basement, the Rolling Stones recorded material for what became their most storied album.
"It's got a raw sound quality, and the reason for that is that the basement was very dingy and very damp," says Mick Taylor, Stones lead guitarist for the five years between 1969 and 1974. "The roof leaked and there were power failures. We had to deal with all that, and go with the flow."
The flow to which Taylor refers was the fragrant drifting in and out of some of the era's most interesting characters. Musicians like Bobby Keys, the sax player who taught Keith Richards the pleasures of throwing furniture out of windows. Drug dealers like Tommy Weber, who arrived with his children, and a plentiful supply of cocaine. Glamorous friends like Stash Klossowski, son of the painter Balthus. There were record execs, family members, groupies, wasters and journalists.
"People appeared, disappeared, no one had a last name, you didn't know who anybody was," remembers Robert Greenfield, who was at Nellcôte to interview Keith Richards for Rolling Stone. "There were 16 people for lunch, and lunch went on for three-and-a-half hours. It was an unparalleled cast of characters."
For all the relaxed atmosphere at Nellcôte, it was, however, pragmatic business practice that had taken the Stones to the south of France. With the disaster of the 1969 Altamont free concert behind them, the band had spent the previous 18 months putting their affairs in order. They had started their own record label, and were about to release the classic Sticky Fingers album. They were planning a massive US tour for 1972. They were musicians, and major celebrities, but if they stayed in the UK, they would have to pay 93% income tax.
The band's financial advisor, Prince Rupert Lowenstein, came up with an ingenious solution. After playing a short "farewell tour" in England, in April 1971, The Rolling Stones went into tax exile in France. At Keith's residence, they parked their new acquisition, a £65,000 mobile recording studio, and set, erratically, to work.
"It was an impressive house," remembers Andy Johns, who engineered and mixed Exile. "Somewhat baroque. The heating vents on the floor were gold swastikas. Keith told me that it had been a Gestapo headquarters in the war. But he told me, 'It's OK. We're here now.'"
While the Stones soaked up the hospitality, producer Jimmy Miller and Andy Johns waited in the van for inspiration to strike the band. As Keith's recreation continued, it was clear they would be waiting a long time. "Keith's euphemism was, 'I'm going to put Marlon to bed now …'" remembers Johns. "Nobody really went upstairs. I remember being at the bottom of the stairs once with Mick Jagger and Jimmy Miller, and we wanted Keith. I said to Mick, 'It's a band thing, why don't you go and get him?' He said, 'I'm not going up there …'"
"There was a friction at that time," says Marshall Chess, who ran the Stones' own record label. "Mick didn't like Exile; it was being made in Keith's domain. And then there was the drug issue, which I was somewhat naive about. But I could see the effects."
"Keith was open about everything," says Robert Greenfield of his interview with Richards, "apart from the heroin." He remembers how he watched Mick Jagger wait in vain for Keith Richards to emerge so they could begin a songwriting session, then leave disappointed. Meanwhile, the friendship between Keith and another Nellcôte guest, singer-songwriter Gram Parsons, wasn't helping the band's productivity.
'If the kids wouldn't sleep, we'd take them out in a speedboat ride to Monte Carlo. We'd have cocktails, and the kids would fall asleep on the way'
"Keith invited us down," remembers Gretchen Carpenter, then married to Parsons. "Keith and Gram were two peas in a pod. They were best friends, exploring music. They were instantaneous friends, and instantaneous troublemakers." As time passed, it became clear that something was needed to help kickstart the writing and recording process. When it did arrive, it came not from the exotic south of France, but – bizarrely – from the south of London. For several years prior to 1971, the Stones had kept a rehearsal studio-cum-equipment store in Bermondsey. On a visit there in 1971, Trevor Churchill, then the European label manager for Rolling Stones Records, noticed a pile of tapes lurking in the corner of the room. "I thought, 'What the hell are they doing here?'" remembers Churchill. "So, I bounced them on to cassette, then took them to the south of France."
The tapes Churchill took to Nellcôte were a mixture of demos and incomplete tracks, with names – like Bent Green Needles and Good Time Woman – that even today sound unfamiliar. What they went on to become – respectively, the Exile classics Sweet Black Angel and Tumbling Dice – are rather better known. "That's how Exile turned into a double album," explains Churchill. "They got an extra half a million dollars. They were quite pleased with that."
While the band continued their intermittent recording, the days at Nellcôte passed in a slow, dazed enchantment. To pass the time, Andy Johns and horn player Jim Price set up a casino in their own villa. A guy lived on the front lawn, in a tepee. "There wasn't really any pattern, that wasn't the way they rolled," says Gretchen Carpenter. "If the kids wouldn't sleep, we'd take them out in a speedboat ride to Monte Carlo. We'd have cocktails, and the kids would fall asleep on the way. It was the most perfect summer, but everything seemed to go wrong after that."
There was a burglary, during which several guitars were stolen from the house. Producer Jimmy Miller began getting more involved in the heavy drug use among the musicians. Ultimately, there was a drugs bust, which precipitated the Stones' rapid departure for America in October, where they worked to make sense of the Nellcôte tapes, and, says Marshall Chess, "Mick took control". The deserted mansion, and the beautiful people who had temporarily resided there, meanwhile, were left to take their place in rock legend.
"Sometimes turmoil and trouble in art make it come out good," says Marshall Chess. "Toulouse-Lautrec drank absinthe. Great jazz musicians shot heroin. It made for a strange scene, but that colouration, that quality is there in Exile."