Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones: A History of Their Legendary Rivalry

The recent volleying between Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger reflect a sometimes friendly, sometimes cutting tension that has existed between the two camps for almost six decades now.

beef blues band
Stones: AP

Thanks to recent remarks by Paul McCartney in the New Yorker, maybe we now can all finally agree that a rivalry between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones was — and is! — a real thing, as opposed to just a fan construct. It may never have risen to actual Dodgers/Giants intensity, and sometimes the discharges from both camps have seemed much more jocular than honestly jealous or indignant. But was McCartney joking when he described the Stones as “a blues cover band” and added that “our net was cast a bit wider than theirs”? No — he was asked an honest question, and responded with honest pride… as both collective parties have from the late 1960s forward.

Jagger was speaking purely in jest when he fired back at a Stones show last week by joshing that McCartney was backstage at the L.A. show and would be “joining us in a blues cover.” But the Stones have given as well as they’ve gotten over the years. There’ve also been countless personal encounters that seemed friendly, and fireworks-free — Jagger inducted the Beatles into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, for Pete Best’s sake — but the edge between them has never completely dulled.

It might be a historical case of “keep your friends close, and your frenemies closer.” Here’s a recap of some ups and downs in the two groups’ acquaintanceship over the years, and whether they seemed to be in friends, enemies or frenemies mode at the time.

1963: Friends — The Fabs and the bad boys meet

On April 14, 1963, spurred on by their respective then-managers, the Beatles went to hear the Stones at a pub in Richmond — at which point the latter group was, yes, still a blues cover band — and then went to an apartment building in Chelsea to party till 4 in the morning, by McCartney’s account.

1963: Friends — The Stones sign their deal thanks partly due to a leg up from Harrison

The Beatles’ lead guitarist had recommended them to the head of Decca Records. But, foreseeing a rivalry, Don Nicholl of the weekly music paper Disc wrote: “The Beatles, who recommended the Stones to Decca, may well live to rue the day. This group could be challenging them for top places in the immediate future.”

1963: Friends — The Beatles lend the Stones a breakout hit, “I Wanna Be Your Man”

Lennon and McCartney ran into the Stones (or Andrew Loog Oldham, according to the retelling) on the street and learned the group was recording. They hustled over to De Lane Lea Studio and, as the amazed Stones watched, purportedly stood in a corner and turned a verse they already had into a completed song for the other group to cover. It was released as the Stones’ second single and reached No. 12 in the U.K., a big leap over their debut single. So far, so co-beneficial!

1964: Frenemies — Were the Beatles really that selfless in giving away a “throwaway” to the upstarts?

In later years, Lennon would make the act of giving the Stones a song sound less than completely high-minded, saying, “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.’

1967: Friends — The Beatles and Stones salute each other on their album covers

The cover of “Sgt. Pepper” has a doll with an emblem reading “Welcome the Rolling Stones,” and in turn, the Stones subtly worked the Beatles into the artwork of “Their Satanic Majesties Request,” putting the Fabs’ faces on flowers. Photographer Michael Cooper’s son, Adam, said “The British press were constantly dreaming up rumors that relations between the Beatles and the Stones were always bad… People believed it, so the Stones, by 1967, said: ‘We’ve had enough of this shit. Let’s try to communicate through the cover to tell the public this is not the truth.’”

1967: Friends — Lennon & McCartney, Jagger & Keith Richards sing on each other’s songs

The two Beatles guested on the “Satanic Majesties” songs “Sing This All Together” and “We Love You.” Meanwhile, Jagger and Richards appeared singing along on a telecast performance of “All You Need is Love.”

1967: Enemies — John Lennon really thought the Stones ripped them off for “Satanic Majesties”

In an interview with Rolling Stone editor Jann Wenner conducted in 1970, Lennon let loose with three years’ worth of pent-up frustration about the Stones’ ‘Satanic” album, saying what he was really thinking even as he played nice with the rival group three years earlier. “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’ [the song that he and McCartney sang background on] — it’s the most fuckin’ bullshit; that’s ‘All You Need Is Love.’”

1968: Friends — John Lennon and Yoko Ono join a taping of the Rolling Stones’ “Rock and Roll Circus” TV special

If Lennon was mad about the Stones ripping off the Beatles’ psychedelic imagery the year before, he couldn’t have been that mad when he and Yoko filmed a number with Keith Richards at the end of ’68, right?

1969: Frenemies — “Dig a Pony” might contain a Lennon dig at the Stones

The “Let It Be” song “Dig a Pony,” recorded in early ’69 and released in ’70, contains what sure sounds like Lennon taking a potshot: “I roll a stoney / Well, you can imitate everyone you know.”

