Beatles or Stones? This debate may not spark many new discussions these days, considering that The Beatles broke up more than 40 years ago, and The Stones put out their last vital album in 1982. But since John McMillian just published Beatles vs. Stones, which closely tracks the interactions between the bands, let’s dive down the rabbit hole.
Can you really make a case that The Rolling Stones are better than The Beatles, indisputably one of the most important pop or rock groups to ever exist? These arguments can’t help but devolve quickly into lists of opinions, so here are mine: The Fab Four have only a few weak moments—parts of Beatles For Sale (they couldn’t always sell the twang); the second half of Help!; Magical Mystery Tour, which fails to transcend 1967. (The Yellow Submarine album doesn’t count.)
Aside from that, it’s basically a flawless catalog for Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr, from Please Please Me, released in March of 1963, to Let It Be, released in May of 1970. They released great singles and great albums. They did pop, they did art, and they played a crucial role in making people think of pop as art.
The Stones? We find an excellent band in their own right…but they only have a few things on The Beatles: longevity, a better double album (Exile On Main Street > The White Album), and possibly a better live show, though the Beatles bowed out of that contest when they stopped performing in 1966. The Stones have six great albums to their name, but importantly, four of these—Sticky Fingers (1971), Exile (1972), Some Girls (1978) and Tattoo You (1981)—came after the Beatles split. During the ‘60s, The Stones released Beggar’s Banquet and Let It Bleed, as well as some momentous singles, like “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” and “Jumpin’ Jack Flash.” But The Stones’ catalog as a whole during that decade doesn’t come close to the quality and variety of The Beatles.
This said, the two premier English bands in the ‘60s…and two of the best-known groups in history…Beatles and Stones provide an easy platform for endless comparisons. They also still command the public eye. Keith Richards published his memoir in 2011; 2012 and 2013 brought a series of books on Mick Jagger. The Beatles stand as the subject of a recently released volume investigating their career up through 1962 (two more volumes to come!). Another book just came out about the band’s appearances on the BBC. In addition, executives released music from those BBC sessions, and Sir Paul McCartney put out another album.
McMillian, a historian at Georgia State University, compares the two musical juggernauts, starting in the groups’ earliest days: class backgrounds, paths to fame and fortune, activism, music and even their sex lives. “The Beatles were thugs who were put across as nice blokes, and the Rolling Stones were gentlemen who were made into thugs,” said Sean O’ Mahony, who wrote monthly fan magazines for both bands. Jagger and Richards Inc. came from better economic circumstances, while the Beatles came from the poorer city of Liverpool, seen at the time as a cultural wasteland on the north coast of England.
The book takes in the Beatles’ rowdy antics in Hamburg, full of violence, American rock covers, and easy sex. Around the same time, the Stones’ Brian Jones had an illegitimate child and showed a penchant for bullying. Initially, the Stones (especially Jones) came across as R&B snobs, so the group developed a correspondingly snobby set of (mainly male) fans. The Beatles, quickly enveloped in Beatlemania, constantly ran from—or seduced—hordes of young women. At first, the Stones attempted to be clean-cut, just like the Beatles (the lads cleaned up considerably when they made the jump from Hamburg’s gritty clubs to the big leagues).
Once past the formative years, the music grew increasingly important. Readers got to pit the Beatles’ Rubber Soul against the Stones’ Aftermath, and the “Revolution” single against “Street Fighting Man.”
Like a good historian, McMillian debunks myths—the Stones’ manager probably did not lock Richards and Jagger in a room as a way of forcing them to start writing their own songs. (Though as a historian, McMillian hopefully recognizes that the myth may be more important than the truth in some of these situations.) McMillian also shows an awareness of pop theory, incorporating Kelefa Sanneh’s famous piece “Rap Against Rockism” to point out the ways that rockism has colored the stories of both bands and created a false dichotomy that privileges the Stones’ “hard” sound over the Beatles’ polished pop.
We do get some silliness here. “It is doubtful,” writes McMillian, “that most of the Stones saw quite as much [sexual] activity [as the Beatles] so early in their career.” Who’s counting? McMillian’s academic background shines through when he suggests that “recent findings in social psychology can help us understand how a group of young men with such stupendous good fortune as the Beatles could nevertheless be miserable a lot of the time.” It’s good the social psychologists climb on the magic bus, but the connection between fame and pain has been well documented already—“mo’ money, mo’ problems”—in countless pop songs.
It’s remarkable how long the whole Beatles vs. Stones thing has been going on. In 1964, we found it already in full swing. “REPORTER: ‘How do you compare your group with the Beatles?’ MICK: ‘...I don’t compare it at all. You know there’s no point.’”
Jagger may be on to something—it’s not really the Beatles vs. the Stones, in the same way it’s not apples vs. oranges. Lennon might put it differently: “I know you, you know me/ One thing I can tell you is you got to be free.”
Elias Leight’s writing about books and music has appeared in Paste, The Atlantic, Splice Today, and Popmatters. He comes from Northampton, Massachusetts, and can be found at signothetimesblog.