Spent the last 55 years with a lost tribe in the Amazon? In that case, here’s a band you should know about…
Brothers Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson joined forces with their cousin Mike Love, and David Marks, in the summer of 1961, releasing the first single, Surfin’. A minor hit, it was overshadowed the following year by Surfin’ Safari, the epitome of the Beach Boys teen-dream confections, reflecting an age of confidence in white middle America.
In late 1963 Marks was pressured out of the group by tyrannical patriarch Murry Wilson, and his place was filled by erstwhile folk singer Al Jardine. Marks has managed to live off his royalties since his dismissal, despite being in the band for less than two years. The classic Beach Boys line-up was augmented on tour by session men (including Glen Campbell).
The 45 rpm single was still the prime currency of pop music in the early 60s and early Beach Boys albums tend to be collections of great singles and so-so filler material.
All Summer Long (1964) was the first album to edge away from this formula and represented a quantum leap in terms of production. Brian Wilson, a disciple of Phil Spector‘s ‘Wall of Sound’ technique, was becoming more of a competitor than a follower.
Today (1965) and Summer Days (And Summer Nights) (1965) consolidated the band’s progress with a number of sublime tracks distilling the essence of the California dream – Help Me Rhonda and California Girls to name but two.
The increasing complexity of the material highlighted Brian’s increasing obsession with studio technique and sonic perfectionism, a development paralleled by his move away from surfing and driving towards deeper, more reflective topics.
It might have been drugs, family tensions or stage fright, but in 1964 the man who wrote In My Room decided that’s just where he’d stay.
Rumours swelled concerning Brian’s mental health and musical failure, but after more than a year of solitary living (and a little LSD) he delivered the classic album Pet Sounds and was crowned rock’s insular genius.
God Only Knows (reportedly Paul McCartney‘s favourite song) remains a gorgeous mood piece and the whole album is possessed of a dreamy, ethereal quality. But its intimacy sometimes gave way to melancholia and a sense of loss, such as on Caroline No.
Pet Sounds was voted the greatest album of all time by Mojo magazine in the UK. It would be a mistake, however, to think that the band’s new direction was universally welcomed at the time.
The conservatism of the group’s fans even spread to the band members themselves. Mike Love described Pet Sounds as ‘Brian’s ego music’, feeling that the self-obsessed tone and complex sonic craftsmanship had their origins within Wilson’s increasing use of LSD.
Brian, meanwhile, sensed that things were changing in the music industry, and felt eclipsed by the releases of Bob Dylan‘s Blonde On Blonde and The Beatles‘ Revolver in August 1966. The result was a spiralling use of marijuana, pills and LSD, and the onset of behaviour that was eccentric, reclusive and ultimately self-destructive.
Amidst this atmosphere of frustration and tension, Brian resolved to produce a studio masterpiece with his next effort, provisionally entitled Dumb Angel, but later dubbed Smile.
However, he collapsed under the pressure of expectation, compounded by an excessive drug habit. Yet, as Brian’s situation deteriorated largely out of sight of the public, resurrection was at hand with a single recorded prior to the Smile sessions.
Good Vibrations, released in the autumn of 1966, was a metaphor for the heartbroken dreams of the 60s and, like Sgt. Pepper, it neatly divided the decade between innocence and experience. The product of six months’ work, it was co-written by Mike Love, who would soon become a key figure in the songwriting axis of the group.
Good Vibrations cost £50,000 to record, reached #1 on both sides of the Atlantic, and represented a career peak. Although there would be further strong singles, such as Heroes And Villains, which Wilson co-wrote with Van Dyke Parks, the momentum was waning.
They seemed hopelessly un-hip to the Haight-Ashbury counterculture, and they cancelled a scheduled appearance at the Monterey Festival in the summer of 1967.
Their image was dented by their unwillingness to embrace music as a political tool, while their manufactured studio-based recording techniques were out of fashion, as bands were becoming increasingly assessed by their live, organic performances.
Some of the Smile sessions were eventually cobbled together and released as the indulgent Smiley Smile in late 1967. The LP fared badly in the States, but the band released a surprisingly fresh and cohesive set in early 1968 – the organ-led, white-soul classic Wild Honey.
