While the “Beatles vs. Stones?” debate has been raging since these generals of the British Invasion stomped onto the battlefield fifty years ago, scrutiny of it has re-intensified recently with the 2010 publication of Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot’s The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones and numerous essays in 2013’s Rolling Stones: Sociological Perspectives. John McMillian’s new book Beatles vs. Stones would appear to keep the war stoked, yet it actually could bring it to an end once and for all. The author looks at all the things that made The Beatles The Beatles and the Stones the Stones—their politics, their public images and private lives, their business practices, their influences—and more often than not concludes that they really weren’t that different. Sure The Rolling Stones (or more accurately, manager Andrew Loog Oldham) cultivated a surly, outlaw image, but none of them engaged in as much cruel and antisocial behavior as John Lennon. Lennon bucked at Brian Epstein’s insistence that The Beatles wear uniforms, but only the Stones successfully fought to dress as they pleased after a brief stint in matching attire. So outwardly, we got a clean-cut Beatles and a scruffy Stones, but inwardly, their attitudes were quite similar. The same held true of their stances on politics, which on both accounts were largely apolitical. The Rolling Stones may have shouted that “the time is right for violent revolution” and The Beatles may have sheepishly declared “but when you talk about destruction don’t you know that you can count me out,” but neither band was particularly willing to get involved in enacting change and both were pretty muddled and inarticulate when answering questions about their personal worldviews. Ultimately, both The Beatles and Stones were rich guys who enjoyed making and spending money.
The most essential point in the debate is the music, because as much as The Rolling Stones followed The Beatles lead throughout the sixties—and appropriately, McMillian keeps his focus on the decade when both groups were active—they rarely sounded alike. However, the author refrains from really putting this element of the debate on the table, which is fine because we can gather that he wouldn’t really have anything fresh or provocative to say about it. While never getting too into the music, McMillian makes it clear that he holds the same opinions as pretty much every other commentator: The Beatles consistently had a leg up on the Stones until the Stones entered their golden period from 1968 through 1972. DeRogatis and Kot got much deeper into the music and their opinions about it were much more unique, but their book is so littered with factual errors and unsupported assertions that it can’t be regarded as the final statement on that aspect of the debate. Because it mostly skirts the music, John McMillian’s Beatles vs. Stones may not be the final word on the rivalry either. Nevertheless it does a very good job of putting the two bands’ ideologies and images into perspective. Call it a draw.
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