It’s no secret that there was a level of friendly rivalry between The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. If you speak to anyone who was alive in the 1960s and enjoyed the pop music of the time, most would have sided with one or the other. As a 1990s baby, I’m impartial and have equal respect for both groups. Looking back from the modern perspective, I feel the bands shouldn’t really be compared as the styles that made each successful were generally quite disparate.
The two bands remained friendly for most of the 1960s despite the public’s perception of them being fierce, hating rivals. In the early ’60s, The Rolling Stones were just another rhythm and blues band in a sea of rhythm and blues bands littering London venues. One of their earliest leg-ups was incidentally a helping hand from The Beatles. One of the Stones’ early breakout singles was ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’, a song written by Lennon and McCartney, who gifted it to them to aid their pursuit of chart success.
When the Stones finally met The Beatles on cloud 9 in the mid-60s, it did appear that they tried to walk in the shadow of the Fab Four. The release of Their Satanic Majesties Request in December 1967 saw the Stones attempt to deviate from their tried and tested rhythm and blues formula in a bid to parallel The Beatles’ psychedelic masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which was released earlier that year. The ultimate failure of the album would seemingly not falter the confidence of the band but did push them back onto the rails of their blues-inspired sound.
Despite the rest of the band members generally making acquaintance with each other, there seems to have been something of a quibble between John Lennon and Mick Jagger at around this time. Following the release of Their Satanic Majesties Request, Lennon criticised the Stones, and Jagger in particular, for copying The Beatles. “We saw a bit of each other around when Allen was first coming in – I think Mick got jealous,” Lennon said. “I was always very respectful about Mick and the Stones, but he said a lot of sort of tarty things about The Beatles, which I am hurt by, because you know, I can knock the Beatles, but don’t let Mick Jagger knock them.”
Lennon seemed increasingly irritated. He added: “I would like to just list what we did and what the Stones did two months after on every fuckin’ album. Every fuckin’ thing we did, Mick does exactly the same – he imitates us. And I would like one of you fuckin’ underground people to point it out, you know Satanic Majesties is Pepper, ‘We Love You’, it’s the most fuckin’ bullshit, that’s ‘All You Need Is Love’. I resent the implication that the Stones are like revolutionaries and that the Beatles weren’t. If the Stones were or are, the Beatles really were too.”
The fact that Lennon’s rant was angled towards Jagger as opposed to the Stones collectively suggests that there was perhaps more to the picture here. As some theories claim, Lennon took his quarrel with Jagger to the next level in 1969 while recording the material for Abbey Road and Let It Be – the sessions featured in Peter Jackson’s recent documentary, The Beatles: Get Back. Some believe that deep within the nonsensical lyrics of the Let It Be song ‘Dig A Pony’, is a swipe at Jagger.
The lyrics read: “I-I-I-I-I roll a stoney/ Well, you can imitate everyone you know/ Yes, you can imitate everyone you know”. Some interpret this as a direct reference to Jagger as the “stoney”, highlighting his imitating tendencies that Lennon was so agitated by.
Despite the apparent quarrels, nothing major ever came of it, and both parties clearly had a lot of respect for each other in the years following the rivalry. In the 1970s, Lennon once again blamed Jagger for copying him, but this time with notably less malice. “I think Mick Jagger took ‘Bless You’ and turned it into ‘Miss You,’” Lennon told interviewer David Sheff in 1980. “The engineer kept wanting me to speed that up. He said, ‘This is a hit song if you’d just do it fast.’ He was right. ’Cause as ‘Miss You’, it turned into a hit. I like Mick’s record better.”
In 1988, Jagger was given the honour of inducting The Beatles into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; whether this would have gone ahead on Lennon’s watch we will never know. During his speech, the Stones frontman movingly asserted: “We had a lot of rivalry in those early years, and a little bit of friction, but we always ended up friends. I like to think we still are, ’cause they were some of the greatest times of our lives, and I’m really proud to be the one that leads them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”