In St. Tropez, the Rolling Stones made "Exile on Main St." — and turned rock stars into high society

In 1971, the band fled UK tax rates for the south of France, glamorizing the Riviera for rock stars to come

Published September 5, 2023 11:00AM (EDT)

Mick and Bianca Jagger at their wedding at the Church of St. Anne, St Tropez, 12th May 1971. (Reg Lancaster/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Mick and Bianca Jagger at their wedding at the Church of St. Anne, St Tropez, 12th May 1971. (Reg Lancaster/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Adapted from "The Once Upon a Time World – the Dark and Sparkling Story of the French Riviera," by Jonathan Miles. Published by Pegasus Books, 2023. Used with permission.

The French Riviera was discovered in the 1800s by those British who were seeking a climate to cure tuberculosis. During the following century, the rich and royalty – British, Russian and pan-European – turned this region into a pleasure haven with luxury hotels and casinos. In the early 20th century, the dollar was king. American tycoons and bohemians came – among them, novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald and musical composer Cole Porter. The British maintained their presence with figures like Edward VIII, the King who abdicated for love, and songwriters like Noël Coward. Aristocratic scandals bubbled over from London drawing rooms and nightspots.

After World War II, with the opening of the Cannes Film Festival, Hollywood descended on the coast. It was a home away from home, laced with French finesse. The Antibes Jazz Festival became big — Charlie Mingus, turning his back on Newport, headlined, and Miles Davis recorded an album at the festival in 1963. The Beatles — never too popular in France — played to 8,000 people in Nice in 1965. Paul McCartney returned to film a sequence to accompany his song "The Fool on the Hill" in The Beatles' improvised television special that has been dubbed "The Tragical Mystery Tour." Then four years later, the Rolling Stones installed themselves on the Riviera for the challenging basement recording of "Exile on Main St."

* * *

At the beginning of the 1970s, UK supertax stood at 83 percent with tax on unearned income at 98 percent. On April 5, 1971 — the start of a new English tax year — the Rolling Stones fled to the south of France, where Keith Richards rented the Belle Époque Villa Nellcôte at the base of the Cap Ferrat peninsula. The rest of the group were spread about. Hating the Riviera in season, Charlie Watts rented in the Vaucluse. Mick Jagger was in Saint-Tropez for his marriage in May.

During the Sixties, rebellious and provocative Saint-Tropez had stiffened into a self-conscious resort where people went to be seen. Limited space and high prices initially secured an exclusivity that was soon destroyed by the sheer number of people wanting to be there. David Dodge noted that on Tahiti Beach "the sheen of sun oil… was blinding." People slept during the day — on the sand under sunscreen, under trees in the shade. Nights were swilled with drink and danced away in cha-cha-chas and twists. By May 1971, Saint-Tropez was still an "in" resort — a place where you could make a glamorous splash for a big event, and where Mick Jagger married the Nicaraguan Bianca Pérez-Mora amid a media scrum. As Keith Richards wryly remarked, Jagger wanted a quiet wedding, so he chose Saint-Tropez in the middle of summer. Although Bianca was four months pregnant, the couple had to fight through tight crowds to get to the civic ceremony. French marriage involves a declaration of ownership to be used in the case of divorce. Bianca nearly called the whole thing off when she found out how few assets were declared to be common. The couple were then mistakenly locked out of the religious ceremony — the fisherman's chapel of St. Anne had been shut against the surge of photographers.

The reception was held at the Hôtel Byblos, built four years earlier on the highest hill of Saint-Tropez by a Lebanese businessman who had developed a crush on Brigitte Bardot. Among the local guests were Bardot and Roger Vadim. Seventy-five others had been flown down from London in a plane chartered by Jagger. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr — temporary enemies during a post-Beatles legal wrangle — kept away from each other. Keith Richards was out of his head and flat on his back. Bianca later declared that her marriage ended on her wedding day. Despite all the chaos, journalist David Hepworth claimed that the wedding marked "the establishment of rock and roll as a viable branch of high society."

As Keith Richards wryly remarked, Jagger wanted a quiet wedding, so he chose Saint-Tropez in the middle of summer.

Meanwhile, Richards bought a speedboat — Mandrax — and the denizens of the Villa Nellcôte would speed along the coast for breakfast in Menton or over the border in Italy. The villa's cook, Fat Jacques, had connections with the Marseille underworld and soon became their drug dealer, bringing Richards huge sacks of lactose and small sacks of pure heroin. These had to be mixed to the gram — 97 percent lactose to 3 percent heroin. Get the proportion wrong – Richards warned — and you were in trouble.

They were having a wild time. Richards and a couple of mates fought off some muggers in Villefranche. Go-karting in Cannes, Richards's kart flipped and he was dragged 50 meters down the tarmac, scraping all the skin from his back. Just off dope, he was given morphine. By July, however, Richards was getting itchy fingers. Deciding against studios in Nice or Cannes, the Stones recorded what many people consider their finest album, "Exile on Main St.," in the damp, badly ventilated basement bunkers of the villa — hence the track "Ventilator Blues." They hooked up their eight-track mobile recording studio, started in the late afternoon and worked on through the night. The dampness affected the tuning of their instruments and their voices. Richards found the fumes of Jack Daniels beneficial.

Want more stories behind classic albums? Listen to the Salon + Wonderwall podcast "Everything Fab Four," hosted by Kenneth Womack.

Recording was interrupted by the birth of Jade Jagger in Paris in October, and by the theft of Keith Richards's collection of vintage guitars from the villa later that month. When the recording was finished in December, the Stones were arrested on drug charges. Only Richards and his partner, Anita Pallenberg, were convicted, but they escaped to the West Indies. It was rumored that the corrupt mayor of Nice, Jacques Médecin — allegedly pal to to some of the coast's big drug dealers — was behind the arrests.

The Stones helped glamorize the Riviera for rock stars. Sir Elton John bought a Belle Époque villa overlooking Nice, Tina Turner a property at Villefranche, ex-Stones player Bill Wyman a villa near Saint-Paul-de-Vence. Bono chose Èze-Bord-de-Mer. Meanwhile, there were many crummy characters — including the mafias of several nations — exploiting the ostentatious wealth displayed by visitors.

"The Once Upon a Time World – the Dark and Sparkling Story of the French Riviera," published September 5 by Pegasus, looks at the history of this glamour-tanned region – from Roman times to the Russian oligarchs.

By Jonathan Miles

After a nomadic childhood in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom, Jonathan Miles has been traveling ever since and currently lives in Paris. He studied at University College, London and received his doctorate from Jesus College, Oxford. He is the author of several books, including "Medusa: The Shipwreck, the Scandal, and the Masterpiece"; "Nine Lives of Otto Katz"; and "St Petersburg: Three Centuries of Murderous Desire," which were all published to international acclaim.  "The Once Upon a Time World – the Dark and Sparkling Story of the French Riviera" is out now from Pegasus Books. 

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Excerpt France Music Rolling Stones The 1970s The Beatles