The Beatles vs. the Stones
The Debate Rages On With Two Late-Career Albums

This week has just flown away from me.

I am inundated with work, not that I’m complaining about that, and feeling a little under the weather. It doesn’t help, of course, that the weather I’m under is crappy, rainy and depressing. I’m always exhausted on rainy days, for some reason, no matter how much sleep and exercise I get, so the last four dreary, cloud-covered 24-hour mope-throughs have found me dragging.

Speaking of depressing, the television season has started up again. I have seen literally no new show announcements that make me want to watch the shows. I have even seen the complete first episode of My Name is Earl, thanks to Entertainment Weekly, and though it is easily the best-looking new show of the fall season, it’s still not fantastic enough to get me to watch. Jason Lee is a hoot as redneck karma chameleon Earl, and Ethan Suplee is even better as his amoral brother, but it’s not as good as everyone says it is.

Besides, it’s on opposite Gilmore Girls, which is every bit as good as everyone says it is. On top of its other achievements, which include being the most naturally warm-hearted and sharply written show on the air, Gilmore has done something recently that I have never seen a show do as well – the writers solved the will-they-or-won’t-they by putting Luke and Lorelai together, and rather than killing it, it’s made the show better. Who cares if I can literally feel my estrogen levels rising as I watch, or that the DVD sets look like feminine hygiene product commercials. It’s the best show on television, bar none.

So I will watch Gilmore, and I will watch House because the writing is amazing and Hugh Laurie deserves his Emmy nominations, and I will watch Lost because it remains the most captivating mystery on television. And that’s it. The best thing about the rest of the fall schedule is that it will allow me to catch up on my reading.

Oh, and my listening, too. We are in the midst of the four biggest new music weeks of the year, a veritable pile of interesting stuff, most of which I hope to cover in this space. I won’t be able to talk about all of it, though, so I may interject here and there with bullet-point recommendations. For instance, I doubt I’ll get to the Thumbsucker soundtrack anytime soon, so I’ll tell you now that it’s good – it features the final two songs Elliott Smith ever recorded, and a bunch of smaller pieces by the Polyphonic Spree. The Spree stuff is typical (except for the 30-minute droning loop called “Acceptance”), and the Smith songs are gorgeous, particularly his cover of Big Star’s “Thirteen.”

Expect more mini-reviews in the future. Now, on with the show.

* * * * *

For many music fans, it’s come to be known as the Great Debate.

The Beatles vs. the Stones.

Pretty much all of pop music can be divided into those two camps – the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. The Stones are the swagger, the blues, the raunch, the abandon, while their Liverpool cousins are the melody, the art, the drama, the emotional core. The Stones are trashy, the Beatles are twee, and which one you like better says volumes about your personality as a listener. Most everyone likes them both, of course, but most everyone has a preference, too.

The temptation is there to consider the Beatles-Stones division the difference between rock and pop, but that’s a little simplistic. The Beatles started out as a great rock band, albeit one with more of an interest in sweeping melodies, and the Stones have done many songs that can be considered pop music. No, to me, it’s really the difference between attitude and craft. The Stones have always concentrated on the former, turning a cocksure strut into a band personality, while the Beatles strove to better their skill each time out, to the point of not even playing as a live band after 1966.

Their albums reflect this. Stones records are barnburners, based on simple blues riffs and melodies, but designed, for the most part, to tear the roof off the joint. They strive for simplicity, actually – the best Stones albums dispense with anything that gets in the way of rocking, including tricky chord progressions and bridges. Three chords, repeat, give Keith the solo space, and it’s done. The Beatles, on the other hand, worked tirelessly to fill their records with sounds and melodies no one had ever heard. While the Stones were usually a sure bet for solid rock ‘n’ roll, you never knew what you were going to get with a Beatles album. They were always reinventing and pushing forward.

There is one other essential difference, of course – the Beatles broke up in 1970, while the Stones are still going. It’s debatable which entity has provided the most diminishing returns in the past 30 years, though, what with Paul McCartney’s increasingly piffle-stuffed solo career. In fact, each of the Beatles has tarnished the band’s legacy with less-than-great solo work – Harrison’s Gone Troppo, for instance, or Lennon’s inexplicable work with Yoko Ono, or anything by Ringo. The Stones have sucked for nearly as long, too, with uninspired records like Dirty Work and Steel Wheels to their name, and Mick Jagger has proven numerous times that he’s even worse on his own.

But the influence of both bands’ golden ages cannot be overstated. What’s in question is the continuing viability of the Stones as a band, and the surviving Beatles as artists. Astonishingly, though, both the Stones and Paul McCartney have just released late-career-defining albums, the best from each entity in decades, and even better, the records each encapsulate the influential qualities, the reasons Jagger, Richards and McCartney are revered.

When I worked at Face Magazine, I had a running argument with editor man Bennie Green. Well, I had several running arguments with Bennie, but this one was somehow more crucial – his stance was that as long as the Rolling Stones are still playing, they are the greatest rock band in the world. No matter how much evidence I could throw at him to demonstrate that the Stones have sucked since the ‘70s, he would not be swayed. He rejected any other contenders to the throne, without even a thought. Now, I love Bennie, but I could not let that contention rest.

He’s got the last laugh, though, because the Stones’ 17th album, A Bigger Bang, is the first one in 30 years that makes his case. It is, in my estimation, the first Stones album to be released while I have been alive that is worth listening to more than once. With a combined age of over 200 years, the Stones have made a record here that, comparatively speaking, makes other, younger bands sound ready for the nursing home. This thing is a stomper, the first Stones album since Some Girls, perhaps, that can rank with the classic stuff.

