Death to cliched overstatement and all that, but still bimodal division can sometimes help to sharpen a point, brought to mind most recently by the portion of the weekend just past that I spent reading the booklet and/or playing the bonus material from the 50th anniversity super deluxe reissue edition of a famous double album called The Beatles, aka the White Album.
By the time I was in my teens, it was no longer quite so true, in terms of the “two types of people” trope, that one was either a Beatles fan or a Stones fan. Even leaving aside that most people were both, hence it was a matter of relative preference rather than exclusivity (i.e., more like “Jets or Giants” than “Mets or Yankees”), by this time the Beatles were a few years in the past, and hence it was more like “Stones or Grateful Dead.” I was more in the former camp, though decently appreciative of the latter. There also was perhaps a bit of “Springsteen or punk / new wave” – although Springsteen had some new wave cred, e.g., Patti Smith had covered “Because the Night” – and here I was definitely in the latter camp. Springsteen felt a bit too earnest, un-ironic, and reverently retro to me – again, with all due respect for his virtues.
One also could say, along I would think with Brian Eno, that the real 1960s choice for older cohorts ought to have been “Beatles or Velvet Underground.” (Sorry, Stones.) Except that here, once I caught up with the Velvets’ legacy in the late 1970s, my answer was definitely “both.”
Returning to Beatles vs. Stones, however – with apologies for returning to a topic that I gather I have addressed here once before, albeit rather a long time ago (in August 2005), I did have a horse in this one despite its being a retro issue by the time I was able to take sides. The Stones spent the 1960s doing one great song after another (albeit, with dross mixed in as album filler). They also had a handful of great albums – in particular, the very good Between the Buttons (1966, with Brian Jones diversifying the sound palette) followed by the immortal Exile on Main Street (1972) and then the crucial comeback album Some Girls (1978). And Jagger in his true glory days could express vulnerability, not just grandiose swaggering, in a way that added to their work’s depth. But the Stones had good enough image management – not least by Jagger and Richards themselves – to succeed in creating widespread misapprehension of the true contrast between these two great and artistically overlapping groups.
I refer, of course, to the conceit that the Beatles were mainstream while the Rolling Stones were outrageous rebels. Now, it is true that the Stones sometimes went places where the Beatles, apart from Lennon, didn’t entirely want to go. But does anyone today think that “Street Fighting Man,” contrasted at the time with “Revolution” as showing that the Stones were more anti-Establishment, was even 10% as cathartic and heartfelt? (BTW, I hold no brief for Lennon’s post-Beatles “Imagine,” which I find mawkish and unconvincing.)
If the standard Beatles vs. Stones view were more accurate, then we wouldn’t see such outcasts and outsiders as Elliott Smith, Kurt Cobain, and Fiona Apple embracing the Beatles so fervently.
I see 2 main distinctions between the Beatles and the Stones. (Other than the Beatles’ having the inadvertent wisdom to break up at their peak, hence never have a decline phase other than as individuals.) The first is that the Beatles were outlanders who didn’t know the hip London definition of cool; hence they had to make it up for themselves. This aided their being more creative and original. (The Stones were overly in thrall to the idea of simply re-creating the blues as practiced by their heroes – the Beatles’ cast of heroes was more diverse and hence more artistically empowering.)
The second was the dynamic nature of the Lennon-McCartney partnership. (But note also that Harrison chafed at being an underling, to the band’s artistic benefit, especially at the end.) Jagger once commented that, of every 10 things the Beatles were going to do, both Lennon and McCartney wanted to run 9 of them. He then added, with the benefit of several decades’ hindsight, something like: “You can’t run a business that way.”
No, you can’t, which is why the Beatles exploded into a rain and reign of lawsuits and bitter take-down songs about each other, whereas the Stones’ corporate enterprise just kept going and going and going, well past the point of tedium. But going back to the very day (back in 1958) when Lennon and McCartney met, there was no clear hierarchy between them, but rather a dynamic tension. Lennon was the older and more forceful one with the cohort of bandmates / followers. But McCartney had more musical chops and had already started songwriting. So it was a continual struggle, friendly and synergistic until it inevitably blew up, that made each of them both better and keener. In a sense, each made the other feel like Scottie Pippen, being strengthened by his daily practice battles with Michael Jordan.
By contrast, Keith Richards has great fun chafing at Jagger in his autobiography, and he notes that he’d write most of a song, then hand it to Jagger to finish up (e.g., the verses in Satisfaction). Plus, he was clearly the main force behind Exile on Main Street. But his chafing reflects that Jagger, as lead singer and group spokesman, was far closer to being the boss than either Lennon or McCartney could ever dream of being in their partnership. This dynamic instability and rivalry (e.g., who gets the next single? Whose material is going to be stronger on the next album? He’s written another “masterpiece” – John’s very word for “Hey Jude” – how am I going to answer it?), combined with mutual admiration and help, and with their both complementary and overlapping strengths, pushed each of them further than he would ever have gotten by himself (or ever would again).
But this bring us to one last “two types of people” bit. Among Beatles fans, as one of the reviews of the White Album reissue noted, there are Sgt Pepper fans, and White Album fans. Well-honed pop perfection, or crazy creative explosion that’s all over the map, sometimes excessive or silly but almost always (if you can peel back the years and all the over-exposure) fresh and startling? Count me as very firmly on the White Album side (although I also give highest marks to the very cohesive Rubber Soul and Revolver albums). It’s an astounding achievement, with multiple stunning peaks, and (for the most part) all the more lovable, and admirably audacious, for its flaws.
The expanded reissue has a crisp sound where you can hear separate instruments more clearly, plus a fantastic 75-minute Unplugged album (aka the Esher demos, which I already had but not with such high-quality sound), plus 3 more disks of often very interesting outtakes and alternative or early versions. These last 3 require prior fandom and knowledge in order to be worth it (and again, some of it had been bootlegged with inferior sound), but if you have that they’re very interesting. Plus, they often have a great live band feel. The material on these disks confirms that the Beatles mostly made the right choices in developing the White Album material – leaving aside the regrettable over-orchestration of Good Night – but its release further enriches their legacy. (I didn’t buy the Sgt Pepper reissue, knowing that there wouldn’t be all that much of fresh interest there.)
Here’s hoping that next year they’ll do something of a multi-disk character with the Get Back / Let It Be sessions (the Abbey Road sessions were too concise and focused to leave as much interesting material lying around). Or maybe it could all be combined in a “Beatles 1969” package. If they do it right, as they did this time, I’ll buy it.