Beatles vs Beach Boys: a brief history of the greatest rivalry in pop innovation
Beatles vs Stones may be the most well-known rivalry in the history of pop music, but it's a rivalry that always seemed a little superficial, more based on image and stylistic preferences than anything else. It's easy to see why those two extremely popular British bands were pitted against each other, but when it came to innovations in the songwriting, arrangements, and production of pop music in the 1960s, The Beatles' greatest rivals were The Beach Boys.
Like The Beatles and the Stones, The Beatles and The Beach Boys weren't actually enemies; they were friends and they were both fans of -- and influenced by -- each other's music. Their creative rivalry wasn't invented by the press like Beatles vs Stones partially was; it was a very real competition that existed at every turn of each band's career. The Beatles' Rubber Soul inspired Brian Wilson to write Pet Sounds, which in turn was a massive influence on Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and its pre-release, non-album single "Strawberry Fields Forever," the very song that caused Brian to abandon his storied Smile album, claiming The Beatles had already achieved what Smile had set out to do. Pop music was advancing so quickly in the 1960s, and it was largely because its two leading bands were constantly trying to outshine each other.
Like any music rivalry, there's a valid argument to be made no matter which side you choose. The real winners are us, the listeners, who get the benefit of hearing all the great music that came out of this friendly competition. It's times like these that we end up with some of the best music ever written.
Beatles vs Beach Boys may be a rivalry that ended over 50 years ago, but you can spend a lifetime talking about it, so we decided to take a closer look at the creative competition these two bands were in throughout the 1960s. The peak of their rivalry was between 1964 and 1967, but we'll also be looking at the leadup and the aftermath with this year-by-year breakdown, which begins in 1962 (the year The Beatles released their first single and The Beach Boys released their first album) and ends in 1970 (the year The Beatles released their final album). So much happened in that eight-year period and this one article can't cover it all, but we tried to focus on the key moments between the two bands in the race to write the world's greatest pop album.
1962 - The Beginning
By 1960, rock and roll might've seemed like it had run its course, following the deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper on the day that music died, the death of Eddie Cochran, the arrest of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis' marriage scandal, Elvis getting drafted, and Little Richard retiring. Its impact -- of course -- was far from over, and in the early 1960s, new bands all around the world had begun reshaping the genre in different ways. In California, The Beach Boys fused it with doo-wop and surf music, and in Liverpool, The Beatles fused it with skiffle and their homegrown Merseybeat. The Beach Boys achieved local success with their debut single "Surfin'" in 1961, which was followed in 1962 with their debut album Surfin' Safari and its even more popular title track. That same year, The Beatles put out their debut single, "Love Me Do," an instant local hit for them as well. 1963 brought The Beatles first two albums (Please Please Me and With the Beatles) and three new Beach Boys albums (Surfin' U.S.A., Surfer Girl, and Little Deuce Coupe), and the race to pop stardom was on.
1963 - The Perfect Pop Song
The Beatles and The Beach Boys weren't actively competing with each other yet in 1963, but if you're comparing the bands, you have to compare their output from that monumental year. The rivalry would peak when Brian Wilson and The Beatles stopped touring in the mid 1960s, discovered marijuana and LSD, and became glued to their studios, obsessed with mastering the art of album-oriented pop. It's because of masterpieces like Pet Sounds and Revolver that music nerds became fascinated with these bubblegummy pop bands, but writing off their bubblegum eras means missing out on some of their most crucial music.
The Beatles and The Beach Boys' most critically-adored material is usually referred to as psychedelic pop, baroque pop, art pop, progressive pop, sunshine pop... the common denominator being "pop." By the mid to late 1960s, both bands had pushed the boundaries of pop music in thrillingly innovative ways, but their increasingly experimental approach to songwriting was always balanced out by the fact that they'd already perfected the art of writing pop songs. Before the long hair and the drugs and the concept albums, these two bands were making pop music at its purest and finest. The Beach Boys offered up timeless nuggets of pop music in the form of "Surfin' U.S.A.," "Shut Down," "Little Deuce Coupe," "Be True To Your School," and other surfing, girls, and cars-obsessed gems that married revved-up Chuck Berry riffs to doo-wop harmonies. Across the pond, The Beatles churned out "Please Please Me," "I Saw Her Standing There," "From Me to You," "She Loves You," "I Want To Hold Your Hand," and other sweet, catchy, hip-shaking love songs that the pop canon would be incomplete without. Both bands' songs in this era were short and simple, but that's all they needed to be to win over the hearts of 1960s teenagers and remain impactful on every generation that followed. And what separated The Beach Boys and The Beatles from their peers in this era was that both bands had multiple members who could really sing. These early songs were fueled by a knack for gorgeous vocal harmonies, and that aspect became more and more crucial as both bands expanded their sounds throughout the decade.
