Today I’m debuting part one of an essay about rock history. It will be presented in three parts so as to not be so dense a read.
Lately I’ve been having the desire to listen to more “vintage” music and less current music. Maybe it’s my longing for the snow to melt that is causing me to spin The Beach Boys this week, but in doing so I’ve remembered how much I love their music. When Becky and I have the radio on in the car, she can sing along to dozens of songs from the 80’s and I’m completely left out, while lyrics from the 60’s and early 70’s are often recalled quickly for me. Part of that is that I didn’t listen to the radio in the 80’s to hear the pop songs of that time. My family did occasionally listen to the radio, but it was always the local Christian station and never the Top 40. We did, however, listen to my mother’s collection of records that included some great music from the 60’s – 70’s. Indeed, those were the years when the musical landscape was not cluttered by so many minimally-talented bands that the good ones were hard to find. The good ones were the ones who actually got played on the radio. My mom has told me that surveys went around her high school asking which band was their favorite: The Beatles, The Beach Boys, Simon & Garfunkle or The Monkees? How did The Monkees get into that survey???
In the last issue of Paste Magazine, editor in chief Josh Jackson wrote a great little column about generationism in music. He said he’s sick of old-timers saying there’s no good music these days, but also acknowledges that the music of yesteryear is still worthy of acclaim today. I think that rock/pop music fans often fall into two categories: those who think only older music is worth anything and those who only pay attention to currently working musicians and dismiss the old. It is important to give merit to both generations and see how both are important to music as a whole. Paste’s example is Michael Jackson’s Thriller and how important that album is to today’s music culture. While I’m not a Jackson fan, I can appreciate the influence he has had. I want to take time to examine the real formative years of rock and roll though and specifically the rivalry between who I consider two of the greatest bands ever: The Beatles and The Beach Boys.
This is a fascinating rivalry that spawned some of the best rock records ever. These two bands were the only two that mattered for about 4 years. They each rose to fame during the same period of time and they were almost mirror images of each other reflected in the choppy Atlantic Ocean.
The Beach Boys were the first to a proper record deal. They signed their first record deal in 1962 when The Beatles drummer was still Pete Best! This was also before the fabled British Invasion, so American music was still being listened to in its own vacuum. When their first album (Surfin’ Safari) was released late in 1962, The Beatles were recording their first single (Love Me Do) in London after insisting on recording a song they had written and not a cover.
In 1963, The Beach Boys get their first big hit with Surfin’ USA. The album goes gold after selling 500,000 copies and peaking at #2 on the Billboard charts. The resulting press gets them their first headlining concert and a legion of devoted young fans. They go into hyper-mode and release two more albums that year (Surfer Girl and Little Duece Coup). Brian Wilson (the creative force behind the group) quickly realizes that all these surfing songs are great but are not as meaningful to kids in the landlocked states. He expands the spirit of their music to include more activities like driving in hot rod cars. The hits keep coming and the signature Beach Boys sound (layered harmonies and picky guitars) becomes instantly recognizable.
Meanwhile, The Beatles collect their UK hit singles into and LP entitled Meet The Beatles. They play their last show at The Cavern Club, where they were first noticed, and become a full-fledged hit machine. British fans place 700,000 advance orders for their new single I Want to Hold Your Hand making it the band’s biggest hit to date. Their records begin to be shipped to North America, but are not big hits here.
This brings us to 1964. The Beach Boys begin the year by playing their first international tour in Australia. They release The Shutdown, Volume 2 in April and by May they have their first #1 single: I Get Around. They go on to release three records in the same year and achieve their first #1 album with The Beach Boys Concert, a live album, in November.
The Beatles begin the year with a bang as well when, in February, they play The Ed Sullivan Show. Beatlemania is in full swing and I Want to Hold Your Hand is the signature song of the movement. The band plays a few concerts in the US pulling in bigger and bigger crowds. They begin to film the movie “A Hard Day’s Night”. They claim the top five slots on the Billboard charts at the same time. Finally, in August, they play a full on tour across the US and sell out show after show.
While The Beatles are touring the US, The Beach Boys are playing a promotional tour in Europe. This is when the two bands begin to be seen as rivals and the two best bands of the day.
In 1965, The Beach Boys released Help Me Rhonda which became a #1 hit. They also released the LP Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!) which became their highest selling studio album ever.
The Beatles invaded again with a concert in Shea Stadium for an audience of 56,000 screaming fans on August 15th. In December, The Beatles released their album Rubber Soul. Rubber Soul is the album that sparked the creative and popularity rivalry between the two bands.
…To be continued!