Aug 222012

My parents had a family picnic this past Saturday. Early on, my sister, my wife, and I drove to the local ACME to pick up some last-minute party things. My sister had Pet Sounds playing in her car, and she asked me if it was possible that the Beach Boys might be better than the Beatles.

I hedged my bets. I acknowledged that the Beach Boys’ rich five-part harmonies can sound richer and more dazzling than the Fabs’ mere three-vocal frontline. But, I said, no one in the Beach Boys could sing loud, nasty rock ‘n’ roll like John Lennon.

My sister is four years younger than me, in her early 30s. I pointed out that the Beach Boys have so many albums, many of them with a lot of crap, but also a lot of great songs that people of our generation didn’t always get to here at first—like “Let Him Run Wild,” “Darlin'” and “Surf’s Up.” All we knew of the Beach Boys growing up consisted of their many ’60s hits on oldies radio, and of course Mr. Mod’s beloved “Kokomo.” On the other hand, the Beatles have fewer albums and, growing up, there was always a Beatles Sunday Brunch or somesuch weekly show on oldies, classic-rock or AOR radio stations. So once you get into the Beatles—as I did in fourth grade—it’s surprisingly easy to get familiar with the entire canon. This breeds familiarity which eventually can breed you-know-what, or at least make it difficult to hear those songs with new ears after x amount of years.

Now, I can think of at least one Townsperson who definitely prefers the Beach Boys. But, just as we once contemplated the ways the Kinks might be preferable in some ways to the Beatles, can we all think of ways that the Beach Boys might be better? Are, in fact, some of the preferable ways related to the weird lurking corners of the post-“Do it Again” era?

Incidentally, it’s no contest as far as my wife is concerned. She like the Beatles better, and thinks they were much more influential and significant. For example, she points out that the Beach Boys didn’t inspire male teenagers all over the world to stop cutting their hair.

Also, isn’t it funny that the battle is always “Beatles vs Stones,” rather than “Beatles vs not-Stones”? Some media narratives die extra-hard, I guess.

I look forward to your responses.


  55 Responses to “Beatles vs Beach Boys”

  1. As I await an answer on why the barber is using shears to cut Andy Partridge’s hair I’ll keep my initial thoughts on this subject short and sweet: If you don’t rock you don’t even qualify for consideration alongside the Beatles. The Beach Boys did many great things, especially in the years leading up to and through Pet Sounds, but they did not rock. The Beatles did everything the Beach Boys ever did and then rocked atop all that. “Nolo contendere,” as Roberto Duran once said.

  2. alexmagic

    But, just as we once contemplated the ways the Kinks might be preferable in some ways to the Beatles, can we all think of ways that the Beach Boys might be better?


  3. hrrundivbakshi

    I await EPG’s incendiary condemnation of what I am about to say, but: “Pet Sounds” is a superior album in many ways to what the Beatles were producing at around the same time. Not *all* ways, of course — but Oats is asking a grown-up question that seeks to identify the specific ways, if any, in which the Beach Boys were superior.

    To my ears, Pet Sounds is more sophisticated in arrangement and general musical/lyrical, uh, “maturity” than the stuff we find on “Rubber Soul.” Note that I absolutely adore Rubber Soul — but Pet Sounds sounds more personal, more rich, more contemplative, and ultimately more interesting and rewarding to me. I admit it scratches a Kentonite itch, but this isn’t all about charts and obscurity of harmony and structural elements. To me, it’s a very approachable “important” album, whereas Rubber Soul is brilliantly, catchily simple. There’s nothing wrong with that, but in terms of high-quality Kentonism, Pet Sounds can’t be beat — and the world does, in fact, need more than silly love songs to be all it can be.

  4. OK, to be fair to the topic, there probably are some ways in which the Beach Boys were superior to the Beatles. I was going to start with surf rock, but the Beatles would beat them at their own game with “Back in the USSR.”

    The Beach Boys’ lesser hits and deep cutz from their middle period are as good as similar tracks from the Beatles’ middle period. I’m thinking of songs like “Let Him Run Wild” and “That’s Not Me” compared with “Baby’s in Black” and “You Won’t See Me.”

    “Do It Again” nearly holds its own against “Get Back,” in the Back to Basics sweepstakes. Nearly.

