The Beach Boys: Setting the Record Straight

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Imagine that you’re Carl Wilson in the summer of 1961, a chubby 14-year-old kid, between your freshman and sophomore years in high school, with a young boy’s enthusiasm for guitarists like Chuck Berry and Dick Dale. One evening your older brother Brian, the one who’s always pushing you to sing the tenor part on the Four Freshman and Frankie Lymon songs he’s arranging for family sing-alongs in the piano room, sits down at that upright and plays a song he’s written himself.

It’s called “Surfer Girl,” and somewhere in your pubescent self you realize that not only is this as good as the jazz standards and doo-wop hits you’ve been singing; it might even be better. There’s something about the way that melody climbs and tumbles over those restless chords that yanks at your heart. You look over at your 19-year-old brother and think, “What’s going on here?”

It all started there, at 3701 W. 119th St. in a lower-middle-class housing development in Hawthorne, a Los Angeles suburb five miles west of the city. It started with something that was ostensibly a romantic, pure-pop surf ballad but was in reality an R&B lament of thwarted desire limned by jazz harmonies. It has always been misunderstood, like almost everything The Beach Boys have done over the past half century. Now that the band is celebrating its 50th anniversary perhaps this is a good time to clear some things up.

“I was riding in my car in my hometown near my house and I started humming a melody,” Brian told me last week. “When I got home, I went straight to the piano; I hummed the melody and started making the chord patterns. It took me an hour and a half to write it; everything just came together. I could just tell by the harmony that it was a good song. ‘Surfer Girl’ was the first song I wrote, before ‘Surfin’ even.”

“‘Surfer Girl’ has a real spiritual quality to it,” Carl told me in 1982. “I don’t know who he wrote it for, but there’s a real heart attached to that. The chords are just so filling. For its time, the record was so advanced. It’s an R&B tune in structure with that slow rock beat. The introduction has Brian going the opposite way, one to three-minor and down to the sixth, and there’s all those minor sevenths. It was really beautiful to be alive when that record was playing.”

If you’re Carl in 1961, by the end of the summer Brian will have pressured you, your 16-year-old brother Dennis, your 20-year-old first cousin Mike Love and Brian’s college classmate, the 19-year-old Al Jardine, into a band called the Pendletones, named after the woolen shirts worn by local surfers. While your parents are on vacation, you and your brothers take the food money left behind to rent instruments and record a crude demo of Brian’s latest song, “Surfin’.”

Candix Records, a tiny local label, likes it enough to release it as a 45 on December 8, though the company has changed your band name to The Beach Boys without asking. Soon the song is a #2 hit in Los Angeles (#75 nationally), and right before Christmas, a few days after you’ve turned 15, you make your professional debut as the Beach Boys’ guitarist, opening for Dick Dale on his home turf at the Rendezvous Ballroom. On New Year’s Eve, you are asked to follow Ike & Tina Turner at the Richie Valens Memorial Dance at the Long Beach Municipal Auditorium.

You have to ask yourself how you’ve gone from your family rec room to the region’s biggest venues in a matter of months. You know it’s largely due to your big brother’s odd gift, but you also know that that’s not a very stable foundation. Brian has always been a nervous kid, affable one moment and withdrawn the next, no doubt because your father Murray is often yelling at him or even smacking him around. You will spend the rest of your professional life in a band that depends on this most undependable genius, not knowing if he will be able to come up with the next “Surfer Girl” next month or next year.

It was an accurate anxiety to have, for there were many months, even years, when Brian failed to write anything memorable and/or declined to tour with the Beach Boys. Yet Brian’s prolific outburst between 1961 and 1968 would be enough to carry the band past his extended absences, past the long deserts of no hits, past the deaths of Dennis (by drowning while drunk in 1983) and of Carl (by cancer in 1998) and past the bitter lawsuits filed against one another to reach a 50th anniversary few expected to ever see. This year five of the eight surviving members—Brian, Mike, Al, Bruce Johnston and Dennis Marks—have reunited for a new album, That’s Why God Made the Radio, and a tour.

