The craft of pop music is all about exploiting trends; the art of pop music is about exploiting popularity. This is the story of The Beach Boys. In the band’s early days, Brian Wilson and his brothers Dennis and Carl—joined by their cousin Mike Love, and pushed by their father Murry—capitalized on the surfing craze in Southern California, selling a lifestyle of big waves, boss cars, and pretty girls, first to the rest of the United States and then to the world. Once they were established as a novelty act, The Beach Boys matured, as Brian Wilson took advantage of the band’s huge fan base to experiment with more complicated arrangements and emotions, mixing some clouds in with the sun.
There are Beach Boys fans who only like the simpler, shallower early songs; and there are Beach Boys fans who hardly ever listen to anything the band recorded prior to 1966. That split is mirrored within the group itself; Brian Wilson and Mike Love have differed over the decades on what The Beach Boys should be. Over the years, Love has been largely responsible for keeping The Beach Boys alive, touring the nostalgia circuit and putting new albums out during the years a mentally struggling Wilson either couldn’t perform at all or could only produce strange, half-realized songs. Yet for many hardcore Beach Boys devotees Wilson is the band, because even at their oddest, his songs are graced with genius.
The one project that unites the two Beach Boys camps—and even some people who haven’t listened to much else the band has done—is 1966’s Pet Sounds, which routinely lands near the top of any list of the all-time greatest rock ’n’ roll albums. Considered an expensive flop at the time, Pet Sounds’ reputation turned around fairly quickly once it became clear the record wasn’t an aberration, either in pop music (with its lush, baroque orchestrations becoming the model for hundreds of ambitious late-’60s 45s and LPs) or in the career of The Beach Boys (who’d spend much of the next half-decade trying to match it).
Brian Wilson never meant Pet Sounds to be “difficult.” He saw himself as competing with The Beatles—whose Rubber Soul had set a new standard for how to construct a pop album—by treating each song as a potential mini-masterpiece. Pet Sounds’ conceptual coup is the way Wilson appropriates the style of his parents’ generation—the lavish, gliding sound of “dinner music”—and uses it to score songs about lovesick, moony-eyed young people. Some of the earliest Beach Boys songs gave an impression of Brian Wilson as a man who was old before his time, already pining for a vanished past. With the Pet Sounds songs “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” and “Let’s Go Away For Awhile,” Wilson made those feelings of displacement plainer, lending a deep melancholy to the album that echoed across lilting ballads like “God Only Knows” and “Caroline, No.” Pet Sounds was a Top 10 album, with two Top 10 singles—“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and a cover of the folk standard “Sloop John B”—but the un-hip orchestrations and pervasive sadness baffled some longtime fans, who didn’t immediately get what Wilson was trying to do.
One big reason why the perception of Pet Sounds turned around is that The Beach Boys followed it up with their most popular song ever, “Good Vibrations,” a dizzying collage of musical fragments and allusive lyrics that works like a summary (and summery) statement of The Beach Boys’ discography up to that point. Heavier rock musicians in the late ’60s and early ’70s tried to class up the genre by fusing rock with classical music, but Brian Wilson and Mike Love made that leap more intuitively and inventively, creating what their publicists dubbed “a pocket symphony.” There’s simply no precedent for “Good Vibrations,” which sounds like Wilson stripping the backing tracks from two dozen old Beach Boys songs and then treating those parts like instruments in an orchestra, to be conducted on the fly. “Good Vibrations” is also the most purely exultant song The Beach Boys ever recorded—a dose of concentrated joy that satisfied both Wilson’s and Love’s visions for the band. The song has the tight, high harmonies and California fantasy imagery they were known for, but it’s also experimental and expressionistic, externalizing the riot of colors and emotions in Brian Wilson’s head.
More confident than ever that he was on the right track, Wilson got together with his new friend Van Dyke Parks, aiming to make a whole album as inspired as “Good Vibrations.” That project, called Smile, was going to tell the story of America, and encompass the full range of popular music, all while trying to recapture the innocence and playfulness of childhood. But Wilson’s reach exceeded his grasp, and his worsening mental state—combined with pressure from his bandmates to capitalize more quickly on the success of “Good Vibrations” before the fickle record-buying public moved on—led Wilson to scrap Smile before he could finish it. This would be the start of a rough patch for Wilson, as the stigma of an unfinished masterpiece and an overall hardening of rock music fed his anxiety.
