I have to be honest, it took me a rather long time to formulate an answer of my own. If ever music had a ‘Sophie’s Choice’, then this is it. Of course others would argue that the title of ‘The Greatest Band of All Time’ should go elsewhere, be it to the likes of Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Metallica or Nirvana. But the fact remains that these two bands shaped the course of music as we know it. In musical terms, this truly is the clash of the titans. This is the ever-iconic apple versus the ever-iconic tongue and lips, Liverpool versus London, McCartney versus Richards, Lennon versus Jagger; the good boys versus the bad boys. Ricky Gervais once recalled how when growing up he was more of a Rolling Stones guy, yet once older came to realise, as has been said by many others, that in fact The Beatles were the greatest band in the world. The debate continues.
Due to the nature of this comparison, I’ll take one band at a time through a series of categories that together encompass what I feel are the essential ingredients in order for one of these bands to come out on top. First up, in the blue corner, the brainchild of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Star. Ladies and gentlemen, the generation-defining instigators of ‘Beatlemania’, the timeless four-headed monster: The Beatles.
Although not a fan of some of the ballads (which Ringo has referred to as Paul’s ‘Nan’ music), over a ten-year career the Beatles produced a set of albums, most notably Rubber Soul (1965), Revolver (1966) and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) that sincerely experimented with a plethora of genres, revolutionised song-writing and created sounds that would permeate through the decades. Indeed the earlier albums (such as 1963’s Please Please Me) are what gave way to the labelling of The Beatles as, in essence, the world’s first and biggest pop group. Yet it is what they did in the mid-60s onwards that prompts many around the world to put their work up there with that of Beethoven and William Shakespeare as one of humanity’s greatest cultural achievements. The fact that they broke-up in 1970 only adds to the legend of the outfit. Where the Rolling Stones have carried on, the Beatles tied up their career whilst on a high with Let It Be (1970). Despite not playing live after 1966, their shows beforehand often had to be shut down due to the reactions of fans, which only illustrates how, in the words of former Rolling Stone editor Robert Greenfield, they ‘broke the constraints of their time period to come up with something that was unique and original … no one will ever be more revolutionary, more creative and more distinctive’.
Next up, in the red corner, we have – current members – Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Charlie Watts. Champions of the 60s, the voice of a generation, the one and only: The Rolling Stones.
The Rolling Stones’ greatest hits are something to be reckoned with. With a repertoire including some of the most memorable licks of all time, from ‘Satisfaction (I Can’t Get No)’, ‘Street Fighting Man’ and ‘Sympathy for the Devil’ to ‘Gimme Shelter’, ‘Brown Sugar’ and ‘Don’t Stop’, the Stones’ tracks are ubiquitous when it comes to films, television shows and, most importantly, lives. The mix of Jagger’s unparalleled charisma with Richards’ unhinged coolness embodies the social revolution of the 60s; it transmits that spirit of rebellion that coloured an era through the ages. The Stones are timeless. What comes pouring out of this fusion of energetic rock and roll and melodious blues are images of the hippies in the country, yet also men and women dancing in the city. It is often said that when performing live the Rolling Stones were unmatchable, and how I wish to have seen them in their heyday. In terms of performance they probable edge it, yet it is often said that the band’s ‘remarkable endurance’ has been their downfall due to a rather inconsistent quality of releases following the high time of c. 1968-72 (within which was the release of 1968’s Beggar’s Banquet).
Both groups excelled in the song-writing department, with The Beatles being arguably more diverse and variant when it came to member contributions to writing. In terms of instrumental capabilities, Stones take the drumming slot, where guitar work would probably also go to Keith and Ronnie, yet the flexibility of The Beatles (with all four members contributing to vocals) puts them ahead in that department. What also should be considered is the iconic status of the individual members, as although Jagger is such a uniquely flamboyant and driving character, Lennon’s comments, including his claiming that The Beatles were ‘bigger than Jesus’, set him apart in terms of iconic rank. When it comes to the notion of their respective legacies, The Beatles also probably pip the Stones at the post as you’d arguably hear the influence of The Beatles more widely today than the Stones.
Growing up, my Dad and I spent hours with his record player, and from this musical education I gained one of my favourite albums Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, as well as a favourite song, ‘Sympathy for the Devil’. I took a liking to the Rolling Stones before the Beatles and the reason for this, I believe, is that they were, at the time, comparatively closer to the music that I was listening to – Foo Fighters, Pearl Jam – than The Beatles are. Hence to my mind The Beatles are the sound of Britain and The Rolling Stones are more the sound of the US. Alas, if a gun were pointed at my head right now and someone subsequently asked ‘who’s better then; The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?’, – although I truly adore both – my answer would have to be, for the reasons provided, The Beatles.
But please trust me when I say that I was left blank for a very long time before finally making up my mind. Then again I could be wrong; what do you think?