Unlike Stones, Beatles Knew When to Quit
Much was made during the month leading up to last night's 50th anniversary of the appearance of the Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show": how we embraced them in the somber aftermath of the Kennedy assassination; reveled in the soundtrack they provided for the coming of age of the baby boom; and felt the void they left when they disbanded in 1970.
Yet by quitting when they did, the Beatles -- as any number of writers have noted -- preserved forever the distilled genius of the four young men from Liverpool before it began to flag. Their separate musical output in the years after provide proof enough; maybe there was enough there for one more great album had they stayed together, though after "Let It Be," it's hard to imagine the Beatles ever producing the lapidary pop gems that filled records such as "Rubber Soul," "Revolver" or "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." But this isn't about the Beatles. This is about the Rolling Stones, set to head out next week on the Asia leg of their 2014 tour. Let's hope it's their last outing, because the Rolling Stones, who rank as the second-most important rock 'n' roll act (some might put Bob Dylan or Elvis ahead of them -- I wouldn't), should have quit a few years after the Beatles broke up. The arc of the Stones is very much like that of the Beatles, only a few years later. Formed in 1962, a couple of years after the Beatles, they provided a dark, vulgar and hedonistic counterpoint to the effervescent Fab Four. If parents could tolerate the Beatles, they were repulsed by the Stones. And what kid didn't love them for that? To the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand," All You Need is Love" and "Hey Jude," the Stones offered "Let's Spend the Night Together," "Paint It Black" and "Sympathy for the Devil." There should be no doubt the Stones were driven by a sense of competition with the Beatles and the song-writing team of John Lennon and Paul McCartney. The Stones, like almost every rock band of the time, particularly of the British Invasion ilk, copied the Beatles and their construct of the 2 1/2-minute rock tune. Like the Beatles, though, the Stones' creative juices eventually ran dry. Think of "Exile on Main St." in 1972 as the Stones' equivalent of the Beatles' "White Album": an experimental melange of genres, showcasing Mick Jagger and Keith Richards as a composing duo who were Lennon and McCartney's equals. And then came "Goats Head Soup," "It's Only Rock 'n Roll" and "Black and Blue," three unremarkable records that among them yielded just one memorable hit from the eponymous second of the bunch, which was in fact if not in lyrics an admission that the Stones were a waning force. In one final outburst, the Stones summoned up the fire to produce the brilliant album "Some Girls." And after that …? In his last interview in the January 1981 edition of Playboy magazine and released just about the time he was killed, John Lennon was asked why the Beatles had split and what the chances were they would reunite. Lennon explained that he had been playing with McCartney and George Harrison since they were teenagers and said he had no interest in revisiting his youth. "Do you want to go back to high school?" he asked the interviewer. It's worth quoting him at length, since what he had to say applies even more to the Stones than the Beatles:
In the Eighties, they'll be asking, "Why are those guys still together? Can't they hack it on their own? Why do they have to be surrounded by a gang? Is the little leader scared somebody's gonna knife him in the back?" That's gonna be the question. That's-a-gonna be the question! They're gonna look back at the Beatles and the Stones and all those guys are relics. The days when those bands were just all men will be on the newsreels, you know. They will be showing pictures of the guy with lipstick wriggling his ass and the four guys with the evil black make-up on their eyes trying to look raunchy. That's gonna be the joke in the future, not a couple singing together or living and working together. It's all right when you're 16, 17, 18 to have male companions and idols, OK? It's tribal and it's gang and it's fine. But when it continues and you're still doing it when you're 40, that means you're still 16 in the head.
If it was a question worth asking in the 1980s, it certainly is a question worth asking in the 2010s. Jagger once said that "I'd rather be dead than singing `Satisfaction' when I'm 45.'' He turned 70 last year, as did Richards. Drummer Charlie Watts is 72. The pose of youthful cockiness, sexual triumph and social disruption is fine up to a point. For a bunch of grandfathers (in Jagger's case, a great-grandfather), Lennon was right, as he was about so many things: It's a joke.
(James Greiff is a member of Bloomberg View's editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)
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