When The Beatles and The Beach Boys were writing these early gems, the idea of a "pop genius" as we now know it didn't exist, and neither band had the goal of becoming one at that point. But geniuses aren't born overnight; they get there gradually. When you look back on the music that both bands were writing circa 1963, you can hear the seeds of genius being sewn. For The Beach Boys, there was "Catch A Wave," a song that found Brian breaking away from Chuck Berry worship and beginning to toy with the unexpected chord changes that would inform his most innovative songs. Then there was "Surfer Girl," Brian's first great ballad and the moment he realized how powerful it could sound if he led a song with his falsetto. The most important Beach Boys song from 1963, though, was "In My Room." In hindsight, the gorgeous, introspective ballad was the first sign that Brian had an album like Pet Sounds in him, and to this day, it remains as stunning as anything on that album.
The Beatles, meanwhile, had also begun making the first steps towards pop innovation by their second album of 1963, With The Beatles. As Brian Wilson had done on "Catch A Wave," The Beatles began breaking away from typical rock and roll chord progressions on With The Beatles' fiery opener "It Won't Be Long," a song that sounded like a quantum leap from Please Please Me and still rivals their mid-to-late '60s material. With "All My Loving," Paul crafted a song that was smarter and more tender than anything he'd written for Please Please Me, and hinted at the many great Paul songs to come. George's one songwriting contribution, "Don't Bother Me," is the first sign that his own compositions would soon rival John's and Paul's, and it has a chilly atmosphere and introverted lyrics that looked beyond the sugary love songs that The Beatles were dominating the charts with.
1964 - The Race to No. 1, Marijuana, and the Departure from Bubblegum
The Beatles and The Beach Boys weren't actively competing in 1963, but by 1964, it was game on. The Beatles scored their first No. 1 hit in the U.S. on February 1, 1964 with "I Want To Hold Your Hand" (eight days before their legendary appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show), kicking off the British Invasion and lighting a fire under Brian Wilson's ass. "I flipped. It was like a shock went through my system," Brian said when the song topped the charts stateside. "I immediately knew that everything had changed." Brian was also growing tired of The Beach Boys' early sound, and wanted to push them forward in order to stay interesting and stay relevant. He was a huge fan of Phil Spector's "Wall of Sound" production style, and he wanted to introduce that heavily orchestrated sound into The Beach Boys' music, and he recruited members of Spector's Wrecking Crew to help him do so. One of the first songs he recorded with The Wrecking Crew was "I Get Around." It was his most ambitious composition yet, with multi-layered arrangements, complex vocal harmonies, and slightly off-kilter chord progressions, all presented in a deceptively simple way that wouldn't scare off fans of their surfing and car songs. Three months after "I Want To Hold Your Hand" topped the U.S. charts, "I Get Around" became The Beach Boys' first No. 1 hit.
The Beatles were also looking to move past bubblegum in 1964. As the previous year's "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You" were finally topping the charts stateside, they were writing a new batch of songs that marked a clear progression from their first two albums. The more heavily acoustic A Hard Day's Night made the first steps towards the folk rock and proto-jangle pop sound that The Beatles would fully explore later on. The album is best remembered for its title track and "Can't Buy Me Love" -- both songs that felt like more refined versions of "early Beatles" -- but deeper cuts like "I Should Have Known Better," "If I Fell," "Things We Said Today," and "I'll Be Back" helped lay the groundwork for the eventual masterpiece that is Rubber Soul. The album's most forward-thinking song, though, is "And I Love Her." It's a hauntingly gorgeous ballad that John considers to be Paul's "first 'Yesterday.'" It stood out from everything else on A Hard Day's Night, and it remains one of The Beatles' most impactful songs today.
