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Beatles vs. Stones: debate continues

Rock critics passionately argue it out

By Liz Raftery
October 28, 2010

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In their first written collaboration, music critics and radio cohosts Greg Kot and Jim DeRogatis tackle the quintessential rock question of which was the superior band.

As DeRogatis writes in his preface, the only real answer is both. So it’s not surprising that (spoiler alert) the book does not reach a definitive conclusion. Rather, “The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones’’ stacks the two legendary acts head to head in chapters covering a rubric that includes the contributions of individual members, each group’s “cool’’ factor, and the role of drugs on their music. Though both DeRogatis and Kot confess to a personal preference for the Rolling Stones, this bias doesn’t prevent them from offering well-considered and, importantly, subjective debates for each set of criteria.

On their weekly public radio show, “Sound Opinions’’ (billed as “the world’s only rock ’n’ roll talk show’’), DeRogatis and Kot bicker like an old married couple, arguing passionately about musical acts past and present. That dynamic translates seamlessly to the book, the text of which is mostly transcriptions of verbal sparring between the pair. The technique perfectly captures their enthusiasm for the subject and breathes extra life into what might otherwise be seen as a dry, professorial take on this pop culture enigma.

For fans who grew up listening to the bands’ music, “The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones’’ will likely be reminiscent of a yearbook. Particularly fascinating is the inclusion of two nostalgia-inducing timelines, which juxtapose milestones in each group’s career with major historical events. In addition to hundreds of images, the coffee table book contains no shortage of trivia and anecdotes that are probably unknown to the majority of casual fans. For instance, the Beatles’ relationships with one another had disintegrated so much by the recording of “The White Album’’ that the album was essentially made with each member in a different studio. It’s also an important history book for younger music fans, who may know the groups only through video games or Martin Scorsese documentaries.

The authors’ discussion draws from other works in the large canon of Beatles and Rolling Stones literature, debunking some myths and validating others. Some sections are bound to raise a few eyebrows, and it becomes clear that while the Stones inarguably held the more “bad boy’’ reputation, the Beatles were basically up to all the same antics and just did a better job of hiding it from the public.

No doubt most readers will approach “The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones’’ with their own opinions, but even the most steadfast loyalists will appreciate the authors’ eloquent and insightful arguments in favor of each act. The book is sure to inspire readers to revisit each group’s records — and they’ll probably do so with a newfound appreciation of the most intricate and previously unnoticed bass lines, lyrical nuances, or drum fills, thanks to the intricate dissection of such minutiae. In other words, a music nerd’s dream.

The critics are also not afraid to drop in a few button-pushers, such as DeRogatis’s claim that the Stones’ “Their Satanic Majesties Request’’ is a better album than “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.’’ (Discuss.)

The book raises a timeless question and then proves that it’s one for which there is no right answer. If nothing else, it’s a great conversation starter.

Liz Raftery, a freelance writer based in New York, can be reached at elizabeth.raftery@gmail.com.

THE BEATLES VS. THE ROLLING STONES: Sound Opinions on the Great Rock ’n’ Roll Rivalry

By Jim DeRogatis and Greg Kot

Voyageur, 192 pp., illustrated, $35