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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Muruch Classic Albums Appreciation Club: Week 6

What can I say about last week’s choice of The Beatles: Abbey Road? It’s an undeniable classic and it remains an impressive album decades later. My husband said it was his favorite classic album in this project so far. It didn’t really grab me emotionally the way previous selections have and none of my personal favorite Beatles songs are on this particular album, but it was nonetheless a very pleasant listening experience. We’ll be jumping up to the aughts for a less safe choice this week.

This week’s classic album will be…Damien Rice: O

To recap the procedure here: At the beginning of each week, I’ll post brief thoughts on the previous week’s listening experience along with the coming week’s classic album selection. Then sometime in the week that follows, we’ll all take the time to listen to the album from beginning to end with no distractions. It can be as simple as just getting away from the computer to listen alone or you can make an event of it with candles, beverages and friends. Whatever format you play the album in or the manner in which you listen, just give the music your full and undivided attention.

Feel free to comment or email your opinions of our selections and recommendations for classic albums (from any decade, including this one).

Muruch Classic Albums Appreciation Club: Week 5

Last week’s selection of Tori Amos’ Little Earthquakes turned out to be a bit controversial. I expected some would question my choice, but it still came as a surprise that Tori continues to be a such polarizing figure in the music world. Several people refused to even attempt to listen to the album this week since they despise her so much.

It reminded me of when I first bought the cassette of her debut in 1992. All but one of my friends at the time (I was in junior high) ridiculed her music and acted like I was a weirdo for liking it. Of course, those same friends suddenly jumped on the Tori bandwagon when Under the Pink became popular two years later. Yet despite her growing fanbase in subsequent years, I always seem to have to defend my affection for her music. The stigma of being a “Toriphile” increased so much after the Boys for Pele era (thanks to a new, irksome generation of teenybopper, faerie-winged fans) that I stopped telling people I liked her.

I certainly understand why people don’t like her music now, I personally haven’t been able to stomach any of her albums since Scarlet’s Walk. And I do get that even her older albums are an acquired taste. Yet I’m still mystified by the venomous, condescending reaction the name Tori Amos evokes from even the most peaceful, music-loving people.

Even more puzzling is the way even critics have often diminished Tori’s talent by comparing her (unfavorably) to other piano playing female artists, particularly Kate Bush. There were obvious similarities in their whimsical styles, but the insulting comparisons more often seemed directed toward their gender and instrument of choice. And in the past two decades, every new female artist who plays piano has been compared to Tori in the same way she was likened to Kate (whom I’ve been told was herself compared to Laura Nyro). This ridiculous practice has even included artists in entirely other genres and styles, such as Alicia Keys. You rarely see male pianists or even female guitarists lumped together in such a way.

Granted, it was impossible for me to listen to the album with any objectivity because it is attached to so many of my adolescent memories. But not only was the music on the album unusual for its time, the songs still have power now. Particularly in the early 1990s when it was first released, it was unheard of for any artist to sing so openly and honestly about issues such as religion and sexual abuse as Tori did on Little Earthquakes. Not many have since then either.

But I digress. While listening to Little Earthquakes last night, I tried to focus mostly on the music. Even if you strip away everything else – her passionate way of singing, her personal and metaphoric lyrics, the innovative way she layered vocals and melodies – the piano playing alone was extraordinary on this album. I’ve never heard anyone pound a piano the way she did in “Precious Things.” It’s an extremely moody listen and the latter half of the album loses some of its strength, but there are several songs that still give me chills. It’s sad that her bland recent releases have overshadowed her past accomplishments, because I still maintain that Little Earthquakes is a true classic. But we’ll step back a few decades for a more mainstream choice next week…

This week’s classic album will be…The Beatles: Abbey Road

To recap the procedure here: At the beginning of each week, I’ll post brief thoughts on the previous week’s listening experience along with the coming week’s classic album selection. Then sometime in the week that follows, we’ll all take the time to listen to the album from beginning to end with no distractions. It can be as simple as just getting away from the computer to listen alone or you can make an event of it with candles, beverages and friends. Whatever format you play the album in or the manner in which you listen, just give the music your full and undivided attention.

Feel free to comment or email your opinions of our selections and recommendations for classic albums (from any decade, including this one).

Katherine Jenkins: Believe

Move over Sarah Brightman, Katherine Jenkins is in town. The Welsh mezzo-soprano’s pristine, rafter-scraping voice is beautifully displayed on her new album, Believe. Katherine transforms classics by The Beatles, Queen and Edith Piaf into gorgeous arias and also covers newer songs by Evanescence and Sarah McLachlan. Produced by David Foster, the album features guests Andrea Bocelli and Chris Botti.

A lovely rendition of The Beatles’ “Til There Was You” melts into a dark yet gentle take on Evanescence’s “Bring Me To Life.”

A tender rendering of Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” follows, and the album’s title track is a soaring duet with Andrea Bocelli.

“Parla PiĆ¹ Piano (Love theme from The Godfather)” shows off the full range of Katherine’s voice, from its deepest, most robust depths to its highest opera-worthy trills.

A seraphic cover of Queen’s “Who Wants to Live Forever” serves as the finale to this splendid album.

I was not granted permission to share an mp3, but you can hear samples at the links below…

Buy @ Amazon

Katherine Jenkins Official Site