Villefranche, Côte d’Azur, France, as seen from Mont Boron, in Nice. The arrow shows the location of Villa Nellcôte. The place is difficult to find (many people wrongly assume it’s in nearby Saint-Jean-Cap-Ferrat) and its address at No. 10, avenue Louise Bordes, is on a narrow road that doesn’t exactly beckon to tourists — but it also doesn’t stop them, and certainly not me, being a Stones fan since I was 15, living in Nice.
We’re coming closer. This photo is taken from the Old Town of Villefranche.
“The house was bought five years ago by a Russian who paid 100 million euros ($128 million). The house has a swimming pool now and the next villa has been bought to make a larger property. I don’t think that the owner is interested in the Stones,” said Niçoise writer Didier Gayraud, a huge Stones fan himself. Where I before stated that Didier was wrong about the swimming pool, he wrote to me on November 19, 2012, that “If you have seen a picture of Keith and Mick near a swimming pool it was not in Nellcôte, but the one of the Grand Hotel du Cap Ferrat at 2 kilometers from the villa.”
Fans come to visit the property, but they aren’t welcome — a man in black emerged from house to shoo the Star away after a few too many photos were snapped.
The main mansion of Nellcôte is set way back from the access road, along the Riviera waterfront. It’s difficult to see the mansion even from the local beaches, because access is severely limited.
Gayraud told the Star the current owners of Nellcôte don’t encourage fans to visit, unlike the way Elvis Presley’s admirers are invited into Graceland in Memphis.
We’ve arrived in St. Jean, between Villefranche and Cap Ferrat. The French Riviera is the most expensive stretch of real estate on Earth and Villa Nellcôte one of its most desirable properties, today worth £100 million-plus. It faces the sea, hidden behind pine trees and palms in the town of Villefranche-sur-Mer, four miles east of Nice and six miles south-west of Monaco – and in easy reach of Marseilles and reliable supplies of heroin.
With a little help of Google Maps and local builders in the area, I was able to draw the borders of the property.
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These gates are the frontal access to Villa Nellcôte, the place where Keith Richards shot up, John Lennon threw up and the Stones made Exile On Main Street. The double LP vinyl album is acclaimed by many pop music fans as being not only the Stones’ masterpiece, but arguably the defining statement of the rock era. A digital remaster of Exile was released in February 2010, along with newly discovered extra tracks, and the hoopla includes the Cannes Film Festival debut of a documentary titled Stones In Exile.
“I’ve never had a problem with drugs… I had problems with the police.”
The Stones had to be out of the country by April 5, 1971, or the British government would have confiscated their funds. Nellcôte became the unlikely refuge for the group. As a result of the legendary Exile, French photographer Dominique Tarlé explains, “Nellcôte has become like a monument, a monument to rock and roll.” Tarlé chronicled perhaps the most notorious house party ever, and had full access to goings-on over a period of six crazy months
Nellcôte was leased during the summer of 1971 by Keith Richards, guitarist for The Rolling Stones and recording sessions for their classic 1972 Exile on Main Street album took place in the villa’s basement.
Dominique Tarlé remembers, “I found a box down there with a big swastika on it, full of injection phials. They all contained morphine. It was very old, of course, and our first reaction was, “If Keith had found this box.” So one night we carried it to the end of the garden, and threw it into the sea.”
Some say that Villa Nellcôte was too close to Marseilles for Keith’s good. While his band mates and sound crew sweltered in their own pads, sometimes making half-hearted inspections of lousy local studios, he organised a heroin supply chain with the Corsican Mafia (still active in the area) and employed a dozen of their gofers – nicknamed ‘les cowboys’ – in his house and grounds.
Clearly, it would be easier to bring the recording to Keith than vice versa, so the cellars were soundproofed with cheap carpet, and the Stones’ mobile studio driven down from England.
In the late 1890s, a former banker, Eugene Thomas, built the imposing villa whose frontage was decorated with ionic columns made out of marble. At the outset, the villa bore the name of “Amicitia Castle”. In 1919, the villa, since baptized “Nellcôte”, was acquired by the Bordes family, famous ship-owners specializing in the transport of soda nitrate between Chile and France. The street is named after Louise Bordes, wife of the founder of the Bordes dynasty.
