There’s perhaps no bigger Death Match in all of music than The Beatles versus The Rolling Stones, the somewhat fulsome four against the occasionally fractious five. Max Bell and Mick Wall will be your guides to the debate, and Max is first to throw a punch…
The universally accepted greatest group the world has ever seen versus the self-styled greatest rock and roll band in the world (citation needed). It sounds like a battle of the heavyweights. But John, Paul, George and Ringo – you’re screaming already, girls – win this one hands down.
The two outfits first met in April 1963. The Beatles had gone to the toppermost of the poppermost with From Me To You, She Loves You and, soon, I Want To Hold Your Hand, while the Stones were in their infancy. Having just made their third appearance on Thank Your Lucky Stars The Fabs went to see Mick Jagger’s somewhat tuneless bar band in April 1963. When the lairy Liverpudlians arrived wearing long suede leather jackets and matching hats purchased on their last stint in Hamburg, the scruffy Stones were playing in a pub in Richmond.
A few months later John and Paul commandeered a taxi ride with Andrew Loog Oldham, Jagger and Keith Richards on the Charing Cross Road. John and Paul had just picked up a gong for Top Vocal Group of the Year at the Variety Club’s Savoy Hotel luncheon where they’d been feted like Roman gods. When the Stones shyly asked Lennon and McCartney if they had any songs they didn’t want, pretty please, John and Paul knocked off I Wanna Be Your Man in less than two minutes and said, “You can use that”. As Lennon later remarked “well, we weren’t gonna give them anything great, right?” And so a minor ditty created for Ringo Starr became the Stones first Top 20 hit. And The Beatles made all the money off something they attached zero importance to.
As for sartorial style in the 1960s the Beatles again emerge triumphant. Dandy cocks. They perfected the European modernist look, inspiring a generation to copy their hairstyles; also their hand made Anello & Davide Cuban heeled boots and bespoke black Tonik mohair suits. While they were in Hamburg, dressed in black leather, shagging whores and necking reds the Stones hung around the suburbs copying Alexis Korner. And they had a pianist. With a beard. The Beatles were avatars of chic: the Stones were trad, dad. The Beatles were at the forefront of Merseybeat, whereas the Stones hailed from places like Kent, Middlesex and Cheltenham. Home counties beat, anyone?
The Beatles wrote virtually all their own material. The Stones second album is still 90% all covers and it’s called Rolling Stones No. 2. What an uninspired title. True, they then made the more promising Out Of Our Heads, but whose heads? Sonny Bono’s, Don Covay’s, Marvin Gaye’s, Roosevelt Jamison’s, Sam Cooke’s, Chuck Berry’s, Bert Russell’s heads, to be exact. Their own heads? Not so much.
Even when they dared to try something original they hid behind the pseudonym Nanker Phelge. Tut.
In 1965 The Beatles released Help! and Rubber Soul, cinematic gold and the birth of psychedelia. John Lennon published his second book, A Spaniard in the Works. Keith Richards eventually published his own Life, but that was ghostwritten so it doesn’t really count.
Apart from Help! The Beatles also made the ultimate rock movie, A Hard Day’s Night. Stones films from this era? Nada. Niente. Gar nichts. The Beatles met Elvis and Bob Dylan and shared his stash; Dylan even let Donovan have a puff.
Talking of drugs, The Beatles got to LSD first, their connection via a Harley Street dentist, rather than some smackhead on the King’s Road. The two have pretty similar rap sheets for drug busts but the Stones were far more accident-prone. First rule of drug club: there is no drug club. Plus, McCartney was arrested for arson in Hamburg in 1960, which is way hard-core. Macca’s a badass.
The druggiest Stone was poor old Brian Jones who died in a swimming pool at his own home. Sad, but careless.
Comparing psychedelic notes: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released six months before the vastly inferior Their Satanic Majesties Request. As a favour John and Paul guested on Sing This All Together and the contemporary single, the simpering We Love You. Two weeks before the latter was cut The Beatles gave the first ever live telecast performance, unveiling the mighty All You Need Is Love. So it was that a global audience of 400 million witnessed Jagger and Richards singing along at their masters’ feet. Prostrate, you might say.
The Beatles were more popular than Jesus. The Stones had sympathy for the devil. Sympathy? You’ll have to do better than that.
