"Wouldn't It Be Nice" by Brian Wilson is worth reading, if only for the lesson. Amid the tale of a life unraveling, Wilson explained how all those great Beach Boys songs were created. What he was thinking. The whole process. It was a fascinating story with a profound moral. Drugs may briefly open the window of creativity but it soon comes crashing down.
The Beach Boys were the product of a pushy father, three talented brothers, Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson, a cousin, Mike Love and a friend, Al Jardine. Of them all, the most talented and sensitive was Brian. Surf music had come to prominence in the early '60s. Surf, largely instrumental, was a clear the forerunner of Acid Rock and Heavy Metal, and tried to capture the raw power and majesty of the ocean. How's that for overblown hyperbole? Brian was the bass player and also, the group's the creative force, although Mike Love claimed he helped a lot.
The Beach Boys' first hit was "Surfin' U.S.A." which put new lyrics to a Chuck Berry riff. The Beach Boys were soon on a roll with songs revolving around the Southern California youth lifestyle which included cars ("409"), girls ("Fun, Fun, Fun" and "Help Me Rhonda") and surfing (although it was common knowledge that drummer Dennis was the only surfer).
They made everyone envious. There was a glorious existence in California. Ah, this could go on forever. Wrong. Brian had a nervous breakdown in '65 attributed to the pressures he was under. Unable to handle writing, arranging and performing, he stopped touring and focused on recording. He also started his decline into drugs, especially LSD. The music moved in a different direction. The band hated the new sound. They wanted Brian to stick to the formula and keep the hits coming.
Brian also felt the pressure to keep up with The Beatles who he'd always seen as the Beach Boys main rival. The Beatles were experimenting, pushing the boundaries. At least John Lennon and Paul McCartney had each other to bounce ideas off of. Brian only had himself and later, briefly, Van Dyke Parks. Even though the drug influenced "Pet Sounds" was a commercial stiff it contained "Wouldn't It Be Nice" (a song to his future wife) and "Sloop John B" (with Carl's arrangement).
Interestingly, it's on two ballads Brian really steps out, the breathtaking "God Only Knows" and the wistful "Caroline, No." During this period Brian unleashed his certified masterpiece "Good Vibrations." Out to create a mini-symphony, he succeeded.
Before the long decline it was a bright shining moment that stands as the ultimate pop/rock song. Though it has been played to death, licensed for just about every applicable commercial and is shopworn, to say the least, "Good Vibrations" represents a creative high point. The use of vocal harmonies (always a Beach Boys strong point), the fade out in the middle, tempo changes and instrumentation (sleigh bells, cello and theremin) make the song greater than the sum of its intricate parts. Truly amazing.
So what if "Good Vibrations" took forever to record, went way over budget and seriously taxed the group's finances. The song's magic allowed the Beach Boys, or a reasonable facsimile, to entertain audiences for over four decades. It's hard to imagine a Beach Boys concert not including it. There'd probably be a riot.
The rest of the story gets very messy. Brian became an acid cripple and the Beach Boys drifted from label to label becoming, in short order, an oldies act. There were fights, estrangements, family feuds and lawsuits. In '82 Brian was "fired" from the group and had nothing to do with the Beach Boys' last major hit (#1), the highly forgettable "Kokomo" ('88).
With Dennis (drowning in '83) and Carl (dying of cancer in '98) gone, "fragile" Brian had actually managed to outlive his hardier kid brothers.
The story ended badly for the Wilson brothers but despite that, they produced some of the most fun, carefree Rock 'n' Roll ever. Now that's irony.
Among the "what-if" Beach Boys' stories was the aborted "Smile" album. Brian saw it as his masterpiece but the combination of his own insecurities and drugs did him and the album in. "Smile" was scrapped and the more commercial "Smiley Smile" was pushed out.
Brian was devastated. No doubt, he saw it as a missed opportunity to cement the Beach Boys' artistic legacy and lead to their next creative phase. He spent decades seemingly obsessed with getting it right. '08's "That Lucky Old Sun" was yet another chapter in the saga.
Actually, Brian should have just let it go. When "Smile" was in production the Beach Boys were already living on borrowed time. They were essentially an early '60s cars-surf group. That they managed to survive the onslaught of Beatlemania was remarkable. That Brian thought the Beach Boys could be a significant force in the late '60s was laughable.
Even if "Smile" had been the artistic and commercial success Brian had hoped, it would have added only months, not years, to the Beach Boys relevance.
