The Beach Boys
The Beach Boys were an enormously successful pop group of the 1960s whose popularity has lasted into the twenty-first century. They were led for much of their career by singer-musician-composer Brian Wilson.
They group was formed in 1961 in Hawthorne, California, by brothers Carl, Dennis, and Brian Wilson with their cousin Mike Love and school friend Al Jardine. The group's close vocal harmonies were strongly influenced by The Four Freshmen. David Marks appeared on their first four albums and was a member from 1962 to 1963, a temporary replacement for Jardine. Marks also rejoined the band in 1997, during Carl Wilson's last illness, and remained with them for two years. Bruce Johnston worked with the group occasionally between 1965 and 1967, when he joined permanently. Glen Campbell was also a touring member during 1964.
At first, their career was steered by the Wilsons' father Murry, who engineered their signing with Capitol Records, but in 1965 Brian Wilson fired his father after a violent confrontation in the studio, and over the next few years they became increasingly estranged; when Murry Wilson died some years later, Brian did not attend the funeral.
The Beach Boys' early material focused on the Californian youth lifestyle (e.g., "All Summer Long", "Fun, Fun, Fun"), cars ("Little Deuce Coupe") and, as often as not, Dennis' hobby of surfing (as heard on "Surfin'", "Surfin' Safari," and many others). Although their music was bright and accessible, even these early works contained some remarkably sophisticated musical ideas, and during this period Brian rapidly progressed to become a melodist, arranger, and producer of world stature. Their early hits made them major pop stars in America and many other countries, although their status as America's top pop group was challenged by the emergence of The Beatles in 1964, who became the Beach Boys' major creative rivals.
Like The Beatles, the Beach Boys showed very fast development during the mid-60s, drawing upon the innovations of songwriters and producers such as Burt Bacharach and especially Phil Spector. They produced the enduring classic "California Girls" in 1965, a banner year for popular music which also saw similarly advanced singles by the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Byrds, and James Brown. But it was the Beach Boys' role to create a myth of American freedom and a dream of adolescence (and, increasingly, to articulate a dread of what lay after adolescence).
During 1964 Brian Wilson began to suffer anxiety attacks, so he withdraw from touring to concentrating on producing studio recordings of ever-increasing complexity. It was at this time that Glen Campbell joined the group as a touring replacement for Brian (who played bass in concert). Campbell was subsequently replaced by Bruce Johnston, who later became a permanent member.
Brian's growing mastery of the recording studio and his increasingly sophisticated songs and arrangements reached an early peak with the acclaimed LP Pet Sounds (1966) and the classic singles from the album "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and "God Only Knows", which was said to have been the first pop song ever released in the U.S. to have the word "God" in the title. Also from Pet Sounds, "Caroline, No" was issued as a Brian Wilson solo single.
The album's meticulously layered harmonies and inventive instrumentation (performed by the cream of Los Angeles session musicians) set a new standard for popular music. Lyrically and musically it remains one of the most evocative releases of the decade, with a distinctive strain of melancholy and nostalgia for youth. The album is still widely regarded as a classic and Paul McCartney has named it one of his favorite albums of all time, often saying that it was a major influence on the Beatles' next album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. In spite of the critical praise it received, the album was poorly promoted by Capitol Records and failed to become the major hit Brian had hoped it would be (only reaching #10). Its failure to gain wide recognition hurt him deeply.
Brian's innovative approach to recording Pet Sounds set new standards in popular music production. His working method for the album was to create the elaborate backing tracks as live performances taped direct to a four-track recorder. Most of these backing tracks were cut in a single "take" and, according to his engineer of the time, Chuck Britz, it was common for Brian to also mix them live. The finished backing tracks were then dubbed down onto one track of an eight-track recorder; six of the remaining seven tracks were used for each of the band's vocals, with the eighth track kept free for additional percussion and "sweetening" vocal overdubs.
Because of his withdrawal from touring, Brian was able to complete almost all the backing for the album while the Beach Boys were on tour in Japan, and when they returned they were presented with a substantially complete album, requiring only their vocals to finish it off. There was some resitance to the new direction from within the band; lead singer Mike Love is reported to have been strongly opposed to it, partly because he feared the band would lose its audience if they changed their successful formula, and partly because he personally disliked the new material, which he famously criticised as "Brian's ego music." At Love's insistence, Brian had to change the title of one song from "Hang on to Your Ego" to "I Know There's an Answer." Another likely factor in Love's antipathy to Pet Sounds was that for it Brian worked for the first time with an outside lyricist, Tony Asher, rather than with Love, who had written most of the lyrics for their earlier songs.
