Then & Now: The Rolling Stones’ French Villa of Debauchery

By

23rd Dec, 2014

exile1 (1)In the Spring of 1971, Keith Richards began renting a villa on the Côte d’Azur for $2,500 a month. The British government was threatening to confiscate the bands’ funds if they did not leave the country by April 5th of that year as part of the Labour government’s punitive 93% tax on high earners. The Rolling Stones were tax exiles from England and shacked up at Villa Nellcôte, a 16-room mansion of the Belle Epoque that had previously been occupied by the local Gestapo during the Nazi occupation of France in the 1940s. French photographer Dominique Tarlé documented the six month-long “house party” that ensued; a summer of sex, drugs and most certainly, rock and roll…

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Above and below you can see the same room where Keith and his entourage were once hanging out, in between the mirrored French doors.

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In 2006, Villa Nellcôte was bought by a wealthy Russian for $128 million. The new owner is not particularly welcoming to Rolling Stones fans but despite the house being heavily guarded, I found these current photographs of the house floating around on the internet likely taken at the time of the sale. The seventies armchairs have obviously been swapped for gilded Rococo furniture and the weathered parquet has been replaced by something somewhat shinier, but the basic bones of the house from when the Stones took refuge in it are still very much there…

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This photograph of the mansion’s entrance was taken by an Italian Rolling Stones fan site in 2008, which appears to have gained access to Nellcôte during a period when the house was unoccupied, perhaps under renovation. While most visitors can only manage a token snap in front of the property gates at No. 10, Avenue Louise Bordes, the blog simply reveals that it was “with thanks to a lot of luck” that they were able to take a tour.

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For those unfamiliar with the Stones’ history, during their exile in the South of France, the band would record their classic double album, “Exile on Main St”, laying down tracks in a makeshift studio in the basement of Villa Nellcôte. The other members had also rented or bought houses in the south of France; Bill Wyman in Mougins, Mick Taylor in Grasse, Charlie Watts in the Cévennes and Mick Jagger was in between Paris and Provence with his pregnant fiancé Bianca; but as Keith’s drug habit became a daily habit at his French playground, it was decided that Villa Nellcôte would have to be the band’s hub. “They built a studio in the basement of Keith’s house because the band knew it would be easiest for Keith,” photographer Dominique Tarlé told the New York Times.

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After finding his temporary new home in the South of France, Richard’s partner, actress and model Anita Pallenberg soon joined her famous rockstar with the couple’s son. She was fresh out of rehab. To fuel the couple’s heroin habit, Keith set up a supply chain with the Corsican mafia based out of nearby Marseille. His dealers were nicknamed ‘les cowboys’ and often hung out at the villa, inviting suspicion from the French police.

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John Lennon is said to have partied with the band at Villa Nellcôte and Mick Jagger is rumoured to have bedded Anita there, reigniting his alleged affair in 1968 with Keith’s longtime partner, which Keith himself later confirmed in a biography.

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Darker accusations from American journalist Robert Greenfield, who briefly spent some time at Nellcôte and wrote an entire book about the band’s album, claim that Anita once encouraged an employee’s young daughter to inject heroin for the first time.

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“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.”

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Nellcôte is one of the most stunning properties along the Côte D’Azur, built in the 1890s with an imposing façade complete with marble Ionic columns, Richards said it was decorated for “bloody Marie Antoinette”. Before the Stones moved in, the house’s history is a little murky following World War II when the Nazi Gestapo used it as their headquarters in the early 1940s. Allegedly unoccupied for decades, the floor vents in the basement where the Stones recorded were still decorated with swastikas.

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.”

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When Jagger married Nicaraguan model Bianca at a small whitewashed hillside chapel in St. Tropez, Keith Richards reportedly showed up to the groom’s dressing room in full Nazi SS uniform. The story doesn’t specify whether he discovered the uniform at Nellcôte, but Richards was apparently highly intrigued by the mansion’s sinister history and agreed to rent the house because of it.

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You can tell by the detailing of the fireplace below, that it’s the same mirror where the Rolling Stones lips and cardboard cutout of Jagger were displayed in the photo above…

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You can recognise the angel carvings above the doors below…

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“Upstairs, it was fantastic – like Versailles,” remembers Keith Richards. “But down there… it was Dante’s Inferno.” He was of course referring to the infamous studio where the band recorded, soundproofed with cheap carpeting and outfitted with equipment from the Stones’ mobile studio which was brought over from England.

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“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,” writes Stones fan and researcher, Jack Vanderwyk.

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Another snap (above right) from the Italian Rolling Stones fan site shows the dank basement where the group struggled to record with intense heat and a complicated layout (above left), not to mention the vampire hours they kept.

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Nellcôte’s large palm trees and surrounding woodland gave the Stones privacy and kept the questionable goings on at the house out of the press (and the police at bay). But with Richards’ ever-present entourage of hanger-ons and drug dealers, nearly half of the furniture was missing from the house by the time their stay was over. According to Stones researcher, Jack Vanderwyk, “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. The crime was reputedly carried out by dealers from Marseille who were owed money by Richards.”

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“That’s how loose and stupid it was out there,” remembered Wyman of Nellcôte, who often found himself the only one showing up for their scheduled nighttime recording sessions in the mansion’s basement.

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In 1973, Richards and his partner Anita were both charged with possession of heroin and intent to traffic following a police raid on Nellcôte. Keith was banned from entering France for two years, which meant no touring there for the band either.

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Photograph taken by Rolling Stones Italia.

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By Autumn 1971, Nellcôte’s halls no longer echoed with rock’n’roll music and in November, Keith and Anita got on a flight to America and never returned to the mansion. They continued paying for the empty house for another year, presumably until it was raided by police in 1973.

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Unlike Elvis’ Graceland, Stones fans are not invited to what our photographer Dominique Tarlé describes as “a monument to rock and roll”. Their instruments were cleared out long ago, the smell of cannabis and other drugs aired out of the rooms and traces of their presence polished away. But for the lucky few that do get to wander the halls of Villa Nellcôte today, let’s hope they play a Rolling Stones record once in a while.

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Dominique Tarlé’s collection of photographs from Villa Nellcôte, Rocks Off, is available here.

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