Songs from Smile would trickle out onto other Beach Boys albums over the next several years, and in the ’70s some fans took those songs, along with some rescued Smile outtakes, and reconstructed fantasy versions of the album on bootlegs. Finally, in 2004, a healthier Wilson started performing Smile in concert, and recorded a new version called Brian Wilson Presents Smile. Then in 2011, The Beach Boys put out The Smile Sessions, featuring new mixes of the old recordings, sequenced to match what Wilson had been performing.
People inside The Beach Boys camp are quick to note that neither Wilson’s solo album nor The Smile Sessions are “the real Smile.” That album has never existed, because right up to the moment that he abandoned the project, Wilson was still debating how he wanted to present the songs; he was considering a more groundbreaking approach that would split some of them into fragments and weave them together, more like a proper suite. (Beach Boys connoisseurs looking for glimmers of the more freeform Smile cherish some of the raw tracking sessions, collected on various box sets and reissues, which show Wilson working in the moment with studio-trained musicians to try out different variations on the same passages.) But even the approximate Smile is brilliant, with a wider variety of moods and approaches than Pet Sounds, and with lyrics that weave together a set of loosely connected ideas about health, happiness, and history. Wilson and Parks aimed to reach listeners on a subconscious level, with lyrics like “the child is the father of the man” that seem opaque at first, but profound when paired with the eruptive, chiming music.
Of the albums produced in the wake of Smile (or at least the ones that draw the most on the work Wilson did on that record), the two most essential are 1967’s Smiley Smile and 1971’s Surf’s Up. The former was an attempt to salvage something from the Smile sessions, by taking two of its anchor songs—“Heroes And Villains” and “Good Vibrations”—throwing in a few more Wilson oddities like “Vegetables” and “She’s Goin’ Bald,” and stitching the whole thing together with Smile esoterica. The album is too short, and only hints at what Smile was supposed to be, but the music on Smiley Smile is still some of the most sublime The Beach Boys ever recorded, even when packaged more as a psychedelic snack than as the rich brain-food Wilson intended.
As for Surf’s Up, it’s the transitional album between the Pet Sounds/Smile era and the more mainstream rock that The Beach Boys attempted in the early ’70s. The record’s big selling point is the title track, which is one of Smile’s key songs, and as perfect an example of Brian Wilson’s genius as “Good Vibrations.” At once elegiac and hopeful, “Surf’s Up” bids farewell to the past with a sense of yearning and purpose. And even though the morbid (yet strangely calming) “’Til I Die” is the only other major Brian Wilson song on the album—and even though Surf’s Up is marred by the awful Mike Love song “Student Demonstration Time”—the record as a whole matches the mood of its title track, highlighted by off-and-on Beach Boy Bruce Johnston’s sweetly swaying “Disney Girls (1957),” and two of Carl Wilson’s best songs, “Long Promised Road” and “Feel Flows.”
Between those two albums, The Beach Boys made 1968’s lovely Friends, which splits the difference between the two records, mixing the lazy-day lyrics of Smile with the tighter arrangements and focus of Surf’s Up. Even though the songs are so short that the whole album is over and done in the time it would take to self-medicate properly, Friends’ paeans to transcendentalism, having kids, and “doin’ nothin’” make it one of The Beach Boys’ warmest and most spiritual records. (Plus, without the lush instrumentals “Passing By” and “Diamond Head,” The High Llamas probably wouldn’t exist.)
Two years after Surf’s Up, the band put out an album just as good: 1973’s Holland, recorded in Amsterdam with major contributions from guitarist Blondie Chaplin and drummer Ricky Fataar, two South African musicians who’d joined the band in 1972—in part to help cover for absent members, and in part to help update The Beach Boys’ sound to something more relevant to the country-rock jams and prog-rock experiments of the early ’70s. Holland sounds refreshingly contemporary, from the steel guitars and harmonicas to the spoken-word interlude in the environmentalist trilogy “California Saga.” It also sounds like a Beach Boys album. It’s not just the rollicking Brian Wilson song “Sail On, Sailor” that shines like The Beach Boys of old. Fataar and Chaplin’s poignant ballad “Leavin’ This Town” sounds like a Jackson Browne interpretation of a Pet Sounds track, while Carl Wilson’s two-part “The Trader” applies brother Brian’s Smile lessons about sonic fragmentation to the kind of literate character sketch that confessional singer-songwriters up and down the West Coast were attempting at the time. Major rock and pop stars of the early ’70s like Browne, Neil Young, and Chicago all claimed The Beach Boys as a major influence. Holland took back what those acts had borrowed.