Now, I am not a Rolling Stones fan – I come down on the Beatles side of the debate more often than not, although I do love a good rock ‘n’ roll record. A Bigger Bang is a good rock ‘n’ roll record, one which only suffers because of its length – 16 songs, 64 minutes. The changes are not immediately apparent – the band stuck with Don Was, who also produced the travesty known as Bridges to Babylon, and worked in much the same way. But the difference is palpable. They sound like a band, like four guys jamming in a room, for much of this album, and it’s been some time since Charlie Watts’ drumming has snapped like this, or since Richards’ guitar has had quite this much bite.

The Stones only run into difficulty when they try to be diverse. They’re a rock band, plain and simple, and reggae-funk like “Rain Falls Down” doesn’t suit them as well as it could. Similarly, their ballads have always been their downfall (excepting the excellent “Angie”), and “Streets of Love” is an unfortunate detour into schmaltz that this record didn’t need. But man, listen to the groove they lay down on “Look What the Cat Dragged In,” or “Oh No, Not You Again.” Even Richards’ vocal turn on “Infamy” rocks. The bluesy numbers slow the album down, but they work, especially the Delta-fied “Back of My Hand.”

Lyrically, it’s a mess, of course. Jagger does what he knows once again, which is fast songs about good times, and slow songs about wishing for good times. The one major exception is “Sweet Neo Con,” a semi-bold foray into American politics. I’m not sure why Jagger is trying to disavow this song as a comment on the Bush administration – tell me if the lines “one thing is certain, life is good at Halliburton” can be about anything else. As much as I dig the sentiment, the song is blunt and sloppy. But then, that’s about what we should expect from the Stones – they have never been subtle or carefully crafted, now, have they?

So yes, there are problems here, and dead spots, but all in all, A Bigger Bang is the best the Stones have been in ages. They are the prototypical bluesy rock band, and while it seems easy to be good at that sort of thing, so few bands are. It is the triumph of attitude over craft – Jagger yelps and yowls, the band sounds like they’re rehearsing, but the sheer ballsiness, the conviction that yes, they are the best rock band in the world holds it together. The Stones sound like they believe this one, and for them to make an album this assured, this rocking, more than 40 years into their career is pretty amazing.

* * * * *

By contrast, Paul McCartney doesn’t rock. At all.

Here’s another Face Magazine story for you – the only time I almost got into a fight with a reader, it was over Paul McCartney. I had just lightly trashed Flaming Pie, Paul’s 1997 solo effort, in an issue that had hit the stands the day before. I believe what I said at the time was that while Pie was pretty good, and certainly better than McCartney had been in some time, an album by one of the world’s most revered living songwriters should be better than this one was. I stand by that – Pie is spotty and slapdash.

So anyway, we had an open office – the door was always unlocked, and it led right into our main production area, so anyone who wanted to could come right in and speak with the folks in charge. This large, obviously upset man barged into our office that day, demanding to speak with the person who had dared besmirch McCartney’s good name. I told him it was me, and he spat out, “Get a life!” A lengthy discussion ensued, which thankfully never came to blows, but it left me with the impression that some fans will always refuse to see the black marks against their favorites.

Flaming Pie, in retrospect, signaled the upswing in McCartney’s solo career, after decades of swill like Pipes of Peace and Press to Play. He’s finally emerged, 35 years after his excellent solo debut, with its spiritual cousin, an amazing little record saddled with the title Chaos and Creation in the Backyard. This album was always going to be interesting. It was produced by Nigel Godrich, perhaps the most talented young sound sculptor around – he did Radiohead’s OK Computer, Beck’s Sea Change, and Travis’ The Man Who. And Godrich convinced Paul to abandon the studio musicians and play nearly every instrument himself.

Quite the challenge for the 63-year-old family man – there would be no lazy way out of this record, and it would all be on McCartney. Happily, Sir Paul rose to the challenge with 13 of his best songs since the demise of Wings. Chaos and Creation is a soft, nimble little album full of nooks and crannies, the most intimate and revealing record McCartney has made in eons. Best of all, he has discovered his inner Rubber Soul, coming up with some of his most Beatle-rific melodies and riffs. There is a lower concentration of mediocrity here than on any of his other solo albums.

There is still some piffle – it wouldn’t be a McCartney album without it, and “English Tea” and “A Certain Softness” certainly qualify. The lyrics, as usual, revolve around love, kindness and family, though they are less sugary than they have been in the past. In fact, there’s an undercurrent of bitterness, of striking out at the unfairness of life, in “Too Much Rain” and “Riding to Vanity Fair,” two of the album’s most striking songs. Chaos ends well, too, with a pair of classic McCartney ballads, the sweet “This Never Happened Before” and the yearning “Anyway.”

But McCartney was always more comfortable writing the ditties, the less important, yet more beloved songs on the Beatles albums. He scores highest here with “Jenny Wren,” a natural successor to “Blackbird,” performed with sparse, lovely acoustic guitar. He also knocks it out of the park with “Promise To You Girl,” a Beatles-tastic piano romp with some superb Paul-on-Paul harmonies. Godrich successfully pushed McCartney to excel, and he found he still had it in him – this is an excellent record, nearly top to bottom. McCartney has regained his sense of craft, his desire to build the best album he can, while he can.

So Paul McCartney has presented us with his first soft-focus studio wonder in many years, and the Rolling Stones have lit the place on fire in ways they haven’t managed in even more years. To my ears, McCartney wins this battle, but that’s the way I’m wired – I appreciate song and studio craft more than I appreciate energy and attitude. But really, in this contest, there are no losers. Whichever side you come down on, this is a great year to be a fan.

Next week, we chill out with Death Cab for Cutie.

See you in line Tuesday morning.