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Did the Rolling Stones' music go downhill after the Beatles broke up?

Rolling Stones-Nellcote 1972Reader Neil McCarthy responded to my recent interview with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards about the expanded reissue of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 album “Exile on Main St.” with an intriguing theory that’s been voiced by others over the years.

In short, McCarthy thinks the Stones’ music started on a downhill slide around 1970, when the Beatles broke up — and he suggests that was no coincidence.

“I've never felt ‘Exile’ was anything but a sloppy attempt to match the Beatles’ White Album. Understand, I love the Stones and loved them -- I was born in 1950 and early on (1965) 'knew' this is my group….Anyway their best albums, for me, were ‘Aftermath,’ ‘Between The Buttons’ (truly truly so underrated and, so, not listened to, but ohhh what a masterpiece) and ‘Beggars Banquet.’

“With the passing of the Beatles,” McCarthy wrote, “the Stones truly seemed to lose their footing in 'manning up' to produce truly great tunes.”

I don’t agree, because I think there were plenty of great tunes on the albums that came on the heels of the Fab Four’s breakup in 1970: “Sticky Fingers” (1971) and “Exile,” to say nothing of some top-drawer material on “Some Girls” (1978), “Tattoo You” (1981) and “Steel Wheels” (1989). And “A Bigger Bang” from 2005 ranks among my half-dozen favorite Stones albums ever.

But I bounced McCarthy’s theory off a couple of people close to both camps for their reaction.

First, “Breakfast With the Beatles” host Chris Carter, who said, “Actually, I think that the Stones got better as the Beatles broke up.

Beatles 1969

“From 1968 on to …what, “Tattoo You,” they were top shelf," Carter said. " ‘Beggars [Banquet]’ to ‘Exile’ is the most perfect five-LP run of any band ever (including [Get Yer] Ya Ya’s [Out] … and including the Beatles!”

Then I ran it by Don Was, who has produced several Stones albums in recent years, including “A Bigger Bang” and the bonus tracks on the “Exile” reissue. Was, who started following both bands from the first time their music reached U.S. shores in the 1960s, said, “I've heard the 'loss of Beatles competition' effect theory bandied about in reference to Brian Wilson as well ... not sure that I buy in.

“There is a limited window of time in which one can go into the studio and engage in an intense daily pursuit of fickle radio play and the latest fad,” Was said. “It becomes a pointless bore and a grind; eventually, it becomes indistinguishable from the job you joined a band to avoid in the first place! Not to mention that there's an endless supply of bread, girls, bad drugs and yes men that accompany success and conspire to dull the competitive edge.’

“Great as they were, the Beatles (and just about everyone else, as well) imploded under the circumstances,” Was noted. “It's testimony to the awesome strength, toughness and talent of the Stones -- and Bob Dylan, for that matter -- that they've not only endured but maintained a very high level of consistent quality for an additional 40 years. For what it's worth, after bearing firsthand witness, I see it as a herculean feat.”

Any dissenters out there in Stones -- or Beatles -- land?

-- Randy Lewis

Top photo: Mick Jagger and Keith Richards at Nellcote, France, circa 1972. Credit: Dominique Tarle / Universal Music Group

Bottom photo: John Lennon, George Harrison, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr in 1969. Credit: Apple Corps Ltd.

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Comments () | Archives (47)


One of the most ignorant gay comments I've ever heard !!! Obviously some out of touch Beatles fan ...

Hey smart guy, how about you try not sounding like a moron next time? How is zzzzzzzz homosexual? Grow up.

The Ford administration tanked in 1977 immediately after Fonze jumped the shark tank in "Happy Days."

What Exile being a double album? That's where any possible comparison ends? They're two separate species altogether. You left out by name, Let It Bleed, which is a huge bridge to Sticky Fingers,(i encourage everyone to blast the Sway track, just for a little reminder of what Mick is capable of), which is as good as anything from the Fab Four. I vote for they got better, especially with the addition of mick taylor and his sublime work, and extending through Goats Head Soup.

Uh, no, the Stones music got even better after the Beatles. They were not in competition together, the press made that stuff up. Anyway, Sticky Fingers ruled, Tattoo You was awesome, It's Only Rock and Roll, and so many more. Whoever thinks they went downhill is a moron !!!!!

I agree with you Randy. I think those albums from 1968 are as good as or better than some of the prior albaums. These albums explored more urban R & B, reggae, and disco, along with some great straight ahead rock music.

The Rolling Stones are amazing... and have nothing to do with the Beatles.

I'm glad this article was written because although I've always considered myself a Beatles fan, I've come to appreciate the Stones (Steel Wheels really turned me around on them).

The fact that they are not just still around but still producing is amazing but Mick Jagger's interview with Larry King was very interesting. He spoke of hard work, luck and being very smart about the business as key elements of their success. What's always fascinated me about Jagger is as opposed to growing up poor and being this bad kid off the streets, he was actually from a middle-class family who sent him to business school before he hit it big with music. I can't help but wonder how much that guided his 'business sense'.

