Inside the Rolling Stones’s wild years in exileBrian Jones’s death, drugs in the Côte d’Azur and the making of their greatest album — in a new book Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Keith Richards and Bill Wyman go on the record to Paul Sexton
Charlie Watts, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, Brian Jones and Mick Jagger in 1967 (ALAMY/TONY GALE)
September 05 2022
In 1966 Keith Richard — still without the “s” — took possession of Redlands, his longtime estate in West Wittering, West Sussex. Mick Jagger was soon to purchase the Stargroves estate, also known as Stargrove Hall, in Hampshire. Bill Wyman recalled that Mick assumed the squire role with some enthusiasm, joining the Country Gentleman’s Association.
Before the end of the following year, Charlie Watts and his wife, Shirley, moved to the village of Halland, seven miles northeast of Lewes, and into Peckhams, a centuries-old manor house that, reported NME’s Keith Altham, was once used as a hunting lodge by the first Archbishop of Canterbury. “It’s got some land, not that I want to do any farming,” Charlie told Melody Maker
Bill himself was buying Gedding Hall, his 15th-century moated manor near Bury St Edmonds in Suffolk, and late in 1968 Brian Jones purchased Cotchford Farm in the High Weald of Hartfield, East Sussex, the 1920s home of Winnie-the-Pooh
author AA Milne. The Rolling Stones had become the out-of-towners.
Finally free of the ardours of constant touring, Charlie was now able to enjoy the thing he had always craved: time away from the music business. “Two years ago it was like a nightmare,” he admitted. “We had reporters and photographers practically living with us the whole time.”
By now, the wariness that he maintained towards the majority of the media was well in place. “It’s frightening to think that with a few well-chosen quotes or clever angles they are capable of destroying someone like John Lennon,” he said.
Back at work in March 1968, the Stones were at Olympic Studios with their new producer Jimmy Miller, the New Yorker with great studio credit already in the bank with the Spencer Davis Group, Traffic and others. But Brian’s mental and physical health was palpably sliding, leading — in what seems in retrospect almost slow motion — to his firing from the group in June 1969 and his death a month later at 27. On the night of July 2, with Bill having left a band session at Olympic Studios slightly early, it was Charlie that called him at 3am to break the news.
“It wasn’t unexpected, to be honest with you,” Charlie told me of his friend. “You didn’t expect him to die, but he wasn’t well for a long time, a couple of years, and a year of not being very well at all. So it wasn’t as big a shock as if it was Bill, for example, [when] you would have thought ‘Blimey’. Or when Stu [road manager Ian Stewart] died, you know, that was really a shock.” There is something quintessentially of Charlie’s world-class unflappability that he might have greeted the news of a death in the group with the word “Blimey”.
Today, the recurrent symbol of the free show given by the Stones in Hyde Park just two days after Jones’s death is the white-smocked Mick Jagger reciting Shelley in Brian’s honour, and releasing hundreds of cabbage white butterflies, supposedly into the air. Said Charlie: “The butterflies were a bit sad, really. They looked good from the audience, but actually if you were near them, there were an awful lot of casualties. It was like the Somme before they even got off the ground.”
The 1970s dawned uncertainly for the Rolling Stones, with the decade’s first summer cast into considerable acrimony by twin divorces from their manager Allen Klein and Decca Records.
With the band’s finances in intensive care, the drastic decision was taken for lock, stock and barrel relocation. Charlie, who was soon to turn 30, told me later: “It was a bit drastic. Suddenly, you have to sell the house you live in and leave the country. ‘Bye bye, Mum, bye bye, Dad’. What do they call it, a break in earnings? It worked out, thank goodness.”
Keith, who was practically railing against the establishment in his sleep by then, remembered: “At that time, they wanted us in jail. They couldn’t manage that, so the next best thing was put the economic pressure on. Yeah, you could have stayed and made tuppence out of every pound. Thanks a lot, pals.”
In more than one of our conversations, Charlie pointed the finger of mismanagement directly at Klein. “He waved dollar signs at everyone, particularly at Mick and Keith,” he said in 2009. “He had a very tough, American manager way of looking at things, and in a way it was not right for us. He was a stroppy sod. But it taught you a lot.”
The newly exiled band’s choice of recording location for what became Exile on Main St
, at Keith’s Nellcôte villa on the Côte d’Azur in the south of France, was a classic Stones decision: significantly inconvenient for the rest of the group. Charlie had to commute from his family’s new home in the Cévennes, three or four hours east along the French coast, almost into Italy, heading back again at weekends. Bill was “only” an hour away. “Fortunately my wife spoke French,” said Charlie, “because I moved miles from anywhere. Our daughter went to school there, and our stuff all came down in a horse lorry, along with the horses.”
He said of the sessions: “A day would become a week, or a week would be all in a day. It used to drive Bill mad. He’d drive down at 10 o’clock in the morning, and no one, including me, would be up till about three in the afternoon, because we didn’t go to bed until nine that morning, an hour before Bill arrived. So Bill would go home at six, and Keith would be getting up,” he laughed. “That was how the band functioned.”
“It was very Mediterranean, an Edwardian villa, and very beautiful, on top of this point with its own boat. When Keith rented it, the garden was very overgrown, so it was magical. It was fantastically exotic, with palm trees. We had to saw a couple of them down to get the [Rolling Stones Mobile Studio] truck in to record.”
