The Rolling Stones: the myth and its makers

Photographers Dominique Tarle and Peter Webb spent 1971 making the Rolling Stones look their best. But who’s really to blame for the legend the band left behind, them or us?

New Statesman
Keith Richards and Gram Parsons on the balcony of Villa Nellcôte, 1971. (PHOTO: Dominique Tarle)

Summer, 1971.

Inside the frame, Keith lights a cigarette. His lithe shirtless body pours upward from a pair of loose linen trousers. Anita Pallenberg, the mother of his child, turns her head to face him.

Inside another frame, Mick blows smoke through pursed lips. A bottle of wine rests half full on a table strewn with empty cups. Eye half closed, he listens as Keith strums the guitar.

Light floods the balcony and bounces off a bowl of apples. A pine tree in the background. Someone is singing. A blonde haired child curls his feet beneath him in the chair.

Inside the frame, the men in bright coloured trousers pose in the corner of a bare studio. Charlie cocks his leg. Mick yawns.

Youthful, cool, eyes expectant. Five Stones wait for the shutter to click, and the bulb to flash.

 

Winter, 2012.

It starts in a place called Zebra. Down a pedestrian lane in Hampstead, Zebra is a small art gallery founded in 1976 by Lee Brews, an ex-army man who opened the space after stumbling across what was then an old garage in this bohemian neighborhood of North London. His daughter Gabrielle du Plooy now runs the little room with Victorian fishbowl windows. Under her influence, Zebra has moved from modernists paintings (often smuggled back by Jill Craigie and Michael Foot from holiday in Dubrovnik) to photography, particularly the rock & roll kind.

I’m here in Gabby’s gallery to meet the men behind her latest rock & roll show – Peter Webb and Dominique Tarle. Though the two never worked together, they’re bound by a common subject and a common year: the Rolling Stones and 1971. Webb shot the band in his London studio for what was to be the cover of Sticky Fingers, their 11th studio album, until a zipper crotch concept cover pitched by Andy Warhol took the title slot and Webb’s group shots were relocated to the inside sleeve.

Tarle’s lens took him even further – he moved with the Stones to the Villa Nellcôte in Southern France where the band decamped in tax-exile through the summer of ’71, converting its claggy basement into an impromptu recording studio and composing what became their most deliriously rock & roll album: Exile on Main Street.

Webb and Tarle’s work comes together to mark what has been a Stones soaked year - 2012 hails the band’s fiftieth anniversary.  Half a century ago, six young men were united by a love of forgotten blues tunes. And  just last month, in a series of well publicized gigs at the O2 Arena, some of those men crowed out the classics -  to mixed reviews.  What happened in between is well known. It’s a hot trail of songs and stories and images and legends - and the work of Webb and Tarle is just one small piece of that yowling, hip thrusting, glorious half century.  Just the summer, 1971.

 

Stones in the studio

When I enter Zebra Webb is already there, filling the black chair in the corner of the room. He’s casual and relaxed, shaking my hand with a smile. With him is Gabby the gallerist and his good friend Raj, a statuesque art dealer with a gold hoop locked in one earlobe. Webb is flanked on all sides by large prints from his Sticky Fingers covershoot. Charlie Watts jokingly called them “passport photos”.

 “I was pitching my original idea for the session,” Webb remembers, “which was a surrealist, Magritte-style Victorian boating party. The band would be in this boat, rowing out. But it wouldn’t be on the river, it would be in a Victorian photographer’s studio. And Mick’s going, [Webb opens his mouth and mimes a great yawn] ‘Yeah I dunno, maybe go and talk to Charlie [Watts], he’s into art’. I just panicked, as you would.”

Webb was shaken. Just 28 at the time and a relative amateur, he’d gotten the call for the Stones shoot based on a series of portraits he’d taken for the Times. “To cut a long story short,” he tells me, “I got a call from David Putnam and he said ‘yeah some friends of mine are doing an album, they’re called Rolling Stones’. He said ‘give them a call’, so literally I just called their office and I went down and I met Mick and I pitched my idea. I’d only been a photographer for five years and I was like, that’s Mick Jagger. I’m talking to Mick Jagger. Five years before I was playing Rolling Stones records in New York and my boss would say, could you turn that rubbish off? Talk about a ‘crossfire hurricane’ – this was mine.”

Webb scrapped the Victorian boat party for the more minimalist approach. He didn’t tell the band however, who turned up on the day expecting a Henley regatta complete with costumes. Instead they got Webb’s new, stripped back approach.

