To fairly and accurately tell the story of American popular music in the 20th century, you cannot overstate the impact or importance of the Beach Boys. If there was one band that could stand toe-to-toe with the Beatles for pop supremacy in the 1960s, it was the Beach Boys. To some, they even eclipsed the Fab Four for a time.
Formed in 1961 by a group of California teenagers (brothers Brian Wilson on bass and lead vocals, Carl Wilson on lead guitar and lead vocals, and Dennis Wilson on drums and vocals; cousin Mike Love on lead vocals, and high school friend Al Jardine on rhythm guitar and vocals), the Beach Boys first hit the Top 40 in June 1962 with “Surfin’ Safari” and were mainstays in the charts through most of the ’60s.
Despite the many tragedies and legal battles that have befallen the Beach Boys over the last 50 years, their legacy is forever linked with sun, surf, and good times. At their peak they boasted the unbeatable combination of Brian’s insanely catchy (and increasingly sophisticated) songwriting and the group’s breathtaking vocal harmonies.
As the creative force behind the band’s greatest achievements, Brian felt the increasing pressure of fronting America’s most popular band and competing with the Beatles. During the 1966/67 recording sessions for what might have been the group’s crowning artistic achievement — SMiLE — Brian finally succumbed to that pressure and began a gradual withdrawal from, well, everything. The band soldiered on without his oversight and did manage to produce very good material into the 1970s.
From there, well, it’s been a bit of a slog. While the band has been a consistently popular concert draw for the last three-plus decades, their recorded material has been mediocre at best. Worse yet, the surviving members of the original band (Brian, Mike, and Alan) seem to be perpetually locked in one legal battle or another.
Still, even that cannot diminish the Beach Boys’ legacy as one of the most important bands in American music. And so to coincide with the group’s 50th anniversary and the November 1 release of the long-promised, oft-delayed box set The SMiLE Sessions, now is as good a time as any to review that legacy.
Surfin’ Safari (1962)
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Nine of the dozen tracks on this album bear Brian Wilson’s name, which is proof positive that even geniuses can have humble beginnings. The Beach Boys were less than a year removed from their first paying gig when Surfin’ Safari was released in October ’62, and it shows. The group runs through the entire collection in just under 25 minutes, and is clearly finding their way within the confines of a very specific formula; namely southern California surf rock.
The vocal harmonies that became the band’s calling card were largely intact, but nobody demonstrates any particular instrumental prowess here (although Brian pulls off a pretty nice walking bass line in the decidedly un-PC “Ten Little Indians”).
“Surfin’ Safari” was the most successful single from this album and for good reason. It’s far and away the best song of the bunch, and although the performance is less than stellar it clearly establishes the template the Beach Boys employed to massive success for the next several years. In addition to convincing Capitol Records to allow the band to record a full album, “Surfin’ Safari” peaked at #14 on the Hot 100 — the first of a staggering 36 U.S. Top 40 songs for the Beach Boys.
Other than that, the only songs of note are “409,” the first of many lyrical forays into hot rod culture, and the respectable instrumental “Moon Dawg.” The band’s cover of “Summertime Blues” is decent enough, but hardly measures up to the classic Eddie Cochran original or the epic Who take from Live at Leeds. Elsewhere, Surfin’ Safari is dogged by unremarkable surf rock filler (“Chug-A-Lug,” “Heads You Win – Tails I Lose”) and goofy throwaways (“County Fair,” “Cuckoo Clock”).
Surfin’ USA (1963)
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OK, now this is more like it. Although the production credit for Surfin’ USA went once again to Capitol A&R suit Nick Venet, can there be any doubt that this is the first real flowering of Brian Wilson’s production, songwriting and arranging talent?
Even overlooking the fact that “Surfin’ USA” is a ripoff of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen,” there’s no denying the power of those lush, double-tracked vocal harmonies. Carl Wilson even gets in on the action with a damn fine guitar solo.
Not every track on Surfin’ USA is a classic, but unlike Surfin’ Safari there are no embarrassing moments either. The band sticks largely to the musical formula of their debut but does so with much more confidence and aplomb. Witness “Let’s Go Trippin’,” a song that would’ve been butchered just one year prior. The entire group sounds much more assured as musicians, particularly Carl on lead guitar. Brian also unveils that angelic lead falsetto of his for the first time on “Farmer’s Daughter.”