Who were the others? The group’s session guitarist, Glen Campbell, joined the band after Brian suffered a nervous breakdown at the end of 1964, and was replaced by Johnston in early 1965. Marks wasn’t in the band much longer; he joined in early 1962 when Al went back to school and left in 1963 after conflicts with Brian and Murray. Two later members, Ricky Fataar (now Bonnie Raitt’s drummer) and Blondie Chaplin (the Rolling Stones’ frequent backup singer) from the South African band the Flame, are usually written out of the band’s official history.

Of course, if you do the math, you realize that this anniversary celebration is a year late, because the group formed, released its first single and played its first shows in 1961. This is standard operating procedure for a band that always seems to trip itself up at every opportunity. This is a band, after all, that declined an invitation to play at the first Monterey Pop Festival in 1967, and thus lost a chance to be part of the movie that defined hipness in the late-’60s.

This is a band whose drummer, Dennis Wilson, had to move out of his own house in 1968 because it had been taken over by Charles Manson. This is a band whose lead singer, Mike Love, used the group’s 1988 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame to badmouth The Beatles and Rolling Stones. This is a band whose long history of parental abuse, drug abuse, draft dodging, mental breakdowns and tragic deaths makes Led Zeppelin look like the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

And yet, despite all the evidence, The Beach Boys somehow retain the image of wholesome, all-American kids singing falsetto harmonies about surfing and drag racing. Here you have one of the most eccentric, innovative and influential rock ’n’ roll bands of all time, and they are remembered as a safe-as-milk oldies act.

How innovative were they? With the possible exception of Buddy Holly, Brian Wilson was the first rock ’n’ roller to demand and get complete control in the recording studio—and once he had it, he introduced musical devices (counterpoint bass lines and augmented chords) and instruments (theremin, French horn, solo cello) that had never been heard on rock records. How influential were they? Well, The Beatles recorded two explicit tributes to the Beach Boys—“Here, There and Everywhere” (Paul McCartney’s immediate response to hearing Pet Sounds ) and “Back in the U.S.S.R” (“California Girls” became “Moscow Girls”)—as well as countless more subtle echoes.

Who’s most responsible for this distortion of the band’s identity? The media? No, the band members themselves. The Beach Boys’ live show long ago gave up on the group’s eccentric, innovative side and focused on the early hits. When the anniversary tour opened in Tucson last month, for example, the band played 42 songs. Of those titles, 27 were from the 1961-65 years of early hits. Only five came from the experimental 1966-67 years of Pet Sounds and Smile/Smiley Smile. Seven more came from the underrated 1968-73 era, and only three from after 1973 (and one of those, “California Dreamin’,” was first recorded by the Mamas and Papas in 1965). The only song from after 1988 was the group’s new single, the title track from That’s Why God Made the Radio.

And that song, like much of the album, is a transparently calculated bid for nostalgia. The production is more polished than a lot of post-’73 Beach Boys recordings; the vocal harmonies are locked in tight, the textures are lustrous and the beat is rock-solid. The lyrics are embarrassingly dumb (possibly the worst couplet in rock ’n’ roll history: “It’s paradise when I/Lift up my antenna”), but the Beach Boys have overcome underwhelming lyrics in the past.

What really hurts the song is the unsyncopated stiffness of the vocal phrasing, the lack of irony in celebrating contemporary radio and modern life, and the sheer implausibility of these sexagenarian singers checking out the latest tunes as they cruise the streets in their car, talking about taking their girl friends to a dance—a scenario they evoke with equally unconvincing results on “Spring Vacation” and “Isn’t It Time.”

After eight examples of such unintentional self-parody, however, something unexpected happens. Partway through “From There to Back Again,” The Beach Boys throw off the pretense that they’re still adolescents and acknowledge they’re old men “thinking about when life was still in front of you,” as Al sings. “We had a lot to live; we gave it all,” Brian adds wistfully.