A Hard Day's Night's use of jangly acoustic guitars and rustic harmonicas proves that The Beatles were already getting interested in folk music before meeting Bob Dylan in New York on August 28, 1964, but -- as legend has it -- meeting Dylan really propelled them away from bubblegum once and for all. (And apparently the influence was mutual, as meeting The Beatles allegedly inspired Dylan to go electric.) Dylan was the first person to introduce The Beatles to marijuana, and the cocktail of weed and folk music left an immediate and obvious influence on The Beatles' second album of 1964, Beatles For Sale. More overtly folk rock and less pop than A Hard Day's Night, songs like "I'm A Loser," "I'll Follow The Sun," and "Every Little Thing" didn't just lay the groundwork for Rubber Soul; those songs could've fit right on that album without anyone batting an eye.
Brian Wilson started smoking pot in 1964 too, and as with The Beatles, it had an immediate impact on his songwriting. One of his earliest weed-induced compositions was "She Knows Me Too Well," released in 1964 as the B-side to "When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)." (Both songs would re-appear on the following year's Today!.) With its melancholic tone, lush harmonies, self-deprecating lyrics and Brian's soaring falsetto, it sounds like a dry run for Pet Sounds, and it's every bit as good as any song on that album. It's the most "proto-Pet Sounds" song The Beach Boys released that year, but it isn't the only one. The unique chord changes and airy harmonies of "The Warmth of the Sun" (which was inspired by the JFK assassination, not beach weather) bridged the gap between a ballad like "In My Room" and one like "She Knows Me Too Well," and 1964's All Summer Long began The Beach Boys' path towards album-oriented pop. It's not as perfect as Today! or Pet Sounds, but it pushed The Beach Boys away from the "singles + covers and filler" formula of their earliest albums, just like For Sale did for The Beatles. Ballads like "We'll Run Away" and "Girls on the Beach" are some of the most purely beautiful pre-Pet Sounds Beach Boys songs, and the Wrecking Crew-aided arrangements of the title track helped push The Beach Boys away from guitar/bass/drums rock just as much as "I Get Around" did. Nothing The Beach Boys or The Beatles released in 1964 is as monumental as Pet Sounds or Rubber Soul or Revolver, but looking back on this transitional period reminds you that the road to those masterpieces is just as rewarding as the albums themselves.
1965 - Today! and Summer Days (And Summer Nights!) vs Help! and Rubber Soul
Intentionally or not, Today! always felt like The Beach Boys' answer to Beatles For Sale. The albums arrived three months apart, they were the first since each band started smoking pot, and both albums came after a period of exhaustion for their creators, resulting in a more somber tone and marking a drastic departure from each band's early hits. Rubber Soul would be the moment that the singles era ended and the album era began, and neither Today! nor For Sale were fully there yet, but they were getting close, and it's very possible that Rubber Soul would've turned out differently without the influence of Today!. It's also very possible that Pet Sounds wouldn't have happened if Brian didn't test the waters with Today!.
Brian had already been employing members of The Wrecking Crew the previous year, but on Today!, he was relying on them much more heavily, and it allowed him to start crafting the kind of orchestral baroque pop that he'd perfect on Pet Sounds and that The Beatles would take massive influence from. The upbeat side A of Today! is still recognizable as the band who wrote "Fun, Fun, Fun," but the arrangements were more complex and the songs weren't about cars and surfing. It was on side B, though, that Brian gave the world its first taste of what would become Pet Sounds. The entire side consisted of melancholic balladry and introspective lyrics, and it marked Brian's first foray into concept-album-style songwriting. It may have taken Brian 14 months and one more album to get to Pet Sounds, but the second half of Today! proves the ideas were already there.
In the summer of 1965, The Beach Boys and The Beatles each released new albums a month apart from each other, Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) and Help!, respectively. For both bands, these albums marked the end of their "early years" and existed just on the cusp of the masterpieces that would quickly follow. They're also both underrated albums. Both still look like the "early years" on the surface, but they're a lot closer to Rubber Soul and Pet Sounds than they usually get credit for being. In both cases, it feels like the bands are caught between who they want to be and who they're expected to be. If Rubber Soul and Pet Sounds are 10s then these are 9s, but it's just as exciting to listen to these bands' thrilling transitional albums as it is to listen to their perfect masterpieces.
