By Matthew DeMello
Image courtesy of Michael Fielitz.
It’s an age-old question that every music lover has to answer: Who is better, The Rolling Stones or The Beatles?
Despite what music history–or at least most Baby Boomers–will tell you, there is actually no wrong answer to this question, except for a lazy one (which I guess would make The Beatles both the best and worst possible answer). But more than getting the answer “right,” the point is to know the answer for yourself and to have a damn good reason for your answer.
In re-examining this question on a Facebook thread some months ago, it came to my attention that, for all my unquenchable downloading of torrent files in my delinquent youth, I had never actually made time to listen to the entire discography of The Rolling Stones.
So I set myself to filling all eight gigabytes of my iPod (yes, I’m aware I’m both 2008 and two-thousand-and-late) in pursuit of the ultimate effort in musical empathy: While I may be a born Beatlemaniac, I wanted to make an effort to fully absorb the argument that The Rolling Stones are objectively the better band.
In my three-month long “binge” of The Stones, I came to a few realizations about both bands. Principally, I came to the conclusion that there will never be a Beatles song that’s underrated, or yet to be discovered. Perhaps as a consolation prize to being the second runner up for the band of a generation, there is an almost endless trove of fantastic material by The Stones that is yet to be tapped by a new wave of younger listeners who can absorb their career from the comfort of their iPod.
In essence, The Beatles may have history and precedence on their side, but the music of The Stones is better suited for gorging one’s self in an artist’s entire career. Without giving any longer of a history lesson, here are a few highlights from my own journey through their classic catalog. Consider this a mixtape via YouTube videos.
1. “I’m Going Down”
If you’re going to start anywhere in reshuffling your perspective on The Rolling Stones, their 1975 retrospective oddities compilation Metamorphosis is a great place to start. Recorded smack dab in the band’s widely regarded “golden-age” in mid-1969, “I’m Going Down” is the missing link between two of the band’s best known hits: “Brown Sugar” and “Gimme Shelter”. Despite something of a lackluster lyrics sheet, the song is a clear demonstration that, for all their hubris, Jagger and company had the humility to shelve some of their best ideas, even in their prime.
2. “Yesterday’s Papers”
With so much distance between the present and the ‘60s, it’s easy to forget how great The Stones were at being a soulful pop act. It’s hard to call an album like Between the Buttons (which features such set-list staples as “Let’s Spend the Night Together” and “Ruby Tuesday”) underrated, but ornately arranged songs like “Yesterday’s Papers” prove that the band could still gallivant in the same compositional territory as Pet Sounds and Motown.
3. “Hitch Hike”
There is, of course, no shortage of memorable opening riffs when it comes to The Rolling Stones. Perhaps Keith Richards’s most borrowed guitar phrasing comes from their version of Marvin Gaye’s “Hitch Hike” from their early career-defining 1965 LP, Out of Our Heads. Proper credit should belong to the original songwriting team of Gaye, William “Mickey” Stevenson, and Clarence Paul for the notes themselves, but without The Stones, who would the Velvet Underground and The Smiths have ripped off?
If you’re a burgeoning Stones fan below the age of 35 with not a lot of income, you’re just not going to spend your hard earned money on an album like 1986’s Dirty Work. I mean, just look at this cover. Clearly, the band wasn’t getting along very well, but for a few spare tracks from this largely overlooked record, being pissed at each other provided for some inspired and motivated material. Not all of Dirty Work is noteworthy, but there’s more treasure along the lines of “Fight” where that came from.
5. “Waiting On A Friend”
A longtime fan favorite, and to some, the last great song the band ever wrote, “Waiting On A Friend” is on this list because it’s an absolute shame it makes no appearance on any of the band’s numerous best-of compilations. For a lyricist with no shortage of questionably misogynistic lyrics, Jagger makes a gentleman’s case for keeping things platonic–or, depending on your interpretation, delivers a touching ode to the only friend anyone’s going to remember him for (Richards).
Richards’s unquenchable love of reggae is an influence on the band that isn’t exactly widely recognized, but has helped develop their best-known material. Great example: the original demo for “Start Me Up” (titled “Never Stop”) was originally meant to be a reggae number. Admittedly, The Stones were never as well equipped to mimic the genre with as much success as others (The Clash comes to mind), but adding a slight dub beat to some slide guitar and raucous delta blues piano brings a unique approachability to this song that’s unlike anything else in their discography.
7. “Hand of Fate”
Black & Blue is a weirder album than the band or any of their fans give it credit for. Recorded primarily as a means to try out replacements for departing lead guitarist Mick Taylor in 1975, “Hand of Fate” is easily the standout track. Many regard the extended funk jams and R&B ballads that comprise the rest of the record as something of a fall from grace from the creative peaks the quintet ascended on Exile on Main Street, but this song shows Jagger and Richards were still capable of making the most of their classic chemistry.
8. “Thief in the Night”
As I mentioned before, many late-period Stones albums (or really, anything from the last 30 years) tend to suffer from this overwhelming sense that the band is trying way too hard to prove they still have it. “Thief in the Night” is a great exception. Keith is on lead vocals here, embracing the inner aging bluesman that has been living in his drug-addled heart since he first set his fingers on a guitar slide. There’s not much else on 1997’s Bridges to Babylon that’s worth writing about, but “Thief in the Night” presents a vision of The Stones as elder rock statesmen unafraid to act their age.
9. “2000 Light Years from Home”
Neither psychedelia nor science fiction ever really made a good fit for The Stones, and 1967’s Their Satanic Majesty’s Request overdoses on both. “2000 Light Years from Home” is the only song on the record that doesn’t sound like a hopeless attempt to stick with the zeitgeist of the ‘60s at their own expense. And, as space-rock psychedelic jams go, the song ventures to some interstellar territory that The Rolling Stones had never gone before nor would ever dare tread again.
Being cursed with having to be the follow up to the band’s best album (also the home of the band’s least beloved hit “Angie”), 1973’s Goats Head Soup tends to leave even hardcore fans underwhelmed. Though what tends to go unnoticed is just how wild the album’s creative curveballs can be. Case in point: “Winter” is an epochal orchestral ballad in the same vein as “Moonlight Mile” that makes for a fantastic closer for any oddities collection, so why not this one?