John McMillian at the Savannah Book Festival
Where: Telfair Square, York and Barnard Streets
When: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 15
Joining us for the 2014 Savannah Book Festival is John McMillian, an assistant professor of history at Georgia State University. McMillian has an MA in History from Michigan State University, and a Ph.D. from Columbia.
Serious academic cred, that. Yet his published works are more concerned with the soft white underbelly of rock 'n' roll. A founding co-editor of The Sixties: A Journal of History, Politics and Culture, he has two books to his credit. Smoking Typewriters: The Sixties Underground Press and the Rise of Alternative Media in America, and the recently published Beatles vs. Stones.
Let's turn our attention to the latter tome, which is what brings him to the Savannah Book Festival Feb. 15. McMillian has traced, back to their first meeting in 1963, the parallel, not-always-harmonious careers of two giants of contemporary popular music.
John, Paul, George, Ringo, Mick, Keith, Brian, Bill and Charlie were chummy in the Swinging '60s, as evidenced by the wealth of archive material McMillian had access to. Each band was always aware when the other had a new record coming out; they often compared notes so that releases would not compete in the world marketplace.
Most of the world knows by now that there was never a "rivalry" between the two biggest bands in the world; McMillian's gift is putting everything together in one seamless and very enjoyable narrative.
There are literally thousands of books about the Beatles. How did you manage to find a topic that hadn't already been covered?
John McMillian: My first book, Smoking Typewriters, was on the underground press in the late '60s and early '70s. They had all these radical and countercultural tabloid newspapers that young, hip people were reading, people associated with the youth rebellion. Right around 1968, there was this incredible debate about which band had the correct sort of political analysis. The Beatles were associated with the hippies, and aesthetic radicalism, and the Stones with the street fighting militant stuff. And a lot of the material that was in these underground newspapers had never before been brought to light in any of the biographies and studies of the Beatles or the Stones. So I was able to tap into some source material that no one had ever seen.
Like yourself, a lot of people thought "There's nothing new to say" or "There's no new material to examine." But I feel kinda proud that I was able to ... prove otherwise, I guess.
Would you say the Beatles and the Stones, in the '60s, were inexorably intertwined?
JM: They had an awful lot in common. They were the same age, they both came out of England at the same time, they both had real fascinations with African American music. The Stones were a bit more bluesy, and the Beatles were more into Motown, but they had overlapping interest. They met when they were quite young. The Beatles were a popular group in England, but Beatlemania was just starting to emerge. It hadn't come to the U.S. or anything yet. The Stones were still playing clubs. But they struck up a rapport. Then, of course, they became two of the biggest bands in the world.
And they never really stopped associating. They had a lot to talk about. They could bond over their shared experiences, they enjoyed each other's company ... but then there were also some profound differences between the groups.
They were also both very, very ambitious. What about that famous quote of John Lennon's to the effect that whatever the Beatles did, the Stones did six months later?
JM: I describe the relationship as sort of a friendly rivalry, or a creative tension, between the groups. They liked each other, as I said, but there was this sense of competition for aesthetic credibility and record sales. And John Lennon was annoyed because, for a long time in the mid '60s it did seem like the Stones were following the Beatles' creative lead. The Beatles came out with "Yesterday," that quietly-sung song with Paul McCartney, acoustic guitar and a string arrangement. And then the Stones came out with "As Tears Go By" with Mick Jagger singing over a string arrangement.
Rubber Soul was a big landmark for the Beatles, because they were trying to critically re-position themselves as maybe more mature artists. They were dealing with autobiographical themes, getting away from their mop-top image. And then the Stones came out with Aftermath, which was sort of a similar attempt to take a sonic and emotional leap in the songwriting. The Beatles were experimenting with some bizarre instruments that you didn't really hear in pop music, like the sitar. And then the Stones did that.
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was such a big hit for the Beatles, and the Stones decided to do a kind of psychedelic record, Their Satanic Majesties Request, which was a big flop for them. Those are some of the big examples.
Along with your research into archival stories, you interviewed several people. Isn't it getting harder and harder to find people who haven't told their stories before?
JM: Tony Barrow, the Beatles' old press officer, said "I'm retired from talking about the Beatles." But I was able to talk to a several people from their orbit. I worked hard to create a compelling narrative and bring some new source material to light. And draw connections between some things people hadn't seen.