For The Beach Boys, nowhere is it clearer that they're caught between art pop and pop pop than on "California Girls." On the surface, this is the same fun-in-the-sun band responsible for all those early '60s hits, but dig a little deeper, and it becomes a mini epic that helped pave the way for songs like "Good Vibrations." By 1965, The Beach Boys and The Beatles had found a new drug, LSD, and Brian wrote the bulk of "California Girls" during his first acid trip. From the song's orchestral intro to its subtly complex arrangements, it's every bit as musically intricate as Pet Sounds. Elsewhere on Summer Days, Brian made The Beatles' influence clear with "Girl Don't Tell Me," a song that took direct inspiration from "Ticket To Ride" (which The Beatles released as a single in April 1965 before including it on Help! that August). The influence was undeniable, but Brian made it his own and the result is a song that sounds like nothing else by either band. (Looking back on it, I've always considered it to be ground zero for the first Shins album.) And while Summer Days doesn't have any particular section as cohesive as side B of Today!, it has plenty of moments that point towards Pet Sounds. "Let Him Run Wild" sounds more like a Pet Sounds outtake than any individual song on Today!, and the a cappella closer "And Your Dreams Come True" is a total perfection of the psychedelic harmonies that would fill Pet Sounds and its storied followup Smile. "You're So Good To Me" is not quite Pet Sounds but it's a clear maturation from early Beach Boys, and a song like "Amusement Parks U.S.A." showed how Brian was getting weirder -- it sounds like a creepy, evil, circus version of "Fun, Fun, Fun."
Like Summer Days, Help! sounds more like a collection of new ideas than like the cohesive concept albums that would follow it, but those ideas were among The Beatles' best and most groundbreaking. Help!'s most significant stop on the road to "later Beatles" is "Yesterday," a timeless, gorgeous ballad and the first Beatles song to utilize string arrangements, paving the way for the baroque pop songs that would fill their next few albums. (Were they inspired by side B of Today!?) Help! pushed The Beatles more overtly into folk rock territory with songs like the countrified Paul classic "I've Just Seen A Face" and the most explicit Bob Dylan worship of John's career on "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away." John made his first lyrical mention of getting high on the woozy "It's Only Love," and George offered up a proto-Rubber Soul gem with the hazy folk rock of "I Need You." Even the album's two big hits had a greater depth to them. The title track is quite literally a cry for help, more wearied and introspective than the band's earlier love songs, and "Ticket To Ride" has an underlying psychedelic drone that sounds like a rough draft of Revolver.
By the end of 1965, The Beatles would release Rubber Soul, and everything would change. It was the first time that The Beatles -- or really any pop band -- treated the album as one grand statement, not just a collection of songs. And these songs were a seamless fusion of folk, rock, jangle pop, psychedelia, and more, without a trace of bubblegum. The influence of LSD was abundantly clear on the songwriting, and George Harrison's interest in Indian music inspired him to add sitar to "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)," kickstarting the raga rock explosion that become inseparable from the development of psychedelic rock. The hazy, druggy sound that would peak during the summer of love was in full effect on this album, the lyricism was deeper than ever, and the album was full of the soaring vocal harmonies that would inform the blossoming sunshine pop era. It seems safe to assume that those harmonies were at least partially inspired by The Beach Boys.
1966 - Pet Sounds, Revolver, "Good Vibrations," and the Arrival of Psychedelic Pop
The Beatles were listening closely to The Beach Boys when they wrote Rubber Soul, and Brian Wilson was listening right back. "Rubber Soul is probably the greatest record ever," Brian wrote in his memoir I Am Brian Wilson. "[It] came out in December of 1965 and sent me right to the piano bench," he said. "It wasn’t just the lyrics and the melodies but the production and their harmonies... [it was] almost art music." The song that came out when Brian went to his piano and tried to top Rubber Soul? "God Only Knows," which Paul McCartney later called his favorite song of all time.
"God Only Knows" is indeed one of the greatest songs of all time, but Brian wasn't content to stop there. He wanted to make a grand, album-length statement just like The Beatles did, and that statement was Pet Sounds. Brian was fully in the director's chair, handling songwriting, production, arrangements, and the bulk of the lead vocals (with lyrical co-writing by Tony Asher), and the result was a deeply personal, psychedelic, baroque pop album that pushed the boundaries of pop music further than he or anyone else had yet. There's not an ounce of filler, and -- with the help of over 40 session musicians -- it was some of the most intricately arranged pop music that anyone in 1966 would have heard.