Seeking to expand on the advances made on Pet Sounds, later in 1966 Brian began working on an even more ambitious project, which was originally dubbed Dumb Angel, and which Brian once famously described as "a teenage symphony to God". The first fruit of this project was "Good Vibrations," the Beach Boys' biggest hit and a U.S. and U.K. # 1 single in 1966. It was one of the most complex pop productions ever undertaken, and was reputed to have been the most expensive American single ever recorded up to that time, costing a reported $50,000--many times more than the cost of most pop albums--with sessions stretching over several months in at least three major Los Angeles studios.
In contrast to his work on Pet Sounds, Brian adopted a "modular" approach to recording "Good Vibrations"--he broke the song down into sections and taped multiple versions of each section at different studios to take advantage of the different sound of each facility. After deciding which sections he preferred, they were assembled into a complete master of the backing track, and vocals were added. The song's innovative instrumentation included drums, organ, piano, tack piano, two basses, guitars, theremin, harmonica, and cello. The group members recall the "Good Vibrations" vocal sessions as among the most demanding of their recording career.
Shortly after completing "Good Vibrations," Brian met session musician and songwriter Van Dyke Parks, and in late 1966 they began an intense collaboration that resulted in a suite of superb new songs for the Beach Boys' next album, which was eventually named Smile. Using the same methods as on "Good Vibrations," recording began in late 1966 and carried on into early 1967. Although the structure of the album and the exact running order of the songs has been the subject of endless speculation, it is apparent that Wilson and Parks intended Smile to be a continuous suite of songs that were linked both thematically and musically, with the main songs being linked together by small vocal pieces and instrumental segments that elaborated the musical themes of the major songs.
By early 1967, several major Smile tracks, including "Heroes and Villains," "Cabinessence," and "Wind Chimes" were fully or nearly finished; a large number of linking fragments had been taped; and major sections of several other songs were substantially complete. Long-serving session bassist Carol Kaye has stated that, in her opinion, the album was close to completion by the spring of 1967. From the evidence of the surviving tapes and Brian's 2004 version of the work, it appears that the bulk of the album was fully or nearly finished and was almost ready to be assembled into its final form. Capitol clearly expected that the album would be out by mid-year--a track order had been decided, cover artwork and photos were prepared, and covers had been printed.
But the other Beach Boys--especially Mike Love--found the new music too difficult and too far removed from their established style; another serious concern was that the new music was simply not feasible for live performance by the current Beach Boys lineup. Love was bitterly opposed to Smile and was particularly critical of Parks's lyrics; he has also since stated that he was becoming deeply concerned about Brian's escalating drug intake. The problems came to a head during the recording of "Cabinessence," when Love demanded that Parks explain the meaning of the closing refrain of the song, "Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield." After a heated argument, Parks walked out and his partnership with Brian came to an abrupt end.
Matters were complicated by Brian's reliance on both prescription and illegal drugs, particularly marijuana and LSD, which only exacerbated his underlying mental health problems. Several biographies have suggested that his father Murry may have had bipolar disorder, and after years of suffering, Brian's own condition was eventually diagnosed as schizophrenia.
Many factors combined to focus intense pressure on Brian as Smile neared completion, including his latent mental instability, his drug use, the pressure to perform against fierce oppostion to his new music, the relatively poor response to Pet Sounds, Carl's draft resistance, and a major dispute with Capitol.
The final straw was The Beatles' June 1967 release of their latest masterpiece, Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. When Brian heard the new album, he realized that the overdue Smile could not compete, so he announced that the album had been shelved. Over the next thirty years the legends surrounding Smile grew until it became the most famous unreleased album in the history of popular music.
Some of the tracks were salvaged and rerecorded at Brian's new home studio in drastically scaled-down versions. These were released, along with the completed versions of "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes and Villains," on the LP Smiley Smile.
Smile itself, in its original conception, did not surface until Wilson and Parks completed the writing and Brian rerecorded it as a solo project in 2004. However, despite the cancellation of Smile, interest in the work remained high and versions of several major tracks--including "Our Prayer," "Cabinessence," "Cool Cool Water," and "Surf's Up"--were assembled by Carl Wilson over the next few years and included on later albums. A substantial number of original tracks and linking fragments were included on the group's 30th anniversary CD boxed set in 1993.
