13 September 2019

Can the Beatles Vs. Stones Debate Make Us Better Writers?


Beatles Vs. Stones
Photoshop by Grace Maddox
by Lawrence Maddox

Two recent concert experiences got me reconsidering the ultimate rock 'n' roll litmus test: The Beatles or the Stones? Sure you can like them both, even simultaneously, but which one is better?


A manual on how to skirt
death, three chords at a time.
That was a no-brainer for me when I was in my late teens and early twenties. I was a Stones fanatic. My favorite albums were Beggars Banquet and Some Girls, and I played them on an endless loop. I read everything about them, including Tony Sanchez's down and dirty Up and Down with the Rolling Stones: My Rollercoaster Ride with Keith Richards. I totally lost interest in the Beatles, who just didn't seem to rock.  The Stones were fuel to all my youthful ne'er-do-well activities in a way the Beatles could never be.

Things change.

A few weeks ago I was driving home from work and I was hit by a tidal wave of traffic. Then I remembered: The Stones are playing the Rose Bowl tonight!  I live so close to the Rose Bowl that concerts sound great from my backyard, and even better from certain points in my neighborhood. I hurried home, poured a couple Makers on the rocks, and my wife and I took a stroll and listened. I have a writing assignment I have to finish, but I put it on the back burner (again).
"It just had to be done.
So we did it."

The Stones sounded great, and even though I got the requisite nostalgic ping, my long-standing take on the Stones was affirmed. I've had a growing dissatisfaction with the Stones for years, and I can narrow it down to one main reason: It's their lyrics. In my humble opinion, they don't hold up. I've looked into this, and here's what I've come up with.

The Rolling Stones recently wound up their No Filter tour, an amazing feat for four blokes pushing 80. Even more impressive is Mick Jagger going back on tour after having a catheter inserted into his aorta last April. My dad had similar surgery at a similar age, and as tough as he was I can't imagine him going on a North American concert tour afterwards.  "It just had to be done. So we did it," Keith Richards told the Toronto Sun.

Unlike the Who, the Stones at least make the pretense of touring to promote a new record.  They are masters at wringing product out of their tours. Album. Tour. Live album. Throw in well-timed greatest hits packages (they've got 26 compilation albums total, starting with 1966's High Tide and Green Grass through 2019's Honk), and you start to see the Stones for what they are: a disciplined, calculating, business-oriented music-making machine.

Keith Richards' Life.
It could seem, though I'm loathe to knock the insane success of the Glimmer Twins, that the Stones may take a mercenary approach to their songwriting as well. In Keith Richards' 2010 memoir Life, he writes that Mick would often hurriedly write the lyrics in the studio before the band had to record the song. Keith quotes Muscle Shoals engineer Jim Dickinson, who witnessed Mick writing "Brown Sugar" and "Wild Horses." "I watched Mick write the lyrics [to "Brown Sugar"]," Jim Dickinson is quoted as saying. "It took him maybe forty-five minutes; it was disgusting! He wrote it down as fast as he could move his hand." Dickinson said Mick did the same for "Wild Horses," taking about an hour.

In a 1968 interview with Rolling Stone, Mick Jagger said that he also wrote a lot of songs while on the road with the band. "You get back from a show,  have something to eat, a few beers and just go to your room  and write. I used to write about twelve songs in two weeks on tour. It gives you lots of ideas. At home, it's really difficult because you don't want to do anything really but read, and things like that."

The Glimmer Twins 
Journalist Johnathan Cott asked Jagger why he mumbled some of his lyrics. "That's when bad lines come up. I mean I don't think the lyrics are that important," Jagger answered. When pressed about the "really good" lyrics to "Get Off my Cloud," Jagger's answer was refreshingly honest and unpretentious: "Oh they're not. They're crap."