You all should be familiar with the other chestnut from this collection, “Shut Down,” so I want to highlight my favorite track from this record — “Lonely Sea.” It’s the first of Brian’s slow, melancholy compositions and it’s a gem. I can’t think of a single songwriter working in pop who was ever able to wring such beauty from sadness like Brian (although I could do without the dated spoken word interlude).
Surfer Girl & Little Deuce Coupe (1963)
And now, for the first but not last time in the Beach Boys’ recording career, we hit a bit of a rough patch. And for that I lay the blame at Capitol’s door. No doubt buoyed by the success of Surfin’ USA, the label put pressure on the Boys to produce, produce, produce. And they did just that, pumping out two more studio records in 1963 — Surfer Girl in September and the quasi-concept album Little Deuce Coupe just one month later. And speaking as a diehard fan, there really isn’t a whole lot to recommend either of these records outside the hits that have been included on countless compilations.
Of the two, Surfer Girl gets the nod due to a higher ratio of hits to misses. The title track, “Catch a Wave” (featuring Mike Love’s sister, Maureen, on harp), “Little Deuce Coupe,” and “In My Room” are bona fide classics, while “Your Summer Dream” is worth hearing for its sophisticated chord structure and for the fact that Brian sings without any backing vocals.
Little Deuce Coupe, on the other hand, is just lame. Four of its twelve songs (“Little Deuce Coupe,” “409,” “Shut Down,” and “Our Car Club”) are recycled from prior albums in order to maintain the whole hot rod lyrical theme. Of the new material, “Ballad of Ole’ Betsy” is pretty but hard to take seriously. It is a love song written to a car, after all. “A Young Man Is Gone” features the most intricate vocal harmonies the band had produced to date, but I take a point off for originality because it’s nothing more than a new set of lyrics on top of Brian’s vocal arrangement of “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring” as performed by the Four Freshmen.
Both albums showcase Brian’s increasing skill as a producer and arranger, even if he was unable to maintain a consistent quality in the songwriting department (then again, who could under those conditions?). That didn’t stop either release from cracking the Top 10 and shifting a ton of units, though, so the torrid release schedule continued into 1964.
Shut Down, Volume 2 (1964)
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No, I didn’t forget Shut Down, Volume 1. That was not a Beach Boys album, but rather a 1963 Capitol Records compilation album featuring songs about — you guessed it — hot rods. Shut Down, Volume 2 suffers from the same inconsistent songwriting that marred the previous two albums, although it benefits from richer production and three of the band’s greatest songs.
Leading off the first side is the killer one-two combo of “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Don’t Worry Baby.” The former, based on a true story, was recorded over Murry Wilson’s objections (he felt the lyrics to be too immoral). Murry lost the argument of course, and within a few months was out as the group’s manager. “Fun, Fun, Fun” shot to #5 in February ’64. “Don’t Worry Baby,” a clear homage to the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby,” succeeds on every level. The third great track from the album is “The Warmth of the Sun,” a gorgeous, heartbreaking ballad somewhat in the mold of “Lonely Sea.” Legend has it that Brian and Mike wrote the song just hours after John F. Kennedy’s assassination on November 22, 1963. Whether or not that’s true, it’s a phenomenal number and easily one of my ten favorite Beach Boys songs.
Really there isn’t much else about Shut Down, Volume 2 worth hearing except for historical value. I know that if I had purchased this record in March of ’64 and heard songs like the comedy sketch “”Cassius” Love vs. “Sonny” Wilson” or the Dennis Wilson drum showcase (yikes) “Denny’s Drums” I’d be pretty damn pissed. The sweet, melodic “Keep an Eye on the Summer” helps soften the blow, but not by much.
Despite a string of spotty albums the Beach Boys were still immensely popular in the United States in early 1964. But on February 9 the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show for the first time, and Beatlemania took hold of America. With the Fab Four now competing with the Beach Boys for the affection of American music fans, Brian intensified his efforts in the studio and began the process of taking the group to a whole new level.
All Summer Long (1964)
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While not uniformly strong from start to finish, All Summer Long is a cut above any album the Beach Boys had released since Surfin’ USA. Brian upped his production game by employing session musicians for most of the songs — calling in the boys for vocals only in most cases — and as a result the performances are crisper and smoother. Even relative filler like “Hushabye” sounds more substantial.
