At one point during the recent television special honoring the 40th anniversary of “Saturday Night Live,” a door on the set opened, and Keith Richards emerged to enthusiastic applause. Wearing a black jacket and slacks, his white shirt billowing out of his pants, Richards strode with his customary swagger down a short flight of stairs to center stage. As always, he looked like that was exactly where he belonged. The only thing missing was a cigarette—and his guitar.
“In the early Sixties, a band came out of England and it changed the world,” he said, his voice a honey-and-gravel growl. He paused for effect. “But enough about the Rolling Stones,” he continued, smiling. “Ladies and gentlemen, Paul McCartney.”
It was a moment like so many over the course of the past half-century and counting. The Beatles and the Stones, the twin peaks of Sixties rock & roll, circling each other in a dance they had come to know so well. Richards, epitomizing cool, but still placed in the position of an opening act for his own band’s greatest rivals. Could those situations ever have been reversed? Would McCartney introduce a performance by Richards or Mick Jagger or the Stones, or even be asked to? Likely not. That would unsettle what has come to seem as the natural order of things. The Beatles as the shining star at the center of their own solar system. The Stones in forced contentment as the largest and most impressive planet in orbit around them.
Brief as it was, Richards’ introduction of McCartney recalled Mick Jagger’s induction of the Beatles into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. (When the Stones were inducted the next year, no Beatle stepped to the mic to honor them, of course. Pete Townshend of the Who did the job.) In his speech that night, Jagger mimicked his shock as a member of an aspiring R&B band in London at learning that a group from provincial Liverpool — he spoke the name of the British port town as if he were describing one of Saturn’s moons — not only had a record contract but a bluesy song on the charts called “Love Me Do.”
When I heard the combination of all these things, I was almost sick,” Jagger admitted. He chided the Beatles for their boy-band tendency back then to always hang together. “They never went anywhere alone at this point,” he said, incredulous. They were the “Fab Four,” the “four-headed monster,” JohnPaulGeorgeandRingo.
But when the Beatles came to see the Stones play a club show one night, even the typically unflappable Jagger was caught off guard. “They had on these beautiful long, black leather trench coats,” he recalled, his envy palpable a quarter century after the event. “I could really die for one of those. I thought, ‘Even if I have to learn to write songs, I’m gonna get this.’”
He ended his speech, however, on a touching note. “We went through some pretty strange times,” he said. “We had a lot of rivalry in those early years and a little bit of friction, but we always ended up friends, and I’d like to think we still are, because those were some of the greatest times of our lives.”
Such sentiments did not prevent a woman at a New York dinner party a few years back from teasingly asking Mick Jagger, “Everybody is either a Beatles person or a Stones person. Which are you?” He did not tease back. “I’m a Stones person,” he replied, flatly.
Dating back to the times when both bands were starting out, comparisons between them became the fodder for one of those irresolvable arguments that music fans love to indulge: Who’s better, the Beatles or the Stones? John McMillian, a professor at Georgia State University, even devoted a book to the debate in 2013. Simply titled Beatles vs. Stones, McMillian’s book is meticulously even-handed, but somehow the assumption still persists that you have to choose a side.
That notion, needless to say, is hardly confined to these two bands. Black Keys or Jack White? West or East Coast rap? Taylor Swift or Katy Perry? Nor are such either-or choices limited to music. When I was an English major at Hunter College in New York, the literary critic Alfred Kazin visited a D.H. Lawrence course I was taking and announced that it was impossible to like both Lawrence and James Joyce. You had to choose one or the other.
I have as much fun as anyone in those arguments, but as it happens, I like both Lawrence and Joyce. And I like both the Beatles and the Stones. My inclination as both a critic and a fan is to listen to and evaluate music for what it is, not what I would like it to be. I also like when people enjoy things, and rather than give a thumbs up or thumbs down, I always felt that my goal as a writer was to help people get the most out of the music they enjoyed, and possibly turn them on to some sounds they might otherwise have ignored or felt too intimidated to approach. Unlike many of my colleagues, I don’t get off slamming artists or albums. If I don’t like something, I prefer to leave it alone.
