Yeah, I know– I have three beers and I go on and on about how Brian Wilson is the greatest songwriter of the rock/pop era and how he was way ahead of his time and never got the credit he was due but things are getting better as more people see the light blah blah blah– and if you knew me best when I was younger than 18 (my age upon hearing Pet Sounds), then I was completely sober all the time and going on and on about how John and Paul were the #1 and #2 songwriters of the rock/pop era hands down and how everything else pretty much sucked, excepting some bands like Led Zeppelin or The Who, depending on what grade I was in. So what am I thinking these days, you’re dying to know?
The other day I was eating a sub from Harris Teeter in the adjoining Starbucks at Cameron Village so that I could sit and inhale my lunch immediately (well, after paying a couple bucks to become an actual customer at Starbucks) when all of a sudden the Beatles started playing. Can you believe it? It’s not like they’re an industry unto themselves with entire video games or hit plays or movies centered around them and their music, so why should Starbucks, an industry unto itself, start playing most of Magical Mystery Tour and Sgt. Pepper and even some surrounding singles back-to-back (I was in there for a while)? I can’t be sure, but I suspect it has something to do with their entire music library being digitally remastered (again) and repackaged (again) for an even newer generation to enjoy the timeless genius of hits like “Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da” and “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”. I am picking on them now, and those songs are by most bands’ standards unrepeatable masterpieces, but I am tired of the ubiquitous Beatles and their incessant repackaging for newer and newer generations (e.g. Target commercials; that stupid Cirque du Soleil crap), especially when part of their success came at the expense of another, lone songwriter– Brian Wilson.
Blaming the Beatles for all that ails the Beach Boys’ legacy would be like blaming a ham sandwich for the death of a pig (Paul, in particular, is very fond of Pet Sounds and has spoken extensively about its influence on his music), but that Pet Sounds was nearly scrapped in 1966 but today consistently tops the list for best pop album of all time indicates that there is blame to be had somewhere, and I think it belongs to the execs at Capitol Records. Capitol Records, the undisputed king of proving money destroys art, underfunded and all but ignored American acts during the British Invasion that the Beatles started in 1964. The Beach Boys, an act that, to Capitol’s credit, were picked up and marketed (and cashed in on heavily) starting in 1962, always relied on hits to sell albums but when the Beatles came along and not only had hits but entire albums of solid, cutting-edge songs (Rubber Soul inspiring Pet Sounds directly), the money never stopped pouring in– and that’s a good thing. The bad part is that upon being inspired by the Beatles (like everyone else) Brian hit a wall when it was his turn to push pop music forward; he could not leave his role of perpetual hit-maker and become an album-maker like the Beatles because of serious setbacks from the philistines in charge at Capitol. Likewise– and this is the real death knell– he could not convey his vision to the Beach Boys when he made Pet Sounds; it fell on deaf ears almost everywhere. He persisted and got his masterpiece released on a “trust me just this once” deal and the world is so much the better for it. Pet Sounds, in my mind, is the unrivaled peak of popular music, dense with beauty, effortlessly complex, and as fresh and exciting on my last listen as it was on my first. Not even a collection of the Beatles’ 13 best songs taken one at a time can add up, and that’s why I consider Brian Wilson to be the best songwriter in popular music history.
It sounds like I’m ready to announce (mostly to myself) which band takes the title of “Best Ever”– not so fast. The Beatles are not the most popular band in history just because they were cute and got lucky; they were extraordinary songwriters, performers, innovators and everything. They were the complete package, the quadruple whammy, the one-two-three-four punch and all that and there may never be another band as deserving of wealth and admiration as they, especially John and Paul. They were the first to do this, the only ones to do that, and the last ones to have done still more things, and they did it all in about eight years. They won my heart at an early age and from the way my eyes were welling and feet were tapping to “Getting Better” in Starbucks the other day, they’ve still got it.
So what do I do? Is it persistence of quality that makes someone the best, or the pinnacle of quality? I’ll use another world, the food world, to answer that question. Suppose I was trying to pick the best restaurant instead of the best band. On one side I would have a restaurant where I knew I could go in, point to an item on the menu and get a superb meal every time, and then suppose there’s another restaurant across the street that serves but one dish that I enjoy, but that dish is the best food I’ve ever had: nothing at the first restaurant can satisfy quite like the one dish at the second. But can I say for sure that the second restaurant is better (not objectively, of course)? I’ll consider what I do in practice: I tend to eat the same thing every time at any restaurant I frequent, which means that I value more the few items that are particularly enjoyable rather than the variety of great choices available at a given restaurant, which means that I would be eating one thing consistently no matter which restaurant I visited. Since whatever I ordered at the first restaurant would be less enjoyable than the unbeatable dish at the second. It all comes down to the consistency with which I enjoy the pinnacle of quality in Pet Sounds, not the consistency of quality in the Beatles’ catalog. The restaurant example is not perfect, as I surely don’t listen only to Pet Sounds and never to the Beatles, and there is so much more to the Beach Boys than that one album, but I think it works for highlighting what I value at any given moment.
So there, I’ve said it: I think the Beach Boys are better than the Beatles.