Debating Greatness: The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones

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September 13, 2012 by NowhereButPop

The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. The two 1960s pop music powerhouses. Yet with staunchly different feels, intentions, and impacts. Both, though, fighting for the exact same youthful hearts.

We’ve decided to take the debate to two of our resident writers: Steve Secular, on the side of The Beatles and Andrew Doscas on the side of The Rolling Stones.

Feelings will be hurt, friendships will be tested, and the world of musical debates about 1960s pop music will never be the same.


Steve Secular: Yesterday. Revolution. Penny Lane. Can’t Buy Me Love. Come Together.

I could win this argument by just listing all of their massively influential hits. But I’m not going to do that. I’m in a fairly masochistic mood, since as I type this, I’m watching my poor Yankees die the slow painful death of a September collapse.

So I’ll draw this out for the both of us.

There was no band like The Beatles before them. Yeah, the influences were obvious (in the early years), but it’s no different for The Rolling Stones. They both took something and made it undeniably their own. It’s just that The Rolling Stones lived and died by their blues and country music niche, while The Beatles were busy inventing the modern pop band.

They took the tone and the grooves of the best 50s acts, like Little Richard and Buddy Holly, and captured that same youthful yearning for love. Throw in the clean-cut White look and add the quintessentially enigmatic Britishness, and the broken teenage hearts are history. I haven’t even moved past 1964.

Andrew Doscas: Whereas The Beatles may have been busy “inventing the modern pop band”, did anyone ever stop to think whether or not that was good for the music industry?  Is having one band dictate the fate of pop music for an entire decade really a good idea?

It’s no surprise that Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, The Who, and The Rolling Stones were able to enjoy their greatest periods success after The Beatles disbanded.  Bands were now able to be themselves, not have to worry about trying to sound like The Beatles just to gain sales, and reach their full potential.  The Beatles simply took what was popular before them (Elvis, Little Richard and underground beat musicians) and made it their own, a feat unto itself don’t get me wrong.

The Stones however, took Black American blues music and made it popular.  The Beatles simply added on to the pre-existing pop scene of the time, while the Stones created a new kind of pop music using blues rock as the basis, a far more difficult task.

Their career trajectory from “Satisfaction” to “Gimme Shelter” to “Miss You” to “Shattered” to “Love is Strong” is far more impressive and musically diverse than what the Beatles did.  Oh and let’s not forget that while the Beatles took the lazy way out and stopped touring after 1966, the Stones have been touring for 50 years, all the while putting out new albums, something The Beatles haven’t done since 1970.  The different facets of the Stones easily eclipse the work of the Beatles either before or after 1966.

SS: If we’re arguing that The Beatles success impeded the greats surrounding them, could we not then make the analogy of The Beatles as Michael Jordan? The best of their era, and arguably the best EVER. It’s only in the power vacuum after their respective absences that everyone else was able to shine: After Jordan, Pippen still led the Bulls to 55 wins in 1994, and it also paved the way for Hakeem Olajuwon. And Patrick Ewing’s Knicks had their shot, but as we both know, that’s best left forgotten.

I look at The Beatles and I see a band that began in the usual clichés and machinations of a pop band. Lyrics shifting between feeling down and out and then feeling the joys of a new romance. It’s not new, sure, but isn’t BAD per say either.

But post-Revolver in 1966, we get an almost entirely different band. Specifically, Sgt Pepper, The Beatles (i.e. The White Album, I just felt like being uppity), Abbey Road, and Let It Be. They’re a band that’s found its voice. They pave the way for psychedelia becoming seen as legitimate, and push Brian Wilson to record Pet Sounds in order to one-up them. By the time they’ve broken up, The Beatles have had elements of rock opera (Abbey Road) and brought to the mainstream the roots rock movement that The Band was pioneering (Let It Be).

I look at the career trajectory of The Rolling Stones, and honestly, the output is astounding. Even in the 80s and 90s, at worst its business as usual. But then I look at The Beatles. And though it’s a fewer amount of years, it was never business as usual. Well, post-1964 at least.

To take it back to basketball once again, it’s also sort of like Bill Walton, who I know you think is overrated. But here’s my proposal: You can have Michael Jordan on your team for only three seasons, but then he gets derailed by injuries a la Bill Walton (Or in-fighting, power struggles, and Yoko, as the case may be). But it’s his three best seasons. I’m going ’89 – ’91, but it’s up to you. Or you can have Clyde Drexler for his entire career. Who, may I remind you, also conveniently benefitted from the Jordan Power Vacuum (J.P.V.) in ’95.

AD: We can’t make the analogy of The Beatles being Michael Jordan, because someone can empirically make the argument that Michael Jordan was the greatest based on his stats, and in comparison with others who played either in his time or any other.  Also in Jordan’s case, he went up against everyone and defeated them, by besting them on the court.  That’s why he is the greatest, because he outplayed and outperformed any and all opposition.

