The Beatles vs The Rolling Stones: why rock’s greatest rivalry is finally over

After decades of insults and back-biting, Paul McCartney appears on his former foes’ new album. But much did they really hate each other?

The greatest rivalry in rock has come to a shuddering halt. The Beatles and The Rolling Stones have buried the hatchet after 60 years of feuding to make new music together. Paul McCartney has recorded bass parts for the forthcoming Rolling Stones album, Hackney Diamonds, along with Lady Gaga, Elton John, Stevie Wonder and former Stones bassist Bill Wyman.

The Beatles vs The Rolling Stones is the most famous battle of the bands in music history. As pop-cultural icons, they’ve divided fans since the early 1960s. No longer. “Beatles and Stones ‘Come Together’ for new Rolling Stones album,” was a typical follow-up headline to the Variety story. “The surviving Beatles and the surviving Stones are coming together to kick your ass. Begin running,” wrote US blogger Noah Pasternak on Twitter.

But before speculation about The Rolling Beatles – as the supergroup will inevitably be dubbed – reaches fever pitch, everyone needs to calm down little a bit. My mole behind the mixing desk in Los Angeles, where the tie-up took place, told me in February that the collaboration is limited in scope. McCartney has indeed recorded with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood. It was spontaneous. In early 2023 they bumped into each other in the same studio and started jamming on a song. Talk of Starr’s involvement, however, is wide of the mark.

“It’s only one track. And no Ringo. Paul and the Stones were sharing the same studio in LA, they had a bit of a jam and Paul ended up on one track,” says my man with the headphones. The song (name unknown) is likely to appear later this year, possibly on a new Stones album which is very much not the Beatles-Stones mash-up that some folk are predicting. It is thought that late Stones drummer Charlie Watts, who died in 2021, will appear on a couple of tracks. The rest of the drumming will be carried out by Watts’s fantastic successor Steve Jordan, who has replaced Watts’s jazz-influenced drumming with a slightly more propulsive sound.

But however limited the Beatles-Stones tie-up, it’s still a big deal given the musicians’ history. The narrative goes something like this. The Beatles were the wholesome boys next door while the Stones were the edgy bad boys. The Beatles were pop, the Stones were rock. The former were wholesome mop-tops, the latter were dangerous rebels. John Lennon famously said that The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus”, while the Stones had Sympathy for the Devil. The Beatles had 16 UK number one albums, and the Stones had 13.

But to what extent was the rivalry actually true? Did the groups really dislike each other? Or was theirs a battle that was cooked up to create headlines as the pop market exploded in the 1960s? The answer is a mixture of the two: The Beatles vs The Stones is 80 per cent marketing construct and 20 per cent truth.

The bands were almost exact contemporaries. The Beatles released their debut single Love Me Do in October 1962, while the Stones released theirs, Come On, in June 1963. (The “almost” is crucial here – there was always an element of a younger brother looking up to his older sibling in their relationship.) The bands’ early rivalry was genuine – and it was a shadow play of the real-life drama playing out between their managers.

The Stones’ manager Andrew Loog Oldham had worked with The Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein. Together, they’d helped shape the Liverpudlians’ image, but Epstein had fired Oldham after an argument. “We were the instrument of [Oldham’s] revenge on Epstein,” wrote Keith Richards in his autobiography Life. Oldham didn’t get it right immediately. He tried to beat The Beatles at their own game by putting the Stones in suits similar to the Fab Four’s.

But the band hated them, so he took the opposite tack: be the anti-Beatles. The credo, Richards said, was to “do everything wrong, at least from a showbiz, Fleet Street point of view”. As the guitarist said about The Stones’ own image, “You’ve got The Beatles, mums love them and dads love them, but would you let your daughter marry this?” The Stones cultivated a raggedy look, never smiling in photos, never dressing the same and never getting matching haircuts.

Then, there was the music itself. In a 2015 interview with Esquire magazine, Richards called the Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album “a mishmash of rubbish”, which was a bit harsh. He argued that there was “not a lot of roots” in the band’s music, which he and his bandmates saw as more vaudevillian. In 2021 – in an indication of how the rivalry was still playing out – McCartney dubbed the Stones “a blues covers band”. He told The New Yorker that “our net was cast a bit wider than theirs” when it came to music. Ouch.

The Beatles also regularly complained that the Stones copied them. Being slightly behind on the career curve meant that the Stones could observe and then mimic The Beatles’ success, went the argument. In a 1970 Rolling Stone interview, a clearly riled John Lennon accused Jagger and the boys of regularly doing what The Beatles had just done. He was particularly scathing about the Stones’ psychedelic 1967 album Their Satanic Majesties Request, which was released shortly after Sgt Pepper.

“I would like to just list what we did and what the Stones did two months after on every f—— album. Every f—— thing we did, Mick does exactly the same – he imitates us… Satanic Majesties is Pepper,” Lennon said. He added that the Stones were “not in the same class, music-wise or power-wise” as The Beatles. In the Let it Be track Dig A Pony, Lennon appears to reference this. “I roll a stoney / Well, you can imitate everyone you know,” he sang. It’s also worth noting that arguably the two best Stones albums – Sticky Fingers in 1971 and Exile on Main St. the following year – were actually released after The Beatles broke up, so they weren’t exact contemporaries after all.

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