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Analyzing the Beatles vs. Stones debate.

By 12.4.13

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Beatles vs. Stones
By John McMillian
(Simon & Schuster, 320 pages)

The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones is a debate long waged, with cases mounted in high school cafeterias and counterarguments teased out in the basement dens of baby boomers. Contrarian dorm rats pick apart "With a Little Help from My Friends" and "When I'm Sixty-Four" while championing the obscure Mellotron moans of Their Satanic Majesties Request. Ragged copies of The White Album rub grooves with beat-up pressings of Beggars Banquet. Idealism and realism, order and chaos, innovation and authenticity; comparisons between The Beatles and The Rolling Stones reduce to hyperbole fraught with clichés.

In his new book, Beatles vs. Stones, John McMillian acknowledges the tired “Apollonian” and “Dionysian” divide between these musical rivals. “If you’re reading this book, you already have an informed opinion about which group was better,” he adds. "I'm not a rock critic; I'm an historian," McMillian concedes, leaving aesthetic judgments to his numerous sources. Instead, McMillian constructs a “joint biography” of the bands in order to “show how their rivalry was constructed.” Six chapters navigate formative periods for each band, enriching and complicating our understanding through a parallel history.

McMillian convincingly asserts that Beatles/Stones antagonism is less a product of individual enmity among the artists, but rather a vague professional rivalry originating between managers Brian Epstein and Andrew Loog Oldham, sensationalized by the headlines of entertainment rags and fanzines. In this sense, it is a simple tale of the pursuit of money, power, and influence, and the bands read more like competing corporations than artistic enterprises. Success is measured not merely in the critical consensus that survives today, but in tour grosses, record sales, royalties, chart positions, and indulgent extravagances. McMillian reminds us that, utopian submarines and street fighting revolutionaries aside, the musicians themselves were not shy about material aspiration. An important scene portrays Brian Jones’s first brush with Beatlemania, which caused "backpedaling on some of his esoteric blues purism.” Similarly, McMillian explains that in these early years, The Beatles were plainly interested in “parlaying their brief burst of popular success into the biggest possible financial windfall.”

Mainly, McMillian sets out to confound our perceptions of each group. He accomplishes this by artfully placing his sources in direct contrast with each other. On one page, he uses the choice McCartney quote, “We’d be idiots to say that it isn’t a constant inspiration to be making a lot of money,” in order to deflate the notion that The Beatles were all peace and love. Two pages later, however, McMillian reminds us of John’s continuing interest in the Avant-garde with the publication of Lennon’s book, In His Own Write, “a slim, elegantly designed hardcover collection of surreal short stories, line drawings, and nonsense verse.” McMillian doesn’t level sell-out allegations, nor does he overstate the artistic achievements of either group. He merely wants the reader to understand the unique atmosphere of clashing creativity and commercial ambition that led each band to such great success. In this sense, we begin to understand their music as a product of personal tensions and contradictory impulses.

When McMillian constructs an argument, he displays his incisive ability to interpret murky events and understand these artists as human beings. He uses information from both Andrew Oldham and Bill Wyman to suggest that Brian Jones’s jealousy of the Beatles led to his downfall, since it was “Brian who most craved their degree of fame.” He also constructs a vivid portrait of the “surly and unpleasant” touring Beatles who “sat around, smoking weed and watching television.” While the Beatle’s disillusionment with live performance is well-known, McMillian cites anecdotes from Joan Baez and Mary Wilson of the Supremes to make their mop-topped limbo of quarantined hotel floors and police escorts more intimate. McMillian also never hesitates to correct misremembered stories and hazy claims. One famous Jagger story finds blues hero Muddy Waters out of work and painting the interior of Chess Records. “Richards seems not to have made the claim until 1989, however: six years after Muddy had passed away,” McMillian informs, while adding that Muddy’s “regal bearing” and penchant for “a custom-made suit, a silk shirt, and cufflinks” further discredit Mick.

Most masterful of all is the chapter “Hippies and Activists,” which finds our songwriters caught up in the 60’s political zeitgeist. Both groups were alternatingly celebrated and maligned for their supposed political agendas, depending on who you asked. McMillian, who previously wrote about the underground press in his book Smoking Typewriters, shows his street cred by citing the provocative publications The Rat and Black Dwarf. He emphasizes that Lennon and Jagger in particular were contradictory figures, and not particularly informed ones at that. Superficially supporting everyone from Abbie Hoffman to the IRA, these were profoundly confused young men more interested in dropping acid than investing in a tenable worldview. Particularly cringe-worthy is McMillian’s account of the criticized single “Revolution.”  Lennon first publishes an incoherently defensive essay addressed at the outraged left and then tries to control the damage to his image by writing the tepidly shilling “Power to the People.”

The zealous Beatles or Stones fan will find few revelatory facts here, but McMillian works a certain magic in the way he organizes the information already floating around the myriad interviews, criticisms, and biographies. Flipping through his lengthy bibliography, one takes away a sense of the scope and detail of this writer’s research.  Clearly, this was pleasurable work for McMillian, who in turn makes it an enjoyable read with the recommended soundtrack he lists at the beginning of the book. Altogether, Beatles vs. Stones is the best kind of pop culture study, revivifying familiar material while stimulating the reader to question his own assumptions and taste.

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About the Author

C.W. Mahoney is a writer and musician living in Marquette, Michigan.