“You’ll never hear surf music again.”
So said Jimi Hendrix on 1967’s ‘Third Stone from the Sun.’ To be fair, you could see his point. In 1967,the pioneers of Surf Rock had been relegated to the nostalgia circuit, while even its hippest arbiters, the Beach Boys, had fallen from grace in a manner so spectacular that none could possibly have foreseen.
Throughout their career, by turns magnificent and unedifying, the Beach Boys were always a band of ups and downs, their unquestionable talents ebbing and flowing like the ocean which first inspired them. Over the years, various students of Beach Boys lore have sought to determine the cause of their oft-publicised ills: “mad genius” Brian Wilson and his chemical and mental problems, over cautious Mike “Don’t fuck with the formula” Love, reckless and feckless Dennis, TM, Capital Records, Eugene Landy, drugs, booze – if you want to read about rock and roll excess, take a look at these Pendleton-striped kids from Hawthorne and you’ll find stories to rival the worst of Ozzy, Keith Moon or Led Zeppelin.
Despite an admittedly high number of superb tracks from other group members, however, the key to the Beach Boys’ success has always been Brian Wilson. When Brian worked, the music worked. Sure, Carl wrote such classics as ‘Feel Flows’ and ‘Long Promised Road’ (both with Jack Reiley). Two of my favourite songs from the Beach Boys’ 1970’s catalogue, ‘All I Want to Do’ and ‘Forever’, were Dennis Wilson compositions (the latter in collaboration with Gregg Jakobson). Al Jardine and Bruce Johnstone pitched in with ‘California ‘and ‘Disney Girls (1957)’ respectively. Even Mike Love, while perhaps the least musical of the band, came up with lyrics for such classics as ‘Good Vibrations’, ‘And Your Dream Comes True’ and ‘California Girls’. It was Brian, though, who came up with ‘Surf’s Up’, ‘Cabin-Essence’, ALL of ‘Pet Sounds’ (with the exception of the traditional ‘Sloop John B’). Musically his ear was the source of the group’s success. As he allegedly said in his ghost-written autobiography ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, without him, Mike Love would still be pumping gas.
Last year’s ‘Smile Sessions’ boxed set – the first official release of Wilson’s abandoned 1967 “teenage symphony to God” – showed just how incredible, how majestic and how earth-shatteringly original ‘Smile’ would have been had Brian somehow managed to piece it all together. Would it have eclipsed ‘Pepper’? We’ll never know, but the smart money says yes.
And so, on the back of a rare (nowadays at any rate) wave of good publicity, the Beach Boys have re-united to commemorate their fiftieth anniversary. A world tour, a new album and a superb new single (‘That’s Why God Made the Radio’) are in the offing, and once again, forty-five years on from their deepest trough, Wilson and co. are turning a new generation on to the healing power of Good, good, good, good vibrations. Ladies and gentlemen, the surf is up!
A – ‘All Summer Long’
1964’s ‘All Summer Long’ was The Beach Boys’ fifth album in three years and marked the point where the group became a real band. Of the album’s eleven tracks, only one would be a hit single (‘I Get Around’, the Beach Boys’ first UK number one), but perhaps a more revealing indicator of the quality of the material is the fact that four of the album’s songs were included on the ‘Endless Summer’ compilation (and pretty much every best-of since) and another, ‘Little Honda’, became a hit for the Hondells.
The sophistication of the production on the title track is, even with the benefit of fifty years of hindsight, nothing short of breath-taking (admittedly, though, the same cannot be said for Mike Love’s lyrics – “when we rode a horse we got a thrill” Love sings in his own inimitable style). This is a track that, musically, sounds fresh and inventive even today.
Considering Wilson’s age – he was just twenty-one when he co-wrote, performed on and produced this LP – ‘All Summer Long’ is an incredible piece of work. It was, however, soon to be eclipsed
B – Brian Douglas Wilson
The first time I saw Brian Wilson live, he opened the show with a cover of the Barenaked Ladies’ song ‘Brian Wilson’. Hearing him sing “And if you want to find me I’ll be out in my sandbox,” was a moment that will live with me forever.
In years to come, Wilson’s name will be spoken in the same breath as Gershwin, Berlin, Barber, Bernstein, Joplin, or Porter. His 1966 masterpiece ’Pet Sounds’ routinely tops “best album” polls – no small achievement considering he was only twenty-four at the time of its release. Had he completed his infamous “lost” album ‘Smile’ in 1967, the entire landscape of music would have been altered forever.
