Friday, February 23, 2007

The long and winding Beatles-Stones debate

The Beatles' January 1969 rooftop concert of songs from Let it Be--which wouldn't be released until May 1970, after Abbey Road and the band's breakup--are up on Youtube.

I love how rock films from the 60s show how novel and exciting an idea it was to be freaking out the squares, and for no one more so than the Beatles. (I wonder if that's a core Republican-Democrat cultural difference: when you see someone freaking out the squares, do you laugh or glower?) You can see how this has changed in Spike Jonze's two Fatboy Slim videos, "Rockafella Skank" and "Praise You"--he's still freaking people out, but he's not visibly proud of putting people off and the humor comes from his intense focus on the performance.

At a party last year, Alice mentioned debating with friends which of the Beatles and Rolling Stones are the superior band. I immediately blurted out "The Beatles!", and Alice told me that would put me in the minority.

Let it Be, and the rooftop concert in particular, is some of my favorite Beatles music (according to Wikipedia, the rooftop performances of "Dig a Pony", "I've Got a Feeling" and "1 after 909" were put on the final album). My favorite Stones music also comes from the same period: Let it Bleed in 1969 and Sticky Fingers in 1971 (more than Get Yer Ya-Yas Out and Exile on Main Street). In comparison, the white album, Let it Be and Abbey Road do feel sentimental and precious.

Earnestness is much of the Beatles' charm, but it's still charm and not really rock & roll. The Beatles expanded music in many directions, but they never found the sticky adult territory of "Under my Thumb" or "Brown Sugar". To listen straight through the Red and Blue albums (the official best-ofs) is to wait for a particular sort of breakthrough that never comes. If you're willing to be counterfactual, it's not hard to imagine that if the final Beatles album had been any of the Stones' four from 1969-72, it would be held above Abbey Road and Sgt. Pepper's.

How about this: is Pearl Jam to Nirvana a good metaphor for Beatles to Stones? For simplicity, I'm talking about the best albums of each group, which makes the comparison easier because as I see it these are roughly contemporary in each case (sorry, No Code and Tattoo You fans). Ten and Vs. are syrupy next to Nirvana's three albums (it's hard to imagine Kurt Cobain crying out "Where do I stand?"), but then again I always listen to them in different ways: Pearl Jam and the Beatles by playing isolated songs, Nirvana and the Stones by playing whole albums. Hearing "The Long and Winding Road" after already hearing "Across the Universe" is a bit much, as is "Indifference" after "Elderly Woman Behind the Counter in a Small Town" (even typing that makes me wince). But I'm never happier than when I play "Dissident" or "Rearview Mirror" (though preferably not in sequence), or "Dig a Pony" or "Oh! Darling". I don't feel the same way about any Stones or Nirvana songs, though I play Nevermind, In Utero and the two Stones albums I mentioned in heavier rotation than PJ or Beatles.

As for the singalong concept album stuff, I hardly ever listen to it anymore, but I'm glad it's there. Once, managing deliveries for a restaurant in the meatpacking district in Manhattan, someone started singing "Because" as a joke, and I swear that the entire delivery crew--with the exception of a few confused Dominicans--proceeded to sing the entire album side all the way through "The End".

A related memory: once, at the Columbia bar Cannon's, I put "Gimme Shelter" on the jukebox, but the volume was too low and that kills the song. As the opening wail came on, I got looks from people that said what the fuck is this? When the guitar, bass and drums came it, I started bobbing my head, thinking here we go, but no one was with me. I feel David Bowie's warning on the back of Ziggy Stardust: "To be played at maximum volume". "Dig a Pony" in particular shrivels up when played on a tinny. tiny system, but expands on a good and loud one.