60s Music

History of the Beach Boys

The Beach Boys
Brian Wilson, David Marks, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston and Al Jardine performing at a Beach Boys concert in May 2012. (Source: Wikipedia)

Introduction to one of the greatest bands in rock history

One of the most influential groups of the 60s music era, The Beach Boys were formed in 1961 in Hawthorne, California. Best known for their tight vocal harmonies, the most famous lineup consisted of brothers Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson, cousin Mike Love and their friend Al Jardine.

From the simple surf rock in the early 1960s (“Surfin USA”, “Surfer Girl”, “Fun, Fun, Fun”, “I Get Around”, “Help Me, Rhonda”) the group’s creativity began to get more ambitious in the mid-1960s that led the band into a more serious musical direction. This culminated in their now-classic album Pet Sounds that yielded the famous songs “Sloop John”, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “God Only Knows”; the following album Smiley Smile yielded the now-oldies music classic “Good Vibrations”.

Once the chief competitors of the Beatles, the group’s internal problems (not without the help of substance abuse) made it hard for them to get back to their old commercial glory, despite their subsequent records continuing to garner critical acclaim. Despite the legal quarrels among the band members since the 1980s, the Beach Boys had been still together (Dennis Wilson drowned in 1983 and Carl died in 1998); in fact, into the new millennium the group have announced new live dates, and reissues of their greatest hits for their golden anniversary. The Beach Boys were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 1988, and were listed at #12 on the Rolling Stone‘s 100 Greatest Artists Of All Time list.

Top 25 Hits

1. SURFIN’ U.S.A (listen)

2. GOOD VIBRATIONS (listen)

3. I GET AROUND (listen)

4. HELP ME, RHONDA (listen)

5. CALIFORNIA GIRLS (listen)

6. GOD ONLY KNOWS (listen)

7. SURFIN’ SAFARI (listen)

8. SURFER GIRL (listen)

9. WOULDN’T IT BE NICE  (listen)

10. IN MY ROOM (listen

11. FUN, FUN, FUN (listen)

12. SLOOP JOHN B (listen)

13. LITTLE DEUCE COUPE (listen)

14. BARBARA ANN (listen)

15. CATCH A WAVE (listen)

16. I CAN HEAR MUSIC (listen)

17. BE TRUE TO YOUR SCHOOL  (listen)

18. DON’T WORRY BABY (listen)

19. WHEN I GROW UP (TO BE A MAN) (listen)

20. COME GO WITH ME (listen)

21. 409 (listen)

22. ALL SUMMER LONG (listen)

23. HEROES & VILLAINS (listen)

24. KOKOMO (listen)

25.  CAROLINE, NO (listen)

The California saga begins

Touted as America’s first great band, the Beach Boys were, at least for a time, rivaled in terms of commercial and critical impact of that of the Beatles during the 1960’s. Initially gaining commercial success through their “surf music,” their musical maturity and creativity grew more complex, which helped them to produce one of the most critically acclaimed albums of all time, Pet Sounds. The Beach Boys are still soldiering on, despite the mostly legal battles that have hounded the band members for many years.

The roots of the Beach Boys were founded in the Los Angeles county city of Hawthorne, California. Brothers Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson and Dennis Wilson had begun harmonizing when they were younger. Their earliest influences included the Four Freshmen and the Hi-Lo’s. Their father Murray was musically inclined, and would soon become the Beach Boys’ producer and manager. Although they lived close to the ocean, not to mention that their early style was surf rock, it was only Dennis who displayed any interest in surfing.

Family gatherings led the Wilson brothers to a musical connection with their cousin Mike Love. Then they began to hold impromptu sessions, and Brian’s high school classmate Al Jardine soon joined the group.

They initially billed themselves as the Pendletones, their name styled after the popular Pendleton woolly shirt. In 1961 they released their first single “Surfin'” on the small label Candix. It never gained any attention nor chart success. Now renaming themselves as the Beach Boys, they plied their material to different labels before getting signed to Capitol Records later that year with the help of Murray Wilson, who eventually became the band’s de facto manager. However, Jardine left to finish college and David Marks replaced him.

