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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Comments (3)
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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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