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Book Report: ‘Beatles Vs. Stones’ Through the Lens of ’60s Politics

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Courtney E. Smith Courtney is the pop producer for Radio.com and the...
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The Beatles at the EMI studios in Abbey Road preparing for 'Our World', a live television show broadcasting to 24 countries worldwide in 1967. (BIPs/Getty Images)

The Beatles at the EMI studios in Abbey Road preparing for ‘Our World’, a live TV show broadcast to 24 countries worldwide in 1967. (BIPs/Getty Images)

It’s been a debate that’s raged since the ’60s, but finally there is a definitive Beatles Vs. Stones book (October 29, Simon & Schuster). As there is no singular definitive book that spans The Rolling Stones’ entire career and there are too many books over 500 pages that cover the every move of The Beatles, so this kind of side-by-side comparison is something you’d have to read at least a dozen books on both bands to cobble together yourself. Author John McMillian did that and more, reading alternative newspapers, teen magazine interviews and underground manifestos from the ’60s to get a sense of what people were really saying about the bands — and what the bands were really saying.

Hardcore fans of either band will be at least tangentially aware of many of the points of comparison addressed by McMillian. But the author, who is an expert on American radicalism and has written another ’60s-focused bookSmoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, tackles one aspect of the Beatles vs. Stones debate you rarely see addressed: their political activism vs. the public’s perception of it. Fans know the good boys vs. bad boys marketing mythology around the two bands (and how inaccurate it was, especially in the early ’60s), but what is often forgotten as the decades have passed are their divergent identifications with the more uplifting vs. more violent aspects of radical youth culture in the later ’60s.

At the end of that decade, the world was presented with a lovey-dovey image of The Beatles, whose major political force was a not-yet-publicly-progressive John Lennon. The Stones, meanwhile, were branded as more radical in their political views, with less “peace and love” and more “destroy the The Man using necessary force.” It’s the good vs. bad, or rather Establishment vs. Anti-Establishment, narrative all over again. But the reality of their political action is much more bland than fans would admit.

“In 1968 there was this big debate [in radical American underground newspapers]…between Beatles and Stones fans about which group had the right political analysis,” McMillan tells Radio.com. “The Beatles were associated with the aesthetic radicalism of the counterculture — and the hippies, and peace and love. The Stones would be associated with the street fighting ethic of the New Left — the politics of confrontation against the police.”

McMillian went on to detail the evolution of The Beatles’ political narratives, starting with “The Word” on 1965′s Rubber Soul (where they used the word “love” in the hippie sense, as a lean-back approach to fixing the world) to the overt political message of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But the watershed political moment came for the band when they released “Revolution” in 1968.

“That song was basically a put-down of the New Left militants: the people who were into fighting the police and breaking windows and whatever else,” McMillian explained. “By 1968, so much had happened politically to radicalize and galvanize young people that a lot of people were put off by The Beatles. A lot of their fans were put off by what they thought was a weak political analysis.”

Some of those things McMillian refers to in 1968 include the assassinations of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, massive and violent riots at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and an increased number of protests against the Vietnam War (including massive student demonstrations and riots across the U.S. and Europe). While Lennon was still espousing lyrics about “freeing your mind instead,” the youth movement had moved beyond the hippie-dippie, free love stuff and into certifiable action. Lennon was left looking behind the times.

The Rolling Stones enjoy a custard pie fight at the Kensington Gore Hotel, where they held a 'Beggars Banquet' in celebration of the release of their new album of that name in 1968. (Douglas Miller/Keystone/Getty Images)

The Stones enjoy a custard pie fight at their ‘Beggars Banquet’ in celebration of the 1968 album. (Douglas Miller/Keystone/Getty Images)

Also in 1968, The Rolling Stones would release a single that would place them in diametric political opposition to The Beatles. But history seems to have forgotten the implications of that song, removed from the political context of the decade.

“Then The Stones came out with a song, ‘Street Fighting Man,’ which had a completely different ethos,” McMillian said. “It was a more militant type of song and some [New Left] people thought The Stones were on their side. And The Stones, just like The Beatles, were able to telegraph certain political points of view without taking a stand on anything.”

At the time, the BBC declined to play “Street Fighting Man” for fear it would incite more violence in England following the Grosvenor Square riots (at the time, just an anti-war protest) in London, at which Jagger made an appearance.

“According to some people, he left the protest after being recognized by fans,” McMillian says. “He felt politically impotent. He wanted to be involved but he couldn’t because of his position and place as a rock star. So that explains some of the lyrics about, ‘what can someone do except for sing in a rock ‘n’ roll band.’”

That was followed by another single from Beggar’s Banquet, “Sympathy for the Devil,” whose lyrics (“I shouted out / “Who killed the Kennedys?”/ Well after all / It was you and me”) cemented The Stones’ apparent ideological alignment with the New Left. 

In reality, no one knows why Jagger showed up at the Grosvenor Square anti-war protest and he never made another protest rally appearance again. The band would famously try to host their own San Francisco-based version of Woodstock, after missing the actual festival, in 1969 and end up with Altamont and an absolute end to the summer of love and laid back hippie ideals.

“Neither The Beatles nor The Stones were very political, in the strict sense of the word,” McMillian says. “They never got involved in any activist efforts to speak of. They never took a risky stand on any issue…And yet, young people did seem to think that what The Stones and The Beatles thought was really important. Many left-wing people were always trying, especially to get The Beatles involved in various causes and they were unable to do that.”

(Disclosure: This book’s publisher, Simon & Schuster, is owned by CBS Corp. as is Radio.com.)

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