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City Lights: Beatles win, but sympathy for the Stones

February 15, 2012|By Michael Miller

One of the great moments in magazine reader mail came after Entertainment Weekly critic David Browne, comparing the Beatles to the Rolling Stones, admitted that he thought less of the Fab Four because his mother liked them. Soon after, a man shot back on the letters page, "Why not let his mom review records instead?"

If it came down to a contest between, oh, "Let It Be" and "Honky Tonk Women," I would guess most people's mothers would favor the Beatles. But a cursory listen to the bands' 1960s output shows that it's much more complex than that. And that's what the Huntington Beach Academy for the Performing Arts hopes to prove with its Beatles-and-Stones revue this week.

Monday morning, I spoke with Jamie Knight, the school's director of music, media and entertainment technology, who was in the midst of final rehearsals for "The Beatles vs. the Rolling Stones." The show, featuring nearly 200 students, tracks both bands chronologically during the decade their careers overlapped, incorporating dozens of songs as well as a student-produced documentary.

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Part of the show's intent, in addition to showcasing some of the most brilliant pop music ever written, is to dispel the notion that the Beatles were a family-friendly pop band while the Stones produced a darker, edgier body of work. True, both bands had moments that could reinforce that claim. But consider the following:

1. Which band got its start playing to drunken sailors and thugs in one of the seediest red-light districts in Germany? The Beatles.

2. Which band leader prudently took courses at the London School of Economics even as his band started to hit it big? Mick Jagger.

3. Which band recorded a song with a death threat in the lyrics? Both — the Beatles with "Run for Your Life," the Stones with "Midnight Rambler."

In truth, it's hard to name anything the Beatles or Stones accomplished that the other didn't at least try, from raga rock to concept albums to string-laden folk ballads. (I'm referring to the Stones in the past tense because the show portrays their '60s incarnation.) So if a novice wandered into the Huntington Beach High School auditorium this week, he or she might be excused for puzzling over which band recorded "She's a Rainbow."

"We're not looking at it as a competition, like the winner or the loser," Knight told me. "We're just celebrating two bands that are important."

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