The Beach Boys - Biography
By Michael Keefe
The Beach Boys formed in Hawthorne, California in 1961. Consisting of three Wilson brothers – Brian, Carl, and Dennis – along with cousin Mike Love and neighborhood friend Al Jardine, the quintet began as a surf band that emphasized group vocal harmonies. Brian Wilson quickly established himself as a talented songwriter and producer, leading The Beach Boys to a series of hit records. In 1965, Bruce Johnston joined the band, allowing Brian to quit touring. This alleviated his performance anxieties and allowed him to devote more time to his increasingly ornate pop songs. Pet Sounds (1966-Capitol) is the group's artistic masterpiece and is consistently ranked among the greatest albums ever made. The popularity of The Beach Boys, however, began to decline, as did Brian Wilson's mental health. After abandoning recordings for the unreleased SMiLE album in 1968, the rest of the band assumed artistic control. Throughout the remainder of the 1960s and the early 1970s, and largely without the help of Brian, The Beach Boys continued to record critically lauded albums that nonetheless mostly failed to catch the public's ear. The band subsequently enjoyed a rebirth in popularity, thanks largely to the hits collection Endless Summer (1974-Capitol). The Beach Boys essentially became a nostalgia act after that, and even Brian Wilson performed live again. During the latter half of the 1970s, and through to their final LP in 1985, the quality of the band's newly record material was mixed at best, but The Beach Boys continued to do well on the road. The group gradually unraveled throughout the 1980s, and Dennis Wilson drowned in 1983. Still, The Beach Boys found radio success one last time, as their song "Kokomo" became a 1988 hit. Brian Wilson released his self-titled debut solo album that same year, signaling the end of his days with the band. Carl Wilson died of cancer in 1998, prompting Jardine's departure and leaving the band in the hands of the oft-vilified Mike Love, who continues to tour under the once-good name of The Beach Boys.
As a teenager in the sleepy seaside town of Hawthorne, California, Brian Wilson came to his role of pop song producer at an early age, arranging vocal harmony parts to songs and teaching these to any friend or family member who could half-way carry a tune. By 1961, he had formed the first incarnation of The Beach Boys, the horribly named The Pendletones. They consisted of Brian on bass; his brothers Carl and Dennis on guitar and drums, respectively; their cousin Mike Love on vocals; and high school pal Al Jardine, also on guitar. The Wilson brothers' father, Murry, assumed the role of band manager. A stern and abusive man, one of his blows had left Brian permanently deaf in his right ear. On the positive side, Murry also financed the group's first demo, "Surfin'," an independent-label single that got the band – newly renamed The Beach Boys – signed to Capitol Records. Jardine left the band to attend dental school, and neighborhood friend David Marks assumed his place.
In October of the following year, the group released their first LP, Surfin' Safari (1962-Capitol). Along with the title track and "Surfin'," the car song "409" was the only other standout track on a collection of otherwise middling tunes mostly dedicated to the newly popular genre of surf music. The Beach Boys followed quickly, issuing Surfin' USA (1963-Capitol) the following March. The title song was a #3 hit, but the rest of the album's material was more filler than killer. By that September, Brian Wilson's songwriting and the band's playing had improved noticeably, as evidenced on Surfer Girl (1963-Capitol), the first thoroughly enjoyable Beach Boys album. The title cut went Top 10, and "Catch a Wave" was a hit, as well. While "Surfer Girl" was wistful, track "In My Room" was downright melancholic and was perhaps the first Beach Boys song to offer a personal reflection of the dreamy, loner personality of its creator, Brian Wilson. Jardine returned to the band in early 1963, and Marks quit later that year, following a fight with Murry Wilson.
Perhaps sensing the end of America's infatuation with songs about surfing, The Beach Boys turned to the topic of cars for their next album, Little Deuce Coupe (1964-Capitol), which hit record stores an astonishingly speedy four weeks after its predecessor. The title tune was lifted from Surfer Girl and issued as the leadoff single. "409" and "Shut Down" were also reprised, but the group generated plenty of fresh material as well, including the popular "Be True to Your School." The automobile also played a key role in The Beach Boys' next big single, the #5 "Fun, Fun, Fun" (which is what they'll have "until your daddy takes the T-Bird away"). The song was the advance single from the group's fifth LP, Shut Down Volume 2 (1964-Capitol). "Don't Worry Baby" and "The Warmth of the Sun" were also terrific cuts, but the album suffered from too many throwaway tracks.
