In November, The Beatles begin work on their opus: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The sound and scope of the record is a direct reaction to Pet Sounds. Producer George Martin says:
“Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper wouldn’t have happened… Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds.”
On June 7th, 1967, Sgt. Pepper’s… is released. The Beatles intend it to serve as a concept album – as though it was recorded by a different, fictional band. The concept and instrumentation is revolutionary for the time and the album took over 700 studio hours to produce at a cost of $100k. The album was very collaborative between the band, something that was somewhat lacking on their earlier records.
Brian Wilson hears the record and immediately sets to work on a record to top it. While the band is touring without him, he holes up in the studio with the concept for an album entitled SMiLE. He enlists Van Dyke Parks to help him write the lyrics for the challenging album. The project begins to be an obsession for Wilson and he begins taking more and more drugs during the process. When the band returns and hears what he’s been working on, they don’t approve. Mike Love (Brian’s cousin) finds the music too difficult and hates the strange lyrics that Parks has written and Parks leaves the project. Wilson is so caught up in the pressure of his vision that he has a breakdown. He shelves the nearly complete album (LP sleeves had already been printed!) and the band instead records releases Smiley Smile and Wild Honey to diminishing sales.
Wilson is crushed by these perceived failures and locks himself in his room for three years, taking drugs, overeating and sleeping for days at a time. He is eventually diagnosed with mental illness as a result of this period. His involvement with the band is essentially over and so is the rivalry with The Beatles.
In 1968, The Beatles release the double White Album. The first song on the record is entitled “Back in the USSR” and features a musical homage to The Beach Boys with similar harmonies and guitar sounds. The album sells exceptionally well both in the UK and US. The Beatles have now established themselves as the biggest rock band in the world and The Beach Boys have begun their descent into mediocrity without Brian Wilson.
It was this span of just a few years that set the gears in motion for the face of music for the rest of the century.
The Beatles had a few solid years left before internal strife caused their breakup in 1970. The members each dabbled in solo careers with Paul McCartney’s being the most successful. Nowadays, The Beatles are regarded as the best rock band ever and certainly the most influential.
Brian Wilson eventually kicked his drug habit and mastered his depression enough to play solo concerts and release solo albums. In 2004, he was finally able to record SMiLE and release it to the hands of his happy fans whose desire to hear the lost album was so rapid that SMiLE had become somewhat of a legend. The album was hailed as a masterpiece and Wilson even won a Grammy for it! Unfortunately, his relationship with the rest of the Beach Boys is rocky even to this day.
In 2003, Rolling Stone magazine named their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. #1 was Sgt. Pepper, #2 was Pet Sounds (Revolver was 3rd). The two bands will be forever linked in the annals of rock history and so they should be. They are indebted to each other.
But not only did the bands feed off each other to produce better and better records, they were pushing themselves along too. Even something as simple as Brian Wilson recognizing that they write too many surfing songs and starting to write about cars is a great step. He eventually began writing songs about things like the Kennedy Assassination (“The Warmth of the Sun”). The Beatles wrote “She Loves You” as a third-person love song because they thought all their songs were kind of similar at that time. Both bands eventually pushed into even more advanced song structures and topics. I think that’s something that bands often lack these days, the ability to recognize when they are in a creative rut and push out of it. Bands need to push into new territory and see what they can really do. They need to take a look at how the great ones did it and find their own way. That’s how musical history is made.