Beatles vs. Stones
In the summer of 1968, Mick Jagger attended a birthday party in his honor at a hip, new Moroccan-style bar called the Vesuvio Club—“one of the best clubs London has ever seen,” remembered Tony Sanchez, one of its proprietors. Under black lights and beautiful tapestries, some of London’s trendiest models, artists, and pop singers lounged around on huge cushions and took pulls from Turkish hookahs, while a decorated helium-filled dirigible floated aimlessly around the room. As a special treat, Mick brought along an advance pressing of the Stones’ forthcoming album, Beggars Banquet, and when it played over the club’s speakers, people flooded the dance floor. Just as the crowd was “leaping around” and celebrating the record—which would soon win accolades as the best Stones album to date—Paul McCartney strolled in and passed Sanchez a copy of the Beatles’ forthcoming single, “Hey Jude” / “Revolution,” which had never before been heard by anyone outside of the group’s charmed inner circle. As Sanchez remembered, the “slow thundering buildup of ‘Hey Jude’ shook the club,” and the crowd demanded that the seven-minute song be played again and again. Finally, the club’s disc jockey played the next song, and everyone heard “John Lennon’s nasal voice pumping out ‘Revolution.’ ”
“When it was over,” Sanchez said, “Mick looked peeved. The Beatles had upstaged him.”
“It was a wicked piece of promotional one-upsmanship,” remembered Tony Barrow, the Beatles’ press officer. By that time, the mostly good-natured rivalry between the Beatles and the Stones had been going on for about four years. Although the Beatles were more commercially successful than the Stones, throughout the 1960s the two groups nevertheless competed for record sales, cultural influence, and aesthetic credibility. Teens on both sides of the Atlantic defined themselves by whether they preferred the Beatles or the Stones. “If you truly loved pop music in the 1960s . . . there was no ducking the choice and no cop-out third option,” one writer remarked.
“You could dance with them both, but there could never be any doubt about which one you’d take home.”
Initially the rivalry was strongest in England. The Beatles began inspiring mass adulation among young teenage girls in the spring of 1963, but it soon became apparent that the group’s invigorating music and seductive charm worked on adults as well. The Fab Four couldn’t quite win over everyone—they were too unusual for that—but conventional wisdom held that the Beatles were a wonderful tonic to a society that was finally ready to shed the last vestiges of Victorian Era restraint. Their effect on British popular culture was said to be salutary, pitch-perfect, and perfectly timed.
The Rolling Stones provoked a different reaction. Pale and unkempt, they did not bother with stage uniforms, and they were not often polite. Instead of laboring to win the affection of the broader public, they feigned indifference to mainstream opinion. Musically, they favored American electric blues—an obscure genre in England that was championed by adolescent males as well as females, and that was most suitably performed in dark ’n’ sweaty, smoke-filled rooms. Those who were faint of heart, or who enjoyed a prim sense of propriety, knew to stay away from the Stones. Adults regarded them as a menace.
That is one of the reasons that the debate over which band was better, the Beatles or the Stones, was freighted with such deep significance.
To say that you were a Beatles fan was to imply that (just like the Fab Four) you were well adjusted, amiable, and polite. You were not a prig, necessarily, but nor were you the type to challenge social conventions. For the most part, you conformed. You agreed. You complied. When you looked upon the world that you were bound to inherit, you were pleased.
To align with the Rolling Stones was to convey the opposite message. It meant you wanted to smash stuff, break it and set it on fire.
“The Beatles want to hold your hand,” journalist Tom Wolfe once quipped, “but the Stones want to burn down your town.”
Fans registered their loyalty in readers’ polls conducted by music papers such as New Musical Express and Record Mirror. Whenever one group displaced the other at the top of the music chart, the news ran under a screeching headline, as if the Beatles and the Stones were football rivals or opposing candidates in a high-stakes election. People also tended to be deeply entrenched in their opinions. Beatles fans were often so devoted to the group that they would hear nothing against the Beatles. Youths who were in thrall to the Stones tended to be equally intransigent; they simply would not abide any criticism of their idols.
