All images courtesy of Getty Images/The Beatles/Rolling Stones Facebook (official)
By Andrew Daly
It’s a debate we’ve all heard before, “Who’s better? The Beatles, or The Stones?”
Mind-numbing as it may be, the fact remains that when it comes to these two bands, there are two distinct camps: on the one side, you’ve got the folks who favor The Fab Four, and on the other side, you’ve got the fans who steadfastly believe The Glimmer Twins are far and away superior? So, who’s right?
As I’ve alluded to already, I find the argument to be somewhat pointless, as, in reality, these bands really couldn’t be more different. Sure, on the surface they’re both rock ‘n’ roll bands, from England, who originated in the early 60s, but beyond that, the similarities basically end there.
In truth, The Beatles, as influential as they were, only existed in a vacuum, for a short time during the 60s, and by the time the 1970s rolled around, The Beatles were dead, while The Stones were on the precipice of releasing a legendary string of albums. The truth of the matter is that when it comes to The Beatles and Stones, you’re talking about apples and oranges. Still, the comparison, and subsequent debate rages on, arbitrary as it may be.
So, once again, let us debate, and perhaps finally decide who wins this nearly sixty-year battle of the bands. In one corner, you’ve got the boys from Liverpool, and in the other corner, the lads from London. Let’s see who comes out on top, in my opinion, of course.
Round One: The Early Years:
When talking about The Beatles, you go in with the understanding that you’re talking about a band which despite the fact that they only existed for around a decade, is still generally considered to be “the greatest band of all time.” Look, I get the argument. I understand the influence. I wholeheartedly respect the legacy, but, to me, calling The Beatles “the greatest band of all time” does seem a bit far-fetched, and this is coming from someone whose favorite album of all time happens to be Abbey Road. The Beatles were a great band, and their music is legendary, but when we call them “the greatest band of all time,” what are we basing this on? Here’s a hot take, The Beatles didn’t actually start making “great music” until around 1965 with the release of Help! and Rubber Soul. The Beatle’s first four records had a lot of fun, catchy, and relatively memorable songs, but let’s be real here, are With The Beatles, or Beatles For Sale “great” albums? If you’re being honest with yourself, the answer is, “No.” The fact is that The Beatles didn’t really do anything of particular note (aside from a few singles) which would make them historically stand out until Help!, and then Rubber Soul. Before 1965, The Beatles were a typical pop-rock band, adored by teenage girls, who molded themselves in the image of Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, and Chuck Berry. Again – do The Beatle’s early records do anything to truly distinguish themselves from the rest of the contemporary music of the time? If you’re being honest, the answer is, “No.” Now, that’s not to say The Beatle’s first four records aren’t really good albums, but when I think of “the greatest band of all time,” I simply want more than that.
In regards to The Rolling Stones, we’ve got a similar trajectory, but not quite the same. The Rolling Stones were operating around one or two years behind The Beatles’ schedule, with their formation coming two years after that of The Beatles, and their debut record, England’s Newest Hit Makers, hitting shelves about a year after The Beatles’ debut, in 1964. To be completely fair, as is the case with The Beatles, The Stones’ early work is also not exactly life-altering, and it relied heavily on covers that paid homage to their early rock and blues roots. The Rolling Stones have never been shy regarding where they come from, and they’ve leaned into it from day one. With that being said, while The Stone’s first truly “interesting” record, in my opinion, is probably 1967’s Their Satanic Majesties Request, unlike The Beatles, their earlier albums, while not being totally cohesive, did feature some truly interesting songs which pushed boundaries that The Beatles simply weren’t at the time. For example, I would take “Time Is On My Side” over “Eight Days A Week,” and I much prefer “Get Off My Cloud” to “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and “Paint It Black” basically betters anything The Beatles had put out to that point. For me, The Stones were engaging in a depth of songwriting that The Beatles simply were not (at that time). For these reasons, round one goes to The Rolling Stones.
Round Two: Things Get Interesting:
As I mentioned earlier, when it comes to The Beatles, things really got interesting with the 1965 releases of Help! and subsequently Rubber Soul. With these two records, The Beatles drew a line in the sand and started to really explore the depths of their songwriting capabilities, but things got even more interesting in 1966 when the group put out the psychedelic, Revolver. Tracks such as “Taxman,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “I Want To Tell You,” and “Tomorrow Never Knows” show The Beatles exhibiting a form previously unknown to their audience as well as their contemporaries. With Revolver, we also see the band showcasing some of its now-famous studio trickery, which can be credited solely to George Martin. The Beatles followed up Revolver with what many consider to be the group’s masterpiece, and what is often bandied about as “the greatest album of all time, by the greatest band of all time,” which is Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Now, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a great album, and it’s one I do truly enjoy, but let me ask you something – what makes it great? Furthermore, tell me what John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison did to make it great? Much is made of the supposed incredible partnership that John Lennon and PaulMcartney had together, but the reality is, that their songwriting partnership was much closer in their early years when they weren’t as “great’ of a band, and also when they were actually friends. In their later years, the members of The Beatles often wrote alone, and sadly, George Harrison (the best musician in the band by a mile) was often overlooked, ignored, and undermined, and the same can be said for the band’s drummer, Ringo Starr.
