Some would have you think it’s a pointless argument, a debate hardly worth engaging with, the equivalent of bald men fighting over a comb. I tell you otherwise: the Beatles versus the Rolling Stones is yet another chapter in a recurring theme that springs eternal. It’s Plato versus Aristotle; Apollo versus Dionysus; it’s the sky versus the earth, the timeless ideal versus the vital ephemeral: it’s the Beatles versus the Rolling Stones.
The story goes that the Beatles wrote Norwegian Wood in 1965, Eleanor Rigby in 1966, Blackbird in 1968. Now, to get at why the Beatles versus the Rolling Stones is so much more than just a simple rivalry between bands, I will begin by convincing you that those dates are all wrong — and I won’t be resorting to conspiracy theories, time-bending physics or dream sequences to do so. No, all I need is Plato.
A Brief Platonic Interlude
Among other things, Plato sought to explain a particularly curious ability of the human mind: it can pick out objects and effortlessly categorise them. Take dogs, for instance. We can recognise all these disparate objects — the chihuahua, the German shepherd, the dachshund — as dogs without ever confusing them with other four-legged animals such as wolves, foxes or bears. We do this effortlessly, so effortlessly in fact that it took someone like Plato to notice how particularly impressive a skill it is.
For us to categorise objects, Plato argued we must already be aware of the categories that we lump objects into. So before we can categorise dogs as dogs in the effortless and consistent way that we do, Plato thought that the idea of dogs already exists in our minds as a timeless canine form, lying there in wait, ready for use once we stumble across objects recognisable as dogs.
Likewise, if our minds can distinguish disparate objects as dogs and lump them into an abstract canine form that is elemental and timeless, Plato argued that all the other abstract entities we engage with, the good, the great, the beautiful, must be equally essential and timeless. A beautiful flower, a beautiful sunset, a beautiful melody: to Plato, they each reflect beauty’s form just as much as the chihuahua and the dachshund reflect the canine.
Platonic Beauty in Music
And if one were to do now as Plato once did and consider beauty’s form in the musical realm, one would immediately consider My Favourite Things. Julie Andrews and John Coltrane make for strange bedfellows, but My Favourite Things does what few other songs can: it transcends its renditions, so much so that a dragon-chasing musical visionary often overcome by the darkness of this mortal coil could find inspiration among raindrops on roses and kittens with whiskers. Not even the overly saccharine Sound of Music can hide the delicious headiness of the melody, and although John Coltrane might have made My Favourite Things hip, any old schmo who makes a reasonably faithful rendition of the song will never render it unpleasant.
Sure, you might say, our day and age is replete with top-ten lists of seemingly vast musical differences, so there hardly appears to be any universality possible and this whole Platonic business is bonkers. But although we focus on our subjective differences — I consider Coldplay an abomination, as should the rest of you damn it! — the very discussion we have over subjective differences is possible because of certain musical fundamentals we all hear in the same way. Even without a hint of musical theory, we each hear, for instance, the arrangement of notes in a major key sounding perky and in a minor key sombre; or a C and a C# played together as a grating, unsettling sound; or two notes an octave apart sharing an aural unity that renders them, paradoxically, the same note. So too do we hear My Favourite Things as a delight — because we’ve been made that way, by God, by evolution, by whatever cosmic force that has led to the development of humankind. Rodgers and Hammerstein brought to light properties of the human mind that were theretofore unknown: that the waxing and waning and sashaying of the notes that make up My Favourite Things are the quintessence of musical bewitchment, and in any of its guises, some more hip than others, the song’s core enraptures.
My Favourite Things is the Platonic song par excellence, timelessly and universally beautiful. You could say Rodgers and Hammerstein didn’t so much write the song; rather, they were the prophets through which aspects of beauty’s form were revealed. In the same way, the Beatles too were Platonists. They wrote songs akin to My Favourite Things. Unlike we benighted commoners, the Beatles were Prometheus, stealing fire from the Gods and enlightening each and every one of us on beauty’s form via music. While it’s by no means a constant in the Beatles back catalogue, they often revealed beauty’s eternal handiwork in such songs as Blackbird, Eleanor Rigby, Norwegian Wood, Yesterday. Paul McCartney admitted as much himself: he couldn’t shake the feeling that he’d already heard Yesterday. What he didn’t know was that he had indeed already heard the song, as had everyone else, because Yesterday was always there, awaiting revelation, awaiting to enrapture, the musical embodiment of beauty’s eternal form. That’s why one could say it’s not entirely accurate to speak of many of the Beatles’ classic compositions as having been written in a particular year: those songs already existed, and our minds had no choice but to be charmed.
An Aristotelian Interlude
If on Plato’s iPod My Favourite Things is on repeat, Louie Louie is banging away in Aristotle’s. In Louie Louie, there exists not a jot that’s musically notable. At its core there lies only dull, harebrained simplicity. Diametrically opposed to My Favourite Things, the only thing interesting in Louie Louie is the rendition, the simplicity allowing the space for inspired performance, for cock-a-hoops and shout outs, for mood and feel, for joyous sloppiness and youthful abandon. The colour, the joy, the fun and the delight in the countless renditions of Louie Louie come from everything that is not the notes. Julie Andrews would murder Louie Louie; John Coltrane wouldn’t even bother with it. They’re not performers who make colourful, vital, gnarled, slapdash and glorious messes out of music. Bands like the Rolling Stones do that. And Aristotle gloried in it.
Contra Plato, Aristotle had no truck with forms or overwrought theories to explain categorisation. For Aristotle, there are no timeless forms — just a bunch of objects of various shapes and sizes that we as humans have munged together into the same category over time. This chihuahua looks like that chihuahua, which sort of shares a bunch of characteristics with that dachsund and looks nothing like that shark over there. Repeat a few times and, bob’s your uncle, we end up with a category of dog.
