McMillian on the Beatles, Stones, and Politics

by John McMillian


On July 26, 1968, Mick Jagger flew from Los Angeles to London for a birthday party thrown in his honor at a hip new Moroccan-style bar called the Vesuvio Club—“one of the best clubs London has ever seen,” remembered proprietor Tony Sanchez. Under black lights and beautiful tapestries, some of London’s trendiest models, artists, and pop singers lounged on huge cushions and took pulls from Turkish hookahs, while a decorative, helium-filled dirigible floated aimlessly about the room. As a special treat, Mick brought along an advance pressing of the Stones’ forthcoming album, Beggars Banquet, to play over the club’s speakers. Just as the crowd was “leaping around” and celebrating the record—which would soon win accolades as the best Stones album to date—Paul McCartney strolled in, and passed Sanchez a copy of the forthcoming Beatles single “Hey Jude/Revolution,” which had never before been heard by anyone outside of Abbey Road Studios. Sanchez recalled how the “slow, thundering buildup of ‘Hey Jude’ shook the club”; the crowd demanded that the seven minute song be played again and again. Finally, the club’s disc jockey played the flip side, and everyone heard “John Lennon’s nasal voice pumping out ‘Revolution.’ ”“When it was over,” Sanchez said,“Mick looked peeved.The Beatles had upstaged him.”

“It was a wicked piece of promotional one-upsmanship,” remembered Tony Barrow, the Beatles’ press officer. By that time, the mostly good-natured rivalry between the Beatles and the Stones had been ongoing for several years. Although the Beatles were more commercially successful, the two bands competed for radio airplay and record sales throughout the 1960s, and on both sides of the Atlantic teens defined themselves by whether they preferred the Beatles or the Stones. “If you truly loved pop music in the 1960s… there was no ducking the choice and no cop-out third option,” one writer remarked. “You could dance with them both,” but there could never be any doubt about which one you’d take home.

Much of this was by design. With their matching suits, moptops, and cheeky humor, the Beatles largely obscured their origins as working-class Liverpudlians; by contrast, under the influence of their wily manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, the Stones cultivated a decadent, outlaw image, even though they mostly hailed from the London suburbs. “The Beatles were thugs who were put across as nice blokes,” someone remarked, “and the Rolling Stones were gentlemen who were made into thugs by Andrew.”

Many in the media were quick to notice the two groups’ contrasting styles. When the Rolling Stones arrived in the United States, the first Associated Press (AP) report described them as “dirtier, streakier, and more disheveled than the Beatles.” Tom Wolfe put things more sharply: “The Beatles want to hold your hand,” he quipped, “but the Stones want to burn down your town.” Since these comparisons proved useful to everyone, both the bands and the journalists collaborated on the charade. In the early 1960s, Keith Richards remarked, “nobody took the music seriously. It was the image that counted, how to manipulate the press and dream up a few headlines.” Peter Jones, who wrote about both bands for the Record Mirror, recalled being in a “difficult position” because he was expected to “gloss over” the Beatles’ tawdry indiscretions.“It was decreed that the Beatles should be portrayed as incredibly lovable, amiable fellows, and if one of them, without mentioning any names, wanted to
have a short orgy with three girls in the bathroom, then I didn’t see it.”

