In the 1960s, the two biggest bands in the world — the lovable Beatles and the bad-boy Rolling Stones—waged an epic battle. "The Beatles want to hold your hand," wrote Tom Wolfe, "but the Stones want to burn down your town." Both groups liked to maintain that they weren't really "rivals"— that was just a media myth, they politely said—but on both sides of the Atlantic, they plainly competed for commercial success and aesthetic credibility. In Beatles Vs. Stones (Simon & Schuster, 2013), John McMillian gets to the truth behind the ultimate rock 'n' roll debate.
•The Beatles and the Stones weren't really "rivals" – that was just a media myth, concocted by sensationalizing journalists and naïve teenyboppers. In fact, the Beatles and the Stones were good friends.
It would be far more accurate to say that during most of the '60s, the Beatles and the Stones were both friends and rivals. They clearly struck up a rapport, but that never stopped them from trying to outperform each other whenever and however they could. And as most people understand, emulous competition rarely nurtures a friendship; more often it breeds anxiety, suspicion, and envy.
•OK, but the Beatles and the Stones never fueled the rivalry narrative themselves; they wanted nothing to do with all that silliness! They were always "above the fray."
Not always. It is true that members of both bands frequently maintained that they were friends, and that the idea of a "rivalry" was invented on press row. But sometimes the Beatles and the Stones simply could not help but act like rival bands.
In October 1963, John Lennon fulminated in Melody Maker magazine about groups that appeared to be "copying" the Beatles. He seemed particularly aggrieved at a newer, London-based rhythm & blues group, which was made up at least partly of students, whose members refused to attribute their hairstyles to the Beatles' influence. Instead, they disingenuously maintained that they "just happen to have long hair." Only one group fit the bill exactly: The Rolling Stones.
And when the Rolling Stones came to the United States for the first time, in May 1964, they enlisted a London-based PR firm to create the impression that they were rival with the Beatles. "Stones Set to Invade," the press release said. "In the tracks of the Beatles, a second wave of sheep-dog looking, angry-acting, guitar-playing Britons is on the way....Of the Rolling Stones, one detractor has said, 'They are dirtier, streakier and more disheveled than the Beatles, and in some places they are more popular than the Beatles.'"
•Ah! Well that's because the Rolling Stones' young and savvy manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, immediately recognized that his group would be more successful if they styled themselves as the anti-Beatles. So he toughened up their image, and he encouraged the Stones dress however they liked.
In fact, that idea came a bit later, and it was the opposite of what Oldham originally had in mind. One of his first moves, after he signed a managerial contract with the Stones, was to take them on a Carnaby Street shopping spree and buy them sets of matching outfits. Numerous early photos of the Stones show them looking every bit as amiable, dainty, and fashionable as the Liverpool groups that were currently in vogue.
•I see. At first, the Stones seemed like natural counterparts to the Beatles, not rivals. That's probably why Decca's A&R representative, Dick Rowe (aka "The Man Who Turned Down the Beatles") raced off to sign the Stones just as soon he'd heard about them, from George Harrison.
It is true that when George Harrison and Dick Rowe were seated near each other at the jury table of a Liverpool talent contest, George recommended that Rowe check out the Stones. But Rowe did not, in fact, rush back to London to sign them (as has often been reported). He waited a few days, then he phoned the Stones' managers, and then he made an appointment to see them perform. And although Rowe was impressed by the avid response of the groups' fans, at first he thought the Stones might be too raw and unpolished to warrant a recording contract. After Rowe took the Stones' audition tapes to his boss, Sir Edward Lewis, he was surprised to discover hat Lewis wanted to sign the Stones right away.
• The Stones were always copying the Beatles. For instance, shortly after the Beatles came out with "Yesterday," the Stones wrote "As Tears Go By." Both songs were melancholy acoustic ballads, featuring only a vocalist, a quietly strummed guitar, and a string arrangement.
The Beatles released "Yesterday" in August 1965, and about four months later, the Stones came out with the similar sounding "As Tears Go By." But Mick Jagger and Keith Richards actually wrote "As Tears Go By" about a year-and-a-half before the Beatles put out "Yesterday." They didn't record it at the time, however, because they thought it didn't suit their image. Perhaps it would be more accurate to say that as the Beatles grew more ambitious and creatively daring in the mid-'60s, the Stones followed their lead. But then again, so did most of the era's pop and rock groups.
•OK, but what about the Stones' album Their Satanic Majesties Request? Wasn't that obviously an attempt to copy the Beatles' Sgt Pepper's?
Perhaps. The Beatles released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band in the summer of 1967, and about six months later, the Stones came out with a psychedelic album of their own, which was widely panned as ersatz Beatles. But it bears remembering that Mick Jagger seemed genuinely interested in the hippie counterculture (perhaps even more so than the Beatles). He studied astrology and the I Ching, and his reading diet was devoted to books about "fairies, goblins, and elves." For a time, he even kept a Native American teepee inside the Stones' Maddox Street office, into which he would occasionally go and sit for peaceful contemplation. During the Summer of Love, Mick joined the Beatles in North Wales for a seminar in spiritual enlightenment led by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
•If John Lennon had not been assassinated, the Beatles would probably have gotten back together. They would have been jealous of all the success that the Rolling Stones continued to enjoy, even after they'd grown older.
Of course it is impossible to say. But in one of his last interviews, John Lennon ridiculed the idea that grown men should even want to carry on in a rock 'n' roll group. It struck him as a pathetic thing to do. He also lashed out against fans that were still clamoring for a Beatles reunion. "You know, they're congratulating the Stones on being together [so long]," Lennon remarked. "Whoooopee!...It's all right when you're 16, 17, 18 to have male companions and idols, OK? It's tribal and a gang and it's fine. But when it continues and you're still doing it when you're 40, that means you're still 16 in the head."