I wasn’t around in the 1960s. I was around in the 1990s, so I know everything about music beefs. I remember when a gunman shot Tupac Shakur as he was coming out of a Mike Tyson fight. Months later, his rival, Notorious BIG, died after an unidentified gunman sprayed his truck with bullets. Their feud turned bloody, but that’s not really the norm. Most of the time, musicians just trade jabs in the media and act bitter until they either die of natural causes or awkwardly reconcile in public. Musicians, mostly, are prima donnas, outside of the world of rap, which can sometimes resemble organized crime. But that’s an analysis best left for people who have skin in that game. Like I said, I’m going to the 1960s for a reason.
Everyone remembers musicians pointing knives outward at the establishment during the ‘60s, but there were some massive egos at play. John Lennon, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, the Davies brothers, Pete Townshend, all of them were lauded musical geniuses, and few of them really showed humility as their top qualities. If you told me there was tension between people in different bands, I would believe you. There was tension between members of the same bands! The Beatles broke up because they couldn’t stand to be in the same room with each other anymore. The Davies Brothers. Ginger Baker and Jack Bruce. John Paul Jones and Jimmy Page. Even before Fleetwood Mac recorded Rumours despite the fact that their cocaine-fueled egos clashed with each other every waking moment of the day, bands had suffered inner tension. What makes you think they were going to play nice with their rivals?
I’m not sure how the climate was back then, but at least two peers of the Rolling Stones decided to take potshots at the band. I’m not the biggest fan of the Stones, although I’ve softened on my disdain of them over the years, but honestly, you’d have to be braindead to ignore the influence they’ve had on rock ‘n roll in its history on several acts that you and I and everyone like. So, when Paul McCartney calls them a “blues cover band,” it’s rings a lot of bells. Chalk it up to tension between the two acts at the vanguard of the British Invasion if you must, but I feel like it goes a little deeper. Roger Daltrey, the frontman of The Who, chiming in makes it a little more interesting. He said, that while Mick Jagger is “still the number one rock ‘n roll showman, up front,” that the Stones were a “mediocre pub band,” before chiming in with the safety word catch-all, “no disrespect.” Neither Daltrey nor McCartney saying that is not so much a slam even if it is a slam. You really have to compare the musical stylings of the Stones to the Beatles and The Who to see where they’re coming from.
The Rolling Stones are similar to the other two bands inasmuch as they broke in England in the 1960s and played rock ‘n roll music. To some people, that’s enough to call them “the same band,” but it would be just as disingenuous as if I started rolling into hip-hop communities and claiming that Wu-Tang Clan and Digital Underground were the same exact damn rap groups. There’s nuance, and with the Stones vs. some of their peers, that nuance isn’t hard to miss. McCartney calling them a “blues cover band” is disingenuous to a point with a kernel of truth in the most pointed part. The Stones played a lot of covers in their early days; so did the Beatles. The Beatles did evolve, but while it would be a lie to say the Stones didn’t, they still stayed closer to their comfort vest. The same goes for The Who, who were perhaps the most stylistically distinct group among the three when they were in their earliest stages, but it’s not about where you start. Like the Beatles, The Who picked on different threads.
The real argument here is whether musicianship should be the main driver for where laurels are laid or whether it’s mass appeal. The argument is moot here because the Stones, Beatles, and The Who all reached supernova levels of popularity, and there’s a clear stratum where they rank too. The Beatles are first, the Stones are second, and The Who is probably fourth after Led Zeppelin. However, no one from Zeppelin to my knowledge has mouthed off about the Stones at this point, so I’ll just leave them to their own dealings, which may or may not involve macabre invocations to eldritch occultists. The problem is whether popularity without artistic merit is legitimate. It’s a thorny field through which one must trudge, but it’s one people love pricking their legs upon because in a world where artistically minded people yearn for something more, record sales just don’t cut muster.