As far as the renowned studio trickery the band is known for, I’d like to remind you all of the influence of producer George Martin in the studio setting. If not for George Martin, these songs would sound nothing like they do. Next, one of my biggest issues with The Beatles as a band, in general, was their reliance on cutesy songs. I’ll explain. As a listener, I’ve always found it infuriating and hard to comprehend why a band that is capable of recording a song like “A Day In The Life,” felt the need to put something like “When I’m 64” on the same record. Sure, cute song, but is a band that puts out this type of music during its “mature” and “experimental” period worthy of such lofty praise? You decide. After the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, The Beatles continued to experiment with varying results. The Beatles next several albums (Magical Mystery Tour, Yellow Submarine, The White Album), while still being good, followed the same pattern, alternating between great and completely filler-laden on a song to song basis, an example being The White Album, which could have been shaved in half, and been better for it. Again, why put out a song like “Piggies” when you’re capable of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps?” As far as their late-career period, while overall I’d consider it “great,” there are major issues here, and to be frank – The Beatles were basically four solo artists operating under the guise of a “band” by this time. They didn’t tour, and they barely wrote or physically recorded together let alone spoke. They simply did not operate as a band. With that being said, Magical Mystery Tour is probably the best, and most underrated of the bunch. Songs such as “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “I Am The Walrus,” and “All You Need Is Love” are special tracks, and noticeably, all John Lennon tracks AKA the most talented Beatle, and also the most enigmatic. If only the band would have kept this type of focus at all times.
When it comes to The Rolling Stones during this period, we’ll start with the release of Beggar’s Banquet, in 1968. Right off the bat, “Sympathy For The Devil” is comparatively better than typical Beatles fare from this time. With this track, The Stones lyrically pushed boundaries by evoking provocative imagery regarding The Devil, which was pretty risky for the late 60s. Generally speaking, The Beatles never outright pushed the envelope in this way. The Beatle’s attempts at this were always more veiled, which I find to be wimpy, to be honest. I do believe if John Lennon had his way, The Beatles would have been punchier, but Paul McCartney was always a bit too “boy next door” for that sort of controversy. Anyway, Kicking off side two, we’ve got “Street Fighting Man,” which again, is a boundary-pushing rocker, which speaks to the socio-political issues which were afoot at that time. With Beggars Banquet, to me, it’s undeniable that The Stones were already separating themselves from The Beatles in terms of songwriting, lyricism, and their fearless attitude in regards to taking on the larger issues of the day. By the time Let It Bleed was released, in The Rolling Stones, you’re looking at a band who is head and shoulders above anything The Beatles could muster by that point, seeing as The Beatles were already wheezing their final death rattles from their suffocated lungs as a band. If we’re comparing Let It Bleed to Let It Be, it’s not close – Let It Bleed wins by leaps and bounds. I will say that Paul McCartney’s “Let It Be” is special, “Don’t Let Me Down” showcases a fantastic vocal performance by John Lennon, and I have always been fond of “I’ve Got A Feelin’,” as I enjoy the interplay between Lennon and McCartney. That said, “Gimmie Shelter,” “Midnight Rambler,” “Let It Bleed,” and “Monkey Man” are vicious tracks, and the dirty, grimy feeling permeating throughout the album is everything we love about The Stones, and rock music as we know it.
What happened next is where it gets complicated, and is why it’s difficult, and perhaps arbitrary to compare these two bands. While Let It Be is signified as The Beatle’s “last record,” in reality, Abbey Road was recorded last, they just released them out of order. Now, when it comes to Abbey Road, for me, we are talking about The Beatle’s best record by an unmitigated longshot, and probably their only truly 100% watershed moment, and it also happens to be my favorite album of all time. Nothing The Rolling Stones have ever done, or presumably ever will do, can touch this record. I mentioned earlier how exasperating I at times found it to listen to some Beatles records due to the inconsistency as it is obvious to me that if the band had just been able to fully come together (no pun intended), they could have made some very cohesive records, and been that much better for it. As an objective listener, I actually find it disturbing that The Beatles carried the ability within themselves to make a record such as Abbey Road all along, and after years of not doing so, they finally made the album and then chose to disband and walk away. Also mindblowing is the wildly inconsistent solo careers the four Beatles experienced after the release of this record. The strange trajectory of Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr as a band, and as solo artists are hard to comprehend, to be honest.
