Beatles vs. Stones: Author John McMillian puts a new spin on an age-old debate

Author John McMillian wants to make one thing clear: He is a historian, not a rock critic. It is precisely for this reason that he doesn’t pick a side in the age-old debate that stands as the title for his second book: Beatles vs. Stones (Simon & Schuster). After all, what is there that’s left to be said about such a tired debate in 2013? As it turns out, there’s still plenty to be said. But for McMillian, who works as an assistant professor of history at Georgia State University, it’s not about riffing on which band had a better drummer, and whose records were chock-full of filler. “I have always been obsessed with both groups; the Beatles and the Rolling Stones are two of my favorite bands,” McMillian says. “But I didn’t want to allow myself to get drawn into a debate over which one is better, and have readers approach the book as if it was a treatise on behalf of one sensibility or the other.”

Rather, Beatles vs. Stones takes on a wholly different angle on how the greatest rock ‘n’ roll rivalry of all time was fostered by the fans, the music industry, the media, and by the bands themselves. By bringing to light mounds of source materials that most scholars and critics have never mined, namely the alternative newspapers and fan magazines of the late ’60s and early ’70s, McMillian taps into the stories of both bands as they unfold. By tracing their evolutions, side-by-side, as they appeared in the underground publications of the times, McMillian offers fresh insight into the dynamics of both groups as they grew and changed, with a real-time and palpable sense of excitement.

As such, Beatles vs. Stones came about as a happy accident of sorts—an unforeseen by-product from the time he’d spent researching materials that went into publishing his first book, 2011’s Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America.

While spending weeks combing through microfilm reels of archived underground newspapers, studying the revolutionary spirit and headlines of the late 1960s, McMillian also uncovered an antic, and very public discourse that was brewing over the Beatles and the Rolling Stones.

“The whole constellation of underground newspapers in the late ’60s were the most important primary source base for the book,” McMillian says. “A lot of them had never before been analyzed or brought to light in any other books on the Beatles or the Stones. I also spent about $3,000 on the fan magazines that both groups put out—The Beatles Monthly Book and The Rolling Stones Monthly Book. They’re not collected in any American libraries, so the next best option was to buy them off eBay.”

Naturally, both groups held strong connections to the youth rebellion of the times. The problem, though, was that there just wasn’t room to discuss it in Smoking Typewriters. Still, he couldn’t shake it. “The material was just too fascinating to let it go, so I set it aside for another time,” McMillian says.

Two years later, Beatles vs. Stones‘ opening chapter unearths Sean O’Mahony, the man who once published both bands’ monthly fan club magazines. O’Mahony explains: “The Beatles were thugs who were put across as nice blokes, and the Rolling Stones were gentlemen who were made into thugs … “

As the story unfolds we watch the Beatles and the Stones trade places, and this divisive assessment fueled the rich public sentiment that was kicked up circa 1963-1970 and still resonates 50 years later.

McMillian balances his own findings with already published accounts in dozens of other already published books and interviews, and even conducts a few of his own interviews. In the process, he uncovers a trove of often overlooked details, or finds new significance in them when telling the bands’ stories jointly.

Still, he refuses to step into the debate. “I like to think that a thoughtful reader can tell which band I like more than the other,” McMillian says. “But to spell it out would be a disservice to the book.”

A version of this review was originally published in Creative Loafing, October 13, 2013.