It’s tough being top of the pile. Not only do you have to suffer through all the rigors and hardships of actually getting there, but the moment you reach the summit and sit down, there’s a horde of other people clambering up the mountain, trying to knock you off again.
And it doesn’t matter whether they’re ever likely to succeed or not. It’s enough to know that they’re down there, slinging everything they can in your general direction, convinced that one well-aimed shot will send you tumbling.
It was a sensation The Beatles learned to live with very early on. No sooner had they stumbled, blinking, into the daylight of their first British success than Gerry & The Pacemakers were arrayed before them, banging out #1 hits like there was no tomorrow and, if statistics be our guide, genuinely challenging the notion that the Fab Four really were as fab as their fans made out.
As of Halloween 1963, Gerry & The Pacemakers had topped the British charts three times. The Beatles had done it once. The following year, the so-called Tottenham Sound of the north London neighborhood’s Dave Clark Five and The Honeycombs looked effortlessly poised to knock Liverpool’s Merseybeat musings out of the ballpark. The year after that, Herman’s Hermits swung out of northern neighbor Manchester with a wide-eyed charm and insouciant accessibility that made The Beatles sound like Miles Davis by comparison.
Even once their supremacy had been assured, The Beatles remained vulnerable to a surprise attack. In 1967, lugubrious balladeer Englebert Humperdinck halted The Beatles’ run of 11 successive U.K. #1s when his “Release Me” delivered us from the double-edged assault of “Strawberry Fields Forever”/”Penny Lane.” In 1968, The Beatles finished outside of the year-end Top 15 best-selling British albums listing for the first time since 1963. And, in 1969, their star had slipped so far that not only did Fleetwood Mac outsell them on the British singles scene, but Creedence Clearwater Revival came close to creaming them, too. John, Tom, Stu and Doug — it even has the same kind of ring to it.
It wasn’t only other bands who wanted a piece of their action. Without ever posing a threat to The Beatles’ dominance, a host of novelty-themed singles all made their own grab at the vast riches that were pouring into the band’s coffers, both at home and abroad. In the U.K., the craze was launched in 1963 by English comedy actress Dora Bryan, who announced “All I Want For Christmas Is A Beatle” (UK Fontana TF 427), and perpetuated the following year by TV puppet stars Tich and Quackers, who demanded “Santa Bring Me Ringo” (UK Oriole CB 1980).
By far the greatest activity, however, was in America. Throughout 1964, The Beatles’ fame provoked such spin-offs as Donna Lynn’s “My Boyfriend Got A Beatle Haircut” (Capitol 5127), The Four Preps’ “A Letter To The Beatles” (Capitol 5143) and Annie and The Orphans’ “My Girl’s Been Bitten By The Beatle Bug” (Capitol 5144). But as Christmas loomed, the floodgates truly opened.
Becky Lee Beck, Jackie And Jill and The Fans all strived for success in 1964 with “I Want a Beatle for Christmas” (Challenge 9372, USA 791 and Dot 16688, respectively). Cindy Rella begged “Bring Me A Beatle For Christmas” (Drum Boy 112); while Christine Hunter reiterated Tich and Quacker’s stipulation “Santa Bring Me Ringo” (Roulette 4584). The Beatles drummer was also the subject of Garry Ferrier’s “Ringo-Deer” (Canada Capitol 72202).
But there was only ever one band who truly competed for The Beatles’ crown, and only one band that ever came close to snatching it away — The Rolling Stones.
In terms of chart honors, the Stones rarely rattled the Beatles’ cage — their Trans-Atlantic tally of 12 ’60s chart-toppers might include five consecutive British #1s but cannot compete with The Beatles’ total of 20. Equally damning, between 1962 and 1970, The Beatles clocked up an amazing 346 weeks on the British chart. It took the Stones until 1994 to finally overhaul that total.
Chart statistics, however, tell only a small part of the story. In terms of personality, adulation and newsworthiness, the Stones had The Beatles matched fiber for fiber, bone for bone and, it seemed, die-hard fan for die-hard fan. Indeed, when the Stones beat out The Beatles in the “Best British band” section of Melody Maker’s 1964 Readers Poll, the Los Angeles Times had no hesitation in announcing, “Beatles no longer Number One in British Polls” — and that despite the Fab Four scooping both the Best International Band (the Stones finished second) and Top Male Vocalist (Mick Jagger was third) sections.
In reality, of course, the two bands were firm friends. Their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, even worked as The Beatles’ own publicist during 1963, handling the press for “From Me To You,” and scored something of a coup when he landed the band in Vogue magazine, the first pop group ever to grace those hallowed pages.
He also tried to interest Brian Epstein in co-managing the Stones when he first took over the band’s career, and though Epstein turned him down, The Beatles themselves were always close at hand. Individually and collectively, the quartet attended the Stones’ London concerts, sang their praises in the music press, and was constantly socializing with them on the swinging London scene. They even wrote their second record for them.
But if the public image was of Beatles versus Beasties, two bands locked in a no-holds-barred grapple for the heart and mind of ’60s pop, the private picture is of a crowded table at the Ad Lib or the Scotch of St James, the primo watering holes of the Carnaby Street set. In his Phelge’s Stones memoir, James Phelge — Jagger, Richards’ and Jones’ flatmate during their days of Edith Grove poverty — recalled, “ ... an unspoken pecking order determined who sat where, [and] the first three or four tables on the right as you entered [the Ad Lib] had become the natural preserve of the Beatles or the Stones,” the two sets of musicians holding joint court and howling over the latest “Ringo Slams Bill”-style tabloid tattle to push reality off the newspaper front pages.
