Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Beatles or Stones: An argument for imperfection

Not long after my Primer on The Rolling Stones was posted late last night, an old debate was re-ignited on the message board: Beatles or Stones? Actually, it wasn't much of a debate. Right away (in the nuanced parlance of message boards) it was "Beatles>Stones." (Or for those who prefer backing the trendy dark horse, "Kinks>Beatles>Stones.") I'm not surprised by this development, though as a Stones guy I'd like to make a brief attempt to completely and totally discredit it. (In my own mind, at least.)

First off, I'll state for the record that I love, love, love The Beatles. (I also love The Kinks, though I place The Who higher in the classic rock pantheon. Just a personal preference. To me, The Who has always been like a best friend, while The Beatles were like the girl you wanted to marry and The Stones the girl you wanted sleep with and never could.) I love The Beatles for the same reason everybody who loves The Beatles loves The Beatles: they were pretty much perfect. No bad albums, no embarrassing career moves, no bad songs. Sure, nitpickers can nitpick. Magical Mystery Tour isn't such a hot movie. That cover of "Til There Was You" on With The Beatles is sort of cheesy. "Octopus' Garden" is a bit twee. But by any standard that isn't maniacally critical, The Beatles batted 1.000. And that's why their case for G.O.A.T. is airtight.

But I don't really care about G.O.A.T. When I'm standing at the jukebox and picking my beer-drinking music, Internet debates over rock bands seem, I don't know, inconsequential for some reason. Words like "best" and "greatest" are just more official ways of saying "favorite" anyway, and The Stones have been my favorite rock 'n' roll band (tied with Guided By Voices) for most of my life. I just wrote 4,000 words explaining why, but I left out one big reason: I love The Stones because they didn't bat 1.000. They made some less-than-good albums, made some less-than-good career moves, and (no need to sugar coat here) made some pretty bad songs. But as a fan, I treasure the trash as much as Exile On Main St. and Sticky Fingers. I'll never get sick of blasting "Brown Sugar" in the car, but sometimes I have a hankering to hear that stupid mail order bride reggae number "Send It To Me" off 1980's delightfully junky Emotional Rescue. (Just so I can sing along to the part where Mick sings, "Might be Hungarian, could be Australian, could be the alien, send her to me!" Whether Mick is singing about a woman without a green card or E.T., I still haven't figured out.) As great as "Brown Sugar" is, "Send It To Me" is more personal to me in a way, because it's a little corner of the Stones' universe that hasn't been claimed by pop culture. And there's really nothing about The Beatles where that's true.

I have a (not terribly well-developed) theory that The Stones have made the most interesting and entertaining "bad" albums of any major artist in rock history. (At least that I can think of.) Before I proceed with this, let me define the word "bad" here. I don't think The Stones have ever made a bad record in the way, say, prime period Creed is bad. Give me a poorly regarded Stones record, and I'll pick out a couple of killer tracks. (Please see my defense of the much-shat upon Undercover in the Primer.) But there are certainly albums in the Stones discography where the boys don't seem particularly engaged in the music-making process. I'm thinking of the aforementioned Emotional Rescue, It's Only Rock 'n' Roll, Goats Head Soup and the ultimate non-masterpiece masterpiece in the band's catalog, 1976's Black And Blue. (I'm not including any of the maligned post-Tattoo You work because I think The Stones, for the most part, do try really hard on those albums. If the results fall short of greatness, it's because the band's not as good, not for lack of effort. I'm willing to amend this statement if I ever get around to buying Dirty Work.) Black And Blue is the most egregious example of The Stones putting out a record just to have product to hawk during a tour. Some of the tracks, like "Hey Negrita," "Hot Stuff," and the Billy Preston-assisted "Melody," are barely songs at all, just a band jamming on a riff until the fade out. Black And Blue also includes "Fool To Cry," perhaps the dullest song in the entire Stones discography. Musically, Black And Blue is mostly crap. (Though two songs, "Hand Of Fate" and "Memory Hotel", are awesome.) Subtextually, however, Black And Blue is essential for any hardcore Stones fan. It captures the Stones in a fallow creative period, and trying to find a new direction after the departure of their brilliant lead guitarist Mick Taylor. You can hear them grasping for inspiration and coming up empty, and knowing they came up empty and still grasping anyway because what else ya goin' to do? Black And Blue isn't a great or even particularly good record, but it's an honest one, even if what The Stones reveal was supposed to be concealed. And I find it endlessly fascinating for that reason. Hearing a great band fail sometimes can tell you more about why they're great than hearing their successes. I'm not saying I'd take Black And Blue over Let It Bleed, but I'm more than happy to have both.


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