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45 Years Ago: The Rolling Stones Collect Their Past on ‘Hot Rocks’

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Hot Rocks 1964-1971 is the Rolling Stones’ most successful release, and they had nothing to do with it. Well, not nothing – they made the recordings, after all. But the compilation was conceived as a cash-in for the 1971 Christmas season by the Stones’ former manager, with no input on track selection or sequencing by the band.

The Stones’ most famous hits collection was the result of a split between the group and its infamous manager Allen Klein, who had worked with the them since 1965 (and also managed Sam Cooke and the Beatles). When the band’s Decca record deal was up in 1970, it formed Rolling Stones Records and parted ways with Klein – who allegedly tricked the Stones’ members into signing over control of their 1963-70 catalog to him.

As the band was working on its first release for Rolling Stones Records – 1971’s Sticky Fingers – Klein was looking for ways to exploit eight years of Stones material. His label, ABKCO Records, now could re-release any of the band’s hits, including the recent smash “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” (even though they were released on Sticky Fingers, the two songs were in progress when Klein was still manager).

ABKCO set to work assembling the compilation Hot Rocks, which would become the Rolling Stones’ first double album and the band’s first career retrospective, supplanting previous hits collections such as Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass) and Through the Past, Darkly (Big Hits Vol. 2). Although the two-LP set would give a bigger overview of the band’s history, it still had some black holes. Hot Rocks notably avoids most of the band’s early, blues-based covers (even hits like “Not Fade Away” and “It’s All Over Now”) and skips the Stones’ fleeting flirtation with psychedelia (no “She’s a Rainbow” or “We Love You”).

But those were minor complaints from fans and writers, certainly in the face of a collection that included “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” “19th Nervous Breakdown,” “Paint It, Black,” “Ruby Tuesday,” “Jumping Jack Flash,” “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Honky Tonk Women” – not to mention the good taste to choose the live version of “Midnight Rambler.” Plus, Hot Rocks was up to date with the presence 1971 singles “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses.”

Klein’s ABKCO released Hot Rocks 1964-1971 on Dec. 20, 1971, via the Stones’ long-running U.S. label London Records, and only in the U.S. The album was a blockbuster, hitting No. 4 on the Billboard chart, staying on the album chart for 262 weeks and going on to sell more than 12 million copies in the States. Its success prompted ABKCO to repackage more of the Stones’ oldies in other ’70s collections. Hot Rocks didn’t see release until the CD era in the Stones’ native U.K., when it was put out in 1990 (and was a big hit).

Although countless Stones compilations have appeared in the decades since, Hot Rocks remains the definitive collection of the band’s early years – an entryway for the curious, an essential for the casual fan. It remains the Stones’ bestselling release in their career.

Hot Rocks has also become a collector’s item, at least in certain pressings of the original LP, dubbed the “Shelley” editions. That’s because the Shelly Products Ltd. pressing plant in Long Island, N.Y., accidentally created copies with alternate takes of the newest Stones songs – “Brown Sugar” and “Wild Horses” – as were heard in the Gimme Shelter documentary. Future pressings updated the tracks to their finished single releases, making the “Shelley” versions valuable additions to collections.

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