Holland marked the beginning of a commercial turnaround for The Beach Boys—one at first mild, then phenomenal. The record drew good reviews and sold decently, and was outpaced later that same year by a live double-LP. And then in 1974, Capitol Records repackaged the band’s biggest pre-Pet Sounds hits onto a double-album called Endless Summer, with a colorful, modern-looking cover. Arriving just as America was getting nostalgia-happy—around the time of Sha Na Na, American Graffiti, and Happy Days—Endless Summer became a massive hit, spawning a 1975 sequel Spirit Of America that also did well. Given the spottiness of a lot of the records The Beach Boys released in the early ’60s, Endless Summer makes the best case for what the band was up to before Brian Wilson went arty.
The Beach Boys got a similar commercial boost in the wake of the initially modest reaction to Pet Sounds by releasing a trio of The Best Of The Beach Boys albums between 1966 and 1968. Later, more comprehensive anthologies (like Endless Summer and Spirit Of America) have rendered these records irrelevant, but in and of themselves, they’re well-sequenced collections full of classic songs, and worth buying if they turn up in the used-vinyl racks. Another one to seek out is one of the odder of the Beach Boys compilations from the late ’60s: 1968’s Stack-O-Tracks, which collects the instrumental backing tracks from Beach Boys hits for fans to sing along to. The songs don’t sound quite right without the harmonies, but at least Stack-O-Tracks allows them to be heard in an entirely new way, calling attention to the band’s oft-underrated musicianship.
For those who can’t abide greatest-hits collections but still want to give the early Beach Boys their due, some of the earlier albums are better than others. The band’s third album, 1963’s Surfer Girl, was their first wholly produced by Brian Wilson, and already Wilson was trying to make his songs less one-note, as evidenced by the dreamy title track, the layered “Catch A Wave,” and the gorgeous “In My Room” (a surprisingly early peek into Wilson’s future insularity). In 1964, when The Beach Boys were trying to add a gearhead element to their repertoire, they released Shut Down Volume 2, which supplements catchy car tunes like “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Shut Down” with two more of Wilson’s best early “all grown up” songs, “Don’t Worry Baby” and “The Warmth Of The Sun.” And 1964’s All Summer Long serves as a poignant farewell to frivolity, taking its cues from the title track’s litany of what was, and running that same vibe through songs like romantic lament “Wendy” and the defiant “Little Honda.”
The Beach Boys’ transition from teenage kicks to the adult ache of Pet Sounds began in 1965, and especially with the album Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), which puts more emphasis on the latter than the former. Like the previous year’s All Summer Long, Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) is predominately an after-sunset, past-tense kind of record, with songs like “Girl Don’t Tell Me,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” and “Let Him Run Wild” all sporting strong overtones of despair. The album’s biggest hit, “California Girls,” applies the complex, curveball-filled arrangement that would later distinguish songs like “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “Good Vibrations” to what seems like a return to The Beach Boys’ novelty days, but is actually an example of Wilson creating an idealized reality to escape the stresses of his own life.
Post Pet Sounds/Smile, The Beach Boys scrambled to work around Brian Wilson’s eccentricities and to keep up with a rapidly evolving rock scene by releasing albums that fit Wilson’s sometimes-bizarre, sometimes-magnificent songs between hippie rhapsodies and throwback pop. Smiley Smile and Surf’s Up are the solid bookends of this era, with Friends as the whimsical centerpiece, but the three other late-’60s Beach Boys albums—1967’s Wild Honey, 1969’s 20/20, and 1970’s Sunflower—all hit some astonishing highs, and are all fairly cohesive, with not too many outright clunkers. Wild Honey is a back-to-basics record, leaving Smile’s freakiness behind and getting back into a groove, with stripped-down retro rock songs like “Darlin’” and “Here Comes The Night” alternating with pretty, Bacharach-inspired tracks like “Aren’t You Glad” and “Let The Wind Blow.” As with the same year’s Smiley Smile, it’s too slight, but it’s also enjoyably high-spirited and hokey. (If The Beach Boys could’ve waited and combined those two albums, which together are only 50 minutes long, they might’ve quieted the dismissive rock critics of that era.)
