City Lights: Beatles win, but sympathy for the Stones

One of the great moments in magazine reader mail came after Entertainment Weekly critic David Browne, comparing the Beatles to the Rolling Stones, admitted that he thought less of the Fab Four because his mother liked them. Soon after, a man shot back on the letters page, "Why not let his mom review records instead?"

If it came down to a contest between, oh, "Let It Be" and "Honky Tonk Women," I would guess most people's mothers would favor the Beatles. But a cursory listen to the bands' 1960s output shows that it's much more complex than that. And that's what the Huntington Beach Academy for the Performing Arts hopes to prove with its Beatles-and-Stones revue this week.

Monday morning, I spoke with Jamie Knight, the school's director of music, media and entertainment technology, who was in the midst of final rehearsals for "The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones." The show, featuring nearly 200 students, tracks both bands chronologically during the decade their careers overlapped, incorporating dozens of songs as well as a student-produced documentary.

Part of the show's intent, in addition to showcasing some of the most brilliant pop music ever written, is to dispel the notion that the Beatles were a family-friendly pop band while the Stones produced a darker, edgier body of work. True, both bands had moments that could reinforce that claim. But consider the following:

1. Which band got its start playing to drunken sailors and thugs in one of the seediest red-light districts in Germany? The Beatles.

2. Which band leader prudently took courses at the London School of Economics even as his band started to hit it big? Mick Jagger.

3. Which band recorded a song with a death threat in the lyrics? Both — the Beatles with "Run for Your Life," the Stones with "Midnight Rambler."

In truth, it's hard to name anything the Beatles or Stones accomplished that the other didn't at least try, from raga rock to concept albums to string-laden folk ballads. (I'm referring to the Stones in the past tense because the show portrays their '60s incarnation.) So if a novice wandered into the Huntington Beach High School auditorium this week, he or she might be excused for puzzling over which band recorded "She's a Rainbow."

"We're not looking at it as a competition, like the winner or the loser," Knight told me. "We're just celebrating two bands that are important."

Myself, though, I love a good debate. So I hope I'll get a lot of reader letters, both happy and outraged, for stating that the Beatles truly were greater than the Stones.

It's close, I admit. The Stones had stronger instrumental chops than the Fab Four, and when they hit their peak in the late '60s and early '70s, they arguably made more consistent albums (listening to the Beatles' late-period classics means enduring the occasional "Wild Honey Pie" or "Maxwell's Silver Hammer").

But I give the Beatles the edge for a few reasons. First is the balance of the band; while Jagger's persona dominated the Stones, the Beatles featured four distinct personalities who took turns in the songwriting and vocal spotlight. Mention "Mick, Keith, Brian, Bill and Charlie" to a person on the street and you may get a puzzled look, but rattle off the Beatles' first names and they ought to be instantly identifiable.

And while the Stones may have experimented, the Beatles took it much further — fusing Western rock with Eastern spirituality, playing with backward tapes and other studio tricks. No band, and possibly no single artist, has ever blazed through creative periods so quickly and impressively.

The Stones may be the finest pure rock-and-roll band the world has ever known, and they introduced classic blues and R&B to listeners who might never have heard them otherwise. But the Beatles created a body of work so innovative — and so beautifully, infectiously fun — that it can be marked as a dividing line in pop music history.

Just ask your mother.

City Editor MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at (714) 966-4617 or at

If You Go

What: "The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones"

Where: Huntington Beach High School auditorium, 1905 Main St.

When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday

Cost: $20 adults, $15 students and seniors

Information: (714) 536-2514, ext. 4025 or

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