Why the Rolling Stones Disowned Their ‘Stone Age’ Compilation
The Rolling Stones had finally freed themselves from their British label, Decca Records, and an onerous contract that paid them little in royalties for new material. Then years of bad blood exploded in public on March 6, 1971, when Decca released Stone Age, a compilation of originals and covers from the mid-'60s without the band's permission. In response, the Rolling Stones ran full-page, black-bordered ads in the British music press denouncing the LP.
The Stones and Decca had feuded since at least 1968, when the group submitted the cover for the Beggars Banquet LP. The stark photograph showed the wall of a grimy restroom, covered with graffiti written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Shot in the mechanics' bathroom of a Los Angeles Porsche dealership, the image included the top of a filthy toilet tank and seat. Decca refused to release the album with the cover.
"The fight they gave us – we dug in our heels," Richards told Rolling Stone. "They really wouldn't budge. It stopped the album from coming out. Eventually it got to be too much of a drag. It went on for nine months or so. It was like them saying, 'We don't give a shit if your album never goes out.'"
The Rolling Stones eventually gave in and Beggars Banquet was released in December 1968 with a plain white cover that resembled a party invitation. "After that, we knew it was impossible and started looking around to do it differently," said Richards.
Before they could leave, the Rolling Stones owed Decca a final single written by Jagger and Richards. As a slap in the face, the band in July 1970 recorded "Schoolboy Blues," a song with lewd lyrics that became known as "Cocksucker Blues." The plan was to create a song so obscene that Decca would refuse to release it. The scheme worked, though Decca eventually put out the tune in Germany in 1983 as part of a compilation, then quickly pulled it from the shelves.
By 1971 the Stones had started their own label, Rolling Stones Records, distributed by Atlantic Records. Prior to the release of the label's debut LP, Sticky Fingers, Decca retaliated by putting out Stone Age. The album was a hodgepodge of 12 covers and originals – mostly singles and b-sides – recorded between 1964 and 1966 that had never been issued on British studio LPs. Four tracks, "It's All Over Now," "As Tears Go By," "The Last Time" and "Paint It, Black," had been on the Big Hits (High Tide and Green Grass) compilation five years earlier, while "Confessin' the Blues" was on the 5 x 5 EP. Only "Blue Turns to Grey," "One More Try" and their take on the Temptations' "My Girl" had never been available in the U.K. at all.
Listen to the Rolling Stones' 'It's All Over Now'
To further irritate the group, Decca used its own graffiti-covered wall on the cover of Stone Age. It had none of the humor or creativity of the Beggars Banquet cover that the label had turned down a few years before.
Incensed, the Stones ran ads in British music papers that read, "Beware! Message from the Rolling Stones Re: Stone Age. We didn't know this record was going to be released. It is, in our opinion, below the standard we try to keep up, both in choice of content and cover design."
Despite the protest, British fans made Stone Age a No. 4 hit. Dave Thompson at AllMusic called Stone Age "a rather enjoyable romp through the group's 1964-1966 archive […] the final result, while certainly appearing fairly random, nevertheless illustrates the sheer dexterity that was the breakthrough Stones' most hidden attribute."
Journalist Robert Greenfield traveled with the Stones on their farewell tour of Britain in March 1971. In his book Ain't It Time We Said Goodbye: The Rolling Stones on the Road to Exile, Greenfield wrote of the episode, "While the record business had already become far more corporate than it had ever been before, the entire contretemps spoke volumes about how truly vile and disgusting the industry could still be even at the very highest levels of the game."
While the Rolling Stones produced Top 10 albums for years to come, Decca continued to release compilation LPs and box sets from its archives, ensuring that the bad blood continued to flow.