The lyrics started to change for the better as well. “Little Honda” is the lone hot rod tune, and while there are plenty of references to sun and sand even those are tinged with longing and melancholy (the stunning “Girls on the Beach” and “All Summer Long,” the track that got me hooked on the band). The only explicit references to surfing are on the relatively edgy “Don’t Back Down,” which closes the album. Of the lesser-known numbers the group’s cover of the doo-wop classic “Hushabye” is worth hearing for the brilliantly arranged vocals. Ignore the bland instrumental “Carl’s Big Chance” and the goofy throwaways “Our Favorite Recording Sessions” and “Drive-In.”
In October ’64 Capitol released the first Beach Boys live album, Beach Boys Concert. As an historical document it has value since it documents the final days of the original quintet as a touring band. It also contains a bunch of cover songs never before released on a Beach Boys album — “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena,” “Long, Tall Texan,” “Monster Mash,” “Graduation Day,” “The Wanderer,” and “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow.” Of these, only the last three rise above filler status. Beyond that, Beach Boys Concert is pleasant but quite unessential.
An incredible sixth Beach Boys album in two years hit shelves in November ’64, when The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album was released. It’s an enjoyable effort that contains its share of tracks that have since become Yuletide standards (most notably “Little Saint Nick”), but doesn’t really add much to the Beach Boys narrative. If you like Christmas music then by all means pick it up. Or rather, get Ultimate Christmas, which combines their ’64 holiday album with an unreleased 1977 follow-up.
As 1964 drew to a close, a major shift came to the Beach Boys. Brian Wilson, exhausted by the group’s relentless touring and recording schedule, suffered a nervous breakdown on December 23. Something had to give, and so Brian withdrew from touring the next month to focus his attention on writing and producing the band’s albums. He was initially replaced by Glen Campbell (he of “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Wichita Lineman” fame), and later by writer/producer Bruce Johnston.
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The first fruit of Brian’s new-found studio focus is Today!, an album that is one track (the disposable gabfest “Bull Session with the ‘Big Daddy'”) away from wall-to-wall greatness. “Do You Wanna Dance?”, featuring one of Dennis Wilson’s best vocal leads from the group’s peak, rockets out of the gate with tons of energy. Listen to the way the song explodes during the chorus.
The remainder of the first half of Today!, while not quite as fierce, is chock full of rich instrumental arrangements and killer vocal harmonies. The standouts here are the peppy “Good to My Baby” and the wistful “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man),” the latter of which must have surely resonated with the Boys’ core fan base of teenagers on the cusp of adulthood. The most curious track on the first part of the record is “Help Me, Ronda,” which is not the same version that topped the U.S. charts in April (and rechristened “Help Me, Rhonda.”).
As great as the first half of Today! is, it’s Side B that really packs a wallop. “Please Let Me Wonder” has a chorus that can make a grown man cry (not that I ever have, mind you) and is a clear indicator of where Brian was taking his material. The remainder of the album continues in the same moody, contemplative vein, such as in “Kiss Me, Baby” and “She Knows Me Too Well,” songs that probably provided the soundtrack to many a lonely Saturday night.
Pay special attention to the dense, quasi-symphonic arrangements Wilson employed on this album. It’s a style he’d soon perfect, and to staggering effect.
Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) (1965)
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Two steps forward, one step back I guess. Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) suffers only by comparison to Today!, but is still a fine record. Leery of the direction Brian seemed to be taking the Beach Boys, Capitol Records and Mike Love reportedly insisted on a return to the more lighthearted, peppy fare that characterized earlier Boys material. Brian obliged them… sort of.
Take for example the opening number, “The Girl From New York City.” Lyrically it’s vintage Beach Boys, but in terms of songwriting and production this is a damn sophisticated piece of pop music. Same goes for “Salt Lake City,” another song that would’ve benefited from different or no lyrics at all. Unfortunately the same can’t be said for “Amusement Parks U.S.A.” or “I’m Bugged at My Ol’ Man,” which are for diehards only.
The rest of Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) is split between good material (a rather pointless but well-executed reworking of the Crystals hit “Then He Kissed Me,” retitled “The I Kissed Her”) and great material. Included in this group are mega-hits “California Girls” and “Help Me, Rhonda,” as well as lesser-known but equally worthy songs such as “Let Him Run Wild,” “Girl Don’t Tell Me,” and the excellent symphonic instrumental, “Summer Means New Love.”
