It was the autumn of 1966, and Brian Wilson, the leader of the Beach Boys, had the Beatles on the run. After the May release of the Pet Sounds album and the October release of the follow-up single “Good Vibrations,” Wilson and the Beach Boys beat the Beatles as the top vocal group in a readers’ poll, which was published in the December 10 issue of the British music magazine, New Musical Express.
Just months before the fans gave their verdict, Beach Boy Bruce Johnston took a trip to London to promote the forthcoming release of Pet Sounds and played an acetate of the album at a party given by Keith Moon, the Who’s drummer and a Beach Boys fanatic. John Lennon and Paul McCartney attended the party and asked Johnston to play Pet Sounds for them. The world’s most famous songwriting team demanded total silence and listened to the album twice in its entirety, their mop tops bowed in, I imagine, concentration and reverence. After hearing the train and dog barking sound effects with which Wilson concluded “Caroline No.” and the album as a whole for the second time, the two Beatles sat down together at Moon’s piano, played some chords, and went off into the night to join fellow Beatles George Harrison and Ringo Starr and producer George Martin at Abbey Road Studios to record “Here, There and Everywhere” for the Beatles’ upcoming Revolver album (Jim Fusilli, Pet Sounds, Continuum, 2005; “God Only Knows” by the Beach Boys, songfacts.com).
With its prelude, close high-register vocal harmonies, and McCartney’s tender and introspective lyrics, “Here, There and Everywhere” is not only a Brian Wilson homage but also one of the Beatles most highly regarded and beautiful songs. Acknowledging Wilson’s influence on the song, McCartney himself has often cited “Here, There and Everywhere” as his personal favorite Beatles song.
But the Beatles preoccupation with Brian Wilson goes much deeper than “Here, There and Everywhere.” Like many people paying attention to popular music in 1966, the Beatles realized the innovative scope of Wilson’s accomplishment on Pet Sounds. As producer, composer, and arranger of Pet Sounds, Wilson collaborated with lyricist Tony Asher and the Beach Boys themselves to create a masterpiece that had all the catchiness of great pop music, the complexities of classical music, and a sophisticated and almost novelistic narrative arc that traced, in classic songs such as “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” and “Caroline No.,” the gradual and inevitable spiritual disillusionment of a young person.
And what did the Beatles have on Revolver? A collection of decent songs, yes, but songs that didn’t amount to much when listened to as a whole. While sounding great, the songs on Revolver just aren’t as deep as the Wilson-Asher numbers on Pet Sounds. Lennon, the band’s best lyricist, for the most part sings about drugs and how to get them on tracks such as “I’m Only Sleeping,” “She Said She Said,” and “Doctor Robert.” Harrison’s songs are, overall, simply angry. “Taxman” rings with the bitterness of an angry and stingy rich man who wants to keep all his money for himself. “Love You To,” despite its foundation in the sitars and tablas of Indian classical music, complains that “There’s people standing round / Who’ll screw you in the ground.” And McCartney’s songs are mostly lyrically trite and nostalgic, especially “Yellow Submarine,” “Good Day Sunshine,” and “Got to Get You into My Life,” which try on disparate stylistic hats but sound like parodies of Donovan, Motown, and Memphis soul. The Donovan-esque chorus of “Yellow Submarine,” for example, goes, “We all live in a yellow submarine, / Yellow submarine, yellow submarine, / We all live in a yellow submarine, / Yellow submarine, yellow submarine.”
McCartney fares much better on “Eleanor Rigby” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”: the album’s definite high points. “Eleanor Rigby” packs an amazing punch, with its narrative of a woman’s alienation and loneliness and George Martin’s baroque pop score. McCartney also succeeds brilliantly on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” surrounding Lennon’s Buddhist- and acid-inspired lyrics and bizarre vocal effects with tape loops – seemingly taken directly from Karlheinz Stockhausen’s idea book – that sound like an onslaught of killer eagles. Starr’s strong, pulsating backbeat also helps the song’s one-chord drone reach the stratosphere.
For all its glory, however, “Tomorrow Never Knows” unfortunately predicts the direction that the Beatles’ music would take in 1967: a heavy reliance on tape loops and sound effects to dress up songs that are, with the exceptions of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “A Day in the Life,” rather simplistic, such as “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!.” McCartney himself has regarded the influence of Brian Wilson’s methods – and especially the Beach Boys’ single “Good Vibrations” – on these two songs.
