The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones. And the winner is…
Now that I have your attention, we are going to pretend to be Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, click our heels together three times and say, “There’s no time like 1969, there’s no time like 1969, there’s no time like 1969,” (or thereabouts) so we can compare the Golden Age recordings of the two greatest bands in rock history.
My apologies to Zep, Who, Floyd, Queen, Dead, Sabbath fans etc.
We are dealing with the actual pillars of all that really matters so sit back and enjoy this ride…
I can write about this stuff because I lived it, every day, in real time and devoured all the music, news, concerts and drugs all as a teenager who lived day-to-day waiting to be bathed in all things Beatles and Rolling Stones.
Those years, 1965 to 1972 (I was 13 in 1965 and 20 in 1972) formed my musical tastes and permeated my very DNA. This music is in me at a cellular level.
The Golden Age-quality recordings of each band, as defined by me (and I dare anyone to argue), go like this:
1965: Rubber Soul
1967: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
1968: The Beatles (the “White Album”)
1969: Abbey Road
The Rolling Stones
1968: Beggars Banquet
1969: Let it Bleed
1971: Sticky Fingers
1972: Exile on Main Street
The Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour (1967) is not applicable as it was a soundtrack EP in the UK and a compilation album in the US. The Beatles’ Let it Be (1970), not applicable as it was also supposed to be a soundtrack. The Rolling Stones’ Get Yer Ya Ya’s Out (1970) isn’t applicable because I’m saying live albums don’t count.
Let us begin…
At first glance it becomes obvious that The Beatles understood themselves and their maturity as a band a bit earlier then the Stones. 1965 was their initial climb to immortality with Rubber Soul vs. the Stones in 1968 with Beggars Banquet. This is a very important distinction and at the time of these respective releases it is interesting to note that Rubber Soul (released in December 1965) contained all original songs and was up against the Stones’ December’s Children (And Everybody’s) which contained six covers and six original songs.
Both US albums were different in their track listings than their UK counterparts and December’s Children even had a different album title in the UK, Out of our Heads. As good as some of the songs were on December’s Children, including “Get Off of My Cloud” and “As Tears Go By,” they were just not in the same league with the best of our first Golden Age-level album, Rubber Soul: “Norwegian Wood,” In My Life,” “Drive My Car,” “Girl,” “Michelle” and “Nowhere Man.” This is not even close, which is why the Stones needed a couple of more years to find their footing.
The Beatles strike again with Revolver and this time they wipe the floor with all comers. They take the musical directions of Rubber Soul into another dimension with songs like “Taxman,” “Got to Get You Into My Life,” “I Want to Tell You,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Here, There and Everywhere,” “I Want to Tell You,” “Good Day Sunshine” and the mind-blowing “Tomorrow Never Knows.” No wonder Revolver is on the shortlist as one of, if not the, greatest rock album ever released.
The Stones, in contrast, deliver Aftermath. Tracks like “Paint it Black,” “Lady Jane” and “Mother’s Little Helper” show great leaps forward both musically and lyrically, but songs like “Stupid Girl” and “Under my Thumb” show the band’s misogyny is still the order of the day. However, at least it is a full-on all-original Stones album for the first time.
I will add this: I was 14 years old when I bought and played these albums to death. I can tell you that the Stones’ sexist view of women made an impression on me (and not a healthy one) but Lennon’s “Run for Your Life,” the ending song on Rubber Soul, really threw me for a loop. The Stones never talked about murder until 1969 with “Gimme Shelter!”
The arrival of the Beatles Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, following Revolver just a scant 10 months earlier, just about demoralized every other rock band who thought they might have been making a difference. If Revolver wasn’t enough, Sgt. Pepper’s raised the bar so high that most other bands must have just waved the white flag. The Stones were, at the time, trying to make albums but were getting harassed by the UK police. They were getting arrested, getting high and getting distracted. But at this point, the Beatles were three albums into their Golden Age while the Stones were not even at the starting gate.
The Stones released two albums in 1967: Between the Buttons in January and Their Satanic Majesties Request in December. They both were hit and miss affairs in that the band were compelled to try to compete with Revolver and then Sgt. Pepper’s.
Between the Buttons is oft-times overlooked, although tracks like “Yesterday’s Papers,” “Miss Amanda Jones” and “Something Happened to Me Yesterday” stand out – barely.
