Brow Beat is following the Beatles in “real time,” 50 years later, from their first chart-topper to their final rooftop concert. 50 years ago this week, the Beatles met their future rivals, the Rolling Stones. John McMillian, author of the forthcoming Beatles vs. Stones from Simon & Schuster, describes the encounter.
Everybody knows how adorably goofy and good-natured the Beatles could come across in their radio and television interviews, especially during the first flush of Beatlemania. In real life, however, they often struck people differently. Writer Barry Miles recalls that when the Beatles relocated to London from Liverpool in the spring of 1963, they seemed bent on projecting an “an intentionally intimidating image.” The teen-oriented Boyfriend magazine went so far as to describe the Beatles as “almost frightening looking young men.” When they weren’t smiling, the magazine said, “they looked wicked and dreadful and distinctly evil, in an eighteenth century sort of way.” Around the same time, a low-level PR flack said the Beatles exuded a “Fuck You, we’re good and we know it” sort of attitude.
It probably would not have been easy, in the spring of 1963, to impose upon the Beatles, or to ask them for a favor. Nevertheless, on the afternoon April 14, Giorgio Gomelsky—a Soviet-born, Swiss-educated rhythm and blues promoter—approached the Fab Four at a television studio where they were taping their third appearance on the pop music show Thank Your Lucky Stars.
“Hey you guys, you’ve got to listen to this band on the way home tonight,” he pleaded. “You’ve got to come see this band when you finish recording the show, it’s on the way back, you’ve just got to come.”
He was talking about the Rolling Stones. And his timing was propitious. Having recently arrived in London, the Beatles and their entourage were curious to find out what was happening in the city’s music scene.
Sure enough, shortly after the Stones started their second set at the Crawdaddy Club, in Southwest London, bassist Bill Wyman was “staggered” to look up and see “four shadowy figures” standing shoulder-to-shoulder in the audience, all of them dressed in matching suede overcoats and leather caps. “Shit, that’s the Beatles!” he recalls exclaiming to himself. Keith Richards tells the story similarly: “We’re playing a pub … and we’re whacking out our show and everybody’s having a good time, ya know? I suddenly turn around: there’s these four guys in black leather overcoats standing there. Oh fuck me! Look who’s here!”
The Beatles’ road manager, Neil Aspinall, thought the Stones were just “OK” that night—not particularly better or worse than a typical Liverpool band playing at the Cavern Club. But the Beatles were more effusive. “I remember standing in some sweaty room and watching them on the stage,” Ringo said years later. “Keith and Brian—wow! I knew then that the Stones were great.” George was struck by the tremendous enthusiasm of the Stones’ fans. “The audience screamed and shouted and danced on tables,” he recalled.
No one lingered around or chatted with fans for very long after the gig, since Brian Jones had invited the Beatles and their crew over to the Stones’ slummy Edith Grove apartment. The richest first-hand account of what happened next comes from James Phelge, who was living with Mick, Keith, and Brian at the time. When the Beatles arrived, Phelge recalls, “they carried themselves with the air of a professional outfit. … All the members of their entourage were smartly dressed in the same dark-colored overcoats as the band, giving the appearance of one big team.” A few in the Beatles’ camp may have been disgusted by the putrid condition of the Stones’ dimly-lit flat—the piled-high dishes, overflowing ashtrays, and accumulated rubbish—but Phelge says that Paul, at least, “did not seem unduly perturbed by anything—the look on his face said, ‘I’ve been here before.’”
All night long, records spun successively on the turntable, and the members of each group shared their musical likes and dislikes. The Stones played the Beatles five demo tracks they’d just recorded at IBC Studios, and they were eager to show off their treasured collection of American imports. They were caught off guard, however, when Lennon was sharply dismissive of one of their heroes, the blues legend Jimmy Reed.
Another big topic was how to make money in the music business. Until that point, no British pop acts had been able to maintain their success over the long term, and everyone thought it was only a matter of time before the Beatles’ pubescent fans moved on in search of someone else to idolize. Even the Beatles believed that. At the time, they were chiefly concerned with parlaying their brief burst of popular success into the biggest possible financial windfall. The most the Stones could have hoped for is that they, too, would have a brief run at the top.
Despite being the hottest group in England at the time, in some respects the Beatles may have felt apprehensive in the Stones’ company. Like many Merseysiders of Northern England, the Beatles were sensitive to any hint of condescension from their Southern neighbors. They dreaded being stereotyped as Scousers, hicks, or provincials. That may well explain why they could seem so standoffish to outsiders; it was a defensive posture.
Meanwhile, the Stones fancied themselves hip Londoners; they were obsessed with a particular style of cool—which they associated with reticence and self-possession—and so they were bemused by the Beatles’ amiable goofball shtick: their corny repartee and obvious eagerness to please. They were also proud to have built up a cult following with the “right” type of fans: discerning bohemians, as opposed to the hysterical teenyboppers the Beatles were winning over. They didn’t yet have a record contract, but they surely sensed that one was in the offing.
John likely enjoyed talking with Brian, perhaps the most musically gifted and deeply knowledgeable member of the Stones. When the two fell into conversation they discovered that they both had infant sons named Julian. (Lennon’s son was only six days old.) But Jones’ musical knowledge could also be intimidating. Years later, Lennon recalled the moment that night when Brian asked him whether it was a harmonica or a harp that he’d played on “Love Me Do.”
Oblivious to the subtle distinction between the two instruments, Lennon answered, “A harmonica with a button,” meaning a chromatic harmonica, of the type that was used by the jazz and big band acts of the ’40s and ’50s. (Lennon had shoplifted it from a music store in Arnhem, Holland, in 1960.) A “harp,” or diatonic harmonica, offers fewer notes, but allows players to get a wailing bluesy sound by bending pitches. All the classical bluesmen used harps, and an aficionado like Jones likely would have regarded chromatic harmonicas as passé.
Lennon apparently came around to that view as well. Six weeks later, on June 1, 1963, the Beatles were getting ready to perform Chuck Berry’s “I Got To Find My Baby” for the BBC radio show Pop Goes the Beatles. When deejay Lee Peters tried to introduce the song by saying that it would feature Lennon on the harmonica, Lennon sharply cut him off.
“Harp! It’s a harp,” Lennon said.
“What’s a harp?” Peters asked, obviously taken aback.
“The harp. I’m playing a harp on this one.”
“You’re playing a harp?”
“Harmonica I play on ‘Love Me Do.’ Harp on this one.”
There wasn’t any “rivalry” yet between the Beatles and the Stones, of course. But for all they had in common, the members of the two bands must have recognized they had some opposing qualities as well. It wasn’t for nothing that in January 1988, when Mick Jagger inducted the Beatles into the Rock and Roll Hall of fame, he dwelled at some length about the very first time he met the Beatles. He didn’t regard them as the least bit cuddly or lovable. Instead, he said, they struck him as a “four-headed monster.”