Any young millennials watching the One World: Together At Home broadcast at the weekend would be forgiven for wondering why Beatles-or-Stones was even a question at all. On the one hand you’ve got four cool old dudes split-screening themselves for a rendition of ‘You Can’t Always Get What You Want’ where the enthusiastic one has obviously forced the rest of them into it and one’s taking the piss by air drumming. On the other, some cheesy old duffer who can’t even work out landscape is tinkling through ‘Lady Madonna’, apparently an old jazz song that makes out that Madonna’s skint.
Stones win – no contest. Now can we please get back to discussing 1D vs BTS, or Boris Johnson vs a similarly inept genocidal moron?
But as lockdown conversation runs into its last three subjects, the eternal question rears its head once more. That renowned and incisive bastion of investigative journalism Howard Stern raised this ever-pertinent issue during an interview with Paul McCartney just last week, skewering Sir Thumbs with the piercing accusation that The Beatles were brilliantest. “I love the Stones, but I’m with you,” Paul agreed. “The Beatles were better.”
As the official self-appointed arbiter of all pop culture disputes, I have the semi-legal-in-some-states authority to interject into this heated debate to objectively rule that they’re both right. The Beatles were better. Fact. Paul hinted at the reason at the time: “They are rooted in the blues. When they are writing stuff, it has to do with the blues. We had more influences.”
You see, for decades warring pub factions have mistakenly assumed that The Beatles vs The Stones was a question of attitude. The dangerous kids liked The Stones, those infamous Mars bar defilers and devil sympathisers recently dubbed “British bad boys” in a new song from pulse-fingering zeitgeist watcher Bob Dylan. The straights and hippies, meanwhile, liked The Beatles, by far the more family friendly drug-guzzling shag fiends.
In fact, it was a question of ambition. The Beatles began their career emulating and covering their classic rock’n’roll heroes but quickly set about exploring all the possibilities of sound, technology, broad-reaching historical revivalism and mad drug music that success made available to them. As a direct result, they invented pretty much every modern pop genre from EDM to metal and might’ve got the full house if they’d ever let Ringo rap.
The Stones, on the other hand, started out rooted deeply in the blues, and swiftly realised that they could do the blues faster, or sometimes slower, or sometimes louder, or sometimes quieter, or sometimes a bit psychier, or sometimes a bit evil or saucy, or sometimes with trumpets on like The Beatles. As a result, they popularised blues rock and, um, that’s it.
They both made fantastic records, but The Beatles were better because they were less about imitation and more about reinvention. It’s a simple grade of quality you can apply to any major pop culture battle. Oasis liked to think they were the ‘90s Beatles but they were its Stones; it was Blur who did the blue sky thinking while Noel nicked all the Bowie riffs wholesale. It’s why Fleabag is better than All Round To Mrs Brown’s and an iPad is better than a drawing of an Etch-A-Sketch.
The real question is, why hasn’t there been a modern equivalent of Beatles vs Stones or Blur vs Oasis in nearly 30 years? I know, I know, musical tribalism is dead – but that’s never going to stop fans who are passionately attached to one particular act thinking that other fans passionately attached to a very similar act are braindead scum. As a species, we’ve built an entire alternative culture online based upon the fundamental certainty that everyone who isn’t us is a dick. Indeed, those arguments do rage on today – Nicki vs Cardi, Louis vs Zayn, Stormzy vs Wiley – but they flash through Twitter so fast that you blink and miss them trending. They have as much lasting impact on the wider public as the most cabbage-nadgered Naked Attraction reject.
Why? Because there are no markers of competition left in which any feud can play out to a reasonable conclusion, no arena of battle where gauntlets can be taken up and honours satisfied. No-one cares about the Brits or the charts and there are no high-profile music TV slots to duke it out for. The modern pop feud is the equivalent of a Rocky film ending with Sylvester Stallone training for months to make a really biting prank call and then go for a little cry.
So perhaps it’s better to withhold my official deciding judgement on The Beatles vs The Stones; let the feud rage on. Because otherwise the only major pop battle we’ve got to look forward to is Reading & Leeds’s fight to the death between Cex workers and dark fruits.