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24 February 2023

The return of the Beatles vs Stones wars

As news of a Rolling Stones album featuring Paul McCartney appears, the press reignites a culture war it confected.

By David Hepworth

Beatles or Stones? Light or dark? North or south? Pop or rock? Grace or grit? Fab or anti-fab? It’s been one of Britain’s culture wars since 1965 – and it’s back in the media again after news that an upcoming Stones album will feature Paul McCartney. Evidently, as the remaining members of both bands advance into their eighties, the press loves nothing more than to give this rivalry another prod. It might as well. After all, the press started it.

I don’t remember exactly when the idea took hold that people could only love either the Beatles or the Stones, but it certainly wasn’t true among anyone who was a teenager in the Sixties. We couldn’t believe how lucky we were to have both. If in 1965 the Beatles chose to give us “Help!”, “Ticket To Ride” and “Day Tripper” while the Stones served up “The Last Time”, “Satisfaction” and “Get Off My Cloud”, then this 15-year-old wasn’t going to waste his energies arguing that liking one meant you couldn’t like the other.

Such sectarianism was for the future. At the time it was all beat music, which was still a sub-division of showbusiness. Both bands wore uniforms on stage. They did the same variety shows. They both had an edition of Juke Box Jury devoted to them. The Beatles aced that test; the Stones had trouble when called upon to simply be themselves.

The Stones’ first hit was “I Wanna Be Your Man”, a Lennon-McCartney song the authors “gave” to the other band on a visit to see them rehearse in 1963. By then the Liverpool group were not merely the toast of the nation, they were also old pros, and bumptious with it. The Beatles’ commercial touch was so Midas-like that there was no question of the still hitless Stones turning down the offer. It was only later that the Stones’ manager Andrew Oldham, who had previously worked as a PR for the Beatles, made much of the fact that his new clients wore their street clothes on stage, didn’t bow at the end of their numbers, would never be awarded MBEs, and were the polar opposite of the establishment darlings.

Even as late as January 1967 Oldham was still trying to coax his surly charges to join the other variety stars waving and grinning from the carousel that traditionally closed Sunday Night at the London Palladium, just as the Beatles had done. Everywhere the Stones turned up their elder brothers had been there first. The eight-month start that the Beatles had on the Stones at the beginning never went away. By the time the Stones got to the United States the Beatles had already made that nation their own and the only tune the press could play was contrasting the Liverpudlians’ cheerfulness with the Stones’ calculated moodiness. However, the rougher and readier band made a big impression on young wannabes such as the 15-year-old Steve Van Zandt. He recalled thinking that while he and his peers could never hope to match the Beatles’ polish and harmonies, they could have a go at being the Rolling Stones. Boys were always more comfortable admiring the Stones. This still applies even when some of those boys are in their seventies.

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[See also: Paul McCartney at Glastonbury? Rolling Stones at Hyde Park? Our culture is stuck in the past]

By 1967 the Beatles were beginning to fancy a bit of the other group’s perceived edginess. John Lennon and McCartney sang the refrain on “We Love You”, the Stones’ response to their drug bust, to underline which side they were on. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards made sure they turned up at Abbey Road when the Beatles made their “All You Need is Love” telecast. There is a wonderful picture (opposite) of McCartney and Jagger waiting for their train to leave Euston that summer. Here they are, two princelings with the world at their feet, waiting to go to Bangor to hang out with an actual Indian mystic.

By that time McCartney’s group had released their psychedelic album Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band to universal acclaim. At Christmas the same year Jagger’s group put out their own hallucinogenic record, Their Satanic Majesties Request, to derision of an almost equal measure. The cover of the former contains the message “welcome the Rolling Stones”, while the cover of the latter has pictures of all four Beatles hidden in it. Both pictures feature the bands in fancy dress and were taken by the same photographer. This was when you could put the whole of Swinging London in a room and still have space to swing a cat.

By the time the new decade had begun, the Beatles had gone their separate ways and the Rolling Stones had gone professional, embracing the new world of massive amplification, huge venues and audiences of young adults. This was a world the Beatles were never to know, though they did all have huge solo success, which evades the members of the Stones to this day.

When provoked by journalists, who never tired of trying to stir up the rivalry between the two institutions, both could be bitchy in the way that pop groups never grow out of, particularly when the spokesperson was one of the less measured members. In the 1970 interview in which he irritated the whole universe, Lennon said he liked “Honky Tonk Women” but couldn’t take Jagger seriously what with his “fag dancing”. Decades later, Keith Richards announced that Sgt Pepper was “a mish-mash of rubbish”, which proved how sore he remained about the reviews of Their Satanic Majesties.

The more diplomatic members, on the other hand, preferred to go in for the very faintest of praise. McCartney recently told the New Yorker that when all was said and done the Rolling Stones were essentially a blues covers band. We might know what he meant, but that was a singularly uncharitable way of putting it. Every salvo the two have aimed at each other across the years has been payback for some slight apparently delivered decades before. At its root is the Stones’ resentment that the Beatles are regarded with greater awe than ever, and McCartney’s feeling that the Stones are the only people left in the world who still underestimate his old group.

In 1988 Jagger made a speech when the Beatles were inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He managed to do this without actually finding anything complimentary to say about them other than that when he met them they were all wearing “beautiful” leather coats. Since McCartney wasn’t present on that occasion because of a legal squabble with his former band-mates, Jagger must have known that he wasn’t really honouring the Beatles at all. As a member of a band who had then been together for 25 years, Jagger must also have known how wounding his presence at this investiture would be.

The remarkable thing about the press reports of a new collaboration is what it says about the power the Beatles and Stones still have to make news, so long after their halcyon days. It is 60 years since the summer of Beatlemania and the release of the first Stones record. If you subtracted the same number of years from 1963 you would be almost in the 19th century.

Some people are always trying to fix pop’s past. There are romantics who yearn to see a band that has lost its original rhythm section pair up with another that has nothing but a rhythm section. I’m in no great hurry to hear it because the interesting thing to me is that the two greatest British bands had many of the same influences, came up at the same time, used the same kit, vied with each other for the same airwaves, were inspired by a lot of the same things, probably slept with a lot of the same people – and yet never once sounded remotely like each other. They shouldn’t spoil it now.

“Abbey Road: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Famous Recording Studio” by David Hepworth is published by Transworld

Read more:

Paul McCartney at Glastonbury? Rolling Stones at Hyde Park? Our culture is stuck in the past

The war within Pink Floyd

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This article appears in the 01 Mar 2023 issue of the New Statesman, The Mission