(Pictured: the Stones on stage in San Francisco, June 6, 1972.)
In the spring of 1969, during the earliest sessions for the album that would become Sticky Fingers, the Rolling Stones noodled with a song called “Good Time Women.” The Stones finally recorded it in October 1970, at the end of the Sticky Fingers sessions, but it didn’t make the album. It’s ragged and jammy, part of the process a band goes through when they’re trying to figure out if something is a whole song or the germ of a better one.
In the summer of 1971, the Stones were encamped at the Villa Nellcote in the south of France, sleeping by day and recording by night with whoever was around to work. (Mick Jagger was often absent; he and Bianca were expecting their first child at the time.) And not just sleeping and recording. The Nellcote sessions were a thorough debauch, with celebrity visitors and carloads of drugs for those who indulged. That was Keith Richards, members of the crew, and other musicians, mostly, but not Jagger, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts, who largely abstained. At one point, visiting American country-rocker Gram Parsons was asked to leave because of his drug use. (Imagine using drugs in such quantities as to make Keef say “whoa, dude, hold up.”) There were concerns that the French police might bust the villa and shut the whole thing down.
On August 3, 1971, the Stones who were present laid down the first takes of a new song, and they kept at it. Wyman left the session at one point, and when he came back hours later, Mick Taylor had taken over on bass and the band was still working on the same song. Producer Jimmy Miller played drums on a few takes, and Watts later overdubbed him. Recording engineer Andy Johns would later claim upwards of 150 takes were recorded in France and elsewhere. Even after all that, the struggle to finish the song wasn’t over. They couldn’t seem to get the mix right, and Jagger has complained about the sound of it ever since.
In later years, Keith would say that he came up with the basic riff upstairs in the villa and took it immediately downstairs to record. But the finished version of what came to be called “Tumbling Dice” is also based on “Good Time Women.” The lyric is different, though: Jagger has said it grew out of a conversation with a housekeeper at the villa who liked to gamble with dice.
“Tumbling Dice” was the first single from Exile on Main Street, and it landed at American radio stations during the second week of April 1972. It cracked its first Top 10 at WHOT, a daytime-only Top 40 station in Campbell, Ohio, on April 24, and at WMEX in Boston a few days later. It first appears at WLS in Chicago on May 1, and hits #1 for the first time at KGY in Olympia, Washington, on May 5. As May shades toward Memorial Day and the end of the school year, “Tumbling Dice” is cracking Top Tens everywhere. In addition to Olympia, it makes #1 in Tampa, Omaha, Akron, Rochester, New York, and in Chicago, where WCFL ranks it #1 for the week of June 1, 1972. (At WLS, it peaks at #4.) It tops out on the Billboard Hot 100 at #7 for two weeks from May 27; in Cash Box, it spends two weeks at #10. WCFL ranks it #12 for the year (while WLS has it at #60). It doesn’t make Billboard‘s Top 100 of 1972; in Cash Box, it’s #92. (Exile on Main Street, released in May, had a four-week run at #1 on the album chart beginning June 17, 1972.)
Regarding the best of all Rolling Stones songs, there’s a degree of consensus. When Rolling Stone magazine ranked the top 500 singles of all time in 2003 and 2010, “Satisfaction” was #2 on the entire list. On Kent Kotal’s more recent Top 3333 Most Essential Classic Rock Songs, “Gimme Shelter” ranked highest, with “Satisfaction” and “Start Me Up” in the Top 10. For a long time, I would have ranked “Brown Sugar” at the top. But now, for me, it’s “Tumbling Dice.”
“Tumbling Dice” has everything that makes the Stones great: apart from their playing (how did they get that guitar noise at the start?), it creates an atmosphere that’s ragged and sleazy and redolent of bad girls, drugs, liquor, games of chance, and the sort of people your mama don’t want you to know, and it’s like nothing else that ever got on AM radio. The mono single version of “Tumbling Dice” is here, and it sounds better than you’ve ever heard it.