Beatles vs. Stonesby John McMillian
With the sophistication of a historian, the storytelling skills of a journalist, and the passion of a fan, John McMillian explores the multifaceted relationship between
Boasting the intellectual rigor of a historian and the passion of a diehard fan—a groundbreaking narrative account of the biggest and most misconstrued rivalry in the annals of rock and roll.
With the sophistication of a historian, the storytelling skills of a journalist, and the passion of a fan, John McMillian explores the multifaceted relationship between the two greatest bands of our time.
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, John McMillian gets to the truth behind the ultimate rock ’n’ roll debate.
McMillian reveals how music managers helped to construct the Beatles-Stones rivalry as they set out to engineer moneymaking empires. He explores how the Beatles were marketed as cute and amiable, when in fact they came from hardscrabble backgrounds in Liverpool. By contrast, the Stones were cast as an edgy, dangerous group, even though they mostly hailed from the London suburbs. Although the Beatles always sold more records than the Stones, the Stones seemed to win greater credibility with the “right” types of fans: discerning bohemians, as opposed to hysterical teenyboppers. Later, the Beatles embraced Flower Power, while the Stones briefly aligned themselves with New Left militance. Ever since, writers and historians have associated the Beatles with the gauzy idealism of the “good” sixties and portrayed the Stones as representatives of the dangerous and nihilistic “bad” sixties. Beatles vs. Stones explodes that split.
In a lively narrative that whisks readers from Liverpool to London to New York City—and to various recording studios, nightclubs, concerts, courtrooms, and protest rallies in between—McMillian also delves into the personal relationships between the two groups. In one chapter we see Lennon and McCartney huddle up in a rehearsal space and show the Stones how to write their own material; in another we eavesdrop on Jagger and Richards as they watch the Beatles play Shea Stadium from the visitors’ dugout. McMillian also shows us how the two groups feuded about which act would headline a legendary Poll Winners’ concert and the pernicious effect that the American businessman Allen Klein had on both bands.
Based on exhaustive research in primary sources, including overlooked teen magazines and underground newspapers, Beatles vs. Stones tells a vital story of the 1960s through the lens of music’s greatest rivalry. Spirited, insightful, and gracefully written, this is the definitive account of the friendship and rivalry between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.
An assistant professor of history at Georgia State University, McMillian has created what amounts to an extended compare-and-contrast essay by juxtaposing the careers of the two greatest rock ’n’ roll bands of the 20th century. He hopes to uncover whether these two bands were rivals or allies, and whether the Beatles were truly the good boys and the Stones were really the bad boys as each was respectively portrayed. McMillian builds a case for both sides of each argument, using existing interviews, an impressive bibliography, and some little-known sources. While the history of both bands is oft-covered territory, the author turns up some great nuggets, like the true origins of the Beatles’ name; police information about one of the Stones’ famous drug busts; and how Mick Jagger and Keith Richards wrote their first song together. In the end, McMillian has written an informative look at music’s image machine—a powerful combination of media, marketing, and celebrity. (Oct.)
"The story that John McMillian tells in Smoking Typewriters and the lessons he implies are at once admonitory and inspirational; this is a work of serious scholarship that suggests both a call to resurgent action and a demand that people do better next time."
—Roz Kaveney, Times Literary Supplement
“McMillian turns the clock back to the college radicals who shaped the influential underground press to give voice to the disfranchised, in his highly detailed book. Not only does he show the rich yet erratic contribution of the publications and their founders, but he reveals FBI Director Hoover's plots against them, employing infiltrators, wiretaps, forged documents, and smear campaigns… McMillian has contributed a solid and informed commentary on the New Left's independent press.” —Publishers Weekly
"Readable, richly detailed study of the hundreds of anti-establishment 1960s newspapers . . . A welcome book on the '60sa nostalgia trip for those who were there and a vivid work of history for anyone curious about the journalism that jolted a decade."