On “Good Vibrations,” Wilson, like the Beatles on Revolver, experiments with tape loops. But his method is different. On “Good Vibrations” and many of the key songs on the SMiLE project, which was finally released in October of 2011, Wilson records what he calls “feels” – that is, short puzzle pieces of music (recorded on individual sections of tape) that can be spliced together in various ways to create individual songs. Take, for example, “Good Vibrations,” which Wilson recorded in various sections – or puzzle pieces – over a period of seven months in 1966. The song “Good Vibrations,” which the Beach Boys released as a single in the autumn of 1966, is a sound collage and the result of Wilson’s putting together the pieces of the puzzle into one cohesive song that contains multiple key, tempo, and structural changes, as well as ethereal vocals and exotic instruments unheard of in the pop music of the day, such as the otherworldly Theremin and heavy cellos.
In comparison to Wilson’s achievement on “Good Vibrations” and the songs on SMiLE, the Beatles’ use of music recorded in sections is simplistic, to say the least. On “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which lyrically is among John Lennon’s greatest achievements, the band had written and recorded itself into a corner. Instead of truly following Wilson and intentionally recording “feels,” the Beatles recorded two versions of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” a soft, baroque pop version and a hard, psychedelic rock version. Lennon, famously, liked both versions and simply asked George Martin to splice them together. The resultant song, despite its profound lyrics on the formation of identity and memories of childhood, simply isn’t as musically adventurous or complex as “Good Vibrations” and other SMiLE-era songs.
The Beatles ran into a similar problem when they were working on “A Day in the Life.” Inspired by the death of his friend Tara Brown, about which he read in the January 17, 1967, issue of The Daily Mail, Lennon wrote and sang the first and third sections of the song. The Beatles intentionally left the middle part of the song unfinished, until McCartney came up with the idea of using a full symphony orchestra and one of his own unfinished songs to fill the gap. George Martin wrote the score for the orchestral section, McCartney recorded his vocals, and “A Day in the Life” was completed. But, again, the Beatles use of tape splicing doesn’t lead to the chordal and structural complexity of Wilson’s contemporaneous work.
What Wilson had, in fact, accomplished with “Good Vibrations” and the SMiLE songs, which McCartney heard on visits to Los Angeles, was to destroy both the Beach Boys and the Beatles because his music was so musically complex (in terms of voicing, chords, arrangements, and instrumentation) and thematically consistent. But the Beach Boys, of course, abandoned the SMiLE project and went into a steady decline of musically interesting but inconsistent and generally unpopular albums – Smiley Smile (1967), Wild Honey (1967), Friends (1968), 20/20 (1969), Sunflower (1970), and Surf’s Up (1971) – in which Wilson’s ability to participate waxed and waned according to the state of his depression and drug abuse. By the mid-1970s, singer Mike Love was in control of the band and had transformed it into a nostalgia act.
The Beatles didn’t do much better. After McCartney had returned to London having visited the Beach Boys during the recording of SMiLE, he knew that the Beatles had to make a record that was as conceptually daring and musically innovative as Wilson’s best work. Thematically, he and the Beatles first attempted a record about their Liverpool childhoods but only recorded three songs on the topic – “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Penny Lane,” and “When I’m Sixty-Four” – before they ran out of ideas. McCartney then came up with the idea of creating a concept album on which the Beatles would perform under a different name: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band. But John Lennon himself has pointed out that the “concept” of Sgt. Pepper, unlike that of Pet Sounds and what would eventually be released on SMiLE, “doesn’t really go anywhere. . . . it works ’cause we said it worked.”
Lennon is absolutely right. The songs on Sgt. Pepper jump from topic to topic, propound the hippie whimsicality and nostalgia of the day, and, with the exception of Harrison’s composition “Within You, Without You” and “A Day in the Life,” touch on topics of no greater significance than attending a circus (“Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!”) and repairing a hole in a roof (“Fixing a Hole”). Martin and the Beatles dress up many of the songs – and especially “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!” – with sound effects, but they don’t succeed in making an album that rivals Pet Sounds and SMiLE in lyrical and musical complexity.
Sgt. Pepper marked the demise of the Beatles as a functioning band. The band’s internal power struggles following the death of their manager Brian Epstein have been well documented, so I don’t need to go into them here. But what’s rarely remarked upon is the artistic failures of the albums The Beatles (1968), Abbey Road (1969), and Let It Be (1970). While these albums contain some beautiful moments and interesting music – “Dear Prudence,” “Julia,” “Something,” “Here Comes the Sun,” and “Let It Be,” in particular – they are scattershot affairs (The Beatles and Let It Be) or exercises in nostalgia (Abbey Road) and not the innovative masterpieces that deserve the high esteem in which most rock critics hold them. In fact, they’re very similar to the Beach Boys’ albums of the same time period: interesting but inconsistent affairs.
And in the end, as the Beatles would say, the fans of the NME in 1966 were correct. The Beach Boys, under the leadership of their songwriter, producer, and arranger Brian Wilson, were the world’s top vocal group. And they remain so to this day. The evidence is on the records.