A Brief History of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones Insulting Each Other

McCartney's recent dig at the Stones is just the latest in a long history of (mostly) friendly rivalry

October 14, 2021 8:20 am
Beatles and Stones
Whose side are you on?
Victor Blackman / Stringer

The supposed rivalry between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones was, by most accounts, largely fictional — cooked up by the media as a way of pitting the two legendary groups against each other, riling up their fanbases and stoking album sales. In actuality, the two bands were friendly. John Lennon and Paul McCartney are even responsible for writing the Stones’ second-ever single, “I Wanna Be Your Man.” Their paths frequently crossed during the height of their fame, they occasionally hung out socially, and Keith Richards joined Lennon’s supergroup The Dirty Mac for the Rolling Stones’ Rock and Roll Circus special. Mick Jagger even inducted the Beatles into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, and to this day, McCartney reportedly sends Richards a case of beer every Christmas. But despite the fact that rumors of a rivalry were largely overblown, members of both bands have played into it over the years, delivering some (mostly) good-natured jabs at each other in interviews.

The latest example of that comes from a new New Yorker interview this week in which Paul McCartney refers to the Rolling Stones as a “blues cover band.” He and Mick Jagger have half-jokingly traded barbs over whose band is better in recent years, and it’s hard to imagine Macca meant any harm with the remark. But it’ll still be interesting to see if and how the Stones respond. Until then, we’ve rounded up a timeline of some of their most noteworthy insults below.

1970: John Lennon says Mick Jagger’s “a joke” and drops a homophobic slur

Most of the comments the Beatles and Stones have made about each other over the years were delivered with a wink, but Lennon’s comments about Mick Jagger — made on Dec. 8, 1970 to Jann Wenner in a Rolling Stone interview that ran in January of 1971 — are the most sincerely nasty. The former Beatle went on a long rant when asked his opinion of the Rolling Stones, accusing them of copying the Beatles, calling Mick Jagger a “joke” and even using an awful homophobic slur to describe him. “I think it’s a lot of hype,” he said. “I like ‘Honky Tonk Woman’ but I think Mick’s a joke, with all that fag dancing, I always did. I enjoy it, I’ll probably go and see his films and all, like everybody else, but really, I think it’s a joke.”

“I was always very respectful about Mick and the Stones, but he said a lot of sort of tarty things about the Beatles, which I am hurt by, because you know, I can knock the Beatles, but don’t let Mick Jagger knock them,” he continued. “I would like to just list what we did and what the Stones did two months after on every fuckin’ album. Every fuckin’ thing we did, Mick does exactly the same — he imitates us. And I would like one of you fuckin’ underground people to point it out, you know Satanic Majesties is Pepper, ‘We Love You,’ it’s the most fuckin’ bullshit, that’s ‘All You Need Is Love.’ I resent the implication that the Stones are like revolutionaries and that the Beatles weren’t. If the Stones were or are, the Beatles really were too. But they are not in the same class, music-wise or power-wise, never were. I never said anything, I always admired them, because I like their funky music and I like their style. I like rock & roll and the direction they took after they got over trying to imitate us, you know, but he’s even going to do Apple now. He’s going to do the same thing.”

“He’s obviously so upset by how big the Beatles are compared with him; he never got over it,” Lennon concluded, referring to Jagger. “Now he’s in his old age, and he is beginning to knock us, you know, and he keeps knocking. I resent it, because even his second fuckin’ record we wrote it for him. Mick said ‘Peace made money.’ We didn’t make any money from Peace. You know.”

1980: Lennon calls “I Wanna Be Your Man,” the song he and McCartney wrote for the Stones, a “throwaway”

“I Wanna Be Your Man” is often cited as proof that the Beatles and Stones got along — why would you give a song to someone you hated, after all? — but in a 1980 Playboy interview, Lennon tried to downplay it and emphasized how the Stones were in awe of his and McCartney’s talent. “Paul and I finished that one off for the Stones,” he said. “We were taken down by Brian [Epstein] to meet them at the club where they were playing in Richmond. They wanted a song and we went to see what kind of stuff they did. Paul had this bit of a song and we played it roughly for them and they said, ‘Yeah, OK, that’s our style.’ But it was only really a lick, so Paul and I went off in the corner of the room and finished the song off while they were all sitting there, talking. We came back and Mick and Keith said, ‘Jesus, look at that. They just went over there and wrote it.’ You know, right in front of their eyes. We gave it to them. It was a throwaway. Ringo sang it for us and the Stones did their version. It shows how much importance we put on them. We weren’t going to give them anything great, right? That was the Stones’ first record. Anyway, Mick and Keith said, ‘If they can write a song so easily, we should try it.’ They say it inspired them to start writing together.”

