Happy accidents of timing and circumstance can produce exquisite results. Just like a sleep walking Keith Richards waking up one night in 1965, picking up his guitar, and tape recording a half-dreamt nocturnal idea – a little riff that would turn into “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” – my plan to interview John McMillian, historian and author of “Beatles vs. Stones,” a cool new book de-constructing the construction of the rivalry between the Beatles versus the Rolling Stones, happily coincided with Keith’s 70th birthday today.
Keith would likely be the first one to say that this kind of Kismet tended to happen a lot when his little group went about making their best music. I had also just finished John’s book, and loved how informative, entertaining, and well-told the story was. Having run into John at a neighborhood tavern where my brother tended bar some years earlier (we had a lively conversation about journalism, music in general, and the Stones in particular one evening), I thought another, slightly more formal conversation would make a great read about his great read.
Ultimately, “Beatles vs. Stones” is about myth and the management – indeed, the creation and cultivation – of rock & roll’s greatest and most famous rivalry. The myriad facts (and fantasies) concerning both groups’ personal friendships and professional competition with each other extended well beyond the pop charts, even to casual fans watching from the outside.
Here’s just some of what we know. The Beatles’ John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote an early song, “I Wanna Be Your Man,” as a favor for the fledgling Stones in 1963. Four years later, Stones’ singer Mick Jagger could be seen sitting cross-legged in the audience during a worldwide live telecast of the new Beatles single, “All You Need Is Love,” happily clapping along and mouthing the words. The Beatles showed solidarity when John and Paul sang background vocals on (and helped arrange) the Stones’ post drug bust single, “We Love You,” in 1967. (That year, the Stones had infamously followed the Beatles’ psychedelic masterpiece, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” with their own drug-dogged LP, “Their Satanic Majesties Request,” whose novel 3-D lenticular cover couldn’t distract discerning listeners from the mostly listless music within; the poor reviews were akin to ice-cold water being splashed on the Stones’ LSD-dosed faces: They would rebound magnificently with a string of classics over the next five years that would cement their legend). In 1968, as the story (or rather, one of the stories go) goes, Jagger and McCartney attended the same party, with each bandleader premiering a couple of new, soon-to-be-released tracks for an audience rendered agog: Mick reportedly spun “Sympathy For The Devil” and/or “Street Fighting Man.” Paul countered by unveiling “Revolution” and/or “Hey Jude.”
That same year, Lennon teamed with Stones guitarist Keith Richards (and Cream’s Eric Clapton and the Jimi Hendrix Experience’s Mitch Mitchell) to make up the first one-off rock supergroup, dubbed The Dirty Mac, for a musical extravaganza called “The Rolling Stones’ Rock & Roll Circus.” After the Beatles broke up, things got a little testy. A solo Lennon dissed the Stones as not being confident or mature enough to break up their little boys’ club and grow up. In turn, Richards mocked the Beatles’ phony spirituality and gullible suck up to the Maharishi. Et cetera, et cetera.
Amid all this, both bands changed music forever. To what degree the Beatles and Stones influenced pop culture and politics, and vice versa is presented by McMillian as a fascinatingly interlocking puzzle with hidden pieces. Prior to “Beatles vs. Stones,” McMillian, an assistant professor of history at Georgia Tech University, wrote the acclaimed and incisive “Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America” — which is where, why, and how he first hit upon the idea for his new book. According to the selected bibliography, McMillian’s research led him to consulting well over 150 publications and periodicals, including a recent tome that tackles the oeuvre of the two rock & roll titans by veteran Chicago music critics, Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot. The title and subject of their work – “The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones: Sound Opinions on the Great Rock ‘n’ Roll Rivalry” – initially scared him, given its proximity to his own then-soon-to-published work. (But the fact that there was another book tackling this rivalry proved his point that the debate continues, and that just about everybody has an opinion).
The DeRogatis/Kot book was a very different kind of book, with both music critics sparring over specific tracks and albums between the two lionized bands. McMillian’s book surveys how the rivalry, manufactured and encouraged yet downplayed by both bands, played out on a larger cultural, political, and commercial canvas. And unlike the two aforementioned critics, McMillian scrupulously avoids tipping his hand as to which band he prefers because that’s not really the focus or point of his work (he does have a preference, he acknowledges, but won’t say on the record). What he does talk about in his book is how and why this rivalry came to be; what parts were organic and what parts were manufactured by record labels, publicists, agents, and fan magazines behind the scenes; and finally, why, five decades later, the discussion continues. Our conversation follows below.
JP: So, first off, congratulations on the book. I guess the best place to start is at the start. When and how did you first discover each band? Do you remember when the Beatles and the Stones first entered your consciousness?
