Earlier this month, Paul McCartney spoke to The New Yorker about the Rolling Stones in a less than artful way. “[The Beatles’] net was cast a bit wider than [the Stones’],” he said. “I’m not sure I should say it, but they’re a blues cover band, that’s sort of what the Stones are.”
Mick Jagger responded when the Stones played in Los Angeles on October 14th. “There’s so many celebrities here tonight,” he said. “Megan Fox is here; she’s lovely. Leonardo DiCaprio. Lady Gaga. Kirk Douglas. Paul McCartney is here. He’s going to help us — he’s going to join us in a blues cover later.”
First off, Kirk Douglas died on February 5th, 2020, at the incredible age of 103. He was most certainly not at the Stones concert last week. (Did Mick mean Michael Douglas?) Secondly, it’s hard to imagine that Jagger took great offense at McCartney’s comments. The Beatles and the Stones had a friendly rivalry back in the Sixties, but the pop universe was big enough for them both and the cold war between them has been suspended since about 1970.
Jagger probably also understands that McCartney meant to say that the Stones grew out of the London R&B scene and stuck largely to blues covers in their very early days. The Beatles, meanwhile, were more focused on pop, rock, and soul music by the likes of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Ray Charles, Smokey Robinson, Carole King, and Carl Perkins.
McCartney phrased it better when he spoke to Howard Stern last year. “They are rooted in the blues,” he said of the Stones. “When they are writing stuff, it has to do with the blues. We had a little more influences. … There’s a lot of differences, and I love the Stones, but I’m with you [Howard]: The Beatles were better.”
Back in 1962, both bands’ sets consisted almost entirely of cover songs. There are precious few live tapes of either group from this era, but a series of Beatles gigs at Hamburg, Germany’s Star Club in December 1962 were captured for posterity. The sound quality is extremely poor, but you can still hear the incredible joy and energy they brought to the stage even though they regularly played for upwards of eight hours a night on little sleep.
Sticking to that schedule required a diet high on amphetamines. (“In Hamburg the waiters always had Preludin … and they were all taking these pills to keep themselves awake, to work these incredible hours in this all-night place,” John Lennon once recalled of the period. “And so the waiters, when they’d see the musicians falling over with tiredness or with drink, they’d give you the pill.”) You can almost taste them in your mouth when you listen to this raucous rendition of Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally.” Once they got famous, their concerts lasted just about 30 minutes and were usually drowned out by the sound of screaming fans. That’s why many Beatles fans say if they could travel back to any era and see the band, it would be during their time at places like the Star Club.
The Beatles and the Stones became the two biggest bands in the world because of the strength of their original songs. Labeling the Stones just a “blues cover band” is keeping them forever frozen in the amber of 1962 and 1963. But then again, their only studio album in the past 15 years is Blue and Lonesome from 2016, and it’s nothing but blues covers …