The Stones, for their part, were more than happy to play devils to the Beatles’ angels.
Introducing The Beatles at their induction into the Rock And Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, Mick Jagger remembered, “When the Stones were first together, we heard there was a group from Liverpool with long hair, scruffy clothes and a record in the charts with a bluesy harmonica riff. And the combination of all this made me sick.” The Stones, he knew, were even longer-haired, wore even scruffier clothes, and made The Beatles’ blues sound positively pastel by comparison. Now here was a fast-thinking, and even faster-acting, manager, who didn’t simply share that viewpoint; he was prepared to live his life according to it.
The enemy was targeted; the battle plans were drawn. Now all the group needed do was rope in the orchestra that would pluck the strings of the Stone-age rebellion — indignant retired military men who couldn’t believe that they’d fought umpteen world wars for the sake of this rabble; outraged government ministers who saw in pop’s unkempt visage all the failings of the opposing party’s past prima-donna policies; mortified mums and disgusted dads, horrified hairdressers and grumbling grannies, anyone and everyone who could look at an 8x10 of Mick Jagger’s rubber lips, Brian Jones’ lecherous leer, Keith Richard’s gypsy skeleton, and send a fervent prayer to Heaven … “dear God, please let the Russians come to town before The Rolling Stones get here.”
Where The Beatles were smart, the Stones were scruffy. Where The Beatles were cuddly, the Stones were rough. Where The Beatles promised a goodnight peck on the cheek, the Stones threatened an all-night orgy. And while The Beatles made cheeky jokes to royalty, the Stones urinated on filling station walls. Clean pop’s Jekyll had met his unwashed rocker Hyde, and neither band would ever be the same again.
At first, the furor was confined solely to Britain. But just six months after The Beatles first set foot on American soil, the Stones were besmirching that same hallowed turf. In August 1964, in the wake of the Stones’ first, short, American tour, 16 Magazine placed a finger on the nation’s pulse when it asked, “Has England gone too far?” “Write and tell us what YOU think,” the headline demanded, but read on and there was no doubting how 16 viewed this latest manifestation of the British Invasion — “sloppy, pallid, unkempt and weird looking. Watch out world, here come the Rolling Stones!”
Other writers were equally swift to send their own barbs whistling Stones-wards. Wyman’s own “Stone Alone” autobiography recalls one New York area story that condemned the Stones for being “shaggier, shabbier and uglier than The Beatles.” Another opined, “If you think the Beatles are way out, wait ’til you gander the Stones.” But it was the Toronto Star that truly voiced the horror that was now coursing not only through the United States’ veins, but those of all of North America, as the Stones prepared to roll across their land.
“Those who think The Beatles caused too much of an uproar when they arrived here had better take to the bomb-shelters when the Rolling Stones arrive. They are hard to describe. They don’t believe in bathing, they wear dirty old clothes, their hair is twice as long as The Beatles’ and they never comb it.” To put it in a nutshell, these Stones sounded frightful.
The two bands carved the marketplace between them, thrilling onlookers with a sense of rivalry that was so tightly strung that you could cut cheese with it.
Live, there was nothing in it at all. Wyman’s autobiography notes at least two occasions upon which the Stones were booked to open shows for The Beatles, and both times he records the nervousness with which the headliners witnessed the maniacal response that the Stones whipped up. Normally when The Beatles played, their support acts were inaudible beneath the keening chants of Merseybeat mayhem. When the Stones opened for them at the Albert Hall, you got the impression that the Fabs could have dropped their trousers onstage and every eye would still have remained fixed on Mick Jagger.
The gap was closing in the stores as well, though, and faster than even the Stones themselves were aware. During 1964, the two bands each released three singles in the U.K., and when the best-selling records of the year were tabulated, the Stones not only came out on top in the singles listing as “It’s All Over Now” easily outsold all three of The Beatles’ offerings, their eponymous debut album beat out the challenge of A Hard Day’s Night in the LP listings.
It was a similar tale in America, and that despite the careful British release schedule being utterly skewed by the two bands’ respective record companies’ own policy of squeezing as many hits out of one album as they possibly could. (In the U.K., neither the Stones nor The Beatles featured their hit singles on their LPs; in the U.S., it sometimes felt as though that’s all the albums contained.) There always seemed to be a few weeks between new releases, though, a campaign that saw a fresh Beatles or Stones single enter the U.S. chart in every month but two during 1965.
Again, the cumulative figures speak volumes for the strength of the hold the two bands exerted over the nation’s record-buying public, and the narrowness of the gulf that divided them. Between 1964 and 1969, the Stones spent 223 weeks on the American chart. If one overlooks the sheer insanity of 1964 itself, when absolutely anything with The Beatles’ name on it entered the U.S. chart (and stayed there for a combined 234 weeks!), the Liverpudlians mustered 283, a margin that becomes even less impressive when one remembers that The Beatles placed 34 separate sides, spread over 19 singles, on the listings, compared to the Stones’ 23 songs and 20 releases.
Of course, it is difficult to play such games with achievements racked up following The Beatles’ demise — indeed, far from simply altering that balance, the legend that has grown up around a group which broke up before anybody under the age of 32 (that is, the majority of today’s record-buying public) was even born has only enhanced their reputation and their saleability.
The Beatles remain the biggest-selling band in rock history. They remain the be-all and end-all of pop supremacy, and though the Stones have now outlasted them four decades to one, still the only marketing mantle that is theirs by divine right remains “the greatest rock ’n’ roll band in the world.” The Beatles have cornered every other accolade there is.
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