“They are, for me, what America is. A very wonderful place to be.” – Elton John
“The Beach Boys were a big influence on our harmony. God Only Knows makes me cry every time I hear it.” – Paul McCartney
“Our Mozart of rock ‘n’ roll.” – Art Garfunkel
“There are a few moments in your life that stick in your mind. I was driving down Belmont avenue in the Bronx. There was this song playing on the radio. Good Vibrations. I stopped the car. I was blown away. I’d never heard anything like it in my life.” – Chazz Palminteri (Director/Actor)
“Brian is a living genius of pop music. Like The Beatles, he pushed forward the frontiers of popular music.” – George Martin (Beatles Producer).
“The band’s unerring ability to surf the waves of commercial success and artistic development during the ’60s made them America’s first, best rock band.” – AllMusic
Natural Born Thrillers
The one element that people forget about the Beach Boys was that their lyrics brought into play the natural beauty of Southern California, deified surf music and culture, as well as extending this aura into many other sun-drenched parts of the world. The references to God and nature are present throughout their lyrics. Surfer Girl/Good Vibrations/God Only Knows/Surf’s Up/The Warmth Of the Sun/California Girls. One could go on and on. It’s that integration of Eden and human emotions that makes the sound of the Beach Boys forever relevant. Sure, their music could be seen by some as cheesy, too sweet, however, the vocal harmonies soared, the orchestrations and melodies were sublime, and Brian Wilson was a master arranger and writer. No question the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and David Bowie all benefited from studying the group’s lush and perfectly realized harmonies. Point of fact: by the time the Beatles’ I Want to Hold Your Hand entered the Billboard 100, the Beach Boys already had seven top forty singles. Let that sink in. These California tow heads were big-time pacesetters. Perhaps more than any other group, the Beach Boys celebrated the lifestyle and positive energy of SoCal and America in general. You could say they alone were the primary drivers of the California Dream.
The Ultimate Guilty Pleasure
“It Wasn’t Cool to Like the Beach Boys. But, hey, even the tough guys sang their songs and liked them, secretly.” – Chazz Palminteri (Host of All Star Tribute to Brian Wilson) By the way, this classic tribute is simply must-see TV if you want to see some of our greatest performers reach deep inside to deliver knock out renditions of the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson’s best songs. It was a total joy and unexpected surprise for me! Also, don’t miss the MusiCares Live Tribute as well. The rub is this. Most of the singers and musicians put a spin on these tunes that will blow you away, as well as stamp Brian as perhaps the American composer of his generation.
Jimi Hendrix sang “and you’ll never hear Surf music again” in Third Stone From the Sun. Most everyone thought it was a diss of the Beach Boys’ seemingly ubiquitous surf sound. In fact, it was Jimi’s lament for Dick Dale’s rumored death. Of course Dale didn’t pass. The lyrics had nothing to do with the Beach Boys! Such gossip created rumors that spread throughout our culture at that time. Sound familiar?
One area that the Beach Boys mangled were the graphic arts and self promotion. Their very pedestrian album covers were quite the opposite of The Beatles, in fact, compared to Velvet Underground, The Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, etc, the Californians were light years behind their competition. In fact, I can’t think of any group whose music and awesome production, was so far advanced from the group’s image. Corny, out of date, hopelessly unhip, trapped in a 50’s time-warp that wasn’t cool in the least, The Beach Boys image in almost every aspect of their visual package just plain sucked.
Despite all of this, there is now a feeling that we seriously underestimated this band, and, in particular, Brian Wilson’s contributions to modern music.
The Beach Boys’ ultimate premise is this, freshness and unabashed innocence bathed in glowing harmonies and melodies that resonate in all the right places. When you listen to them now, the world-weary cynicism that permeates our click-bait, hurry-up, get it down now world is washed away.
He Just Wasn’t Made For These Times. Brian Was Ahead Of them!