—Kirkus Reviews, starred review
"Meticulously researched and richly written with humor, tragedy, and grace." —Library Journal
“A lively chronicle of the dedication, ecstasies, nuttiness, pathologies, and generational cockiness of the 1960s left that the decade's underground press reported and embodied." —The American Prospect
This carefully researched book uses the supposed rivalry between the Beatles and Rolling Stones as a jumping-off point to compare and contrast the two bands and place both in their sociohistorical context. McMillian (history, Georgia State Univ.; Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America) dispels both the idea that the groups were engaged in a tense and bitter competition and the concept that their enmity was entirely manufactured by the press, instead carving out a far more nuanced middle ground. Readers will delight in this narrative, which relies heavily on revealing—often humorous—quotes and colorful anecdotes. However, this is no light band biography; the author turns his critical historian's eye on his subjects, carefully evaluating evidence for the accuracy of various stories related by the key players. McMillian sheds new light on many old chestnuts (for instance, the enduring myth that Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham locked Mick Jagger and Keith Richards in a kitchen in an attempt to spark their songwriting career) by analyzing them through this intriguing framework. VERDICT Casual and serious pop music fans, as well as readers of history, will enjoy this intelligent and original work.—Mahnaz Dar, Library Journal
A history professor makes a case for a professional and artistic rivalry between the two bands but presents no new evidence and reaches no absolute verdict. "Who wants yesterday's papers?" Mick Jagger sang with the Rolling Stones and then answered his own question: "Nobody in the world." The framing of this book's title requires the analysis by McMillian (History/Georgia State Univ.; Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, 2011) to end with the disbanding of the Beatles in 1970, before dismissing the Stones' "outlandishly undignified" money grab as an oldies band and concluding abruptly with the murder of John Lennon. The author's tone balances the academic ("Rock 'n' roll had always been a popular and performative art") with the colloquial ("At least the Beatles didn't break up because they started to suck"). But what the author describes as "a joint biography" offers little except for occasionally misguided opinion and unsupported conjecture that far more exhaustive and deeply reported biographies of each band (and its individual members) have illuminated. Readers won't be surprised to learn that the Beatles weren't the lovable, cuddly mop tops of their popular image and that the Stones were more patrician than naughty in comparison with their purported rivals (who usually appeared to be pretty good friends, or at least foxhole buddies). It isn't much of a critical stretch to show that the Stones often seemed to follow a Beatle template in terms of their creative progression. What skews the parallel analysis is that the Stones reached their peak as recording artists after (though not because of) the Beatles' breakup, leading to speculation such as, "even if the Beatles had stayed together, some find it hard to imagine that their output in the very early 1970s would have matched what the Stones accomplished. Of course we'll never know." Nothing new or particularly provocative in this retelling of well-known stories.
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Read an Excerpt
Beatles vs. Stones
In the summer of 1968, Mick Jagger attended a birthday party in his honor at a hip, new Moroccan-style bar called the Vesuvio Club—“one of the best clubs London has ever seen,” remembered Tony Sanchez, one of its proprietors. Under black lights and beautiful tapestries, some of London’s trendiest models, artists, and pop singers lounged around on huge cushions and took pulls from Turkish hookahs, while a decorated helium-filled dirigible floated aimlessly around the room. As a special treat, Mick brought along an advance pressing of the Stones’ forthcoming album, Beggars Banquet, and when it played over the club’s speakers, people flooded the dance floor. Just as the crowd was “leaping around” and celebrating the record—which would soon win accolades as the best Stones album to date—Paul McCartney strolled in and passed Sanchez a copy of the Beatles’ forthcoming single, “Hey Jude” / “Revolution,” which had never before been heard by anyone outside of the group’s charmed inner circle. As Sanchez remembered, the “slow thundering buildup of ‘Hey Jude’ shook the club,” and the crowd demanded that the seven-minute song be played again and again. Finally, the club’s disc jockey played the next song, and everyone heard “John Lennon’s nasal voice pumping out ‘Revolution.’ ” “When it was over,” Sanchez said, “Mick looked peeved. The Beatles had upstaged him.”
