Creativity within limits, Beach Boys and Beatles

6VGFmEhG Some of my biggest epiphanies about life, love, art, and commerce have come from arguing with friends about rock & roll—and whether my favorite bands are more influential or accomplished or talented or original or innovative than their favorite bands!

An old college buddy from Connecticut, David Sewall, used to visit me on occasion when I lived in Southern California many years ago. Dave was and is the world’s biggest booster of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys, while I am among the world’s biggest fans of Lennon-McCartney and The Beatles. Though we’ve expressed great admiration for each other’s favorite, we’ve strongly disagreed about which band is ultimately God’s gift to the world. One summer night in my home along the canals of Venice Beach, we finally had it out.

We were listening to an early Beach Boys album and I dropped the casual comment that as brilliantly constructed as the BB’s music was their lyrics were banal and sophomoric. Even worse, I thoughtlessly characterized the band’s whole approach as “limited.” Dave, for the first time ever in my presence, lost it. “F*#% the limitations,” he roared, and proceeded to school me (loudly) on the richness of their four-part harmonies, the sophistication of their key switches, the charming innocence of their lyrics, and much, much more. He pounded home the point that I could dwell on “limitations” all I wanted—on what the Beach Boys were not doing—or I could dwell on the celestial sounds they were creating. The monologue continued long into the night until Dave, the Music Theory major, knew I was appropriately chastened for my glib dismissal of his band's greatness.

I realized something that night that I, the Philosophy major, never grasped before. (Pretty obvious in retrospect.) Everything in creation—anything that exists in the physical world—is limited. If it has no limits it is by definition everything, and therefore nothing. (You might have to chew on that one for a minute.) Whether we’re talking about a human being, an organization, a business, or an institution—it has limitations. Artistic and commercial products have limitations too. But within the boundaries of those limitations the question is: what can we create? We can dwell on what isn’t there or what IS there. Also, in our creativity we can be expanding those limitations.

Then there’s the whole interplay of creativity and constraints—and how creativity requires limits and constraints—which we have discussed before and which we will again.

Not to mention the fact that comparing, evaluating, and judging artistic and commercial genius has its limitations!

After all is said and done, I would have to admit that the music I would like to be listening to on headphones when I eventually shuffle off this mortal coil would be the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds album, the most uplifting and sublime piece of popular music I’ve ever heard.

But until then I continue to gasp in wonder whenever I hear “A Day in the Life,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “In My Life,” “Across the Universe,” or a dozen other musical jewels by you know who.

Wishing everyone an expanded New Year.

View the archive »

Never miss a post… get 'em by email or rss »


  1. The guy who polished my bass-playing into something I could take out in public once said that John Fogerty wasn't much of a guitar player — except that, since he knew his limitations, he did amazing things within them. This guy was a fantastic guitarist himself (played pretty much any instrument) so he wasn't some armchair quarterback; he knew whereof, etc.

    He wasn't complaining about Fogerty, he was praising him. Modesty, knowing our limitations and working within them, is just as important as our endless quest to expand our abilities.

    The Beach Boys were not the Beatles. I know which band I listen to more often, whose music I own more of. But I'm not aware of a time the Fabs did anything that made me want some harmony-singing friends like California Girls and Daddy taking the T-Bird away always do. (Mentally reviewing the counterdirectional movement of the harmonies in the phrase "fun, fun, fun" gives me chills.)

    Who's a better guitarist? Best lyricist? As a teen, I argued all that with all and sundry. Yesterday I stumbled across something I wrote long ago:

    The world is not a pie where the more I take the less you have.

    The world is a field where the more I plant the more I harvest.

    The capacity to love is infinite. Same for joy. I'm voting for more love for and joy in musical variety, and less sounding like opponents in some upcoming election.

    1. Ah, you remind me that all the frequent commentators I have on this site (both of you) are such smart fellas.

  2. I never thought there was any contest, but I wasn't a little girl, so what do I know... I will state the obvious: The Wilson clan had pretty voices, but were neither trained nor experienced musicians. They had a handful of interesting melodies, but relied heavily on others to fulfill their musical intentions. They had one tired gimmick, which was basically California-ized Doo-Wop.

    The only BB records l like to hear are the ones with a Rickenbacker guitar, often played by somebody else, like Glen Campbell.

    Another ridiculous comparison to The Beatles is The Rolling Stones. I saw them and the Beach Boys both in 1965, and couldn't decide which were worse. The Stones had a lot more raw energy and stage presence, even though the band was terrible. The girls would scream, anyway.

    1. Apples and oranges, Ed. (The Beatles of course represent the apple.) I now think they inhabit different universes.

      But Brian Wilson didn't need to be a trained or experienced musician. He's was always a genius, who has been lauded by other greats from McCartney to Dylan (who said Brian's ear—the one that worked—should be donated to the Smithsonian). Even Lou Reed genuflected to him. Off the top of my head I can't think of another pop songwriter/arranger with his command of harmonic counterpoint.

  3. I've long held to the view that there's no such thing as good or bad music, merely music that I like or dislike, with an awful lot of it finding a place somewhere along this scale. Further, nothing's fixed and any particular piece of music can move up or down the scale depending on a whole bunch of (often quite whimsical) things. What matters is that I enjoy the music.

    BTW, and thinking about your last post, take a peek at a book called "Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay: The dodgy business of popular music" by Simon Napier-Bell, who is George Michael's manager. The book looks at whose making money from pop music, starting from around 1713. It's awesome.

    Best wishes to one and all for a great 2015!

  4. It's mind, body, spirit. The BB's bring you peace of mind, the Stones energize you physically, and the Beatles are hallucigenic. They should get together and we'd all be healed.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

View the archive »

Never miss a post… get 'em by email or rss »