20/20 is more scattershot, due mainly to Brian Wilson being institutionalized during much of its recording. But the album does salvage one of the best Smile songs, “Cabinessence,” adds a new Beach Boys classic in “Do It Again,” and spotlights the work of Carl and Dennis Wilson, laying the groundwork for where The Beach Boys would go in the early ’70s. Sunflower, on the other hand, is the closest thing to a real, full album the band had recorded since Pet Sounds. Recording for a new label, Reprise Records, The Beach Boys put out a record that ran a relatively generous 36 minutes, and one that sounded unified—even though, like its predecessor, Sunflower contains contributions from everyone in the band, with a good number of songs by Dennis. Anchored by the single “Add Some Music To Your Day,” Sunflower is like the band’s answer to the wave of “sunshine pop” and “bubblegum” acts that had emerged over the previous couple of years, showing that no one could write and record slick, melodic, harmony-drenched songs quite like The Beach Boys, who knew how to add a layer of reflectiveness to chipper songs like “Deirdre” and “This Whole World.” (Plus, with Sunflower’s closing song, “Cool, Cool Water,” Brian Wilson and Mike Love turned a Smile-era throwaway into something textured and casually profound.)
None of the post-Pet Sounds Beach Boys albums were hits, but the success of Endless Summer made the band wildly popular again, and Brian Wilson’s controversial new therapist Eugene Landy (whom Brian would later sue for exerting too much control over his life) convinced him that it’d be good for his mental health to start reengaging with the band again by touring and recording. The other Beach Boys had mixed feelings about the new arrangement. Mike Love saw the publicity upside in having Brian back in the fold, working a new album, striking while The Beach Boys were a hot commodity. Carl and Dennis weren’t as keen on ceding so much of the creative control they’d had in the early ’70s back to Brian—especially given Brian didn’t seem all that interested in making a proper Beach Boys album, preferring instead to record a set of corny, off-the-cuff rock and pop covers. As it happened, everyone was a little bit right about the 1976 album 15 Big Ones (which was named both for its number of songs and for the band being 15 years old). Carl and Dennis were right that 15 Big Ones wasn’t daring enough for the band’s first album of new material in three years. Yet the record’s mix of Brian’s favorite oldies and a handful of nutty new ones—including the delightful “Had To Phone Ya” and “That Same Song”—is fun, in a low-stakes way. And Love’s instincts were spot-on: 15 Big Ones sold better than any new Beach Boys album had all decade. (It may have helped that the generic title and cover art made 15 Big Ones look like another hits collection.)
By the mid-1970s, there were effectively two bands calling themselves “The Beach Boys”: one led by Mike Love, who was more than willing to sing “I Get Around” for complacent baby-boomers for the rest of his life, and the other led by Brian Wilson, who was trying to process beach culture as deeply personal abstract art. Very early on, Wilson gave up touring to focus on songwriting and recording, which allowed Love to create this alternate version of The Beach Boys. But to Love’s credit, he helped hone the live act into an impressive and popular concert attraction. And there are a few worthy documents of this “good times, great oldies” Beach Boys, including 1964’s Beach Boys Concert (recorded when Wilson was still playing live, and featuring covers of the goofy hits “Monster Mash,” “Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow,” and “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena”), 1970’s Live In London (featuring rocked-up takes on the post-Pet Sounds songs), and 1973’s excellent double-album The Beach Boys In Concert (which sets the outstanding new early-’70s songs side by side with the classics, making them all sound more of a piece).
