Before there was Nirvana vs. Pearl Jam, Blur vs. Oasis, and West Coast vs. East Coast rap, an equally vital debate raged: Are you a Beatles or a Stones fan? The question was truly a loaded one; choosing one over the other suggested wimpiness vs. masculinity, virginity vs. sex, decorum vs. decadence. For me, the choice was simple. My mother would sing along to ”Eleanor Rigby,” and even as a dorky kid, I knew that was wrong—cool rock bands should not be writing songs that parents could hum. Conversely, when I once was playing a Stones LP, Mom commented, with noticeable annoyance in her voice, on the relentless grind in ”Paint It, Black.” Suddenly I saw the light: parental approval, bad; parental irritation, good.
In a perverse bit of timing that must amuse the spirit of John Lennon, the old rematch continues with the concurrent release of the Beatles’ Anthology 1 (Capitol), the much-hyped collection of rarities, and the Stones’ billionth concert album, Stripped (Virgin). At this point in history, the matchup is like comparing apples and oranges — quite shriveled oranges in the latter case — but I still had to know: As a grown-up, had I mellowed on the pop sweetness of the Beatles, or did I still have a heart of Stones?
The idea that the Beatles were squeaky clean and the Stones satanists was, of course, simplistic. And intentionally or not, Anthology 1, the first of three double-disc sets, tries to sully the Fab Four’s image. Starting with rare recordings of John and Paul’s pre-Beatles band, it traces their development from Liverpool scufflers in 1958 to top-of-the-pops champs in 1964, its 52 songs culled entirely from long-bootlegged live recordings, TV appearances, and studio outtakes.
The early hits — ”Please Please Me,” ”A Hard Day’s Night” — are here, but in rougher, often microscopically different renditions. Granted, the Mop Tops’ wild side was never too wild: As the CD booklet proves, this was a group that wore suits and ties to the studio. Still, the cumulative effect is to present the Beatles as scrappy roustabout geniuses—grungy and lo-fi, albeit due more to their working-class backgrounds than to hip design. In an early run-through of ”Boys,” George Harrison unleashes an atypically ear-piercing guitar solo that could have qualified him for membership in the Velvet Underground.
Anthology 1 is filled with minor revelations like that—or, for another example, that Pete Best truly was a mediocre skins pounder (based on the first take of ”Love Me Do” here). But in order to learn such lessons, you’ll have to machete your way through this CD jungle, which even includes new and vintage interviews with the band. Did you know that take 2 of Paul McCartney’s ballad ”And I Love Her” has a more pronounced drum part? Did you know that the group’s failed 1962 audition tape for Decca Records, released here for the first time, consisted mostly of goofy novelty songs selected by Brian Epstein? Or that George’s first crack at a solo on ”A Hard Day’s Night” was pitifully inept? The answers will excite Beatlemaniacs, but who else?
The sound quality of Anthology 1 is astonishingly good, and it makes for a more interesting listen than last year’s monochromatic Live at the BBC. But only die-hard fans will want to pull it off the shelf in years to come.
Perhaps old compulsive habits die hard, but I’d happily slide the Stones’ Stripped into my disc player again. Always savvy about marketing trends, Mick & Co. decided to go the unplugged route but without calling it that (and without cutting MTV in on the profits—to the Stones, business smarts are much more important than Bill Wyman). The semi-acoustic Stripped was recorded live this summer in a theater in Germany and at various tour rehearsals, and what a difference a venue makes. The Stones’ recent live albums were taped in vast, impersonal stadiums and felt that way. But the crisp strums of ”Street Fighting Man,” which opens the record, are an instant tip-off that Stripped isn’t yet another lackluster post-tour cash-in.
The Energizer bunnies of classic rock, the Stones offer graceful resurrections of ”Angie” and ”Wild Horses” and glide through a relaxed version of their mid-’60s strut ”I’m Free.” Stripped has a few dead spots (”Love in Vain” is still a slug), and a cover of ”Like a Rolling Stone” is utterly pointless. But halfway through the latter, Jagger’s feverish harmonica solo injects fresh energy into the song. At such moments, it’s easy to forgive the Stones for two decades of cynicism and wallow in the illusion that they’re simply poor boys in a rock band.
As for that other illusion, the reunion of the Beatles: ”Free As a Bird” is an innocuous, fluffy half song that — sorry, fans — wouldn’t sound out of place on Lennon’s proto-lite FM Double Fantasy. I called my mom after its debut on the ABC telecast, and she thought the song was beautiful. Anthology 1: B- Stripped: B+