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Rock’n’roll’s greatest rivalry

McCartney and Jagger in 1967. Victor Blackman/Express/Getty

The Beatles vs the Rolling Stones is “the rock’n’roll rivalry that refuses to go away”, says James Hall in The Sunday Telegraph. Tonight, the Stones will play to 65,000 people in London’s Hyde Park while Paul McCartney, 80, headlines Glastonbury.

Do they really dislike each other?
The feud was “80% marketing construct and 20% truth”, says Hall. The Stones, who released their first single in 1963, mere months after the Beatles’ debut, were spun by their manager as “edgy bad boys” in contrast to the “wholesome mop-tops” from Liverpool – so no smiling in photos and no matching haircuts. But in reality, as Mick Jagger says, the two bands “ended up friends”, making appearances on each other’s songs and at each other’s concerts. “If we had an album coming out on August 28, we’d ring them and say, ‘Have you got anything coming out?’ and they’d say, ‘Yeah, we’ve got something coming out August 17,’ so we’d put ours back a bit,” McCartney said in 2018. “It was a nice scene.” The Stones’s first top 20 hit, I Wanna Be Your Man, was even written by Lennon and McCartney – though Lennon later said it was just something they had knocked out in minutes. “We weren’t going to give them anything great, right?”

So there was some competition, then?
Oh yes. In 2015, Keith Richards called Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band a vaudevillian “mishmash of rubbish” and said the Beatles’ music suffered from a lack of “roots”; last year, McCartney dismissed the Stones as a “blues cover band”. Back in 1969 Jagger told Village Voice that the Beatles over-shared, giving fans too much of a running commentary on their career. “They publicise everything they do.” Asked if the Stones would ever split, he said: “Nah. But if we did, we wouldn’t be so bitchy about it.” And in 2020, Jagger made a spiky reference to the two groups’ difference in longevity: “One band is unbelievably luckily still playing in stadiums and then the other band doesn’t exist.”

How do their fortunes stack up?
Jagger, now 78, is on a very respectable £318m. His and Richards’s storied song catalogue is a big asset, but the Stones’s constant touring – they’re currently in the middle of a 60th anniversary European excursion – is famously lucrative. They’ve twice set the record for the highest-grossing concert tour: the most recent was A Bigger Bang, from 2005 to 2007, which made £280m. But in wealth terms Jagger pales in comparison to McCartney, who is Britain’s richest musician with a net worth of £865m. He rakes in millions each year from Apple Corps, the company the Beatles founded, and more than £300,000 annually for his solo Christmas hit, Wonderful Christmastime. He also owns the copyrights of other classic artists, like Buddy Holly, through his firm MPL Communications.

The tables have turned since childhood
Yes. Whereas his bandmate Lennon was raised in a suburban, semi-detached home called Mendips, council-estate kid McCartney had a working-class upbringing in Liverpool. “No one had houses with names where I came from,” he recalled. Jagger, however, was posher than both of them: he was born in Kent to a teacher father and a mother who was (shock horror) an active Tory party member. Before committing to the Stones, he studied finance and accounting at the LSE, and even flirted with becoming a journalist or politician.

How did they handle success?
The Beatles and Stones pioneered the now-classic trappings of rockstardom: drugs, Rolls-Royces and outrageous tailoring. Among McCartney’s indulgences was a 1966 Aston Martin DB6 complete with a tape recorder – he used it to get down ideas for songs, including Hey Jude, when inspiration struck on the road. But both bands kept half an eye on their finances: when Prime Minister Harold Wilson slapped a 95% “supertax” on Britain’s highest earners, the Stones became tax exiles, fleeing, in 1971, to a villa on the Côte d’Azur where they recorded Exile on Main St. McCartney, meanwhile, would joke with Lennon about what each tune could buy them: “We said, ‘Well, let’s write a swimming pool! You need a new extension, let’s write it.’”

Who was the flashiest?
Jagger, undoubtedly – you’d never catch Macca bounding around on stage in leotards and jumpsuits. McCartney has never shaken his reputation as the dullest of the Beatles, and, as he cheerfully told journalist Philip Norman in 1965, he’s a bit of a “skinflint” too. In the early 1970s, he and his first wife Linda moved to Blossom Wood Farm in East Sussex. They adopted a rather grungy lifestyle: the red-brick house he built on the site (“a glorified council house”, according to one acquaintance) was filled with mess, mud, countless pets and, from around lunchtime, a strong smell of weed. Their Rolls-Royce was traded in for a Volvo estate and the couple’s four children were sent to the local comprehensive.

So the pair are very different?
Not that different. Both Jagger and McCartney were (or still are) the sensible workhorses of their bands – Richards, the former heroin aficionado, is Jagger’s edgy counterpart just as Lennon was to McCartney. It’s an attitude they’ve taken into old age: neither indulges in much these days beyond an occasional glass of wine. And neither is under any delusions about what the punters want: the hits. In advance of his Glasto appearance, McCartney declared that “the audience have paid good money, have brought their mums and dads and do not want to hear my deep cuts”.