1969: Friends — Brian Jones shows up playing sax on a Beatles B-side

His appearance came on “You Know My Name (Look Up the Number),” the flip side to “Let It Be,” released in 1970. (Jones had died in June of the previous year.) The question remains: Would the Beatles have invited a Stone to be on a studio recording if it weren’t the goofiest song in their catalog?

1970: Enemies — Lennon goes ballistic on Stones in interview

It’s war…? In his epic interview with Wenner (eventually compiled into its own book in 1971), Lennon went off: “I think it’s a lot of hype,” he said of the Stones. “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 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,” Lennon said, referring to the Stones starting up the vanity label Rolling Stones Records. “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. 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.”

1987: Frenemies — Jagger dismisses the Beatles’ breakup as inconsequential

In an interview with Q, Jagger 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.” But it could be read less as insulting the Beatles than saying all bands are ultimately unimportant. 

1988: Friends — Jagger inducts the Beatles into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame

How much more copacetic can you get? Said Jagger in his speech, ““We went through some pretty strange times. We had a sort of… a lot of rivalry in those early years, and a little bit of friction, but we always ended up friends. And I like to think we still are, ’cause they were some of the greatest times of our lives, and I’m really proud to be the one that leads them into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.”

2015: Enemies — Keith Richards calls “Sgt. Pepper” “rubbish”

“The Beatles sounded great when they were the Beatles. But there’s not a lot of roots in that music,” Richards said in an interview with Esquire. “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…” Wait, what does that make the Stones’ supposed rip-off of that album, then? Don’t worry, he’s not letting his own band off the hook. He goes on to say, “…kind of like ‘Satanic Majesties — ‘Oh, if you can make a load of shit, so can we.’”

2016: Frenemies — Richards says the Beatles couldn’t cut it live

In an interview with the Radio Times, Richards said, “Musically, the Beatles had a lovely sound and great songs. But the live thing? They were never quite there.”

2020: Frenemies — McCartney gets real, at length, with Howard Stern

On Stern’s satellite show, McCartney offered a milder version of what he would say in the New Yorker this year. Stern suggested the Beatles were truly the better band, and Macca responded, “You know you’re going to persuade me to agree with that one… They are rooted in the blues. 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.” He suggested imitation had been at play. “We started to notice that whatever we did, the Stones sort of did it shortly thereafter. We went to America and we had huge success. Then the Stones went to America. We did ‘Sgt. Pepper’; the Stones did a psychedelic album. There’s a lot of that. We were great friends, still are kind of. We admire each other. … The Stones are a fantastic group. I go see them every time they’re out. They’re a great, great band.”

2020: Frenemies — Jagger responds to McCartney… diplomatically

Talking with Zane Lowe on his Apple Music show, the Stones’ singer responded to Macca’s Stern interview: “That’s so funny. He’s a sweetheart. There’s obviously no competition.” Asked by Lowe for clarification on the “no competition” remark, Jagger declared himself “a politician” — presumably meaning he likes to play his cards a little closer to the vest than McCartney (or than Richards did five years previous, probably, too). But he did elaborate, saying the “big difference” between the two groups “is that the Rolling Stones have been a big concert band in other decades and other eras when the Beatles never even did an arena tour… with a decent sound system. They broke up before that business started — the touring business for real… That business started in 1969, and the Beatles never experienced that, yet they played and did a great gig — I was there — at Shea Stadium… But the Stones went on. We started doing stadium gigs in the ’70s and are still doing them now. 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.” No real insults, there – Jagger’s political skills remained intact.

2021: Frenemies — Macca sings the “blues” refrain again

“I’m not sure I should say it,” McCartney said to New Yorker editor David Remnick in a short and simple statement in the interview published this month, “but they’re a blues cover band, that’s sort of what the Stones are. I think our net was cast a bit wider than theirs.”

2021: Frenemies — Mick lightly deflects McCartney with a sly joke at L.A. gig 

At their first of two nights at L.A.’s SoFi Stadium Thursday night, Jagger joked that McCartney was on hand was going to “join us in a blues cover.” Just a glancing enough comeback to qualify Jagger as edgy but still officially diplomatic. Not everyone got the joke; there was some anticipation in the audience that Jagger was being serious, till the show ended with, of course, no signs of the Beatles and Stones coming together over Robert Johnson. But plenty of serious fans were cued into the “feud,” like the fellow who kept chanting “Fuck the Beatles!” and “Paul McCartney is a wussy!” on the way out of the show.