Well, their best live years were certainly post-Beatles... say 1970 through 1973. And certainly, no matter your opinion on Exile, Sticky Fingers is one of the greatest albums of all time. A lot of Some Girls holds up with anything on the radio to this day. Brown Sugar is one of the all time great singles. I don't buy the theory. It doesn't consider the natural progressions of aging and maturity, not to mention technology.

This is very meta, but I find it amusing that Spicer comments: "One of the most ignorant gay comments I've ever heard." I don't think he sees the irony.

I always thought the Stones were always playing catch up to the Beatles as long as the Beatles were together and that they came into their own more when the Beatles broke up. Their Satanic Majesties Request = Sgt Pepper; Beggar's Banquet = Magical Mystery Tour and Let It Bleed, oh come on... I think that the Stones were more free to come into their own when they no longer were competing with the fabs. I dont agree with another thing in this article" the Beatles as a group imploded but each has had varying degrees of success since, especially Paul. The article sort of implies that only the Stones and Dylan went on.

Blaming this on whatever vacuum the Beatles left behind is weak. Everybody who retires leaves less of themselves wherever they used to be, and the Stones are no exception. Problem is, when they retired they didn't make it clear that they were actually retiring.

Neither the Stones nor anybody else can mitigate the banality of their music starting with Undercover and going into tailspin no later than Steel Wheels. Round about then, in that cultural midnight they for lack of better ideas elected to occupy, the only place reviewing them by rights should've been the Wall Street Journal.

After Nicky Hopkins died, the Stones had nobody with sufficient guts, talent or stamina close enough to them to make anything they did musically matter from then on. Their role became only business. Rock and roll business, but still just business. And "just business" is just boring.

While light years ahead of The Who, the Stones pretty much petered out creatively by the late 1970s, at least to me. Some Girls is their last great album, and most of what's come since just doesn't have the soul and wit of earlier Stones. Still, even if I count through 1978, that's nearly a decade longer than the Beatles.

McCarthy's example of "Between the Buttons" as a Stones masterpiece brings up another interesting theory that I wholly subscribe to: The Stones, on "Between the Buttons" and too many singles to mention, could do what the Beatles did best, which is produce catchy, perfectly realized pop tunes. But the Beatles could not-in a million years-come close to doing what the Stones did best: namely, making the rawest, rocking-est country blues any band has ever made. Check out the alternate version of "Loving Cup". Nasty. Dirty. Beautiful.

love the stones.
brian, lay off the ambien. get back to playing your piano in your sand filled living room.

Speaking of the great man: Stones or Beatles? Naw. Dylan. Two decent bands handily out-done by one lone innovator from the Iron Range of Minnesota.

Mick Taylor saved the Stones. His work on the trilogy -- Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile -- kept them true to their R&B roots. He drew out Jagger and Richards allowing them to create their three finest records. Listen to them in one sitting.

Interesting that you invoke Chris Carter, because on his most recent Breakfast With the Beatles, he played Stones vs. Beatles songs for various years in the 1960s and I was struck by how advanced the Beatles sounded compared with the Stones.

So, part of me agrees with the theory that, in some ways, the Stones got better after the Beatles broke up. But that period didn't last long and, with notable exceptions, much of the Stones output after the 1970s hasn't shown much progression or creativity. Thus, I can understand the argument that they needed the Beatles to advance artistically.

Stones' Best of "40 Licks" (i.e. 40th anniversary in 2002 = 40 years together) - this one tells it all. 2 discs - 20 tracks on each disc. Disc 1 is the first 8 years (1962-70 (Decca/London years), when the Beatles were operating as a band), and Disc 2 is the remaining *32* years. Furthermore, the first 8 years had at least 5 more tunes that could have made the grade, while Disc 2 needed four new songs to pad it and somehow justify its existence. Some great exceptions in the earliest part of "Stones Phase 2" - Sticky, Exile, Some Girls, maybe Tattoo, but the Brian Jones / Beatles "competition" years was where most of the best was (with all due respect to Don Was and the other latter-day Stones apologists).

Simply no contest. It's become a cliche to say that a band's earliest output is best, but cliches existfor a reason.

Well my dear old pal Neil McCarthy has got it all wrong. The Rolling Stones actually got better post-Beatles. I need not list the albums, singles, outtakes and live concerts but they're there and obvious.

note to Neil: That isn't Nicky Hopkins playing piano on Let's Spend The Night Together but rather Jack Nitzsche.

It will never happens.The rolling stones won't be come the downhill if the Beatles broke up also.

Ah...if we could all have been satisfied with just obla dee obla dah. But it don't happen! Life AND the inner urge moves on and while the Beatles were absolutely fantastic...then gave up....the Stones kept exploring that urge and kept building on every riff, every groove, every bridge, transition & chorus to explore how that urge could be woven into all sorts of music. Still the best f-in rock band!

The Rolling Stones are great at taking others ideas and incorporating and personalizing them for their own style. There is nothing wrong with that; their strength is not as innovators, but as modifiers.

(hmmmm, did my previous comment appear? no time to rewrite it all but one Neil McCarthy error need be noted:)

Jack Nitzsche played on Let's Spend The Night Together not Nicky Hopkins.

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