Paul McCartney vs. Brian Wilson: A Rivalry That Inspired Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper, and Other Classic Albums

One could argue that the album as we know it didn’t exist before the mid-1960s. As a medium of recorded music, the “long-playing” 33 1⁄3 rpm record was introduced in 1948, and the market proved quick to take it up. A great many musicians recorded LPs over the following decade and a half, but these were produced and consumed primarily as bundles of individual songs. The heyday of radio, which lasted into the 1950s, imbued the single — especially the hit single — with enormous cultural power. Through that zeitgeist rose the Liverpudlian quartet known as the Beatles, the very band who would go promptly on to transcend it.

In this version of music history, the first true album was the Beatles’ Rubber Soul. When it came out in 1965, it introduced to a vast listening public the possibilities of the LP as a coherent art form in itself. At that point the Beatles had already been making hit records for a few years, as, on the other side of the pond, had a southern Californian singing group called the Beach Boys.

Given each act’s ever-growing prominence and the unprecedented internationalization of pop culture then underway, it was only a matter of time before their musical worlds would collide. Decades later, Beach Boys mastermind Brian Wilson would remember his first listen to Rubber Soul as follows: “It just totally took my mind away” — a sensation back then sought along many avenues, chemical as well as cultural.

Though Paul McCartney has credited the effervescence of the 1960s to “drugs, basically,” the music he and fellow Beatles made was also enhanced by friendly competition with the Beach Boys, as detailed in the Jeffrey Stillwell video essay above. To Rubber Soul the Beach Boys responded with Pet Sounds. “Oh dear me, this is the album of all time,” McCartney later recalled thinking upon hearing it. “What the hell are we going to do?” Their return volley took the form of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, which in turn sent Wilson into an Icarus-like flight toward the ill-fated Smile project. More than half a century later, some say we live in a post-album era. Even if so, the heights of ambition to which the Beatles and the Beach Boys put each other inspire artists still today — and their fruits will be listened to as long as recorded music exists in any form at all.

Related Content:

The Beatles’ 8 Pioneering Innovations: A Video Essay Exploring How the Fab Four Changed Pop Music

How the Beach Boys Created Their Pop Masterpieces: “Good Vibrations,” Pet Sounds, and More

The Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson & Beatles Producer George Martin Break Down “God Only Knows,” the “Greatest Song Ever Written”

How The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band Changed Album Cover Design Forever

The Making (and Remaking) of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, Arguably the Greatest Rock Album of All Time

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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  • Michael Jameson says:

    How ridiculous!
    There never was any
    ” Rivalry between McCartney and Wilson ‘ !

  • Art Estherton says:

    The notion that the “album” didn’t exist until the ’60s is untrue; Frank Sinatra made many full albums, designed to hang together (you could even call them “concept albums”) during the 1950s: “Songs for Swingin’ Lovers,” “In the Wee Small Hours,” “Only the Lonely,” etc.

  • Scott Fort says:

    Michael Jameson, there absolutely was a rivalry between Paul and Brian. The 2 men themselves have confirmed it, as well as others such as George Martin.

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