The Beach Boys and The Beatles constantly tried to creatively better one another. It was a necessary rivalry that cemented the impeccable legacies of both groups. Following the release of Pet Sounds, the Californians wanted to raise the stakes once more, and they looked over to Merseyside for inspiration.
This incident wasn’t the first time they had used The Beatles in their moment of need, and Brian Wilson later admitted that the Fab Four was why he “wanted to make Pet Sounds“. He told Paste in 2004: “Rubber Soul blew my mind. I liked the way it all went together, the way it was all one thing. It was a challenge to me to do something similar. That made me want to make Pet Sounds, I didn’t want to do the same kind of music, but on the same level“.
There’s an argument to be made that Beach Boys completed the realm of pop music with Pet Sounds in what is a masterful record. From that, they decided to get experimental on the project that followed, Smile, which would turn out to be a step too far, even for the prodigal Wilson.
After transfiguring the possibilities of what an LP could be already, the cocksure Beach Boys felt like nothing was out of reach. However, the project was doomed from the outset as soon as they made it their aim to incorporate over 50 hours of sound fragments into a 12-track LP intended to last only around half an hour.
For a band who had mastered the art of simple, infectious, doo-wop, they decided to overcomplicate their sound needlessly, and in turn, ignored what made The Beach Boys revered. Capitol Records took issue with the album, and Brian Wilson’s then-undiagnosed schizophrenia would prevent the album from seeing the light of day. However, they would release a simplified version in 1967, Smiley Smile.
Speaking to The Guardian in 2007, Wilson reflected upon this sorrowful period and revealed The Beatles song, which he had on constant rotation while making Smile. “After Pet Sounds I wanted to take people to an even happier place, which was Smile. I was digging ‘She’s Leaving Home’ but also trying to do something ahead of its time,” he said. “Unfortunately, Smile was too ahead of its time – by 35 years. I enjoyed the way that Van Dyke Parks wrote the lyrics symbolically and I never asked him what the words meant”.
He was even treated to an exclusive sneak peek to the track before it was released when Paul McCartney visited him in Los Angeles and performed it on the Beach Boy’s piano in his home. Wilson later reminisced, “We both just cried. It was beautiful”.
McCartney and Wilson might have been rivals in the hit parade, but there has never even been a hint of animosity between them. Their relationship was on artistic respect, and ‘She’s Leaving Home’ arrived in Wilson’s life during a tumultuous period when he needed it most.