“It was a wicked piece of promotional one-upsmanship,” remembered Tony Barrow, the Beatles’ press officer. By that time, the mostly good-natured rivalry between the Beatles and the Stones had been going on for about four years. Although the Beatles were more commercially successful than the Stones, throughout the 1960s the two groups nevertheless competed for record sales, cultural influence, and aesthetic credibility. Teens on both sides of the Atlantic defined themselves by whether they preferred the Beatles or the Stones. “If you truly loved pop music in the 1960s . . . there was no ducking the choice and no cop-out third option,” one writer remarked. “You could dance with them both, but there could never be any doubt about which one you’d take home.”
Initially the rivalry was strongest in England. The Beatles began inspiring mass adulation among young teenage girls in the spring of 1963, but it soon became apparent that the group’s invigorating music and seductive charm worked on adults as well. The Fab Four couldn’t quite win over everyone—they were too unusual for that—but conventional wisdom held that the Beatles were a wonderful tonic to a society that was finally ready to shed the last vestiges of Victorian Era restraint. Their effect on British popular culture was said to be salutary, pitch-perfect, and perfectly timed.
The Rolling Stones provoked a different reaction. Pale and unkempt, they did not bother with stage uniforms, and they were not often polite. Instead of laboring to win the affection of the broader public, they feigned indifference to mainstream opinion. Musically, they favored American electric blues—an obscure genre in England that was championed by adolescent males as well as females, and that was most suitably performed in dark ’n’ sweaty, smoke-filled rooms. Those who were faint of heart, or who enjoyed a prim sense of propriety, knew to stay away from the Stones. Adults regarded them as a menace.
That is one of the reasons that the debate over which band was better, the Beatles or the Stones, was freighted with such deep significance. To say that you were a Beatles fan was to imply that (just like the Fab Four) you were well adjusted, amiable, and polite. You were not a prig, necessarily, but nor were you the type to challenge social conventions. For the most part, you conformed. You agreed. You complied. When you looked upon the world that you were bound to inherit, you were pleased.
To align with the Rolling Stones was to convey the opposite message. It meant you wanted to smash stuff, break it and set it on fire. “The Beatles want to hold your hand,” journalist Tom Wolfe once quipped, “but the Stones want to burn down your town.”
Fans registered their loyalty in readers’ polls conducted by music papers such as New Musical Express and Record Mirror. Whenever one group displaced the other at the top of the music chart, the news ran under a screeching headline, as if the Beatles and the Stones were football rivals or opposing candidates in a high-stakes election. People also tended to be deeply entrenched in their opinions. Beatles fans were often so devoted to the group that they would hear nothing against the Beatles. Youths who were in thrall to the Stones tended to be equally intransigent; they simply would not abide any criticism of their idols.
It is sometimes said that the “rivalry” between the Beatles and the Stones was just a myth, concocted by sensationalizing journalists and naïve teenyboppers. In reality, we are told, the two groups were always friendly, admiring, and supportive of each other. It is doubtful, however, that their relations were ever so cozy or uncomplicated. The two groups clearly struck up a rapport, but that never stopped them from trying to outperform each other wherever and however they could. And as most people understand, emulous competition rarely nourishes a friendship; more often it breeds anxiety, suspicion, and envy.
It is little wonder, then, that in some respects the Beatles and the Stones simply could not help but act like rival bands. Ensconced in West London, the Stones fancied themselves as hip cosmopolitans. They were obsessed with a particular style of “cool”—which they associated with reticence and self-possession—and so they were bemused by the Beatles’ amiable goofball shtick: their corny repartee and their obvious eagerness to please. Furthermore, the Beatles came from the North Country: the industrialized and economically depressed region in England that the young Stones had always assumed was a culturally barren wasteland. Not only were they wrong about that, but like most Merseysiders, the Beatles were sensitive to even the hint of condescension. That may help to explain why when the two groups were first getting acquainted, the successful Beatles sometimes seemed to lord it over the Stones.
