With ‘Help!’ and ‘Summer Days,’ The Beatles & The Beach Boys were on the cusp of their masterpieces
We recently posted a year-by-year breakdown of the parallels and friendly competition within The Beatles and The Beach Boys' careers. By the time 'Rubber Soul' came out, the era of album-oriented pop had begun and both bands were racing to release the ultimate pop album, but right before that, 'Help!' and 'Summer Days (and Summer Nights!)' found both bands on the cusp of their masterpieces. Here's our segment on that crucial moment in pop history:
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.