In the late 1960s and 1970s Brian withdrew into chronic drug abuse, paranoia and depression, so Carl gradually took over leadership of the band, and developed into an accomplished songwriter and producer. The 1967 album Wild Honey is regarded by many critics as second only to Pet Sounds and features a prescient cover of Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made to Love Her." Wild Honey and its hit single "Darlin'" also marked the end of the Beach Boys as a major commercial entity, with subsequent releases faring far less well than those previous. Their image problems were not helped by the criticism that followed their forced withdrawal from the bill of the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival as a result of Carl's draft problems, an event which would undoubtedly have been crucial in establishing their new sound had they been able to play and to present their new material.
Despite Brian's deteriorating health, the band continued to work, recording the albums Friends (1968) and 20/20 (1969) before finally breaking with Capitol and signing with Reprise Records. According to the liner notes for the 2004 version, Reprise expected Smile to be completed and released as part of the new contract.
Their first two Reprise LPs were Sunflower (1970) and 1971's Surf's Up. 1973's Holland received mixed reviews. "Sail on Sailor," a brief return to the collaboration between Parks and Brian, was one of the most emblematic of Beach Boys songs, and it hit the charts in both 1973 and 1975. By this time, the group's touring lineup had expanded to include drummer Ricky Fataar, guitarist Blondie Chaplin, and keyboard player Daryl Dragon (later famous as half of the pop duo The Captain & Tenille).
During the 1970s Brian's condition worsened--he abused drugs heavily and gained an enormous amount of weight. In 1977 the Beach Boys released the LP Love You, a collection of songs that reflected both his retreat from the world ("Johnny Carson," "Solar System") and his continued genius as a musical thinker ("Airplane," "The Night Was So Young"). "If Mars had life on it/I might find my wife on it" from "Solar System" sums up the oddball preoccupations of Love You, which has since gained the status of a classic within the Beach Boys' oeuvre.
The group remained popular as a touring act although they came to be considered as a nostalgia act. Many problems affected their later career, but none more so than Brian's continuing drug and and mental health problems. Although he appeared sporadically with them in concert, he contributed little to their performances or recordings, and despite a much-publicised "Brian's Back" campaign in the late 70s, most critics believed the group had passed their prime and many expected that, sooner or later, Brian would become the latest in a long line of celebrity drug casualties.
In the late 70s Dennis Wilson also began to suffer increasingly from drug and alcohol abuse, and some of the group's concert appearances were marred by Dennis and other band members being drunk or drugged on stage. The band were forced to publicly apologise after a shambolic performance in Sydney in 1979 during which several members of the group were obviously drunk. Dennis's problems escalated in the early 80s and he accidentally drowned in 1983 while diving from his boat as he drunkenly tried to recover items he had previously thrown overboard.
Despite Dennis's tragic death, The Beach Boys soldiered on and they enjoyed a resurgence of interest in the 1980s, assisted by tributes such as the successful David Lee Roth version of "California Girls"; they scored their first #1 in years with the song "Kokomo," which was featured on the soundtrack of the hit Tom Cruise movie Cocktail.
In the 1980s the band hired controversial therapist Eugene Landy in an attempt to help Brian. Landy did achieve some significant improvements in Brian's overall condition--from Brian's own admissions about his massive drug intake, it's highy likely that Brian would soon have died had Landy not intervened. He successfully treated Brian's drug dependence, and by 1988 Brian had recovered sufficiently to release his first solo album. But Landy became increasingly possessive of his star patient and was fired after it became apparent that he was using his control over Brian for his own benefit.
Members of the band would make appearances on sitcoms such as Full House (starring sometime drummer John Stamos) and Home Improvement in the 1990s, as well as continuing to tour occasionally, but their declining career contrasted dramatically with the massive public interest and rabid critical praise that followed Brian's gradual return to touring in the 1990s. The critically acclaimed documentary I Just wasn't Made For These Times was very important in restoring Brian's reputation, saw him performing for the first time with his now grown-up daughters, Wendy and Carnie, and included glowing tributes to Brian's genius from a host of major music stars of the '60s, '70s and '80s.
