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Ten Things We Learned from Watching the New Beach Boys Documentary

The new Disney+ feature-length documentary is a treasure trove for longtime fans of the legendary band.

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Photo: Capitol Records Archives, Courtesy of Universal Music

From their humble beginnings as a California surf group with fantastical harmonies to recording the experimental and boundary-pushing albums that forever revolutionized pop music, The Beach Boys’ journey from teenage phenomenon to American legends is full of the ups and downs that make up any great saga, all in the pursuit of recording some of the most beloved music ever made.

The Beach Boys goes a step further in telling the band’s whole story, with nearly two hours full of never-before-seen archival footage, new interviews with the band members and other music industry luminaries (including Lindsey Buckingham, Janelle Monáe, Ryan Tedder, Don Was), and selections from the official Beach Boys catalog. This is the definitive portrait of The Beach Boys, whether you only know the hits or are a lifelong fan. Here’s what we learned from watching The Beach Boys.

Listen to The Beach Boys: Music From The Documentary now.

The Wilson brothers started singing harmonies together as kids during car rides

The Beach Boys have always been a family affair, with Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson being raised by their songwriting father and musician mother. Though they each had different musical interests, the Wilson brothers grew up singing three-part harmony on long car rides together, which they credit as the “birth” of The Beach Boys.

Brian Wilson and Mike Love first bonded over their love of doo-wop, especially The Four Freshmen

Mike Love was a first cousin to the Wilsons and grew up loving music and singing harmonies with the Wilson brothers. Brian and Mike especially loved the doo-wop of their youth. The Four Freshmen were a strong influence, inspiring Brian to learn all the chords and arrangements to their songs and four-part harmonies. Brian even credits them for his entire harmonic education. For most of their studio career together, Brian and Mike complemented each other nicely, with Brian being the introverted producer who wrote the songs and Mike the lively frontman who wrote the lyrics.

Dennis Wilson, the only Beach Boy who surfed, suggested that the band write songs about surf culture

It’s ironic that the band most associated with surfing did not surf much themselves. Dennis was the exception, and he was the first person to suggest that the band try to write lyrics that reflected the booming surfing culture of their native Los Angeles. This helped distinguish the Beach Boys since most surf music at the time was just instrumental. It’s also worth noting that Carl, though not as much of a surfer, was a big fan of surf rock, most notably The Ventures, The Marketts, and Dick Dale and the Deltones.

Phil Spector’s production on The Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” blew Brian Wilson away—and inspired him to hire The Wrecking Crew

Phil Spector and his famous “Wall of Sound” production style was another huge influence on Brian, especially the large ensemble sound that powered The Ronettes’ classic hit “Be My Baby.” That single featured the legendary Wrecking Crew studio band, whom Brian later hired to help with his increasingly bigger and more complicated songs on Pet Sounds. This new influence can be heard on The Beach Boy’s 1964 single “Don’t Worry Baby,” which marked a turning point for the group’s sound and for Brian as a more confident producer.

The Beach Boys - Don't Worry Baby (Official Music Video)

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Glen Campbell briefly replaced Brian Wilson as a touring Beach Boy

Speaking of the Wrecking Crew, as Brian focused more on working in the studio and collaborating with the supergroup, the rest of the band agreed to let him stay off the road and hired a rotating cast of musicians to help flesh out their live show. Wrecking Crew member and future country superstar Glen Campbell was one of those stand-in musicians, who was greatly impressed with Brian yet was not ready for all the girls screaming during The Beach Boys shows.

It was Al Jardine’s idea to cover the traditional Bahamian folk song “Sloop John B”

Other than their brief time with the Wilson’s childhood neighbor David Marks, Al Jardine was the only non-family member of the classic Beach Boys lineup. A longtime friend to Brian and fellow high school football player, Al held his own with his own harmonies and musical ideas. One example was his idea to cover “Sloop John B,” specifically The Kingston Trio’s version of the classic folk song. Brian loved the idea so much that he took on the challenge of repurposing “Sloop John B” onto the keyboard, turning it into a pop masterpiece and Pet Sounds standout.

The Beach Boys - Sloop John B

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Derek Taylor, The Beatles’ publicist, was brought on to help with the PR for Pet Sounds

The friendly competition between The Beach Boys and The Beatles is well documented; Brian first heard The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show while touring in New Zealand and immediately felt pushed to improve his musical craft. What might not be as well known is that The Fab Four’s famous press agent joined the Beach Boys’ team to help with Pet Sounds, since Capitol Records wasn’t sure how to promote it. It was Taylor who pushed the idea of promoting Brian as the Beach Boys’ lone genius, much to the chagrin of the rest of the band who felt like their contributions weren’t being appreciated at the same level.

Instead of promoting Pet Sounds in the US, Capitol Records instead focused on promoting the Beach Boys’ first greatest hits album

Even with the help of The Beatles’ publicist and all the glowing reviews of the album—with Paul McCartney even admitting that “God Only Knows” was a perfect song and a direct inspiration for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—Capitol focused instead on selling Best of the Beach Boys, the band’s first compilation album that focused on singles and B-sides. Though now rightfully cited as one of the greatest pop albums ever made, Brian was hurt by Pet Sounds’ lack of commercial success in the US, even if the album was a critical and commercial smash in the UK.

The band considered shortening their name to just “The Beach” to shake off their upbeat youthful image

The years following Pet Sounds were full of great creativity but also tension. After the aborted Smile sessions, Smiley Smile marked the last time Brian led the musical direction of The Beach Boys. The group had reached a crossroads and felt out of step with the increasingly harder-hitting youth counterculture. To mark a new era, the band considered going by just “The Beach” to lose the baggage of their past success and better reflect their desire to write more mature music.

1974’s Endless Summer went No. 1 and revitalized The Beach Boys for a new generation

During this time of uncertainty, Capitol released Endless Summer, a new Beach Boys greatest hits compilation that focused on the Beach Boys’ pre-Pet Sounds hits. It was a massive record that went No. 1. A new generation was introduced to The Beach Boys, and the album helped turn the group into a stadium-touring machine. They have been touring in different configurations, and making fans and music lovers happy, ever since.

Listen to The Beach Boys: Music From The Documentary now.

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