In the Spring of 1971, the Rolling Stones arrived at Villa Nellcôte on the Côte D’Azur as tax exiles from the UK. Keith Richards had been drawn to the house for its privacy – set back from the huge wrought iron gates by a great curved drive and shrouded with palm trees, it was kept free from prying eyes. In the 6-month house party that ensued, photographer Dominique Tarlé gained unprecedented access to the enigmatic life of the band while they created their seminal album “Exile on Main Street”.
A 16-room mansion of the Belle Époque period, Villa Nellcôte’s opulent baroque interiors were described by Richards to have looked as though they had been designed for “bloody Marie Antoinette”. In these gilded rooms, the rock stars lounged topless on shabby seventies armchairs. For interiors designed to exhibit the wealth and station of their occupants, the indifference of the celebrities in the photographs is striking.
“Upstairs, it was fantastic – like Versailles”, said Keith Richards. “But down there… it was Dante’s Inferno.” Downstairs was the basement, used to record the album. The house had once been used as a Nazi Gestapo headquarters in the 1940s and in the cellar, the heating vents were shaped like swastikas. Richards was apparently highly intrigued by the mansion’s sinister history, but told a visitor “It's OK. We're here now.”
During the Stones’ tenancy, the cellar was soundproofed with cheap carpets and the mobile studio had been driven from England. Illegal power lines from the French railway system over the road juiced their instruments. When they overheated, they rehearsed with their trousers off.
A carnival of characters drifted through the villa, including Bobby Keys, the sax player who taught Keith Richards the joys of throwing furniture out of windows; a drug dealer who brought his children, along with his cocaine supply; record execs; engineers; family members; lovers; groupies; wasters and journalists. A guy lived on the front lawn in a tepee. Writer Robert Greenfield recalls, “People appeared, disappeared, no one had a last name, you didn't know who anybody was.”
While the band continued their irregular recording in the cellar, the time at Nellcôte passed in a hazed, concealed enchantment. "There wasn't really any pattern, that wasn't the way they rolled," remembers Gretchen Carpenter, a visitor to the house. Ultimately, the spell ended with a police drugs bust, which prompted the band’s departure to the States where they worked to make sense of the Nellcôte tapes.
Today, this infamous house is cloaked in mystery. It is presently owned by a wealthy Russian, who bought it for €100 million in 2005. Visitors are not welcome. The curious may flock to take photos outside the gates, but are shouted away by guards. Many stories emerged from those 6 months, but the truth is now concealed behind closed doors. It’s a fitting end to the story: the time the Stones spent there has passed into ambiguity, and legend.