Success as a surf rock band

The band released their major label debut “Surfin’ Safari” in 1962. The title track became a Top 20 hit (at #14) on the Hot 100. This brought the album to a respectable #32 position on the Billboard 200.

The Beach Boys subsequently recorded three albums in a single year (1963) — Surfn’ USA, Surfer Girl and Little Deuce Coupe. They all registered on the Billboard 200’s Top 10 albums at the time they had been released, with Surfer Girlgoing #2, their highest-charting album yet. Little Deuce Coupe was the band’s first platinum album. By the time Surfer Girl became a hit, Jardine returned to the group.

Even though the Beach Boys had been in the business for a couple of years, Brian Wilson’s musical maturity was already evidenced by taking over the band’s production values.

In 1964, The Beach Boys scored their first hit, “I Get Around” in mid-1964. Despite the nascent British invasion, the Beach Boys weathered the trend well. In fact, they emerged as the main competitor to the Beatles.

Their Top 10 Billboard hits up to the mid-1960s are now pop classics: “Little Saint Nick”, “Surfin’ U.S.A’, “Surfer Girl”, “Be True To Your School”, “The Man With All The Toys”, “Fun, Fun, Fun”, “When I Grow Up (To Be A Man”, “Dance, Dance, Dance”, “Help Me, Rhonda”, “California Girls”, “Barbara Ann”.

Brian Wilson’s full-time focus on studio work, and the arrival of Pet Sounds

The Beach Boys toured a lot around the USA, Europe and Australasia. This incessant touring especially took a toll on Brian Wilson so much that he eventually experienced an anxiety attack.

He quit from the Beach Boys’ active touring, and started to concentrate more on writing and producing songs. He worked in the studio full-time and hired the best of the Los Angeles session players to do the instrumental tracks before the rest of his band mates returned from touring to add vocals.

The resulting LP’s Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!!) and Beach Boys Party were evident of Brian Wilson’s growing production mastery.

Brian Wilson was inspired by the Beatles LP Rubber Soul‘s stellar production quality and cohesiveness (something which was rare on full records at that time), and this encouraged him to write songs along with lyricist Tony Asher. The band employed different and unusual instruments such as bicycle bells, Tannerin, buzzing organs, string instruments, and many more. His creative input was also influenced by the psychedelic substances he was taking.

 

Public reaction to Pet Sounds

The result was Pet Sounds, which was released in 1966. It more than made up for the great effort that Brian Wilson had put in it. The album was praised by critics, and it still stands as one of the greatest rock/pop albums ever produced. Brian Wilson had reached the climax of the years of his painstaking and perfectionist writing and production.

In the States, Pet Sounds was met with a tepid reception from the audience. It reached the Billboard 200’s Top Ten, but it failed to reach gold after the time of its release. This in particular disappointed Wilson’s high hopes, blaming Capitol’s lack of promotion for Pet Sounds as the label did on their previous releases.

On the other hand, overseas reaction to Pet Sounds was rapturous. In the UK, Pet Sounds peaked at #2, and at the end of the year it was even ranked as the best album by the reputable British music magazine NME, even dislodging the Beatles’ most recent works. The Beatles, meanwhile, were impressed by Pet Sounds and saw it as an inspiration to create one of their most critically-acclaimed and most commercially successful LPs, the groundbreaking Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Pet Sounds contained some of the most memorable songs, “Sloop John B,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” and “God Only Knows” which was seen by some as the best love song ever.

