John McMillian: Beatles vs. Stones

John McMillian’s new book, Beatles vs. Stones, examines the rivalry between the two titular bands and their fan bases. You know any book that begins with a “Recommended Soundtrack” is going to be good. Between that opening suggested playlist and the introduction’s juicy retelling of how Paul McCartney upstaged Mick Jagger at his own birthday party by passing the not yet released single of “Hey Jude” and “Revolution” to the DJ, I was hooked.

As for which side of the debate I reside on…I love songs by both bands, but I’m definitely on The Beatles side. My ’80s childhood gave me a positive introduction to The Beatles’ music through the copy of The White Album in a friend’s father’s vinyl collection, the seeming omnipresence of “Yesterday” in the musical ether and love at first listen with “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” (which remain my two favorite Beatles songs). Meanwhile, MTV’s heavy rotation of the videos for The Stones’ “Start Me Up” and Mick Jagger’s embarrassing duet of “Dancing in the Street” with David Bowie (both of which featured a heavily made up and hideously dressed Jagger demonstrating some terrible dance moves) slanted my perspective of The Rolling Stones as a campy, pandering pop group on par with Human League and Adam Ant. It was only later that I learned The Stones were actually respected rock legends. I eventually grew to love The Stones’ pre-80s catalogue and the 1994 single “Out Of Tears” (my favorite Stones song after “Paint It, Black“), but by then The Beatles had staked their flag in my music enthusiast heart.

McMillian details the evolution of both band’s stage images. It was especially interesting to read about those contrasting personas – the good boys vs. the bad boys, the conformists vs. the rebels – each band played with at one time or the other. The Beatles began in rough and tumble leather before polishing up in their Sunday Best, while The Stones went from mimicking The Beatles’ matching suits to posturing themselves as the slovenly Anti-Beatles – for which both John Lennon and George Harrison accused The Stones of stealing The Beatles’s original style. It’s the quotes from Lennon in particular that show, despite more positive interactions in later years and recent statements to the contrary by Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, there was certainly a heated competition and tension between the two iconic bands in their early years.

The book briefly brushes over how “the British class system” influenced the ambition of Liverpool’s underdog Beatles and the condescending attitude London’s elite Stones had toward their Northern counterparts, a topic I wish had been expounded on.

Discussing the various reasons for resentment and envy between the two bands, the author credits The Beatles for having paved the way and paying the pop dues which allowed, at least initially, The Stones greater artistic freedom. But as the years passed and The Beatles grew more experimental, there were more accusations that The Stones were riding their creative coattails.

Yet there were times when a more friendly, sportsmanlike vibe brought the two powerhouse groups together. The Stones were and continue to be openly admiring and appreciative of The Beatles, George Harrison’s recommendation is said to have been the catalyst to The Stones’ being signed by Decca, and it was Lennon and McCartney who (in addition to gifting The Stones with a song to record) first encouraged Jagger and Richards to try writing their own songs.

The middle of the book begins to lag beneath more typical biographical information, temporarily abandoning the tug of war between the two bands to merely follow already well worn views of their respective paths. I understand the need, or at least desire, to have a full picture of both bands’ careers, but it’s a dry read for those of us already familiar with those bullet points. I did appreciate that McMillian doesn’t place John Lennon’s experimental art (a.k.a. Yoko) phase on a pedestal as so many do, but instead paints it more as shock rock rather than art rock and realistically portrays the political (both intentional and accidental) association of both bands.

The main theme is brought back into focus as The Beatles break up and the three non-Lennon members briefly consider forming a record label with The Stones, ushering in a very entertainining period of snarky press quotes from John Lennon, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards about each other’s bands and their own futures.

That is really the book’s crowning glory. McMillian wisely takes a step back on narration and allows the 20/20 hindsight of history to shine a glaring light on the foolish declarative statements of those talented and sadly bitter young men. With the exception of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, who wisely kept their mouths mostly shut, members of both bands seem to have been so wrapped up in tearing each other down they simply couldn’t imagine the legendary status and historic staying power that they and their rivals would achieve. May those quotes serve as a warning to young artists: be careful what you say to the press, you may be writing your own fool’s epitaph for the history books.

Though I mostly enjoyed Beatles vs. Stones, the meat of the book fizzles out with no definitive conclusion and the epilogue is a bit bizarre and unsettling — ending abruptly with a grisly description of the bullets which killed Lennon. A more satisfying finale would have been a deeper discussion of modern Beatles and Stones fans and the influence the two bands continue to exert on new artists and pop culture. As it is, the book is certainly interesting, but ultimately feels unfinished given its title.

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