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The Beach Boys

The all-American equivalent to The BEATLES, the 60s-centric, surf-family Wilson BEACH BOYS were a cut-n-blow-dry above every other mainstream act of their genre. Staple diets for every teenager at the time, included platinum 45s, `Surfin’ U.S.A,’, `Fun, Fun, Fun’, `I Get Around’, `Help Me, Rhonda’, `California Girls’ and `Barbara Ann’. Defining a movement that lasted way beyond its sell-by-date, the harmony-driven brothers Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson (plus cousin Mike Love and good friend, Al Jardine), subsequently peaked with one of pop/rock music’s greatest studio productions: “Pet Sounds”, although by the time of its release in’66, elder sibling and one-time leader BRIAN WILSON was hitting other highs – and lows. The eventually deaths of Dennis (in 1983 from accidental drowning) and Carl (in 1998 of brain cancer) put paid to any proper reunions, but fast forward to 2012, and The BEACH BOYS (Brian, Mike, Al, early affiliate David Marks and another integral part of the quintet, BRUCE JOHNSTON) were again flowing against the tides of fashion by way of a fresh Top 3 album.
“Good Vibrations” were giving us excitations again.
Formed 1961 in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne, by the Wilson brothers Brian, Dennis and Carl, plus cousin Mike Love and neighbour/friend Al Jardine, the quintet went through a series of cringe-inducing group names before being individually christened The BEACH BOYS by a local DIY studio who’d released their first single `Surfin’ on the small Candix independent. As sales of the record mushroomed, the band decided to keep the name.
Murray Wilson, the brothers’ tyrannical father, seized the opportunity to become their manager, producer and song publisher; not exactly a healthy combination and one which the band would come to regret when financial troubles dogged them throughout the next decade and beyond. For the moment, however, on the surface at least, everything was hunky dory, the band riding the commercial crest of their surfing wave as they signed to Capitol Records in 1962, and became the very essence of the sun-tanned, Californian dream.
The hits came thick and fast with the prodigiously talented Brian writing most of the material. Songs such as `Surfin’ Safari’, `Surfin’ U.S.A.’, `Surfer Girl’ and `Little Deuce Coupe’ (the titles also given to four parent sets including best-in-show, SURFIN’ USA (1963) {*6}), were effervescent feel-good anthems, their jaw-dropping vocal harmonies framing images of surf, sea and beautiful girls. Early glimpses of Brian’s penchant for introspection were evident on tracks like the poignant `In My Room’ (co-written with Gary Usher), the first of many songwriters Brian would collaborate with during the course of his career. The execrable sentiments of songs like the Top 10 `Be True To Your School’, were a result of a period of collaboration with lyricist Roger Christian, although this partnership also created livelier gems like `I Get Around’ – the quintet’s first chart-topper. The latter song was probably the highlight of ALL SUMMER LONG {*7}, the 1964 album which saw the band make the leap from being primarily a singles act to creating consistent long players.
By Christmas 1964, however, the strain of their horrendous recording/touring treadmill was too much for Brian and he suffered a series of nervous breakdowns. Producing and arranging six albums in just over two years, as well as writing over 60 songs in the same period would’ve been too much for the hardiest of souls, let alone the painfully shy and sensitive Brian. This episode signalled the end of Brian’s live commitment to the band, allowing him to concentrate solely on composing and recording. Country singer-to-be, GLEN CAMPBELL, showed his “true grit” when filling in as both bassist and live vocalist, although he in turn, was replaced by former BRUCE & TERRY muso, Bruce Johnston, who carried the can right on until 1972.
All delivered in ’65, THE BEACH BOYS – TODAY! {*8}, SUMMER DAYS (AND SUMMER NIGHTS!! {*7} and BEACH BOYS’ PARTY! {*7} represented a career high with breath-taking material showcasing his preoccupation with achieving the perfect sound. In the meantime, the ‘Boys were always ready for the odd cameo, and the “Beach Party” movies saw them branch out into the flicks.
Brian had become obsessed with outdoing The BEATLES, whom he saw as a threat, a paranoia that grew stronger after his first forays into the world of LSD. It was said he first took the drug during that summer, and it changed his approach to music, to his whole life in fact; with the man later stating that his mind was opened and it scared the shit out of him. He then enlisted the unlikely help of erstwhile ad sloganeer, Tony Asher, to express the lyrical mood of these new pieces, and the result was PET SOUNDS {*10}.
Released in May ‘66, it still holds the coveted “best album of all time” position among many critics, with fragile hit highlights being `Sloop John B’, `Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ and `God Only Knows’, which perfectly evoked Brian’s turbulent emotional state. Reportedly devastated at the album’s lack of success in his home country (yes, it only dented the Top 10) and feeling outdone by The BEATLES’ “Revolver” and DYLAN’s “Blonde On Blonde” double, he upped his drug use and vowed to go one better, dreaming of the ultimate studio masterpiece.
Initially pencilled in for inclusion on “Pet Sounds” in its earliest incarnation, `Good Vibrations’ was released in October that year and soon became their biggest ever selling single. With its pioneering use of the Theremin and complex vocal arrangements, its success vindicated Brian’s vision of grand sonic tapestries over the formulaic pop that other members (most notably Mike Love and his father) wanted to churn out.
