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Beatles or Stones?

Here's the reply I sent to a student who asked that all-time enduring rock 'n' roll question:

It all depends on what you think rock is all about.

If you think it's about sitting around listening to lyrics, if you think it's about your head, then you listen to the Beatles.

If you think it's about getting out on the dance floor, about joyful abandonment, then you listen to the Stones.

Me? I dance. Whenever I hear the opening riffs to "Rocks Off" from "Exile on Main Street," my inner Mick comes out. I pucker my lips into that Jagger pout and do my best hands-on-hips, ass-shaking strut. I've never heard a Beatles song that has that effect on me. Indeed, did you ever see a Beatle dance?

Name me six Beatles songs that want to make you want to get out on the floor. Impossible. Name six Stones songs. OK: "Happy." "Bitch." "Can't You Hear Me Knockin'." "All Down the Line." "Gimme Shelter.""Satisfaction." That's six already, and it would have been easy to keep going. "Silver Train." "Dance Little Sister." "When the Whip Comes Down." "Honky Tonk Women." "Tumblin' Dice." "Paint It, Black." There's six more.

The Stones ARE rock. Look at it this way: Ringo has always been a joke, both as a persona and as a drummer. Charlie Watts swings. John Lennon, rest his soul, never personified rock like Keef does; hell, look up rock-and-roll in the dictionary, and Keith Richards' picture should be there. Paul or Mick: puh-LEASE. We'll call George Harrison vs. Ron Wood a draw.

As for the music getting inside your head, the Stones could do that too: "Sympathy for the Devil." "100 Light Years from Home." "Wild Horses." "Ruby Tuesday." The chilling "Sister Morphine." And those guys knew their blues, too: "You Gotta Move." "Love in Vain." "Beast of Burden." "Stray Cat Blues."

What is rock? Is it sitting around a candlelit room listening to "Eleanor Rigby," or spinning around a dance floor to "Jumpin' Jack Flash"?

If you've read this far, you already know the answer.


( 27 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 26th, 2008 01:03 pm (UTC)
The Stones rule. When I was a grade schooler, I remember my dad driving us down the street in his convertable, with "Satisfaction" blaring on the radio. At that time, I never thought that I'd be listening to that song all the time, 43 years later and getting that same "Satisfaction."

Apr. 26th, 2008 01:43 pm (UTC)
You're right, Jeff, about how that song has endured. That's one of the great opening riffs ever.
Apr. 26th, 2008 01:57 pm (UTC)
Save the candles for Barry White or Marvin Gaye says I.

What would you call The Beatles if what they attempt isn't rock?
Apr. 26th, 2008 02:04 pm (UTC)
The Beatles were societal change agents. The Western world was not the same after the Beatles. I think too often, people equate the vast cultural changes they brought about with their music. They played mostly pop, not rock, with the exception of songs like "Back in the USSR" and "Birthday." I mean, is "The Long and Winding Road" a rock song? What is "Hey Jude" but an extended (borderline plodding) ballad? And "Yesterday"? A brilliant tune, but not rock.
Apr. 26th, 2008 02:05 pm (UTC)
Mock Barry White all you will, but keep Marvin Gaye out of that sentence.
Apr. 26th, 2008 02:21 pm (UTC)
Oh no worries.

White and Gaye's ability to run the candle, lotion, and silk markets from beyond the grave is worthy of praise. There's no doubt that my kid's kids will be boppin to their beats.

Boppin...what a horrible word.
Apr. 26th, 2008 03:31 pm (UTC)
I agree about the Rock thing. Still, the Beatles do something that the Stones can't, at least not for me: it may not be rock n'roll, but they make me smile. Listening to the Beatles makes me feel better about life. Same as Mozart - not that I'm comparing, but it's the same effect. You'd probably get matching results if you asked "Mozart or Beethoven?" I guess I'm not a Rock person. I've learned to live with it :-)
Apr. 26th, 2008 04:16 pm (UTC)
Have you listened to Helter Skelter?
Yer Blues?
Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey?
I've Got a Feeling?
I Want You (She's So Heavy)?
Oh! Darling?
The End?

Even going back further, songs like Day Tripper, Ticket To Ride, Rock n Roll Music, Kanas City/Hey Hey Hey Hey, Twist n Shout,I'm Down, Dizzy Miss Lizzy, and other early Beatles, which seem to be tame pop by standards of even the late 60s were pretty heavy for the time.

Comparing Eleanor Rigby to Jumping Jack Flash is like comparing Wild Horses to Helter Skelter. It's faulty logic, because the songs are aimed at different ends. Macca and John alone are better songwriters than Mick and Keith. Together, it's not even close.
Apr. 26th, 2008 05:07 pm (UTC)
That's my point: the songs are aimed at different ends, because the bands were. The Beatles were "head" music; the Stones were "feet" music, if you will.

Don't toss "Have you listened to 'Helter Skelter'?" this way. As a rhetorical question, that's as lame as "The Long and Winding Road."