Unfortunately, that’s not always possible. I spent five years as the reviews editor at Rolling Stone, and that job necessarily entailed publishing negative reviews. Review sections don’t make sense if every piece is positive; if only for texture and diversity, you need to have a mix of pro and con. That said, I often tried to find writers who had something interesting to say about albums or styles of music that weren’t hip or that people wouldn’t expect Rolling Stone to endorse. I was more interested in trying to understand why something was popular rather than just dismissing it.
Which brings us back to the Beatles and the Stones. I have my preference—like Mick Jagger, I’m a Stones person—but I never really wanted to have to choose. The only time I ever really had to was five years ago when the radio show “Soundcheck” on WNYC, the flagship NPR station in New York, invited me to participate in its Beatles vs. Stones smackdown debate.
The only problem was they wanted me to take the Beatles position. It was a tough call. I could have done it. I love the show, and I love the Beatles. I know all the arguments that Beatles partisans make. I agree with some of them, and could have marshaled all of them convincingly. The problem was that I couldn’t find it in my heart to go up against the Stones, my favorite band. So I passed.
Over the years, I’ve been lucky enough to have had many opportunities to write about both the Beatles and the Stones, and to interview Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Ringo Starr and many of the people who have worked with them.
Unfortunately, John Lennon died before I was ever remotely in a position where I might have been able to speak to him, though I have interviewed Yoko Ono many times and have written about Lennon often. One of the most moving experiences of my career was regularly meeting with Yoko about a Lennon box-set project at the apartment in the Dakota that she and Lennon had shared. One day we walked out of the building together, right by the spot where she had witnessed her husband get shot to death. It was overwhelming to think of the strength of will it must have required for her to remain in the apartment that had been their home, and to have to re-encounter the tragic experience of his death every time she walked into and out of that building.
It’s obviously exciting to meet famous musicians, but it’s a particular thrill to be able to meet and write about the artists whom you not only admire but who shaped your life, who made you the person you are. The Beatles and the Stones made me a person who could devote his life to writing about music. I was a twelve-year-old boy living in New York when the Beatles arrived there in February of 1964, and that moment transformed me. It was my first personal encounter with the cultural changes that the Sixties would unleash, and it signaled a dramatic break for me with the conservative Italian-American values of the neighborhood I grew up in, as well as with the tepid rock & roll that had taken over after the initial revolutionary birth of that music in the Fifties.
Events moved quickly in those days, and soon it began to feel as if the Beatles no longer represented the sharpest edge of where the music and the culture were headed. Parents and teachers somehow decided that the Beatles were acceptable. While their long hair and bright new sound had represented a subversive challenge to the established order, the band’s image had stuck as cute and unthreatening. Suddenly you got patted on the head for liking the Beatles, as if they were simply the latest fad that kids had latched onto, a musical version of hula hoops or Davey Crockett caps. That’s not what rock & roll was supposed to be about.
Just a few months after the Beatles arrived, the Stones appeared among the flood of bands that had come to be known as the British Invasion, and a line got drawn in the sand. The Stones have long been an institution, so it’s hard to communicate how nasty and sexually provocative the band seemed when they came on the scene.
Unlike the matching suits the Beatles wore, the Stones were scruffy and unkempt in a way that no one involved in what might broadly be called “show business” was at the time. As uproarious as early rockers like Elvis Presley and Little Richard were, they dressed like entertainers. The Stones looked as if they had walked on stage not caring what they looked like. That wasn’t true, of course—if anything, the Stones were probably more image-conscious than the Beatles. But that image conveyed a fuck-you quality that was unmistakable, and grownups couldn’t stand it.
The Stones made their first important national television appearance on Hollywood Palace, a variety show hosted by rat-pack perennial Dean Martin. It was about as stark a culture clash as can be imagined. Clearly threatened by cultural changes that seemed to be rendering his generation’s music irrelevant, Martin openly mocked the band’s appearance, intelligence and sexuality.
