I was reading Hitch 22, Christopher Hitchens’ freshly published memoir, the other day when I came across this:
“I later vastly preferred Mick Jagger’s ‘Street Fighting Man’, which had been written for my then-friend Tariq Ali, to the Beatles’ more conciliatory ‘You Say You Want a Revolution’…”.
Two things about this Beatles vs. Stones comparison. First, the Beatles song (which is actually titled simply “Revolution”…come on Hitch), is much smarter than “Street Fighting Man”, which is basically a long lament against “Sleepy London town”.
How Lennon’s grungy rejection of Chairman Mao and “Minds that hate” could be considered “conciliatory” I don’t know. Those same lyrics, presumably, would have been more contextually useful to the actual folks in the streets of 1968 than Mick Jaggers’ context-free killing of the “King and all his servants”. (Note how the English Rolling Stones, in what one might characterize as a conciliatory gesture, spare the Queen).
Second, as with all matters of Beatles vs. Stones, this probably has more to do with perceived cultural differences rather than actual musical ones. Above all else is the perception that the Rolling Stones were, are, in some way, the “edgier” choice. They are certainly the edgier brand. But beyond that I’m not so sure…
It was the Beatles, after all, who were working-class kids from the rough port city, cutting their teeth on the gritty streets of Hamburg and getting their original bassist, Stuart Sutcliffe, killed in a bar fight in the process. Meanwhile, it was the ‘Stones who were the upper-class London prep-school kids with proper accents. The Beatles wrote the Stones’ first hit (the rocker I wanna be your man) because the ‘Stones didn’t yet know how to write music. Add the fact that the heaviest track recorded between the two bands belongs to the Beatles (Helter Skelter by far) and the Rolling Stones’ “edge” begins to look more like a marketing gimmick. The marketing has been convincing though, and one for which Hitchens, ever conscious of his own “radical” brand, has taken a liking.