Rock and Roll Book Club: 'Beatles vs. Stones'

John McMillan's 'Beatles vs. Stones'
John McMillan's 'Beatles vs. Stones' (Jay Gabler/MPR)

I decided to feature John McMillan's 2013 book Beatles vs. Stones in our Rock and Roll Book Club when I found a copy sitting on a shelf at the station. Someone had applied a Post-It note to the cover: THE KINKS.

Cute, but that's long been against the rules of rock fandom, writes McMillan. He quotes the Scotsman newspaper: "If you truly loved pop music in the 1960s [...] there was no ducking the choice and no cop-out third option [...] You could dance with them both, but there was never any doubt which one you'd take home."

McMillan's short, engaging book doesn't try to adjudicate the question, but rather to put it in its proper social and historical context. Beatles vs. Stones explores why it seems so much to matter which side a fan picks, and looks at each band through the eyes of the other.

The conventional wisdom, McMillan acknowledges, is that the supposed rivalry was basically just a PR put-on — that the band members themselves were friends and mutual admirers. There's truth to that, notes McMillan, but it's also true that the bands and their managers watched each other closely, and had interlocking resentments.

As long as the Beatles were active, any comparison of the two groups as peers was complimentary to the Rolling Stones, who became hugely popular but never attained the sheer ubiquity of the Liverpool lads. When the bands made similar moves, it was typically the Stones who were the Johnny-come-latelies.

First came "Yesterday," then came "As Tears Go By." First came "Norwegian Wood," then came "Paint It, Black." First came Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, then came Their Satanic Majesties Request.

First came the Beatles, for that matter, and then came the Stones. McMillan points out that the Beatles spent years honing their partnership and paying their dues in the clubs of England and Germany before having their big break in 1963 — whereas the Stones attained national fame within a year of their formation in 1962.

On the surface, the Stones were raw authenticity and the Beatles were a polished package. There was a tension behind each stereotype, though: the Beatles came from a rougher background, cleaned up and put in matching suits in part to compensate for their stigmatized northern England origins. The Rolling Stones, on the other hand, were from relatively comfortable middle-class homes, and their version of "authenticity" involved a purist loyalty to a musical form invented by and, at the time, almost exclusively associated with African-Americans.

"The Beatles were thugs who were put across as nice blokes," summarized a guy who ran fan magazines for both groups. "The Rolling Stones were gentlemen who were made into thugs."

As the Beatles' fame grew, the Stones saw an opportunity in leading the louche wing of the British Invasion. They'd openly sing about sex, they'd conspicuously abuse substances, they'd defy gender norms with Mick Jagger's androgynous appeal. The titles and covers of their 1967 albums pretty well sum it up: the Beatles dress as a military-flavored civic ensemble, while the Stones portray devil-worshippers lounging at the feet of Sauron.

When the Beatles split up in 1970, the Stones surged ahead with a string of albums that remain acclaimed as some of the greatest rock recordings ever made. Though the Beatles' shadow continued to tower, the Stones kept on building. It's a further matter of debate — and the subject of McMillan's last chapter — whether the Stones have done themselves more harm than good by continuing to perform and record for over a half-century since their rivals called it quits.

Whichever side you take, your opinion is sure to be more nuanced by the time you're done with Beatles vs. Stones. Or, you could just take the view of The Current's Mark Wheat. When I asked him if he'd been the one to leave the KINKS note, he said no. "I would've picked the Who."

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