The band broke through in many ways with their next album. The volatile mixture of familial and creative tensions between Brian Wilson and his dad led the group to fire Murry in April 1964. In July the band released their first great album, All Summer Long (1964-Capitol). The LP's debut single, "I Get Around," became The Beach Boys' first #1 hit. Its arrangement displayed Brian's increasingly sophisticated mastery of vocal harmonies. "All Summer Long," "Little Honda," "Wendy," and "Don't Back Down" are all highlights of The Beach Boys catalog. October saw the release of Beach Boys Concert (1964-Capitol), their first #1 album. The band finished off their five-LP year with The Beach Boys' Christmas Album (1964-Capitol). A fun holiday platter, its single "Little Saint Nick" has become a Christmas staple.
At the end of 1964, Brian Wilson suffered his first nervous breakdown and retired from touring. The Beach Boys hired L.A. studio musician and future country legend Glen Campbell as Brian's replacement on the road. Campbell then departed for a solo career and in April 1965, the group recruited their friend Bruce Johnston to fill the slot. Freed from touring, Brian had more time to work on recording. The burgeoning studio whiz would hire a wide array of professional studio musicians to lay down the instrumental backing tracks, and then the rest of the band would come in to record vocals. This formula allowed The Beach Boys to reach the next level of artistic development, as they topped all earlier efforts with Today! (1965-Capitol). Top 10 on both sides of the Atlantic, it is arguably the second best album they ever made. The LP boasted three high-charting US singles: "When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)" (#9), "Dance, Dance, Dance" (#8), and "Do You Wanna Dance" (#12). More so than any previous Beach Boys album, non-single tracks like "Good to My Baby" and "Please Let Me Wonder" were equal to the hits. The Beach Boys' next album, Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) (1965-Capitol), was a worthy successor. It featured the group's second #1 single, "Help Me, Rhonda" and the even more iconic "California Girls" (a #3 hit). Brian's songwriting had become imbued with a more reflective air by this time, and album tracks like "Girl Don't Tell Me," "Let Him Run Wild," and "You're So Good to Me" displayed Wilson's growing melodic grace. This artistic development was briefly put aside for Beach Boys Party! (1965-Capitol), released just in time to land on Christmas wish lists. A minor entry in the group's catalog, the record is a collection of cover songs made to sound as if they were recorded extemporaneously at a party.
After an exciting year in which The Beach Boys released three albums (all titled with exclamation marks!), 1966 saw only one new album from the band. That's all right, though. Pet Sounds (1966-Capitol) deserves to stand on its own. This is the group's masterpiece, and one of the greatest albums ever made. Every note feels perfectly placed. Brian Wilson had moved beyond merely making catchy rock, forging a new world of orchestral pop that melded the elegance of a Mozart serenade to the hooky, contemporary form of radio-friendly pop music. Guest lyricist Tony Asher's direct, heart-on-sleeve lyrics proved a perfect complement to Wilson's baroque music. Words of love ("You Still Believe in Me," "God Only Knows") and struggles for individual identity ("That's Not Me," "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times") are matched to glorious vocal harmonies and intricately arranged instrumentation that sparkles, chimes, and glides along. Sitting somewhat conspicuously at the album's center, "Sloop John B" was added at Capitol's request for a clear single. The reworked Bahaman folk song is lyrically out-of-place, but it's a fun pick-me-up and has deservedly become a Beach Boys classic. Plus it hit #3 on the Billboard Pop chart. Sunny and sumptuous album opener "Wouldn't It Be Nice" also landed in the Top 10.
Having created a truly great album, Brian Wilson next set out to record one of the greatest songs of all-time, "Good Vibrations." The multi-part tune is a masterpiece of pop craftsmanship. By this time, Wilson was working with song fragments that he called "feels," expertly stitching together recorded passages to create a whole track. As a finished song, "Good Vibrations" lasts only 3:35, but Brian recorded 90 hours worth of material in order to construct his "pocket symphony." Released late in 1966, the single shot up to #1 in both the U.S. and the U.K., justifying the intense and wearying labor.
For the next Beach Boys album, Brian Wilson hooked up with a talented new songwriter and arranger, Van Dyke Parks. Brian's music was moving in boundless directions, and Parks' dense and elliptical lyrics suited Wilson's new project well. Throughout the latter half of 1966, Brian held numerous recording sessions. In October, the group issued a new single, a complexly arranged Old West saga-in-miniature called "Heroes & Villains." Toward year's end, Capitol began promoting a new album called SMiLE, which the label believed would be delivered in time for the holidays. Unfortunately, Brian's fragile psyche was cracking. The rest of The Beach Boys didn't see the commercial viability in these strange sounds Brian was creating, and Mike Love in particular was critical of Parks' words. Still, sessions for SMiLE persisted into early 1967. Sadly, the album was never completed. All of the pressures – external and internal – were too much for Brian, and he abandoned recording.