In the bare studio, Webb found the group surprisingly natural and at ease. 

“It’s interesting,” he recalls, “because their characters all came out in different ways. Charlie’s basically in a suit, looking immaculate - not grumpy but just less than expressive, and a very cool guy. Mick is obviously supremely confident in whatever he does. And Keith -  I don’t think there’s a time with Keith where he’s not looking amazing. I’d just sat and let the characters come through the lens.

 I’d heard these guys were trouble, that they wouldn’t want to do anything, but they were so compliant and professional that it actually threw me.”

 

An English family in the South of France

Dominique Tarle is a smaller, less smiling character with a thick scarf knotted around his throat. He too has brought along a companion - his son - because “doing an interview can be like giving a concert” he says, feigning a collapse. “I need someone to walk me home afterwards”.

The gallery needs to open, so we leave Raj and Gabby and decamp to a nearby café. Father and son tuck gratefully into cigarettes and espresso.

Tarle tells me he came to London young, with a passion for music. For him, there was no other choice.

‘Everything came from London at the time,” he emphasis.  “A new band every six months. A new great album every three months. A new single in the charts every two weeks. You’ve got to come to London. And it’s not just the music – it’s the miniskirt, it’s the pill. It’s paradise on earth.’

Tarle didn’t speak a word of English. So he found work as a photographer by hanging around night clubs with a little piece of paper that read ‘Hi, I am a French photographer, I like your music. Do you need pictures? Here is my number.’ The stunt was crazy enough to succeed and he got himself gigs with the likes of Led Zeppelin, John Mayall and a twenty year old Mick Taylor, the guitarist who joined the Stones in 1969 on Let it Bleed. Tarle came to London on a three months tourist visa and stayed three years. But eventually the home office caught on, and told him to ‘get the hell out of England’.

The Stones themselves had become exiles too. A sour breakup with their former manager Allan Klein saw them lose the rights to all tracks recorded before ‘71 – the profitable chunk of their output thus far. This meant the band’s looming tax bill couldn’t be curtailed by reaping the wealth of previous albums. As the tax year closed, the band was in trouble. Lawyers advised them to lay low somewhere for a while. Keith Richards happened to be in possession of one Villa Nellcôte, a turn-of-the-century mansion languishing in venerable splendour on the edge of Villefranche-sur-Mer, a seaside village in the French Riviera. So off they went. 

Tarle, commissioned to shoot the band en plein air one afternoon, took a shabby hotel room in the nearby Nice (‘which was actually some kind of whore house’). But Keith had other plans. He made up a room in the Villa and put Tarle in it for six months.

“Every morning was like this, Keith would come and knock on my door at nine o’clock in the morning. We would look after his son Marlon and the three of us would jump in his car, a beautiful Jaguar,” he says, stretching the word like bubblegum. “We would go and discover the South of France. I had a non-verbal relationship with Keith. The idea was, you are a photographer, you take the pictures.”

Nellcôte has acquired something almost beyond mythical status in the catacombs of rock & roll history. It’s alternately been described as a land of “opiate opulence”, ‘decadent privilege’, ‘outlaw pleasures’ and a ‘former Gestapo headquarters’. A 2010 documentary, Stones in Exile, was erected as a nostalgia-toned totem to its sun-drenched glamour. History seems agreed that the Villa played host to the “most notorious house party ever”; a louche refuge where the stowaways of English rock royalty - from Gram Parsons, to Eric Clapton to John Lennon - escaped for the weekend.

 It’s a narrative that, superficially, Tarle’s photographs do little to dispel. But the story Tarle tells me is a homey tale of “simplicity”, “hard work” and “routine” (routine! Can bohemians have routines?). Life revolved around childcare and music.

 "In the beginning, my work was just about sharing the life of any English family in the South of France,” he explains. “Life was very simple – Keith looking after Marlon in the morning, playing music in the afternoon, that’s it. English friends would be invited to stay for the summer; especially people with kids, so Marlon would have a social life. Everything was always back to the kids.”

 "Keith was a disciplinarian", Webb concurs. "You had a schedule – this in the morning, then the music. It was all very structured."

"If you work in a factory,’ explains Tarle, "no one expects you to have friends visiting while you work. Same with the Rolling Stones. When it was time for the music, there was no room for girlfriends, friends, whatever. It was very mannered work. People communicated through their instruments. The band would get together in the basement in the evening around seven o’clock, and they would play every night until six or seven in the morning."