Whether one preferred the Beatles or the Stones in the 1960s was largely a matter of aesthetic taste and personal temperament. Though clichéd and sometimes overdrawn, most of the Beatles/Stones binaries contain a measure of plausibility: the Beatles were Apollonian, the Stones Dionysian; the Beatles pop, the Stones rock; the Beatles erudite, the Stones visceral. But in the United States, during the watershed summer of 1968, the Beatles/Stones debate suddenly became a contest of political ideologies, wherein the Beatles were thought to have aligned themselves with flower power and pacifism, and the Stones with New Left militance. Though both of these immensely talented bands helped to construct images of youth culture that generated powerful confidence, self-awareness, and libidinal energy among their listeners, neither of them ever articulated, or proved willing to defend, a coherent political cosmology. The supposed “ideological rift” between the two bands was nearly as stylized as the contrasting costumes they wore on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Nowhere was the Beatles/Stones debate more fiercely fought than in American underground newspapers, which by 1968 could be found in every pocket of the country, and had a readership that stretched into the millions.“The history of the sixties was written as much in the Berkeley Barb as in the New York Times,” claimed literary critic Morris Dickstein. Freewheeling and accessible to all manner of left-wing writers, these papers generated some of the earliest rock criticism, and provided a nexus for a running conversation among rock enthusiasts nationwide.To recall how youths assayed the Beatles/Stones rivalry is to be reminded that when rock and roll was in its juvenescence, youths interrelated with their music heroes in a way that today seems scarcely fathomable. Amid the gauzy idealism and utopian strivings that characterized the late-1960s youthquake, they believed that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones—the biggest rock stars in the world!—should speak to them clearly and directly, about issues of contemporary significance, in a spirit of mutuality, and from a vantage of authenticity. Young fans believed that rock culture was inseparable from the youth culture that they created, shared, and enjoyed. In some fundamental way, they believed themselves to be part of the same community as John and Paul, and Mick and Keith. They believed they were all fighting for the same things.


Although the Beatles are sometimes credited with expanding the expressive possibilities of pop music—thereby helping to turn it into “art”—it bears remembering that when the Fab Four landed in the States in 1964, music critics did not receive them warmly. In fact, establishment writers were so distracted by their shaggy hairdos, and the hysterical reactions they elicited from teenage girls, that they barely discussed the Beatles’ music at all; when they did, they regarded it with varying degrees of condescension, suspicion, and contempt. Even after the Beatles broadened their sonic and emotional palette with their albums Rubber Soul (1965) and Revolver (1966), the mainstream press continued to treat the band as a puzzling cultural phenomenon. Surprisingly, the first New York Times review of any Beatles record did not appear until June 1967, when the band released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

By contrast, underground rock journalists hailed the Beatles for their genius, and generally supposed the Rolling Stones to be working in their shadow. A few months after the Beatles recorded “Yesterday,” McCartney’s poignant song about lost love that featured a string quartet, the Stones came out with “As Tears Go By,” a soulful ballad on which Jagger was likewise accompanied by a string orchestra. Later that year, the Beatles released Rubber Soul, their most “mature,” reflective, and lyrically sophisticated album to date; the following spring, the Stones critically repositioned themselves in a similar way with Aftermath. Not long after the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper, the Stones came out with Their Satanic Majesties Request, a “psychedelic” record that was widely panned as ersatz Beatles. Though both bands were hugely popular, there was some measure of truth to a quip attributed to John Lennon:
“The Stones did everything the Beatles did, six months later.”

Underground press writers also hailed the Beatles for their discernible intelligence, subversive charisma, and drug experimentation. Some observed that the group helped to establish the byways of the emerging youth culture. The Beatles will “long abide as arbiters of a new aesthetic,missionaries for an emerging lifestyle and resident gurus to a generation,” effused a writer for the San Diego Door. Others claimed that underground journalism and rock and roll both helped to “dissolve many of the tensions” between the strategic, political radicalism of the New Left, and the expressive, lifestyle radicalism of the counterculture. “Even those who did not share the profound cultural alienation of the hippies were likely to share a liking for the Beatles, some respect for their collective visibility, and a desire to at least experiment with marijuana,” said sociologist Dick Flacks.

Curiously, the Beatles garnered this respect even though they were never very political during most of the 1960s. True, the group sometimes delighted in unmasking snobbery and puncturing class pretensions; but none of the Beatles joined the crusade to ban atomic weapons, or got involved in the civil rights movement. In 1966, when Lennon provoked a minor controversy by informing a journalist that the Beatles opposed the Vietnam War, he hardly sounded like an activist. “We don’t agree with it. But there’s not much we can do about it,” he said. “All we can say is we don’t like it.” Arguably the only overt protest song the band ever recorded was George Harrison’s “Taxman,” an acid complaint about the huge amount of Beatles’ earnings that were going to the Inland Revenue.