I was not comparing "Jack Flash" to "Eleanor Rigby." I was trying to cite two songs that were, to me, representative of the bands. Faulty logic, my ass. I like "Eleanor Rigby." I like/"Yesterday": It's a wonderful song. I like lots of Beatles songs, I admire the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team, and no one can deny the band's huge influence on Western culture. Isn't that enough for you?

But when you have to pick one of those bands as personifying rock 'n' roll, I don't think it's even close. Suggesting the Beatles were ever "pretty heavy" is like saying Led Zeppelin was a reggae band because of "D'yer Maker."

Apr. 26th, 2008 05:10 pm (UTC)
Beethoven. The second movement from the Ninth is joy, pure joy. I'm not trashing Wolfgang; I'm just saying Beethoven speaks to me.
Apr. 26th, 2008 08:26 pm (UTC)
The first piece of classical music that spoke to me was the 2nd movement of Beethoven's Ninth. It still does. Another one that speaks as deeply but in a totaly different way is the 2nd movement from Beethoven's Seventh.
Apr. 26th, 2008 08:58 pm (UTC)
I'll have to dig that out for a listen. I have a box set of the nine symphonies, all with the NBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by the maestro, Arturo Toscani.
Apr. 27th, 2008 02:07 am (UTC)
Apr. 27th, 2008 10:44 am (UTC)
Oh yes.
Apr. 26th, 2008 06:22 pm (UTC)
You know that I tilt in one direction on that question.

But it used to be that "rock" was a broad enough term to encompass both the Beatles and the Stones and the Motown acts (a nod to Marvin Gaye here) to much, much more. I'm not sure exactly when it changed, but I don't think that was a change for the better.
Apr. 26th, 2008 07:12 pm (UTC)
I always saw Motown as a genre unto itself.
Apr. 26th, 2008 08:20 pm (UTC)
I read your post earlier today then went out driving for some lunchtime Bar-B-Que. While switching between stations I came across several Stones tunes. I realized the Stones are a far superior "windows down, warm weather driving" type of music than the Beatles. (However, if judged on that quality alone I'd have to give my vote to CCR or Sly and his Family) But back to the Fabs vs. Stones discussion. Getting on the dance floor also has to encompass "interpretive dancing" - imagine Elaine on 'Seinfeld'. In that case I might be able to suggest six danceable Beatles songs-
1. Taxman
2. Tomorrow Never Knows
3. Birthday (definitely Birthday!)
4. Why Don't We Do It In The Road? (well, maybe)
5. Helter Skelter
6. Lady Madonna
(did I mention HELTER F*#$%!G SKELTER?)

Ringo. I think "joke" is more than a little harsh. The world wouldn't have wanted Ringo any other way nor did we need him to be. His drumming style fit, perfectly as it turns out. Plus Ringo, more than many rockers his age, has remained true to the R&R muse. But you did make the right call on Charlie. He did venture into Big Band Swing at one point.

As you say, Keith personified rock but between both bands there was only one true revolutionary and that was John Lennon. If we forget that the entire point to the counter-culture(before it got muddled and lost)was REVOLUTION!, then we have less of an understanding (in part) of how the Beatles fit in. (yes, Paul diluted John's persona)

A few words about Ron Wood. When Ron joined the Stones the world lost a GREAT guitarist. Nothing Ron has done with the Stones comes close to equaling even his very worst work with The Faces. (need to reevaluate his bass playing in the original Jeff Beck Group) Ron and Keith went thru some sort of gene-splicing procedure to become "one". (I really miss Mick Taylor)

Another Ringo point - Richard 'Ringo' Starkey contributed something few musicians are successful in passing on - genes. His son Zak Starkey helped extend the viability of The Who as a performing band. After all, Zak's first drum lessons were from Keith Moon.

Although I accept the validity of your argument and conclusion (Beatles vs. Stones) I feel any debate about rock'n'roll quickly expands beyond what can ever be contained here. Too many variables can be introduced in the big picture. In his 'Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll' essay on The Doors, one sentence by Lester Bangs seems to dismiss the Stones - "The Stones were dirty but The Doors were dread, and the difference is crucial, because dread is the great fact of our time." (and almost 37 years after Jim Morrison's death it still is)
Apr. 26th, 2008 08:55 pm (UTC)
Good stuff, Marcus. Thanks for taking the time.

I'm not sure if Paul diluted John's personality or if he leavened it. Paul needed someone to make his music edgier; John needed someone to temper his edginess. (I forget where I stole that idea from.) I think they were a case of 1 + 1 = more than two, as their post-Beatles work -- especially Macca's -- shows. And yeah, the counter-culture didstart out being about revolution, didn't it? Fizzle ...

Good point on Ringo, but this is a rock 'n' roll discussion, after all, so I'm allowed to try to channel Lester Bangs. Maybe I should have said Ron Wood as a Stone is the "joke," not Ringo.

