The Beach Boys: The Greatest Vocal Group Ever?

July 17, 2017

At the dawn of rock’n’roll, rhythm’n’blues vocal groups from street corners across America dominated the teenage-dream world of radio. There were some great ones: The Flamingos, who transformed their voices into a sort of outer-space wonder on ‘I’ll Only Have Eyes For You’; The Del-Vikings, with several hits’ Frankie Lymon & The Teenagers, who recorded the original version of ‘Why Do Fools Fall In Love’, a record that kept on being a hit by other artists, decade after decade. In rockabilly, The Everly Brothers were the clear, uncontested favorite when it came to blending voices.

When The Beach Boys came around in late 1961, they’d actually been performing without instruments, standing around a microphone at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, singing ‘Surfin’’ to a crowd of authentic surfers out to dance to the guitar-driven sounds of Dick Dale & his Del-Tones. The audience wasn’t sure about the lack of instruments, though, and The Beach Boys soon adopted a Chuck Berry-meets-Dick Dale sound for their initial run of hit-filled albums. The whole time, however, the key to their success remained the crafty vocal trickery the group applied to ‘Surfin’ USA’ and that type of raver, designed for the athletic dance crowd the band was playing for at their earliest gigs in the greater Los Angeles area.

The-Beach-Boys-All-Summer-LongTruth be known, The Beach Boys did actually stand outside their local bowling alley a time or two, attempting to be one of the street corner groups they were hearing out of New York. Perhaps the thick, choral block that came out of Brian Wilson’s vocal arrangements can best be heard when comparing the 1959 Doc Pomus/Mort Shuman composition for The Mystics’, ‘Hushabye’, to the version The Beach Boys placed third on their All Summer Long album in 1964. The Students’ 1958 ‘I’m So Young’, in fact, gets a Pet Sounds-type treatment early on the 1965 album The Beach Boys Today!.

However, there was something else going on in The Beach Boys’ vernacular of composition. Brian Wilson’s early enchantment with George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody In Blue’ led him to understand how to use jazz changes in his vocal arrangements. He particularly took to the jazz vocal group sounds of The Four Freshmen and The Hi-Lo’s, which were in line with the experiments in jazz vocals being pioneered by Lambert, Hendricks & Ross during the 50s. Eventually, Wilson began to arrange instruments with a similar ambidextrous and expansive flavor on Pet Sounds and the sessions for Smile. For the time being, Beach Boys Today! made best use of his sense of jazz; listen to the vocal expressions on ‘Kiss Me Baby’, and Brian using the sexiest Wilson brother voice, Dennis, for only one key word about being held: “tigggghhhhhtttt”.

That churned word arrives after a big, vocal-round buildup. Mike Love provided an excellent bassy tenor voice in that mix, holding down with Al Jardine tuning in with Mike (or Carl) like a metronome for strength and support. Carl Wilson’s voice wavered in and out beneath Brian’s falsetto, and above Dennis Wilson’s bass growl at the bottom. In early 1965, Bruce Johnston added another high tenor voice to this mix when he joined the band to replace Brian Wilson in the touring group, who began to go on the road without their studio leader. Bruce’s voice was a major contribution, as can be heard with his counterpoint part on ‘California Girls’.

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The block vocals The Beach Boys became famous for broke through for the first time with ‘Surfer Girl’, a huge swoony hit during the summer of 1963. That was carried to its logical conclusion on ‘Don’t Worry, Baby’ the following year, a No.24 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 as the B-side to their first No.1, ‘I Get Around’. This type of melancholia would become Brian Wilson’s stock in trade, wherein by the middle of 1965, he would record the entire vocal background for many of Pet Sounds’ songs while The Beach Boys were out playing concerts.

Brian was doing this because he had been the one teaching the others their parts, and it was his bandmates’ resonance that made a difference when the leads were handed out for Pet Sounds. Most of the numbers on the album come from that same place of loneliness and melancholy Brian had wistfully yearned about on early demos such as ‘Malibu Sunset’ or the Surfin’ USA album track ‘The Lonely Sea’. Something about the sincerity on these numbers created a space for the remaining Beach Boys to come in and rise to the occasion, meeting the standards of such passionate material as ‘God Only Knows’ (featuring Bruce and Brian behind Carl’s meaningful lead) or Brian’s solo vocal on ‘Caroline, No’. In some respects, Brian’s lead falsetto voice during the 60s was the overwhelming “thing” in the overall group mix.

For the Smile sessions, The Beach Boys as a fully combined vocal outfit returned in full, and the individual voices can be detected in the background again, as they make their way through astounding progressions such as the middle parts in ‘Cabinessence’, which attempt to achieve a sound with a Grand Canyon-esque pictorial feel. This may have been the group’s greatest moment in choral abundance, were it not for moments on ‘Good Vibrations’ bouncing people off the walls for over 50 years now, and ‘Surf’s Up’ chiming in with significant meaning.

Following 1967’s Wild Honey, on which the group tapped back into their R&B roots, The Beach Boys entered 1968 with the same level of harmonic excellence that accompanied their greatest hitmaking years. Their meditative Friends LP goes so far as to include the Wilson brothers’ father, Murry, doing a very low part on ‘Be Here In The Morning’. The overall emphasis seems to be one of comfort, family, and singing for the spirit of it – not for the bread, man. It all comes off so well acoustically with the help of jazzier instruments in the background. The Beach Boys’ Friends is similar in feel to Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, and, at one point, Brian Wilson called Friends his favorite album because “it fits the way I live better”. The harmony inherent to the album is The Beach Boys at their most natural.

That warmth was taken a step further on Sunflower, released in 1970. The Beach Boys had enlisted Monterey Pop Festival engineer Stephen J Desper to do their stereo mixes, along with help from Carl Wilson and Dennis Wilson, who were becoming very adept at creating arrangements in the manner of their brother Brian, who was also on board 100 per cent for the project. This included his own brief masterpiece, ‘This Whole World’, and a beautiful finish on the Smile cut ‘Cool, Cool Water’. Both feature among the clearest renderings of The Beach Boys’ vocal sound, heard through a very advanced mix. Elsewhere, Dennis Wilson’s ‘Forever’, Carl Wilson’s ‘Our Sweet Love’ and the Mike Love/Brian Wilson number ‘All I Wanna Do’ are perhaps as lush numbers as one would ever hear from The Beach Boys.

As the 70s rolled on, there was less activity from Brian. He rallied a little for Holland, with new voice Blondie Chaplin adding soul to the lead part on ‘Sail On, Sailor’. After that album, The Beach Boys became available to sing on a number of records by artists making the charts, two of which, Chicago’s ‘Wishing You Were Here’ and Elton John’s ‘Don’t Let The Sun Go Down on Me’, bear that unmistakable mark of what is instantly recognized as The Beach Boys’ vocal sound.

The Beach Boys’ 1967 – Sunshine Tomorrow 2CD and digital collection is available to order here. Also check out Wild Honey, available on vinyl, and the US Singles Collection: The Capitol Years 1962‑1965 CD box set.

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