A vintage Beach Boys promo photo

The Beach Boys

Courtesy of the Rock Hall Library and Archive
1988
Category:
Performers
Members:
  • Brian Wilson
  • Carl Wilson
  • Dennis Wilson
  • Al Jardine
  • Mike Love

The Beach Boys embodied the sun-kissed dream of California, courtesy of their buoyant surf-rock vibe and heavenly harmonies.

Thanks to the imagination, vision and production gifts of Brian Wilson, however, the group also reinvented what pop music could sound like.

1966's landmark Pet Sounds especially boasted intricate pop symphonies with complicated, unorthodox orchestration. 

Biography

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Music fans love to argue about (and compare) the merits of British Invasion anchors the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. But in the early- to mid-'60s, the Fab Four's biggest creative foil (and chart competition) was actually the Beach Boys.

The fresh-faced quintet sang about an idealized version of California where the waves were perfect, the girls were pretty, the cars were revved-up and the sun was always shining. Tunes such as "Surfin' U.S.A.," "California Girls," "I Get Around" and "Fun, Fun, Fun" exuded a beach-blanket-light version of pop inspired by '50s vocal groups and surf-rock. Yet as the '60s wore on, the Beach Boys—like the Beatles—grew into a band that favored a different kind of perfection based around intricate pop symphonies with complicated, unorthodox orchestration.

The band coalesced in 1961 in Hawthorne, California, around the core of Brian Wilson and his two younger brothers, Carl and Dennis; the siblings' cousin, Mike Love; and classmate Al Jardine. The elder Wilson was the group's musical mastermind, owing to his vision for arrangement, composing and production, although the group members traded off lead vocals and Love occasionally contributed songwriting.

Thanks to the supernatural quality of familial harmonies, however, the Beach Boys' music felt like an endless summer. The group's first single, "Surfin'," landed them a label deal with Capitol Records, and from there the Beach Boys charted over 20 songs in the Top 40 between 1962 and 1966.

In the midst of this run, Brian Wilson decided to stop touring with the group. The results of his focus sprang up on 1966's legendary, gorgeous Pet Sounds. Lush and vaguely psychedelic, the album featured unusual instrumentation for a pop album—two empty Coca-Cola cans as percussion, and a theremin, among other things—but plenty of hooks, and pushed back against idealized nostalgia. In fact, Pet Sounds had a profound impact on the Beatles as they were creating 1967's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. (Brian Wilson, in turn, praised Rubber Soul for inspiration.)

The Beach Boys kept the kaleidoscopic pop atmospheres going with subsequent singles "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes & Villains," as Brian Wilson worked on a pop album with Van Dyke Parks that was to be dubbed Smile. Owing to a variety of factors—drug experimentation, creative pressures and his own internal anxieties—the record never came out, and Brian Wilson retreated from the spotlight almost entirely.

The band kept going, although their albums reflected a broader sonic palette and more non-Brian Wilson songwriting and production credits. This led to occasional chart hits—the rustic rock of 1968's "Do It Again," 1969's lush "I Hear Music" and 1973's contemporary-sounding "Sail On, Sailor"—although the Beach Boys' earliest music remained more beloved. In fact, in 1974, the new Capitol Records compilation Endless Summer hit No. 1, which kicked off a new wave of nostalgia for the band.

The upswing continued after Brian Wilson returned to the fold for the 1976 studio album 15 Big Ones. Still, the reunion was short-lived: Although 1977's synthesizer-heavy, offbeat Love You has become an admired cult classic, it wasn't a commercial success at the time, and he faded away once again from the band.

In the early '80s the Beach Boys suffered a major setback with the 1983 drowning death of co-founder Dennis Wilson. Still, the band soldiered on, and in 1988, reached an entirely new audience of fans thanks to the unexpected No. 1 hit "Kokomo" and association with the sitcom Full House.

The ensuing decades have since brought no shortage of turmoil: Co-founder Carl Wilson died from lung cancer in 1998, while the surviving band members have frequently squabbled over the Beach Boys name and other business matters.

Yet despite the unrest, the Beach Boys still tour today, as does Brian Wilson. And in 2012, the various factions set aside their differences for 50th anniversary celebrations. Wilson, Love, Jardine and long-time touring and recording members Bruce Johnston and David Marks embarked on a well-received trek and a warmly embraced new studio album, That's Why God Made The Radio.