Aristotle revelled in particulars: he loved this or that dog and their glorious variations. He got so good at this, at cataloguing the varieties of species in the animal world, that he’s considered the first biologist. Plato, on the other hand, didn’t much care for individual dogs running around in the world. Plato considered the sensory life an illusion, a cosmic joke played on those who waste their time with the ephemeral shadows emanating from the higher abstract forms. If we transfer this line of thinking to music, Plato couldn’t have cared less for all the existing G notes and would ponder the one true G note. Conversely, Aristotle loved every variety of G: the G from a muted trumpet, the G from a distorted guitar, the G from a harpsichord, a violin or a glockenspiel. Plato revered the idealised G, Aristotle the realised. Even if My Favourite Things were played on a $10 Casio keyboard, Plato would hear the idealised tune in his head and be lost to its delights as a composition, barely noticing the primitive electronic sound. Aristotle, on the other hand, he’d be disgusted that such a classic song was being debased by cheap musical geegaws and demand to hear Coltrane’s reinvention of the song through noise-cancelling headphones plugged into a turntable.
The Rolling Stones of Aristotle
No doubt, too, Aristotle would have been a Rolling Stones man. Like Aristotle, the Rolling Stones were never interested in anything formal; instead, they were always about the thrill of performance and the buzzing warmth of music enveloping the skin. The Beatles stopped playing live well before they released their finest work while the Rolling Stones are still playing live long well after they released their finest work. In some happy, perfect world, do the Rolling Stones write the Beatles compositions and perform them?
Yet despite their hallowed career, the Rolling Stones don’t really make sense: there’s barely a melody in most Rolling Stones material; Keith Richards plays the same Chuck Berry and Jimmy Reed chords over and over again; the rhythm section is basically straight up and down four-four rock. The Rolling Stones should be as ordinary as the band that plays round the corner. Instead, the Rolling Stones took rock and roll further than it had gone before, showcasing along the way what an emphasis on everything that isn’t the notes can do.
Gimme Shelter sounds like the apocalypse; Stray Cat Blues is positively filthy. Jumpin’ Jack Flash is the musical incarnation of excitement, of danger, of style. Coltrane at times could be all those things, but he can’t play Jumpin’ Jack Flash: it’s all riff, no real harmony, the melody basically percussive. There’s nothing substantial for Coltrane to rearrange into a jazz ensemble. The song wouldn’t work on a trumpet, a glockenspiel, an oboe. No, the song is all performance and only works in that particular sonic configuration, tailored specifically for those instruments, with Keith’s fuzzed-out tone and many layers of wickedly weaving guitars, with Jagger’s rhythmic vocal snarl. In Jumpin’ Jack Flash and so much else, the Rolling Stones were musical alchemists, managing to transmute the stock-standard elements of rock and roll into glorious representations of attitude, rebelliousness and rambunctiousness that became sonic badges of identity. The Beatles can be enjoyed purely by the head, seduced as it is by their sumptuous melodies. The Rolling Stones: they head straight for the hips, right where carefree libidinousness and youthful abandon can be shaken free.
Take Blackbird and Sweet Black Angel as cases in point, both of which were about civil rights in the USA and featured on sprawling double albums. Like My Favourite Things, Blackbird is a song of incredible beauty and compositional delight. Its intricate harmonic and rhythmic pattern, inspired by a Bach piece for the lute, is an enthralling joy. Its rendition, though, is cloying, a little twee and very, well, Paul McCartney. Sweet Black Angel is by far Blackbird’s inferior compositionally. But if one is so inclined as to wear a grin of glee through an energetic performance of Louie Louie, Sweet Black Angel’s feel casts aside its compositional shortcomings and renders the song celebratory. Blackbird sounds like a toff earnestly extolling the virtues of the civil rights movement while enjoying his round of golf; Sweet Black Angel sounds like the thrill of cross pollination, of everyday white and black people getting on together and getting it on together. You bop to Sweet Black Angel with your hips; you hum Blackbird while daydreaming in your head.
The Rolling Stones were the better rock-and-roll band while the Beatles were the better musicians who happened to be in a rock-and-roll band. Throughout the world of music, the universal appeal of the Beatles serves as inspiration. Yet despite being modern-day icons, the Rolling Stones have never had the same broad-based appeal that the Beatles enjoyed. To be a Rolling Stone, you have to understand their music to be rebellious and to rejoice in it, all of which requires appreciating the social meaning of their sound. The Rolling Stones are one of the best examples of the coupling of music and identity, of how performance can lend itself to appreciation just as fundamentally as does composition. In the visceral thrill of punk and metal, in the textural experiments of indie bands, in music as a sonic badge of identity, we hear the Rolling Stones.
But we do not solely exist within subcultures. There must be a universal basis to our appreciation of music: how else could we conduct our conversations and debates if not for some shared language, some shared core? That does not mean the universal need have any sway over the particular or that the debate need find resolution. The Beatles versus the Rolling Stones is a debate that shall continue to spring eternal because each of us is partly Platonic, partly Aristotelian, one side playing off the other as we age in feedback loops DJ’d by nature and nurture. We all want to revel in Aristotelian actualisation and Platonic patterns of formal brilliance; the mind need not reject the body, nor the body the mind. Inclinations, however, are inclinations. You might tend Platonic, you might tend Aristotelian; just know there’s something to be enjoyed on either side and the ear is no passive listener. Appreciate music shorn of its sonic texture, purely as composition; appreciate music steeped in its time, place and sonic language. Be a Beatle, be a Stone — and maybe get to glory in all sides.