Among those listening? The Beatles of course. The influence of Pet Sounds would fully reveal itself on 1967's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, but it already crept into The Beatles music on 1966's Revolver; "Here, There and Everywhere," which was one of the last songs Paul wrote for Revolver, was said to be directly inspired by Pet Sounds. Like Brian Wilson, The Beatles and producer George Martin were growing increasingly interested in string and horn arrangements on Revolver, which showed on the definitive baroque pop of "Eleanor Rigby," the french horn solo on "For No One," and the horn section on "Got To Get You Into My Life." The band and engineer Geoff Emerick were also learning to use the studio as an instrument, coming out with the backwards guitars of the psych-folk gem "I'm Only Sleeping" and the deeply psychedelic "Tomorrow Never Knows." George Harrison was even more into Indian music during the Revolver sessions than he was when making Rubber Soul, as heard on "Love You To," which didn't just use sitar but dove head-first into Indian classical music. The influence of LSD was prevalent all throughout Revolver (and non-album singles "Paperback Writer" and "Rain"). It was the most overtly trippy music that either The Beach Boys or The Beatles had released yet.
For all the books and documentaries and articles that talk about Brian Wilson's reaction to Rubber Soul and Sgt. Pepper's, he never seems to mention Revolver. Maybe that's because Brian's main goal in late 1966 was topping his own Pet Sounds. While he was working on Pet Sounds, he had already begun work on what would become the band's next single, a mini-epic that would push pop music forward once again: "Good Vibrations." The highly ambitious, multi-part, heavily-layered song came together in the studio over a period of seven months -- an unheard-of amount of time to spend on one song in 1966. From the vivid imagery in the lyrics to the arrangements, it embraced psychedelia more directly than Pet Sounds. It made historic advances in using the studio as an instrument, it helped popularize the electro-theremin, and its unique song structure helped pave the way for the progressive pop genre. It was not only acknowledged by critics and fellow musicians as a major feat in pop music; it was successful too. Unlike anything on Pet Sounds, "Good Vibrations" hit No. 1. Brian proudly marketed it as the first single of The Beach Boys' upcoming album Smile, which he promised would top Pet Sounds. It'd be an entire album as ambitious as "Good Vibrations."
1967 - "Strawberry Fields Forever," Sgt. Pepper's, and the Abandonment of Smile
As Brian was setting out to top Pet Sounds, so were The Beatles. "Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper's wouldn't have been made," George Martin once said. "I played [Pet Sounds] to John so much that it would be difficult for him to escape the influence," Paul said of its influence on Sgt. Pepper's. "If records had a director within a band, I sort of directed Pepper. And my influence was basically the Pet Sounds album."
It's easy to hear how Pet Sounds' baroque pop and The Beach Boys' harmonies directly impacted Sgt. Pepper's (and Paul has said Pet Sounds also influenced his melodic basslines on the album), but as they always did, The Beatles took it further. They continued to explore Indian music, folk music, harder-edged acid rock, circus music, vaudeville, and much more, and the way they fused it all together was seamless. The first single to be released from the sessions was a non-album, double A-side single "Penny Lane" / "Strawberry Fields Forever," and it was hearing "Strawberry Fields Forever" -- along with mental health issues and pressure from Capitol Records, Brian's father Murry, and Mike Love -- that caused Brian to abandon his much-hyped Smile album. As legend has it, Brian was driving with his friend Michael Vosse as "Strawberry Fields Forever" came on the radio. He pulled over, listened, and said to his friend, "They did it already - what I wanted to do with Smile. Maybe it's too late."
As we all now know, it wouldn't have been too late, but Brian was not to wrong to interpret "Strawberry Fields Forever" as yet another leap forward in this pop music race. It packaged together everything that was great about mid-to-late '60s Beatles in one song, from the baroque pop string and horn arrangements to the droning Indian influence to the vivid psychedelic imagery to the soaring, sunshine-y vocals. It's one of the most innovative and most gorgeous pop songs ever written.
