It’s a debate we’ve all heard before: “Who’s better? The Beatles, or the Stones?”
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, you’ve got the fans who steadfastly believe the Glimmer Twins and company are far and away superior. (Copper’s Jay Jay French asked the question in Issue 117.)
I find the argument to be ultimately somewhat pointless, as 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 1960s, but beyond that, the similarities basically end. Still, the comparisons and debates rage on. So, let’s go another few rounds, and see who comes out on top.
In my opinion.
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 farfetched, and this is coming from someone whose favorite album 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 Beatles’ first four records had a lot of fun, catchy, and memorable songs, but let’s be real here; are With The Beatles, or Beatles For Sale great albums? The fact is that the Beatles didn’t really do anything – aside from a few admittedly, undeniably great singles – which would make them historically stand out until Help! Before 1965, the Beatles were a typical pop-rock band, adored by teenage girls, a band who molded themselves in the images of Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly, and Chuck Berry. Again, do the Beatles’ 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. That’s not to say the Beatles’ first four records aren’t good albums, but when I think of “the greatest band of all time,” I simply want more than that.
Regarding 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, The Rolling Stones (US version)/England’s Newest Hit Makers (UK version), hit shelves about a year after the Beatles’ debut in 1963. 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 Stones’ first truly interesting record, in my opinion, is 1967’s Their Satanic Majesties Request, unlike the Beatles, their earlier albums, while not being totally cohesive, did feature some songs that pushed boundaries, which the Beatles simply weren’t doing at the time. 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 way 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, for me things really got interesting with the Beatles with the 1965 releases of Help! and 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. Things got even more intriguing in 1966 when the group put out 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 contemporaries. With Revolver, we also see the band showcasing its now-famous studio trickery, much of which can be attributed 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”: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Now, Sgt. Pepper’s is a great album, one I truly enjoy, but let me ask something – what makes it great? Much is made of the supposedly incredible songwriting partnership that John Lennon and Paul McCartney had together, but their partnership was much closer in their early years when they weren’t as “great” of a band. In their later years, the members of the Beatles often wrote alone, and sadly, George Harrison (the best musician in the band) was often overlooked, ignored, and undermined, and the same can be said for Ringo Starr.
As far as the renowned studio trickery the band became known for, I’d like to remind everyone of the influence of producer George Martin. If not for Martin (and engineers Geoff Emerick and later Ken Scott, Glyn Johns, and others), these songs would sound nothing like they do. Next, one of my biggest issues with the Beatles as a band, in general, is the release of some of their cutesy songs. I’ve always found it infuriating and hard to comprehend why a band that was capable of recording a song like “A Day In The Life” felt the need to put something like “When I’m Sixty-Four” on the same record.
After the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Beatles continued to experiment, with varying results. The 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. The White Album 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 I’d consider it “great” overall, there are major issues, and to be frank, the Beatles were basically four solo artists operating under the guise of a band by this time. With that being said, Magical Mystery Tour is probably the best and most underrated of the bunch. Songs like “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “I Am The Walrus,” and “All You Need Is Love” are special, and noticeably, all of them are John Lennon tracks. If only the band would have kept this type of focus.
Regarding the Rolling Stones during this period, let’s start with the release of Beggar’s Banquet in 1968. Right off the bat, “Sympathy for the Devil” is, I’ll say it, better than the typical Beatles fare from this time. With this track, the Stones pushed boundaries by evoking provocative imagery about the devil, pretty risky for the late 1960s. Generally speaking, the Beatles never outright pushed the envelope in this way. I do believe that if John Lennon had his way more of the time, the Beatles would have been punchier, but Paul McCartney was always a bit too boy-next-door for that sort of controversy. Kicking off side two, “Street Fighting Man” is another boundary-pushing rocker that speaks to sociopolitical issues afoot at that time. With Beggars Banquet, to me, it’s undeniable that the Stones were separating themselves from the Beatles in terms of songwriting and lyrics, and in their fearless attitude in taking on the larger issues of the day.
By the time Let It Bleed was released in 1969, we’re looking at a band who is head and shoulders above anything the Beatles could muster by that point. If we’re comparing Let It Bleed to Let It Be, it’s not close; the former wins by leaps and bounds. I will say, though, 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 Feeling” and enjoy the interplay between Lennon and McCartney. That said, the Stones’ “Gimme 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 things get complicated, and is why it’s difficult, and again, perhaps arbitrary to compare these two bands. While Let It Be is signified as the Beatles’ “last record,” Abbey Road was recorded last; the two were just released out of order. When it comes to Abbey Road, for me, we are talking about the Beatles’ best record by an unmitigated long shot. Nothing the Rolling Stones have ever done (or presumably ever will do) can touch this record.
I mentioned earlier how exasperating at times it is for me to listen to some Beatles records because of their inconsistency, and it is obvious (at least to me) that if the band had just been able to fully come together (no pun intended), they could have made more-cohesive records and been much the better for it. I find it disturbing that the Beatles found the ability within themselves to make a record such as Abbey Road, and, after years of not doing so, finally made the album, and then chose to disband and walk away. Then, consider the wildly inconsistent subsequent solo careers the four Beatles experienced. The strange trajectories of Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr as a band, and then as solo artists, are hard to comprehend, to be honest.
As for the Stones, after the Beatles broke up, they put out an incredible, genre-defining 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. I would have a hard time believing the Beatles, had they stayed together, and given the mostly-underwhelming quality of their 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 cohesion, 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 in my opinion the greatest album of all time.
Round Three: The Bands’ Legacies, and, Who Wins?
The Beatles broke up in 1970 – 52 years ago. Most of us never saw them play, let alone had a chance to. What we know about the Beatles at this point in time consists of a lot of second or third-hand accounts, although one can always refer to the historical record of original articles and other material, and hundreds of books have been written about the band. And of course, there’s the music. That said, it seems to me that, these days, we have to deal with a lot of “bandwagoneering” and revisionist history.
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 band of all time? No. 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. Not my personal favorite band, but as far as rock music is concerned, 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 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 way the Stones did. Furthermore, the Beatles’ inconsistency undermines their overall legacy, in my opinion. I don’t feel the Beatles maximized their talent or consistently lived up to it as they could have.
I also think people are afraid to criticize the Beatles. The things I am saying are uncommon, and may be considered heresy, but I think there is a lot of truth in them. The Beatles were a great band, held in high esteem. However, the side effect is that their legacy overshadows certain issues their music held, and so, the shadow they cast can prevent 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 60 years, has created more music, and has arguably written greater numbers of legendary tracks than the Beatles as a band or as solo artists. The Rolling Stones’ swagger, influence, and appeal have come to define rock music – they’re the literal template for rock bands to this day.
Comparing the Beatles and the Stones is comparing apples and oranges, but if I’m going to do it, I’m taking the Stones all day, every day. If my criticism of the Beatles seems harsh, I’m just being honest with myself.
Anyway, who’s your favorite?