Before long, however, the Beatles began to feel stifled by their cuddly, mop-top image, and they envied the Stones for their relative freedom of movement. The Beatles may also have been rankled as the Stones gained greater credibility with the “right” types of fans: discerning bohemians, as opposed to hysterical teenyboppers. Of all the Beatles, John Lennon especially hated to have to stifle his personality the way he often did. Later, he would be annoyed by the way that underground newspapers portrayed the Stones as left-wing political heroes, while the Beatles were associated with the hippies’ soft idealism.
The Beatles and the Stones also represent two sides of one of the twentieth century’s greatest aesthetic debates. To this day, when people want to get to know each other better, they often ask: “Beatles or Stones?” A preference for one group over the other is thought to reveal something substantial about one’s personality, judgment, or temperament. The clichés about the two groups are sometimes overdrawn, but they still retain a measure of plausibility. With some qualifications, the Beatles may be described as Apollonian, the Stones as Dionysian; the Beatles pop, the Stones rock; the Beatles erudite, the Stones visceral; the Beatles utopian, the Stones realistic.
None of the other famous dueling paradigms—say, in literature, painting, or architecture—tend to draw people into conversation like the Beatles and the Stones. How could they? The Beatles and Stones were popular artists of unprecedented magnitude; their worldwide record sales are by now uncountable.
Obviously the two groups shared a great deal in common; so too did their fans. Had he lived long enough, Sigmund Freud—that master of unmasking human motivations—might have understood the Beatles-Stones debate in terms of “the narcissism of small differences.” “It is precisely the minor differences in people who are otherwise alike that form the basis of hostility between them,” Freud wrote. Nevertheless, it is the opposing qualities of the Beatles and the Stones—which are widely known and well understood—that make comparison irresistible. Chances are, if you’re reading this book, you already have an informed opinion about which group was better.
Moi-même, I don’t try to adjudicate the question here. Many others have already done so and anyhow, I’m not a rock critic; I’m an historian. In this joint biography, I’ve merely juxtaposed the Beatles and the Stones, examined their interrelations, and shown how their rivalry was constructed. That is not to say that I don’t hold a preference for one group over the other (of course I do), but rather that it is outside the purview of this book.
Besides, when rational criticism prevails, both groups are lauded. When they were in their prime, the Beatles and the Stones were both irreducibly great. Is that to repeat a dogma? Sure. But that doesn’t make what they accomplished any less remarkable. Somehow, the young men who made up the Beatles and the Stones managed not only to find each other, but also to burnish their talents collectively. Both groups melded and alchemized into huge creative forces that were substantially greater than the sum of their collective parts. They came of age during one of the most fertile and exciting periods in the history of popular music, and they exerted a commanding presence.
That, anyhow, is my own view. And I know I’m not alone. Marianne Faithfull, who dated Mick Jagger in the late ’60s, recalled the evening that I mentioned earlier, when members of the Beatles and the Stones turned up at that trendy nightclub and showed off their latest creations for all their friends: Beggars Banquet, and “Hey Jude” and “Revolution.” “Vesuvio closed a couple of weeks later,” Marianne said, “but the feeling in the room that night was: aren’t we all the greatest bunch of young geniuses to grace the planet and isn’t this the most amazing time to be alive? And I don’t think it was just the drugs.”
Meet the Author
John McMillian is assistant professor of history at Georgia State University and author of the critically acclaimed Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America. His writing has appeared in scholarly journals, magazines, and major newspapers. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
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Very good read - lots of facts and analysis of the music, trends during the height of the 2 groups success in the 60s
I have read many books about the Beatles and this one stood up despite the title. It was a lot more than a contest between the two bands. It compared and contrasted the bands in many aspects throughout their history. Very informative and enjoyable.