Guest post: Treadmarkz is a Human Beatles Encyclopedia and author of the weblog treadmarkz.wordpress.com
The Beatles competed to be the best ever since their days as the Quarrymen in Liverpool in the late 1950’s, and during their stints as a bar band in Hamburg, Germany from 1960-62. This desire to be the best did not stop in February 1964 when they were seen by 73 million people on the Ed Sullivan Show, or in April ’64 when all of the top five singles in the U.S. belonged to them. It didn’t stop when they were the first rock band to sell out a Major League Baseball stadium, when they rocked Shea Stadium in the summer of ’65. Desire, some might say ego, is what pushed them beyond teen idols to legend status.
In December 1965, the Beatles released the album Rubber Soul. The Beach Boys’ leader Brian Wilson would later say it was the first album he’d heard where every song “went together like no album ever made before.” It would greatly influence most of the recording of the Beach Boys’ own album, Pet Sounds, released in May 1966.
Pet Sounds was still very pop-rock, but in it, Wilson and the boys utilized extensive outside instrumentation normally not heard in rock n’ roll recordings. But it was the Beatles who had set that ball rolling with the strings in “Yesterday” and the sitar on “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” both in 1965.
Pet Sounds came out just as the Beatles’ work on their next album, Revolver really started to take off. On Revolver, songs like “Good Day Sunshine” and others emulated the Beach Boys vocal style, and “For No One” was in some ways indebted to the baroque musical stylings of Pet Sounds.
Well, with Revolver, the Beach Boys knew that the Beatles had taken it to another level. Pet Sounds may have been a very tight, unified album, but the Beatles managed to work endless styles of music into the mixture and still end up with an album that felt like it really fit together.
Wilson quickly set to work, earnestly trying to up the anty. He enlisted even more outside musicians, and more outside songwriters to help create a soundscape that had never been heard before. The album was to be called Smile, and was to be less of a collection of songs than an album-long sound collage. Then came February 17, 1967, the day the Beatles released the double A-side single “Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane”.
Brian Wilson was driving in his car one day when “Strawberry Fields Forever” came on the radio. He immediately pulled over to the side of the road to just listen.
After the song ended, he went to tell his bandmates and his other collaborators, “you know what, guys, let’s just forget it.” The Smile project was shelved, and a watered down version of it, called Smiley Smile was later released. Meanwhile, the Beatles released the iconic Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and, for the second time in their careers, became the new voice of their generation.
The Beatles themselves seem to have lost the spirit of competition after that. They released the double-EP “Magical Mystery Tour” and three more great albums before breaking up. Many argue that either Rubber Soul or Revolver were greater albums than Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was. But it was in 1967 when they truly reached the pinnacle, having shaken off all competition creatively.