With the exception of Peter & Gordon (and The Beatles themselves), all of the number-ones after “I Want to Hold Your Hand” were by American musicians: Louis Armstrong, Mary Wells, The Dixie Cups. But it’s “I Get Around” that is commonly misremembered (at least among the sources I read) as the record that finally deposed The Beatles from atop the charts. It does make for a nice narrative. After all, The Beach Boys were the ultimate embodiment of the fruits of post-war American society: increased leisure time, the development of driving culture (including hot rods), and the emergence of the teenagers as a distinct demographic. Add to that their tans and sun-bleached hair, their button-ups and white pants, their familial bond, their patriotism and school chauvinism – The Beach Boys were the golden boys, the all-American alternative to the pasty, foreign, working-class Beatles. That “I Get Around” started its run at the top on the Fourth of July was poetic justice.
It’s also tempting to remember The Beach Boys as chart successors to The Beatles due to the rivalry and cross-pollination of ideas between the two bands through the mid-‘60s. Paul McCartney has stated that Sgt Pepper’s was a response to Pet Sounds, which in turn was Brian Wilson’s attempt to out-do Rubber Soul. But in 1964, The Beatles were just another stumbling block keeping The Beach Boys from being the top group in America. Before the British Invasion, The Beach Boys played second fiddle to The Four Seasons. Then Brian Wilson gave away “Surf City,” the song that would be number one, to Jan & Dean. Yet this frustration would also drive the group – Wilson, specifically – to ramp up their ambitions.
On its surface, “I Get Around” follows the same formula as previous Beach Boys hits: lyrics about California kids busting up the weekend; complexly-layered five-part harmonies; reverb-heavy surf guitar. But “I Get Around” is even more meticulously constructed than anything the group had tried yet. The record sticks to standard rock and roll instruments, with none of the strings or brass favored by Wilson’s idol Phil Spector. The Beach Boys’ Wall of Sound instead derives from the power of their vocals. Instead of wading in with a standard introduction, the song begins a capella – albeit with harmonies so precisely arranged that other instrumentation would be redundant. And rather than Spector’s full-bore instrumentation, Wilson focused on creating a depth of sound. The rhythm section fluctuates in and out over the course of the song. Guitar lines get doubled on bass, then organ. Keys shift between verses. Then, seemingly at random, the introduction drops back in to the middle of the song. Of course, that random recurrence is actually the recapitulation, part of the sonata form and an essential warm-up for composing a “teenage symphony to God.” But while “I Get Around” adheres to classical music structure, the fluidity of the arrangement creates twists and turns that keeps the song fresh and exciting and not at all unlike the mood swings and short attention spans of adolescence.
“I Get Around” was The Beach Boys’ first number-one, but in many ways it’s a transitional record. Before the year’s end, Brian Wilson would have a nervous breakdown and retire from touring to focus his obsessive tendencies in the studio. The cars and surfboards that had dominated the lyrics of the group’s early hits would fade away, while the vocal and instrumental arrangements would become ever more elaborate and experimental. The Beatles, too, would evolve from rock and roll revivalists to sophisticated musicians with avant garde tendencies; they would play their last concert in 1966. While “I Want to Hold Your Hand” boldly announced itself as a record to change pop, “I Get Around” subtly presaged the metamorphosis of ’60s music: the frivolity of “rock and roll” would become the art of “rock.” 8
Hit #1 on July 4, 1964; total of 2 weeks at #1
112 of 983 #1’s reviewed; 11.39% through the Hot 100