1987: Mick Jagger says the Beatles breaking up was “a good idea”

In 1987, Mick Jagger was gearing up for a solo tour to promote his album Primitive Cool and seemingly growing frustrated with the amount of speculation over whether he was planning on leaving the Stones for good. In an interview with Q magazine, he addressed the issue, but not without getting in a dig at the Fab Four: “It’s ridiculous,” he said. “No one should care if The Rolling Stones have broken up, should they? I mean, when The Beatles broke up I couldn’t give a shit. Thought it was a very good idea.”

1995: Jagger says Lennon and McCartney’s “strong personalities” caused the Beatles to break up

In a 1995 interview for Rolling Stone, Jann Wenner asked Jagger why his partnership with Keith Richards has lasted so long while Lennon and McCartney’s eventually crumbled. “That’s hard to make even a stab at, because I don’t know John and Paul well enough,” Jagger responded. “I know them slightly, same as you, probably, and maybe you knew John better at the end. I can hazard a guess that they were both rather strong personalities, and both felt they were totally independent. They seemed to be very competitive over leadership of the band.” Jagger asserted that band leaders should “sort of agree what your roles are. Whereas John and Paul felt they were too strong, and they wanted to be in charge. If there are 10 things, they both wanted to be in charge of nine of them. You’re not gonna make a relationship like that work, are you?”

2011: Paul McCartney says Keith Richards admitted he was jealous of the Beatles’ singing abilities

In a 2011 interview with the Radio Times, McCartney asserted that the Stones were jealous of the Beatles’ vocal abilities: “I talked to Keith Richards a couple of years ago, and his take on it was: ‘Man, you were lucky, you guys, you had four lead singers,’ whereas The Rolling Stones only had one,” he said.

2015: Keith Richards calls Sgt. Pepper “a mishmash of rubbish”

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is widely regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time, but Keith Richards is not particularly impressed by it. “The Beatles sounded great when they were the Beatles. But there’s not a lot of roots in that music,” Richards told Esquire in 2015. “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.’” 

2016: Keith Richards criticizes the Beatles’ live performances

Touring and live performances are one area where the Stones clearly trumped the Beatles; the Fab Four famously retired from touring at the height of their fame, while the Stones have spent the past 50 years or so playing arenas. In 2016, Richards criticized the Beatles’ live show, telling the Radio Times, “Musically, The Beatles had a lovely sound and great songs. But the live thing? They were never quite there.”

2020: Paul McCartney says “The Beatles were better,” and Mick Jagger responds with a zinger

“[The Stones] are rooted in the blues,” McCartney told Howard Stern last April. “When they are writing stuff, it has to do with the blues. We had a little more influences. There’s a lot of differences, and I love the Stones, but I’m with you. The Beatles were better.”

Mick Jagger caught wind of McCartney’s comments during an appearance on Zane Lowe’s Apple Music show, and he laughed off the idea. “That’s so funny,” he said. “He’s a sweetheart. There’s obviously no competition.”

 “The Rolling Stones is a big concert band in other decades and other areas, when the Beatles never even did an arena tour, Madison Square Garden with a decent sound system,” he continued. “They broke up before that business started, the touring business for real.”

“We started doing stadium gigs in the Seventies and [are] still doing them now,” Jagger concluded. “That’s the real big difference between these two bands. One band is unbelievably luckily still playing in stadiums, and then the other band doesn’t exist.” Ouch.

2021: McCartney calls the Rolling Stones a “blues cover band”

This week, the New Yorker released a lengthy Paul McCartney profile ahead of the release of The Beatles: Get Back, and while McCartney largely tries to remain humble about his legacy, he does claim that the Beatles, as the publication puts it, “worked from a broader range of musical languages” than the Stones. “I’m not sure I should say it, but they’re a blues cover band, that’s sort of what the Stones are,” he said. “I think our net was cast a bit wider than theirs.”

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