The Beach Boys’ vocal harmonies are among the most unmistakable and enduring of the rock and roll era. Among rock and roll groups of the Sixties, the California quintet place second only to the Beatles in terms of their overall impact on the Top 40. They were the Fab Four’s most serious competitors on a creative level, too. Paul McCartney has allowed that the Beatles’ masterpiece, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, was their attempt to address the challenge posed by the Beach Boys’ magnum opus, Pet Sounds - which itself was inspired by the British foursome’s Rubber Soul.
This creative dialogue between two of rock’s greatest bands pushed popular music to an artistic peak. Paul McCartney noted that “both [Pet Sounds and Sgt. Pepper] have more than held up. To me it’s like, ‘What have people been doing in the meantime? Where’s the progress?’ I can’t see anything as modern as that around at the moment.”
The Beach Boys were a family affair that came together in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne, California, in 1961. Three brothers – Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson – were joined by their cousin, Mike Love, and a schoolmate, Alan Jardine (who was replaced by David Marks, before rejoining). Brian Wilson, who demonstrated an aptitude for music at an early age, was the group’s leader, orchestrating their harmonies, writing the music, producing the recording sessions.
One of the undisputed geniuses in popular music, Brian demonstrated an uncanny gift for harmonic invention and complex vocal and instrumental arrangements. Initially, the magnitude of that genius was overlooked owing to the subject matter of the band’s early hits: i.e., surfing, hot rods and teen romance. But today, even the lyrics to those songs – generally written by Mike Love or such outside collaborators as deejay Roger Christian and producer Gary Usher – are celebrated for their deft use of technical lingo and youthful joie de vivre. “A lot of love went into our singing, our harmonies, the making of those records,” Brian Wilson said in 2003.
Music had always been a family affair in the Wilson household, as father Murry was himself an aspiring musician and songwriter. The Beach Boys’ odyssey began in 1951, when young Brian sang a song (“The Old Soldier”) written by his 10-year-old cousin Mike at a family gathering. By 1961, a teenaged Brian – joined by Mike, brothers Carl and Dennis, and friend Al Jardine – were reguarly harmonizing around the family piano. When their parents left town on a weekend vacation, the Wilson brothers used the emergency money they’d been given to rent musical instruments. They worked up an arrangement for their first original song, “Surfin’.” Dennis Wilson, the only member who actually surfed, suggested the subject matter, while Brian and Mike wrote the song.
Temperamental yet supportive, Murry Wilson encouraged and prodded his sons in their musical endeavors. He took the group to see his music publisher, Hite Morgan, who had the nascent band cut a few tunes at Keen Recording Studios. When it came time to choose a band name, they considered the Pendletones and the Surfers before settling on the iconically Californian “Beach Boys,” suggested by record agent Russ Regan, according to Brian’s recollection.
Released locally on the X and Candix labels, “Surfin’” became a hit. Dennis Wilson offered this poignant recollection of hearing their song on the radio for the first time: “Nothing will ever top the expression on Brian’s face. That is the all-time moment.” “Surfin’” ultimately reached Number 75 nationally, and the Beach Boys were signed to Capitol Records by a young executive named Nik Venet. At this early point, the Beach Boys were still a fledgling regional group whose business card indicated they were available for “Teenage Hops, TV, Radio and Stage appearances.”
Major success hit quickly when “Surfin’ Safari,” their first Capitol single, raced up the charts, peaking at Number 14. The Beach Boys’ run of surfin-related hits – “Surfin’,” “Surfin’ Safari,” “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and “Surfer Girl,” all released in 1962 and 1963 – raised the profile of the state of California and the sport of surfing. The group also celebrated the Golden State’s obsession with hot rods ("Shut Down,” “409,” “Little Deuce Coupe") and the pursuit of happiness in less complicated times ("Be True to Your School,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “I Get Around"). Those carefree days were mythologized in George Lucas’s nostalgic 1973 film American Graffiti, but it was the Beach Boys who truly captured the spirit of the era as it unfolded with their anthemic, harmony-filled songs. They were recording at a blinding pace, releasing four albums in 1964 alone.
By turns wistful and celebratory, the Beach Boys’ classic Sixties songs were more than catchy hits that enthralled American schookids. In subtle and artful ways, they shone a light on the state of California and all that it represented, helping to initiate the westward migratrion of restless youth that would culminate in the hippie subculture of the late Sixties. As biographer Timothy White noted, “Brian Wilson believed in the idea of California more than the fact of himself, feeling that the energy focused on the romantic concept could carry over into the substance of his existence.” For many listeners, the music of the Beach Boys performed a similarly therapeutic function.