With this sudden honesty in the lyrics, the music changes too, busting out of its lockstep arrangements and forced cheerfulness into an ever-shifting tide of melancholy and resilience, represented by wordless choral vertigo, mood-turning piano chords, rhythmic decelerations and accelerations and happy-go-lucky whistling. It’s a tour de force that wouldn’t have been out of place on the Smile sessions, a reminder that Brian and his bandmates can still make ambitious music if they choose to.

One band member reveals that the 3:23 “From There to Back Again” and the 1:47 “Pacific Coast Highway” were at one point part of a seven-minute suite called “My Life,” but apparently ambition still has its limits in The Beach Boys camp. That’s too bad, because “Pacific Coast Highway” and “Summer’s Gone” are also terrific songs, suffused with the sadness that has marked many of Brian’s greatest creations. (If you’re a downloader, you should download these three songs and the gorgeous, wordless album opener, “Think About the Days.” Skip the rest.)

A basic misunderstanding of The Beach Boys’ career is this notion that they were all about simple sun and fun. From Brian’s first song, “Surfer Girl,” to the final song on the new album, “Summer’s Gone,” sun-and-fun is more often a goal that’s always just out of reach for a shy kid, deafened in one ear by his father. That kid is still awkward and nervous in interviews even today. Even if happiness is momentarily grasped, it always seems to slide through one’s fingers like sand.

“Brian was horribly shy,” Carl told me in 1982. “Oh, God, he was so shy. Going on a date was really a huge event, very threatening and potentially disastrous for him, but at the same time he was girl-crazy. So he had that drive, but at the same time he was so sensitive that his whole act could be shattered very easily. He spent a lot of time at home making music.”

If you listen carefully to “Surfer Girl,” it’s not about a current girlfriend; it’s about a girl the singer has spotted on the beach, the inner crash of his desire matching the outer crash of the waves (one of rock ’n’ roll’s greatest couplets: “I have seen you on the shore/Standing by the ocean’s roar”). The incomparable bridge (“In my woodie, I would take you…”) is all in the subjunctive mood—a wish rather than a statement. And the music, with its “oohs” rising in hope and falling with faltering nerve, is all about yearning rather than triumph.

“It had a sadness that came right from my heart,” Brian acknowledged last week. “It was about a girl who was just beyond reach. ‘Caroline No’ was like that. It’s about a girl who went from being very nice to being very hard, and she cut her hair off. That happened to a lot of girls I knew when they went from their teens to their 20s. Our new album has some sadness to it. ‘Summer’s Gone’ is about summer going away for good, and nothing’s sadder than that.”

On that latter song, the ghostly echoes of the keyboard intro and the lament of the clarinet solo seem to be mourning more than the end of a particular summer. When Brian sings that “we live and die” and “old friends have gone,” one can sense the looming absence of Dennis and Carl from these proceedings. The strings’ darkened chords and the Pet Sounds-like woodblocks can make a line like “The night grows cold; it’s time to go” downright spooky. Like “Caroline No,” “Summer’s Gone” ends with sound effects, this time of the waves washing out as you head back to your car.

Perhaps the most autobiographical song Brian ever wrote was “In My Room,” a 1963 B-side. The surf-ballad guitar intro dissolves into a swirl of harp, and he sings, “There’s a world where I can go and tell my secrets to—in my room, in my room. In this world I lock out all my worries and my fears.” The vocal is a strange mixture of happiness and loneliness—as if he’s glad to have this sanctuary but wishes it weren’t necessary.

“My friend Gary Usher was playing guitar at my house in Hawthorne,” Brian remembers. “I said, ‘Gee that’s so sweet, those guitar chords you’re playing,’ and I started humming a melody. He sang, ‘There’s a world…,’ and I sang, ‘I can go to.’ My bedroom was a beautiful little bedroom. It was my special little place to go.”

