Why 50 years on, the Rolling Stones are greater than The Beatles
Just a few days ago, people doffed their proverbial caps and pagdis to mark 50 years since the Beatles' had cut their first record, the single 'Love Me Do'. The mood was that of a jolly good afternoon tea party with some champagne thrown in, a celebration to mark what would be the beginning of a musical space-time crunched incredibly into the years starting from 1962 and ending at 1970.
It was a re-re-re-confirmation of the Beatles as the greatest -- and the most popular as well as lasting -- musical force in pop music since the decline of classical music pop idols such as Mozart and later Schubert.
But what it really was, in the 50th year since the continuing existence of another band, this one from London, was a genteel but politely forceful way of concluding that the Beatles is a greater musical force than Rolling Stones.
Which, in the scheme of things musical, is quite true. For someone who fell for the charms of the Beatles and is still in love with them, negotiating the trap of Beatles vs Stones has been more than just tricky. In terms of melody, arrangements, compositions and going to sonic spaces where no man has gone before, the Beatles -- in the same manner in which Bob Dylan rules the world of words in music -- remains unchallenged at the top.
But, to misquote that Rudyard Kipling quote via CLR James in a different context: What do they know of music who only music know?
The Rolling Stones has been a climatic phenomenon, much like the loo, or the trade winds, or the norwester, or the aurora borealis, for the last 50 years. Like some rolling honky-tonky gestalt creature, the combination of Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Charlie Watts, Ron Wood -- and earlier Bill Wyman, Mick Taylor and Brian Jones, with the late pianist Ian Stewart and now bassist Darryl Jones as their phantom Stone -- are more than the sum of their parts. As is the music of the Stones.
I came to their music rather late in the day, and certainly after I had been already dipped in the Beatles vat. But then serendipity decided to take me by the hand and throw me into the deep, gorgeous end of the music of the Stones that shook and reformed not only my taste in music but went on to reshape me gonads up.
The Rolling Stones in 1969, after the death of founder member Brian Jones. The line-up, from left to right; drummer Charlie Watts, then new member guitarist Mick Taylor, vocalist Mick Jagger, guitarist Keith Richards and bass player Bill Wyman.
In the very late 80s, as part of a band I used to be in, I was introduced to Stones tracks such as the electric cable-in-your-ass 'Jumpin' Jack Flash', the faux lazy-true predatory blues of 'Spider and the Fly', the no-holds-barred rock'n'holler 'Get Off My Cloud' -- which we would perform as a medley with the Beatles' version of the Phil Medley-Bert Russel cracker 'Twist and Shout' -- and the epical 'Sympathy for the Devil'.
As songs to cover, these were not just songs; they were methods of manifestation. If 'Come Together' was a rough'n'ready invitation to swagger, 'Brown Sugar' () was the sound to do pillage
But it was in 1989, that I borrowed the Stones' 1969 album "Let It Bleed" from a friend who played guitar in our band. And suddenly, even inside the mezzanine floor bachelor pad in eastern Calcutta, I realised that the Stones, without a break from 1969 to 1973 -- stretching from the majestically malevolent "Let It Bleed" to the atmospheric chill of "Goats Head Soup" with the "Sticky Fingers" (1971) and "Exile on Main Street" (1972) forming a shimmering iron staircase between them (all these albums, along with the 1968 "Beggars Banquet" were notably produced by Jimmy Miller) -- was a climactic storm set to vinyl, cassette, CD and now downloadable/uploadable format.
Keith Richards, in his memoir, Life -- one of the finest memoirs by anyone that I've ever read -- explains what happened to the Stones music in those defining, no-longer-confined-by-just-sound five years. "The big discovery late in 1968 or early 1969 was when I started playing the open five-string tuning. It transformed my life.... The beauty, the majesty of the five-string open G tuning for an electric guitaar is that you've only got three notes -- the other two are repetitions of each other an octave apart... Only three notes, but because of these three different octaves, it fills the whole gap between bass and top notes with sound... And if you're working the right chord, you can hear this other chord going on behind it, which actually you're not playing. It's there. It defies logic. And it's just lying there saying, 'Fuck me.'"
For the listener, the Stones throw up in their 'Golden Years' music what's hidden otherwise. It's raw, primal, the stuff that goes and mixes straight with hormones and pheromones rather than only with the ear and brain.
So coming back to the onerous ledger book, apples to apples do the Stones match the Beatles? No. There have been Stones albums before 1968 and certainly after 1974 -- the utter ignominies of "Black and Blue" (1976), "Emotional Rescue" (1980) and "Undercover" (1986) far too swiftly come to mind -- that are dull, patchy or downright disastrous (how the same folks who created 'Ventilator Blues' could come up with 'Miss You' will forever be a mystery to me). No Beatles album, not even the half-side instrumental "Yellow Submarine", misses the boardwalk for the lake.
But if one gauges greatness -- sonic greatness that bundles every emotional wavelength there is available to humans -- then the Stones as a storm-troupe, playing out their King Lear, Othello, Richard III and Macbeth to all the Beatles' other great Shakespearean comedies and tragedies, are the stuff that maketh, breaketh, changeth hearts.
In any case, the Stones 1969-1974 music has not dated one bit and it would be futile, if not downright stupid, to celebrate 50 years of the Greatest Rock'n'Roll Band with just a doff of a cap and a cup of tea. Something stronger is needed. Like the swirl and hurricane of 'Gimme Shelter'.
More about Indrajit Hazra
Indrajit Hazra is an author and journalist. He writes Red Herring for Hindustan Times every Sunday and Last Laugh for Khaleej Times every Friday. He is a decommissioned Jedi and a BlackBerry addict. He lives in New Delhi, which is a good thing.