SMiLE and Smiley Smile projects

Brian Wilson was working feverishly for his next project SMiLE as an intended follow-up to Pet Sounds. He worked with musician Van Dyke Parks in writing the lyrics, as well as in playing the instruments. But the rift between him and his other band mates grew, as well as Wilson’s emotional instability and substance abuse. As a result, Wilson ultimately canceled the project — only a few weeks before the release of the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

The next album Smiley Smile was released after the shelving off of SMiLE, which contained the re-recorded versions of some of the abandoned album’s tracks. Compared to Pet Sounds, Smiley Smile had a distinctively sparse and lo-fi production. Although it produced a #1 hit with the classic “Good Vibrations,” the album met with relative commercial failure, peaking only at #41 on the Billboard 200 (in the UK, Smiley Smile reached #7). Adding to this, the Beach Boys failed to appear at the Monterey Pop Festival. All the hopes of the Beach Boys becoming a revolutionary pop band collapsed in a matter of months, and the follow-up albums Wild Honey (1967) and Friends (1968) were met with disappointment, commercially and critically (at least in the United States). Capitol dropped them soon after, and the Beach Boys signed a new contract with Reprise label.

The Beach Boys in the 1970s

The first album under Brothers Records/Reprise was Sunflower (1970), which was met enthusiastically from the critics. This paved the way for the public anticipation for the follow-up album Surf’s Up in 1971. It performed respectably critically and commercially, peaking at #29 on the Billboard 200.

Brian Wilson’s mental condition was still unstable at this point, and this led to his reduced involvement in the band’s subsequent records. Brian Wilson chose to live in seclusion inside his Los Angeles mansion. But as years passed, his mental health slowly improved, and he gradually began to contribute on subsequent albums Carl and the Passions-“So Tough” (1971), Holland (1973) and 15 Big Ones (1976), the last album witnessing Brian Wilson back into producing once more. 15 Big Ones was the most commercially successful Beach Boys album in about a decade, although in later years critical evaluation of them had been more than unkind, even hostile.

In the mid-1970s, the Beach Boys virtually ceased recording in the studio, and decided to transform itself as essentially a live act. Armed with a lot more 1960s hits than many of their peers, The Beach Boys gigged in acclaimed performances.

In 1974, their old label Capitol released a repackaged compilation Endless Summer. To their surprise, it topped the charts shortly after its release. The Beach Boys continued to perform, although the three Wilson brothers were overcome with addiction and alcoholism.

At the end of the 1970s the Beach Boys signed a deal with CBS/Caribou label and paid the band a million dollars advance on each album they would release. However, Brian’s short return to the spotlight resulted with L.A (Light Album) and Keepin’ the Summer Alive, both were commercial and critical disappointments. Near the dawn of the new decade, the Beach Boys had split up, and Dennis and Carl Wilson left for solo careers.

The Beach Boys from the 1980s up to the present

These problems by the Wilson brothers had rendered them mostly unable to record their following material. In addition, the band had begun to get involved in legal battles among each other concerning royalties and songwriting credits. These problems escalated when Dennis Wilson drowned in 1983.

 

Despite these legal wranglings, the Beach Boys continued to record and tour. Their 1988 single “Kokomo” became their fourth and last #1 hit to date, spurring its album Still Cruisin’ into platinum.

Carl Wilson died in 1998, of cancer. Following his death, there were a number of versions carrying the Beach Boys name, fronted by the surviving members of the classic Beach Boys lineup. Love, Marks and Bruce Johnston (who’s a member since 1965) established a band legally using the Beach Boys name. On the other hand, Jardine led a band also carrying the Beach Boys moniker. This resulted in more lawsuits.

The Beach Boys continued to remain visible into the new millennium. In 2012 they celebrated 50 years in the business with a brief reunion tour, a dozen reissues of their albums, a greatest hits compilation, as well as a two-disc compilation Fifty Big Ones. To further coincide with the band’s golden anniversary, they also released a studio album of new material, That’s Why God Made The Radio, which debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200. Love announced, before the end of their 50th anniversary tour, that he would be playing in additional tour dates but with a different backing band instead of Brian Wilson, Marks and Jardine. The 2012 reunion tour was recorded and released the following year in a four-CD set Live — The 50th Anniversary Tour.

The Beach Boys are often hailed as America’s greatest rock and roll band. The classic lineup of the three Wilson brothers, Al Jardine and Mike Love was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.

Useful Beach Boys links


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