It is sometimes said that the “rivalry” between the Beatles and the Stones was just a myth, concocted by sensationalizing journalists and naïve teenyboppers. In reality, we are told, the two groups were always friendly, admiring, and supportive of each other. It is doubtful, however, that their relations were ever so cozy or uncomplicated. The two groups clearly struck up a rapport, but that never stopped them from trying to outperform each other wherever and however they could.
And as most people understand, emulous competition rarely nourishes a friendship; more often it breeds anxiety, suspicion, and envy.
It is little wonder, then, that in some respects the Beatles and the Stones simply could not help but act like rival bands. Ensconced in West London, the Stones fancied themselves as hip cosmopolitans. They were obsessed with a particular style of “cool”—which they associated
with reticence and self-possession—and so they were bemused by the Beatles’ amiable goofball shtick: their corny repartee and their obvious eagerness to please. Furthermore, the Beatles came from the North Country: the industrialized and economically depressed region in England that the young Stones had always assumed was a culturally barren wasteland. Not only were they wrong about that, but like most Merseysiders, the Beatles were sensitive to even the hint of condescension. That may help to explain why when the two groups were first getting acquainted, the successful Beatles sometimes seemed to lord it over the Stones.
Before long, however, the Beatles began to feel stifled by their cuddly, mop-top image, and they envied the Stones for their relative freedom of movement. The Beatles may also have been rankled as the Stones gained greater credibility with the “right” types of fans: discerning bohemians, as opposed to hysterical teenyboppers. Of all the Beatles, John Lennon especially hated to have to stifle his personality the way he often did. Later, he would be annoyed by the way that underground newspapers portrayed the Stones as left-wing political heroes, while the Beatles were associated with the hippies’ soft idealism.
The Beatles and the Stones also represent two sides of one of the twentieth century’s greatest aesthetic debates. To this day, when people want to get to know each other better, they often ask: “Beatles or Stones?” A preference for one group over the other is thought to reveal something substantial about one’s personality, judgment, or temperament. The clichés about the two groups are sometimes overdrawn, but they still retain a measure of plausibility. With some qualifications, the Beatles may be described as Apollonian, the Stones as Dionysian; the Beatles pop, the Stones rock; the Beatles erudite, the Stones visceral; the Beatles utopian, the Stones realistic.
None of the other famous dueling paradigms—say, in literature, painting, or architecture—tend to draw people into conversation like the Beatles and the Stones. How could they? The Beatles and Stones
were popular artists of unprecedented magnitude; their worldwide record sales are by now uncountable.
Obviously the two groups shared a great deal in common; so too did their fans. Had he lived long enough, Sigmund Freud—that master of unmasking human motivations—might have understood the Beatles-Stones debate in terms of
“the narcissism of small differences.” “It is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of hostility between them,” Freud wrote. Nevertheless, it is
the opposing qualities of the Beatles and the Stones—which are widely known and well understood—that make comparison irresistible. Chances are, if you’re reading this book, you already have an informed opinion about which group was better.
Moi-même, I don’t try to adjudicate the question here. Many others have already done so and anyhow, I’m not a rock critic; I’m an historian. In this joint biography, I’ve merely juxtaposed the Beatles and the Stones, examined their interrelations, and shown how their rivalry was constructed. That is not to say that I don’t hold a preference for one group over the other (of course I do), but rather that it is outside the purview of this book.
Besides, when rational criticism prevails, both groups are lauded. When they were in their prime, the Beatles and the Stones were both irreducibly great. Is that to repeat a dogma? Sure. But that doesn’t make what they accomplished any less remarkable. Somehow, the young men who made up the Beatles and the Stones managed not only to find each other, but also to burnish their talents collectively. 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.
That, anyhow, is my own view. And I know I’m not alone. Marianne Faithfull, who dated Mick Jagger in the late ’60s, recalled the evening that I mentioned earlier, when members of the Beatles and
the Stones turned up at that trendy nightclub and showed off their latest creations for all their friends: Beggars Banquet, and “Hey Jude” and “Revolution.”
“Vesuvio closed a couple of weeks later,” Marianne said, “but the feeling in the room that night was: aren’t we all the greatest bunch of young geniuses to grace the planet and isn’t this the most amazing time to be alive? And I don’t think it was just the drugs.”