Before we dive in, I’m going to give the usual disclaimer. This guide is not a ranking of albums or a primer. We’re trying something different here. This guide is for the curious soul who is looking at a record and wondering if it is what they think it is. There are many different releases, pressings, and reissues of the Stones’ albums and singles—with many variables behind what makes one version more valuable than the next.
We’ve taken a sample of the Stones’ output and used specific examples to help you figure out what pressing you might want or might be looking at. Maybe you must have an original pressing in mono. Or maybe you like the music and are just looking for an affordable copy. This guide is meant to provide a bit of help with your choices, whatever they may be.
The Stones delivered their own short, sharp shock in 1964 with the great Five By Five EP. This five-song collection (the title is pretty on the nose) really shows off what is great about the underrated "extended play" format. It goes straight to the heart of things with such great songs as “If You Need Me” and their love song to Chess Records, “2120 South Michigan Avenue.” This is Keith, Mick, Bill, Charlie, and Brian being captained by Andrew Loog Oldham. These sounds are what set the world afire.
For their early career, all Stones albums were released by Decca Records in the U.K. and the American-based London Records in the U.S. So, early copies of Five By Five will have blue Decca center labels with silver text. The word “Decca” will be arched above the spindle hole, along with “Made In England The Decca Record Co. Ltd.” The True High Fidelity logo, which features “ffrr” and a drawing of an ear will be on the left-hand side. (If you’re curious “ffrr” stands for full-frequency range recording.) The right side will say "45 RPM Extended Play." Song information will be center-aligned at the bottom and copyright info will be arched around the outer edge of the label at the top. The spindle hole will be of the European pop-out variety. If you’re lucky, you’ll find it in a picture sleeve. Keep an eye peeled for the “K/T” tax code on the center label. If it’s missing, you have a later pressing.
The record’s cover will feature the guys in front of a pale blue background. The sleeve itself will be a flipback (which are very cool) and have a bold “MONO” on the top right corner on the back. The back also features a black and white photo of the group and a short hype essay by Oldham.
Copies from the 1970s are similar, but the sleeve isn’t a flipback and the Decca logo above the spindle hole is different—it’s level instead of arched and made up of a silver box with blue lettering. These “boxed” versus “unboxed” logos are going to come up a bit during this guide. 1980s pressings will have a powder blue center label with black text. The layout is simpler and the boxed Decca has a trademark registration mark.
Five By Five was reissued for Record Store Day in 2013. The sleeve for that version has the RSD logo on the front and a bar code on the back. The label itself is blue with nothing directly above the large spindle hole. The ABKCO symbol is on the left-hand side and the stylized “45” common to Columbia Records singles on the right.
A more common find, however, is the American version of this record. This marks the first, but hardly the last time will we see a difference between British and American releases. One of the bigger differences is that the American version is an LP. 12 x 5 features the original five songs and adds seven more. Decca at the time sold their albums in the U.S. under the London Records label. So, centers for this album will have a dark blue, unboxed “London” label, with “London” and “Long Playing” above the spindle hole along with “Stereophonic” in blue text, boxed in silver.
Slightly later, but often pressed using the same plates, the label changes to the boxed London logo with the “ffrr” logo built into the box. Mono copies have an identical label design, but the backgrounds are red. Stereo copies have the catalog number PS 402 and mono LL 3402. As is common with this era of rock, the mono copies are typically more sought-after, as those are the mixes that the artists tended to pay closer attention to. Stereo was still in its hard-panned infancy. If you’re curious about some of the differences, check out our guide on mono and stereo pressings here.
If you don’t feel like chasing originals, the late ‘70s version can usually be found in VG or better. The background of the center label is a pastoral painting of a hillside with sun rays shooting out of the spindle hole. It doesn’t convey the groove, but the music is still there. If you don’t mind a bit of digital in your wax, the mid-’80s rolled out a digitally remastered version. These will have a red and black center label with a boxed London logo and ABKCO indicia on the left-hand side. Running through the center of the label is a black box that reads “Digitally Remastered From The Original Master Recording.” Some love these, some do not. Another digital cut was released on 180 gram clear vinyl in the 2000s. The center label will be the same pic of the band that’s on the front cover.
Before Jagger/Richards became the Glimmer Twins, there was Nanker Phelge. That was the pseudonym the band used for songs where the share of songwriting royalties may be shared with the entire band. It was also during this period that Brian Jones began to just peek out a bit from the blues and R&B stylings of the group and get the first small taste of psychedelia into the Stones catalog.
