I love The Beach Boys. There, I said it. A fact that many a fellow fan has to contend with is that mentioning them as one of the great musical forces of the ’60s often raises an eyebrow. For many people these days The Beach Boys are nothing more than a cultural flash in the pan, a surf group that churned out cheap and cheerful hits during the early sixties and have remained the sound of your parents’ childhood. This is in spite of the band repeatedly eclipsing the image, first by introducing psychedelia to the masses with Pet Sounds and ‘Good Vibrations’ and later acclaimed albums that saw them explore various rock sub genres.
So, what brought about this state of affairs? Here’s a list of the common arguments put forward in order to explain their lack of modern renown:
An engineered image
It was drummer Dennis Wilson who suggested to his older brothers Carl and Brian, alongside cousin Mike Love and family friend Al Jardine, that they base the lyrics to their first song around surfing, a trend that was sweeping Los Angeles in the early 1960s. This idea served as the genesis to what would become the group’s signature theme in their early albums. The song (aptly called ‘Surfin’’) would also cement their image in another, indirect way; having recorded the song at World Pacific Studios the label promoter changed their original moniker of The Pendletones to the name that stuck: ‘The Beach Boys’.
From their very first album Surfin’ Safari, manager Murray Wilson – father to the Wilson brothers – worked with Capitol Records to foster the image of a band all about the Southern Californian teenage experience of surfing, cars and women. Although Dennis was indeed an avid surfer, the rest of the band held little interest; guitarist Al Jardine quit the band for a year to study dentistry, while Brian held a deep fear of the water despite Murray’s attempts to make him learn surfing to maintain the image. Despite following the surfing trend, they were also responsible for making it a nationwide success. Even today, many culture historians will credit Brian Wilson’s ornate pop arrangements and Mike Love’s Chuck Berry-styled lyrics as the soundtrack to early sixties American optimism.
Don’t f*ck with the formula
By 1966 Brian Wilson was on a touring sabbatical after suffering a breakdown on a flight to Japan. Responsible for the tour de force act of producing eight acclaimed studio albums in a three year period, he now wanted a change. Inspired by The Beatles’ Rubber Soul album, Brian felt challenged to make A Great Album, one that which had no filler and instead reflecting musically and lyrically emotions he felt at the time. Newly married, teenage innocence was giving way to concerns about relationships and artistic struggles. The result was Pet Sounds, an album consistently ranked as one of, if not the best, albums of all time.
The album, nearly completely composed by Brian and with lyrics from Tony Asher was met with some opposition from the rest of the band (Mike Love is said to have uttered to Brian “Don’t f*ck with the formula!”). Commercially it was also seen as a disappointment, just hitting the top 10 in the US. Sluggish sales also worried their label. They were concerned about Brian replacing songs about Little Deuce Coupes and California Girls with teenage angst and isolation. Capitol panicked and hastily released Best of The Beach Boys just two months after Pet Sounds.
SMiLE and Monterey
Brian would have the last laugh, however. Their last single to be released for 1966 was a song that he felt was too incomplete for Pet Sounds and would eventually cost over $50,000 to record. Rekindling his writing partnership with Mike Love, ‘Good Vibrations’ would top the charts that year and become their first million-selling single. It also heralded the popularity other psychedelic-based music would take that year, such as The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s… and Jimmy Hendrix’s Are You Experienced.
The success of the track spurred Brian to compose his intended Magnum Opus, a “teenage symphony to God” called SMiLE. Collaborating with actor/poet Van Dyke Parks this period saw him indulge in notorious eccentricities such as ordering a giant sandbox for his Bel Air home in order to feel the beach while he composed songs. Session musicians were required to wear fireman hats when recording the instrumental Fire, the tapes of which were destroyed when Brian heard about a building that had burnt down nearby and felt had been in some way caused by the song.
These eccentricities, coupled with the rapid departure of their original sound, were starting to worry the rest of the band. Things came to a head when Mike Love, increasingly frustrated with Parks, criticised him about his nonsensical lyrics. Parks left the project in frustration. Brian, now without his lyricist and feeling the pressure from himself, the band and the record label, caved in and abandoned the project as well. Following this Brian had his most significant breakdown, one that lasted more than five years and saw him bedridden, taking cocaine and seldom working with the group. SMiLE’s abandonment meant that The Beach Boys were also being overlooked during what would become the Summer of Love. Carl Wilson’s protests against being called into the Vietnam draft meant that the band were to miss the iconic Monterey Pop festival of 1967. The festival, which they had a small part in planning from the beginning, would feature many icons of the era such as Janis Joplin, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix as well as the first US performance from The Who. By failing to release SMiLE and missing the festival, The Beach Boys would find themselves skipped over by the new musical era when they would have otherwise certainly have become its champion.
Their Endless Summer and 15 Big Ones
By the mid ’70s the Beach Boys had gone underground. Under the new management of ex-DJ Jack Riely they had become something of a college band, producing solid albums that didn’t reach their previous commercial heights, but nonetheless rejuvenated their following and were augmented by a stint supporting The Grateful Dead in 1971. Meanwhile Capitol, their original record label that they had since left, was preparing Best of The Beach Boys Volume Three. At the insistence of Mike Love, who considered the title too long, it was renamed Endless Summer. Released in June 1974 the album was a surprise hit, reaching no 1 on the Billboard charts. The band had suddenly regained popularity and a slew of other compilations followed. They began non-stop touring in order to satiate the public’s desire to hear their original hits.
Pressure soon mounted to record a new album. Even in the early years people knew that Brian was the genius producer behind their songs – whatever album that would come out would need his Midas touch. Wilson, however, was in no way capable of stepping back into the limelight, recovering as he was from his mental problems as well as a cocaine addiction. Once again however, he yielded and produced 15 Big Ones, an album of covers and new material. The album was their first top ten hit in 8 years, though the publicity tour for the album was disastrous (Brian once flat out asked a reporter if he had any cocaine on him). Nonetheless this album would prove to be The Beach Boys’ few commercial and critical successes for years to come.
The title Endless Summer would prove to be apt. The group would soon devolve into their own cover band, endlessly touring and playing their earliest hits. This had the effect of constantly reaffirming audience’s suspicions that their prime had ended soon after Pet Sounds. In May 2011, QTV host Jian Ghomeshi asked Brian whether the Beach Boys should be regarded higher by contemporary audiences. “Like the young people? Well, I don’t think the young people are hip to the Beach Boys. I don’t think so. People from their forties to their seventies are hip to the Beach Boys.”
Despite their lower standing with modern audiences many bands today such as Muse, Fleet Foxes and The Shins have all cited The Beach Boys as influences. 2012 marked their 50th anniversary, celebrated by a new album (That’s Why God Made The Radio, No 3 on the Billboard charts) and a worldwide tour. Perhaps this renewed viability of the group (who never officially split up) means that their long-term legacy is instead still in formation.