“You can tell that song is hitting pretty close to home,” Carl said. “All those tender, vulnerable things are coming out. It was unusual in our early records to not do the macho thing about cars and surf but to lay it out like that. It was definitely part of him.

“Brian, in fact, did stay home and create a whole world at the piano. He made this whole picture, and people were mad to get to California. There was an awe connected to California and the beach and the way we lived. Those were the people who were really cool. But it wasn’t the real California so much as the California in Brian’s songs.”

While it’s true that The Beach Boys’ music usually begins in the privacy of Brian’s piano room, it’s also true that the music would never have assumed the shape it did without the crucial influence of his bandmates. Left to his own devices, Brian might have made jazz-vocal records like those of his first heroes, the Four Freshmen, or girl-group extravaganzas like his second hero, Phil Spector. Instead his music was indelibly shaped by his four bandmates. Despite the myth of the lone genius, Beach Boys’ music was very much a collaborative project.

The beach, highway and dance-floor songs, for example, would never have felt so authentic if they were the sole creations of a homebody like Brian. His brother Dennis was the only Beach Boy who did much surfing. A teenage rebel who was constantly in trouble with his dad and his school, Dennis spent as much time as possible away from home—at the beach or on the streets. An accomplished surfer and virile ladies man, he allowed Brian’s jazzy music to acquire a primal, rock ’n’ roll urgency. He provided the veracity for Brian’s dreams.

“Dennis was really living it,” Carl said; “that was his life. I remember everyone was bleaching their hair; Brian tried it and it turned out a very unnatural orange—very funny. But Brian drew on Dennis’ experiences. I remember Brian would drill Dennis on what was going on, really pump him for the terminology and the newest thing. Dennis was the embodiment of the group; he lived what we were singing about. If it hadn’t been for Dennis, the group wouldn’t have happened in the same way. I mean, we could have gotten it from magazines like everyone else did, but Dennis was out there doing it. He made it true.”

Because Brian’s main musical expression was through vocal harmonies, he needed three other singers who could execute parts with precision. He didn’t find those singers so much as he created them.

“When I was 10,” Carl explained in 1982, “I’d have to sing a background part Brian had made up as a rearrangement of a Four Freshmen tune. The thing about that kind of modern jazz is the parts are very strange; it’s not like singing Christmas carols like we also did. I had to listen real hard; I had to remember exactly how the notes went and which notes were flatted or sharped; these weren’t your regular three-chord tunes. If I’d make a mistake, he’d say, ‘No, it goes like this,’ and I’d have to do it again until I got it right. Just so it would be more fun, I started to learn my parts quicker. It was great training. By the time I was 15, I could hear a part one time and have it.”

“It was hard for us to master our individual parts,” Mike remembers, “but Brian could hear them all in his head. The harmonies were usually me on the bass part, Carl on top of me, then Alan, then Brian on top. The thing that distinguished The Beach Boys was that sophistication of the harmonies. Doo-wop had two- and three-part harmonies, while the Four Freshmen had four-part harmonies, more sophisticated. But we did them with the rhythm of R&B or rock ’n’ roll.”

Carl provided the Chuck Berry element. He and his pal David Marks were taking guitar lessons from an older neighbor named John Maus (who later went to England and became one of the Walker Brothers). Carl embraced both Berry’s blues-and-country style and Dick Dale’s new surf style, creating a fuller rhythm sound than either of his inspirations. And that sound provided the rock ’n’ roll push for Brian’s uptempo songs.

Chuck Berry was easily my favorite guitarist,” Carl admitted. “I couldn’t believe my ears when I heard his stuff; it was so funky. Surf guitar was a hokey kind of style; they’d play the melody down in the lower register. I found a way to combine the two.”