Nevertheless, through the mid-1960s, enthusiasm for the Beatles was all but ubiquitous in the New Left. A new Beatles album “was an event,” memoirist Geoffrey O’Brien recalls.“Friends gathered to share the freshness of the never-to-be-recaptured first hearing.” According to another baby boomer critic,“the first flush of exuberance that was Beatlemania” is almost indescribable; “you really had to be there.” A writer for New York’s Rat held that the “sensibility and style of the Beatles” was so omnipresent “that to enter their world”—whether through listening
to their music or watching them on film—“is sometimes as personal as having a dream.” In 1967, a young writer plausibly claimed that no other artist in history had ever commanded “the power and audience of the Beatles. The allure, the excitement, the glory of Beatlemusic,” he continued, “is the suspicion that the Beatles might just succeed where the magicians of the past have failed.”

The Beatles also provided an alluring soundtrack for many activists. Once, after a long meeting in 1966, a group of Berkeley students joined hands and clumsily attempted to sing the old labor song “Solidarity Forever”… until it became apparent that hardly anyone knew the words. A moment later, the group erupted in a joyous rendition of “Yellow Submarine,” a new song from their own culture. “With a bit of effort,”Todd Gitlin remembered, “the song could be taken as the communion of hippies and activists, students and nonstudents, who at long last felt they could express their beloved single-hearted community.” Another memoirist recalls that when he helped to occupy a Columbia University building in the spring of 1968, hundreds of students bonded over the Beatles just before they were arrested. We “were no longer strangers… but brothers and sisters weaving in ritual dance. We sang the words of Beatles’ songs [and] danced round and round in a circle.”

Beatles albums were frequently scrutinized for profound or hidden meanings, and a few fans went so far as to imbue the group with superhuman stature and mystical significance. Even though the Beatles almost never spoke about politics, a Willamette Bridge writer observed that youths turned to “the Beatles myth”—the idea that the Beatles possessed some secret insight, shamanic influence, or untapped reservoir of power—for solutions to problems as diverse and intractable as the Vietnam War, the atomic bomb, the civil rights struggle, and campus unrest. Writing in the Berkeley
Barb in early 1967, Marvin Garson remarked, “At idle moments more imaginative men in government must be haunted by a persistent nightmare… [that] Lennon and McCartney will go on to lead an anti-war sit-in at the Pentagon.”


Of course, some left-wing youths more closely identified with the Rolling Stones. In 1964, Tom Wolfe profiled Baby Jane Holzer, a successful model, in the New York Herald Tribune. Though ignorant about the Stones’ provenance, she raved about them in a typical way: “They’re so sexy! They’re pure sex! They’re divine! The Beatles, well, you know, Paul McCartney—sweet Paul McCartney.… He’s such a sweet person. I mean, the Stones are bitter… they’re all from the working class, you know? the East End.… [Photographer David] Bailey says the Beatles are passé, because now everybody’s mum pats the Beatles on the head.” The following year, countercultural activist Emmett Grogan distributed mimeographed flyers declaring the Stones to be “the embodiment of everything we represent, a psychic evolution… the breaking up of old values.”

Some of the Stones’ songs frankly addressed topics not normally treated in rock music, like middle-class drug abuse (“Mother’s Little Helper”) and depression (“Paint It Black”), but the band was only inferentially political. Among many rebellious youths, the Stones were popular simply because they seemed so dangerously cool. “I went with the Stones, once they started coming up with songs like ‘Under My Thumb,’ and ‘Satisfaction,’” remembers cultural critic John Strausbaugh. “I didn’t have the slightest idea what those songs were about. I just knew they were somehow bad, and bad’s what I wanted to be.”