Did anyone sleep? “No. That’s where it could get difficult. Just imagine, you go to sleep at six or seven in the morning, and at nine o’clock you’ve got two or three kids jumping on your bed saying ‘you promised to take us to the beach’! For Keith to live and work under the same roof, it was a tricky situation. But he did a good job, he was a good father."

 

Objectivity, it’s a myth.

Who were they, then? These famous fathers, these late night strummers? I’ve been waiting for Webb and Tarle to feed me tales of stroppy posturing and meals washed down with Jack Daniels, but they never come.

 “They were looking more for English tea and pickles than for drugs,” Tarle swears.  In fact, he’d rather tell me a story about a rabbit Keith and Bill Wyman caught for the kids:

“Bill once caught a rabbit and offered it to Marlon. I’ve got these pictures in the main room; there is a sofa with all the guitars on it, and a little table with a shoebox and a rabbit in it. Marlon would try to give the rabbit some salad and the rabbit would escape. I have pictures of Keith bringing back the rabbit and putting him in the shoebox before going back to work.”

“Sounds like Alice in Wonderland,” remarks Webb, which sums the villa up well: mad, but child friendly. How did we all get the Stones so wrong?

As Webb and Tarle explain it, the Stones needed all the press and publicity they could get at the time. They’d courted a public persona of rebelliousness since the early days. It was less a fact and more a practical necessity – the music industry of the sixties was a tightly wound operation and without an “image” you were likely to flounder. As the Stones rose to fame at the height of ‘Beatlemania’, their only option was to run the other way.

“The Beatles chose to be the nice kids, playing it clean. Three-piece suits from Saville row and very clean boots,” says Tarle. “The Stones had no choice. If they wanted to exist, they had to be the bad boys. England gave birth to the press d’scandal, you know – the tabloids. The Stones used it, getting in the headlines was the only way to compete with the Beatles. “

People bought into it, and still do, even if it's not entirely true. Tarle adds an enlightening anecdote: “The thing about the sixties in London is that when the police would come knock on the door of Keith’s house at six in the morning, the first thing they would say was, ‘did they have time to leave?’ – which really meant ‘did the Beatles have time to sneak out the back?’ Keith and John new each other very well.”

The tabloid press are an easy blame, but what about the work of professional photographers like Webb and Tarle – didn’t it also contribute to the lore of the Rolling Stones?  If there’s anybody to blame for the myth, wouldn’t it be them? The ones who shot the album covers and hung around behind the scenes, who spun a group of ambitious, ordinary boys through their apertures and spat them back out as rock & roll demi-gods?

 “I think our work was fundamental.” agrees Tarle. “But, you know, I don’t know the word for it in English…” He puts down his espresso and raises his hands, drawing two swooping right angles in the air, his fingers diving like swallows. “That thing, you know, when you take your clothes off and put them on a hanger... The Rolling Stones were hangers and people put their fantasies on those hangers. So whatever your fantasy was – whether it’s sex, drugs, or rock & roll, you put them on the Rolling Stones.”

The rebels, the addicts, the loudmouths, the posers, the feckless rock & rollers - perhaps only a part of them is real. The rest we made up. “It’s the story the public wanted,” says Tarle. “The Stones aren’t going to say they are having a nice family life with rabbits and kids… that’s not a story”.

But surely Tarle and Webb put something on the hanger, too. And we turn back to their images now for a kind of historical truth, no matter how rose-tinted they may be.

 “I don’t know,” says Tarle. “If you look at my pictures, it’s true that they all look young, healthy, beautiful, and talented, which they were. But maybe it was also a choice, my choice, to show the Rolling Stones at their best. Maybe another photographer would have looked for something else. Every photographer has a different point of view, and we chose when to press the button.”

Webb suggests the real myth might be objectivity itself.  “Your job as the photographer at the time is to be invisible. But it’s sort of like what Samuel Pepys did when he recorded London, his impression of it became the truth. You forget, it is just one man’s interpretation of the truth. So then it becomes a myth, then it becomes a legend.”

 

***

(Keith Richards at the entrance to Villa Nellcôte. PHOTO: Dominique Tarle, 1971)

 

(Keith and Mick rehearsing, Villa Nellcôte. PHOTO: Dominique Tarle, 1971)

 

(Random Stones PHOTO: Peter Webb, 1971)

 

(Cool Stones PHOTO: Peter Webb, 1971)

 

(Rogue Keith PHOTO: Peter Webb, 1971)

 

Brown Sugar on Main Street is on at Zebra Gallery, London NW3, until 24 January 2013.