Friday, February 7, 2014

John McMillian's "Beatles vs. Stones": Book Review

The conventional wisdom claims both bands loved each other; any rivalry was only hype. Historian John McMillian marshals evidence, gleaned from chronicles, biographies, interviews, and his own expertise as a scholar of the underground press, that suggests the contrary. While carefully allowing for mutual respect and admiration between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, he reveals that the competition between the perennial "toppermost of the poppermost" and their scruffier, sleazier runners-up motivated the Stones to match the success of pop's lads from Liverpool, who were then driven to keep ahead of those equally calculating London blues-rockers, during much of the 1960s. McMillian examines the creation of the marketing images for both groups, and he demonstrates how they were both, despite denials by members, complicit in their Fab Four models and thug five poses.

He begins with the clichés. They merit qualifications but endure as plausible. The dichotomies emerge. The Beatles as Apollonian, the Stones as Dionysian; one pop, the other, rock; erudite vs. visceral; utopian as opposed to realistic. Sean O'Mahony, publisher of both bands' official fan magazines starting respectively in 1963 and 1964, crafted and softened their public images. He opines: "The Beatles were thugs who were put across as nice blokes, and the Rolling Stones were gentlemen who were made into thugs by Andrew [Loog Oldham, their manager]." McMillian accepts this as closer to the truth than the bands or their fans might admit during the next half a decade.

It took the Beatles years in seedy dockside Hamburg to hone their craft and sharpen their edge in well-known, less wholesome manner than their revamped mop-top makeover for Beatlemania and playing for royalty. McMillian contrasts the rapid rise, within half a year, of the Stones from R&B idolatry and obscurity to a more accessible delivery of a style with limited appeal, the electric blues. What eased the Stones' ascent was a rush to find the next lucrative regional scene, the next Beatles.

The Stones debuted on national British television affably, dressed up in matching houndstooth suits. Yet, the five soon reverted to a more hangdog look on stage. Resenting The Ed Sullivan Show and the Beatles' American breakthrough paralleling their British acclaim for what seemed soppy females from seven to seventy, Oldham began selling the Stones as "the band your parents loved to hate". Not only age but gender mattered. Dick Rowe (whose oft-told sob story--as the Decca executive who turned down that foursome from the Northern hinterlands only to rush down from Liverpool soon after in May of 1963 to see and sign the Stones at the Crawdaddy Club in London on George Harrison's recommendation--gets necessary correction in McMillian's analysis) marveled at the Stones. Not so much for their music, but their marketability. Rarely a girl to be seen in their crowd, yet boys all slavered over the band, and their androgynous singer only added to the Stones' mystique.

The press leaped onto another bandwagon. Future John Lennon biographer Ray Coleman pushed the "Would You Let Your Sister Go With a Rolling Stone?" headline for Melody Maker. Future rock encyclopedist Lilian Roxon peddled the received wisdom: "The Beatles' songs had been rinsed and hung out to dry. The Stones' had never seen soap and water. And where the adorable little wind-up Beatle mop-tops wanted nothing more than to hold a hand, the hateful rasping Stones were bent on rape, pillage, and plunder." Some youths began to drift into a more dangerous, salacious group than one for princesses and schoolgirls to swoon over. The Stones defied any ready-made boy band look.

Stereotypes worked for or against the Stones. Featured on Dean Martin's variety show, the band aired in America on their often disastrous first tour. Dino chortled to his audience: "You're under the impression they have long hair. Nah! Not true at all. It's an optical illusion. They just have low foreheads and high eyebrows." In San Antonio, playing at a rodeo, their supporting act was "a bunch of performing monkeys". It looked as if the British front-runners feared no surprise from behind.

However, Lennon bristled. The instrumental variety and lyrical sophistication of Rubber Soul quickly found a deft response in Aftermath. He brooded: "Everything we do, the Stones do four months later." McMillian champions the underdog, affirming that the Stones often put their diverse instrumentation to "better and more innovative than the Beatles normally did". A statement sure to sustain debates today, but with the flailing Brian Jones still able to show moments of genius on record, and with Jack Nitzsche taking on studio production that began to match that by George Martin, the two bands by 1966 seemed more evenly matched than any would have predicted two years earlier.

Proud and cocky, Lennon and Paul McCartney felt they bettered the five blues fanatics at the polished as well as psychedelic pop game. Spurred on by Sgt. Pepper two months before, the Stones, stoned and mocking, failed to finish "We Love You". Then, John and Paul walked in, quickly restructured the song around their own high backing vocals, and showed the upstarts (as they had when John and Paul tossed their new song, "I Wanna Be Your Man", at a floundering Keith Richard and Mick Jagger two and a half years before to record) how in Oldham's witness "vision became reality. We'd just have another major lesson from the guv'nors as to what this recording thing was all about."