Beach Boys’ Party! (1965)
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So what we have here is a pure stopgap release ordered by Capitol (and again with the exclamation points!). The premise is that the group is being recorded at a “party,” although all the chatter and background noise was actually dubbed in later. It’s an interesting collection if for no other reason than to hear the band (no session musicians this time) performing an acoustic set. It’s probably the purest album, musically speaking, the group had released up this point.
If there was any doubt about the impact the Beatles were having on the Beach Boys, note the presence of three Fab Four songs here (“I Should Have Known Better,” “Tell My Why,” and “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away”), the third of which gets a spirited reading from Dennis Wilson. Unfortunately it is slightly marred by ridiculous crowd overdubs during the chorus.
Finally, check out the Boys’ rendition of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’.” It’s absolutely surreal to hear one of the great protest songs of the era sung by the Beach Boys at a fake party. The weirdness is heightened as the group segues into the final song on Party!, “Barbara Ann,” featuring co-lead vocals by Dean Torrence of Jan and Dean. It’s a strange ending to one of the more curious items in the Beach Boys’ discography.
Pet Sounds (1966)
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Pet Sounds is the album I dreaded writing about when I started this piece. Not because I don’t love it — I absolutely do — but because there really isn’t anything left to say about it. It’s one of the most stunning musical achievements of the 1960s and cemented Brian Wilson’s legacy as a genius. He was not yet 24 years old when it was released on May 16, 1966.
The oft-cited inspiration for Pet Sounds was the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, released in December 1965. Although some work had already been completed on Pet Sounds by then, Wilson was so blown away by what the Beatles accomplished — namely, releasing an album that stood as a complete artistic statement with zero filler — he made it his mission to top them on the next Beach Boys record. He teamed up with lyricist Tony Asher and began overseeing the bulk of the recording in the early months of 1966, while the band was on tour in Asia.
When the Boys returned they discovered that the album was largely completed, and all that was required were their vocals. They were less than thrilled with what they heard — dense, moody, symphonic pop full of lyrics about heartbreak, loss, and the uncertainty of young adulthood. No more sun, no more surf, and certainly no more hot rods. Only Brian’s unwavering enthusiasm for this new direction convinced the group to go along with him, but Pet Sounds is in retrospect the first clear signal that Brian was no longer willing to limit his creative vision to what the rest of the band wanted.
I’d say Brian made the right call, wouldn’t you? Who can argue with the timeless beauty of songs like “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” or “God Only Knows,” the latter of which Paul McCartney admits brings him to tears? While the album is revered by fans and critics alike today, it was not a commercial smash in the U.S. British music fans took to it immediately, however, and the Beach Boys became superstars across the Pond.
It’s difficult to imagine that Pet Sounds could have been even better, but it was almost so. “Good Vibrations,” originally released as a single in October 1966, was supposed to be part of the album but Brian dropped it from the track listing in order to allow for more time to work on it.
“Good Vibrations,” as it turns out, was recorded in fits and starts throughout most of 1966. It took 22 recording sessions, in four different studios, and around 94 hours to produce what publicist Derek Taylor called a “pocket symphony.” Oh and it cost $50,000, easily the most expensive single ever to date. But Brian’s manic, obsessive attention to detail paid off with one of the crown jewels of popular music. It hit #1 on both sides of the Atlantic and sold more than two million copies.
Brian, emboldened by the success of his new approach to music-making, attempted to apply the same patchwork technique to an entire album. This turned out to be his undoing. The recording of SMiLE got underway in August 1966 with a release targeted for Christmastime. Nearly a half-million album covers were produced. But Brian’s ambitions were starting to get the best of him, and he was cracking under the pressure.
Once a holiday release became impossible, Capitol was still hopeful for January 1967. But Brian was on a downward slide — uncertainty and doubt turned to paranoia and depression, and he became increasingly isolated from friends and supporters. His new lyrical collaborator, Van Dyke Parks, came under attack from Mike Love over his cryptic, artistic lyrics. The rest of the group also demonstrated little in the way of support or enthusiasm for the album. At the end of February, with not even the long-promised “Heroes and Villains” single finished, Brian halted work on the majority of SMiLE.
It was at this point that Brian started to slowly withdraw from the Beach Boys and, later, from just about everything else. In his absence, the rest of the band was left to pick up the pieces and shoulder the creative load. But first, the band had to release something. Anything.