Brian gave up on what would have been his masterpiece, but The Beatles moved right along with theirs. Sgt. Pepper's didn't include "Strawberry Fields Forever," but it achieved everything Brian thought it would when he first heard that song. If Pet Sounds was a concept album, then Sgt. Pepper's was more of a proto-rock opera. Tired of Beatlemania, The Beatles "played" the made-up band Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, and the album was presented as "a show," introducing you to the Lonely Hearts Club Band on its intro track, and then letting Billy Shears (Ringo's alter-ego) take it away on "With A Little Help From My Friends," and then allowing all kinds of creative pop chaos to ensue. There's not a moment worth skipping on Sgt. Pepper's, but The Beatles saved the best for last. They thanked you for coming on the penultimate track, and then gave fans an "encore" in the form of "A Day In The Life." It's a psychedelic, dream-like, multi-part pop song that rivaled "Good Vibrations." The bar for pop had been raised once again.
The Beatles didn't stop there. Before 1967 came to a close, they issued Magical Mystery Tour, a continuation of Sgt. Pepper's' whimsical psychedelia. It was originally conceived as an EP to soundtrack the band's trippy, Ken Kesey-inspired film of the same name, but it eventually was released as a full-length with their non-album singles from the era on side B (including "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane," plus "Hello, Goodbye," "Baby, You're A Rich Man," and "All You Need Is Love"). Some of the Magical Mystery Tour songs are even more far-out than Sgt. Pepper's ("Blue Jay Way," "The Fool on the Hill"), and all of them are just as monumental as the Pepper songs. In 1966, NME announced a tie for album of the year between Pet Sounds and Revolver. In 1967, as far as most of the general public was concerned, The Beatles had surpassed The Beach Boys by a mile.
It's one of pop music's greatest tragedies that Brian abandoned Smile. If he hadn't, there may have been another tie for album of the year in 1967... or maybe Smile would've won. We know now that Smile was as ambitious of an album as "Good Vibrations" was a single, and that it arguably did surpass Sgt. Pepper's in terms of pop music innovation, because the songs trickled out over the years, various versions of Smile were bootlegged and traded between Beach Boys fans, and then Brian released his own re-recording of the album in 2004 followed by the long-awaited release of the original Smile sessions in 2011. But in 1967, the only thing The Beach Boys had to show for it was Smiley Smile, a scrappy home-recorded album that included raw, stripped-down versions of songs from the Smile sessions, a few newer ones, and the single version of "Good Vibrations." (It also allegedly featured a recording of Paul McCartney chewing celery on "Vegetables.") The album was a commercial failure, and many who did hear it considered it an artistic failure too. But this eccentric album had its supporters (like The Who's Pete Townshend), and it went on to become hugely influential on the lo-fi psychedelic pop scene of the '90s and 2000s. Smiley Smile was followed in late 1967 by Wild Honey, which was cut from a very similar cloth but added in a soul/R&B edge (and a Stevie Wonder cover), and is also a lo-fi pop gem. Pop music history as we know it might've been a lot different if Smile came out, but everything happens for a reason, and Smiley Smile and Wild Honey have become a crucial albums of their own, even if most people in the 1960s didn't think they would.
Because Smile does now exist in just about complete form, it's impossible not to wonder what might've happened if it was released in 1967 as originally planned. It's truly the pop masterpiece that Brian always promised it'd be. It helped pioneer the use of song cycles within pop music (and was written with help from Van Dyke Parks, who named his own likeminded 1967 album Song Cycle), with multiple songs that flow directly into each other, songs within songs, and recurring musical and lyrical motifs throughout. It's full of breathtaking highlights like "Surf's Up," "Heroes and Villains," "Cabin Essence," "Wonderful," "Wind Chimes," and more, but it's really an album that you have to hear start to finish. Made up of countless recordings pieced together with extreme attention to detail, as well as some of the most complex arrangements pop music in the 1960s had seen, Smile was far more ambitious than Pet Sounds, and I'd say it was more ambitious than Sgt. Pepper's too. But with Brian's ear for melody and the trademark Beach Boys harmonies intact, it was just as accessible as both of those albums.
Because of Mike Love criticizing the direction Brian's songwriting was going in, Capitol Records pressuring the band to finish the album before Brian thought it was ready, Brian's growing mental health issues, and Brian feeling defeated by "Strawberry Fields Forever," Smile was abandoned and Brian never attempted something that ambitious again. The albums that followed Smiley Smile had similarly lower stakes, and The Beach Boys turned themselves into a nostalgia act by 1974, when they released the popular Endless Summer compilation, made up only of pre-Pet Sounds material. Unlike The Beatles, who followed Sgt. Pepper's/Magical Mystery Tour with three more canonized albums, The Beach Boys became primarily known for their earlier, simpler material. They were an "oldies" act by the time the members were in their early 30s. If Smile came out in 1967, all of that might've changed. The Beach Boys might've tried to top it again; The Beatles might've tried to top it too. The last half-century of pop music might've looked entirely different.