Then in December comes Their Satanic Majesties Request, which was the first all Jagger/Richards production, and it really is a good sounding record with some great songs like “2000 Man,” “2,000 Light Years from Home” (both of these tracks sound like they easily could have been on Pink Floyd’s first two albums) and “She’s A Rainbow,” a song so good that it would fit on any classic Stones LP. This album has really gotten better with age and I enjoyed reviewing the 50th anniversary release for Goldmine last year.
But…it was not even close. The Beatles again took the year…with a sledgehammer!
This is the year the Stones came to the table.
In November 1968 both the Beatles and the Stones delivered! The Beatles released their fourth Golden Age album: The Beatles aka the White Album. The Stones served up Beggars Banquet.
Imagine being 16 and walking to a local record store and buying both of these albums at the same time!
Both bands retired their psychedelic zoot suits and super hippy dreamy production for bare bones, stripped down to the raw emotions straight out rock n roll. The Beatles opened the White Album with “Back in the USSR,” the Stones with “Sympathy for The Devil.” Both drew an artistic line in the sand.
Friends, if I had to pick one desert Island Stones album then Beggars Banquet is it.
Every track is a winner. Every track delivers. The band is so good it’s criminal. This is the Stones album that I could listen to every day. This is the album that not only gave you “Sympathy for the Devil” but also “Street Fighting Man,” “No Expectations,” “Dear Doctor,” “Parachute Woman,” “Factory Girl” and the killer final track “Salt of the Earth.”
This is the fully-realized Rolling Stones. An absolute perfect synthesis of blues, country and rock. Their first Golden Age album and it’s a stunner!
The Beatles’ White Album has 30 tracks that confirm why they became so great. Each so different but each so special. For me the standouts are “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” “Glass Onion,” “Happiness is a Warm Gun,” “Birthday,” “Sexy Sadie,” “Back in the USSR,” “Cry Baby Cry,” “I Will,” “Helter Skelter” and “Julia.” The evolution from “I Want to Hold Your Hand” just five years earlier to just about any track on this album is really, in retrospect, almost impossible to fathom.
Both albums need to be played in sequence from beginning to end. Such are the journeys they both take you on.
This is the year that, for all Intents and purposes, the Beatles leave us with the ultimate farewell: Abbey Road in September, and the Stones come to the rescue with Let It Bleed in December. (Of course, the Beatles did record one more album, Let It Be, with tracks recorded from 1968 to 1970 but it was released in 1970 and was supposed to be a soundtrack album to the movie. It is not part of my Golden Age Beatles period.)
It is nearly impossible to talk about Abbey Road and Let It Bleed without talking about the (then) current events surrounding their releases. When Abbey Road (The Beatles fifth and final Golden Age-category recording) was released in September 1969, I was entering my final year of high school. I had turned 17 the previous July. If there ever was going to be a revolution in the US it seemed like it really could happen. Just months after Woodstock it seemed that the Vietnam War and the civil rights movements were about to collide in real social disruption. I was in the middle of it all. My high school was closing down almost every day because of student protests. So much so that I don’t think I attended a single day of school my entire senior year.
Abbey Road was my salvation that fall. Every day after school, (even if I missed class I went to the school and, when not involved in the student demonstrations, hung out outside) I took a bunch of friends to my parents’ house, got high and listened, over and over, to Abbey Road. Opening with “Come Together” and ending with “The End,” listening to the album felt like a giant page was turning in my life. The Beatles were leaving me! How could they? I had stood by them from January 1964 to September 1969. Every hour of every day it was me, John, Paul, George and Ringo. And now…they were going.
So much has been written about George’s two songs, “Here Comes the Sun” and “Something.” Both exceptional. So are “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” and the last track on side one, “I Want You (She’s So Heavy).” If that was all there was after “Come Together,” it would just about make any other band’s day’ but not the Beatles. The medley on side two after “Because”: and “You Never Give Me Your Money,” “Sun King,” “Mean Mr. Mustard,” “Polythene Pam,” “She Came In Thru The Bathroom Window,” “Golden Slumbers” and finishing with the epic McCartney-Harrison-Lennon guitar jam and Ringo’s drum solo in “The End,” is a tour de force of harmony, songwriting, production and passion, a timeless statement that the Beatles were the greatest rock band to ever walk this earth.
How fitting were the last lines, ”And In the end, the love you take/Is equal to the love you make.”
Beatles Golden Age record number five, over and out…how depressing.