    Here’s a clear-cut winner: “Kokomo” blows away any of those demos Jeff Lynne resurrected for the Beatles’ Anthology series. Hands down winner: “Kokomo”!

  5. Hrrundi is picking up what I’m laying down. Surely, there must be some other Townspersons able to put aside their Beatle-centric rose-colored granny glasses for a moment!

  6. The Beatles win hands down, but it may be more fun to dig around the nooks and crannies of The Beach Boys late 60s, early 70s records. As a teenager — I was able to keep a sense of discovery going much longer with the Beach Boys than the Beatles.

    It’s probably good that The Beach Boys never made a big effort at hard rockin’. One example of attempting an edgier sound that I think of right away is this Dennis Wilson song — All I Want to Do — off 20/20

  7. Without getting caught up in chronology, I think Revolver is the more apt comparison in terms of musical development. Even then you’re comparing a band that was kind of like Burt Bacharach and Hal David functioning within a broad group setting vs an actual self-contained band with 4 strong contributing members.

    To your point, I see what you’re saying HVB. The band dynamic between the groups was completely different. Pet Sounds was Brian orchestrating an album with at least equal contributions from his backing musicians. His actual bandmates were following the score. In terms of the Beatles, it’s as if McCartney, the most accomplished, Kentonian musician in his band, had the consistent emotional depth of Lennon. When Paul began dominating Beatles albums and pushing the musical arrangements further along similar lines the price was an increase in songs lacking lyrical content. For that one Beach Boys album the best parts of Brian’s leadership and vision came together. I would agree that Pet Sounds is the best solo McCartney album that Paul could never make. After that Brian quickly retreated into deep thumb sucking.

  8. I’m looking forward to your thoughts on this, Oats. Can’t wait, too, for someone to note the beauty of “Sail on Sailor” or Dennis Wilson’s solo album.

  9. bostonhistorian

    “Back in the USSR” is surf rock? C’mon.

  10. mockcarr

    I really wish I still had those glasses, these new sunglasses do not fit, and I find them quite dark.

  11. Speaking of Kokomo, have we noted the death this past weekend of Scott McKenzie, one of the co-writers of that tune and also pretty well known for San Francisco (Be Sure To Wear Flowers In Your Hair)?

  12. I forgot he contributed to “Kokomo.” At least the guy took part in writing one good song.

  13. Totally. Upon its release Dick Dale called it the “greatest surf-rock song of the last 5 years.”

  14. bostonhistorian

    See, that’s how I know you’re making it up. The top ten greatest surf songs of that period as chosen by Dick Dale would all be Dick Dale songs.

  15. BigSteve

    Looking only at the 70s, the Beach Boys are the clear winners. The sum total of Beatle solo albums pales next the BB albums from the same time period.

  16. cliff sovinsanity

    The Beach Boys had better Christmas songs.

  17. I would just like to move away from the Platonic Ideal idea of a rock band for a bit. I’m not saying all bands are equal, but is it really crazy to say that this band did some things better than the Beatles, the Platonic Ideal rock band for a number of townspersons?

    I know this isn’t something we really care about here, but it does seem like the BBs have a lot of songs that are more harmonically complex and interesting than the Beatles’ stuff.

    Here’s maybe a more concrete idea. I’m not a strict proponent of auteur theory, but I believe it has some merit, and sometimes it’s nice to give the auteur credit, just as it’s good to give the rhythm section some from time to time.

    The Beach Boys at their best are a triumph of their auteur’s vision. For a time, Brian Wilson had a clear and innovative idea of how to make his music. He had help from the rest of the band and the Wrecking Crew, but none of those other musicians would’ve been able to do it without him running the show, and calling the shots. And he did it all on crazy deadlines, two albums a year or whatever, with his shithole dad and others breathing down his neck.

    And even after he cracked, he could sometimes get it together for something like “Till I Die,” which is just a work of astonishing clarity and conciseness.

    And while the Beatles worked at their best when all four were on the same page, sometimes it seems like that wasn’t the case for long. Pretty soon, John, the nominal leader, is no longer interested but can’t quite quit yet, so Paul tries to soldier on, but he’s too pushy and condescending to make a good leader and he eventually just pisses the others off. I think all this starts with Sgt. Pepper.