From 1962 to 1966, the Beach Boys charted 22 hit singles in a highly competitive Top 40. Their increasingly sophisticated harmonies and arrangements owed much to the fact that Brian stopped touring with the band after 1964 to work full-time on composing and recording at home in Los Angeles. His maturation resulted in such harmony-filled pop opuses as “Help Me, Rhonda,” “California Girls” and “The Little Girl I Once Knew,” as well as the increasingly adventurous tracks to be found on such albums as Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!) and The Beach Boys Today! Brian worked with the city’s best young session musicians, a group informally known as the Wrecking Crew, which included guitarists Glen Campbell and Tommy Tedesco, bassists Carole Kaye and Ray Pohlman, and drummer Hal Blaine.
While the Beach Boys were off touring behind their growing treasure chest of hit singles, Brian began work in January 1966 on Pet Sounds. He labored nonstop for nearly four months, enlisting a veritable orchestra of session musicians to help him chase the “pet sounds” he heard in his head. At the end, the Beach Boys returned to add their bouquet of vocal leads and harmonies to the finished instrumental tracks. Now recognized as an innovative classic, Pet Sounds sold disappointingly as an album, though it yielded the singles “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows” and “Sloop John B.” Capitol Records, unconvinced of the marketability of a maturing Beach Boys, quickly released Best of the Beach Boys barely two months after Pet Sounds, killing its momentum.
Brian pressed on to his next project, “Good Vibrations,” which packed an album’s worth of ideas and production tricks into one song. Wilson himself referred to it as “a pocket symphony” After a half-year of recording and production work, “Good Vibrations” by the Beach Boys was finally released as a single in October 1966. It returned the Beach Boys to the top of the charts. On top of adding another hit to their lengthy resume, the Beach Boys inadvertently added a new phrase – “good vibrations,” eventually shortened to “good vibes” – to the pop-culture vocabulary. “Good Vibrations” won three Grammy nominations, including Best Contemporary Rock ‘n’ Roll Recording – which, remarkably, it lost to the New Vaudeville Band’s “Winchester Cathedral.” (The Beach Boys never won a Grammy, though they were given the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2001.)
Following “Good Vibrations,” Brian threw himself into an even more ambitious project, Smile. A series of sessions proved both fruitful and frustrating, as Smile met some resistence from others in the group for its abstract lyrics and uncommercial music, while Wilson himself could never find the end of it. His fragile psyche and increasingly erratic behavior, in part triggered by experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs, forced him to abandon Smile. Wilson revived Smile in 2004, reprising it as a solo project with assistance from its original lyricist, Van Dyke Parks. Every bit as astonishing as its legend purported it to be, Wilson’s Smile – accompanied by a tour where he performed the opus in its entirety – was heralded as a major musical event upon its unveiling nearly 40 years later. In 2011, Capitol Records released The Smile Sessions, available as a digital download, 2-CD package or 5-CD box set, featuring recordings from the original 1967 sessions.
However, in the immediate aftermath of Smile's abandonment, the Beach Boys cobbled together a watered-down facsimile of the album, entitled Smiley Smile. In the wake of this setback, they persevered by regrouping into a more closely knit, democratic unit. Having in a sense become a real band again, instead of a touring entity with a stay-at-home songwriter/producer, they cut a series of charmingly re-energized and unpretentious albums. These included Friends, Wild Honey and 20/20. Although it spawned no Top 40 hits – the first Beach Boys (non-holiday studio) album not to do so – Brian Wilson has called Friends his favorite Beach Boys album.
In 1970, the Beach Boys changed labels, moving from Capitol to Reprise, where they established their own Brother Records imprint. They inaugurated the new decade with Sunflower, arguably most inspired group effort of their career. The album spotlighted individual talents of all three Wilson brothers - especially the suddenly prolific Dennis, who contributed four songs. Surf’s Up further asserted their creative vitality; this time it was Carl Wilson who stepped forward with the ambitous contributions “Long Promised Road” and “Feel Flows.” The album’s high point was its mythical title track, rescued from the aborted Smile project and previously heard only in a voice-and-piano solo performance by Brian Wilson on a Leonard Bernstein TV special about pop music.
Two subsequent releases, Carl and the Passions – So Tough (1972) and Holland (1973) - showed signs of flagging inspiration. Yet even these incuded the standouts “Marcella” and “Sail On, Sailor,” cowritten by Brian, plus various worthy nuggets from the others. Bruce Johnston quit in 1972 and was replaced by guitarist Blondie Chaplin and drummer Ricky Fataar, recruited from the South African group Flame, infusing the Beach Boys with fresh blood. As Sixties nostalgia began taking hold in the mid-Seventies, the Beach Boys suddenly became an in-demand touring act whose popularity soared as the rock audience rediscovered their treasure chest of hits.
