The flames of the most popular rivalry in pop music history have been relit by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones releasing new music in the same year for the first time since 1969, and both are actually good. As huge nerds for this kind of stuff, we’d be remiss not to take a look at how these new songs compare and contrast, and what they do for the never-ending question of “Beatles vs Stones?”, a debate that’s as silly as it is endlessly fascinating.
The Beatles’ “final” song, “Now and Then,” came out today, thanks in large part to the newly-developed audio restoration technology that Peter Jackson used on the instant-classic Get Back film. The song started as one of three previously unreleased demos that John Lennon recorded in the late 1970s which Yoko Ono passed on to Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr in the ’90s. The other two, “Free As A Bird” and “Real Love,” were fleshed out with contributions from the surviving three members and released as singles in the ’90s as part of The Beatles Anthology project, but they couldn’t do the same for “Now and Then” because John’s vocal track couldn’t be mixed without his piano also rising and messing up the mix.
“Now and Then” remained shelved, George passed away in 2001, and then fast forward to 2022, after Get Back was released, Paul and Ringo realized Peter Jackson could help them finally finish the track. When you hear John’s isolated voice from the “Now and Then” demo in the 12-minute documentary film accompanying the song’s release, it’s eerie, beautiful, and feels like a minor miracle. Here is an actual unused vocal track that John Lennon laid down during his life, finally able to see the light of day, and it’s perfect for a Beatles song. When John wrote the words “Now and then, I miss you” and “If we must start again, we will know for sure that I love you,” he probably wasn’t talking about The Beatles, but if we entertain the idea that maybe he was, then there couldn’t be a better new bookend to this band’s career, if this really does end up being the final bookend. When present-day Paul sings “I will love you” with John, you’d have to be fully void of emotion not to get chills.
Regardless of how John originally intended “Now and Then” to be completed, the song in its final form is a love letter to The Beatles, by The Beatles. George’s ’90s contributions remain, and Paul pays tribute to George with a slide guitar solo performed in his style. It’s just as touching as hearing him sing with John. Paul also recruited George Martin’s son Giles Martin to give the song a string arrangement that sounds like something his father would’ve done for The Beatles in the ’60s, and Ringo gives it those trademark Ringo drum fills that make it sound distinctly like a Beatles song. In the new film, when they splice together footage of Ringo recording a fill in present-day with footage of him recording the same fill in 1995 with footage of him playing something similar in 1969, it reminds you that there’s still no one else who can capture his unique style.
I’m sure there are people who would balk at the idea that this counts as a “Beatles song,” but it really does feel like one, and it really does add something new to the band’s legacy, 53 years after their breakup. It’s a genuinely good song with a heartwarming backstory, it features contributions from all four Beatles, and it features present-day contributions from just as many living, ’60s-era members as most of the new Stones songs do. On that note…
The Rolling Stones’ new album Hackney Diamonds–their first album of new, original music in 18 years–is both a much different type of project than “Now and Then,” and a strangely similar one. Like “Now and Then,” it is a mourning of death and a celebration of life. Two of its songs were done with late, longtime drummer Charlie Watts during his final studio sessions, and one of those songs, “Live by the Sword,” features the album’s sole contribution from longtime/former bassist Bill Wyman. To be honest, “Live by the Sword” isn’t one of my favorite songs on Hackney Diamonds, but if that’s the last song we ever hear Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bill Wyman, and Charlie Watts (and Ronnie Wood) on, it’s a pretty strong bookend for that strong foursome as well. (The pianist on that one, by the way, is Elton John.)
The other song Charlie drums on, “Mess It Up,” is one of my favorite songs on Hackney Diamonds. It’s a “Miss You”-style fake disco song, and it reminds you that nobody does that kinda thing like the Stones. Mick still sounds as sassy as he did in the ’70s, and Charlie’s deceptively simple style gives it that classic Stones groove. Since we’re talking about The Beatles, we have to mention that that’s Paul McCartney playing bass on “Bite My Head Off.” It was apparently Paul who suggested that the Stones go with producer Andrew Watt–the Post Malone/Miley Cyrus/Justin Bieber collaborator that also assisted on Ozzy Osbourne and Iggy Pop on late, late, late career albums–and Watt who suggested Paul play the fuzzed-out, bluesy, walking basslines on “Bite My Head Off.” Considering there is really nothing McCartney-esque about that song, I love the idea that Paul McCartney just had to be the one recording the bass. Of all the things the Stones and Paul McCartney could do together in 2023, they did something almost entirely unnecessary, just to say they did. You gotta love it.
While “Now and Then” was actually written in the ’70s, Hackney Diamonds is an entire album of songs that sound like they could have been written by the Stones in the ’70s, and it’s honestly amazing to hear that the Stones can still do it with all the energy and flair they had back then. Keef still had some all-timer riffs up his sleeve that he hadn’t written yet; if he would’ve brought the “Angry,” “Get Close,” or “Mess It Up” riffs to the table in those days, they’d be classics today. Even more amazing is how much 80-year-old Mick Jagger still sneers like 30-year-old Mick Jagger. As is often the case with the Stones, some of Hackney Diamonds‘ best songs are the ballads, and hearing Mick strut his way through “Depending On You” and “Dreamy Skies” makes for moments that rival their actual ’70s ballads, full stop.
Getting “Now and Then” and Hackney Diamonds in such close succession reminds you that The Beatles and the Stones will probably always be in their own, parallel lanes for the rest of time. On an allegorical level, it makes sense that we get just one Beatles song and an entire Stones album. Part of The Beatles’ allure was always the scarcity, the confined, near-perfect catalog that started in 1962 and ended in 1970. “Now and Then” is neat, concise, and nearly perfect, like most non-White Album Beatles albums. Hackney Diamonds is full of both brilliant moments and filler, like most Stones albums. But it doesn’t matter if a Stones album has filler, because they have six zillion albums and more masterpiece rock songs than almost any band that ever existed (except The Beatles). “Now and Then” is smart, tender, and intimate, like The Beatles were in their studio wizardry days of the late ’60s. Hackney Diamonds is raw, gritty, and all attitude, like the world-touring road dogs the Stones have been for basically ever.
Nothing could be more Beatles than “Now and Then,” and nothing could be more Stones than Hackney Diamonds. Strictly based on their new material, the answer to “Beatles vs Stones?” in 2023 is the same as it’s ever been. Stones people will say the Stones, Beatles people will say The Beatles, and the real winners are all of us, who get to watch these bands give us one more stroke of genius for possibly the last time ever.