‘Pet Sounds’ vs ‘Sgt. Pepper’s’ vs ‘Smile’ – who had the ultimate psychedelic pop album?
We recently posted a year-by-year breakdown of the parallels and friendly competition within The Beatles and The Beach Boys' careers. Both bands were racing to release the ultimate pop album, and it peaked with the releases of 'Pet Sounds' and 'Sgt. Pepper's' and the abandonment of 'Smile.' Here's our segment on that crucial moment in pop history:
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.
Read the rest here. Also browse the selection of Beach Boys and Beatles vinyl in our store.