The Beatles vsThe Rolling Stones

Who ruled the '60s?

Following my first post on Tropicult, The Ultimate Showdown: Lennon vs. McCartney, I present you with THE Ultimate British Hitmaker Showdown!  Leading the British Invasion, The Beatles aka ‘The Fab Four‘, ever so lovable and charming, versus the more rebellious ‘Their Satanic Majesties‘ The Rolling Stones, undoubtedly ’60s counterculture icons.

Historical Analysis

Before starting to make the contrast and the in-depth analysis of each band style, it is important to consider that, despite being contemporaneous, Beatles and Stones careers should not be considered as being perfectly ‘in sync’ when it comes to finding their respective peaks, in terms of both fame and musicianship maturity.

The very core of The Beatles,  John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, really came together in early 1958 when a young George Harrison joined the Quarrymen. In contrast, the very first jams of who would later become The Rolling Stones founding members began to occur after Mick Jagger and Keith Richards met Brian Jones and Ian Stewart at the Ealing Jazz Club in early 1962. By that time The Beatles were already experienced live performers working the Hamburg club scene.

So yes, The Beatles were a little ahead and – as later Mick Jagger would thankfully admit upon inducting The Beatles to the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame – they were the true kick starters of the British Invasion and the ones who opened the doors for everybody else. An opening, we should add, that The Stones were clever and talented enough to benefit from, concomitant with starting to develop their own identity and style.

It is time to bring down a generally established myth: The Beatles and The Rolling Stones were never rivals. If in any moment of history people were inclined to believe there was any rivalry, it was just marketing. In fact, it was Rolling Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham who came up with the idea of giving the band their ‘bad boys’ reputation – as opposing to The Beatles’ cuddly moptop image – to rapidly gain popularity as a simple but highly effective media strategy.

Moreover, after The Beatles were rejected by Decca label and eventually signed to Parlophone, it was George Harrison who recommended Dick Rowe – the head of A&R at Decca records at the time – to offer The Rolling Stones their first deal. And would you believe the Stones’ second single ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ was a Lennon and McCartney ‘s tune? John and Paul gave it to them one day when they dropped in on the middle of a recording session.

In Keith Richards autobiography ‘Life‘, a highly recommend book for any rock n’ roll fan,  the human riff himself states that they were more ‘collaborators’ rather than actual rivals. In early days, their managers would frequently call each other up to negotiate and avoid releasing singles or albums at the same time, to prevent clashings in sales and charts. Richards and Lennon were particularly good friends, and a couple of fun stories between the two can be found in the book.

In addition to this early days facts, relationships between The Beatles and The Stones continued in good terms after they all became huge stars and gave a break to their busy touring schedules in 1966. Besides well-known events, such as Jagger and Richards appearance at the Our World Satellite Broadcast clapping along ‘All You Need Is Love’ in mid 1967, not to mention Lennon’s performance in The Rolling Stones’ Rock n’ Roll circus in late 1968, around this period it was quite common for a band to occasionally visit the other band during a recording session, which – and I’m sure this will thrill trivia lovers – often ended in collaborations.

Brian Jones, invited by Paul McCartney, provided a sax solo for ‘You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)’, while Mick Jagger was present in a Beatles session at Olympic Studios and is believed to have provided backing vocals for ‘Baby You’re a Rich Man’. As counterpart, Lennon-McCartney are known to have attended some sessions of what ended up becoming “Their Satanic Majesties Request” album, and contributed backing vocals to the ‘Sing This All Together’ track and the ‘We love you’ single.

Key Differences

Now, let’s take a look at the differences between the bands. There’s a funny saying that states that “Americans invented rock n’ roll and then the British taught them how to play it”. It might not be an entirely false statement, if we take a look at both bands influences in their teenage years: the rockabilly-lover Beatles praised Elvis, Carl Perkins, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, The Everly Brothers, while the more blues-oriented Stones were more inclined toward Muddy Waters, Bo Diddley, Jimmy Reed and Chuck Berry.

The traces of this different preferences in taste can eventually be spotted on their music styles and lyrics: The Beatles are typically more associated with pop, twist, music hall and gentle ballads, with an emphasis on love.  On the other hand, The Stones are usually more identified with blues, rock and country, often depicting rather conflictive, psychological, even political themes in their lyrics, which range from frustrated relationships with women, to establishment criticism. I consider ‘Satisfaction’ to be one of the most amusing reflection on Capitalism ever.

Let’s face it, 3 out of 4 Beatles were married by mid-’60s, it is not likely that their minds were in a full rebellious rockstar state when it came to composing. But Musically, they had a powerful ally and a secret weapon: producer George Martin. Their partnership allowed The Beatles not only to have complex arrangements and work with orchestras and diverse session musicians in a fluent manner on a frequent basis, but also to be at the constant seek for new sounds and textures, pushing the limits of technology to the very edge and using the studio as an instrument itself.

The Making of ‘The Ultimate Showdown’

Enough history for now, let’s move on to the fun part. For those who don’t know the rules, briefly, the game quiz consists of a two-column song list, in which each line represents a duel between the two bands. The player – ideally, a fan of both bands – should choose his/her favourite song in each line. In case of a tough, almost impossible decision, one might as well vote blank. I further recommend that, given the privileges of living in this era, if the player isn’t familiar with a certain song, he/she may YouTube or Spotify it, and perhaps re-discover a classic that once went unnoticed.

I must admit that this song list showdown was no piece of cake at all. Being a devoted fan of both, and at the same time being aware that their differences both in music style and lyrical content was going to be an obstacle, in the end I was capable of listing what I think is an excellent summary of Jagger and Richards finest songwriting throughout the ’60s, and then I paired them up with Lennon and McCartney compositions that best matched either the rhythm, instrumentation or overall feel and concept of the song, depending the case.

This latter task was particularly difficult since The Beatles song catalogue is bigger than the Stones’ as far as the 60s’ concern. Of course, part of The Stones’ golden era was the first half of the 70s’, (and they also had a couple of successful albums and hits all throughout the 80s’ and 90s’ as well), but including this part of their catalogue would have inevitably led me to also include the highlights of each Beatle solo work. So, to keep things fair and respect the original spirit of this article, I limited the test to the contemporaneous part of both repertories.

However, a handful of songs that represent not only important pieces of their legacy but also constitute almost the fingerprint of their respective styles were excluded for being too much of a trademark and me not being able to find a suitable counterpart. Among these: Sympathy For The Devil, No Expectations, Honky Tonk Women, Gimme Shelter, but also Come Together, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, The Long And Winding Road, I am The Walrus, Helter Skelter, Something, Let It Be and Across The Universe.


 Ladies and gentleman, from ‘Please Please Me’ to ‘Let it Bleed’, here is the ultimate ’60s British rock and roll showdown: