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.
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.