But tragedy struck the Wilson family again in 1998 when Carl Wilson died from lung cancer. Although Mike Love and Bruce Johnston have toured with a band using the Beach Boys' name (but containing no other original members), it was generally accepted that with Carl's death, The Beach Boys had come to an end. Love and Johnston's group is often jokingly called The Jukebox.
To the surprise and delight of fans around the world, Brian Wilson has mounted several major tours under his own name with a band containing members of The Wondermints and led by former Beach Boys sideman Jeff Foskett plus other supporting musicians. Their note-perfect live performances of the entire Pet Sounds album earned some of the most glowing concert reviews of Brian's career, with some commentators calling the shows "the concert of a lifetime".
Al Jardine tours with the Alan Jardine Family & Friends Beach Band, featuring his sons Matt and Adam, Brian's daughters Carnie and Wendy, and Carl's brother-in-law Billy Hinsche, among others. Due to a series of legal challenges in the mid-90s over the ownership of the Beach Boys name, and Brian's career as a solo touring artist, the original group no longer exists as a recording or touring unit.
As well as the challenges over the use of the band's name, there were two other significant legal cases involving the Beach Boys in recent years. The first was Brian's suit to reclaim the rights to his songs and the group's publishing company, Sea Of Tunes, which he had signed away to his father in 1967. Brian successfully argued that he had not been mentally fit to make an informed decision and ownership of the catalog reverted to him.
The second lawsuit stemmed from Brian's reclamation of his publishing--soon after Brian won his case, Mike Love sued him to gain credit for his co-authorship of a number of important Beach Boys songs, including "I Know There's An Answer."
In 2003 and 2004, Brian and Van Dyke Parks reunited to finish the incomplete sections of Smile, and in 2004 Brian and his band toured the world performing a live concert version of the album. They then recorded a new studio version of Smile using vintage recording equipment and including sessions at the fabled Sunset Sound Studios in Hollywood, where some of the original recordings were made.
Primary album discography
- Surfin' Safari (1962)
- Surfin' U.S.A. (1963)
- Surfer Girl (1963)
- Little Deuce Coupe (1963)
- Shut Down Volume 2 (1964)
- All Summer Long (1964)
- The Beach Boys' Christmas Album (1964)
- Beach Boys Concert (1964)
- The Beach Boys Today! (1965)
- Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) (1965)
- Beach Boys' Party! (1965)
- Pet Sounds (1966)
- Smiley Smile (1967)
- Wild Honey (1967)
- Friends (1968)
- 20/20 (1969)
- Sunflower (1970)
- Live in London (1970)
- Surf's Up (1971)
- Carl and the Passions-"So Tough" (1972)
- Holland (1973)
- 15 Big Ones (1976)
- Love You (1977)
- M.I.U. Album (1978)
- L.A. (Light Album) (1979)
- Keepin' The Summer Alive (1980)
- Beach Boys (1985)
- Still Cruisin' (1989)
- Summer In Paradise (1992)
- Stars and Stripes Vol. 1 (1996)
With the exception of Pet Sounds, The Beach Boys' Christmas Album, and the three albums since 1989, all the Beach Boys albums are available in a two-LP-on-one-CD format. The rereleases of the 1960s albums also include bonus tracks.
Pet Sounds is available on both CD and DVD-Audio. A four-disc box set including numerous outtakes and alternate versions is also available.
The Beach Boys' Christmas Album is available both on its own and as part of the Ultimate Christmas album, which includes tracks from an aborted 1978 Christmas album.
Still Cruisin', Summer in Paradise, and Stars and Stripes Vol. 1 can also be found on CD.
The 1993 box set Good Vibrations--Thirty Years of the Beach Boys presents a comprehensive review of the group's career plus a number of rare tracks, including some from the legendary Smile sessions.
There have also been three albums released since the group's split. Endless Harmony is an excellent compilation of otherwise unreleased tracks together with a few remixes of better-known tracks: a very good introduction to the band, while containing nothing duplicated on earlier releases. Hawthorne, California is a two-CD set along the same lines, albeit less successful. And The Beach Boys Live at Knebworth (aka Good Timin') is a studio-enhanced concert recording from 1980.
- Official site
- Vocal Group Hall of Fame page on The Beach Boys
- Rock & Roll Hall of Fame page on The Beach Boys
- Brian Wilson's official site
- Beach Boys Britain
- Dumb Angel comic
- Beachboys.com (unofficial site)
- The Mike Love Fan Club