Well, there’s no definitive answer, of course; if Beach Boys Today and Pet Sounds are your favourite albums, you’ve answered the question for yourself and good luck to you. One of the most brilliant things about art is how it speaks differently to every person. So-called “objective” answers are attempts to have the head override the heart – yet it’s the latter that really makes a work of art transcendent.
That said: what, are you kidding me? The Beatles, by the length of several thousand kilometres. In the ’60s, there was a lot of “talking-up” of the Beach Boys in US culture so as to provide some homegrown alternative to the British invasion, but around the world the most often-invoked rivalry between groups of that era is Beatles vs Stones. The Beach Boys are a fair way behind them.
That’s not to say that Pet Sounds isn’t a brilliant album – it is, though its appeal is still more, um, ‘niche’ than most appraisals would have you believe – nor that there aren’t a brace of terrific pop songs and great orchestrations in the Beach Boys’ back catalogue. Surfin’ USA! Little Deuce Coupe! Fun Fun Fun! I Get Around! Help Me Rhonda! California Girls! The astounding Good Vibrations! The sublime God Only Knows! Many of these are songs that are woven deeply into the tapestries of our existences, as one might say if one had Van Dyke Parks as a collaborator.
But the Beatles not only wrote equally brilliant pop tunes at an astonishing pace (I Saw Her Standing There, Please Please Me, From Me To You, All My Loving, A Hard Day’s Night, I Should Have Known Better, If I Fell, I Want To Hold Your Hand, She Loves You, Can’t Buy Me Love, I Feel Fine, Eight Days A Week etc were all released within two years, 1963 and 1964), they grew and innovated in a way that proved inspirational to virtually every other popular music act.
To wit: You’d be forgiven if after the above brace of songs you’d want to sit down for a year or so and take a breath, but the Beatles shot a film and released two albums in 1965. In August, the soundtrack to ‘Help!’ came out (containing, among others, the title track, Ticket To Ride, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, and perhaps one of pop music’s greatest change-ups ever – a quiet little ballad for acoustic guitar and restrained string quartet, now the most covered song in pop music history).
Then they went back into the studio in October – as you do – and released the resulting new single and album in December. (In those days, they didn’t put the singles on the album – they felt that was ripping the fans off who’d bought the single already.) So the double-A-sided single (We Can Work It Out on one side, Day Tripper on the other) came out on the same day as the album, Rubber Soul, which heralded a leap forward in recording, arrangement and songwriting techniques (the front-foot groove of Drive My Car, the sitar-laced surrealism of Norwegian Wood, the simplicity of In My Life, the cod-Euro stylings of Michelle, the philosophical bent of Nowhere Man among others). Brian Wilson was, as they say, well impressed, not only with the quality of the songwriting but with the notion of the album as its own entity, as a cohesive work of art (as opposed to a collection of singles). It’s an impression that’s not so much borne out in Rubber Soul’s lyric content as in its sense of adventurousness and growing fearlessness.
So Rubber Soul was a direct inspiration for Pet Sounds, which came out in May ’66 – but by that time the Beatles were already back in the studio recording Revolver, which came out in August of that year (leadoff single Paperback Writer, and the album included Taxman, Eleanor Rigby, Here There And Everywhere, Yellow Submarine, Got To Get You Into My Life and many others). Revolver concludes with Tomorrow Never Knows, which was so innovative that the Chemical Brothers virtually remade it thirty years later as Setting Sun and were *still* regarded as defiantly modern. And three months later – you guessed it – the Beatles were back in the studio again.
This time the sessions took six months, and the band were motivated to innovate *more* because of what Wilson and Asher had done with Pet Sounds. The notion of album as distinct conceptual entity – which Wilson had seen in Rubber Soul and made more explicit with Pet Sounds – was one they wanted to explore further, hence the release in June 1967 of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (and its leadoff single, the double A-side of Strawberry Fields Forever and Penny Lane). It had its share of great pop tracks and ballads (With A Little Help From My Friends, She’s Leaving Home, When I’m Sixty-Four etc), but it was the psychedelic edge to proceedings that drew most attention (Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, Within You Without You, Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite!, the title track bookends and of course – of course! – the epic closer that was A Day In The Life).
Part of what makes this period particularly fascinating and exciting is the spectacle of the Beatles and the Beach Boys – well, let’s be honest, Brian Wilson – both chasing artistic goals, in defiance of commercial considerations. Pet Sounds was something of a flop (except in the UK, where the music press championed it). Pepper was acclaimed, but its songs were not beloved by the public in the same way that early Beatles tracks were. Yet Brian was already attempting to push the envelope further in sessions for the Beach Boys’ next album, Smile.
The sad tale of that project is best told elsewhere by folks who know more of the details. I guess it’s possible to argue that both bands were then in the process of breaking down in different ways. Beatles manager Brian Epstein died, and the tensions between band members became destructive rather than creative, whilst Wilson’s own personal mental battles were becoming more pronounced (amid more band friction of their own). He had already effectively abandoned the Smile sessions by the time Pepper came out, and the relatively lacklustre reception for leadoff single Heroes And Villains sent him into a tailspin.
Meanwhile, despite their differences, the Beatles had already been back in the studio before Pepper was released – recording songs for the Magical Mystery Tour double EP (including the title track, I Am The Walrus, The Fool On The Hill) as well as leadoff single Hello Goodbye and standalone single All You Need Is Love.
The next year – 1968 – saw tensions rising during the sessions for double album The Beatles (commonly referred to as the White Album), but, y’know, it still contains Back In The USSR, Ob-La-Di Ob-La-Da, Blackbird, Birthday, Helter Skelter, Revolution and many other favourites – I’m just picking best-known tracks, but on the White Album particularly it’s the enormous range of individual album tracks that give the project its flavour. And I can imagine other bands of the time throwing down their instruments and complaining that the game was rigged when George Harrison started writing songs like While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Yeah. That band really needed *another* great songwriter. Oh, and earlier in ’68 there had been two standalone singles: Lady Madonna in March, Hey Jude in August.
Attempts to record the next album in January 1969 (with Billy Preston brought in as a circuit-breaker) kinda came to nothing. (Single Get Back was brought out later in April 1969; the originally planned album of the same name didn’t surface until later 1970, after the band had broken up, remixed and renamed as Let It Be, including the title track, Across The Universe, The Long And Winding Road etc.) Relationships were clearly fractured. So, fair enough, that’s it, eh?
Well, not quite. The band reconvened in February 1969 – just three weeks later! – under the guiding hand of their old producer George Martin, with the stated aim of making an album “the way we used to do it”. First, charmingly ramshackle single The Ballad Of John And Yoko came out in late May (featuring just Lennon and McCartney on all instruments); then, in September of that year, the album Abbey Road (Come Together, Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, Because, Oh Darling, Octopus’s Garden etc, as well as the extended medley of side two [You Never Give me Your Money/Sun King/Mean Mr Mustard/Polythene Pam/She Came In Through The Bathroom Window/Golden Slumbers/Carry That Weight/The End], and two contributions from Harrison which surely sent those other jealous bands off the deep end: Something and Here Comes The Sun).
It’s an *insane* amount of high-quality material to generate in seven years. Comparisons with other bands’ output always, to some degree, feel a trifle unfair; it so happens that their work ethic was very high, their purple patch was perfectly timed, their appetite for growth was prodigious, they turned out to be exceptionally talented songwriters and their love for the R&B at the heart of it all was genuine and shared. Couple that to the incredible timing of their emergence in a global sense – it’s kind of a miraculous fluke.
source : Quora