Adding infamy to the residence’s history, Nellcôte served as the headquarters of the local Gestapo during the Nazi occupation of France in the early 1940s, with the floor vents in the basement of the villa reportedly being decorated with swastikas.
The Rolling Stones exiled to the South of France in 1971, after playing a short “farewell tour” in England, in April 1971, seeking shelter from their UK tax woes, and Keith Richards set up house with Anita Pallenberg and their son Marlon in Villa Nellcôte. There was a small pool complete with diving board, a sprawling toy-filled sandpit and even a selection of miniature motorbikes parked alongside a mansion that housed a menagerie of dogs, cats and a rabbit.
Upstairs, the property is vast. A curved gravel drive leads to the entrance. Huge doors, made from wrought iron and glass, give way to the living room, its walls covered in mirrors and hung with a magnificent teardrop chandelier. Go through the living room and you get to the back doors, which open onto a terrace with views of Villefranche Bay. Wide marble steps lead to a small stony beach. The bedrooms are just as grand.
Richards said it looked like it was decorated for “bloody Marie Antoinette.”
The American journalist Robert Greenfield, who was present briefly during the recording, wrote an entire book about — and named after — the album. Its subtitle is “A Season in Hell With the Rolling Stones“. The book paints an often lurid portrait of Richards and his then partner, Anita Pallenberg. Greenfield places the couple at the centre of a spiral of sustained hard drug abuse and wilfully amoral behaviour. Among the rumours he airs, but does not confirm or refute, is the one about Pallenberg encouraging an employee’s young daughter to inject heroin for the first time. Another has Jagger bedding Pallenberg while Richards has nodded out on heroin, thus reigniting an affair they were rumoured to have had while filming Performance under the direction of Nic Roeg in 1968.
“People appeared, disappeared, no one had a last name, you didn’t know who anybody was,” remembers Greenfield. “There were 16 people for lunch, and lunch went on for three-and-a-half hours. It was an unparalleled cast of characters.”
French photographer Dominique Tarlé chronicled perhaps the most notorious house party ever, and had full access to goings-on over a period of six crazy months. He later recounted to the New York Times– ”They built a studio in the basement of Keith’s house because the band knew it would be easiest for Keith,” said Dominique Tarlé.
Recording of Exile in Main Street began in earnest sometime near the middle of June 1971. Bill Wyman recalls the band working all night, every night, from eight in the evening until three the following morning for the rest of the month. Wyman said of that period, “Not everyone turned up every night. This was, for me, one of the major frustrations of this whole period. For our previous two albums we had worked well and listened to producer Jimmy Miller. At Nellcôte things were very different and it took me a while to understand why.”
By this time Keith Richards had begun a daily habit of using heroin. Thousands of dollars of heroin flowed through the mansion each week in addition to a contingent of visitors that included William S. Burroughs, Terry Southern, Gram Parsons and Marshall Chess (who was running the Rolling Stones’ new label). Parsons was asked to leave Nellcôte in early July, 1971, the result of his obnoxious behaviour and an attempt by Richards to clean the house of drug users as the result of pressure from the French police.
It wasn’t the most likely of places for Richards, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Mick Taylor and Bill Wyman to record the band’s 10th album. Villa Nellcôte’s hard marble columns and dank basement were less than ideal for optimum sound and delicate instruments. The band used a recording mobile studio packed into a truck parked outside, a rolling powerhouse later hailed by Deep Purple in “Smoke On The Water.”
Richards had rented Nellcôte for its privacy — huge palm trees and a woodland preserve keep it free from prying eyes —and because he was amused that the place had been used as the local Gestapo headquarters during the Nazi occupation of France in World War II. The metal grates for the heating vents of the villa still bore swastika emblems.
As Robert Greenfield tells it in his recent book Exile on Main St.: A Season in Hell with the Rolling Stones, Nellcôte attracted beautiful people and major tensions, that warm summer of ‘71.
Jagger had recently married Nicaraguan model Bianca Pérez Morena de Macías, having also recently abandoned girlfriend Marianne Faithfull. His attention was divided and his patience was wearing thin with the rock-star shenanigans of his band mates — particularly Richards, Jagger’s main creative partner, who kept vampire hours and often dozed off from the affects of his increasing dependency on heroin. Jagger also resented the presence of ex-Byrds guitarist Gram Parsons, a country rocker whom Keith had befriended and whom Mick viewed as a hanger-on. “The atmosphere kept changing but the party kept going,” said Dominique Tarlé.