At this point, the other Beach Boys stepped in and took the reins, marking a huge turning point for the band. By using some of the finished SMiLE material, re-recording other songs from those sessions, and hastily bashing out a handful of new tracks, they were finally able to give the world their follow-up to Pet Sounds, Smiley Smile (1967-Capitol). Unsurprisingly, the record was a letdown. In the years since, many of the original SMiLE recordings have been released (both officially and as bootlegs), and it's clear that they were superior to the Smiley versions. Further proof of the grand beauty of Brian Wilson's vision came in 2004, when he and his backing band, The Wondermints, recorded the entire album anew. When finally heard as a complete work, it became clear that SMiLE could have been The Beach Boys' second masterpiece.
Instead, the group entered an intriguing new phase of their career. Without Brian at the helm, creative duties were divided up amongst the band members. Also, the musical landscape was changing faster than most bands could keep up. In 1967, while the whole SMiLE/Smiley Smile debacle unfolded, The Beatles released both Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band and Magical Mystery Tour (1967-Capitol), turning the rules for pop music on its head. Meanwhile, the Monterey Pop Festival (which The Beach Boys elected not to play) introduced a new era of rock 'n' roll, along with a new generation of music fans who saw The Beach Boys as little more than a cutesy, outmoded pop band who wore matching striped shirts.
So, the group became something of a cult act during the late 1960s and early '70s. With albums like Wild Honey (1967-Capitol), Friends (1968-Capitol), and 20/20 (1969-Capitol), The Beach Boys adjusted their sound. Their pop, while still sunny, was often more pastoral, and they peppered their tracklistings with a few more rock-based songs, too. Of course, they maintained their trademark harmonies, which were as gorgeous as ever. Their popularity slipped greatly, though, with the group's LPs and singles barely denting the charts. Still, Wild Honey, in particular, and the hippie-themed Friends are quite worthwhile albums from this period.
Capitol didn't know how to market The Beach Boys anymore, and the band were dissatisfied with the label as well. Slapped together mostly from leftover material, 20/20 had fulfilled the group's contractual obligations, and the two parties went their separate ways. The Beach Boys created their own label, Brother Records, and signed with Reprise, forging a fresh start for a new decade. They began superbly with Sunflower (1970-Reprise), their best record since Pet Sounds and a true highlight of their discography. The lovely Johnston-penned "Tears in the Morning" should have become a soft rock staple, while Brian's "This Whole World" infused the classic Beach Boys sound with a dose of boogie-woogie, and "Add Some Music to Your Day" stand among the band's best songs. Sadly, art and commerce didn't cross paths, and the critically acclaimed Sunflower failed to chart. The group hired a new manager, Jack Riley, to try to get their career back on track. Their next LP, Surf's Up (1971-Reprise) was nearly as strong as their last. The Beach Boys emphasized a greater awareness of politics and ecology with the relatively hard-rockin' "Student Demonstration Time" and "Don't Go Near the Water." Carl provided "Feel Flows," a fan favorite. The beautiful, elegiac title track was a rerecording of a SMiLE leftover, and Brian also contributed the gorgeous and mournful "'Til I Die." Though less cohesive as an album than Sunflower, Surf's Up returned the band to commercial success with their first Top 40 record in years.
The mercurial Dennis Wilson injured his hand by punching a plate glass window, and Bruce Johnston left the band over disputes with Riley, so The Beach Boys called in drummer Ricky Fataar and guitarist Blondie Chaplin, both of whom came from the Carl Wilson-produced The Flames. The result of all of this reshuffling was the confusingly titled and only mildly satisfying Carl and the Passions - 'So Tough' (1972-Reprise). The name suggested it was a Carl Wilson side project, and the contributions from Fataar and Chaplin didn't exactly scream "Beach Boys," either. The band rebounded the following year with Holland (1973-Reprise), named for the country where the album was recorded, and using imported gear that had to be painstakingly reassembled. Despite these trials, Holland turned out well and was the last wholly satisfying album of new studio material The Beach Boys would record. Brian's breezy and beautiful "Sail on Sailor" (co-penned with Van Dyke Parks) was a hit, and the album went Top 40. They also released their best live album that year, In Concert (1973-Reprise). Fataar and Chaplin left during this time, and Riley was replaced by new manager James William Guercio.
The Beach Boys truly solidified their comeback the following year, thanks to the compilation Endless Summer (1974-Capitol). The band may have lost listeners in the late '60s, but they gained a whole new generation in the mid-'70s, all thanks to this well-chosen retrospective. Because it was released by Capitol, the album contained only the band's 1960s material. The selection actually skewed toward the group's more mature output ("In My Room" and "Wendy," for instance), while still offering plenty of The Beach Boys' fun-in-the-sun hits, from "Surfin' USA" to "Good Vibrations." Sunkist used the latter in commercials for their orange soda, ensuring that the already media-hooked members of Generation X would grow up to be Beach Boys fans.