I depart from Lester's opinion on Stones/Doors, however. "Sympathy for the Devil," "Sister Morphine" and "Midnight Rambler," to name just three tracks, are as "dread-ful" as anything the Doors ever did. And the Doors' "dread" factor was greatly harmed by crap like "Touch Me" and "Hello, I Love You." And let's be real here: Did anyone ever take "The End" seriously, even back then? And my last word on the argument: Altamont.
Apr. 26th, 2008 10:47 pm (UTC)
I can never, ever definitively answer any, ANY of these two choice questions.

If forced at gunpoint to make a split second decision between a baloney sandwich with... HURRY UP AND CHOOSE-- MAYO OR MUSTARD? surely I would die.

Same here. For some reason, I am unable to recall any of the actual "this or that" questions that get thrown out for conversation. I'm pretty sure mayo or mustard isn't one of them, though.
Apr. 26th, 2008 11:26 pm (UTC)
Apr. 26th, 2008 10:49 pm (UTC)
When an anonymous comment eventually shows up here, it was me.
Apr. 27th, 2008 02:05 am (UTC)
It's only rock and roll, felix--but I like it, like it, yes I do.

Four of my students are debating that question in class on Monday. I don't know who the student was who asked you that questions, but I sure hope that I don't hear some of your answers in theirs.
Apr. 27th, 2008 12:08 pm (UTC)
Next up: Jeff Beck or Jimmy Page?
Apr. 28th, 2008 02:06 pm (UTC)
Funny you should mention Jimmy Page, because I was going to point out that if getting out on the dance floor is the measure of rock, than Abba is and Led Zeppelin isn't.
Apr. 28th, 2008 02:24 pm (UTC)
If I were someone who found Abba to be dance-compelling, I don't think I'd admit it to other people on LJ.

As for Led Zeppelin, they have the dubious honor of recording the most pretentious song in rock history, "Kashmir." Go dance to that.
Apr. 28th, 2008 06:06 pm (UTC)
Pat, I created a live journal account specifically to reply to this post. Nice timing, hitting me on a rainy day off when I don't want to study for the GREs.

Anyway ... first answer: By your definition, yes The Stones are a better rock band than The Beatles. The Stones are pure rock and roll - they're blues based, guitar oriented, your parents don't want you listening to them music. The Beatles are a pop band - pop in the best sense of the word. But if it's absolute rock and roll you want, The Stones are at the top of the list.

As far as the question Beatles or Stones ... for me, there's no argument. Beatles any day of the week and twice on Sunday. I'm not going to disparage The Stones in my argument. To paraphrase the gentleman farmer from Indiana, got nothin' against The Stones. They're on the Mount Rushmore of Rock. "Satisfaction," "Gimme Shelter" ... you can't say bad things about a band that writes songs like that.

For me, it's not about whether you can dance to the music or not. It's about the quality of the songs. And The Beatles at their best - their very best - were better than The Stones at their very best. I don't care that you can't get down to "Yesterday," it's still the closest thing to a perfect song I've ever heard. You could say that about probably a dozen songs in the Beatles catalog. They're perfectly constructed. The way the songs are structured, their harmonies, their catchiness (to invent a word, I think) are incredible. I've been listening to them a lot lately, and am continually stunned at how good they really were.

Think about it this way - this is the band that gave us "Something" "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" and "Here Comes the Sun." All of which were written by the THIRD best songwriter in the band.

Questions like this are intrinsically personal. You're asked, you answer almost intuitively. Your take on rock and roll is different from mine, and that's what makes talking music with you so awesome. To me, it's not a question of whether you can dance to a song or just sit and listen in your head. It's whether a song strikes you in your gut, and moves you however it moves you.

I respect the Stones, but for whatever reason, they don't strike that emotional chord with me. The Beatles do. Quick story: At my wedding, our recessional song was "In My Life." One of the few things I vividly remember about that day was turning to leave the church, my lovely wife at my side, and hearing those first six notes plucked on a harp. It was one of the best moments of my life.

As for the other question - Page over Beck. I saw Beck a few years ago at the BB King Blues Fest. He does things with a guitar no mortal should. But Beck to me is, I think, Santana to you - brilliant technically, but not enough Mississippi Delta for me.

For the younger set: Nirvana or Pearl Jam? (That could be a doctoral thesis for me, by the way).
Apr. 28th, 2008 07:32 pm (UTC)
Bo, for starters, I'm flattered that you were paying any attention at all to my brain smatterings, and second, I'm especially flattered that you became an LJ'er because of this. I hope this means you'll be posting regularly; I'll be watching. If so, I can tell all my LJ friends to start watching your stuff, because it'll be good stuff.

The thing that makes this "Beatles/Stones" thing so great is that everyone's got an opinion, and everyone's got a personal definition of rock. You like to dig the tunes; I like to unleash my inner Mick. I might debate the "best vs. best" point, but you probably would win on points; I suspect Lennon-McCartney wrote more truly great songs than Jagger-Richards. That one would go the distance, though.

Good point about Harrison; those are three great tunes, even if Clapton got the first assist on "Guitar." And one of the few dozen iTunes songs I've purchased is Harrison's "What Is Life."

Next up: Bread or the Carpenters?

( 27 comments — Leave a comment )

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