Around this time, Brian began working on his masterpiece (with self-styled L.A. boho scene-ster/songwriter, VAN DYKE PARKS), which had a working title of “Dumb Angel”, later changing to “Smile”. The sessions that resulted are the stuff of legend with Brian’s mental condition deteriorating rapidly under the weight of his own expectation. Among his more whimsical foibles were having a box filled with sand so he could play piano barefoot “like on the beach, man” (Surf’s Up, indeed). More worrying was the pathological superstition which saw him attempt to destroy tapes of the abandoned “Smile” project, although these did surface later on albums SMILEY SMILE (1967) {*6}, etc. With songs `Heroes And Villains’ (another Top 20 hit), plus a number of psychedelic goofball ditties, this was no “Sgt. Pepper”, the result being a lowly No.41 peak position, and relative failures for subsequent sets, WILD HONEY (1967) {*6} – featuring the excellent Brian leftover `Darlin’’ and a fill-in cover of STEVIE WONDER’s `I Was Made To Love Her’, FRIENDS (1968) {*6} and 20/20 (1969) {*6}; the awfully average UK-only LIVE IN LONDON (1970) {*5} marked another low point in the band’s history.
Brian had already retreated even further from the world at large and spent much of the following decade in bed. A string of average, occasionally good albums followed with Dennis emerging as a fairly talented songwriter. Recorded after the band’s acrimonious split with Capitol, 1970’s SUNFLOWER {*7} and SURF’S UP (1971) {*7} were the highlights of this period, the latter with its “Smile”-era title track and spirited contributions from other band members. Dennis Wilson’s association with the infamous Charles Manson, albeit before he went on his killing spree in ‘69, probably brought more attention than any music they released at this time. Adding guitarist Blondie Chaplin and drummer Ricky Fataar to the BB line-up held the band together for CARL AND THE PASSIONS – “SO TOUGH” (1972) {*6}, an easy, almost horizontal set that would’ve made the melancholy-driven TODD RUNDGREN sit up.
With the exception of an outstanding Brian-penned song `Sail On Sailor’ (from the disappointing HOLLAND (1973) {*4} set, much of the early 70s material was creatively bland to say the least; THE BEACH BOYS IN CONCERT (1973) {*6} – a double! – went some in resurrecting the feel of the old band while bringing them into modern times.
On June 4, 1973, the Wilson’s father died and eventually Mike Love’s brothers Stan and Steve were removed from management after the latter was found guilty of embezzling around $1 million. Meanwhile, the belatedly-released half-covers set, 15 BIG ONES (1976) {*4}, pulled the brothers back into the US Top 10, combining stuff from the pen of Mike and Brian (`It’s O.K.’ was a Top 30 breaker) to renditions of CHUCK BERRY’s `Rock And Roll Music’ (another hit) and Brill Building staples, `Chapel Of Love’ and `Just Once In My Life’.
1977’s LOVE YOU {*6} album saw Brian return to take the reins again for the first time in over a decade, and included some fine material. From there on in, The BEACH BOYS became nothing more than a nostalgic novelty act, living on past glories while producing largely stagnant sets (such as M.I.U. ALBUM (1978) {*3}, L.A. (LIGHT ALBUM) (1979) {*5} and KEEPIN’ THE SUMMER ALIVE (1980) {*2}) for the over-40s. One supposes in retrospection that MIKE LOVE’s foray into film soundtracks, via 1978’s “Almost Summer” (with his own band, CELEBRATION) was another that might’ve been overlooked had it not been recorded by a Beach Boy. A year previously, DENNIS WILSON was truly on top form with the understated “Pacific Ocean Blue” album, although on December 28, 1983, tragedy was to unfold when he drowned during a diving trip in Marina del Rey.
The band struggled on, minus Brian who’d been sacked for the umpteenth time; but yet another set, this time the eponymous, Steve Levine-produced THE BEACH BOYS (1985) {*4} did little or nothing (bar a No.52 peak position) to reel back the years. The group scored a surprise US No.1 hit in ‘88 with the soppy `Kokomo’ single (from the movie, Cocktail), which was co-written with former MAMAS & PAPAS singer, JOHN PHILLIPS, and belatedly spawned from “Lethal Weapon 2” title track parent set, STILL CRUISIN’ (1989) {*3}. Mike Love and Terry Melcher (old mucker of Johnston) were behind many of the sunshine pop songs on SUMMER IN PARADISE (1992) {*1} – surely the band’s worst and nowhere to be seen in the charts. Another to avoid was the country collaborative, STAR AND STRIPES, VOL.1 (1996) {*3} – an embarrassment for WILLIE NELSON, TOBY KEITH, et al, and hopefully not worthy of a “Vol.2”.
Meanwhile, BRIAN WILSON released a competent, not to mention long-awaited, solo album under the guidance of his controversial therapist Eugene Landy. 1995 saw the release of Brian’s “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times”, while around the same period, the BBs scraped the barrel of banality when they knocked out a nauseating run-through of their 60s hit `Fun, Fun, Fun’ with Brit rockers, STATUS QUO. This was surely the end of the sandy road for the once inspirational outfit; tragedy struck with the brain cancer death (on February 6, 1998) of Carl.
Remaining brother Brian carried on the can into the new millennium, receiving rave reviews for subsequent activities, including putting the lid on “Smile”, the would-be masterpiece he abandoned in ‘67 now released under his own moniker in 2004 as a gloriously seamless DVD/album. Over the years, we’ve witnessed the odd bio-pic, two especially come to mind: “The Beach Boys: An American Band” (1985) and “Endless Harmony: The Beach Boys Story” (1998).
And just when one thought The BEACH BOYS had been all but washed-up in the muddy waters of our yesterdays, up they popped for a 50th Anniversary comeback record, THAT’S WHY GOD MADE THE RADIO (2012) {*6}. While it was hardly competitive among today’s “beach bummers”, Brian, Mike, Al, Bruce and re-united member David Marks (from 1962/63) were convincing enough to spread their sunny-day gospel and contemporary harmonies among the already converted. Worth listening to the likes of the title track, `From There To Back Again’ and `Summer’s Gone’ on a faraway beach – if one can stretch the readies in today’s climate.
© MC Strong 1994-2008/BG-LCS / rev-up MCS Dec2012

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