  18. Sorry, I got it confused with what Sinatra said about “Something.”

    Clearly “Back in the USSR” is not a classic surf-rock song, but just as clearly its a tribute to the Beach Boys – and a damn fine one, if you ask me.

  19. It’s easy to agree with most of what you write, but despite my lukewarm love for The White Album and Abbey Road, to cite two late-period Beatles albums, when they weren’t all on the same page, there’s no comparison to each band’s body of work. I’m not meaning to slam on the Beach Boys as a whole, because I think they were great at what they did in their prime, but past Pet Sounds the quality of their work is inconsistent, at my most generous. Sure, they occasionally captured a snowflake to tape, but most of what they did from Smile on was a mess. I can’t help it that some of you embrace that stuff. You’re talking to the man who embraces Roy Wood’s Boulders and his own share of suspect albums. But this notion of “harmonic complexity” gets a little out of whack, as if we’re comparing the Beach Boys to the Stones or the friggin’ Animals. You can listen to any Beatles album with your labcoat buttoned up and not feel disappointed. Brian Wilson used more Maj7ths than the Beatles, but it’s not like he was flying a rocketship while the Beatles drove a jalopy. Past Pet Sounds (and during Pet Sounds – listen to some of the instrumentals while stepping outside the petting zoo, if you are able) a lot of the “harmonic complexity” of the Beach Boys becomes gimmickry. What song in the history of rock ‘n roll is more gimmicky than “Heroes and Villains”? I feel like the sheet music is being engraved in my forehead while listening to it. THAT’S the kind of music that drove Andy Partridge to pick through his own fecal matter. Meanwhile the Beatles were blowing the doors off the barn with seamlessly complex and emotionally rich recordings like “Strawberry Fields Forever.” Even the gimmicky “I Am the Walrus” delivers some meat, allows listeners the ability to truly wallow in its sonic mess. Do you ever feel like doing needlepoint while listening to that song? I don’t. I do, however, consider needlepoint as an alternative to focusing solely on “Heroes and Villains.”


  20. BigSteve

    I do believe that the Beatles were driving a jalopy in the area Oates is talking about. No one in the Beatles could have written a song like Don’t Talk Put Your Head on My Shoulder. I don’t think they cold even map it out harmonically. That song does things guitar players (like me) do not have access to.

    Though I think the BBs rocked harder at times than people give them credit for (and they swung harder — the drums in California Girls could only have been played by a seasoned American drummer), you’ve got to say the Beatles are superior in that area. The questions was ” ways that the Beach Boys might be better,” not “adding all the parts, which band is better in sum.” The Beach Boys are clearly better in terms of harmonic adventurousness.

  21. How quickly we’ve forgotten Aeolian cadences, BigSteve! Can we quantify the harmonic complexity of the Beach Boys relative to the Beatles? Honestly, how deep did their harmonic bag of tricks extend beyond the heavy use of Major 7th chords? I haven’t studied the sheet music, but to my ears it sounds like every time something sounds unusual and complex in a Beach Boys song it’s because they’re suddenly playing Maj7th chords. Otherwise their songs are loaded with the same 4-chord progressions that are the foundation of rock ‘n roll. Do the Beach Boys shift keys and time signatures the way the Beatles frequently did? How many times do the Beatles subtly shift keys, go from major to minor, throw in a short measure without interrupting the song, without announcing that they have entered the World of Musical Maturity that Brian so badly wanted to enter? I’m not trying to make this “Beatles vs Beach Boys.” I’m trying to throw some reason into the discussion. Must we get so hung up on supporting our “underdog” heroes at the expense of all that is truly great in the world that we start arguing in favor of a D-level Beach Boys track off Sunflower over a Beatles’ trifle like “Her Majesty”? Is that where we need to take this?

    Did the Beach Boys specialize in a certain kind of harmonically complex music that touched on deeply personal, outsider issues? Did they do this better than the Beatles? YES! I can’t argue that they didn’t. I argued that “Kokomo” was better than “Free as a Bird,” but no one gave me a high five for that insight.

    I’ve had it with you guys. I need to get down to Citizens Bank Park and collect my totally meaningless Hunter Pence bobblehead. Argh!!!

