Choose: Stones or Beatles?

Mick Jagger, John Lennon
In two file photos, Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones and John Lennon of The Beatles.
File photos courtesy of Getty

Are you more of a Beatles fan or a Stones fan?

It may seem like a meaningless question, if you can't imagine where pop music would be without the contributions of both bands. But as John McMillian recalls in his latest book, "Beatles vs. Stones," the differences in the early days were pretty stark: The Rolling Stones were bad boys and the Beatles were wholesome chaps. During that time, fans aligned themselves easily into one camp or the other.

McMillian joined The Current's Mark Wheat and host Kerri Miller to talk about the rivalry. Highlights from their conversation:

John McMillian: On taking sides
In the early '60s, when the Beatles and the Stones were both getting going, a lot of the Fleet Street writers, the tabloid writers, were insisting that the Beatles and the Stones were rivals. That construct was a little overwrought, as it was described in the media. But certainly a lot of young people back then in England, in the early '60s, felt that you had to declare a preference. You would be a Beatles fan or a Stones fan, and to choose one band over the other said something about your personality and your temperament. ... The brightest and most discerning fans obviously liked both groups.

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McMillian: A class-conscious England
British society was so rigidly segmented and class-conscious back in that era. ... Liverpool was seen as sort of a culturally barren wasteland, according to a lot of Londoners. Londoners really looked down on Liverpool, the way that maybe someone from New York or Cambridge in Massachusetts might look at someone in the Deep South. They thought there was nothing going on culturally up there. And the Stones, being from London, had that kind of dismissive attitude, and the Beatles had a bit of a chip on their shoulder as a result of that, so there was some tension there.

McMillian: Differences between parents
I think you can make a distinction between how the bands were received in England versus the United States. ... The Beatles played for the British royal family. They were embraced by politicians. They were given awards by Harold Wilson. Adults, in England, seemed to really admire the Beatles. The Beatles seemed to come along at the right time, and were thought to be a wonderful tonic for a society that was ready for their music. But of course when the Beatles came to the United States ... I think a lot of parents were put off by the Beatles and a little concerned by the hysterical reactions that they elicited. So parents might have disliked both the Beatles and the Stones in the U.S.

McMillian: The Stones at 70 look silly
I think rock 'n' roll is a young person's art form ... I love what the Stones did in the 60s and the very early 70s, but I don't think they carried on in a very impressive way in recent years. ... I think the Stones look silly, I'm sorry.

Mark Wheat: Beatles quit, but Stones keep rolling
The Beatles gave up performing live. ... It was almost like their fame killed them. They didn't want to go on tour and be screamed at the whole time, and so they gave up performing ... People still pay $350 to go and see the Stones when they're 70 years old, and they can still bring it. Now, there's a part of me that thinks that's something in and of itself. That yeah, you don't just sit in the studio and make music. But you go out there. Jagger, the fact that he can still strut onstage and do it at 70, that's pretty amazing.

Wheat: Hard work vs. easy success
The one thing that came from John's book that resonated for me was how hard the Beatles had to work for what they got. He says it was the 292nd time that they'd played the Cavern Club when they played it for the last time. They played over 800 hours in Hamburg over two years. So they had worked a lot to get where they were. ... the Stones got their record deal in a year, because of what happened to the Beatles. Now if you don't think that's going to set up tension between two groups of people, I don't know what is.

Wheat: Beatles were a group; Stones, individuals
Another thing that really struck me, John, that you brought out was the idea that the Beatles were really the first indivisible group. No one had marketed a group like that before. In fact they thought they had to have a lead singer. They were an indivisible group, and the Stones were always individuals in a group.

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Beatles vs. Stones: Rivalry or PR Stunt?
After all, while the Beatles were accepting MBEs from the Queen in their smart suits, Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham (who, ironically, had done some earlier publicity work for the Beatles) was planting attention-grabbing stories in the press about his group's bad-boy behavior, with headlines like "Would You Let Your Daughter Marry a Rolling Stone?" (Village Voice)