“They’re all cousins, friends and brothers.” They are America’s band and the soundtrack to summer. The Beach Boys story is fascinating, full of twists and turns, tragedies and triumphs, but most of all it is a story of 50 years of wonderful music that has made the world a more harmonious place for us to live for over five decades.
“Fifty years ago, we started something very big.” Brian Wilson
“All we knew was we liked to sing and make harmonies together. So to have it become part of American musical culture is pretty amazing.” Mike Love
The Wilsons – Brian, Dennis and Carl along with their cousin Mike Love and friend Alan Jardine – were the original Beach Boys. Another friend, David Marks, briefly replaced Jardine, before Al returned and they became the band that took America by storm with hits that included ‘Surfin USA’, ‘I Get Around’, ‘Fun, Fun, Fun, ‘Help Me Rhonda’, ‘California Girls’, ‘Barbara Ann’ and ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice.’
The Beach Boys’ first album, Surfin’ Safari came out in the autumn of 1962 and aside from its urging to get on a surfboard it was a mix of covers and co-writes between Brian Wilson and Mike Love as well as Gary Usher. Surfin’ USA continued where their debut album left off, with the distinction of including the Beach Boys first big hit single when the title song of the album made No.2 on the Billboard charts.
By the time their third album, Surfer Girl, in late 1963, Brian had hit his songwriting stride and their songs were beginning to reference life beyond the beach. ‘Little Deuce Coupe’, a song written by Brian and Roger Christian, is the first Beach Boys car songs to gain recognition when it came out as the B-side of ‘Surfer Girl’. The album also includes the gorgeous ‘In My Room’; a firm favourite among fans.
Little Deuce Coupe was also the title of their next album, and it was almost exclusively a homage to cars, with a few songs about girls thrown in for good measure. Aside from the title song, there’s ‘409’, ‘Custom Machine’ and ‘The Ballad Of Ole’ Betsy’. Cars were again to the fore in Shut Down Vol.2, which includes the classic ‘Fun, Fun, Fun’, ‘Don’t Worry Baby and the beautiful ‘Warmth of the Sun’.
Released the week after July 4th in 1964, All Summer Long, with its delightful title track, took a step forward. Brian was growing more ambitious and stretching the boundaries of his creativity with classics including ‘I Get Around’, ‘Little Honda’, ‘Wendy and the gorgeous ‘Hushabye’, a tribute to the doo-wop records they all grew up with.
Following on from the Beach Boys Concert album their next studio album was The Beach Boys Today! This was a giant leap forward in both concept and sound. It has classic singles, ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’ and ‘When I Grow Up To Be a Man’ as well as two of Brian’s most heartfelt ballads, ‘Please Let Me Wonder’ and ‘Kiss Me Baby’ – check out the version on Hawthorne CA, it is a capella and stunning!
Summer Days (And Summer Nights) from 1965 is the first album to include Bruce Johnston, who had been drafted into the band as a replacement for Brian who had opted to quit touring to concentrate on writing and producing. Bruce’s first recording was ‘California Girls’, not a bad place to start and the album also includes the hit version of ‘Help Me Ronda’ and the fabulous ‘You’re So Good To Me’, along with ‘Girl Don’t Tell Me’, with Carl on vocals. From 1965 is The Beach Boys Party!, which includes ‘Barbara Ann’ (which became their biggest UK hit to date) and three Beatles covers.
Their next album, Pet Sounds, could not have been more different from The Beach Boys Party! Where the latter was just as described by the album’s name, Pet Sounds was largely just Brian working in the studio when the band were on tour. Although, their vocal contributions are what helps to make this album so special. It proved to be a difficult project and caused conflict within the band, largely divorced from the creative process. However, it has been hailed as the greatest album ever made in numerous polls, and when it isn’t top it is second or third – it’s an awful lot to live up to. Yet it does. From the unrivalled beauty of ‘God Only Knows’ – which in the finished version just features, Brian, Carl and Bruce – to the inspired reworking of ‘Sloop John B’, to the gorgeous ‘Caroline No’, this is a classic!
From the hundreds of hours that Brian spent in the studio attempting to create Smile, which later came out as The Smile Sessions, the band cherry picked the best bits, added some songs written by other members of the Beach Boys and came up with Smiley Smile in the autumn of 1967. At its heart are the two ‘pocket symphonies’, ‘Heroes and Villains’ and ‘Good Vibrations’. Among the elements salvaged from Smilewas ‘Vegetables’, which includes Paul McCartney munching on a stick of celery and there is also the brilliant ‘Wind Chimes’. Smiley Smile was the band’s 12th studio album in six years. Over the same time period they had 18 singles on the Billboard charts – 13 of them in the top 10, the 18th single was their third No.1, ‘Good Vibrations. All in all, it is an astonishing record.