  22. I think both the Beatles and the Beachboys’s music definitely showed a growth in their sound. To me they shared in the sophistication of thei musical compositional development. Especiallly Norwiegan Wood, I am the Walrus, Hey Jude and some other recordings. Of course when many listeners think of Beachboys inovation the”Pet Sounds” album comes to mind. What I don’t understand is why “Yesterday” by Lennon/McCartney is the most rock song ever recorded with so many versions by so many singers. Personally I find it terribly depressing. “All my troubles seemed so far away. Now it looks like they’re here to stay. Oh I believe in yesterday. Yes I realize a lot of people think its singing of universal human emotion dealing with life’s major disappointments. I still think its a downer. I especially didn’t like it when it was played for my sister’s wedding. She and her husband requested “All you need is love” Can you imagine “All my troubles seemed so far. Now it looks they’re here to stay” the first song at a wedding. Getting back to the Beachboys. I love Darlng, its overall sound. Particularly its chord progression. Speaking of chords I think the best single note in Rock is in ‘Good Vibrations.” Its when they sing “I know she must be kind” That AHHH that follows. Ahhh what a great sound. She’s giving me excitations sounds sexy too.

  23. 2000 Man

    I can’t think of any way The Beach Boys could be better than The Beatles. I’m kind of ambivalent about The Beatles, but The Beach Boys are too close to grandma territory for me.

  24. “I was sitting at the breakfast table and McCartney came down with his acoustic guitar and he was playing Back In The USSR, and I told him that what you ought to do is talk about the girls all around Russia, the Ukraine and Georgia. He was plenty creative not to need any lyrical help from me but I gave him the idea for that little section… I think it was light-hearted and humorous of them to do a take on the Beach Boys.”

    Mike Love “Many Years From Now”, Barry Miles

    I’d believe this a whole lot more if Mikey had sued for credit by now.


  25. alexmagic

    I would agree that Pet Sounds is the best solo McCartney album that Paul could never make.

    I’ll take Ram over Pet Sounds. Also, McCartney II over Love You. I think there’s something to be taken from the notion – as far as the aim of McCartney and Wilson – that when Paul did go solo, he went in a different way completely than making anything like Pet Sounds.

    What I mean is, despite the easier story of Paul/Brian (and Paul being the one on record famously praising Pet Sounds), isn’t Lennon/Wilson the more true comparison in ’66/’67? Two guys who had been running the show who had trouble getting out of bed, and John’s directives of “I want to smell sawdust on the floor!” or “the sound of a thousand monks chanting on a hilltop!” seem closer to me to Brian’s Smile interests. I also think there’s probably a much closer production style between Pet Sounds and solo Lennon, I assume owing to the Phil Spector influences.

  26. Magic Man, I dig what you’re saying regarding the Lennon-Wilson comparison. While Antonio Bastardo was giving up a soul-sucking home run last night – or was it Papelbon – it occurred to me that my examples of seamlessly harmonically rich Beatles songs that compared favorably with those of the Beach Boys were Lennon tunes – “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I Am the Walrus.” Lennon was also the master of introspection within the Beatles, which was Brian’s other role in his band. It’s good to see you know your way out of the petting zoo.

  27. ohmstead

    To be fair I forced myself to listen to every track on Pet Sounds and it’s no doubt great stuff and an advance on prior work but I think Mike Love’s own reaction to it says it all:

    “…Lead singer Mike Love is reported to have been strongly opposed to it, calling it “Brian’s ego music,” and warning the composer not to ‘fuck with the formula’…”

    The Beatles without question.

  28. hrrundivbakshi

    To be clear, Mod: yes, Brian Wilson *did* write a whole bunch of songs that deployed chords that went far beyond the major/minor 7th bag of tricks. My wife and I worked up a simple arrangement of “God Only Knows” for a party recently, and I finally had to force myself to confront that song and decipher it. It was astonishingly complex. I don’t claim to be a huge theory dude, but that song was doing shit that I just plain didn’t understand, even as I fumbled my way through it. All kinds of bizarro passing chords, out-of-the-box modulations… I mean it was *weird*. The fact that it is still a beautiful pop song says volumes about the gift Brian had, if only for a little while.

