The parallel paths of the Beach Boys and a Beatle
As the 1960s came to a close, the bands that defined the sound of the decade fought to survive amid changing times and evolving internal dynamics. Two new box sets illuminate the moment
Forget the Stones: The Beach Boys were the Beatles' true rivals. The groups were linked from the moment the Liverpudlians landed Stateside in February 1964 and ended the Californians' 18-month run of chart dominance. As Capitol labelmates, they duked it out in the "B" section of the record racks and spurred each other to ever-greater heights that yielded Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band — arguably the apex of their respective careers. Later, they would seek spiritual guidance at the feet of the same guru, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, but his wisdom wasn't enough to cure the malaise that plagued both outfits. As the '60s came to a close, the two bands that had defined the sound of the decade fought to survive amid changing times and evolving internal dynamics. Ultimately, one remained intact while the other disintegrated — in effect ending their seemingly similar trajectories.
But the comparisons persist half a century later with the release of two new box sets: a reissue of George Harrison's 1970 triple-disc, All Things Must Pass (out now), and Feel Flows: The Sunflower & Surf's Up Sessions 1969–1971 (out 8/27), which spotlights the oft-overlooked era following the Beach Boys' commercial peak. Both projects serve as fascinating inverse parallels of each other. After years of yielding to the Lennon-McCartney brain-trust, Harrison created a sprawling opus that remains his definitive artistic statement, one marrying spirituality and wry humor to expertly crafted melody, harmony, and production. Meanwhile, Sunflower saw the Boys reckoning with the waning presence of their chief composer, producer, and resident genius Brian Wilson; they met the challenge head on, delivering a truly collaborative album featuring songwriting and vocals from every member.
Sessions for All Things Must Pass began in late May 1970, six weeks after the Beatles went public with their split. Years of contributing just two or three tracks per album resulted in a formidable stockpile of songs, with some — "Isn't It a Pity" and "The Art of Dying" — dating back to 1966. "All Things Must Pass," "Hear Me Lord," and "Let It Down" were each offered to the Beatles in their final months, but none made the cut. Harrison found these sessions so stifling that he stormed out and temporarily quit the band, writing the song "Wah-Wah" that same day in a blast of pure frustration. More pointed is "Run of the Mill," a raw sketch of the interpersonal squabbles that poisoned the Beatles. "Another day for you to realize me/Or send me down again," he sings, alluding to the daily disrespect he felt from his musical brethren.
Creatively free at last, Harrison unleashed a torrent of pent-up music. As he'd colorfully explain, "I've always looked at All Things Must Pass like somebody who has had constipation for years and then finally they get diarrhea." Over two days he demoed some 30 tracks for co-producer Phil Spector. These tapes, which include unreleased songs like "Cosmic Empire," "Going Down to Golders Green," "Dehra Dun," and "Mother Divine," can be heard for the first time in their entirety on the 50th anniversary box set.
Spector constructed his trademark "Wall of Sound" by enlisting a staggering cast of players, including Harrison's friends Ringo Starr, Billy Preston, and Eric Clapton. The producer would record a vast ensemble of musicians playing at once, thickening the results with healthy doses of reverb and echo to create the Wagnerian bombast heard on record. Harrison initially hated the effect, bluntly telling Spector it was "horrible" on his first listen. He ultimately "grew to like it," though towards the end of his life he expressed a desire to "liberate" the songs from Spector's maximalist production. The forthcoming set fulfills that wish, revealing Harrison's meticulous guitar and vocal arrangements.
Spector is also a critical character in the Beach Boys' story, having inspired leader Brian Wilson's approach to hitmaking. He was an apt pupil, ultimately surpassing his teacher in terms of musical sophistication and chart success. But by 1969, Brian's overwhelming personal problems forced him to abdicate his role as the band's creative life force. Instead, he holed up in his room and played the Spector-produced Ronettes' classic "Be My Baby" on repeat. The cavernous echo that had so irritated Harrison soothed Brian's tortured psyche.