JM: Yeah, (I remember) the Beatles really well. My parents were not really big music fans, they were just a little too old to be baby boomers. They didn’t even have a very big or substantial record collection. But like everyone else, they had a few Beatles records. As a kid I discovered those. I remember the double album, the ‘Blue’ album with all the singles from ‘67 to ‘70; there was ‘Magical Mystery Tour,’ and then an odd one – ‘The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl’ – and then a couple of 45s. I considered myself a huge fan as a young child. So much so that (I recall) when John Lennon died, I was ten. I remember getting up for school on a Tuesday morning, my dad was away on business and my mom was making breakfast, and she would always watch the Today show with Tom Brokaw and Jane Pauley, on this little black and white television on the kitchen counter. That’s when I found out the news. I was really upset about it, but my mom assumed that I was too young to really care. I thought about it a lot. I saw the images of the people at Central Park crying and gathering and lighting candles. So to me, that was the first big media mass freak out, where there was some collective mourning. And then with the Stones, there is no precise moment. When I was in college, a lot of my roommates were big Stones fans, and I just sort of passively absorbed it.
JP: This was going to be either my first question or my last one, but to answer the inherent question posed by your book title: Beatles or Stones?
JM: I do have a preference, but in the book I don’t announce what it is, in part because it’s not that type of book. I’m really interested in pursuing how the rivalry was constructed, and didn’t want to get sidetracked from my main goal. But also, people are so acrimonious about this. There’s various online forums of people who say unkind things about either me, or other people who are thought to be partial to one group over the other (laughs). I don’t want to alienate a bunch of people by staking out a position. I will say, though, that for me, I think the Beatles’ best period is 1965-67, like “Rubber Soul” to “Sgt. Pepper.” And for the Stones, I love “Beggars Banquet” to “Exile On Main Street.” I also like “Some Girls.” But I love them both, truly. It’s funny, when I wrote the book I wanted to disguise my preference, and I like to think I did a good job because both Stones fans and Beatles fans have said that I’ve favored the other in the book (laughs).
JP: Do you think that after all this time, it’s kind of a silly question to have to choose? Both bands made great music that’s gone in different directions. (For instance, I’ve always considered the Beatles my first love growing up, while the Stones were my first lust. And to some degree, I think those emotional reference points are conveyed through each band’s music). Ultimately, is it a triumph of the marketing of that rivalry that, after all these decades, there’s still that question that persists: Beatles or Stones?
JM: Obviously, the smart thing to do is like both. But (initially) there were certain points of contrast that maybe were more apparent to people in England than the United States, and part of it was that the fact that Beatles were from Liverpool, which people in London like the Stones thought was this completely culturally barren wasteland. They were looking at Liverpool like people in Cambridge, Mass. might look at someone from Appalachia. So it was surprising that the Beatles were so successful. And the Stones were sort of the modern-day equivalent of the hipsters of today. They were very proud of the fact that they were championing this niche genre of American electric blues that wasn’t terribly popular, so they had to crusade for that music. And the Beatles had gotten so ridiculously popular at every level of society. Whereas the Stones were appreciated by more by disaffected young people. Now we look back and those differences between the Beatles and the Stones don’t seem nearly as obvious or sharp from our perspective in 2013 in the US. But to young people back then, those points of difference were striking to a lot of people.
JP: What prompted you to undertake this project?
JM: My first book was on underground newspapers in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s. And when I was researching that book, there was this fascinating debate about the Beatles and the Stones in the summer of 1968 because some people thought they had different ideological perspectives. The Beatles had that song, “Revolution,” which was sort of like a putdown of the street fighting radicals, and the Beatles were associated with flower power and the hippies, and the kind of gentle aesthetic radicalism from that era. But the Stones came out with “Street Fighting Man,” which (captured) the militant feelings of young protesters. And so there was a big question, a big divide between the New Left and the common culture that some people thought was reflected in the music. And I was just struck by how seriously young people took all this. They really thought the Beatles and the Stones had something really important to say about what the correct analysis (was) for this particular moment. Now that seems a bit silly. But this debate carried on nationally and even internationally in all these underground newspapers. And in all the books and biographies of the groups that I had ever read, none of this source material had ever been brought to light because those (underground) papers were far-flung and hard to find. So I wrote an article that was basically part of Chapter 5 (“Hippies and Activists“), and from there, I got the idea to write the whole book. It was exciting because everyone says there’s nothing new to say about either band. But I had this source material that no one had ever used before.
JP: Was one band over the other championed to a greater degree by the underground press? Of course, Beatlemania was an incredible, almost surreal phenomenon, but I was surprised at something you mentioned in the book: That for all that global popularity, the Beatles didn’t get their first proper album review in the New York Times until “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” And that it was a pan.