To some radicals, the Stones also seemed more accessible. On May 16, 1965, Ken Kesey’s group, the Merry Pranksters—who were just then emerging as the West Coast’s premier LSD proselytizers—drove from San Francisco to Long Beach, where they partied with the Stones and plied the band’s dissolute guitarist, Brian Jones, with a fistful of acid. (By contrast, when the Beatles completed a U.S. tour at San Francisco’s Cow Palace in 1965, the Pranksters tried to host a party in their honor, but the group never showed.)1 In 1966, when London’s new underground paper International Times threw a launch party, Jagger showed up with Marianne Faithfull, while Paul McCartney lurked around in a disguise. Actor Peter Coyote recalled that when he and a group of “twenty-odd rockers, bikers, and street people” visited the Beatles in London,the band and their management were visibly frightened.

The Stones also inadvertently won some radical bona fides in 1967, when Jagger and Keith Richards were busted for drugs at Richards’s country mansion in Sussex; earlier that day, George Harrison and his wife, Pattie Boyd, had been there too, but the police apparently waited for them to leave before swarming through Richards’s home and turning up heroin, amphetamines, and cannabis resin. According to Richards, the police took malicious, voyeuristic delight in busting the Stones, but at that point they dared not arrest a Beatle. Harrison agreed:“There was the kind of social pecking order… in the pop world,” he said. First, the drug squad “busted Donovan… then they busted the Rolling Stones, and they worked their way up and they busted John and Yoko, and me.”


“Even beyond the usual hysterical interest attracted by any new Beatles record,” Time magazine announced, “‘Hey Jude/Revolution,’” was “special.” Released in the United States on August 26, 1968, it soon became one of the best-selling 45s in music history. Many were drawn to “Hey Jude” for its infectious chorus and unconventional four-minute fadeout, but it was Lennon’s raucous “Revolution,” on side B, that captured the attention of American radicals that summer. “That’s why I did it,” Lennon later said. “I wanted to talk, I wanted to say my piece about revolutions.”

“Revolution” opens with Lennon screaming abrasively over heavily distorted guitars, but it quickly settles into a bluesy stomp, and it soon becomes apparent that Lennon’s sonic epistle to the New Left does not express solidarity, but disaffection. Though Lennon says he shares the goals of many radicals (“We all want to change the world”) he disavows the tactics of ultramilitants (“When you talk about destruction / Don’t you know that you can count me out?”)2 Elsewhere, he expresses skepticism of the New Left’s overwrought rhetoric (“Don’t you know it’s gonna be alright?”) and says he’s tired of being pestered for money for left-wing causes (“You ask me for a contribution,well you know / We’re all doing what we can”). The final verse amounted to an endorsement of the apolitical counterculture, and a toxic kiss-off to Movement radicals:

You say you’ll change the
Constitution, well you know
We all want to change your head.
You tell me it’s the institution, well
you know
You’d better free your mind instead.
But if you go carrying pictures
of Chairman Mao
You ain’t gonna make it with anyone

Anyone in the late 1960s who was unfamiliar with the controversy the song provoked would have to have been a “Cistercian Monk,” remarked one journalist.“The Beatles have said something and what they have said is not going to be popular with a great many,” announced Ralph Gleason, an influential music critic who helped found Rolling Stone. “The more political you are, the less you will dig the Beatles’ new song ‘Revolution.’” But Gleason approved of the song’s message. Countercultural politics, he believed, would ultimately prove more transformative than “real” politics. Instead of presenting another ineffectual “Program for the Improvement of Society,” he argued that the Beatles were teaching youths to transform their entire consciousness. Wrote Gleason: “The Beatles aren’t just more popular than Jesus, they are also more potent than SDS.”