A remarkable uptick in the Beach Boys fortunes occurred when Capitol Records released Endless Summer, a double-album hits collection, in 1974. The album streaked to the top of the album charts, while “Surfin’ U.S.A.” reached Number 36 on the charts, 11 years after its first chart entry. Rolling Stone proclaimed them “Band of the Year.” The Beach Boys found themselves on top all over again.
Touted as “America’s band,” they also benefited from the media attention surrounding the rescue and recovery of their erstwhile leader Brian, following a number of lost years spent in bed-ridden and drug-addled exile. With the “Brian’s back” publicity campaign of 1976 came 15 Big Ones, their first studio album in three and a half years. A mix of early-rock covers and original material, it made the Top 10. The group’s spirited remake of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” rose to Number Five.
It was followed in 1977 by The Beach Boys Love You, which displayed more sustained creativity from Brian than any album since Pet Sounds, becoming a cult favorite among Beach Boys aficionados. In his liner notes for its reissue, R.E.M.’s Peter Buck described The Beach Boys Love You as “a window into the heart of one of the greatest composers of the twentieth century.” Next came M.I.U. The album was recorded in Iowa at Maharishi International University, a choice that stemmed from Mike Love’s longtime association with transcendental meditation and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The Beach Boys closed out the Seventies with L.A. (Light Album), which marked the return of Bruce Johnston and the group’s move to Caribou Records. It also yielded the Top 40 hit “Good Timin’.”
The Eighties saw a drastic decline in the amount of new work released by the Beach Boys. In 1980 came Keepin’ the Summer Alive, while Beach Boys, the group’s first foray into digital technology, came at mid-decade. Overseen by British New Wave producer Stewart Levine, it gave them another modest hit, “Getcha Back.” An otherwise fallow decade hit a spectacular high note when “Kokomo” – cowritten by Mike Love, John Phillips (of the Mamas and the Papas), producer Terry Melcher and singer Scott McKenzie – soared to Number One in the fall of 1988. It was included on the soundtrack to Cocktail, starring Tom Cruise. There would henceforth be little more than soundtrack contributions, one-off singles, reissues and compilations from the Beach Boys, however.
All the while, the Beach Boys toured like clockwork each summer while making headlines for extramusical matters. Carl Wilson briefly quit the band in 1981, protesting their refusal to practice for tours and write new material. The saddest event was the tragic drowning death of Dennis Wilson in 1983. There were also legal battles over Brian’s conservatorship, which pitted members of the Beach Boys against his controversial psychologist and would-be collaborator, Eugene Landy. In 1994, a lawsuit filed by Mike Love, claiming coauthorship of more than 30 Beach Boys songs soley credited to Brian Wilson, was settled in Love’s favor by a federal jury. In 1998, Carl Wilson became the second Beach Boy to die too young, succumbing to brain and lung cancer. His children established the Carl Wilson Foundation, which raises money for cancer research and aid to those with cancer.
In 1992, marking the 30th anniversary of their first recordings, Capitol Records released a comprehensive five-disc box set entitled Good Vibrations. That same year saw the last album of new material to date from the Beach Boys (minus Brian), the ecologically-themed Summer in Paradise. In 1997, came another box set, The Pet Sounds Sessions, including stereo and mono mixes of the album, along with a bevy of session outtakes and alternate mixes. Meanwhile, the Beach Boys’ old hits continued to prove a hot commodity, with a 2003 compilation, The Very Best of the Beach Boys: Sound of Summer, reaching an impressive Number 16 and selling more than 2 million copies.
However, the band itself has fractured into pieces. Mike Love and Bruce Johnston still tour as the Beach Boys Band, while Al Jardine formed Al Jardine, Family & Friends (including Carrie and Wendy Wilson, Brian’s daughters). Backed by a stable and capable band, Brian Wilson has pursued a highly successful solo career that’s been the most creatively durable of them all. Wilson has continued to make new music, such as 2008’s That Lucky Old Sun, while revisiting and reviving such Beach Boys-era milestones as Pet Sounds and Smile.
Because of personal difficulties and internicene squabbling, the Beach Boys at times have appeared to be rock and roll’s longest-running soap opera. At the same time, they’ve been responsible for some of most perfect harmonies and gorgeous melodies in the history of popular music, and it is for this vast legacy for which they are remembered and celebrated.