It was 50 years ago today that John, Paul, George and Ringo launched “Beatlemania” on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” in front of a live audience of screaming teenage girls and 73 million viewers at home. With their groomed mop tops, matching suits, charm and good looks, the Beatles’ polished appeal made them ideal ambassadors for the musical “British Invasion” coming across the Atlantic – and the cultural upheaval they started.
The bad-boy Rolling Stones, who came to the U.S. later in the year, projected something altogether different: unkempt appearances, an off-putting demeanor and a rawer sexuality.
Yet, as author John McMillian writes in “Beatles vs. Stones,” their identities were to a great extent nothing more than good old-fashioned show biz. Beatles manager Brian Epstein and Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham, a former assistant of Epstein’s, simply shaped their band’s identity for target audiences.
In the Fab Four’s early days, before they wrote their own songs, the tough-looking Beatles were more apt to wear leather and act badly on stage while covering American rock ’n’ roll, girl group and Motown music in seedy Liverpool and German bars. The Stones, in contrast, were blues purists who played underappreciated American artists like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters in matching suits – until Oldham got the idea of presenting them as a kind of anti-Beatles.
It was also the Beatles, and not the Stones, who came from the working-class – Liverpool, no less. The members of the Stones hailed from the London suburbs.
“The Beatles when they lived in Hamburg were what the Stones became,” a British music journalist observed at the time. “(The Stones) seemed accomplished and rather like art-school nice guys, no posturing,” said another. And with some exaggeration, Sean O’Mahony, who published both bands’ monthly fan club magazines, said, “The Beatles were thugs who were put across as nice blokes, and the Rolling Stones were gentlemen who were made into thugs.”
The role reversals are one of many insightful and entertaining accounts of rock’s two indisputably greatest bands presented by McMillian, a music fan and historian who teaches at Georgia State University.
McMillian examines how the Beatles and the Stones informed and influenced one another, while going inside the much-ballyhooed if mostly manufactured rivalry that existed from when the bands met April 14, 1963, until the Beatles breakup in 1970. To do so, he turns to overlooked sources – namely, the underground press and fan club magazines – along with a wealth of published accounts from books and magazines.
“Beatles vs. Stones” leaves no question as to which band had the upper hand - even if McMillian evades naming his preference. Neither the Stones or any other group came close to the Beatles’ commercial success or countercultural credibility. Brian Jones, the Stones guitarist, was enamored, observing “the Beatles are a phenomenon.” Bill Wyman, the bass player, said band members “idolized” them despite not being a blues band.
The Stones had a lot to be grateful to the Beatles for, and they were friendly. After the Beatles caught a Stones show at the Crawdaddy Club – dressed, imposingly in matching black leather trench coats – everyone returned to the house the Stones shared to listen to records and talk for hours. The Beatles dispensed valuable career advice, later talked favorably about them to the press and gave the Stones a song, their first hit single,”I Wanna Be Your Man.” The bands even made sure to spread out their release dates so as not to interfere with the other’s sales.
The Beatles opened doors for the Stones in England and then the U.S. because of their success. The Stones were also quick to follow in the Beatles’ footsteps.
The moody album cover from the Stones’ eponymously titled debut was influenced by the Beatles “Meet the Beatles!” A few months after the Beatles came out with the ballad “Yesterday” featuring a string quartet, the Stones followed with a ballad of their own with strings, “As Tears Go By.” When “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” heralded the Beatles at their psychedelic peak, the Stones, also dabbling in psychedelia, followed with “Their Satanic Majesties Request.” In the Stones’ defense, they weren’t responding only to the Beatles, but to the cultural zeitgeist of the time.
The book has many complimentary comments from members of both bands directed toward the other, but there was pressure to compete for record sales and aesthetic credibility.
A magazine writer recounted riding in a car with Jagger in the summer of 1966. When they passed a sign for the Avis rental car company and it’s slogan of “We Try Harder,” a serious-sounding Jagger said, “That’s us ... we have to be better because we’re only number two.”
The book grew out of McMillian’s fascination with how youth culture publications covered the bands while researching an earlier book on the ’60s underground press, where rock ’n’ roll mixed with Vietnam War protests, drug experimentation and other social issues. Through accounts and record reviews in papers such as the Berkeley Barb, the Great Speckled Bird and the Village Voice, he explored the political significance of both bands and how youth culture saw rock culture as inseparable from the movement for social change then sweeping the country.
The approach is all the more valuable because the mainstream press didn’t take rock music seriously for years. The New York Times’ first review of a Beatles album didn’t appear until June 1967, and that was to dismiss what is widely seen to have been one of the band’s – and rock music’s – greatest albums, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”
“Underground press writers always lauded the Beatles, not just for their amazing creative powers, but also for their discernible intelligence, subversive charisma and drug experimentation,” McMillian wrote.
Both bands’ music, words and actions were sifted through for meaning. The Stones became more identified with the New Left after its August 1968 song “Street Fighting Man,” which Jagger wrote after participating in a protest that turned violent. The Beatles were more aligned with the hippie-ish counterculture.
When the Beatles’ “Revolution” came out four days after “Street Fighting Man” and rejected violence, it caused a torrent of debate in the alternative press that McMillian delves into (including a letter written by Lennon). Absent, however, except in a later footnote, is discussion of Lennon’s slower version, entitled “Revolution 1,” that appeared on the “White Album” after the single’s release. On the verse “But when you talk about destruction/Don’t you know you can count me out,” Lennon added “in” to reflect his own ambiguity.
But as McMillian points out, unlike Lennon’s post-Beatles career, neither the Beatles nor the Stones were particularly political. Still, they embodied the profound changes occurring, and their influence – along with Bob Dylan’s – can’t be underestimated.
The biggest dent in their relationship came when Lennon, in a 1970 interview with Rolling Stone, went after the Stones because Jagger in an interview the year before had put down the “White” album and criticized the band’s public bickering.
“I was always respectful about Mick and the Stones, but he said a lot of tarty things about the Beatles, which I am hurt by, because you know, I can knock the Beatles, but don’t let Mick Jagger knock them,” Lennon said.
He continued: “I resent the implication that the Stones are like revolutionaries and the Beatles weren’t. They’re not in the same class, music-wise or power-wise. Never were. And Mick always resented it. I never said anything. I always admired them because I like their funky music and I like their style. I like rock and roll, and the direction they took after they got over trying to imitate us.”
That outburst seemed long forgotten when Jagger inducted the Beatles into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.
“We went through some pretty strange times. We had a sort of – a lot of rivalry in those early years, and a little bit of friction, but we always ended up friends. And I like to think we still are, ‘cause they were some of the greatest times of our lives, and I’m – I’m really proud to be the one that leads them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”
Mark Sommer is a Buffalo News staff reporter and lifelong rock music fan.
Beatles vs. Stones
By John McMillian
Simon & Schuster
232 pages, $26.