When Paul McCartney got behind the wheel of the juggernaut of pop culture the cabin still had a new car smell. Elvis Presley’s hips might have thrust things into motion, but ‘The Fab Four’ created the frenzy that we are still reeling from today, and are about to revel in once more as the 80-year-old star takes to the Glastonbury stage.
There were many facets that made ‘Macca’ and co masters, but one noteworthy point is that they were absolutely brilliant magpies. This is a feature well worth celebrating because it made music what it is today. As Nick Cave once poignantly put it: “The great beauty of contemporary music, and what gives it its edge and vitality, is its devil-may-care attitude toward appropriation — everybody is grabbing stuff from everybody else, all the time. It’s a feeding frenzy of borrowed ideas that goes toward the advancement of rock music — the great artistic experiment of our era.”
McCartney was always eagerly learning lessons from others around him, but there was one sonic lecture that made the Scouse student weep. “I figure no one is educated musically until they’ve heard Pet Sounds,” he once said of The Beach Boys masterpiece. “I love the orchestra, the arrangements – it may be going overboard to say it’s the classic of the century – but to me, it certainly is a total, classic record that is unbeatable in many ways. I’ve often played Pet Sounds and cried.”
And as Tom Petty and Jackson Browne later said respectively, “They say The Beach Boys were responsible for Sgt. Pepper,” “imagine a band influencing The Beatles?” With pioneering sonic sounds informing some of the most beautiful music ever written, they inspired just about everyone and changed the face of music with the alchemical mix of invention and artistry that is the humble majesty of Pet Sounds and its postmodernist bliss.
As the famed ‘fifth Beatle’ producer George Martin, the man responsible for the wild cacophony of layered stereo sounds on the ‘Fab Four’s’ response, once said: “If there is one person that I have to select as a living genius of pop music, I would choose Brian Wilson. Without Pet Sounds, Sgt. Pepper wouldn’t have happened. Pepper was an attempt to equal Pet Sounds.” I recently opined that it didn’t quite make it to 1-1, and I’m glad to have ‘Macca’ and Martin’s blessing on that view.
However, Wilson was hoisted by his own petard in trying to equal his opus too. “Our new album will be better than Pet Sounds.” He once ventured. Adding: “It will be as much an improvement over Sounds as that was over Summer Days.” This proved an impossibility and even though he had McCartney himself munching vegetables for background noise on Smiley Smile, he ultimately canned the record and slunk into depression, while McCartney continued to blaze a trail of innovation.
This raises the question: With both stars recently turning 80, will we see McCartney grace the Glastonbury crowd with a rendition of ‘God Only Knows’, the song he calls the greatest ever written, in honour of his old friend for his Birthday? Only time will tell, but even if he doesn’t, the influence of Wilson will be lingering in the welter of the set all the same.