The Rolling Stones: In the Shadow of the Beatles Again?

Lead singer of British band Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger, performs at the Rock in Rio Lisboa music festival at Bela Vista Park
Lead singer of British band Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger, performs at the Rock in Rio Lisboa music festival at Bela Vista Park in Lisbon on May 29, 2014. Rock in Rio runs from May 25 to June 1, 2014. AFP PHOTO / PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA (Photo credit should read PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA/AFP/Getty Images)

It's been 50 years since the Rolling Stones released their debut album in the United States. Entitled England's Newest Hit Makers and released on May 30, the LP rose to number eleven during the summer of 1964. This past February witnessed a flurry of activity in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 -- an event that seemed to change pop music forever. In many ways the Beatles and Stones define the British invasion of the mid 1960s; so considering the recent frenzied hubbub over the Fab Four, where is the laudatory fuss over the Stones' 50th anniversary? In part, the lack of attention to this rock semicentennial is due to the Stones themselves declaring 2012 to be their 50th anniversary year, celebrating their formation and first gigs back in 1962 with a coffee-table book, a worldwide tour, and a greatest hits album. But part of the problem is also that 1964 was only moderately successful for the Stones in America -- a year in which the London quintet were very much in the shadow of the Beatles. Five decades later and after proving themselves one of the most popular and durable rock bands of all time, are the Stones once again taking a backseat to the Liverpool mop-tops?

In the year or so leading up to their breakthrough February performance on American television, the Beatles enjoyed tremendous success in Britain with a series of hit singles and high-profile performances. The band's impact in the UK throughout 1963 created opportunities for a crush of English beat-music bands, one of which was the Rolling Stones. Emerging from a London scene of blues enthusiasts, the Stones hit number 21 in the UK charts with a cover of Chuck Berry's "Come On" in the summer of 1963, and notched a number-12 single later in the year with the Lennon and McCartney-penned "I Wanna Be Your Man." By the spring of 1964, the British version of their debut album was topping the charts in England. When the Beatles' UK success expanded to the U.S. in 1964, it opened the door to the American pop market for British rockers in an unprecedented way. Bands like The Dave Clark Five, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and the Animals enjoyed hits in the U.S. with "Glad All Over," "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying," and "House of the Rising Sun." While the Stones also benefitted from this new teen-pop craze for all things British, their American success was not as immediate nor their rise as rapid as that of other UK groups, some of whom are all but forgotten today.

The Stones' debut single in the U.S. was their cover of Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away." Released two months before their first album in early March of 1964, it rose only as high as number 44 in the American charts. By the fall of that year, however, things were finally beginning to look up for the band. "Time Is On My Side," the Stones' fourth U.S. single, peaked at number six in the U.S. and the second album, 12 x 5, hit number three. By comparison, the Beatles had notched three number-one albums in the U.S. by the end of 1964 and four number-one singles. During one April week of that year, the Fabs even had twelve singles on the U.S. charts at once, including the top five positions. Remembering the Stones' first tour of the U.S. in the summer of that year, Keith Richards remarks, "Back in England we had a number-one album, but in the middle of America nobody knew who we were." Bill Wyman describes it as "a very disappointing tour," and Mick Jagger quipped at the time, "We feel we've been given the business here." There was definitely some American success for the group in 1964, but it was not consistent.

Things would soon improve for the Rolling Stones; the band's first chart-topping single in the U.S., "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," was released in the summer of 1965. Combined with the success of the band's fourth US album, Out Of Our Heads, the Stones finally began to enjoy a level of popularity in the States that was comparable to that of the Beatles. The Stones famously played the bad boys in contrast to the good-boy image projected by the Beatles. The fact that "Satisfaction" provocatively dealt with sexual frustration only reinforced the group's hoodlum credentials. Playing up the image of the Stones as invading barbarians, Lillian Roxon would later write that in contrast to the "adorable little wind-up" Beatles, "the hateful and rasping Stones were bent on rape, pillage, and plunder." Among some teenagers it became a point of pride to be either a Stones fan or a Beatles fan -- how you came down on this issue, many kids thought, said a lot about who you were. Maybe this wasn't exactly "Stones-mania," but clearly the band had now achieved at least some degree of parity with the Beatles.

The Stones would go on to enjoy enormous success in the U.S. during the second half of the 1960s, buoyed by a string of hit singles and albums, and with fan excitement fueled by a series of riotous performances. Despite their towering stature during this period, however, the Stones never fully emerged from the Beatles' shadow during that decade. The Beatles broke up in 1970 and it's almost as if this event lifted an artistic and creative burden from the Stones, freeing the group to come completely into their own as a band. Already as early as mid-1968, tracks such as "Jumpin' Jack Flash" and "Street Fighting Man" give strong indications of the band that would record classic albums like Sticky Fingers and Exile On Main Street in the 1970s. They would ultimately be considered by many to be the World's Greatest Rock and Roll Band and comparisons to the Beatles would seem irrelevant. But that's not the way it looked 50 years ago.

The Stones have been a significant force on the American rock music scene and their history begins, in the United States at least, in 1964. This is certainly an anniversary that deserves celebrating. So here's to 50 years of the Rolling Stones in American pop -- it's been a gas, gas, gas.