There is no doubt that the Stones have written well-crafted and thoughtful lyrics.  In a '95 interview with Rolling Stone Jagger talks about writing "Sympathy for the Devil" all on his own in his house in Chester Square.  From their own words, its seems fair to say that writing lyrics has often taken a back seat to recording. Lyrics are often written on the job, with the clock ticking. Rewrites don't always happen. Playing the song, finding the song's sound, is paramount.

Months before I eavesdropped on the Stones at the Rose Bowl, I took my family to see Ringo Starr at the Greek. My two kids are pre-teen, and I've taken this window of opportunity (while they still listen to me) to force stuff I like into their unsuspecting worlds. I've made them watch all the original episodes of Jonny Quest with me. We tune into Svengoolie on Saturday nights to watch cheesy horror films. It's jazz and classical stations when we drive. I play them Beatles music and show them Beatles movies. They love the Beatles. For now, anyway.

Ringo Starr, Honorary
Santa Tracker
Ringo has a band made up of famous people from other bands. The youngest member is Colin Hay from Men At Work,  just to give you an idea of how far back these cats go.  It's a nostalgia show all the way, something the Stones, admirably, haven't done much of (a notable exception being 2016's Desert Trip, dubbed "old-chella" by the Burning Man crowd). We sang along to all the old Beatles songs with Ringo. I'd never sang along at a concert in my life, and I've seen Frank Sinatra. I'll never forget sharing that with my kids.

A must-read for Beatlemaniacs
The Beatles wrote everywhere and anywhere, and their songs were often personal in nature.  Lennon wrote "Help" at home after a night at the recording studio. "I was fat and depressed and I was crying out for help," Lennon told Playboy. "In My Life" started out as a poem Lennon wrote about his childhood. McCartney wrote the music for "Yesterday" at his girlfriend Jane Asher's home. He sat on the song for weeks, calling it "Scambled Eggs" until he could compose the lyrics. "Eleanor Rigby" was another song McCartney tinkered with for awhile. It was later finished at Lennon's home, with all the Beatles contributing.  Ringo suggested "darning his socks," George "all the lonely people."  After their trip to India, the Beatles came back with a ton of songs that became The White Album and beyond. When you listen to the Beatles, you get the impression that those lyrics are vetted. There's no mumbling through half-baked writing.

So what do these masters of pop have to do with that lingering writing assignment I mentioned somewhere at the top, or your lingering writing assignment?

Akashic's Dublin Noir,
signed by Jim Fusilli and Gary Phillips.
Courtesy of the Maddox Archives
Jim Fusilli is a Wall Street Journal music critic who also writes crime fiction.  I was introduced to him by his terrific story in Akashic's Dublin Noir, "The Ghost of Rory Gallagher." It's about the price a fan pays for his obsession with a dead rock star.  As a side note, if I hadn't been so wowed by Jim's Akashic story, I may have never written "Old Cold Hand," published in Akashic's 2010 Orange County Noir. Anyway, when I heard that Jim was giving a writer's workshop, I jumped at the chance to attend. It was a good intro to creative writing, and Jim sprinkled it with rock 'n' roll anecdotes.

Jim talked about the importance of carrying a journal and being ready to write all the time. It's been roughly twelve years since Jim's workshop, and I'm not sure if he connected the Beatles to the habit of always being ready to write or if I did it on my own, but it stuck either way. John and Paul were always on. They never stopped writing. They jotted down their ideas and sweated over lyrics until they got them right. George too. He stockpiled and reworked songs that he couldn't get on Beatles albums because, well, Lennon and McCartney. When the Beatles broke up, he put these songs on All Things Must Pass, perhaps the greatest of the fab four solo albums.