It was the sound of a band trying hard to please an audience that was no longer there, but it outsold Smiley Smile. Love co-wrote the whole album, apart from a spirited cover of Stevie Wonder‘s I Was Made To Love Her.
The follow-up LP, Friends (1968), was a gentle, restrained and unremarkable set and 1969 brought 20/20, a mishmash of recent hit and miss singles and Smile sessions which also featured a bizarre oddity; At this time Dennis Wilson was hanging out with a young unknown musician named Charles Manson and Never Learn Not To Love was apparently co-written with the soon-to-be mass murderer.
After twenty albums in less than seven years, they left Capitol for Warner Brothers, but Sunflower (1970) was no improvement. Their subsequent revival and belated acceptance into the rock fold was one of the period’s more surprising reversals and the impressive Surf’s Up (1971) glanced back to the passing of a simpler era in songs such as Disney Girls.
The 1972 album, Carl And The Passions (an early working name for the band) was a wretched album, and The Beach Boys saga took another strange turn when they decamped to Amsterdam to record Holland (1973). The LP cost a fortune to make and is either “a veritable shit-load of meditative drivel” (Rolling Stone), or a strong, overlooked gem.
By the early 80s, The Beach Boys’ music, in seemingly terminal decline, seemed tailor-made for the Reagan nation – a country increasingly cocksure and bullish, with a craving for patriotic nostalgia. For the curious, the Beach Boys Love You album (from 1977) is probably the only post-Holland LP worthy of inspection, with Brian producing all new songs for the first time since Smiley Smile.
Dennis Wilson, the only real surfing enthusiast among The Beach Boys, drowned on 28 December 1983 during an incautious dip in the Pacific Ocean from his boat moored in Marina del Rey, California.
He had celebrated his 39th birthday a few weeks earlier and was a strong swimmer, but by all accounts was somewhat incapacitated by alcohol when deciding to enjoy a swim.
Dennis had often been inclined towards wild behaviour, and in 1971 had put his hand through a plate glass window, resulting in serious injuries that prevented him from playing drums for some time.
South African Ricky Fataar of Flame, the group assigned to Brother Records, the label launched by the Beach Boys, replaced him, playing as a Beach Boy for three years (and later appearing as a member of The Rutles in the spoof TV documentary All You Need is Cash).
Dennis Wilson himself had a brief flirtation with the cinematic art, co-starring with James Taylor in Two Lane Blacktop, a 1971 art movie. In 1977 he was the first of the Beach Boys to release a solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue, which was a minor chart hit in the USA.
In 1982, he fathered a son named Gage by Shawn, the daughter of his Beach Boy colleague Mike Love. He had previously married Karen Lamm, ex-wife of Robert Lamm of Chicago, in 1976.
The story of The Beach Boys took on the dimensions of a soap opera, incorporating tawdry business squabbles, mental illness, creative inertia, death and, in Brian Wilson especially, a descent into the dark corners of Californian mythology. Brian quit the band to concentrate on his psychiatric treatment with Dr Eugene Landy, whom he had first met in the mid-70s.
Some Beach Boys obsessives considered Landy a manipulative opportunist who brainwashed Brian to share his glory. More objective onlookers would reflect that Landy forced Wilson to work again and to get a solo deal with Sire Records in 1987, which resulted in his best new music for twenty years – 1988’s Brian Wilson. Yet Sire refused to release a second solo effort, Sweet Insanity, even though it contained a duet with Bob Dylan on The Spirit Of Rock And Roll.
The Beach Boys returned to the charts in 1988 with Kokomo, featured in the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail, but it is widely felt that they exist in a sad, albeit lucrative, twilight of self-parody. Mike Love’s decision to work with the British dinosaur rock outfit Status Quo, sleepwalking through Fun, Fun, Fun in early 1996, was only exceeded when the whole band including Brian, decamped to Nashville to play as backing band to a depressing set of tired old country music farts like Willie Nelson.
Carl Wilson’s death from lung cancer on 6 February 1998 – aged just 51 – left the group bereft of its leader and cast their permanently-touring career into doubt.
Vocals, bass, keyboards