According to AllMusic, “beginning their career as the most popular surf band in the nation, the Beach Boys finally emerged by 1966 as America’s preeminent pop group, the only act able to challenge (for a brief time) the overarching success of the Beatles with both mainstream listeners and the critical community. From their 1961 debut with the regional hit “Surfin’,” the three Wilson brothers — Brian, Dennis, and Carl — plus cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine constructed the most intricate, gorgeous harmonies ever heard from a pop band. With Brian’s studio proficiency growing by leaps and bounds during the mid-’60s, the Beach Boys also proved one of the best-produced groups of the ’60s, exemplified by their 1966 peak with the Pet Sounds LP and the number one single “Good Vibrations.” Though Brian’s escalating drug use and obsessive desire to trump the Beatles (by recording the perfect LP statement) eventually led to a nervous breakdown after he heard Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the group soldiered on long into the ’70s and ’80s, with Brian only an inconsistent participant. The band’s post-1966 material is often maligned (if it’s recognized at all), but the truth is the Beach Boys continued to make great music well into the ’70s. Displayed best on 1970’s Sunflower, each member revealed individual talents never fully developed during the mid-’60s: Carl became a solid, distinctive producer, Brian’s replacement as nominal bandleader, Mike, continued to provide a visual focus as the frontman for live shows, and Dennis developed his own notable songwriting talents. Though legal wranglings and marginal oldies tours during the ’90s often obscured what made the Beach Boys great, the band’s unerring ability to surf the waves of commercial success and artistic development during the ’60s made them America’s first, best rock band.” By the way, it would take a full-length book about the Hawthorne, California boys to truly cover their story and immense discography. In fact, only Elvis, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Chuck Berry, James Brown, and a precious few others can match the depth and quality of their sonic output. As I say, this blog is only an appreciation, not their entire story.
Summertime Is the Right Time
“Then, in mid-1974, Capitol Records went to the vaults and issued a repackaged hits collection, Endless Summer. Both band and label watched, dumbfounded, as the double LP hit number one, spent almost three years on the charts, and went gold. Endless Summer capitalized on a growing fascination with oldies rock that had made Sha Na Na, American Graffiti, and Happy Days big hits. Rolling Stone, never the most friendly magazine to the group, named the Beach Boys its Band of the Year at the end of the year,” writes AllMusic. Another collection of their hits, Spirit of America, hit the Top Ten in 1974. These two afterthought releases were enough for the boys to get back in the studio and begin new recordings.
In late 1965, the Beatles released their game-changing album Rubber Soul. AllMusic writes; “amazed at the high song quality and overall cohesiveness of the album, Brian began writing songs — with help from lyricist Tony Asher — and producing sessions for a song suite charting a young man’s growth to emotional maturity.” The group spent more time working on the vocals and harmonies than any other previous project. The result, released in May 1966, was Pet Sounds. It’s still one of the best-produced and most influential rock LPs ever released. Critics praised Pet Sounds, but the new direction failed to impress American audiences. Though it reached the Top Ten, Pet Sounds missed a gold certificate (the first to do so since the group’s debut LP). Conversely, worldwide reaction was not just positive but jubilant. In England, the album hit number two and earned the Beach Boys honors for best group in year-end polls by NME — above even the Beatles, hardly slouches themselves with the releases of “Paperback Writer”/”Rain” and Revolver. Pet Sounds was the culmination of all Brian Wilson’s endless hours in the studio and the group’s obsessive attention to harmony detail. With the release of Pet Sounds, the Beach Boys and Brian Wilson had reached their artistic peak.
Surf’s Up. Forever.
Surf music never sounded so good. The music was bright. Unfettered. Breezy. Almost part of the very atmosphere. The sound was blue skies. Convertibles. Sunny days. Endless summer indeed. The Beach Boys were part of the natural ethos. Water. Air. Sunlight. Sky. Even though they were decidedly uncool throughout the mid to lates sixties and early seventies, they never gave up. They were the corndogs that never left the fairgrounds. Full of hope. Beautiful harmonies that soared and darted like a kite against the blue skies above us all.
Sail on Sailor. Your ship is coming in. Dance on Barbara Ann. We’re playing your song. Good vibrations are in the air. Take the entire scene in. It’s forever Summer in this magical land. Beach Boys forever.
In closing, there is a fact that one cannot escape, like their rivals, the Beatles, the Beach Boys did not produce a seminal live collection of songs. There is no Prince at Super Bowl, no James Brown at the Apollo. No Get Your Ya’ Ya’s Out Stones at Madison Square Garden. B.B. King Live at the Regal, No Live At Leeds, etc.
Simply put, the Beach Boys were just plain better in the studio. If you want live performances that transcend time, watch the terrific takes by a wide range of artists on Brian Wilson/Beach Boy tunes that will drop your jaw on An All Star Tribute to Brian Wilson (2001 Concert). Given the incredible technology that is available today, the result is one hell of a show you likely won’t forget, believe me.
Surfer Girl Photo Courtesy of Jane Shirek
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