It was in1967 that the band released their 13th album, the unlucky Wild Honey it failed to do well on the charts by which time the sound of the beach was left behind while they embraced the mood of California. The Beach Boys were embracing a brave new world and did so with the rocking title track, a Stevie Wonder cover, ‘I Was Made to Love Her’, and the uplifting ‘Darlin’.
For Friends, the tracks that stand out are the title track along with ‘Wake the World’ and ‘Transcendental Meditation.’ It was followed by Stack-O-Tracks instrumental highlights from the past studio albums, and including a booklet with the bass lines, lead lines, chords and lyrics so that we could all sing-along
Then in 1969, with 20/20, the band honed their creativity to a point where old and new sat side by side in a comfortable setting. ‘Do It Again’ is the perfect amalgam of what the Beach Boys were and had by now become, while ‘I Can Hear Music’ is Carl on top form, there’s ‘Bluebirds Over the Mountain’ and Al’s adaptation of the old folk song made famous by Lead Belly, ‘Cottonfields’. Just check out the beautiful ‘Our Prayer’ – it is what the Beach Boys were created for.
The Seventies opened with Sunflower, for some, it’s their favourite Beach Boys album, after Pet Sounds. There’s the beautiful ‘Add Some Music to Your Day’, ‘Cool, Cool Water’, a hangover from The Smile Sessions, ‘This Whole World’, and Bruce’s ‘Tears In The Morning’. A tough act to follow, album-wise, yet 1971’s Surf’s Up did just that and more. It is a rock album rather than a pop album and is justifiably loved by many fans. It includes ‘Til I Die’, arguably the most poignant song in the Beach Boys entire canon – the lovely, ‘Feel Flows’, ‘Don’t Go Near The Water’ and the epic title track.
The band’s excursion into rock continued with 1972’s Carl and the Passions – So Tough on which they are joined by South African musicians, Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, who helped create one of the lesser-known Beach Boy’s classic albums. There’s the fantastic ‘Marcella’, Dennis Wilson’s lovely, love song, ‘Cuddle Up’ or the equally beguiling TM chant, ‘All This Is That’.
Then came the pinnacle of the Beach Boys rock trilogy, the outstanding Holland, which came out in January 1973. Largely recorded in the Netherlands it includes the fabulous ‘Sail On Sailor’ sung by Blondie Chaplin, ‘The Steamboat’, ‘The Trader’ and the excellent ‘Funky Pretty’.
It was the four years until a new Beach Boys studio album came along, but in between, they released the excellent The Beach Boys In Concert album, which has the most sublime version of ‘Caroline No’; originally sung by Brian on Pet Sounds but here handled tenderly by younger brother Carl. Bruce Johnston had by this time left the band to produce records and pursue his own career. It was in the period before their next album that they released two excellent compilations, the classic Endless Summer, which made No.1 on the Billboard chart, and ‘The Spirit of America’; both are well worth looking into, the latter for the inclusion of their big British hit, ‘Breakaway.’
On 1976’s 15 Big Ones there are some excellent covers, including Chuck Berry‘s ‘Rock and Roll Music’ and Brian’s Spectoresque, the cover of The Righteous Brothers ‘Just Once In My Life’. Among the originals are Brian and Mike’s lovely, ‘Had To Phone Ya’ ‘It’s Ok’ and ‘Everyone’s in Love With You’ – Mike’s song about the Maharishi with jazzman Charles Lloyd on flute. In 1977 The Beach Boys Love You followed in quick succession. It was originally intended to be a Brian solo album but at the 11th hour, the Boys stepped in. Nevertheless, Brian still wrote every song. Dennis’ vocal on ‘I Wanna Pick You Up’ is the very essence of this album.
In 1978 the MIU Album, partly recorded at the Maharishi International University in Iowa, was very much a return to traditional territory, with a 60s vibe to the whole thing, 50s even, with their cover of the Del-Vikings doo-wop classic ‘Come Go With Me’, but there’s also ‘Winds of Change’ with a lovely Al Jardine and Mike Love vocal – when the harmonies kick in you know you’re in safe hands – and their rousing, ‘Kona Coast’.
By 1979 Bruce Johnston had returned to the fold and it was him that produced LA (Light Album). It features the excellent ‘Full Sail’, one of Carl’s most lovely vocal performances on any Beach Boys’ album. There’s Al’s love song to his then-wife, ‘Lady Lynda’, and most poignantly Dennis’s final lead vocals with the group ‘Baby Blue’ and ‘Love Surrounds Me’. Dennis tragically drowned in 1983, just after his 39th birthday. RIP.