My copy of Aaron's 1956
Assignment: Treason.
The second in the series.
Don't think the Stones don't have their lessons, too. In my post from April 19 ("Edward S Aarons and the Great Spy Series That Never Came in from the Cold") I write about the insanely prolific Edward S. Aarons, the creator of the Assignment series of novels, arguably the first US Cold War spy series. From 1955 until his death in 1975, Aarons wrote 42 Assignments. His output and longevity was very Stones-esque. Aarons was one of many paperback writers of the period (I wonder which one Paul had in mind on "Paperback Writer") who wrote book after book, often labeled men's action adventure. Many of these writers weren't feted at the time, though they're being rediscovered. They churned out titles, and sometimes they couldn't stop to be too precious with the words. It's like Keith said about going on tour after Mick had his surgery: "It just had to be done. So we did it."

I could use some of that Stones "get it done" mentality right now. I'm still struggling to finish that writing project I should have been done with months ago. I could blame my lagging on things like a crashed-beyond-all-repair hard drive, but that's just whining. I need Keith over my shoulder, getting cigarette ash on my computer keyboard, saying "Time is money, mate. It's NOT on my side or yours. Get with it."

I think we reach for the Beatles, for that work that will echo beyond us through generations; but we need the lessons of the Stones.  We need to push and meet our deadlines; to keep turning out product;  to not let the drug busts, Anita Pallenberg, heart surgery, or a busted hard drive defeat us. You can't alway get what you want, but if you try sometimes...

Learn more about Jim Fusilli at JimFusilli.com. Jim's latest, The Mayor of Polk Street, is available as an Audible Original.

Music is like a true friend who understands us and sticks by us no matter what unworthy slobs we secretly are. When someone knocks our favorite musicians, it can tick us off. And by "someone" I mean me, and by "us" I mean you good folks. If you need to vent, please comment here; or on twitter at Lawrence Maddox@Madxbooks; or drop me a line at Lawrencemddx@yahoo.com. Remember, it's only rock 'n' roll.

To the left is Fast Bang Booze. The sequel is the writing assignment I mentioned. To the right is Orange County Noir, 2010. I had Jim Fusilli in mind when my story got accepted.


 

18 comments:

Robert Lopresti said...

Great stuff. I recently red Eric Idle's autobiography ALWAYS LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE OF LIFE. He became great friends with George Harrison and at one point he complained about the difficulty of competing with the other Pythons for scenes in a movie. Harrison replied (approx) "Try getting studio time when John and Paul are around."

As for Fusilli, I'm a fan. https://lbcrimes.blogspot.com/2019/09/niall-nelson-is-on-my-flight-by-jim.html

janice law said...

A good piece. The output- quality balance is always a tough one.

Art Taylor said...

Really enjoyed your post here--on several levels. I've fallen for a long time on the "Stones, of course" side of the question, but the points and insights here make a nuanced and persuasive argument--if not for one vs. the other at least for thinking about what's behind it all. And love the way you're connecting it all to writing too. Great!

Lawrence Maddox said...

Thanks Robert! Your Idle-Harrison story is hilarious. I guess we always want to work with talented people, but the downside is you can end up sitting on the bench while they play.
-Larry

Paul D. Marks said...

I love the Beatles and the Stones, though I'm in the Beatles' corner. And though the Stones might rock harder in some cases, though not all, they were always playing catch up to the Beatles. Now go get that writing done.

Eve Fisher said...

I grew up listening to both (but my two favorite bands of those days were Jethro Tull and Traffic), and while I rocked hard to the Stones, somewhere along the way I realized that their stuff was geared to the hard rocking guys and the girls who liked to **** them. (With a couple of exceptions - "Sympathy for the Devil", "Gimme Shelter", "You Can't Always Get What You Want".)

While the Beatles were indeed trying for something more, and while they could rock hard, they could also write tender love songs ("Michelle", George Harrison's "Something"), quirky fun stuff, and (thanks largely to George) spiritual threads. The White Album was amazing.

BTW, a friend of mine once said that the trouble with going to concerts of bands you loved 30-40-50 years ago is that it still won't take you back to your teenage/twenties self.

Lawrence Maddox said...