1968: White Album, Friends, and the trip to India
In 1968, it might've seemed like the race between The Beatles and The Beach Boys was over, and in some ways it was, but it's not that simple. Early that year, The Beatles made their storied trip to India to study Transcendental Meditation with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, and they were joined by a few other pop music icons, including The Beach Boys' Mike Love. (For all the deserved talk about how Mike Love hindered Brian Wilson's creativity, his trip to India with The Beatles did inspire some of The Beach Boys' best music.) The Beatles also wrote tons of songs while in India, many of which ended up on their self-titled 1968 double album, aka the White Album. One of those songs, "Back in the U.S.S.R.," was written by Paul McCartney as a friendly parody of The Beach Boys' "California Girls," and apparently Mike Love gave Paul some input on the song while he was writing it. Meanwhile, other Beach Boys members had also studied Maharishi Mahesh Yogi's teachings and attended some of his lectures (and the band later toured with him), and Maharishi ended up directly inspiring some of the songs on Friends, as well as the communal, harmonious vibe the band had while making it. Standout track "Anna Lee, The Healer" was inspired by a masseuse with a healing touch that Mike Love met in India, and of course the psychedelic album closer "Transcendental Meditation" took inspiration from both Maharishi's teachings and Indian music.
White Album departed from the concept album approach of its predecessors and was instead a lengthy double album where no idea was off limits. The Beatles tried their hand at so many different styles of music, from the "parody" songs like "Back in the U.S.S.R." and "Rocky Raccoon" to sleepy folk songs ("I Will," "Julia") to wacky psychedelia ("Happiness Is A Warm Gun") to the then-new genre of hard rock ("Helter Skelter") to ska ("Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da") to avant-garde pieces ("Revolution 9") to one of George Harrison's most beautiful ballads ("While My Guitar Gently Weeps"), and more, and -- because they were The Beatles -- it all worked. A less powerful band might've confused the public with an album this scattershot, but for The Beatles, it became known as yet another seminal masterpiece.
In some ways, Friends took almost the polar opposite approach of White Album. In other ways, it's more similar than it might seem at first. Like Smiley Smile and Wild Honey, Friends was a raw, intimate, home-recorded album, one that seemed intentionally anti-commercial. The Beach Boys didn't sound like they were competing with The Beatles on Friends, they sounded content with the fact that The Beatles would continue to dominate the charts and The Beach Boys would not. Where Smiley Smile sounded like a reaction against the failure to release a maximalist pop masterpiece, Friends didn't sound reactionary to anything. It sounds like a refinement of what The Beach Boys started on Smiley Smile, and it sounds like they were at peace with the idea of releasing music with much lower stakes. Friends feels and sounds like such a smaller album than White Album, but it shares White Album's approach of showcasing a hugely established band allowing themselves to do whatever they wanted. It also has some genre-hopping experimentation of its own, with the bossa nova of "Busy Doin' Nothin'" and the exotica of "Diamond Head."
At the time, Friends and White Album were not really competing anywhere -- not on critics lists and certainly not on the charts. But 1968 was a much different time, and today -- with the way the internet has leveled the playing field -- these albums should both be looked at as similarly great landmarks in pop music. Today, pop superstars and small indie bands regularly compete for spots on critic lists, Spotify playlists, and even at the Grammys. It doesn't matter anymore that Friends wasn't a commercial success, or that it remains overlooked even by people who like The Beach Boys. Its artistic merit still rivals that of the White Album.
