In the Rolling Stones documentary film, Stones In Exile, Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts visit numerous locations central to the making of their 1972 album Exile On Main St. They visit Stargroves, the former home of Mick Jagger, where several sessions were recorded. The pair walks through London’s Olympic Studios, where a wealth of the band’s late-60s and early-70s sessions took place. They go to Sunset Sound studios in Los Angeles, where Exile’s tapes were mixed and mastered.
However, the one venue they don’t visit is arguably the most notorious in the album’s history. Commissioned in 1854 by a former banker named Eugene Thomas, Villa Nellcôte, in Villefranche-sur-Mer on the Côte D’Azur was the temporary home of Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards, his partner Anita and their son, Marlon.
It was here that the band, having literally no money, arrived as tax exiles in the spring of 1971. They chose convenience over sound, and in the many-roomed basement, the Rolling Stones recorded material for what became their most storied album. The lights would go on and off, the gear didn’t work properly and there were regular fires. It was insane.
“Upstairs, it was fantastic – like Versailles”, said Keith Richards. “But down there… it was Dante’s Inferno.”
The impressive villa sported both impressive marble ionic columns as well as heating vents decorated with gold swastikas, remains from the house being a former local Gestapo headquarters during the Nazi occupation of France in the early 1940s. And while the insides were baroque, you’d walk outside and find a guy living on the front lawn, in a tepee.
“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.”
Today, the most famous house in Villfranche remains cloaked in mystery. While he was making Stones In Exile, director Stephen Kijak asked to visit Nellcôte, but the current (Russian) owners declined to let their property be filmed. In a way, it’s a fitting end to this chapter in the Exile On Main St story.
Everyone has their own take on what one might be going on inside. The truth, though, is behind closed doors.