Midway through his new book “Beatles vs. Stones,” (Simon and Schuster) author John McMillian takes a short break from pages and pages of interview excerpts and second-hand anecdotes, some of which learned rock and roll fans will have read before, to refresh his analysis:
“The rivalry between the Beatles and the Stones, however, was not just about who had the more appealing lifestyle or the greater freedom of movement. It was also increasingly about talent, craft, and influence.” At this point in the text, which, aside from a few deviations, is chronological, it’s the late summer of 1965, and the Beatles are about to go into the studio to record “Rubber Soul,” the album that seduced resistant folkies, graduate students, and people born before 1935. Fewer than two years later, when the Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” intellectuals in America and Europe were not only enthusiastic fans but were claiming the group for their own.
Not so for the Rolling Stones, whose vulgar image and, more important, awkward and derivative attempt at psychedelic rock—the album “Their Satanic Majesties Request,” which came out six months after Sgt. Pepper—turned off much of this crowd. Score one for the Beatles.
On the other hand, did the Beatles record enough strong material to challenge the claim of London Records, the Rolling Stones’ label through the 1960s, that its clients were “The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band”? Much as I like “Back in the U.S.S.R,” “Paperback Writer,” “Get Back,” and “Glass Onion,” I prefer “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Honky Tonk Women,” “Connection,” and “Under My Thumb.” Score one for the Rolling Stones.
But awarding points is not McMillian’s aim with “Beatles vs. Stones,” despite a cover that cleverly mimics the classic poster for a boxing match. After all, we don’t need to read a word of the text to know the Beatles sold many more records than the Stones did and wielded much greater cultural influence. In that sense, “Beatles vs. Elvis Presley” would be a more intriguing matchup.
In a few weeks, the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” will be celebrated with various high-profile tributes, most of them no doubt playing on the theme that the world was never the same again. Meanwhile, it’s safe to assume that the 50th anniversary of the Stones’ American debut, which took place a few months later in 1964 at the Swing Auditorium in San Bernardino, will not be the subject of such extensive treatment in the media.
An assistant professor of history at Georgia State University and author of a previous book on the rise of alternative media in the 1960s, McMillian seems to have read everything available on his well-documented subjects, including interviews and profiles in the underground press. Many of the details will be familiar to fans of the era, but some will not, including that Mick Jagger and Keith Richards attended the Beatles’ famous concert at Shea Stadium in August 1965 and that John Lennon and Paul McCartney provided high harmonies on the Stones’ 1967 single “We Love You.”
The book’s anecdote-rich 232 pages fly by with the speed of “Dizzy Miss Lizzy.” The author clearly relished the opportunity—who wouldn’t?—to write about the Beatles and the Stones in one complete volume. I’m surprised no one thought of it before.
Yet McMillian writes more in the spirit of community than competition. Weren’t we lucky, he suggests, to have had both the Beatles and the Stones? Wasn’t the presence of both groups, their extraordinary bodies of work, one of the main reasons the 1960s were so special? How else to regard a “short” decade framed by “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in February 1964 and “Gimme Shelter” in December 1969, which was jam packed with brilliant songs and artists, none more important than those two English groups and an American named Dylan?
“Beatles vs. Stones” opens with a fascinating anecdote, previously related, about a party held in the summer of 1968 at a club in London for Mick Jagger’s 25th birthday. The honoree had arranged to have an early pressing of his band’s new album, “Beggar’s Banquet,” played for the guests. As the crowd was grooving to “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Stray Cat Blues,” and other great songs, in strolled Paul McCartney, another invitee, carrying an advance copy of his group’s latest single—“Hey Jude” (A side) and “Revolution” (B side).
At the time, only the Beatles and a few of their closest associates had heard either song. McCartney asked the DJ to replace the Stones album with the Beatles single. In those days, (and today, too), no one turned down Paul McCartney. For the rest of the night, the lucky guests listened to the new, unreleased single by the Beatles over and over again.
Though McMillian recounts that Jagger felt upstaged (again) by the Beatles, the author sees the incident differently from the birthday boy. “Somehow, the young men who made up the Beatles and the Stones managed not only to find each other, but to burnish their talents collectively,” he writes. “Both groups melded and alchemized into huge creative forces that were substantially greater than the sum of their collective parts. They came of age during one of the most fertile and exciting periods in the history of popular music, and they exerted a commanding presence.”
Does this mean, however, that the title of McMillian’s book is a tease, or to be more charitable, ironic? Not entirely. The author cites a few examples, including the aforementioned anecdote of the Beatles reminding the Stones which group reigned over the Anglo-American rock scene.
He balances these instances of Beatle entitlement with snide remarks from the other side, principally from Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Though the “rivalry” between the two bands was largely a media creation, there were moments of genuine discord.
McMillian has organized his book into six chapters covering politics, image, America, business affairs, creativity and culture, including drugs, fashion, and sex. On that last topic, the author, citing various accounts, notes that through the mid-60s, the members of the Beatles likely had many more sexual encounters with female fans than did members of the Rolling Stones, though one band appeared wholesome, wore suits, and smiled, while the other dressed down and scowled. In rock and roll, as in politics, image and reality are not always aligned.
The different outfits were one of the reasons, the author notes, some hippies and radicals regarded the Stones as more legitimate cultural and political revolutionaries than the Beatles. Even after his group broke up in 1970, this unfavorable comparison continued to bother John Lennon, who would gladly put up his sexual exploits, drug use, and leftist politics against anyone’s. Perhaps he took some satisfaction when English punk rockers in the 1970s dismissed both bands as irrelevant, over-hyped, geezers.
Other than being two highly successful English rock and roll groups, there were not many obvious points of intersection between the Beatles and Stones. One of these is the song “I Wanna Be Your Man,” which the Beatles wrote for the Stones and also recorded themselves, Ringo Starr on vocals. Aside from bootleg, radio, or concert recordings, “I Wanna Be Your Man” and cover versions of the Barrett Strong number “Money” are the only instances I recall when the Beatles and Stones recorded the same song in studio. McMillian calls the Stones’ version of the Lennon/McCartney composition “almost indisputably superior” to the Beatles’ recording, primarily due to Brian Jones’ slide guitar.
Though the word “almost” sits awkwardly in that assessment, McMillian has a case. Readers will want to play both versions back to back and reach their own conclusions.
The other close tie between the groups is the business manager Allen Klein, who started with the Stones and later represented the Beatles. McMillian spends almost an entire chapter showing that Klein was an equal opportunity offender, screwing both groups out of potentially millions of dollars. Because the Stones’ had earlier, firsthand knowledge of Klein’s shady ways, McMillian suggests Jagger in particular could have warned Lennon away from this guy.
Instead, the Stones’ singer encouraged the move, which the author implies may have been a deliberate act of sabotage. If true, the story adds to Jagger’s unsavory reputation for being a master manipulator— of the media, the rock audience, and, apparently, the Beatles.
By his title and text, McMillian implies that artistic competition was critical to the brilliance of ‘60s’ rock. It’s a valid point and not only in reference to the Beatles and the Stones. Long articles if not short books could be written about Eric Clapton vs. Jimi Hendrix, Motown vs. Stax, and Bob Dylan vs. the world. Such is the allure of a period in pop music history that has no equivalent.