The Beatles had the good sense to call it a day in 1970. The Stones just won’t go away, even though they haven’t made a decent album since Sticky Fingers. As for solo efforts, compare and contrast Plastic Ono Band, Imagine and All Things Must Pass with She’s The Boss or Primitive Cool. Has anyone ever played those albums? They are dreadful. Or weigh up Lennon’s collaborations with David Bowie on Fame and Across the Universe. Now stick on Jagger and Bowie’s version of Dancing in the Street. Committing artistic suicide in the street, more like.
Revolver. I rest my case. And don’t even mention Altamont.
10… 9… 8… The Stones are out for the count, surely? But wait… here’s Mick Wall, and he’s off the canvas and punching fast.
The difference between The Beatles and the Rolling Stones isn’t just that The Beatles have a capital letter ‘T’ to their name and the Rolling Stones don’t. It’s more to do with the difference, say, between dope and speed. One – dope – is thinking it music; the other – speed – is doing it music. No prizes for guessing which category the Stones have always come under.
The Beatles were the globally recognised champions: they taught the pop world to think; to write their own lyrics, to insert meaning into singles then turn singles into albums that amounted to far more than mere hits’ collections.
The Beatles never put a foot wrong. And that’s why the Rolling Stones were even greater. The Stones were born wrong. They were the anti-Beatles; the music your mum and dad did not like too, fuck you very much.
Sure, John Lennon was supposedly a bad-ass in his younger days, but who would you rather have on your side in an alley fight: the teacher in granny glasses hiding behind his weird old lady and bleating about love-love-love, or Keith Fuckin’ Richards, the switchblade carrying human-riff who wrote about being a gas-gas-gas and didn’t sleep a single night between 1967 and 1973?
As for Paul McCartney: I got two words for you: Yellow Submarine. The Stones have now outlived The Beatles by nearly five decades and though they are no longer at their best they have yet to write anything quite as sick-making as that. The closest they got was with Angie, as turgid a ballad as you could want to skip, but even then only written because Mick Jagger had just fucked David Bowie’s wife… Angie.
That’s right, while The Beatles were do-gooders who only wanted to teach the world to sing, the Stones were nasty bastards, could never get enough satisfaction, lived on brown sugar and hung out with the kind of honkytonk women George and Ringo would have run a mile from.
The Beatles were also dull live. Check out YouTube, yes they were different days and thank fuck for that cos boy were they d-u-l-l. Compare live footage of the Stones from the same mid-60s era. There’s Jagger doing his white-lightning dance, Keith and Brian Jones swinging their guitars like sawn-off shotguns. Where The Beatles jig along nicely, smiling and shaking their mop-tops, the Stones swagger and sweat, actually frightening the cameras. Take a look at the audiences too: little girl virgins, all screaming and peeing their pants at Beatles shows. While at the Stones what you see are chicks. That’s right, man, chicks that know how to fuck.
The Beatles begged their fans to hold their hands and take LSD as they all ascending into the diamond sky of peace and love. The Stones dragged theirs into the dressing room, locked the doors, poured whisky down their necks and shot up heroin, then fucked them like they never been chooga-looga-ed in their lives.
With the Stones the joint was always a-rocking. With The Beatles, tea was at three and don’t forget Aunt Mimi.
Of course, The Beatles went on to make some of the major landmark albums in musical history: Revolver, Sgt. Pepper’s and the White Album were the benchmarks. But the Stones also produced their greatest albums during the same period: Beggar’s Banquet, Sticky Fingers and Let It Bleed. The big difference, once again, was that The Beatles made music that was now almost entirely cerebral: orchestrated superpop that belonged to the heavens. They couldn’t have produced this music live even if they hadn’t retired from the stage prematurely.
The Stones, by contrast, were wingless, down on the street, giving sympathy for the devil while living like midnight ramblers. They not only evolved into the world’s greatest rock’n’roll band, they singlehandedly took rock from the theatres and clubs and put it on the biggest stages, arenas and festivals, out of reach of the establishment, which despised them almost as much as they still loved The Beatles.
In the end, The Beatles preached that we should Let It Be. The Stones proved that we were always better off letting it bleed. And while The Beatles finally threw in the towel, settling for woefully average solo careers, Lennon and McCartney even bringing their musically talentless old ladies into their so-so bands, the Stones went on to the rule the rock universe for many more years, staggering with style towards their own creative demise, not clean-cut like The Beatles, the world going into a sentimental swoon when Lennon died, but bloody and messy, a shit stain on the hotel wall with one middle finger pointed right at you.
With The Beatles you could always get exactly what you want. With The Stones you only ever really got what you need.
Results: Punk: 42% Prog: 58%