Here’s an obvious truth: although they covered a lot of ground over many years (not enough, in the case of The Beatles), The Beatles always sound like The Beatles, and The Rolling Stones always sound like The Rolling Stones.
But here’s the thing: what made them so darn good is that they could do anybody else. The Beatles do Roy Orbison and come up with Please Please Me. They do Dylan and come up with You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away. They start jamming Fleetwood Mac’s Green Manalishi and arrive at Sun King.
Same thing with The Stones. While always true to their blues roots, they’ve absorbed and played back: Rock and Roll, British Invasion, Country, Folk Rock, Psychedelic, Hard Rock, Jazz Fusion – and just about everything that ever came out of Motown, Memphis and Muscle Shoals. I know some cynics who think The Stones sold out and became silly by trying to stay relevant in the late 70’s as the world shifted into Disco and then 80’s R&B, but I disagree.
What I hear is a great band saying, “Yeah, we can do that. Listen!” And then they prove it by serving up a classic example of the style. But even as the do that, they remind you they’re still The Stones. The riffs, the grit, the guitar bi-play, the self-caricaturing vocals – they’re all there. Miss You is both vintage Disco and vintage Stones. Rock and A Hard Place sounds like it could have been recorded by Robert Palmer, but the presence of Keith and Ronnie make it better. And just to drive the point home, they give us Sad Sad Sad on the same album. “So much for this ‘new’ R&B thing. Now here’s some rock and roll.”
Paul McCartney’s solo career proves that if The Beatles had lasted longer, they too would have remained relevant by continuing to listen to the new music around them, absorbing it, and the giving it back to us as fresh magic.
The Beatles and The Stones prove that you develop your own style by absorbing the music around you, and you evolve that style by continuing to listen.