Distributed through Liberation News Service (LNS), Gleason’s essays provoked debate in numerous underground papers. But even more widely circulated was a back-and-forth about the song between Lennon and an otherwise obscure socialist named John Hoyland,
which first appeared in the British newspaper the Black Dwarf. Hoyland initiated the exchange with “An Open Letter to John Lennon.” The last thing radicals needed to do, he said, was change their heads. Instead, they needed to pursue an aggressive politics of confrontation: “In order to change the world, we’ve got to understand what’s wrong with the world. And then — destroy it. Ruthlessly.” Hoyland also
lampooned the Beatles’ recent ventures into hip capitalism. “What will you do when Apple is as big as Marks and Spencer and one day its employees decide to run it for themselves?… [W]ill you call in the police—because you are a businessman, and Businessmen Must Protect their Interests?”3 Finally, Hoyland impertinently told Lennon that his songwriting had recently “lost its bite,” whereas the Rolling Stones were “getting stronger and stronger.” The Stones, “helped along a bit by their experiences with the law… refuse to accept the system that’s fucking up our lives,” he maintained.

Lennon was so disturbed by the letter that he phoned the Black Dwarf’s editor, Tariq Ali, to complain; Ali encouraged Lennon to write a rebuttal, which appeared in a subsequent issue. In it, Lennon labored to defend the position he enunciated in “Revolution,” while simultaneously trying to maintain his radical credentials.“ I’m not only up against the establishment, but you too, it seems,” Lennon said. “I’ll tell you what’s wrong with [the world]—People— so do you want to destroy them? Ruthlessly? Until you/we fix your/ our heads there’s no chance.” Lennon added that Apple Co. was less a moneymaking venture than a vehicle for the Beatles’ creative experimentation, and he professed not to care much about it.

But Lennon was disingenuous: “Look man, I was/am not against you,” he said, even though Hoyland— who championed the revolutionary overthrow of the State— was exactly the type of person that “Revolution” targeted. Then when radicals like Hoyland objected, Lennon pandered to them by suggesting the song didn’t really mean what it seemingly meant. Still, he was pissed.“Instead of splitting hairs about the Beatles and the Stones,” Lennon added,“think a little bigger…”

Though Hoyland’s reply seemed to be written in the first person, it was actually written by the Black Dwarf editorial collective, which maintained that “Revolution” amounted to a betrayal. The feeling’s [sic] I’ve gotten from songs like “Strawberry Fields” and “A Day in the Life” are part of what made me into the kind of socialist I am. But then you suddenly kicked us in the face with “Revolution.” That’s why I wrote you—to answer an attack you made on us, to criticize a position you took… in relation to the revolutionary socialist movement— knowing that what you said would be listened to by millions, whereas whatever reply we make here is read by only a few thousand.

During this period, countless other rock enthusiasts turned volteface against the Beatles. The underground press “ate the Beatles alive,” one journalist remembered. A writer for San Diego’s Teaspoon Door disparaged “Revolution” as an “unmistakable call for counter-revolution.” Village Voice critic Robert Christgau was likewise disappointed that the Beatles went out of their way to criticize the political left. A writer for New Left Review called the song a “lamentable petty bourgeois cry of fear.” In Ramparts, Jon Landau called the song a “betrayal.”

Balanced against this, a few others read a more complicated message in Lennon’s song. Some held that its musical textures overwhelmed its lyrical content.“‘Revolution’ isn’t the strumming of a folk guitar, it is the crashing explosions of a great rock ’n’ roll band,” wrote Greil Marcus. “There is freedom in the movement, even as there is sterility and repression in the lyrics.” “We owe an apology to the Beatles,” said another radical journalist. “However shitty the lyrics of ‘Revolution’ may be, the message”—that is, the question of whether a revolution was desirable or necessary, and how to go about effecting one—had at least provoked a useful conversation. Another writer credited the song with generating “more thought and discussion over the whole question of violence and revolution among young people than any other single piece of art or literature.” Yet another fan simply would not be deterred. “The Beatles’ politics are terrible,” he said, “but they’re on our side.”


