A few weeks ago, I attended a the Heartland Film Festival and watched a charming little film called Come Together: A Beatles Tribute. The film, which was made by local Beatles freaks John Scofield and Steve Ison, profiled the methods and inspirations of the annual International Beatle Week in Liverpool (duh). The film follows bands from countries as diverse as Japan, Sweden and the USA who have dedicated their entire lives to sounding (and often looking) exactly like the Beatles.
While cover bands rarely deserve any attention, the case made by the bands in the film was that the music of the Beatles was so important that it was on the same level Wagner, Mozart and Bach. Richard Wagner died over a hundred years ago, yet symphony orchestras around the globe have been “covering” all the while. No one calls out the dozens of members of any given orchestra as merely being in a “cover band”. So why should members of a Beatles tribute band not garner the same respect as a Wagner tribute orchestra?
While watching the music of the Fab Four being elevated to an even higher level of cultural importance, I think back to some of the greatest musical arguments I have ever had in my life. Especially during my stint at the Halloween House, heated, beer-fueled arguments would often arise concerning our favorite bands. Rancid vs. NOFX came up a few times (it’s a close one, but I think I’m going to have to go with Rancid on this one, despite the last ten years of their career). Ramones vs. Clash was also a heated one (no one is ignoring the importance of the Ramones, but there is no denying that Joe Strummer had more creativity in his pinky finger than all the Ramones combined...including CJ).
But of all the musical arguments, the the one that most frequently bordered on physical violence was the age old argument of Beatles vs Beach Boys. As far as popularity and cultural influence, there is no contest; The Beatles are the number one biggest band of all time. Forget Michael Jackson and forget Elvis Presley, the Beatles are the undisputed kings of pop and rock.
But, as we all know, popularity isn’t everything. Look at Nickelback’s sales record against, say, Jawbreaker’s. To quote Immortal Technique, “If you go platinum it's got nothin' to do with luck, it just means that a million people are stupid as fuck.” So as far a pure musical talent and songwriting ability goes, who is better? Beatles or Beach Boys?
I’m going to have to go with The Beatles on this one. Hands down. No doubt about it. While the Beatles did crank out a few childish novelties that should’ve been saved for a Wiggles’ record (“Yellow Submarine”, “Octopus’ Garden”, etc), the bulk of their material (especially from Sergeant Pepper on) was expertly crafted and continuously experimental.
The Beach Boys wrote incredibly catchy songs. Incredibly catch novelty songs. The majority of their career was spent as a real-life version of The Monkees. Their songs were about surfing, hanging out, checking out girls at the beach and sunshine. Sure, it was what they knew best, but it wasn’t the most profound subject matter. Brian Wilson was a great songwriter and the true genius behind the Beach Boys, but the rest of the band faltered on the the verge of releasing what would have been their greatest album, Smile.
I think the music of The Beach Boys definitely had a greater impact on the early punk sound (see: The Ramones), The Music of the Beatles was far superior. But regardless of what your opinion on the matter is, there is no denying that merely asking “Who’s better? Beach Boys or Beatles” will stir up even the tamest party into an in-your-face shouting match.