About the cover art of the ‘The Rolling Stones’ first album
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Text by Charles Yoe:
Before rock and roll changed everything about the industry, sound studios used to find songs for artists and sometimes they found artists for songs. They handled everything for all but the biggest stars-song selection, arrangement, mixing, titles, packaging, all of it. This is the world the 20-something Stones and their 19-year old manager stepped into in 1964. The Stones battles with Decca Records would be epic over the duration of the contract their young manager negotiated for them. They seemed to be constantly breaking ground with their covers in the 60s and 70s.
Never short of self-belief, even when it was provided by an inexperienced teenage manager, those battles began right out of the starting gate with the Stones untitled debut album. The story of the Stones first album cover is the story of a young man’s bold ideas and Nicholas (Nicky) Wright’s modest photographs. A writer on the occasion of the 55th anniversary of release of this album said, “So while we should be celebrating The Rolling Stones’ first album for “Route 66,” “I’m A King Bee,” “Tell Me”and all the rest; telling tales of Phil Spector shaking maracas while uptight old Gene Pitney looned about the place like Bez, its greatest legacy to rock’n’roll came courtesy of the wrapper it came in.” That was the beginning of the revolution that became a way of life.
There were 642 days between the Rolling Stones July 12, 1962 first performance at the Marquee Club in London and the release of their first album on April 17, 1964. Naming your first album must be a momentous occasion. The Stones never named their first album, their manager took care of that. He gave it no title at all. Although the Rolling Stones first album is eponymously called The Rolling Stones, it, in fact, had no title. Let Andrew Loog Oldham explain. “I did not want the Stones LP to have some inappropriate title. My attitude was “Everyone knows who they are, that’s why we don’t need their name on the cover.” The idea came to me one night and was a permanent must-have implant by the next morning. The Rolling Stones LP would have no title and no name, just their moody mugs staring back outatcha.”
Oldham knew the Rolling Stones were better than just another pop group. To accentuate this fact their debut album would come housed in a sleeve Advance orders for the Stones first album exceeded 100,000 compared to 6,000 for the titled and band-named debut of The Beatles debut album. The Stones debut album climbed to no. 1 on UK charts besting and dethroning With The Beatles, that redefined total self-belief, impudent insubordination and unprecedented arrogance, no title, no band name.
The album was recorded in five days between 3 January and 25 February at Regent Sound Studios, 4 Denmark Street, in London. Studio time was expensive, Bill Wyman said, “The band had to record more or less live in the studio, so what was on the record was basically our act, which we played on the ballroom and club circuits. It was really just the show we did on stage, recorded in one take-as it should be!” Oldham held the tapes from the session. Decca Records balked at Oldham’s suggestion of no title or group name on the album but Oldham held the tapes. Decca balked in the press, so did Oldham who still held the tapes.
Advance orders for the album continued to go up, in fact they doubled to over 100,000 during this standoff. The brash young Oldham stood his ground and Bill Townsley at Decca relented and the group’s first LP went out, unrelenting, unforgiven and untitled.
No doubt Oldham would have removed the Decca emblem had he been able to do so. This simple inspiration has been called an act of extreme Oldham hubris. In defiance of Decca Records entire marketing department he insisted that the cover showed neither name nor title. It would be just a glossy picture of the five standing sideways with heavily shadowed unsmiling, scowling faces turned to the camera. No rock group is believed to have ever done that before. It was regarded by most as equal to commercial suicide.
Ian Fortnam said, “In their vainglorious, quintessentially British arrogance The Rolling Stones insist, get their way and go on to spend the next 50 years imperiously traversing the globe under the banner of ‘The Greatest Rock ‘N’ Roll Band in The World’… a description for which they even own the copyright.” It’s a Stones thing, it’s a way of life. Decca, fans and others had to call the album something and The Rolling Stones Unnamed Album was a bit awkward. The reverse side of the album shouted the band’s name in the largest font imaginable and so the album was simply referred to as The Rolling Stones. But now you are well enough informed to know that anyone who refers to it as the eponymous album is sorely misinformed.
From the outset, Decca and its United States subsidiary, London Records, each released its own version of a Stones album. The albums could vary by cover art, title, track listing or any combination of these differences. This first album used the same cover art photo. The UK version had no title, the US version did. The track listings varied for a single song, “Not Fade Away” replaced “I Need You Baby” (better known as Mona) on the US version and the sequence of side one songs differed as well.
The Stones were established and had a following in the United Kingdom, so Oldham’s bold gambit was inspired in the UK but too risky for the US. To herald the group’s arrival in the US the album’s title was amended by Decca’s American subsidiary, London Records, who retitled (or did they simply title it?) the album England’s Newest Hitmakers. Most significantly they added the band name to the cover.
One cannot tell the story of the first Stones album cover without some of the story of Andrew Loog Oldham. Oldham would seem to have been a delightful mix of visionary, go-getter, flimflam artist and hustler. In April 1963 Oldham saw the Rolling Stones perform and by his own admission fell in love. The 19-year old Oldham saw potential in the group as the “anti-Beatles. He acquired Eric Easton as a seasoned business partner and took over management of the Stones. Oldham and Easton negotiated a recording contract for the Stones that was very favorable to themselves.
Instead of having the Stones sign directly with Decca they set up a company, Impact Sound, which retained ownership of the group’s master tapes. These were then leased to Decca. This was instrumental in Oldham’s success in having the Stones first album untitled. He held the tapes. Oldham showed the Stones what they could be and they became it. Among the visionary things he did for the Stones was to limit Ian Stewart’s role to studio-only play, assuring the Stones remained a five-man group of slender young men. He brought Beatles John Lennon and Paul McCartney to the recording studio. This led to their song “I Wanna Be Your Man” becoming the Rolling Stones’ second single and inspiring the Stones to write their own music.
Oldham encouraged Jagger and Richard(s) to start writing their own songs. He promoted the Stones “bad boy” image in contrast to the Beatles. Wyman said, Oldham’s creativity reached new heights with the band’s first album, heights he was never able to scale again. His belief in himself and the band prompted the bold stroke of creating a cover with no name, just a photograph. It was unheard of. Oldham produced all Rolling Stones recordings from 1963 until late 1967 despite his previous lack of experience as a producer. The Rolling Stones’ website says “Accounts regarding the value of his musical input to the Stones recordings vary, from negligible to absolute zero”. What Oldham did do is see the Stones’ potential and he kept them moving forward.
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