As a writer, I don’t like to use the word “cool”—unless, of course, I’m writing about temperature.
I think it’s lazy; there’s always a better word.
Nonetheless, “cool” is part of our lexicon and our culture, but what exactly does the word mean?
It’s easier to cite examples of cool then it is to create a definition. For example, Elvis Presley (before he started making movies), Jimi Hendrix, Joe Strummer, Morrissey, Kurt Cobain, and Jack White are cool. Pat Boone, Milli Vanilli, and American Idol contestants are not.
To further complicate matters, one can evolve in and out of “cool.” Neil Diamond is certainly cooler now than he was in the 1970s. Time has not been so kind to Ozzy Osbourne, David Lee Roth, and Dave Matthews.
We can parse the word “cool,” and argue over who deserves it as an honorific title, until the cows come home. I hope we do since it strengthens my claim of not using the word when I write (I seldom use it in conversation either).
Beatles or Stones
There is one avenue, a battle really, where we don’t need to spend any time defining the word “cool.” That’s rock and roll’s age old question of who is cooler: The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?
The question has been the subject of books, broken up friendships, and caused many a sleepless night (fans arguing until sunrise).
It’s time to ask the question again as both bands find themselves in the news.
In The News
The Beatles drummer Ringo Starr is being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist. The Beatles were inducted in 1988. The other three have also made it based on their solo careers.
In 2015, the Rolling Stones are touring and re-issuing their 1971 classic album, Sticky Fingers. Their tour begins May 24 and ends July 15. The Rolling Stones in San Diego is their first tour stop while Quebec is the last.
The last time a Rolling Stones tour hit North America was 2013.
More times than not when this question is asked The Stones come out on top. That’s because the usual metrics used in determining “cool” are in the Stones’ wheelhouse.
The Stones are bad boys who sing about sex, drugs, and partying. For example, The Beatles have an album called Let It Be while the Stones have one called Let It Bleed.
For some reason, such decedent and deviant behavior attracts the label of “cool.”
If you asked this question on the Rolling Stones Facebook page, or on the Rolling Stones Twitter account, you’ll definitely find thousands of fans that will agree. That should surprise no one. It probably won’t surprise anyone if causal rock fans pick the Stones too—being cool is the band’s reputation.
There are, however, a few things we need to consider before anointing either band as the coolest.
The Beatles were around for a decade. The Stones are going on 53 years.
It’s always easier to be cool in the short run. For example, we’ve all met what we thought was a super cool person at a party—we spend a few minutes with them over the course of an evening and we think they’re Lenny Kravitz. Then we spend an entire afternoon with them and realize they’re lamer than our parents—they’re Billy Corgan.
The Beatles broke up in 1970 and therefore never had the embarrassment of releasing "Harlem Shuffle” or performing “Love Me Do” in their sixties. The last image we have of The Beatles is the “Fab Four” in their late 20s performing on a rooftop. That’s a pretty cool image.
The Stones have been suffering through jokes about their age for the past two and half decades.
“Old” generally repels “cool.”
The Stones really didn’t become the “Stones” until December of 1968 when they released Beggars Banquet. If you check the Rolling Stones archive you’ll find that the opus contains the classic tracks: “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Jigsaw Puzzle,” “Street Fighting Man,” and “Salt of the Earth.”
Their earlier stuff was really good but they didn’t really find their iconic big stadium, bluesy rock sound until Beggars Banquet. The LP was released a month after The Beatles released The White Album.
Although the two bands were contemporaries their heydays were not congruent. The Beatles hit their zenith from 1966 to 1969 while the Stones hit theirs from 1969 to 1972.
In 1967, in response to The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Stones released Their Satanic Majesties Request. It was a blatant attempt to capitalize on the success of Sgt. Peppers.
Not cool, man. Not cool.
Finally, The Beatles were actual bad boys but were cleaned up by their management. The Rolling Stones were middle class kids going to art school billed as bad boys. A role they eventually grew into.
For example, in 1967, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, and Brain Jones were all charged with drug offences (Richards would go on to be arrested four more times).
As you can see, to answer our original questions we must ask even more questions. Do you take each band in its entirety? Do you compare their heydays? Do you ignore the 1980s and beyond? Do you count Bill Wyman?
To make everything easier just consider the following…
Regardless of who is cooler, we all agree they both bands are pretty cool. Now, almost all of The Beatles’ songs were about love. It’s not easy to sing about love and be as cool as they were.
When singing about love it’s real easy to become trite, maudlin, and/or saccharine. That never happened to John, Paul, George, and Ringo.
The Stones sang about love too but they sang a lot about sex and drugs. It’s easier to sound “cool” when singing about that stuff.
And that’s why the answer to our question should be The Beatles. But let’s not give an answer just yet.
The Cool Answer
My two favorite bands are The Beatles and the Stones. I also think they’re the two greatest rock bands of all-time. I list them as 1 and 1a.
So when it comes to cool why can’t we do the same thing? After all, that’s the cool answer.
By the way, the coolest member of either band is, by far, Stones drummer Charlie Watts.