As the Summer of Love faded amid Mick's own drug bust and legal dealings, and as the Vietnam War and social unrest flared the year after, both bands were called to task by young people urging solidarity from their counterculture role models. McMillian handles the controversy around Lennon's "Revolution", as underground papers added to the mainstream media a sharper round of accusations against the Beatles, if usually patience to let the Stones to speak out for the New Left. More than one radical, based on Jagger's Cockneyisms and the band's swagger, believed them proletarian lads. "Street Fighting Man" true to Jagger's equivocal nature played his audience off to his gain. After some Chicago radio stations had boycotted his band, Jagger commented: "They must think a song can make a revolution. I wish it could." His pose at the barricades proved another adroit but fleeting stance. While the immense corporate sponsorships of the Stones on future tours might not have been conceivable for the hippies who loved them, their U.S. tour in 1969 already hinted at compromise.

As for the Beatles in their later phase, their own mismanaged and hapless Apple enterprise seemed to be regarded by its target audience less as a sellout to commerce and more charity towards freaks and schemers. Certainly, intended partly as a "tax-avoidance scheme" and partly as fun, it succeeded in diverting profits away from the band's deep coffers. The failures of Epstein's death, the Maharishi, and Magical Mystery Tour may have made the reclusive Beatles post-touring more visible again for their fans. Joshua Newton's letter to a Detroit paper spoke for many of his generation: "The Beatles' politics are terrible, but they're on our side." McMillian astutely if too briefly sums up the telling transition from an underground press eager to argue, as Newton might, with its idols, versus the alternative papers full of fawning coverage of the bands whose ads filled their pages soon afterwards.

Much of Beatles vs. Stones will be familiar to any fan who follows each band closely. It relies on secondary sources, well-documented and in-depth, and by now, everyone associated with either band has been hunted down and interrogated so often that scholars such as McMillian can sift through massive archives. Augmenting these, he relies on periodicals on microfilm from the underground press, which reveal that the likes of Brian Epstein, O'Mahony, or Oldham cannot manage the reactions of restive, antiwar or revolutionary fans. Without supplication but with veneration, for the Stones and the Beatles are both elevated to deities, radicalized youth fight the Man and yell back at four or five men.

Financial dealings consumed both bands by the end of the 1960s. Fighting not against each other but for their royalties and copyrights, this signals a move from the utopian idealism of flower power into a harder, street-smart attitude to cushion, or boost, their bottom line. In fact, after Epstein died, Jagger and McCartney mooted joining the two bands' business interests. Allen Klein killed off this proposal.

Within Jonathan Gould's and Bob Spitz' respective biographies of the Beatles' cultural impacts (both among the many resources cited here), as they reached Allen Klein and the ensuing managerial bickering that entangled both bands, dissonance clanged out. Any historian must survey this period, but it sobers the fan who favors earlier if never carefree times for each band. With Brian Jones self-destructing and Lennon self-indulging, the energy darkens. Yoko's entry must be acknowledged. Lennon let go of his fraying Beatles bond, as McCartney tugged for control of the weary band against John in favor of the financial direction pushed by Paul's new father-in-law, Lee Eastman. Mick Jagger had introduced Klein to the Beatles to assist Apple. As for the Stones, Klein finagled better deals for them, and for him. While his tenure was brief, Klein kept all profits (the band had signed over its copyrights from 1963-70) on their best-selling LP to date, the double-disc compilation Hot Rocks.

The tracks ending that anthology signaled, in McMillian's estimation, that a zenith had been reached by the Stones. Let it Be was no Let it Bleed. Beggars Banquet arguably bettered a lot of Abbey Road. Post-Beatles, Mick and John continued to spar in interviews. In 1970, Lennon lashed out again. Lennon claimed the lag between "what we did" and what they did was down to "two months after, on every fuckin' album and on every fuckin' thing we did, Mick does exactly the same. He imitates us."

"At least the Beatles didn't break up because they started to suck." So opens McMillian's coda. Forty-three years after the breakup of their friendly rivals, fans continue (for the most part) to cheer on the Stones, if less so for their albums after a vague point in a future now past that Lennon never predicted: when middle-aged men ruled as rock stars. The Stones shone on Sticky Fingers and Exile on Main Street, confirming in that past decade's competition who came in first by the start of the next. I agree with McMillian: after 1972, the Stones' "imperial phase" gave way to at best a few good songs per album from then on, and one good album in 1978. He tallies up the scorecard after one contender remains standing. Touring, the Stones deliver the hits as fans once heard them in a bedroom or dorm on 8-track, cassette, or vinyl. The band lands deals, they sell songs (two dozen compilations after Hot Rocks), and they--if by now even Jagger looks older despite his daily dancing with the devil--still brand that lascivious logo. Starting up on tour in 2012, 50 & Counting, averaged $600 per ticket.

The Beatles never have to worry about reuniting. McMillian does not calculate their accrued earnings, or contrast McCartney's lucrative deals with Jagger's own, but his point sticks. The Beatles, after refusing to come together, linger nostalgically for baby boomers, winners against death itself.
(PopMatters 9-23-13; 11-14-13 as shortened and censored to Amazon US)

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