After doing a round-up of Brian Wilson’s solo career recently, I’ve decided to branch out and cover the Beach Boys as a whole. Really, I should do one for the other Boys and their solo attempts, but that would mean listening to Looking Back With Love, which I’m not quite ready for yet. So, after the (eventual) happy ending of Brian’s comeback, here’s the rise, the fall, the slight rise, the fall and the further fall of the Beach Boys.
Part One: The Brian Years (1962-1967)
Surfin’ Safari – 1962
It seems incredible to think that the golden age of the Beach Boys only actually lasted for five years or so, but they crammed a heck of a lot in, starting with debut album Surfin’ Safari. As the name suggests, it was very much an attempt by the record label to cash in on the new surf craze, and it features a whole load of surf songs written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love. Other than a few highlights, it’s pretty basic and formulaic stuff, but with Brian learning his chops on production (which was credited to Nick Venet), much better was to come.
Surfin’ USA – 1963
Released just six months after their debut, Surfin’ USA shows no massive leap forward in style, but there are early signs of Brian’s talent for melody on Farmer’s Daughter and Lonely Sea. The title track is a classic, of course, and it gave them their first big hit, but overall, it all feels a bit rushed, with five of the 12 tracks guitar instrumentals.
Surfer Girl – 1963
Six months further on and the Beach Boy production line saw another release, and this time, it was a major step. For the first time, Brian was credited as producer, and beautiful songs like the title track and In My Room proved how far he’d already come as a songwriter. With just two throwaway instrumentals and some classic tunes like Catch A Wave, Hawaii and Little Deuce Coupe, this is the first really great Beach Boys album.
Little Deuce Coupe – 1963
Incredibly, this was released just a month (!) after Surfer Girl, as a reaction by Brian to Capitol Records using some Beach Boy car tunes to sell a Hot Rod compilation without their permission. So here’s his own ‘hot rod’ album, featuring some previously-released songs (the title track, for one), but also plenty of new material. The most famous of these is the cheesy-but-fun Be True To Your School, but there’s some other decent stuff here.
Shut Down Vol 2 – 1964
Giving themselves some time off, the Beach Boys released their next album a full five months later. In theory it’s another car album, with fantastic songs like Fun, Fun, Fun and Don’t Worry Baby, but the theme doesn’t quite hold out, allowing for the simply gorgeous The Warmth Of The Sun (written on the night of JFK’s assassination). Unfortunately, there’s also plenty of filler, including a ‘comedy’ row between Brian and Mike that wasn’t funny and actually just echoed the real tensions between the two cousins that were already emerging and would come to a head in a couple of years.
All Summer Long – 1964
Possibly the best summer album ever, Brian was now operating at full pelt, having ousted father/manager Murry and taken control of the group’s destiny. He was only months away from a nervous breakdown on tour, but chirpy optimism is all over this record, with the title track, I Get Around and Girls On The Beach are the soundtrack to any great summer and while there’s still a couple of filler tracks, Carl’s Big Chance is a decent surf instrumental.
Beach Boys Concert – 1964
It’s hardly a proper live album, with plenty of ‘post-production’ editing going on to beef up the sound a bit, but it is at least a record of what Beach Boys concerts were like at this stage. Mike dominates proceedings, as you’d expect, and there’s an array of cheesy covers (the Monster Mash!), so it’s a novelty as much as anything.
The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album – 1964
Their fourth album of the year saw the Beach Boys switching from surfing to snowmen and it’s actually not a terrible bunch of songs. Around half of it is new material, including the excellent Little Saint Nick and Merry Christmas Baby, which is always one of my favourite Christmas songs. Not sure why. After that, the focus shifts on to classics and carols, and this is a bit less successful, with a slighty dirgey feel to some of the recordings. Maybe they were tired.
The Beach Boys Today! – 1965
After Brian’s pre-Christmas breakdown, he withdrew from touring with the group, freeing him to do what he loved most, creating the music. The huge impact that this would have on the band’s sound was first seen on this album. The first half may have followed the successful formula of previous albums, but even then the production was notably more sophisticated. The second half saw Wilson indulging his melancholy side with a series of beautiful ballads that foreshadowed Pet Sounds, and while the final track was a filler interview piece, Brian had made his first masterpiece.
Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) – 1965
Today! might have been a masterpiece, but not everyone was pleased to see Wilson refusing to keep on laying the same old golden eggs. Apparently, both Capitol and Mike Love demanded a return to the usual cars ‘n’ surf sound that was making them so much money, so Summer Days saw the grown-up feel of Today! replaced by more traditional Beach Boy tunes. However, Wilson’s production methods continued to develop, creating material like California Girls that was worlds away from throwaway pop music. With Carl finding his voice on Girl Don’t Tell Me, Summer Days might have been a slight step back, but didn’t throw Brian off the course he was set on – Destination Pet Sounds.
Beach Boys’ Party! – 1965
But wait, we’re not there yet. With Brian busying crafting in the studio and refusing to speed up his processes, the record company demanded fresh product and received this ‘live in the studio’ album, purporting to be recorded at a party, but in reality with the chatter added in the mix after the songs had been recorded normally. It’s a throwaway piece, packed with covers and medleys, but managed to be successful when Barbara Ann became a hit single.
Pet Sounds – 1966
My favourite album of all time, I could talk about Pet Sounds for page after page, but I’ll keep it short. Wilson and Phil Spector’s Wrecking Crew assembled one of the most intricately-produced albums of all time to back a series of songs by Wilson and Tony Asher that explored far deeper emotional territory than anything the Beach Boys had done before. Needless to say, Mike was not happy with such a stark shift in tone, but Brian managed to convince the group as a whole to trust his instincts. Needless to say, it was a good decision.
Smiley Smile – 1967
Of course, after Pet Sounds, Brian started out on an even more ambitious project, called Smile. Mental health issues and drug abuse led to a collapse of both Smile and Wilson’s creative powers. After it was abandoned, the rest of the Beach Boys managed to pull together this compromised version, featuring some material from Smile (Heroes And Villains, Vegetables, Wonderful, etc), along with some curious and slightly half-baked material. It was a big step down from Pet Sounds, even with Good Vibrations onboard, and the band were soon heading off in another direction altogether.
One of the riskiest things a band can do is replace their lead singer, their focal point musically and visually. Sometimes it works (Bruce Dickinson joining Iron Maiden), sometimes it doesn't (Blaze Bayley joining Iron Maiden), but it's never more of a risk than when the reason for the change is that the previous incumbent has died. But still, some bands try it, and the results, unsurprisingly, are very mixed.