There have been a number of Soundcheck Smackdown ideas that we just haven’t gotten to yet – Blur vs Oasis; The Cure or The Smiths; the pristine architecture of Bach or the rhapsodic flair of Mozart; Maria Callas or Renata Tebaldi. But the recent publication of a list of the 100 best songs by the Beatles, published by Rolling Stone, made it seem like it was finally the time to do the biggie, The Smackdown That Shook The Earth – Beatles vs Stones.
I grew up a Rolling Stones fan; “Honky Tonk Women” in 1969 hit me like a message from some alien world, and I was hooked. Sometime in the next year or so after that, I was reading an issue of Parade magazine – a middle-of-the-road insert into many Sunday newspapers around the country – and they had this page where you could send it questions that they would answer. Most of the questions were things like “I enjoyed [insert actor’s name] performance in [movie or TV title]. What else can I see him/her/it in?” or “I love [insert Tom Jones or Englebert Humperdinck name] and I’m sure he would want to marry me if he knew me. How do I contact him?”
But this time, there was a question I did not expect, at least not in Parade. “Which is the best rock band,” wrote a reader; “the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?” I clearly remember a kind of mental sigh as I moved on to the answer, which I was sure would land on the side of the lovable Liverpudlian mop tops of several years ago. But to my shock, their answer was the Rolling Stones – after all, they were still around, and the Beatles had broken up. Plus, the answer went on, the Stones’ music was harder rocking, louder, and “openly druggier,” a phrase I have never forgotten.
Yes! The Stones were better – even stupid old Parade magazine could see that! And they were openly druggier! This last part was a little confusing to my 11-year old self, but no matter – the important thing was, the Stones ruled!
Now, leathery old Mick and the improbably upright Keith are still rockin’, but I have learned that The Beatles were way more adventurous and influential than the Stones. From George’s sitar experiments to Paul’s lengthy tape loops to John’s love of weird and distorted studio effects, the Beatles broke the mold of the successful rock band that they had helped create. Even a misstep like “Ob La Di Ob La Da” showed an awareness of the nascent ska-into-reggae scene; and only much later on did I realize what it meant to have Karlheinz Stockhausen’s photo on the cover of Sergeant Pepper. The Beatles were curious, trailblazing, versatile. They were important.
But they didn’t rock as hard as the Stones.
Your turn – Beatles or Stones? Leave a comment.