The popularity of Endless Summer marked another turning point for the band. Realizing that their earlier songs were so well loved, it only made sense for the band to focus on touring and playing the hit tunes of yesteryear. The Beach Boys, hence, became an oldies act. As a side effect of this shifting of the group's priorities, their days of recording good new studio albums were behind them. Somewhat ironically, Brian Wilson spent more time in the producer's chair during this period of mediocrity than he had since his final attempts at SMiLE. Thanks to the latest outbreak of Beach Boys fever, along with a "Brian's Back!" marketing campaign, 15 Big Ones (1976-Reprise) actually sold quite well, despite its questionable merits. Several of the songs were cover tunes (including the surprising Top 10 single "Rock and Roll Music"), and most of the originals were fairly staid. Its follow-up, The Beach Boys Love You (1977-Reprise), was at least more interesting. The reinvigorated Brian pumped up his new material with a loopy kind of child-like giddiness, and many of the songs prominently featured synthesizer. Opinions from fans and critics alike have always been mixed. Either way, Love You is perhaps the band's most enigmatic release.
After that, new LPs from The Beach Boys went from so-so to just plain bad, even as the band moved from Reprise to CBS and regained Bruce Johnston, both in 1979. M.I.U. Album (1978-Reprise), L.A. (Light Album) (1979-CBS), and Keepin' the Summer Alive (1980-CBS) all have little to recommend them. If anything, they hint at just how fractured, divisive, and worn out the group had become. America at large, however, had adopted The Beach Boys as their band. The average listener didn't care about their new albums, because there were plenty of their good old records to enjoy. Nor were they generally privy to the infighting, the substance abuse, or Brian's worsening mental state.
Both Carl and Dennis left the group for solo careers circa 1980. Brian was kicked out in 1982, due to his deteriorating psychological and physical health, and placed under the care of Eugene Landy. Incredibly, The Beach Boys were without a Wilson in the mix, foreshadowing the band's grim future. After years of substance abuse, Dennis Wilson drowned in 1983 while scavenging near a friend's houseboat. Surprisingly, his passing galvanized The Beach Boys, who reconvened to record what would be their final proper album, simply titled The Beach Boys (1985-CBS). The single "Getcha Back" found the band returning to the Top 40 for the first time since 1976.
By 1988, Brian Wilson had made a miraculous physical recovery and was as mentally together as he ever would be. He released his quite strong solo album that year, Brian Wilson (1988-Sire). Landy received songwriting credits for some of the record's material and exerted almost total control over Wilson. Finally, the band filed suit against Landy and freed Brian from the disreputable therapist. Concurrent with Brian's solo debut, The Beach Boys surprised the world with their biggest-selling single of all-time the #1 "Kokomo" from the soundtrack to Cocktail.
The Beach Boys failed to capitalize on that huge success, though. The three albums they've released since then have offered little new and have faired poorly. Still Cruisin' (1989-Capitol) was a mish-mash of recycled oldies, soundtrack songs, and other one-off cuts from the late '80s. Their worst album ever (critically and financially), Summer in Paradise (1992-Navarre) featured recooked '60s hits mixed with poorly executed new material. The crassly conceived Stars and Stripes Vol. 1 (1996-River North) paired The Beach Boys with an assortment of country singers – right when that genre was at its hottest – for a lackluster rehash of the group's old hits.
The band took its final great blow not too long after. Carl Wilson died of cancer in February 1998, and Al Jardine left to pursue a solo career. Brian released his second solo record that year, the overly slick Imagination (1998-Giant). In the years since, the greatest output from The Beach Boys has come in the form of legal documents, as Mike Love, Brian Wilson, and Al Jardine continually battle over rights to royalties and use of the band's name. Brian remains active as a performer and contributed mightily to the cultural landscape by finally recording SMiLE (2004-Nonesuch). Today, Love and Bruce Johnston are the only long-time members of The Beach Boys remaining in the band, although both Brian and Al Jardine are still legally attached.
Despite the murky mess that's been made of The Beach Boys' name in the past couple of decades, they are arguably one of the greatest American bands of all-time, having released a record 36 U.S. Top 40 singles. Even beyond that staggering achievement, The Beach Boys are emblematically American. They began by capturing the imagination of the country's youth with their tales of surfing, cars, and girls. The group then graduated to the stunning artistry of Pet Sounds, placing Brian Wilson in the pantheon of great American pop composers such as Cole Porter and George Gershwin. Later, after falling out of favor with the public ear, they rose back up into fame and fortune, relying on a combination of artistry and nostalgia. One could argue that becoming mired in litigation also captures the American sensibility. It's better to view The Beach Boys as a supremely talented band well deserving of their spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. May their songs always find a new generation of listeners to enjoy them.