As Wilson’s health deteriorated in the late sixties and throughout the seventies, his output dried up and, consequently, so did the Beach Boys’ hits and critical success. In 1988, Wilson released his self-titled debut solo album. Since then he has completed the legendary ‘Smile’ album, and released twelve solo albums. He has also overcome his stage-fright and is now a regular on the touring circuit and despite his advancing years, he seems to be having the time of his life.
C –‘ California Girls’
Taken from the 1965 album ‘Summer Days…And Summer Nights’, ‘California Girls’ has become the Beach Boys’ anthem. Wilson reportedly conceived of the music whilst tripping on LSD, much to the displeasure of lyricist and vocalist Mike Love.
‘California Girls’ is also notable as the first Beach Boys recording to feature vocals from Bruce Johnston who had joined the group to take Brian Wilson’s place on concert tours.
D – Dennis
The Beach Boys were never short of beautiful songs – even if one overlooks Brian Wilson’s awe-inspiring output, one finds such treasures as ‘Disney Girls (1957)’ by Bruce Johnston and ‘Feel Flows’ by youngest Wilson brother Carl. It’s probably fair, however, to say that no-one expected that Dennis would be responsible for some of the group’s most memorable mid-period ballads.
Dennis’ talent as a songwriter began to be noticed at the end of the sixties when the band, with Brian only contributing the bare minimum, were struggling for songs. Over the course of the next few albums, Dennis would emerge as a talent which oftentimes trumped even big brother Brian. Just listen to ‘Forever’, ‘All I Want to Do’ or ‘Little Bird’ and you will be struck by just how tender Dennis’ songs were.
Prior to Brian’s late career renaissance, it was Dennis who had, in the eyes of the critics, released the best Beach Boys solo album (his superb ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’ from 1977 is simply essential).
Sadly, Dennis is all too often remembered as “the only one who surfed” or the shambolic figure who would lurch from behind the drum-kit and sing ‘You Are So Beautiful’ in a voice ravaged by years of excess.
Surprisingly, it was Dennis who introduced the Beach Boys to Transcendental Meditation, and it was Dennis who provided the inspiration for the band’s early cars and surfing songs.
Dennis died in 1983, drowning while diving to recover items that he had thrown overboard from his yacht some three years earlier. President Reagan allowed a sea burial for Dennis (normally reserved for military personnel). His song ‘Farewell My Friend’ was played at his funeral.
E – ‘Endless Harmony’ Soundtrack
The soundtrack to the a 1998 documentary, of the same name ‘Endless Harmony’ is a collection of previously unheard Beach Boys tracks.
Roughly the Beach Boys’ equivalent of the Beatles’ ‘Anthology’, ‘Endless Harmony’ was named after Bruce Johnston’s track on 1980’s ‘Keepin’ the Summer Alive’.
Highlights of the album include Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks rehearsing three ‘Smile’tracks in 1966 and the unreleased ‘Loop De Loop (Flip Flop Flyin’ in an Aeroplane)’. Despite relatively poor sales – the Beach Boys were at something of a low ebb – the album encouraged Capitol Records to release the more comprehensive Hawthorne ,CA.
F – ‘Forever’
Recorded between January 1969 and July 1970, ‘Sunflower’ was the Beach Boys’ sixteenth studio album. Unusually, four of the album’s twelve tracks were written by Dennis Wilson.
Of the four tracks (‘Slip On Through,’ ‘Got to Know the Woman’, ‘It’s About Time ‘and ‘Forever’), ‘Forever’ stands head and shoulders above the others. Lyrically it is a paean to love, with some truly magnificent lines. Take for example the opening line: “If every word I said could make you laugh I’d talk forever.”
Brian Wilson described ‘Forever’ as “the most harmonically beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. It’s a rock and roll prayer.” The group harmonies, performed by the Wilson brothers, Mike Love and Al Jardine, support a fabulous lead vocal by Dennis.
The track has been covered many times, most notably by Spring (featuring Marilyn Wilson and produced by Brian Wilson) and by the Beach Boys themselves on their 1992 album ‘Summer in Paradise’. This second Beach Boys version featured a lead vocal from TV heart-throb and sometime Beach Boy John Stamos.
'Mojo' magazine recently placed ‘Forever ‘at number fifty on their list of the fifty best Beach Boys songs. Personally, I would place it higher – to me, it’s a definite top ten, but then it has played a significant role in my life: it was the first dance at my wedding.