I must confess from the outset that for me there has only ever been one winner of the Beatles versus Rolling Stones contest – The Beatles – but every long-held opinion deserves an appraisal from time to time.
Let’s be counterintuitive for a second and start not with the music but with geography.
Naturally, as a Northerner, my love of the Beatles has surely been part fostered by the fact that the group launched their journey to world domination from the Cavern Club in Liverpool, which sits 46 miles away from where I was born in Oldham, Lancashire.
However, it recently occurred to me that by an unlikely quirk of fortune (or misfortune depending on how you look at it) I have come to know, over the past decade, the home of the Rolling Stones – World’s End in London’s Chelsea – much better than I have ever known Liverpool.
The first iteration of the Rolling Stones’ line-up lived at 102 Edith Grove in the early sixties, in a flat Mick Jagger and Keith Richards later described as ‘squalid’ and around the corner from a ‘cheap Italian joint’ – which I think just might still be in existence in the form of Mona Lisa on the King’s Road. The caffe still serves up bowls of remarkably cheap (for Chelsea) amatriciana festooned with long ribbons of English bacon, which should be enough to drive any self-respecting Italian mad.
It might be the only survivor from the days when World’s End was the beating heart of Swinging London. In the early 1960s, as the Lot’s Road power station belched out black soot that poured over the derelict bomb sites that would one day become Westfield Park, Vivienne Westwood arrived from Tintwistle in Derbyshire to set up a shop in World’s End, while local resident Christine Keeler set out on a liaison that would make political history.
I would like to say that it is still possible to feel a ribbon of throbbing cultural energy flying through the World’s End – but sadly it appears to have long since moved on – in fact, anyone innocent to the area’s history today would surely pass through it without giving it a second look.
I felt somewhat the same when I lived in Marylebone in a top floor flat at 14 Devonshire Place. On sunny days when my room would swelter, I would climb out through the bathroom window and sit by the chimney pots. I could see all of central London from there, including at the bottom of my street, the roof of number 57, the house where Paul McCartney lived with Jane Asher in the early 1960s.
McCartney wrote Yesterday in that house. The melody came to him in a dream. Virginia Woolf walked down Devonshire Place and Wimpole Street too. Florence Nightingale set off to the Crimea and into legend from a house on the street behind and Stephen Ward lived in Wimpole Mews during the Profumo affair. And yet, if you walk down the street today, all you will sense is a whiff of anesthetics seeping out of all the expensive dental clinics that now call the street home.
One thing that does strike me as interesting about 102 Edith Grove in Chelsea though, is that there is no exterior evidence that the building played any role whatsoever in the early years of one of the most famous bands in history.
Which is strange given that if you go to practically any location associated with the Beatles, be it Strawberry Fields or Penny Lane in Liverpool, or Abbey Road or 57 Wimpole Street in London, you will find a landmark covered in international graffiti messages and crawling with people taking photographs. Outside 102 Edith Grove there is nothing.
I suppose that is because the Beatles are a spiritual band and people need something real to hang on to in the fab four’s absence – whereas the Stones are very much still a physical group. In fact, the band played a four hour concert in Lyon in searing temperatures at the start of this week on the latest leg of a convoluted European Tour. The Beatles, on the other hand, exist only in our imaginations, frozen in time forever on a London rooftop on a frigid January lunchtime in 1969 – the last time the group played in public.
If you are going to attempt to form any argument that the Stones outshine the Beatles then the case has to rest on the Rolling Stones’ longevity.
By 1968, the year the flower power dreams of the early 1960s were disintegrating, the Beatles released the brilliant White Album, which is a culmination of all the extraordinary influences that Paul, John, and George soaked up over the previous decade. They would release one more album while still together, Abbey Road in 1969.
The Stones, in 1968, released Beggars Banquet the first of a four album run that would culminate in 1972’s sublime Exile on Main St. It is a musical journey that charts not only the tumult of 1968, but 1969’s Altamont Festival in California – the blood splattered concert headlined by the Stones that was policed by rampaging Hell’s Angles and which, unsurprisingly, became a vortex of violence that ended with four people dead.
It is the Stones – not the Beatles – that charted the collapse of the 1960s into blood spilling and recriminations, as well as the hedonistic selfishness of the early 1970s. While the Stones were at the very centre of that whirlwind the Beatles were in full retreat mode with Paul McCartney recording his lo-fi solo debut before disappearing to the seclusion of his Scottish farm.
The Stones – as a fully functional touring group – would go on to age in public, to experience tragedy, to pick up drug and drink addictions by the bucket load, to enter middle age and old age as one collective that has told, over the years, the story of a lifetime, an extraordinary multi-decade story, a multi-century story, while the Beatles are frozen in time.
But. There was always going to be a but.
There is the music to consider. When it comes to the music, for me, the Beatles will always tower over the Rolling Stones.
The Rolling Stones were and remain a brilliant rock and roll band, with a love of the American blues combined with a dash of jazz, which was provided by the wonderfully self-effacing Charlie Watts in his Huntsman suits. By the way, I must say that although I would champion John, Paul and George any day over Mick and Keith, when it comes to Charlie versus Ringo, for me, Charlie wins it hands down.
The sound of the Rolling Stones is a potent, delicious mixture, but the recipe has largely gone unchanged since the early 1960s. It can, if you listen to album after album, start to sound a little painted by numbers, a little similar.
The Beatles, on the other hand, have something the Stones never had, a genius for melody provided largely by Paul McCartney. They were also willing to experiment. You won’t find a musical dream so all encompassing, so downright strange and wacky, so hypnotically brilliant as A Day in the Life on a Stones record. You won’t find anything close.
The legend of the Rolling Stones will live forever, but it will be the Beatles’ songs that people will still be singing a thousand years from now.