But within a few short weeks, and with revolution feeling like it was in the air, the Stones come to the rescue and deliver their second Golden Age-worthy release: Let It Bleed, with quite possibly the greatest opening album track ever made: “Gimme Shelter!” This album is a stunner with songs like the showstopper “Midnight Rambler” and “Live with Me,” “Monkey Man” and the classic “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.”
The Stones announced a tour stop at Madison Square Garden that Thanksgiving; three shows over the weekend including two evening shows and one rare Friday afternoon concert. I ran down to the Garden and bought tickets to all three of them. All featuring the New York debut of Mick Taylor. This was the Stones at full throttle, pure majesty. Yes, in fact, The World’s Greatest Rock and Roll Band.
And now, with the Beatles gone, the Stones could let loose without all that Beatles peer pressure.
Dorothy…we’re still not in Kansas anymore and life continued into the 1970s.
The Stones came back with their Golden Age album number three: Sticky Fingers.
The album took nearly two years to put together but when it was finally released in the spring of 1971, it shook the world.
I was in Europe that summer, hippie backpacking all over Holland, France and the UK. When I got to London, “Brown Sugar” and “Can’t You Hear Me Knocking” seemed to be pouring out of every clothing store and rock-themed restaurant. It was a great summer to be in England. Other notable releases that summer were Who’s Next, Rod Stewart’s Every Picture Tells A Story and Curtis Mayfield’s hit single “Move on Up.”
Sticky Fingers, with that outrageous cover, really took the prize as Record of the Year to me. The track listing is monumental, including others like “Bitch,” “Sister Morphine,” “Wild Horses” and “Moonlight Mile.” The Stones’ writing was really getting sophisticated and the production by Jimmy Miller (as it was on Let It Bleed) was fantastic!
The fourth and final Rolling Stones Golden Age release arrives: Exile on Main St. Of all the Golden Age releases, this is the most controversial.
Exile was not hailed as a great album when it was originally released in May 1972.
I remember buying it the day it came out but felt initially disappointed by the dense production. Also, I didn’t “get” the songs right away either. “Tumbling Dice,” the single, was a good, not great track and I wasn’t really getting off on it.
Then I saw them play many of the songs live on at Madison Square Garden on July 26th. It was Jagger’s birthday party. When I saw and felt “Rocks Off,” “Happy,” “Rip This Joint” “Tumbling Dice” and other songs from the album was so blown away that the show quickly entered my top five all time concert experiences.
These songs had a power and force that, to me, defined the very nature of rock and roll. Raw, loud, visceral, sexual, dark and ominous. This in short was what the Rolling Stones always were. They were the anti-Beatles and Exile on Main St. was their Declaration of Independence and the proclamation that they deserved to stand on the mountain right next to John, Paul, George and Ringo.
As good as the Stones were in 1969, the shows in 1972 to support Exile were among the greatest I have ever seen and experienced.
The proof is a DVD of the movie called Ladies and Gentlemen: The Rolling Stones, filmed at the Dallas show about seven days after the New York show I saw. What the Stones did the night I saw them was elevate the experience of the magic of rock and roll to that of a spiritual tent show. Such was the impeccable force and excellence of the performance.
This is the reason why I can’t stand the garbage they are selling today. They are plain awful and follow a script of enormous ineptitude. All it is is a cynical cash grab.
They are worse than a tribute band who at least could get the arrangements right.
The Stones live in 1972 were everything that greatness in rock exemplified and I’m very glad to have been witness to it.
I learned to love Exile (despite its pretty terrible sound) and it was the last album by the Stones that I truly cared about. Yes, over the years they have had a track or two that was interesting but after Exile they never returned to that exalted level of majesty. It was their final Golden Age recording.
And in the end…who won?
For the Beatles, five Golden Age-level albums, for the Rolling Stones four.
But it’s not just the number, it’s the impact these records had on me as a musician regarding how and why I decided to do what I do.
It is a draw. Simply for this reason: each of these two bands gave me something different and totally unique. The Beatles morphed in front of my eyes, from 1964 to 1969, from a rock and roll cover band to a hit-producing pop band to the ultimate rock band.
The Rolling Stones, from 1965 to 1972, went from being a blues band to a pop band to a mind-blowing perfect meld of blues and rock while staying true to their roots.
I can’t imagine my life without either of them and that, my friends, says it all.