Like a couple other groups, the Beach Boys became passé just as their most memorable song was cruising up the pop chart. Unique and groundbreaking in many ways, "Good Vibrations," was a one-off shot of brilliance, not a template for the future.
Concurrent with the release of "That Lucky Old Sun" the Beach Boys rolled through yet another summer tour though Love was the only original member (as he had been for some time). In fairness, Bruce Johnston, who was hired as Brian's tour replacement in '65 (after session musician and future Country star Glen Campbell bailed) was still with the outfit (though he left in the early '70s only to returned a half dozen years later). Both Love and Wilson still sang about surfer girls - Love in concert and Wilson on "That Lucky Old Sun." And while it may seem kind of weird to hear two guys in their mid-60s still hung up on the beach, who can blame them?
As long as just one Beach Boy is able to stand onstage people will pay to be taken back to a simpler time - a fun place. It's little wonder Wilson and Love, each in their way, cling to the California dream. But then, so do a lot of other people.
Katy Perry had a major '10 summer hit with "California Gurls." Not only was the title dangerously close to the Beach Boys '65 classic, it used their lyrics on the tag. "I love her vocal," Wilson told the L.A. Times. "She sounds very clear and energetic. The melody is infectious… I wish them well with this cut."
"We have a lot in common now," added Love, going on to note Perry's prior hit "I Kissed A Girl." "We both have done songs called 'California Girls' and we've both kissed girls and liked it."
With their fiftieth anniversary looming, Love, Wilson, Jardine and Johnston; augmented by Jeffrey Foskett and David Marks, recorded "That's Why God Made The Radio," the Beach Boys first collection of original material in sixteen years. The group then launched an anniversary tour.
1962 Surfin' Safari
1963 Surfin' USA
1963 Surfer Girl
1963 Little Deuce Coupe
1964 Shut Down Volume 2 (Vol. 1 was a compilation put out by Capitol Records containing just two Beach Boys songs)
1964 All Summer Long
1964 The Beach Boys' Christmas Album
1965 Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!)
1965 Beach Boys' Party!
1966 Pet Sounds
1967 Smiley Smile
1967 Wild Honey
1971 Surf's Up
1972 Carl And The Passions - "So Tough"
1974 Endless Summer
1976 15 Big Ones
1977 Love You
1978 M.I.U. Album
1979 L.A. (Light Album)
1980 Keepin' the Summer Alive
1985 The Beach Boys)
1989 Still Cruisin'
1992 Summer In Paradise
1996 Stars And Stripes Vol. 1
2012 That's Why God Made The Radio
Beach Boys compilations abound. They usually contain "Good Vibrations," but after that it's anybody's guess. "Good Vibrations" box set has it all and more including demos, studio chatter and interviews. "Endless Summer" does a good job of delivering the hits.
Instrumentally, the Beach Boys were solid with Brian being an exceptional bass player. But where the Beach Boys excelled was vocal harmonies. No one, with the possible exception of the Beatles, attempted what they did. Or succeeded. Those intricate vocals over a driving Rock beat are the Beach Boys trademark sound.
"The Beach Boys Today" and "Summer Days and Summer Nights" preceded "Pet Sounds." The first two albums are exhilarating. The latter is a classic. Surprisingly, they were able to come near the "Pet Sounds" peak twice with "Smiley Smile" and "Wild Honey." After that, with the possible exception of "Surf's Up" in '71, the Beach Boys were done. They kept recording but more important for the group's economic position they became summer road show warriors.
"That Lucky Old Sun" isn't the fulfillment of a stunning, unrealized Beach Boys album. No, it's more like a Randy Newman soundtrack to a film about SoCal life in the early '60s. But even if Brian had pulled it off, who cares? California has changed. Sure the surf, the girls, and certainly, the cars are still there but the climate (we're not talking global warming) is different. "That Lucky Old Sun" is like going back to an empty stadium and scoring a touchdown long after the game is over.
Where "That Lucky Old Sun" connects is Wilson's personal story. Brian was a genius. No lesser talent could have accomplished what he did. And while the Beach Boys flavored tunes are pleasant, it's Wilson account of his own decline, fully aware of the talent draining from him and helpless to stop or even slow it, that makes "That Lucky Old Sun" enlightening.
The Beach Boys started as a surf and turf band. "That's Why God Made The Radio" might lead one to think that, even after a half century, they haven't changed all that much. But the darker, more world weary, post -"Good Vibrations" vision still challenges the time-worn assessment that the Beach Boys are simply creators of cheery songs with impeccable harmonies.