Keith Richards, The Beatles, Sgt. Pepper and musical evolution

Beatles rooftop concert 1969
Esquire Magazine released an interview last month with Rolling Stones’ guitarist Keith Richards, who made headlines by dishing on his most famous musical contemporary — The Beatles.

Beatles Ed Sullivan Show 1964

Richards and interviewer Scott Raab were discussing the musical mores of the 1960s, and the chaos that surrounded uber-popular “British Invasion” bands, particularly the Beatles & the Stones. Raab then noted the difference in staying power between the Beatles’ most popular albums and those of the Stones:

RAAB: I’ve been thinking about Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt. Pepper, and The White Album and listening to Beggars 
Banquet, Let It Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main St. Over the past 20 years, I’ve 
listened to that Stones stuff far more often.

RICHARDS: No, I understand—the 
Beatles sounded great when they were the Beatles. But there’s not a lot of roots in that music. I think they got carried away. Why not? If you’re the Beatles in the ’60s, you just get carried away—you forget what it is you wanted to do. You’re starting to do Sgt. Pepper. Some people think it’s a genius album, but I think it’s a mishmash of rubbish, kind of like Satanic Majesties—”Oh, if you can make a load of shit, so can we.”

I understand Richards’ point — that the Beatles grew further and further from their roots as a hard-charging, back-beat bumping rock-and-roll band. The notion that their debut on the Ed Sullivan Show and their famous rooftop concert were only five years apart is stunning.

The Stones did veer briefly from their blues-based rock and country roots on 1967’s Their Satanic Majesties Request, a record made with the UK and the U.S. in the throes of a new breed of Beatlemania — psychedelia. Sgt. Pepper came out in June of that year, two months after Jimi Hendrix’s debut album and one year after the equally (at the time) adventurous Pet Sounds.

The Stones dipped their collective toes in the psychedelic waters, decided they didn’t like the temperature and jumped back in their natural pool, releasing an incredible run of albums from Beggars Banquet in December 1968, Let It Bleed a year later, Sticky Fingers in April 1971 and Exile on Main Street in May 1972.

These are all blues-based rock records that hold up spectacularly. The Stones went back to the well because its depths never disappointed.

But I must respectfully disagree with Keith Richards about the Beatles getting “carried away.” The key to the Beatles’ experimentation is that they mostly laced it on top of a structure music fans understand — a catchy melody and hook combined with normally structured verses.

Sgt. Pepper, for instance, strikes me as a series of stick figures colored by Picasso. The Beatles tended to experiment sonically and lyrically, not structurally.

By adding an instrument here, a lyrical theme there, they pushed pop music into new territory without losing their popular audience. They certainly had their Dylan-goes-electric moments — my favorite is Dick Clark debuting the videos for Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane on American Bandstand and asking the audience for reactions, with the stunned crowd of teenagers and 20-year-olds telling Clark everything from “They’re ugly” to “I don’t like their hair” to “They look older and it ruins their image.”

Ultimately, the audience moved with them, and did so at a rapid pace. While the Stones have crushed their rock/blues/country formula in studio and on stage for 50 years, the Beatles ripped through myriad styles in six years. The same month that the album A Hard Day’s Night was released, at the height of Beatlemania, the Stones bagged their first #1 single with “It’s All Over Now.”

Five years later, the Stones’ #1 hit was “Honky Tonk Women,” a track that would feel at home as a B-side for “It’s All Over Now.” Compare that to the Beatles, who in July 1969 recorded “Come Together,” a song that in 1964 was not a twinkle in George’s 12-string Rickenbacher. The only artists in my life who matched The Beatles’ level of popularity, experimentation and evolution are David Bowie, Madonna, Kanye West, and maybe Prince, whose music I admittedly know less about than the others.

That’s what art should be — an evolution. A process. Something alive as humanity. Take a look at this sampling of the Fab Four’s work from 1962 to 1970 and see what I mean.

Love Me Do (recorded Sept. 1962)

I Saw Her Standing There (February 1963)

She Loves You (July 1963)

A Hard Day’s Night (April 1964)

I Feel Fine (October 1964)

You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away (February 1965)

Norwegian Wood (October 1965)

Tomorrow Never Knows (April 1966)

Strawberry Fields Forever (December 1966)

A Day in the Life (February 1967)

All You Need is Love (June 1967)

Lady Madonna (February 1968)

Hey Jude (August 1968)

Get Back (January 1969)

Come Together (July 1969)

For You Blue (January 1970)

I Me Mine (April 1970)


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