It is tough one Janice. Why can’t we have it all?!? Thanks for your comment.

Shepp said...

Great post Larry. It’s only rock and roll but I like it.

Michael Bracken said...

The Beatles and the Stones are great, but as inspiration for writers, neither holds a candle to Slade, English rockers who proved an inability to spell doesn't prevent one from penning a string of hits.

Steve Liskow said...

An interesting column and question, because it's impossible to answer. It's like is it a breath mint or a candy mint? I graduated from high school when "Satisfaction" was on top of the local charts and got into rock through the British Invasion.

That said, I think the Beatles moved pop music ahead about 25 years during their tenure.
But I think Sgt Pepper was a crucial album for the Stones, too, because Their Satanic Majesties Request proved that they could do psychedelia and experimental studio work, too. They figured out that it was NOT their comfort zone. While the Beatles became studio denizens, the harbingers of Steely Dan, Mick and Keith were a gigging band. (Paul McCartney wanted to keep touring, but the new material didn't work live. Maybe that's part of why he formed Wings later?)

Beggar's Banquet is the Stones first really GREAT album. They go back to their early blue-based roots and every song can be performed as a solo acoustic number. I know this because I've either played or heard every one (except Street Fighting Man) done that way. The Mick Taylor era may be their consistently best work, just an opinion, but that period includes the LP Only Rock and Roll, with the song that has the lyric "I know it's only rock and roll, but I like it."

Jagger may be paying a backhanded homage to the nonsense syllables of doo-wop. Did it have meaning? Nah. But listen to the harmonies! And who can say it's any worse than "Mairsy Doats and Doesy Dotes..."

I just went and looked through my music files. At one time or another, I have played or considered playing 25 Beatles songs and 14 Stones songs at open mics.

Whatever you think, Mick and Keith have been performing for nearly 60 years. How many of us have (or will) produce written work for that long?

Robert Lopresti said...

Fun fact about Beggar's Banquet: Like any good banquet it begins with an invocation (Sympathy for the Devil) and ends with a toast: (Salt of the Earth).

As for the Glimmer Twins saying they just tossed off the lyrics, remember the old saying: Believe the tale, not the teller. In other words, just because they say it doesn't prove it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you Art! I may have read too much about the Stones. Once you know how the saussge gets made...

Lawrence Maddox said...

Hey Art-That anonymous response above eas me.
Larry

Lawrence Maddox said...

Paul, I know you are a huge Beatles fan and I was thinking of you when I wrote my piece. Did you see the Beatles live? I know you’ve seen some incredible bands.

Lawrence Maddox said...

Thanks Eve! So true what you’re friend said. I’m afraid to revisit stuff I loved in the past, in case one of hasn’t aged well.

Lawrence Maddox said...

Shepp, Michael, Steve, thanks for your comments!

Michael, totally in agreement re Slade. Everyone spells like them now.

Steve, I’m glad you mentioned Steely Dan. Best beatnik inspired lyrics in rock.

Leigh Lundin said...

>Music is like a true friend who understands us and sticks by us no matter what unworthy slobs we secretly are.

That line reminds me of the scene in Blue Velvet, the lip-sync with Dean Stockwell and Dennis Hopper.

Your retake about the Beatles reminds me of my own re-evaluation of George Harrison. 'While My Guitar Gently Weeps' comes close to being my favorite song, the only one to my knowledge where the Beatles called upon the expertise of Eric Clapton for the intracate string work. Later in life, George went on to record with the best male soloists of his generation in the Traveling Wilburys. He was an influencer; he got the job done.

Challenging article, Lawrence.

Lawrence Maddox said...

Thanks Leigh!

What do you think of the audio that’s surfaced of one of the last Beatle meetings, post Abbey Road? John suggests he, Paul and George write four songs each for their next album (Ringo two). Paul demures, saying that George’s songs haven’t been that good. Much later, when Paul wants to be a Wilbury, George laughs.