Beatles vs. Stones: A Soundcheck Smackdown

I went to the recording of the radio show, Soundcheck, tonight, at the NY Library of the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. Dubbed Soundcheck Smackdown, the program was something of a debate about who was/is better, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones.

Hosted and refereed by Soundcheck host John Schaefer, who wore the zebra stripes and had a yellow penalty flag that he threw once, and a whistle that went unemployed, maybe because he swallowed it when Ophira Eisenberg popped the f-word into her argument for the Stones, as in the Beatles asked to hold your hand, but who didn’t imagine fucking all of the Stones. Round to Stones.

Eisenberg’s partner on the Stones team was Bill Janovitz, who wrote a highly-praised essay about Exile on Main Street in the 33 1/3 book series and another book about the 50 most meaningful Stones songs.

Team Beatles was Paul Myers, who is an author and musician and the older brother of his partner, Mike Myers, who is known as the keen wit and lover of language who created Wayne’s World and Austin Powers. Notably the Myers brother have very similar body types, wore matching black t-shirts with the words “John&Paul&Ringo&George” on them, but had dramatically different hair colors (Paul pure white, Mike pure brown).

I don’t know when the show will air, but you can check the Soundcheck site for the airdate.

Before the show we were all handed index cards and pencils and asked to write in 20 words or less why we liked the Beatles or the Stones. I think the Beatles are more important culturally, but after thinking about this more than I had earlier in the week, I came up with this:

“The Beatles were the soundtrack of my life in middle school. The Stones were the soundtrack of my life in high school. I have to go with the Stones.” (What I actually wrote on the card was only 19 words, and probably better).

I think you might enjoy the show, so I’m not going to go into much detail here. But SPOILER ALERT, there was one thing to talk about that gives away who won. Sort of.

Before the show John Schaefer asked how many people favored the Stones. My sense was that all of us who went Stones knew that the Beatles were really better/more important, and our applause was half-hearted, lacking confidence.

The debate had many jabs and ripostes and good theater, but it was clear as it went along that the Ophira and Bill’s argument that the Stones were all rock ‘n’ roll-y, good for sex and burning stuff down, was a better argument than the Myers’s argument that the Beatles changed all of culture riff (even though that is almost certainly true, in a way).

At the end of the show, John Schaefer polled the crowd again about their favorites. This time, the Stones fans, buoyed by Team Stones excellent performance, cheered robustly and with confidence. But the Beatles fans were still louder. No minds were changed, but a rollicking good time was had by all.

The following two songs are the one’s each team chose as their band’s most emblematic:

Each team was also asked to name the other band’s worst song. Team Stones did quite well, though the song they cite is terribly catchy, while Team Beatles latched onto some obvious flaws in a Stones’ tune that time has embiggened. Or, at least, revealed virtues that overcome some of the disco silliness.

7 thoughts on “Beatles vs. Stones: A Soundcheck Smackdown

  1. It’s funny how the songs that made the Beatles great are NEVER chosen as emblematic. Why is this? She Loves You changed the culture much more than All You Need is Love. And while we’re at it, nothing in the 60s came close to changing the culture like Elvis and Little Richard and Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis and many others changed it a decade earlier. What is more revolutionary, the change from How Much is that Doggie in the Window to Hound Dog, or anything the Beatles or Stones ever did? Until the Beatles completed the circle with Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.

    Good choices as the worst of both bands. I would have voted for Mother’s Little Helper, an exercise in hypocrisy on a par with Imagine, which doesn’t count here.

    • Well, the Beatles get credit for the changes because they were the pop emblem of all the threads of the 50s coming together, not only the rock ‘n’ roll and racial strands, but also the spiritual and experimental and psychedelic threads as well. And they scrubbed up well, their most controversial statement was John’s assertion they were more popular than Jesus. I think people choose the later stuff because it contains all that history, while She Loves You is a solid step up from the Paul Revere instrumental I posted a few days ago, but in 1960 the Beatles were working the same territory. She Loves You is an evolutionary step, a sweet one, an incredibly well crafted one, but I don’t think it hints at what is to come.

      As for Mother’s Little Helper, it’s a heckuva tune with a great chorus. The words are hypocritical I guess, but this was the Stones establishing themselves as apart from the tony and the suburban. It’s a kind of off the shelf social critique that they knocked out of the park with Satisfaction and Get off my Cloud. Here the target is too small, but the tune is irresistible, I think.

  2. I’ve never really understood why people (apparently still) debate this false choice. I love them both for different reasons. Yes, the Beatles were more pop, lovable mop tops — at least at first — and the Stones were more raw and “authentic.” But it can’t be denied that it was the Beatles that were the leaders. They may have started with “Love Me Do” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” but they weren’t willing to milk it. They continued to experiment and knock down boundaries in the way no one/band has since. And the quality of their output is undeniable (thought there are exceptions as we all admit). The Stones may be the best blues rock band ever, but they didn’t innovate like the Beatles did. That’s why the Beatles win.

    • Absolutely true, and acknowledged by all the people on stage last night. But my realization was that this debate is a way to categorize one’s self. Are you Beatle-y or Stones-y? This is the kind of fundamental self evaluation that leads to the Would You Rather game (Hold hands with the Beatles or fuck the Stones). This is Apollo versus Dionysius, Ali versus Frazier, Yankees versus Dodgers. All false choices signifying the world about the chooser.

      Stones win.

  3. The only answer to me is “it depends on what mood I’m in.” But here is my point: the early Beatles’ songs are better SONGS. I Wanna Hold Your Hand is more sophisticated MUSICALLY than All You Need is Love. And has a better beat.

    Self-indulgence is the mortal enemy of rocknroll, using rocknroll even in its broadest sense. Experimentation in the spirit of rocknroll, say Norwegian Wood, is great. Experimentation for its own sake, say Revolution #9, is boring.

    My Mother’s Little Helper rant is that it’s a cheap shot to go after middle class plodders. Oh, most people aren’t as cool as you, Mick? Thanks for telling me. Your drugs satisfy the soul, hers are a pathetic cop out, wow. Maybe if you had to work your ass off 24/7 for little in return you’d think otherwise. I also notice that The Stones never pursued this topic after this song, to their credit – and I bet their secretaries had something to say on the matter.

  4. I always wonder who really cares. I love both bands, although I never list either as my fave (reserved for The Who and The Kinks). because, both were really in a class by themselves. There are no songs by the Beatles I did not dig, and well, for the most part, that is true of the Stones.

    And, as much as I love Rubber Soul, Revolver, The White Album, and Abbey Road, none of them presents the guts of Exile on Main Street. But, I think this is also rooted in what Peter correctly identified (for me anyway) was the Beatles were Jr High and the Stones High School and College.

    Doesn’t matter. Neither was better. Both are great.

    But, it does bring to mind one of my best t-shirts that my sister-in-law Jill gave me.

    It has a graphic a a dog, sniffing in the air. below the dog’s nose to the right are a cluster of small insects, and to the left pebbles.

    Below it says “Beetles or Stones?”

  5. Good dog sniffing story, Lawr.

    College for me was the Clash/Ramones/Patti Smith/Television/Elvis Costello.

    Gene, you’re of course right about experimentation that fails, but by it’s nature experimentation might fail. I’m never bored by Revolution No. 9, it is a very appealing dreamscape to me. It’s kind of ridiculous, but also very Beatlesy. Meaning very congenial and appealing, which is certainly at the right end of the rock ‘n’ roll boring spectrum.

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