The point Daltrey and McCartney are making is that their successes are somehow more valid because their acts were more artistic. They didn’t make the verbose arguments; they didn’t have to. “Blues cover band” vs. “casting a wider net” says everything. To say the Stones didn’t branch out is a lie; just compare “Gimme Shelter” to any of their earliest output and say with a straight face that there’s no growth. However, the Stones found one vein and have continued to mine it to the present day. The fact that they can still sound relevant in that sound is an accomplishment, but it’s also more than fair to say that in their short time together, the Beatles leapt much further in terms of experimentation. They plumbed the depths of psychedelia and partially inspired both progressive rock (intuitively) and heavy metal1. They experimented with long suites and fucked around with tape effects. In their earliest days, the Beatles would sometimes write songs for the Stones, but then they outgrew the milieus in which they wrote those songs while the Stones found comfort.
The Who vs. the Stones is a different argument in that you could make the case every single member of the former band was a virtuoso at what they played, or in Daltrey’s case, how he sang. Jagger is well-regarded for his talents fronting a rock band, but his vocal range is only a fraction of what Daltrey’s was then at least. I haven’t seen The Who live, well, ever, so I can’t tell you if he still has it. Townshend is regarded as one of the greatest songwriters ever. The late John Entwistle had nimble fingers that plucked those four bass strings better than anyone who came before him and most that came after. Keith Moon, who died far too young, lived as hard as he pounded those skins. He was, and still is, regarded as one of the greatest drummers ever for his fury, his aggression, his ability to rise up from the background of a song and assert himself.
Compare him to the recently deceased Charlie Watts now. His drumming was the opposite of Moon’s. In fact, he was lauded because he stayed so well “in the pocket,” which is another term for playing with the beat. Neither Ronnie Wood nor Keith Richards set the world on fire with their instrumentation either where they could be compared to peers of theirs like Jack Bruce or Jimi Hendrix, respectively. In fact, Richards is probably more known as one of the first rock ‘n roll memes for how many times he should have died by now but how he will probably be around at the end of civilization with the cockroaches. For the Rolling Stones, the whole is far greater than the sum of the parts.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean the Stones’ popularity was undeserved. Music is not mathematics. There’s no formula for making something that will resonate enough to get someone to listen. It’s hard to write a good song and even harder to write a catchy one. No, the Rolling Stones weren’t virtuosos, nor did they stray too far away from their wheelhouse. They did, however, write a buttload of songs that people cherish, that connect with the hearts and souls of listeners across countries, across decades, across political cognitive dissonance. That means something.
What it all boils down to is that the argument really has no winners unless you’re in an echo chamber. I love prog rock and heavy metal, two of the most cerebral, technical subgenres within rock music, but one would be foolish to discount the kinds of music that can have a mass hold on large numbers of people. To do that with a sound that is culturally relevant and artistically viable is an accomplishment all on its own. I’m not going to bash what is called “pop” music today, but the Stones did write their own music after the same cover band gestational period that rock had mired itself in at the beginning of its existence. If you deny that, go back and check to see how many white artists wrote a majority of their own songs, even before the Beatles. They sang standards. They covered old bluesmen or Chuck Berry or Little Richard. The true test was when they would start to branch out. The Stones did that and didn’t lose their fastball. They weren’t writing songs handed to them by corporate writers. If you enjoy that, more power to you, but you have to recognize sourcing and origins, no matter how much you like Britney Spears’ voice2.
The Rolling Stones really don’t deserve this. To his credit, Jagger is taking it all in stride it seems. Still, sometimes, the art one creates isn’t going to be dense and technical. Sometimes, the best instrumentalists aren’t going to break through. It still doesn’t lessen the impact of the music you like, whether it’s simplistic like that of the Stones or even the bubblegum pop of modern years or if it’s created in the minds of utter madmen like Daltrey’s bandmate or anyone in the Beatles. Anything else is just musicians beefing, and God willing, you hope they don’t take it too far like Death Row Records and Bad Boy Records did in the late ‘90s.
Before arguing with me that they didn’t, Ozzy Osbourne’s favorite band in 1970 was the Beatles. They influenced Black Sabbath. That’s just a fact.
Regardless of who wrote Spears’ or Christina Aguilera’s or NSync’s songs, at least those writers get credit. I hate to pick on Led Zeppelin because I like their music so much, but I’m not sure they really ever paid a debt commensurate to how they brazenly tried to pass off older Black musicians’ songs as their own.