JM: At that point, the Beatles were finally being credited as helping to define pop music as art, something to be taken seriously, and worthy of serious criticism. But in the underground press, people were absolutely obsessed with both bands. And rock criticism as a genre was just starting to emerge in the late ‘60s with Rolling Stone [JP note: named, in fact, after founder-publisher Jan Wenner’s favorite band], and (publisher) Paul Williams’s magazine, Crawdaddy, stuff in the Village Voice. These were the very first rock critics and they’re not really professionals. They were just young people who were super-enthused about rock and roll music and they used the underground press to write about it. And they were very favorable to both bands.
JP: Was there anything that was surprising about either band’s history or the dynamic between them that you hadn’t known about before? Did any of the research run contrary to what you had thought, or dispel any misconceptions?
JM: A lot of people thought this project was a fool’s errand because there was no real rivalry there and, the Beatles and the Stones were always friendly with each other and the idea that they were rivals was a bit of a misnomer. And I wasn’t so sure about that. Just my understanding of human nature suggests that you can be friendly with someone and wish them the best, but still have a sense of competition. As it got going, I realized the degree that the personal competition that the two bands had was real. They would often deny it in the press, but I always think they were exceedingly conscious of what the other group was doing and trying to outperform the other group.
JP: They clearly paid attention to each other and were aware of what the other was working on, but was the competition or artistic rivalry really two way? I’ve always felt that yes, the Stones were competitive with the Beatles, and like Ali-Frazier, the presence of the other enhanced each’s legacy and played a role in their history. But ultimately, the Beatles were such a phenomenon unto themselves. Did they really compete with anybody?
JM: I think that’s really well put. Actually, the record that the Beatles, and especially Paul McCartney, was obsessed with was “Pet Sounds” by the Beach Boys. And I think there was so much good music going on, that everybody raised their games. But the Beatles, I think, were ahead of everyone in the ‘60s. When you read all the biographies and autobiographies and memoirs, they don’t talk about the Stones all that much. But the Stones are very obsessed with talking about how close they were with the Beatles, and being seen with them, and if they topped the Beatles in a record poll or displaced them in a record chart, that was a big deal. And you never hear the Beatles talking the other way. And the Beatles always outsold the Stones by a pretty wide margin, too, so I think what you’re saying is correct. Although the thing is, the Beatles broke up (in 1970) when the Stones were doing their best work. They were never really head-to-head. As I had mentioned before, I’ve always liked the ‘68-‘72 stones the best and by that time the Beatles were already gone.
JP: How aware are your students of the Beatles and the Stones?
JM: (laughs). It’s been funny. I teach at Georgia State, which is a very diverse school, I think about 50 percent African-American. And a lot of the young African-American kids just don’t know the Beatles. Or they’ve heard of the Beatles but they don’t know the songs.
JP: We’ve talked about both bands’ best work and influence. But what to you are the worst Beatles and Stones records?
JM: I don’t even know what the worst Stones one is because I pretty much stopped listening after “Steel Wheels” (laughs), but I’ve heard enough to know that they’re not good. But going back, probably “Their Satanic Majesties Request.” I think that’s garbage. I know a lot of rock (writers) find it really fashionable now to say that’s a good record, but I think that’s a shambles. “Let It Be” is probably not a very good Beatles record. It’s better than the early ones, but they were doing more primitive stuff then so I don’t know if it’s fair to compare “Meet The Beatles” to “Let It Be.” I know my least favorite Beatles songs are schlock-y Paul ones like “Octopus’s Garden” and “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and things like that.
JP: What do you think each band does best that really captures the essence of who they are, or were?
JM: Ahh, this is the kind of question I always shy away from because I’m not a rock critic or a musician so I really don’t have the language. But I guess the Beatles, to me, were more versatile and pioneering and path breaking with the music and obviously a little more magical with their harmonies and craftsmanship. The Stones are (about) the raunchy blues stuff and the guitar work – I’m a fan of the Stones in the Mick Taylor age (1969-74) – those great riffs and raunchy guitars. And the Stones are great performers, if a little over the top later on and bombastic. But Mick Jagger’s still incredibly fun to watch. Even if he seems a little weird sometimes.
John Lennon gets nasty about Mick Jagger and the Stones in this tasty 1970 audio interview clip with Rolling Stone magazine’s Jann Wenner. Listen here:
Keith Richards gets nasty about John Lennon in 1973 after being told what Lennon said about the Stones. Listen and watch here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hS1bXkJp1VI
The Rolling Stones play around and have a laugh while “covering” a couple of Beatles tunes in 1965. Listen and watch here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mW_e87-CW0o
Finally, the Who’s Pete Townshend, one of the Rolling Stones’ biggest and most ardent fans, inducts the Stones into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1989. Watch and listen here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WfFtACFYULU
The Rolling Stones react to being inducted into the “waxworks” Hall of Fame. Watch and listen here:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=k2Qlqq3GIqA