As for The Stones, after The Beatles broke up, they put out a string of albums in Sticky Fingers, Exile On Main Street, Goats Head Soup, It’s Only Rock ‘N’Roll, Black And Blue, Some Girls, Emotional Rescue, and Tattoo You which were nothing short of genre-defining, and I would have a hard time believing The Beatles, had they stayed together and given the underwhelming quality of their respective solo works, could have matched what Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Charlie Watts, Bill Wyman, and company were doing at the time, but alas, we will never know. So, who wins this round? Well, despite what I feel to be wild inconsistency, an inability to come together as a band, overrated production, and a general lack of a cohesive thought, I give this round to The Beatles solely due to the presence of Abbey Road, which is not only the band’s defining moment but also the greatest album of all time, in my opinion.
Round Three: Legacy/Who Wins?
When it comes to The Beatles, we’re talking about a band which ended in 1970 – that’s forty-two years ago. Most of us never even saw them play, let alone had a chance to. What we know about The Beatles is all second or third-hand accounts, and of course whatever we can glean from their records. What we are left with is a lot of bandwagoneering, and revisionist history, truly. Now, people can like whomever they want, and if you want to believe that The Beatles are, “the greatest band of all time,” then more power to you, but I ask you this – why do you feel that way? Is it because you’ve reached deep within yourself, and formed an opinion based on your preference? Or is it because you’ve heard it so many times during your travels through the cultural zeitgeist, that it’s simply ingrained in you to robotically regurgitate it? Don’t get me wrong – I like and enjoy The Beatles, and I love John Lennon. I do think they’re “great.” You might not believe that after reading this, but I do. That being said, do I believe they are, “the greatest of all time?” My answer to that question would be a resounding, “No.” Furthermore, do I believe that The Rolling Stones are, “the greatest band of all time?” That would also be a, “No.” If you’re asking me, the answer to that question is, “Led Zeppelin,” who is not my personal favorite band, but as far as rock music goes – are untouchable.
This article isn’t about the merits of Led Zeppelin though, it’s about the age-old battle between The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones. So, who wins? At the end of the day, I have to go with The Rolling Stones. While Abbey Road is the album for me, The Beatles didn’t have what it took to keep it together and carry on. The Beatles existed within a small, and singular period of time, and while they were highly influential, and again, were a great band, they weren’t cut out for the long haul, as such, their legacy is minuscule compared to that of The Rolling Stones. Furthermore, the rampant inconsistency that Beatles’ records tend to be writhe with severely undermines their overall legacy, in my opinion. In short, I don’t feel The Beatles maximized their talent, or consistently lived up to it as they should have. Too many cutesy songs, and too much filler. We are left with a catalog which sounds dated in a lot of spots, which is a malady The Stones (generally) do not suffer from.
Here’s how I see it, the fact is that people are afraid to criticize The Beatles. Be that as it may, the things I am saying are uncommon, and probably going to be considered musical heresy, but if you objectively look at it, there is a lot of truth to all of this. The Beatles were a great band, and they are held in high esteem. However, the side effect of that is that their legacy overshadows certain issues their music held, and so, the shadow they cast prevents people from fairly and objectively criticizing their work. The Beatles were a great band, but The Rolling Stones still are a great band, one which has carried on for sixty years, has more music, and written far greater numbers of legendary tracks than The Beatles ever could have dreamed to as a band, or as solo artists for that matter. If The Beatles had it in them to hold it together, they would have. If they had it in them to set the world on fire as solo artists, they would have done so. The simple fact is The Stones did what The Beatles couldn’t, and they continue to.
When it comes to The Stones, I’ll break it down for you – Mick Jagger is the prototypical frontman, and Keith Richards is a better guitarist than all of the gents in The Beatles put together, as was Brian Jones, and as is Mick Taylor and Ronnie Wood. When it comes to musicianship, The Rolling Stones crush The Beatles on any and all levels. The Rolling Stones’ swagger, influence, and appeal have come to define rock music and are the literal template for new bands to this day. Like I said, comparing The Beatles and The Stones is like comparing apples and oranges, but if I’m going to do it, gun to my head – I’m taking Stones all day, every day, and it’s not even very close. If my criticism of The Beatles seems harsh, remember, I’m just being honest. At the end of the day, I’m just doing and saying what others are afraid to.
Anyway, who’s your favorite?