Because The Beach Boys were perceived in their early years as a here-and-gone proposition—like pretty much every other pop, rock, and R&B group—their label, Capitol Records, tried to generate as much product as it could, as quickly as it could. The first few years of The Beach Boys discography are littered with filler-heavy albums and repackagings of the same songs. Records like the 1962 debut album Surfin’ Safari, 1963’s Surfin’ U.S.A., and 1963’s Little Deuce Coupe are primarily only of historical interest now, because their best songs are available in much better anthology packages—and because anyone who wants to hear the kind of tame covers and oddball spoken-word pieces that padded out the early Beach Boys LPs is better off buying Surfer Girl and Shut Down Volume 2.
That said, some of the cash-in albums released during the band’s 1960s heyday have become fan favorites. While 1964’s The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album isn’t a masterpiece on the order of Phil Spector’s A Christmas Gift For You, like Spector’s record it does successfully put youthful rock ’n’ roll in the context of old-fashioned holiday pop music and carols. (Plus, it contains “Little Saint Nick,” a spin on “Little Deuce Coupe” that’s even catchier.) Even more delightful is 1965’s Beach Boys’ Party!, a set of left-field retreads and covers—including three Beatles songs and one from Bob Dylan—played on acoustic instruments and arranged to sound like they’re being played live in a living room while the band’s friends chat and drink in the background. Though faked, the “impromptu” sound of the Party! album feels of a piece with the early Beach Boys’ albums’ evocations of laid-back California fun.
Party! capped a busy (and exclamation-point-filled!) 1965 for The Beach Boys, coming right after Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) and The Beach Boys Today! For those devoted to the early sun-sand-surf Beach Boys, Today! is a neglected gem, full of great songs like “Dance, Dance, Dance” and “When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)” that are often left off the hits collections. It’s more uniformly upbeat in contrast to what came immediately after—with fairly simple rock arrangements and a minimum of melancholy—but as with the Christmas album, Today! is both an enjoyable record and a valuable look at The Beach Boys at the height of their commercial powers, competing aggressively with both the British Invasion and Spector’s signature sound: teen-friendly, operatic R&B.
Similarly, 1972’s funkily titled Carl And The Passions – “So Tough” is an outstanding document of the Beach Boys era when Carl and Dennis were steering the boat. The first album to feature Fataar and Chaplin as full-time band members, Carl And The Passions is like a running start at Holland; it’s a solid ’70s West Coast rock album in and of itself, even if at times—as on the Fataar/Chaplin composition “Here She Comes”—it barely sounds like The Beach Boys. The title implies some sort of ’50s tribute, but Carl And The Passions is more in the mode of laid-back country-rock, with a few progressive elements, like something Poco or Stephen Stills would’ve made at the time. This is Carl and Dennis reimagining what The Beach Boys could be—and quite well, as the superior Holland would prove one year later. (For those primarily interested in what Brian was up to at the time, the most relevant parts of Carl And The Passions are the dense, gospel-tinged “He Come Down” and the exuberant, quirky “Marcella.”)
There are some Beach Boys fans who prefer the Carl/Dennis age, and think The Cult Of Brian Wilson permanently damaged what could’ve remained a fine mainstream rock band. For them, 1977’s Love You is Exhibit A in what happened when the band let Brian dominate. For Brian-ologists, though, Love You is one of the great crack-up albums of the ’70s, in the same vein as Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night, Harry Nilsson’s Pussy Cats, and Syd Barrett’s The Madcap Laughs and Barrett. Love You started out as a true Brian Wilson solo album, with Wilson using a synthesizer to replicate his grand orchestras of the ’60s. He eventually allowed his Beach Boys bandmates to contribute vocals and ideas, but Love You would remain the purest expression of what had been swimming around in Wilson’s brain since Smile. Crippling self-doubt, drilled into Brian by a reportedly abusive father and the fickle fluctuations of public approval, left him trying to use music as a balm. So there’s something almost desperately optimistic about Love You, as Wilson sings frayed songs about roller-skating, road-tripping, and Johnny Carson—like a frazzled man sitting in a corner chanting “calm blue ocean” over and over. It’s a beautiful, noisy, funny, heartbreaking work of art—one not for everybody, yet vital for anyone who wants to understand Wilson’s overall worldview.