Carl wasn’t the only one adding an African-American tinge to the music. Mike attended Dorsey High School in Los Angeles, which even then was multi-racial. He was hearing more than the occasional doo-wop song that crossed over to white radio; he was hearing the hits on black radio—and the adult blues songs that provided the model for teenage doo-wop. He was absorbing the syncopated rhythms and flatted blues notes that characterized this music, and he brought that with him when the Beach Boys formed.

“I went to Dorsey High School,” Mike pointed out last week, “which was close to 40 percent African-American. These kids grew up in families who had moved from the South with their music, which were the blues and R&B. I was friends with many of the kids on my track team, so I can remember singing hard-core blues songs in the showers with them. I would always tune into the stations that played Bobby Blue Bland and James Brown, The Coasters and The Cadillacs.

“I would sing ‘Hully Gully,’ ‘Yakety Yak’ and all that stuff when I got together to sing with Brian, Carl and my sister Maureen, in addition to the Everly Brothers and Four Freshmen. Later on the Beach Boys would cover Frankie Lymon’s “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” and would sing songs like “Don’t Worry, Baby,” with a doo-wop feel. And Chuck Berry’s way of crafting a musical story influenced me when I wrote songs like ‘Fun, Fun, Fun.’”

Thus the Beach Boys, often caricatured as the whitest of all rock ’n’ roll bands, were actually profoundly influenced by African-American music, more so than, say, a band like The Who, who branded their sound as “Maximum R&B.” This is something that The Blasters’ Dave Alvin discovered when he set out to record “Surfer Girl” for his solo CD, West of the West, his salute to California songwriters.

“I decided to do ‘Surfer Girl,’” he told me in 2006, “because the structure is doo-wop, very similar to ‘Dream Girl’ by Jesse Belvin, who is one of my favorite all-time singers. I’m not saying Brian ripped it off; it’s just the nature of that chord progression. So I thought I’d try to bring Hawthorne, where the Beach Boys grew up, together with South Central, where Jesse Belvin and Richard Berry lived. After all, they’re only three or four miles apart.”

To cement that connection, Alvin wanted The Calvanes, a South Central doo-wop group, to sing the harmonies. But when he approached the group’s Fred Willis, the singer said, “The Beach Boys? Gee, I don’t know,” as if he couldn’t understand why Alvin was interested in such a corny group. Alvin persisted and even sent the R&B singer a copy of The Beach Boys’ Greatest Hits .

“I called him several days later,” Alvin recounted, “and he said, ‘Gee, that guy is a genius.’… Recording that song, it finally dawned on me why The Beach Boys are so great. The lyrics are doing one thing and the music is doing something else, what I call melancholy. You have Mike going ‘Rah, rah, sis-boom-bah,’ and Brian’s music is going, ‘No, it’s not really like that.’ I used to do the same thing with The Blasters. I’d write a sad song like ‘Border Radio’ and put it to fast music so people wouldn’t recognize how sad it was.”

That, in a nutshell, is what the Beach Boys have been doing for more than half a century: crafting songs so exciting and/or so beautiful that you don’t realize how sad, how bluesy they are. “Don’t Worry, Baby” is not a song about a drag race; it’s a song about anxiety over an upcoming drag race. You don’t notice at first, because the music contains both the anxiety and its antidote—in the form of a girlfriend’s reassurance over lush, fulfilling chords.

Something similar happens in “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man),” which is not a boast of future accomplishments but a series of anxious questions about the future. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is not about spending the night with your girlfriend; it’s about longing to spend the night with your girlfriend. But the music contains both the ache of the yearning and the vision of how it might be fulfilled. The reverse of that is “This Whole World,” where the singer is anxious about losing what he’s already got, but again the music reflects both the fear and the reassurance.

Whenever Brian and his colleagues try to expunge that anxiety and frustration from their music, they wind up with negligible songs, as on the bulk of the new album. But when they incorporate both the sadness and its antidote into a song, as they have from “Surfer Girl” to this year’s “Summer’s Gone,” they sound like no one else. They sound like one of the greatest rock ’n’ roll bands of all time.

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