There are lots of great entry points for this shift, but I like Out Of Our Heads. I think that’s the album where the Stones started to get a bit extra. It’s also a good place to look at the differences between the U.S. and U.K catalogs and how “original” might not mean “best.” Oh, the subjectivity.
Early British pressings have the red for mono/blue for stereo format. Monos have the “ffrr” logo on the right side of the label above the spindle hole. Stereos have a “Full Frequency Stereophonic Sound” logo in a circle above the “Decca” at 12 o’clock. That same wording is in blue letters boxed in silver just above the spindle hole.
Other pressings include the London Records versions, which follow the same labeling format as 12 x 5. Unboxed Londons are earlier than boxed. Blue for stereo, red with “ffrr” logo for mono. MoFi (that’s the audiophile-targeting Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab) released its own version of the album in 1984. Pressed in Japan from the original masters, this is probably the best-sounding version, but also likely to be the most expensive. The record has also been released a number of times using digital sources. These are more affordable, but sound quality can vary.
The major differences, however, are in the track listings between the U.S. and U.K. versions. They are basically different albums. One of the Stones’ biggest hits, “Satisfaction,” does not even appear on the U.K. version. The U.S. track listing deletes “She Said Yeah,” “The Last Time,” “Gotta Get Away,” “Talkin’ ‘Bout You,” “Oh, Baby (We Got A Good Thing Going On),” “Heart of Stone,” and “I’m Free.” Taking their place is “The Last Time,” “I’m All Right,” “Satisfaction,” “Play With Fire,” “Spider and the Fly,” and “One More Try.” There are more differences than commonalities with this one. They even have different covers. The U.K. cover has the Stones hanging out at the end of a narrow alleyway. The U.S. version uses an outtake photo from 12 x 5 session. You pretty much need to get both.
Aftermath is another example of U.K. and U.S. covers and tracklists being significantly different. The U.K. cover has a very cool black and white photo of the band that has been hand-tinted violet. The U.S. cover is a blurred color photo of the band in front of a black background. The U.S. version deletes “Mother’s Little Helper,” “Flight 505,” “Take It Or Leave It,” “Think,” and “What to Do.” It adds, however, the killer “Paint It Black,” which the U.S. release calls out on its cover. Newer pressings featuring the U.K. track listing have been reissued over the years, as have versions with the U.S. listing. Most of the newer pressings (pretty much anything from the ‘80s on) will be digitally sourced.
Their Satanic Majesties Request was the Stones’ biggest step into the world of psychedelia. Early pressings of this classic have a trippy lenticular cover, while later versions will include just a straight photograph instead. If you’re looking at some of the newest pressings though, you’re in luck. In addition to current, digitally sourced pressings, Their Satanic Majesties Request has two 2018 limited edition reissues: a splatter-colored vinyl from Record Store Day and a 180-gram reissue that treats us to a new printing of that groovy cover.
While bands were pushing the boundaries of album cover art, censors weren't always pleased. Beggars Banquet, like The Mamas & The Papas’ If You Can Believe Your Eyes and Ears, caught some flak for featuring a toilet. Yep, the mere presence of a toilet was enough for the the Stones' label to demand a different image, so the band’s planned cover of a marked-up bathroom stall was replaced by a plain cover with the title written in script. The music inside is anything but bland though. From “Sympathy For The Devil” to “Street Fighting Man,” this record is top-to-bottom gold, bringing the band out of its psychedelic phase and into the unvarnished rock they’d continue for the rest of their career.
For the mid-’80s ABKCO digital remaster, the Stones finally got their original cover. If you want to have the grand toilet art, that’s a good place to get it. The clear vinyl version from the well-regarded Rolling Stones Clearly Classic series also uses the original toilet stall concept. If you want something a little special, try the 50th Anniversary edition. This version has the RSVP cover, but also comes with a 12-inch 45 RPM single of “Sympathy” in mono on one side and an etching of the cover on the other. Also included is a flexi-disc containing an interview with Mick Jagger.
In 1970, with their Decca contract expired, the Stones formed their own label, Rolling Stones Records, which was headed at first by Marshall Chess and distributed through Atlantic's Atco subsidiary in the U.S. and WEA Records in the U.K. So original pressings of Stones '70s output will be from the band's own label.