An image problem added to the band's woes, and by the dawn of the '70s the Beach Boys were dismissed as candy-striped has-beens. At a commercial low-ebb, a new record deal with Warner Brothers/Reprise offered a glimmer of hope. Like Harrison, they saw a chance for a fresh start and the reinvigorated sextet began work on a new album intended to carry them into the new decade. With Brian unable to commit as he had in the past, the other Beach Boys stepped up. Sunflower sessions were overseen by Brian's younger brother Carl, who took over as the band's primary producer and musical director. Although Mike Love, Al Jardine, and Bruce Johnston all made valuable contributions, another Wilson brother emerged as an unlikely MVP. Dennis Wilson had morphed from the band's party-boy drummer into their secret songwriting weapon. The four tracks he co-wrote on Sunflower, including the transcendent ballad "Forever," rank among the album's best.
Echoing Harrison's deluge of material, more than three dozen songs were left off the final version of Sunflower. Many of the strongest were penned by Dennis. The Feel Flows box set gives them their due, along with a chunk of tracks intended for his aborted early '70s solo album — a first for a Beach Boy — which went under the working title "Poops." (Perhaps Harrison's scatological description of his first post-Beatles solo venture had resonated with Dennis.) Stylistically varied but eminently soulful, these tracks are the sound of a talented, typically sidelined songwriter coming into his own. Dennis and Harrison fulfilled similar roles in their groups: Their dormant, patient brilliance was hidden in plain sight.
Sunflower attracted rave reviews upon its release in August of 1970, with many critics declaring it the band's most rewarding album since Pet Sounds. But in an otherwise adulatory writeup, Rolling Stone wondered "whether anyone still listens to their music, or could give a s--t about it." The answer was, in short, no. Radio disc jockeys wouldn't go near it, with one former Wilson acolyte sniffing that the band "wasn't hip anymore." Accordingly, the record was the Beach Boys' poorest performer to date, failing to crack the Billboard Top 100. Even the album's cover seemed to confuse people. The group lay sprawled on a grassy lawn surrounded by their young children — no longer Beach Boys, but not yet Beach Men. Grasping at straws, they toyed with changing their name to simply "Beach" in a desperate attempt to jettison their past.
The sleeve for All Things Must Pass was also set on a lawn. Harrison is seen towering over tiny figures — not his own flesh and blood but four garden gnomes, which may or may not represent his former band. But unlike Sunflower, Harrison's record was an instant smash. It held the top spot for seven weeks and sold over six million copies. "My Sweet Lord" was the gutsy choice for a lead single. Harrison was initially nervous about releasing such an overtly religious song. No one had done anything like it since the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows" four years earlier, which drew cries of blasphemy for using the Lord's name in a pop song. Despite his misgivings, "My Sweet Lord" became the first solo Beatles track to scale the charts. With over 10 million copies sold it remains one of the best-selling singles of all time. Though Harrison would later be found guilty of "subconsciously plagiarizing" the song from the old Chiffons number "He's So Fine," in 1971 he was the undisputed supreme Beatle.
A pair of New York gigs capped this period for both the Beach Boys and Harrison. Building on the success of All Things Must Pass, the latter staged his legendary Concert for Bangladesh at Madison Square Garden in August 1971. The benefit extravaganza became the high-water mark of Harrison's public profile. This inherently private man had little interest in further celebrity and had achieved all he'd wanted to do — make some music, settle some scores, and do some good — in a remarkably short time. From now on, his attention became more diffuse. He would be content to putter around the garden depicted on All Things Must Pass' cover, never embracing the spotlight in quite the same way again.
Months earlier, in late April, the Beach Boys played the ultra-cool Fillmore East alongside that other band from California, the Grateful Dead. Pairing up with those acid-fried cowboys was a risky move — even more so considering it was a surprise appearance sprung on the audience. But a cosign from Jerry Garcia went a long way with the crowd and the show was a triumph. Bob Dylan, watching from the lighting booth, was heard to marvel, "You know, they're f---kin' good, man."
Thus began a lengthy image rehab for the Beach Boys. Encouraged by the change in fortunes, they started work on a new album of socially relevant tracks that would become 1971's Surf's Up, which is also explored on Feel Flows. During the sessions that June, the Quiet Beatle dropped by to visit. No doubt they had a lot to talk about.