The Story Behind “Rocks Off” by The Rolling Stones and How a Band in Exile Recorded a Rock Classic

After Sticky Fingers, The Rolling Stones continued their exploration of augmenting instrumentation with pianist Nicky Hopkins and the horns of Bobby Keys and Jim Price. Exile on Main St. includes blues, swing, country, gospel, and rock ‘n’ roll influences.

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After facing tax problems, the band embarked on a small farewell tour of England and then took off to France. Keith Richards and Anita Pallenberg moved into Villefranche-sur-Mer, Villa Nellcote. Singer Mick Jagger married Bianca Macias in St. Tropez and moved to Paris. Bassist Bill Wyman moved to St Paul de Vence. Drummer Charlie Watts moved in with Richards and Pallenberg. As they looked around for recording studios, they found no good options. They had a mobile truck and started looking for theaters or halls to convert into studios.

Ultimately, they used Richards’ basement, which consisted of many separate rooms. It allowed for isolation during recording. It was convenient for Richards and Watts but not so much for the other band members. Long extended jams of blues and country were the soundtrack to the party-like atmosphere. The drugs increased. The group of people hanging around started to grow. Someone stole eight guitars, a bass, and a saxophone. As winter approached, there was a feeling that it was time to go. Recording resumed at Sunset Sound Recorders in Los Angeles.

Exile on Main St. contained the hits “Happy” and “Tumbling Dice,” but we are here to talk about the lead-off track. Let’s look at the story behind “Rocks Off” by The Rolling Stones.

Oh Yeah
I hear you talking
When I’m on the street
Your mouth don’t move
But I can hear you speak
What’s the matter with the boy?
He don’t come around no more
Is he checking out for sure?
Is he gonna close the door on me?

Immediate Rawness

When you drop the needle on Exile On Main St., the rawness is evident from the very first notes. From Richards’ muscular riff, Jagger’s swagger, and the unmistakable drumming of Watts, to the steady undertow of Wyman’s bass, the foundation was established. But the real stars of the show are the piano of Hopkins and horn section of Keys and Price. The song evolves into a stretched-out jam without losing its underlying groove. One of the obstacles the band faced in France was the extreme heat, which wreaked havoc on the guitar’s ability to stay in tune. They electronically distorted and phased the vocals as the guitar parts were stretched and swirled.

I’m always hearing voices
On the street
I want to shout
But I can’t hardly speak
I was making love last night
To a dancer friend of mine
I can’t seem to stay in step
Come every time that she pirouettes over me

“12 Hours Without Getting Out of His Chair”

The sexually explicit lyrics are sometimes hard to understand as the vocals are low in the mix. The recording began as part of the marathon sessions in France. In 2010, engineer Andy Johns told Goldmine magazine, “It went on for ages. When Mick came back from Paris for the first time, he seemed happy with the sound. And Keith would sit downstairs, and at one point, he sat there for 12 hours without getting out of his chair, just playing the riff over and over and over. And then one night, it was very late, four or five in the morning, Keith says, ‘Let me listen to that take again.’ And he nods off while the tape is playing. I thought, ‘Great. That’s it. End of the night, and I’m out of here.’ So I go back to my place where I was staying. Jim Price and I had this villa. It was pretty spanky, I’m tellin’ you. A half an hour drive. I walk in the front door, and the phone is ringing. I pick it up, and it’s Keith. ‘Where are you?’ ‘Well, I’m obviously here ’cause I answered the phone.’ ‘Well, you better get back here, man, ’cause I have this guitar part. Come back!'”

And I only get my rocks off
While I’m dreaming
I only get my rocks off
While I’m sleeping
I’m zipping through the days
At lightning speed
Plug in, flush out
And fire the f–kin’ feed

Many Different Influences

The Rolling Stones are often called “the greatest rock ‘n’ roll band in the world.” They started out as a blues group and evolved into a pop group, but they soaked up many different influences along the way. In the 2010 documentary Stones in Exile, Richards said, “One of the things about Exile, I think, was a lot of stuff that we’d picked up on the road and along the way came out. You’ve drawn from whatever you’ve listened to since you were a child. Probably, some of the things I write or play are things that I listened to in 1947. Rock  ‘n’ roll, in its basic sense, is a mixture. What I’ve always loved about it, when I thought about it, it’s a beautiful synthesis of white music and black music. And, it’s just a beautiful cauldron to mix things up.”

Heading for the overload
Splattered on the dusty road
Kick me like you’ve kicked before
I can’t even feel the pain no more
Feel so hypnotized can’t describe the scene
It’s all mesmerized, all that inside me
The sunshine bores the daylights out of me
Chasing shadows, moonlight mystery

Exile on Main St.

Richards wrote about the album’s title in his 2010 autobiography Life, “We could record from late in the afternoon until five or six in the morning, and suddenly the dawn comes up, and I’ve got this boat. … We’d just jump in, Bobby Keys, me, Mick, whoever was up for it. … We’d pull into Monte Carlo for lunch. Have a chat with either Onassis’ lot or Niarchos’, who had the big yachts there. You could almost see the guns pointed at each other. That’s why we called it Exile On Main St. When we first came up with the title, it worked in American terms because everybody’s got a Main Street. But our Main Street was that Riviera strip. And we were exiles, so it rang perfectly true and said everything we needed. The whole Mediterranean coast was an ancient connection of its own, a kind of Main Street without borders. I’ve hung in Marseilles, and it was all it was cracked up to be, and I’ve no doubt it still is. It’s like the capital that embraces the Spanish coast, the North African coast, the whole Mediterranean coast. It’s basically a country all its own until a few miles inland.”

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Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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