1980’s Keepin The Summer Alive continued where LA (Light Album) had left off, although most of the tracks are Brian Wilson’s. One of the exceptions is ‘Endless Harmony’, a Bruce Johnston song. He crafts every one and this is arguably his rarest gem of all. “Striped shirt freedom, brave new heroes, go out on a roll.” There’s also the lovely, ‘Santa Ana Winds’, the uplifting, ‘Goin’ On’ and another Chuck Berry cover ‘School Days (Ring, Ring Goes The Bell)’.
“We recorded Endless Harmony standing outside at Al Jardine’s Big Sur barn among the Redwood trees. Four of us around one mic. and Mike on another. The whole vocal took just 20 minutes to do. Not bad!” Bruce Johnston
It was five years until the next Beach Boys studio album; one largely produced by Culture Club‘s producer, Steve Levine, and it even includes a song written by Boy George (‘Passing Friend’). The opening number, ‘Getcha Back’, is a strong song, along with ‘Where I Belong’ featuring Carl, and Bruce’s ‘She Believes In Love Again’ on which Bruce and Carl share the vocals.
“Smokey Joe’s Cafe” written by Lieber & Stoller influenced me a heck of a lot when I went to write Kokomo I heard the verse which was done by John Phillips, the melody of the verse and I said ‘That’s a beautiful melody and a beautiful verse but it doesn’t groove’. So I went back and ‘Aruba, Jamaica, ooh I wanna take ya’ so ‘ooh ahh at Smokey Joe’s Cafe’ it has the same sort of syncopation, same sort of groove, as Smokey Joes Cafe as the chorus of Kokomo, which became our biggest selling hit.” Mike Love
‘Kokomo’ was originally released on the album entitled Still Cruisin’, which came out in 1989. It’s a mixture of originals and Beach Boys songs used in movies – ‘Kokomo’ featured in Cocktail, of course. It’s also on The Platinum Collection, along with many of the band’s classic singles
In 1992 Summer in Paradise was released, the band’s 27th studio album and the last to feature Carl Wilson who sadly died in 1998. A live version of the title track is on the Made in America box set.
After this a number of repackaged CDs came out, including the Pet Sounds Sessions and Endless Harmony, to tie in with the documentary about the band in 1998. There’s a wonderful track called ‘Soulful Old Man Sunshine’, which had been recorded during the sessions for Sunflower, but unreleased at the time. Another anthology released in 2001 and entitled Hawthorne CA, after the Wilson’s birthplace is essential to check out. There are a number of very interesting alternate takes and a cappella versions of songs including a lovely version of ‘Forever’.
Then in 2012 came a new studio album, That’s Why God Made the Radio, made by all the surviving members of the band. It includes the title song which is, as the title suggests, a perfect radio record, but for a rare, precious and beautiful gem check out, ‘From There To Back Again’. It evokes everything that makes the Beach Boys such a loved and cherished band; nostalgic lyrics, lush harmonies, and a melody that doesn’t give up.
For their 50th anniversary, the band took to the road and it was captured on the Live – 50th Anniversary Tour CD. From the opening, the rousing ‘Do It Again’, it celebrates the amazing music that they have given to the world. Among the highlights are the group ‘dueting’ with Dennis on ‘Forever’ and with Carl on ‘God Only Knows’ with them both appearing on video for the concerts.
The compilation Fifty Big Ones was reactivated with some remastered mixes and stereo debuts to help celebrate the Anniversary. Live – The 50th Anniversary Tour is a sparkling 2CD collection from the tour featuring all the classics and welcome outings for ‘Add Some Music to Your Day’, ‘Marcella’, ‘California Saga: California’ and ‘All This Is That’ – cosmic Boys for sure.
Fanatics were then delighted to grab hold of Made In California 1962-2012, a 6CD chronology with the final disc, appropriately titled From The Vaults, containing rare numbers such as Dennis’ ‘Barnyard Blues’ and demo of ‘Be With Me’, as well as a cappella tracks, backing tracks and more studio rarities.
The Big Beat 1963 features early demos and productions for the Boys, Bob & Sheri and The Honeys (later American Spring). Brian Wilson’s own No Pier Pressure (2015) is another gem. Blondie Chaplin and Al Jardine participate, as do Zooey Deschanel and Kacey Musgraves. The result is lovely songs played with a resigned passion and rushes of vintage Beach Boys sunshine.
Their music is transcendent and will live on, long after others who have been pretenders to their crown.