When Parlophone Records’ producer George Martin signed The Beatles to his label in 1962, he opened the floodgates for what became known as the beat boom. The same year, The Rolling Stones settled on their first line-up and name. In their music and their image, each band had a distinctive identity, and they spent the rest of the decade competing for domination of the number one slot in the charts.
The nation’s teens and adolescents were split into two tribes, defined by which band they most loved, and the division has lasted for 50 years. Now we’ve asked two writers – coincidentally from the same small Scottish town – to put this one to bed. It’s time to decide once and for all: which was the better band?
THE CASE FOR THE ROLLING STONES
The day I unpicked the Beatles logo from the front of my black polo-neck jumper was the day I switched allegiance from the Beatles to the Stones. I was 15. I wanted to look like Cathy McGowan, go to art school and live dangerously. My mum and dad wanted me to be a teacher and stop wearing earrings the size of tennis balls.
While The Beatles were warbling rubbish about yellow submarines, The Stones were so cool they were arctic
The Beatles were safe, I-wanna-hold-your-hand, mop-haired boys next door. The Stones were bad boys in tight trousers who could get a girl into a lot of trouble. Not this girl, sadly, as we lived 400 miles apart and I had to be home by 10pm.
It is hardly fair to compare the Beatles and the Stones, as the Fab Four packed it in 43 years ago (and two of them are dead) and the Old Wrinklies still strut their stuff now and then, give or take a few personnel changes (one dead, or two if you count Ian Stewart). It is impossible to know exactly how the Beatles would have progressed, but you can get a pointer from the sugary songs Paul McCartney produced after parting from the acid-tongued Lennon.
Even back when, Lennon/McCartney were writing songs which later became hotel muzak fodder – think ‘Norwegian Wood’, ‘Penny Lane’ or ‘Yesterday’. It’s unlikely you’ll ever hear ‘Honky Tonk Woman’, ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’ or ‘Paint It Black’ bellowing across a plush carpeted lobby.
Jagger, although from a more middle-class background than Lennon/McCartney, was more overtly political in his writing. The Beatles’ social comment came out in the whimsical ‘Eleanor Rigby’; the Stones unleashed ‘Sweet Black Angel’ (from Exile on Main Street), a song about civil rights activist Angela Davis, who was facing murder charges.
The Beatles got into transcendental meditation and fell for that old rogue the Maharishi Yogi. The Stones pumped out an indictment on the abuse of prescribed drugs by the respectable middle classes in ‘Mother’s Little Helper’; a swipe, perhaps, at critics of Richards’ heroic misuse of illegal drugs. The Beatles were ‘Happy Just To Dance With You’, but the Stones said ‘Let’s Spend the Night Together’.
Lennon often commented that the Stones followed the Beatles’ lead on album arrangements. However, the Beatles’ live performances came nowhere near the dynamic fury of the Stones’. Not then, not ever.
The Stones’ debut album was released in 1964 and every song is still seared on my soul. My Saturday job in Woollies didn’t pay enough for me to buy it, so my friend Joan and I pooled resources. She got to keep the LP and I lugged our reel-to-reel tape recorder, the size of a small suitcase, on the bus up to her house and taped it all. Mea culpa; an early example of illegal downloading.
My dad’s secretary embroidered Mick Jagger’s name on a pair of pink frilly drawers and gave them to me for Christmas. Many years later, standing next to Mick Jagger at a Press reception I could feel my cheeks flame once again. And not the ones under my tights. He’s so short. So un-Godlike. But back then…
My parents took Joan and me on holiday to London, dropping us off in Carnaby Street, where The Stones’ fan club office was. We climbed the stairs to a seedy first floor room and added our names to the hundreds already on the walls, and got told off by the dog-faced fan club secretary. Our first disillusionment. (The second was finding her forging The Stones’ signatures on to a pile of black and white photos.)
The 1964 UK tour brought The Stones to the ABC in Lothian Road, Edinburgh, where Joan and I were almost killed throwing ourselves in front of the green Ford Zodiac bringing the band to the stage door. We did think, even then, that Bill Wyman was a wrinkly old bloke who didn’t fit our vision of The Stones as being sex on legs.
Interviewing him years later about his God-awful album Monkey Grip, I almost fell asleep I was so bored. No change there then.
While the Beatles were warbling rubbish about yellow submarines, the Stones were so cool they were arctic. Naturally, Joan and I wanted to be cool too, though it was easier for her as she looked like Marianne Faithfull.
Jagger and Richards recorded songs by old black musicians such as Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters, so Joan and I bought their records too, though we had about as much in common with Mississippi as two schoolgirls from Penicuik could have. It was the musical equivalent of buying Paris Match when we could barely manage O level French. Being a Stones’ fan did involve a lot of showing off.
I left Jackie magazine and came to work in London in 1969 as The Beatles were falling apart. They played their swansong on the roof of The Apple Building in Savile Row, having opened a Beatles/Apple shop to exploit their merchandising opportunities. (It chimed well with accepting OBEs from The Queen; they were so establishment.) As a writer for a music paper at the time, I was presented with a pink Apple cushion, which was so horrible I binned it.
The Stones, now grandfathers, have rolled on, evolved, ever bigger and still dangerous. They are still one of the most exciting bands on the planet, even though Keith Richards looks like a pickled walnut. I really wish I hadn’t chucked out the Beatles badge and the Apple cushion. They would be worth a fortune now.
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