In music, one doesn’t really best someone else, because you’re not really competing against anyone else, at least not like in sports.  For the most part, how good an album or band is, is usually marked by record sales, which as we both know isn’t even that trusted as an indicator.  Milli Vanilli sold 10 million records; it doesn’t mean that they were good.  You can’t really create an analogy of the best when one party doesn’t really go up and conquer their contemporaries in a way that is solely dependent on their skill set and capabilities.

With that out of the way, the difference between The Beatles and The Stones with respect to a band finding their voice is that The Beatles never really committed to one voice; instead they dabbled on a sound for one album and moved on, they never really honed a complete sound.  This stands in contrast to The Stones who, dare I say, perfect blues rock and then infused it with other genres of music.  While The Beatles experimented, and dabbled with pre-existing sounds, The Rolling Stones gave birth to that blues/rock/pop sound and had something to call their own.  Psychedelia for example existed before the Beatles did it; it was an underground genre of music that has its roots in late-50s British club scenes.

While there are a few Rolling Stones albums that are trite, lazy, and just pure shitty, the Stones also did something the Beatles never did: create an album with their backs against the wall.  In order to remain a prominent force in rock music, the Rolling Stones had to make Beggars Banquet in 1968, and then Some Girls in 1978, and it worked.  Both albums changed the game and the career trajectory for the band.  It made them more than relevant and popular again; it reminded everyone of who they were again.  It is in this desperation that you can truly see just how great a band not only is, but how much potential they truly possess.  Since the Beatles never went through that, we just don’t know how good they could have been under pressure.

SS: It’s not inaccurate to look at the Beatles as dabbling and the Rolling Stones as perfecting a sound. But I also think it’s misleading. This may just come down to what an individual defines as “greatness”: what you see as dabbling, I see as a band that took on different styles and influences and made every single one work. They didn’t create folk rock, or psychedelic music, or the concept album, or roots rock, and George Harrison wasn’t the first British man to play a sitar. They weren’t necessarily the best at any single one. But they still mastered them, and they still brought all of those ideas to an audience that would have never discovered those sounds otherwise.

They changed the musical landscape of the Western world. They made everyone smarter for having listened to them, even if The Beatles themselves weren’t the smartest version.

George Harrison played a 12-string electric guitar on Hard Day’s Night. When Roger McGuinn heard the jangly sound, he instantly fell in love with it. He formed The Byrds that same year and the sound become the hallmark of a new folk-rock boom. Even their afterthoughts could turn into gold.

And while The Beatles were never forced to produce an album under the same kind of conditions the Rolling Stones had for Exile on Main Street (when they were actually exiled from Britain), The Beatles still made albums under ridiculous scrutiny. They were the biggest band in the world. Every single minute of every single song is going to analyzed and theorized about. The Beatles may not have had their backs against the wall as far as external conditions, but mentally, there’s no way it was a nice summer stroll.

I guess my final point is simply this: when I turn on a Beatles song, it just sounds beautiful. Nobody has a voice like Paul McCartney, and nobody has the bittersweet sorrow of John Lennon, or the hopeful grace of George Harrison.

And then I turn on “Helter Skelter” and I’m somewhere else entirely. Few bands can do that. And in the 1960s, nobody could.

AD: I will concede that the Beatles were the first ones to mix sounds together and really be the first international pop icons (Elvis not withstanding of course).  But back in the mid-60s you couldn’t not listen to the Beatles; they monopolized AM radio.  So although other bands were crafting their own sounds, no one was paying them much attention.  As a result, other bands had to play to that “Beatles sound” in order to get airtime.  And anytime someone has to alter who they are or what they bring to the table in order to reach the masses, it becomes impossible to say that audiences became smarter for the Beatles.  Quite the opposite actually: If fans only want to hear whatever sound the Beatles craft next, then you have an ignorant and stagnant populace.

In terms of mental pressure, everyone has that no doubt, but the thing is that the Beatles knew that people would eat up whatever they put out.  It’s sex goggles really.  People were so caught up in the Beatles that anything they did would have been great to them.  That’s just the nature of sex goggles, you perceive things to be better than how they are. Being the first one of anything will have that affect on a person.

By virtue of being the first one, doesn’t make you the best, especially if there was no one around to compete with, as was the case prior to ’64-’65.  Bands like the Rolling Stones had to fight against the hegemony of the Beatles to get a piece of the pie. They progress towards being one of the greatest bands in the world, it didn’t just happen, there was no Midas touch.  In short, greatness does not exist in a vacuum, and for too long the Beatles existed in a vacuum.

When I hear “Come Together” I don’t hear the greatest rock band ever being just that; I hear four arrogant men who have grown obsessed with their own cult of personality, telling me to vote for Timothy Leary.  I don’t like being told what to do, and by the end of it, I felt like Lennon/McCartney were speaking down to me merely because they could.  The difference between the two bands is that Jagger/Richards always had their door open, telling me not to be a stranger.


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