The Stones, meanwhile, tore through ferocious versions of Muddy Waters’ “I Just Want to Make Love to You” and Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away.” And while the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in February of 1964 has been rightly enshrined in pop culture history, the Stones’ debut there eight months later was cataclysmic.
When the curtain rose and the Stones emerged to begin playing Chuck Berry’s “Around and Around,” Mick Jagger was wearing a grey sweatshirt. It sounds absurd now, but that was shocking at the time. The Sullivan Show had a huge audience and was the essence of family fare. Everyone who performed on it viewed it as a privilege, and its commercial impact was unrivaled. To dress for it as if you were just hanging out with your friends was unheard of. That small gesture caused a huge outcry from teachers, newspaper editors, the entire adult world.
I was in. Decades later during an interview I explained to Mick Jagger that one of the reasons I was drawn to the Rolling Stones was that they were the first band that required something of me. They required my defense and my conviction, my belief in what they were doing. That felt scary, but it also made me feel important.
The Stones also provided my introduction to the blues and R&B, a history of black American music that existed in the shadows for white people. When hip-hop and, particularly, gangsta rap began to roil the music scene, I could sense that young people had the same feelings about it that I had had about the Stones—an unshakable belief that the music was significant and compelling, that it meant everything.
Most important, it was undeniable, regardless of what anyone else said about it. Maybe even because of what they said about it. The more the Stones were attacked, the more disapproving adults were of them, the more they meant to me.
Perhaps, the final irony of this debate is that whenever I write a piece like this or even find myself in one of those Beatles vs. Stones arguments, I feel bad. Though they weren’t as hip or sexy as the Stones, the Beatles, after all, maintained their role as peerless musical innovators throughout their brief history. And if the Stones resented the Beatles’ cultural primacy, the Beatles resented the Stones’ unassailable coolness and sexual heat. Lennon’s sneering dismissal of Jagger’s “fag dancing” told that story.
The fact is I’ve always loved both bands. As Keith’s introduction of Paul McCartney indicates, the Stones remain defensive when the subject of the Beatles comes up. It feels ridiculous, and maybe even a bit insulting, to still be standing in the Fab Four’s shadow.
I remember chatting with Mick Jagger backstage at the Pontiac Silverdome on a freezing night in Detroit near the end of the Stones’ Steel Wheels tour in 1989. I told Mick I had recently seen McCartney perform in Los Angeles, and he was eager to hear what I thought. The Stones’ first tour in eight years, Steel Wheels had been a triumph. McCartney hadn’t been on the road in ten years and was still finding his way. I described McCartney’s performance fairly, but from the smile on Jagger’s face and the gleam in his eye, I could feel the pleasure he took in outdoing one of his old rivals.
But I’ve since seen McCartney shows that were breathtaking, and the fact is that meeting and interviewing the various members of the Beatles and the Stones over the years have been among “the greatest times” of my life, as Mick Jagger might say. I’m happy that I’ve never been locked down in either the Beatles or the Stones camp, regardless of which side I might end up on in a barroom debate—or in an online essay.
Even with all the feuding within those bands, I’ve always been regarded as an honest broker. When Paul McCartney and George Harrison weren’t speaking to each other, I interviewed them individually on successive days in England. (That occasioned the surreal moment when Harrison picked me up at the train station near his home outside London, and then casually asked, “I heard you spoke to Paul the other day. How is he doing?”) When McCartney and Yoko Ono were not speaking to each other, I interviewed them both at length.
As for the Stones, I’ve never been in Mick’s camp or in Keith’s camp, despite how contentious their own relationship has been over the years. In my writing, I’ve been less interested in taking sides than in trying to make their views comprehensible to everyone who cared. As one Stones partisan once said to me, “You write from the inside, but you don’t write like an insider.” That’s one of the best compliments I’ve ever received. Even if you sometimes have to take a stand, there’s nothing wrong with loving both sides of the divide.
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Top photo: Paul McCartney of the Beatles and Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones sit opposite each other on a train at London’s Euston Station, waiting for departure to Bangor, on August 25, 1967 | photo by Victor Blackman