  29. alexmagic

    Mod, your earlier comment about going to last night’s game made me wonder if there’s a “Hunter Pence Bobblehead Night” of rock. As in, tours/albums/songs/album covers heavily featuring the image or input of a departed band member (though I think we’d have to rule out recently deceased band members, since they would be kept on in tribute, not weird shame).

  30. I agree that Wilson-Lennon is the correct comparison point, because they both were practically incapable of not revealing themselves in their songs, whereas McCartney very rarely lets the politician’s mask slip.

  31. Thank you for meeting my questions head on, HVB. That’s one of their finest songs – no doubt!

  32. alexmagic, we may have to craft that Hunter Pence of Rock question into its own thread. Let’s work on that later today or tomorrow.

  33. Good to see another Townsperson speak up for the occasional wisdom of Mike Love. Pet Sounds had to be made, but it was a dead end for the band.

  34. BigSteve

    I have never had any trouble figuring out a Beatles song on guitar, but I’ve had the same experience hvb had. My example (Don’t Talk) was MUCH harder. I gave up.

  35. Keep in mind, songs like “God Only Knows” was composed on piano, where it is much easier to play extended chords (on guitar it is far more difficult). The downside is that, without any prominent guitar textures, those complex BB songs do not, to most listeners, really “rock.”

    The Beatles were smart enough to put subtle harmonic changes in their rock songs, so as to attract both the more “serious” music fans and rock fans: thus working both ends of the street.

    But it’s not really a competition between the BB and Beatles; it’s more of a symbiotic relationship that produced such great songs. Brian Wilson challenged the Beatles to write more sophisticated songs, while the Beatles helped to convince Brian that he didn’t need to listen to Love’s reactionary attacks on what he was doing–and for the record I like Smile as much as Pet Sounds.

  36. Excellent points, dr john – and healing, too.

  37. You know, this thread and the whole Beatles vis-à-vis Beach Boys thing is worthy of a 1,000 posts and should continue for weeks. The Beatles vs. Stones thing is trivial by comparison.

    I’m on a couple of Beach Boys lists and you never want to bring the Beatles up on them because then the inferiority complexes come out in full force. “Brian was better than John & Paul because he was just one person – and he didn’t have George Martin either.” There’s one poster who truly thinks there is a media conspiracy to promote the Beatles at the Beach Boys expense.

    Much as I love the Beach Boys and think possibly the people on those lists are correct as far as Brian goes I don’t think it’s really a contest; the Beatles lap the Boys as they lap the entire field.

    But I wonder if, among all the Beatles amazing accomplishments, the greatest one was having the sense/good fortune/serendipity to call it a day when they were still at the top of their game (or within hailing distance at the very least). [Having said that, I think RTH has explored post-Beatles break-up hypothetical Beatles albums and they surely could have stayed at the top for another half-decade.]

    As someone else intimated, having such a brief catalog and having been so popular means we know every one of their songs. For many of us here at RTH, I’d venture to say there is no such thing as a Beatles deep cut. Despite having the entire Beach Boys catalog (up to a point anyway) I don’t know those albums anywhere near as well. I know there are many more cuts far weaker than the Beatles weakest but I’ll bet there are a lot of great cuts that I don’t really know.

  38. ohmstead

    I was reluctant to comment further but taking up Al’s 1000 post challenge I would just say that I think that while we should all accept dr john’s high-minded appeal, I wanted to share some real world market data on the topic. I was on vacation when this post emerged and I subjected all of my family members, other parents at the pool, and strangers at the bar with the same query: Beach Boys or Beatles? And to a person my inquiry was received with the same puzzled look implying, “Weren’t the Beach Boys BEFORE the Beatles?” I can only attribute this universal response to the widely-held perception that the Beach Boys sound is…well…old fashioned (did I see an earlier reference to grandma?). While the Beach Boy’s five-part drone (I’m sorry, I meant harmony) was certainly quite unique and original when first introduced, it seems to have been endlessly recycled and repackaged achieving its ultimate expression in that Bataan Death March of Music that we all know as “Kokomo” (sorry Mr. Mod but I can only assume your affection for the song is an ironic joke). I mean really…did Brian’s elbow slip on the mixing board? Did he accidentally nudge the rhythm dial to “dirge”?

