JUNE/JULY 2007
JOHN MCMILLIAN

“BEATLES, OR STONES?”

POLITICS AND IMAGECRAFT IN THE AGE OF THE WAX MANIFESTO

DISCUSSED: New Left Militance, The Berkeley Barb, Helium-Filled Dirigibles, Gentlemen Thugs, Baby Jane Holzer, Morris Dickstein, Tariq Ali, The Free Press, The Black Dwarf, The Teaspoon Door, SDS, “Street Fighting Man,” Kudzu, Sympathy for the Devil, The Fifth Estate, The Original Apple Boutique, Altamont

LOVABLE MOP-TOP
ORGY PARTICIPANTS

On July 26, 1968, Mick Jagger flew from Los Angeles to London for a birthday party thrown in his honor at a hip new Moroccan-style bar called the Vesuvio Club—“one of the best clubs London has ever seen,” remembered proprietor Tony Sanchez. Under black lights and beautiful tapestries, some of London’s trendiest models, artists, and pop singers lounged on huge cushions and took pulls from Turkish hookahs, while a decorative, helium-filled dirigible floated aimlessly about the room. As a special treat, Mick brought along an advance pressing of the Stones’ forthcoming album, Beggars Banquet, to play over the club’s speakers. Just as the crowd was “leaping around” and celebrating the record—which would soon win accolades as the best Stones album to date—Paul McCartney strolled in, and passed Sanchez a copy of the forthcoming Beatles single “Hey Jude/Revolution,” which had never before been heard by anyone outside of Abbey Road Studios. Sanchez recalled how the “slow, thundering buildup of ‘Hey Jude’ shook the club”; the crowd demanded that the seven-minute song be played again and again. Finally, the club’s disc jockey played the flip side, and everyone heard “John Lennon’s nasal voice pumping out ‘Revolution.’” “When it was over,” Sanchez said, “Mick looked peeved. The Beatles had upstaged him.”

“It was a wicked piece of promotional one-upsmanship,” remembered Tony Barrow, the Beatles’ press officer. By that time, the mostly good-natured rivalry between the Beatles and the Stones had been ongoing for several years. Although the Beatles were more commercially successful, the two bands competed for radio airplay and record sales throughout the 1960s, and on both sides of the Atlantic teens defined themselves by whether they preferred the Beatles or the Stones. “If you truly loved pop music in the 1960s… there was no ducking the choice and no cop-out third option,” one writer remarked. “You could dance with them both,” but there could never be any doubt about which one you’d take home.

Much of this was by design. With their matching suits, mop-tops, and cheeky humor, the Beatles largely obscured their origins as working-class Liverpudlians; by contrast, under the influence of their wily manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, the Stones cultivated a decadent, outlaw image, even though they mostly hailed from the London suburbs. “The Beatles were thugs who were put across as nice blokes,” someone remarked, “and the Rolling Stones were gentlemen who were made into thugs by Andrew.”

Many in the media were quick to notice the two groups’ contrasting styles. When the Rolling Stones arrived in the United States, the first Associated Press (AP) report described them as “dirtier, streakier, and more disheveled than the Beatles.” Tom Wolfe put things more sharply: “The Beatles want to hold your hand,” he quipped, “but the Stones want to burn down your town.” Since these comparisons proved useful to everyone, both the bands and the journalists collaborated on the charade. In the early 1960s, Keith Richards remarked, “nobody took the music seriously. It was the image that counted, how to manipulate the press and dream up a few headlines.” Peter Jones, who wrote about both bands for the Record Mirror, recalled being in a “difficult position” because he was expected to “gloss over” the Beatles’ tawdry indiscretions. “It was decreed that the Beatles should be portrayed as incredibly lovable, amiable fellows, and if one of them, without mentioning any names, wanted to have a short orgy with three girls in the bathroom, then I didn’t see it.”

Whether one preferred the Beatles or the Stones in the 1960s was largely a matter of aesthetic taste and personal temperament. Though clichéd and sometimes overdrawn, most of the Beatles/Stones binaries contain a measure of plausibility: the Beatles were Apollonian, the Stones Dionysian; the Beatles pop, the Stones rock; the Beatles erudite, the Stones visceral. But in the United States, during the watershed summer of 1968, the Beatles/Stones debate suddenly became a contest of political ideologies, wherein the Beatles were thought to have aligned themselves with flower power and pacifism, and the Stones with New Left militance. Though both of these immensely talented bands helped to construct images of youth culture that generated powerful confidence, self-awareness, and libidinal energy among their listeners, neither of them ever articulated, or proved willing to defend, a coherent political cosmology. The supposed “ideological rift” between the two bands was nearly as stylized as the contrasting costumes they wore on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Nowhere was the Beatles/Stones debate more fiercely fought than in American underground newspapers, which by 1968 could be found in every pocket of the country, and had a readership that stretched into the millions. “The history of the sixties was written as much in the Berkeley Barb as in the New York Times,” claimed literary critic Morris Dickstein. Freewheeling and accessible to all manner of left-wing writers, these papers generated some of the earliest rock criticism, and provided a nexus for a running conversation among rock enthusiasts nationwide. To recall how youths assayed the Beatles/Stones rivalry is to be reminded that when rock and roll was in its juvenescence, youths interrelated with their music heroes in a way that today seems scarcely fathomable. Amid the gauzy idealism and utopian strivings that characterized the late-1960s youthquake, they believed that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones—the biggest rock stars in the world!—should speak to them clearly and directly, about issues of contemporary significance, in a spirit of mutuality, and from a vantage of authenticity. Young fans believed that rock culture was inseparable from the youth culture that they created, shared, and enjoyed. In some fundamental way, they believed themselves to be part of the same community as John and Paul, and Mick and Keith. They believed they were all fighting for the same things.

We hope you enjoy this excerpt.

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John McMillian lectures on history and literature at Harvard University.


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