Decadence, death and, oh yeah, the making of the quintessential Stones album.

Decadence, death and, oh yeah, the making of the quintessential Stones album.

Journalist Greenfield is no stranger to the Rolling Stones' camp: He penned STP: A Journey Through America With the Rolling Stones, the 1974 fly-on-the-wall account of the English rock band's '72 U.S. tour. The current volume is a sort of prequel about the making of the epochal titular two-LP set, cut in 1971–72 under unusually taxing circumstances.

Adopting the amused, ironic tone of an 18th-century novelist, Greenfield recounts the aberrant birthing of the album during a blazing summer of sessions at guitarist Keith Richards's rented mansion in the south of France, where the five Stones escaped tax exile.

The writer devotes a few pages to the tensions that arose between his putative "hero" Richards and lead singer Mick Jagger, as a newly detoxed Richards grappled (unsuccessfully) with his heroin addiction and Jagger wrestled with the highfalutin' demands of his jet-setting new wife Bianca.

Engineer Andy Johns chimes in on the difficulties of recording in a jerry-built basement studio so hot that guitars would instantly go out of tune. But the bulk of the book is devoted to the adventures of the Stones' hangers-on (many of whom would meet dope-related demises not long after that fateful season), the machinations of the local dope-dealers ("les cowboys") and the addled antics of Richards's beautiful, deranged significant other, Anita Pallenberg.

Exactly how Richards and Jagger managed to find time to write the material for their classic album amid all this madness remains obscure. What matters most to Greenfield are the plentiful sensational aspects of the tale, and the grim fates that awaited the pop stars, Grand Prix drivers and errant heiresses who serve as colorful minor players.

The narrative peters out when the Stones travel to the relatively subdued environs of Los Angeles to finish their tortured masterwork.

There's much sleaze to be found in these pages, but precious little about how the Stones forged their rock-'n'-roll art.