Did the Rolling Stones’ music go downhill after the Beatles broke up?
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Reader Neil McCarthy responded to my recent interview with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards about the expanded reissue of the Rolling Stones’ 1972 album “Exile on Main St.” with an intriguing theory that’s been voiced by others over the years.
In short, McCarthy thinks the Stones’ music started on a downhill slide around 1970, when the Beatles broke up — and he suggests that was no coincidence.
“I’ve never felt ‘Exile’ was anything but a sloppy attempt to match the Beatles’ White Album. Understand, I love the Stones and loved them -- I was born in 1950 and early on (1965) ‘knew’ this is my group….Anyway their best albums, for me, were ‘Aftermath,’ ‘Between The Buttons’ (truly truly so underrated and, so, not listened to, but ohhh what a masterpiece) and ‘Beggars Banquet.’
“With the passing of the Beatles,” McCarthy wrote, “the Stones truly seemed to lose their footing in ‘manning up’ to produce truly great tunes.”
I don’t agree, because I think there were plenty of great tunes on the albums that came on the heels of the Fab Four’s breakup in 1970: “Sticky Fingers” (1971) and “Exile,” to say nothing of some top-drawer material on “Some Girls” (1978), “Tattoo You” (1981) and “Steel Wheels” (1989). And “A Bigger Bang” from 2005 ranks among my half-dozen favorite Stones albums ever.
But I bounced McCarthy’s theory off a couple of people close to both camps for their reaction.
First, “Breakfast With the Beatles” host Chris Carter, who said, “Actually, I think that the Stones got better as the Beatles broke up.
“From 1968 on to …what, “Tattoo You,” they were top shelf,” Carter said. “ ‘Beggars [Banquet]’ to ‘Exile’ is the most perfect five-LP run of any band ever (including [Get Yer] Ya Ya’s [Out] … and including the Beatles!”
Then I ran it by Don Was, who has produced several Stones albums in recent years, including “A Bigger Bang” and the bonus tracks on the “Exile” reissue. Was, who started following both bands from the first time their music reached U.S. shores in the 1960s, said, “I’ve heard the ‘loss of Beatles competition’ effect theory bandied about in reference to Brian Wilson as well ... not sure that I buy in.
“There is a limited window of time in which one can go into the studio and engage in an intense daily pursuit of fickle radio play and the latest fad,” Was said. “It becomes a pointless bore and a grind; eventually, it becomes indistinguishable from the job you joined a band to avoid in the first place! Not to mention that there’s an endless supply of bread, girls, bad drugs and yes men that accompany success and conspire to dull the competitive edge.’
“Great as they were, the Beatles (and just about everyone else, as well) imploded under the circumstances,” Was noted. “It’s testimony to the awesome strength, toughness and talent of the Stones -- and Bob Dylan, for that matter -- that they’ve not only endured but maintained a very high level of consistent quality for an additional 40 years. For what it’s worth, after bearing firsthand witness, I see it as a herculean feat.”
Any dissenters out there in Stones -- or Beatles -- land?
-- Randy Lewis
Top photo: Mick Jagger and Keith Richards at Nellcote, France, circa 1972. Credit: Dominique Tarle / Universal Music Group
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