Brian Wilson wanted to build off of the creative breakthrough of Love You, but the record industry was less enthusiastic. So The Beach Boys albums that followed over the next decade featured only token input from Brian as a songwriter and a vocalist—and as a result are mostly abysmal. (It didn’t help that Dennis and Carl largely checked out, too, or that the band as a whole was devastated by Dennis’ death by drowning in 1983.) There’s absolutely no reason to bother with anything bearing The Beach Boys name that came out between 1980 and 1992—at a time when outside producers, drum machines, self-parody, and the ever-present threat of “Kokomo” made listening even to Brian Wilson-penned songs a depressing experience. That said, the last two 1970s Beach Boys records actually aren’t that bad. M.I.U. Album, released in 1978, and 1979’s L.A. (Light Album) both go down smooth, putting the band’s classic harmonies in the context of the late-’70’s radio featuring the Grease soundtrack and Captain & Tennille. M.I.U. is the more seamless of the two—for better and worse—while L.A. has a few memorable wrinkles, including one truly great Dennis Wilson song, “Love Surrounds Me,” and a passable 11-minute disco version of “Here Comes The Night,” engineered by Brian Wilson’s best sunshine-pop disciple, Curt Boettcher.
After the revival of Smile in the 2000s, Wilson reunited with Love, Johnston, Al Jardine, and long-ago Beach Boy David Marks for a 50th anniversary tour, and paired it with a new album, That’s Why God Made The Radio, consisting partly of songs Wilson had written over the years and set aside for the band, just in case a reunion ever occurred. Far from an afterthought, That’s Why God Made The Radio is a fully realized Beach Boys record, produced by Wilson with nearly the same level of orchestration he brought to the late-’60s albums. And while the material is hit-and-miss, songs like the title track and the album-closing “Summer’s Gone” have all the yearning and rich harmonics of The Beach Boys of yore.
With Brian Wilson either absent or uncooperative in the latter half of the ’70s (and much of the decade beyond), the main Beach Boys tried their hands at solo albums, with decent results. Even Mike Love’s hilariously titled 1981 solo debut Looking Back With Love is unexpectedly charming, thanks in large part to producer Curt Boettcher’s clean integration of synthesizers into a set of lively, heartfelt pop songs. Carl Wilson’s own 1981 solo debut, Carl Wilson, and his 1983 follow-up Youngblood aren’t as much of a treat, because Carl’s songwriting is more somber and less catchy, which doesn’t mesh as well with the more club-footed ’80s production styles. Still, both albums offer a little closure for fans who enjoyed the sophisticated country-rock direction that Carl was pushing The Beach Boys toward in the early ’70s.
But the two best Beach Boys solo albums came from Brian and Dennis. Brian Wilson’s 1988 LP Brian Wilson is as synth-heavy and booming as The Beach Boys’ albums at the time, but the songs are terrific—especially the opening track, “Love And Mercy”—and Wilson seems to be having a ball, hearkening back to his classic Pet Sounds sound. (Later Wilson solo albums, like Imagination, Gettin’ In Over My Head, and That Lucky Old Sun, come across as tame and a little sterile, though each has flashes of greatness.) And Dennis Wilson’s 1977 record Pacific Ocean Blue is a wonder: a thoughtful and surprising refashioning of various kinds of American roots music to suit Dennis’ dark, sweet rasp. The songs are dramatic, and creatively presented, with as much of Dennis’ personality as his older brother’s freewheeling explorations of self.
Though it’s not a proper Brian Wilson solo album, 1995’s I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times is a strong collection of demos and new recordings of older songs, in support of Don Was’ moving documentary about Wilson’s life and personal troubles. (For fervent Beach Boys fans, these kinds of behind-the-scenes stories are important to understanding where the music came from.) And while it’s a marginal entry into The Beach Boys’ discography, the 1996 project Stars And Stripes, Vol. 1—which saw country stars singing Beach Boys classics, documented in the film Beach Boys: Nashville Sounds—did feature Brian Wilson’s first serious involvement with the band since the ’70s, as he stepped back behind the board as a co-producer. There are some really nice performances on Stars And Stripes, too, including Willie Nelson singing “The Warmth Of The Sun” and Timothy B. Schmit doing “Caroline, No.” The Beach Boys have a singular sound, but covers like these reveal how the songs can stand up to different interpretations, because they were always meant to be part of a larger pop music tradition.
1. The Smile Sessions
2. Pet Sounds
5. Love You