Added Keith: “The basement was the strangest place . . . it kind of looked like @#$%&’s bunker.”
The sessions dragged on, partly because most of the rumours you’ve always read about the world-class debauchery in play are true. “Everyone’s life was full of hangers-on,” Mick said. “Some of them were great fun, they’re all good for a bit, but when you really come down to it, you don’t want them around, because they just delay everything. But that was the lifestyle then. There was lots of drugs and drinking and carrying on. But, you know, it’s not a factory. It’s not a mill in the north of England. It’s a rock’n’roll environment.”
What came out of it, miraculously, was a double album that many feel they’ve never bettered, including Charlie.
The Stones were off the road for 15 months until the North American tour of summer 1972, which is most often celebrated as the all-time zenith of rock’n’roll libertinism. The rest of the year played out to all manner of arrests, each of them in character: Mick and Keith for an altercation with a photographer, Keith and Anita Pallenberg for violating French drug laws, and Bill for speeding.
The moment they could, Charlie and Shirley were back in the Cévennes, living the pastoral life and giving their daughter, Seraphina, what she looks back on as the perfect upbringing.
“I had a lovely childhood, totally normal,” she tells me. “I grew up in a small village in France. It was a very rural village, hidden away, and we were the only English people.”
I ask her when she first became aware that her father did something unusual for a living. “Probably very late,” she says, “and they’re not very nice memories, because children will tease at school. I probably knew I was different because we had the biggest car. But not in terms of what he did for a living.”
That changed when the family returned to England in 1976. “That’s when I was made aware, by other children,” says Seraphina. “That’s when I heard the word ‘rich’ in a negative way. I really don’t remember anything being that different. I got to meet Olivia Newton-John as a birthday present.” But, she adds, “My father wasn’t interested in a celebrity lifestyle.”
“If you went down to his house, he was always doing the washing up,” says Tony King, Seraphina’s godfather, “always making cups of tea, always swearing at the dogs, always cleaning up the shit and the piss if they did that in the house, always doing all the menial tasks. He was thoroughly domesticated.
“Shirley always kept him in line. He was never allowed to get too big for his boots if she was around. I remember she wrote me this brilliant letter in the early days when they were touring America, around Altamont time. She said, “Charlie came home at the weekend, full of conceit about being a member of the Rolling Stones. So I made him clean the oven.”
In the early 2000s, Seraphina turned on the television and saw something that struck a hilarious chord. “My parents were a bit Sharon and Ozzy of Devon,” she says. “When I saw that show I was like, ‘Oh my gosh.’ He walked around the house going ‘Shirleyyy’.
“I said to them, ‘This is you two.’” And I was like stroppy Kelly. All the dogs and everything. They were horrified.”‘He was mad about cricket’
Charlie shared Mick and Bill’s passion for cricket: one of the pieces he selected on Desert Island Discs
was the BBC Radio archive recording of John Arlott and Michael Charlton’s commentary on the 1956 Test match between England and Australia.
“We mostly watched cricket but we were great football fans too,” says Mick, who follows Arsenal while Charlie was a Tottenham Hotspur fan. “We loved talking about cricket and we’d go to a lot of games, mostly Test matches, and one-days. Most English people who normally wear a black suit, they go to Lords and dress in this ridiculous 1920s striped blazer, those MCC colours. Lurid, to say the least. Charlie used to sometimes dress up in those blazers. He would be very sociable at these games, he wouldn’t be the quiet Charlie that we all talk about. Yakety-yak, all day long.”
“He had collections of cricket stuff, and I used to give him signed photos of Bradman and all kinds of stuff like that,” says Bill. “He was mad about cricket, as Mick is, and he used to go and watch all the time. He used to watch, I used to play.
“Charlie never came to any of the charity things but when I took my hat-trick at the Oval against an Old England team, Charlie heard about it and I got this phone call at three o’clock in the morning.
“He said, ‘I just found out that you took a hat-trick at the Oval? They said you were smoking a cigarette when you were bowling?’ And I said, ‘Yeah, I always do.’ There’s pictures of me with the cigarette, bowling my leg breaks and googlies, getting a hat-trick. And he said, ‘And you were treading your cigarette ends on the hallowed turf?’ He was more interested in what I was doing with my cigarette ends than the fact that I’d taken this hat-trick against an Old England team.”
While working on one of the many BBC Radio 2 documentaries I made on the Stones, I once pinned Charlie down about his bandmates.
“Ronnie? He has demons, but he’s the most gregarious one in the band, and he has the biggest head . . . He’s a very loving guy.
“Mick is the one I speak to more than anybody. Keith is the one you never hear from, from one month to the next, because he hates telephones. He’s the most eccentric of all of us, that man. He loves touring. Whenever I say I’m going to retire, he says, ‘What are you going to do?’ He reads these tomes. I don’t think he reads anything under three inches thick. The thicker they are, the happier he is.”
The point was rather well emphasised in 1998, when the band’s European tour was delayed by nearly a month when Keith fell off a library ladder at home in Connecticut and cracked two ribs, reaching for a book on Leonardo da Vinci. “I was looking for da Vinci’s book on anatomy,” he said. “I learnt a lot about anatomy, but I didn’t find the book.”Extracted from Charlie’s Good Tonight: the Authorised Biography of Charlie Watts by Paul Sexton, published on September 15 (Mudlark; £25)