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The Beach Boys have had a fascinating career full of soaring highs and terrible lows, so to celebrate both their 50th anniversary and their reformation this year, I’ve made a list of my 50 favourite songs, so here’s Part One. It starts off right at the start and then is mostly made up of highlights from the 1970s, showcasing the talents of Carl and Dennis Wilson as much as their illustrious brother…
‘Hey, surfing’s getting really big. You guys ought to write a song about it.’ Those words from young Dennis Wilson changed the lives of his brothers, cousin and family friend forever when he returned from the beach one day in 1961. Brother Brian and cousin Mike wrote a simple but effective song about the new craze and the group bought themselves instruments and recorded it in their garage before they’d even properly learned how to play. The Pendletones were born. They’d be Beach Boys by the time the song got released.
49 – Lady Lynda
From the first Beach Boys song to one of the latest to appear on my list. Lady Lynda isn’t one that’s particularly looked back on fondly by most fans. Sure, it’s schmaltzy and by Al Jardine and owes as much to Bach as Beach, but I really like it and it gave the Boys one of their few late-period hits. Also, it’s one last showcase of Dennis’ orchestral arrangements
48 – Little Saint Nick
A true festive favourite, Little Saint Nick doesn’t feature higher up this list because it’s mostly just an alternate version of Little Deuce Coupe, but you can’t deny that it works well and has become a bit of a standard at Christmas. And credit to Mike Love’s ability to turn anything into a surf or (in this case) car song.
47 – Do You Wanna Dance?
One of the few really big songs that Dennis got to sing lead vocals on, Do You Wanna Dance may have been a cover (of a Bobby Freeman song), but the Beach Boys made it their own, with Brian’s production skills approaching their peak in 1965 and the Wrecking Crew on awesome form. As for Dennis, it was the highest-charting song he sang and must have gone a long way towards building his confidence as a being more than ‘the drummer’.
46 – Slip On Through
Five years later, that confidence was leading to Dennis writing and singing his own material on Beach Boys albums, and songs like Slip On Through showed that, while their chart-topping days might have been behind him, the band were still capable of making great music. And credible-sounding music too. There’s nothing nostalgic about this, just the sound of a hidden talent emerging and blossoming. The shame is that the band weren’t able (or willing) to harness that talent enough.
45 – Mona
Another song featuring Dennis on lead vocals, but it’s all about Brian here. After the ill-fated ‘Brian Is Back’ campaign in 1976, the mostly-absent Beach Boys leader was given the confidence and freedom to make an album under his own steam, like the good old days. Unfortunately for the more commercial-thinking members of the band, Brian was in a very different place and came up with weird pop classics like this one on the wonderful but bonkers Love You album.
44 – Friends
The Beach Boys weren’t long out of their peak era by 1968, but the pop world moves quickly and had left them behind after the SMiLE debacle. It’s a shame, because the Friends album and this title track in particular showed that they were far from washed-up. Brian, Carl, Dennis and Al wrote it (how many times was that a writing partnership?) as a waltz, with Carl’s ever-beautiful vocals dominating a lovely little song from a lovely little album.
43 – Only With You
With Brian largely AWOL in the early 1970s, his brothers Carl and Dennis came into their own as songwriters and helped keep the Beach Boys honest. This one, written (curiously) by Dennis and Mike is a beautiful love song that was a serious consideration for a first dance song at my wedding (it lost out to Stand By Me by Ben E. King, if you’re interested) and it’s wonderfully-sung by Carl. One of many hidden gems from this era of the band.
42 – Let’s Put Our Hearts Together
One of the highlights of the Love You album was this sweet duet between Brian and his then-wife Marilyn. They’d had plenty of ups and downs in their marriage and it would come to an end two years later, but clearly there were still good times and this shows not only that, but also that Brian was still very capable of writing great songs, even if his voice was already wearing the scars of his lifestyle.
41 – Feel Flows
I’ve eulogised plenty about Dennis already in this list, but here’s Carl doing what he did best in the early 70s, writing and singing a soulful, melodic and thoughtful song that’s one of the highlights of the patchy-but-interesting Surf’s Up album. He was on fire at this stage in his career and it’s no wonder Cameron Crowe used it in Almost Famous, because it’s a world away from surf songs and matching striped shirts.
Selecting a Top Albums Of The Year list is always tricky because it's very easy to be swayed by seeing other lists in magazines, newspapers and websites. If they all pretty much have the same album at Number 1, who am I to disagree? But then again, this is my list on my website, so I'm afraid the wonderful P.J. Harvey will just have to settle for second place.