1969: Brian's hospitalization, Abbey Road
Friends and White Album may seem more comparable half a century later, but even today, there's no denying that The Beatles had a much better year than The Beach Boys in 1969. The Beatles released the Yellow Submarine soundtrack album followed by Abbey Road, which is regularly (and rightfully) considered one of the greatest albums ever written. The Beach Boys were not so fortunate. Brian had already begun stepping back from his role as the band's mastermind after Smiley Smile, letting other members contribute songs and welcoming a more collaborative songwriting approach instead. But by the making of 1969's 20/20, Brian was hospitalized for his increasing mental health issues, and he was absent for much of the album's writing and recording process. Without his involvement, the album ended up with more filler than any Beach Boys album had in years. Of the songs Brian did contribute, "Our Prayer" and "Cabinessence" were tacked-on letovers from the Smile sessions, and "I Went to Sleep" and "Time to Get Alone" also pre-dated the 20/20 Sessions. (They were, however, among Brian's finest compositions.) The album's opening track "Do It Again" (co-written by Brian and Mike Love) was a conscious return to the band's early sound, and the only song from this album you're guaranteed to hear at a present-day Beach Boys concert, but it also made the first step towards establishing The Beach Boys as a nostalgia act, while The Beatles took a massive step forwards.
Abbey Road was yet another masterclass in innovation for The Beatles. With the whimsical psychedelia of the summer of love having worn off, and the end of the band's career in sight, they wrote an album that was more direct, more mature, and just as groundbreaking as anything they'd done before it. They helped shape progressive rock and heavy metal with the nearly-eight-minute "I Want You (She's So Heavy)," a song that was far heavier than "Helter Skelter" and most other popular music of the era too. The album features two of the best George songs ("Here Comes the Sun" and "Something") and the very best Ringo song ("Octopus's Garden"), and on side B, it features a medley of eight short songs, marking yet another monumental achievement in pop songwriting. (As far as any Beach Boys influence goes, I do wonder if Paul -- who was present at one of the Smile sessions -- was at all inspired by that album's song cycle approach for the Abbey Road medley.) White Album may have been scattershot, but on Abbey Road, The Beatles sounded as focused as they did on Sgt. Pepper's and Revolver, and -- as many of their previous albums had done -- Abbey Road set the tone for yet another new era of music.
1970: The Beatles' breakup, Let It Be, and Sunflower
Abbey Road is the last true Beatles album, but there was of course one more album, Let It Be, which was largely recorded around the same time as Abbey Road, later embellished with arrangements by (Brian Wilson's hero) Phil Spector (which Paul and George Martin were not fans of), and then released after the band had broken up. It includes some of the band's best songs, like "Across the Universe," "Get Back," "Let It Be," and "The Long and Winding Road," but -- sort of like The Beach Boys' 20/20 -- it's an album of leftovers, completed without the band's usual producer. Still, Beatles leftovers are better than most bands' best albums.
Meanwhile, The Beach Boys were rejuvenated in 1970. They released one of their best post-Pet Sounds albums with Sunflower, with some great, fresh new Brian Wilson written or co-written songs like "This Whole World," "Deirdre," "All I Wanna Do," and "Our Sweet Love," an excellent Smile leftover that never made it on the eventual Smile release ("Cool, Cool Water"), and Dennis Wilson's "Forever." Dennis was kind of The Beach Boys' George Harrison, and "Forever" was his "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" or "Here Comes the Sun," not just his best song but one of the best-ever Beach Boys songs. (Brian said, "'Forever' has to be the most harmonically beautiful thing I've ever heard. It's a rock and roll prayer.") Sunflower and Let It Be are both a little uneven, and they both have moments of sheer brilliance. With Let It Be marking the comedown of an untouchable career, and Sunflower marking the quiet comeback of a damaged career, they kind of meet in the middle, and make for a neat ending to this two-band story.
Of course, it doesn't really end there. All four Beatles went on to have solo careers, and The Beach Boys kept releasing records. (And it's hard not to wonder if The Beach Boys' lo-fi home recordings inspired Paul McCartney's 1970 debut solo album, McCartney.) Some of the records that followed Sunflower -- like 1971's Surf's Up, 1973's Holland, and 1977's Love You -- offered up more moments of creativity on par with their '60s heyday. (The best Beach Boys song not on Pet Sounds or Smile is "'Til I Die" from Surf's Up.) The same way Ethan Hawke's character in Boyhood made his son an unofficial "final" Beatles album, The Black Album, with songs from the members' solo albums, you could make one last great Beach Boys album by compiling all the best songs they released in the 1970s. The Beatles neatly bookended their career, while The Beach Boys' career kept ebbing and flowing for decades, and Brian got some redemption for Smile in 2004 when he finally re-recorded it and released it as a solo album and performed it in full, with Paul McCartney and George Martin in attendance.
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