  39. Hank Fan

    Any and every fool can like the Beatles.

    It takes some effort to find and appreciate all of the truly great Beach Boys records (and to get past all of the extraneous junk and schlock in doing so), which is an effort I suspect many of you have not yet fully engaged (based on some comments).

    While I will concede that the Beatles are “better,” I get more enjoyment out of the Beach Boys catalog.

    So that’s something.

  40. misterioso

    What he said.

  41. misterioso

    Love was so right: they should never have made their one great record. If it was a dead end it was because they only had the one great record in them. Although, as I’ve said before, I think Smile is great, too, in its way.

  42. How can you dismiss what the Beach Boys did after Pet Sounds and Good Vibrations? The Beatles weren’t even a live band any more at that time, they spent all their time making excessive music rather than calling it quits like they should’ve rather than waiting another 3 years. The Beach Boys made many many great albums following Pet Sounds: Wild Honey, 20/20, Sunflower, and Holland just to name a few. The Beatles would’ve been NOTHING without the aid of George Martin and EMI kissing their ass. It boggles my mind how ignorant and asinine some dolts’ perceptions are, it’s really staggering.

  43. ??? The Beach Boys rocked A LOT harder than the Beatles (aka Lady Bug Mop Tops)!!
    Not just the 20/20 album but Sunflower, Surfs Up and the Love You album from ’77- give those a listen “funoka”!

  44. Well “2000 Man” with all due respect either you’re ignorant or just haven’t exposed yourself to any quality music,,, either way.
    What does grandma territory mean? I apologize if you do have some sorta retardation, I don’t discriminate but if not maybe you should read what ya type prior to posting it. 😉

  45. Just cuz Mike Love is an idiot doesn’t mean you should disregard the important aspects of the Beach Boys significance.

    John Lennon was just as much of an egocentric prick as Mike Love, look at the facts.

  46. I wasn’t lucky enough to be born in the baby-boomer era but I was lucky enough to grow into a self-educated dude with an independent mind and the ability to judge quality over quantity, and with that being said the Beach Boys hands down.
    I discovered the Beach Boys and Beatles at the same time and the Beatles never grasped my attention due to their mediocre sound (sub-par vocal abilities & not the greatest catalog)…
    From time to time I’ve seen the Beach Boys get criticized for lack of consistency which is ridiculous; every album they did from ’63 thru ’73 was very much consistent, maybe some filler here and there but you can’t say the Beatles didnt too!
    And for anyone to say that the Beach Boys only used studio hands on their records obviously hasn’t done their research because that is an asinine misconception.
    The Beatles success and hype was due to what, 2 words:
    GEORGE MARTIN. They couldn’t even produce their own records, while Brian Wilson was a wizard in the studio who wrote, produced, arranged… EVERYTHING!!!

  47. Welcome aboard, josh, but please help me clear up the “misconception” that the Wrecking Crew played on almost all the records through Pet Sounds. Your assessment of the Beatles is interesting, but then again I used to know a guy who didn’t like pizza.

  48. On this note we agree.


    You like that word “asinine,” don’t you? We’re all about opinions here, and opinions are like assholes: everybody’s got one. As we do with assholes, we show respect to varying opinions. If you think the Beatles are nothing more than the contributions of George Martin and hype from EMI you are one brother from another planet. Come on, man, give this topic and your fellow music lovers who’ve been discussing it some real consideration. You’re in the Big Leagues now. We welcome you, but you’re going to have to move past the sports-talk radio nonsense of characterizing every differing opinion as “asinine.”

    Do you like pizza?

  50. Dude, we’ve got a deep archive of knowledgeable, friendly, offbeat music lovers and their views. Make an effort to see what makes people tick. There’s no need to come into our house and start insulting people in ways you wouldn’t have the balls to do to anyone’s face. Man up.

  51. Some really good points being made here. After reading all the new posts, the only certain conclusion I’ve been able to draw is that Josh the Kook’s on-line persona is enormously douchie.

  52. The Beach Boys = Second tier oldies act = yawn.

    I love trolling, and would love this golden opportunity to wind up someone like Josh the Kook, but this is actually how I feel.

Lost Password?

twitter facebook youtube