Were The Rolling Stones better than The Beatles?
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Fifty years since the Rolling Stones released their first single, Greg Kot asks whether the band’s music has suffered from comparison with The Beatles.

By the time the Rolling Stones got around to making records in 1963, The Beatles had already been cutting tracks with George Martin at Abbey Road studios for nearly a year. The Beatles were already stars, and their sweep made what the Stones did (and every other band in the UK, for that matter) seem like a response. In the end, of course, the Stones got their due as rock’s nastiest band – that is, until Johnny Rotten came along. Since then, history has pretty much confined the two legendary groups to their prescribed roles: The Beatles as innovators and universal pop icons, the Stones as the anti-Beatles, the dirtiest Chicago blues band not from Chicago.

Myth becomes fact. Or does it? It’s hard to imagine that a band currently charging as much as $600 for their North American concert tour could once have been underrated. But the Stones’ musical contributions often get short shrift because of the huge shadow cast by John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and, yes, even Ringo Starr.

On the occasion of the 50-year anniversary of the Rolling Stones’ first single – a cover of Chuck Berry’s Come On, released in June 1963 – it’s time to reassess. Were the Stones as revolutionary as the Beatles? No, but their reign of good-to-great albums was nearly twice as long, and their best music from this era – 1963 through 1981 – has a consistency, durability and variety that few bands from any era could match. Not even The Beatles, it turns out. The Beatles were running on fumes during the Let it Be sessions in 1969 and broke up soon after piecing together their final masterpiece, Abbey Road. 

The Stones were already playing it prickly on their first single. Come On was loosely modelled on Berry’s original, recorded in 1960 at Chess Records studio in Chicago, but it had nothing of the guitarist’s bounce and brightness. Berry raced through the lyrics with breathless anxiety, but the Stones played it rough and sullen as Mick Jagger sneered his way through the obstacles life dared to throw at him. The track rippled onto the pop charts. A few months later the Stones would have an even bigger hit with another cover, I Wanna Be Your Man, written by two guys named Lennon and McCartney, who were already so popular in the UK that they could hand leftovers to their rivals and watch them turn into gold.

The British invasion

The Beatles invaded and seduced America, with their three-night run on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964. For the next six years they were the biggest rock band in the world. The Stones followed The Beatles overseas a few months later, but  were smugly mocked by Dean Martin on a less popular TV variety show, Hollywood Palace.

The Stones also visited their shrine, Chess Records in Chicago, and cut 16 tracks on 10-11 June, 1964, essentially bringing full-circle their obsessions with the musicians who recorded there, such as Berry, Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. Unlike The Beatles, who revelled in their roles as not just rock stars but pop pioneers who had witty opinions and a fad-inducing feel for fashion and style, the Stones never wanted to lead a revolution - nor anything else for that matter. They were in it strictly for themselves. “What can a poor boy do, except play in a rock ‘n’ roll band?” Jagger once sang, barely concealing his cynicism.

Nor did the Stones ever profess to be anything but a “Chicago blues band,” a mantra that Jagger and Richards repeated even as the band embarked on a 2013 tour of North American sports arenas. Which is a bit like describing James Brown as a pretty good dancer. But it contributed to a general sense that the Stones were a relatively narrowly focused rock band – a very good one, to be sure, but not in the same class as the exalted Beatles, whose music seemed to absorb and inform everything around it.

The Beatles compressed dozens of amazing songs into their six-year progression from Merseybeat teeny-boppers to psychedelic seers and beyond. They were among the first rock bands to use the studio as an instrument, and set a new standard for pop song-writing, with their graceful melodic invention and their embrace of the avant-garde in mind-benders such as Tomorrow Never Knows. 

Can’t get no satisfaction?

Yet starting with (I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction in 1965, the Stones transitioned into a multifaceted, hard-edged rock band with pop smarts that matched The Beatles nearly hit for hit. Blues and R&B covers dominated the first three Stones albums, but once Jagger and Keith Richards began writing together, the band took in everything from chamber pop to Eastern drone.

Much was made of The Beatles’ embrace of Ravi Shankar, but Brian Jones broke out a sitar on the Stones’ indelible 1965 single Paint It, Black. He also played a marimba for Under My Thumb (1966), a dulcimer on Lady Jane (1966), and a recorder on Ruby Tuesday (1967), bringing a touch of the exotic to the Stones acid-pop phase that culminated with their 1967 album Their Satantic Majesties Request. That album was slated almost from the start as a tepid response to the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Stones themselves say it was made “under the influence of bail” because of their ongoing drug busts and legal hassles. But it actually satirised flower-power excess even as it offered up some of the era’s best psychedelic pop songs (2000 Light Years from Home, She’s A Rainbow, the B-side Dandelion).

As The Beatles were winding down, the Stones kept busting new moves, re-emerging with renewed ferocity when guitarist Mick Taylor joined the band in 1969. Typically, the Stones camp played down the innovation of albums such as Sticky Fingers (1971) and Exile On Main Street (1972) by nurturing the outrageous rumours (some of which – gasp! -– were even true) about the decadence surrounding the recording sessions. Yet these albums were studio masterpieces in line with what the Beatles once did at Abbey Road. They were crafted over long periods in different studios, the colours in the arrangements ranging from the autumnal Moonlight Mile, with Charlie Watts’ orchestral drumming, to the deep gospel textures of Let It Loose.

The Stones would continue through the 70s successfully adapting reggae, Philly soul, funk and even disco into their music, without compromising their essence.  Key outside musicians, whether it was Sugar Blue on Miss You or Sonny Rollins on Waiting On A Friend, further broadened the sound. The Beatles set trends in motion through the 60s, but the ‘anti-Beatles’ from London weren’t just exploiting bad-boy mystique. The Stones may have started out as a “Chicago blues band,” but to quote one of their heroes, Muddy Waters, “Well, honey, ain’t no way in the world could we be satisfied.”

Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune. His work can also be found here.

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