Early U.K. copies of Sticky Fingers have a yellow center label and large “stamps” with the album and band names. The left-hand side of the center label says “A PROMOTONE N.V. RECORD.” The earliest of these copies have small tabs on the fly of the zipper. Slightly later pressings moved to larger tabs. U.S. first pressings also have the large tab flies. The center label continues the stamp design, but the stamps are smaller and are all above the spindle hole. First pressings also have “DIST. By ATCO” along the rim.
As cool as these are (I have one and it’s a damned cool cover design), they have problems. The zipper makes storing the records a problem, as it can warp or scratch not only this record, but others stored next to it. So, maybe you’d prefer the rare Spanish cover, which features a partially open food can that has three fingers floating in blood. They’re not super easy to find in the U.S., but there is a Polydor reissue with that cover released in 2015. This version has a second disc of outtakes and a short show from '71. You can get the very same pressing with a repro of the original cover, sans zipper, as well. Later pressings without the zipper are common to find. While not as cool, they are probably in better shape.
With no slight intended to the rest of the Stones’ ‘70s classics, especially Exile on Main St., we’re going to jump to 1978’s Some Girls, just because there are so many versions of the Some Girls cover that we could do a guide for this album alone.
To paint with large brushstrokes here: This album started the band just slightly down the disco road. They’d visit this territory a few times. It was a little controversial to the fans. But that’s what the Stones do best. I’ll always love it because the sarcastic faux-country “Far Away Eyes” name-checks my hometown. The artwork is based on an old clothing line ad.
The original cover had die-cut windows and pictures of celebrities mixed in with pictures of the Rolling Stones. When the inner sleeve was in place, the faces of these people would be in the windows. The art was black and white and then hand-colored in bright primary colors. It’s pretty striking. The celebs (or their estates) were none too pleased. Representatives for Lucille Ball, Farrah Fawcett, Liza Minnelli, Judy Garland, Raquel Welch, and Marilyn Monroe filed suit.
“Time is On My Side” was released in the U.S. as a single in 1964. These tend to show up in one of three versions. There is the purple center label design that was also used for the U.S. version of “I Wanna Be Your Man,” but there is also the slightly later spiral label variation. This version has a sort of spiral on the center label constructed of triangles made of alternating shades of blue and white. “London” is in black serif script. The less common, but also less collectable, is the London pastoral painting center label.
There is probably no Stones single as essential as “Satisfaction.” Early U.K. versions (cat. F.12220) use the standard dark blue unboxed Decca design. Early U.S. pressings (cat. 45 LON 9766) use the London blue spiral. Later U.S. reissues have the catalog number of 5N 9766. If you’re wanting something a little collectable, the 50th anniversary pressing of this song comes on a 12” 180-gram slab of wax. This version includes the original B-side of “The Under Assistant West Coast Promotion Man” as well as “The Spider And The Fly.”
“Mother’s Little Helper” b/w “Lady Jane” is worth getting if you’re a completist and like non-album B-sides. Really, though, who doesn’t? This single is noteworthy because both sides of the single charted. The original pressings have the London spiral. Later pressings have a white center label with an inverted red triangle at the top and “London” in a small badge over that. There are three light gray lines that run vertically along the middle of the label. The early pressings have a picture sleeve that features the band picture from the U.S. version of Aftermath.
Finally, we have “Miss You.” If you can listen to this and not want to dance, you’re probably dead. It’s a must-have, whether it’s the single or as part of Some Girls. The original 7” single was released on Rolling Stones Records. It has the yellow center label with pushout spindle hole and the trademark lips and tongue. “1978 Promotone B.V. (Holland)” will be on the center label just under the 9 o’clock position. The real star, though, is the eight-minute plus Special Disco Version.
Released as a 12” single, the A-side is cut hot and is perfect for trying out your crazy Jagger chicken walk dance. The B-side is “Far Away Eyes,” because I guess it’s good to come down to. The address across the bottom edge of the center label is 75 Rockefeller and has “A Warner Communications Company.” A slightly later pressing has the same address, but omits the “Warner Brothers” indicia. Both of these 12” versions come in a white die-cut sleeve that this is, in fact, a Special Disco Version. A third version of this comes in a white sleeve, with no text. This version has “Miss You” on both sides. No need for a come down for that party, I guess.