In May 1971, Mick Jagger married Bianca, at a small, whitewashed chapel on a hillside above St. Tropez. The British blues singer Terry Reid remembers having later gone to a room in the nearby Hotel Byblos where he and other Jagger guests could change before the reception.
“By and by we could hear a clanking noise growing ever louder,” Reid said. “It was coming down the corridor towards us. Clanking and rattling; very weird. All of a sudden it stopped right outside. The door swung open, and everyone did a double take.
“A man stood on the threshold. He was in full Nazi uniform. He seemed to be standing to attention, all SS tunic, with an Iron Cross or two dangling round his neck, and black jackboots. It was Keith.”
In an industry where “peace, love and understanding” was the preferred slogan, Richards stood out as “something of a hard nut” as his long-time minder, Tom Keylock, admiringly described him.
Engineers and technicians slept over, illegal power lines from the French railway system (on the other side of the road) juiced their instruments, and when the temperature hit 100, they rehearsed with their pants off. A carnival of characters paraded through– Terry Southern, Gram Parsons, John Lennon, even a tribal band from Bengal… dope dealers from Marseille; petty thieves, who stole most of the drugs, half the furniture, and six guitars; and hangers-on, all of them there to witness what was happening.
On this side of the mansion there’s no way to get closer to the villa, so I’m moving to the beach.
Finally I find the private access to the beach. In the Republic of France you will scarcely find private beaches, but access to them is sometimes quite difficult, as I sadly found out in 1966, at the age of fourteen, when I was trying to shoot a picture of a topless Brigit Bardot in Saint Tropez. I explained the picture was for me mates, but the dogs didn’t have mercy on me.
“It was like trying to make a record in the Führerbunker. It was that sort of feeling… very Germanic down there – swastikas on the staircase… Upstairs, it was fantastic – like Versailles,” said Keith Richards. “But down there… it was Dante’s Inferno.”
In the often intense heat of the dank basement, the group struggled to get started. Musicians set up their instruments in adjoining rooms, with Bill Wyman having to play his bass in one space while his amplifiers stood in a hallway. Initially, they were hampered by guitars going out of tune due to the humidity. Basic communication, too, was a problem, with Jimmy Miller continually having to run from the mobile studio to the basement to deliver his instructions.
Richards rented the villa for $2,500 a month (with an option to buy) in April 1971. “The idea was to find another place to record, like a farmhouse in the hills,” he said. “But they couldn’t find anywhere so they turned and looked at me.”
Villa Nellcôte was such an open house that, one day in September 1971, burglars walked out of the front gate with nine of Richards’s guitars, Bobby Keys’s saxophone and Bill Wyman’s bass in broad daylight while the occupants were watching television in the living room. “That’s how loose and stupid it was out there,” says Wyman. The crime was reputedly carried out by dealers from Marseille who were owed money by Richards. The nocturnal goings-on at Nellcôte were also starting to attract the attention of the local populace and the increasingly suspicious police force. “The music was so loud, really, really loud,” Pallenberg remembers. “Sometimes I went to Villefranche during the day and you could hear the music there. And it went on all night.”
By October 1971, though, heroin use seems to have been a constant in the lives of Richards and Pallenberg. “I walked into the living room one day and this guy had a big bag of smack,” Pallenberg remembers, “and everything just disintegrated.” Perhaps it was telling that when Richards bought himself a speedboat, he called it Mantrax.
The police eventually raided Nellcôte and, in 1973, both Pallenberg and Richards were charged with possession of heroin and intent to traffic. The resulting guilty verdict meant that Richards was banned from entering France for two years, and thus the Stones could not play concerts there.
As summer turned to autumn, people started drifting away from Nellcôte and, in November 1971, Richards and Pallenberg left for the United States. The album was eventually finished in Sunset Sound studios in Los Angeles.
They continued to rent Nellcote for a year, leaving the housekeeper to sort out the mess. They never returned.
Today Villa Nellcôte can be glimpsed behind its iron gates, but its Russian owner keeps it private. History does not relate whether Richards got his deposit back.