Contra to “Revolution” was the Stones new single from Beggars Banquet “Street Fighting Man,” which was released in the United States on August 30, 1968, just four days after “Revolution.” (Years before, the two groups had agreed never to release their records on the same day, so as not to divide their fans.) Fearful that the song would further inflame the passions of militants involved in the now famous chaos surrounding the Democratic National Convention, most Chicago radio stations refused to play it. “No song better captured the feeling of 1968 than ‘Street Fighting Man,’” historian Jon Wiener argues. Jagger supposedly penned its lyrics after attending a March 1968 antiwar rally at London’s Grosvenor Square, where demonstrators and mounted policemen skirmished outside the U.S. Embassy. Witnesses are divided about the extent of Jagger’s participation; one remembers him “throwing rocks and having a good time,”while another recalls him “hiding [and] running.” Supposedly to his regret, Jagger had to abandon the protest after being recognized by fans and reporters. The song’s refrain was thought by some to evoke his feelings of impotence and frustration (“But what can a poor boy do? / except to sing for a rock ’n’ roll band? / ’Cause in sleepy London town / there’s just no place for a street fighting man”). Others saw the refrain as a hedge against the song’s more provocative lyrics.

Soon after its release, New York’s Rat printed the lyrics to “Street Fighting Man” in a sidebar: “Everywhere I hear the sound of marching, charging feet boy / ’Cause the summer’s here and the time is right for fighting in the street.” Since they were delivered menacingly, over a charging beat, some regarded the song as a “demonstration clarion call.” Protesting the police assassination of Fred Hampton in Chicago, SDSer Jonah Raskin recalls marching up New York’s Fifth Avenue in December 1968. When someone beside him started whistling the song’s tune, Raskin writes,“I chanted the words myself: ‘The time is right for violent revolution.’ I arched one stone after the other; the whole plate glass window collapsed.”4 When the Stones played Madison Square Garden,
a group of New York radicals called the Mad Dogs draped a nine-by-twelve-foot National Liberation Front (NLF) flag from the top of the balcony. When they played Chicago in November 1969, Jagger dedicated “Street Fighting Man” to the people of that city, “and what you did here last year.” When the tour reached Seattle, members of Weatherman crashed the gates and passed out leaflets. In Oakland, yet another group of new leftists distributed a flyer:“Greetings and welcome Rolling Stones, our comrades in the desperate battle against the maniacs who hold power. The revolutionary youth of the world hears your music and is inspired to even more deadly acts…”

Fearful of being sent to prison after his 1967 drug arrest, Mick Jagger declared on a British television show,“I don’t really want to form a new code of living or a code of morals or anything like that. I don’t think anyone in this generation wants to.” But in 1969, he left some believing that he did in fact endorse a general uprising. Asked about “Street Fighting Man” being banned by Chicago radio stations, Jagger mused, “They must think a song can make a revolution. I wish it could.”


1 It is unclear, however, whether the Beatles ever got word of the invitation, which was delivered via a fifteen-foot roadside sign that read THE MERRY PRANKSTERS WELCOME THE BEATLES.
2 Lennon recorded three versions of “Revolution.” The record described here, which is the first version the public heard, was actually recorded after “Revolution 1,” which later appeared on the Beatles’ White Album. On that version of the song, Lennon sings, “You can count me out—in,” because he said he was unsure how he felt about revolutionary violence. (However, the record’s lyric sheet is unambiguous; it says “in.”) The White Album also contained an eight-minute avant-garde montage called “Revolution 9” that many consider the worst Beatles song ever.
3 Apple Co. never became as big as the British retailer Marks and Spencer, but it has certainly tried to protect its interests. Beginning in 1976, the Beatles’ company engaged in a series of complicated trademark disputes with Apple Computer (now Apple Inc.). The two companies finally settled their rift in February 2007.
4 Actually,“Street Fighting Man” does not contain the lyric Raskin chanted. It goes,“The time is right for palace revolution.” In all likelihood, Raskin is also the author of an article in SDS’s short-lived organ Fire Next Time, which lauded the song but similarly misquoted the lyric.

To be continued ….

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