The Beach Boys, who released their first record 30 years ago, have been living off their past for so long that it's easy to hate them for it. It hasn't helped that the heroes-and-villains saga of the group and its creative soul, Brian Wilson, is as twisted a melodrama as anything in show business, let alone rock & roll.
But somehow, none of this has ever diminished the records, which remain remarkably fresh and endlessly influential. Precious few artists boast a legacy as rich as the dozens of songs written and produced by Brian Wilson between "Surfin' USA" (1963) and "Good Vibrations" (1966), a catalog that's touched musicians from the Beatles to ex-Pixie Frank Black, who recently covered "Hang On to Your Ego." A mid-'70s reissue of the hits, Endless Summer, ensured the Beach Boys a lucrative eternity as an oldies act. Good Vibrations, a five-CD set with one disc devoted to alternate takes and studio rarities, puts the hits in a broader context, capturing the group's powerful ascent and painful fall.
The Beach Boys were the vital link between the vocal groups of the '50s and the rock bands of the '60s; they were also the first major pop group to both write and produce their own records. The Beatles had an essential partner in producer George Martin; the Beach Boys had Brian Wilson, who wrote the songs with a variety of collaborators but who defined them with his singular ear for melody, vocal harmony and instrumental arrangement. From the hedonistic fantasy of "Fun, Fun, Fun" to the adolescent angst of "Don't Worry Baby," the Beach Boys defined the early-'60s innocence of teenage America with rock songs of almost folklike simplicity. "The Warmth of the Sun," a pensive ballad written in response to the assassination of President Kennedy, suggested a cultural sea change, and indeed, as Disc 1 ends with a sweetly rendered, previously unreleased concert version of "Hushabye," the sound of the Beach Boys seems already touched with nostalgia.
Brian Wilson's musical inventiveness, however, kept the Beach Boys on the cutting edge with the galvanizing propulsion of "I Get Around," signaling a whole new level of achievement. By 1965, Wilson, who had already experienced a nervous breakdown, had quit touring with the group to write songs and record instrumental tracks with the best session players in Los Angeles. The result was a carefully sculpted style epitomized by the stately introduction to "California Girls," with keyboards, guitars and horns arranged in a manner so precise as to highlight the flourish of a cymbal. Increasingly, Wilson's productions reflected a keen appreciation of the work of Phil Spector, but while Spector's celebrated Wall of Sound massed musical parts into a nearly indistinguishable whole, Wilson was a master at illuminating the individual voice of each instrument, a vision brilliantly realized in the rich musical weave of the Beach Boys' masterpiece, Pet Sounds.
Wilson was as obsessed with the Beatles as he was with Spector, and no wonder: The Beach Boys were the biggest group in rock & roll until the arrival of the Beatles, whose British cheek suddenly made the California stars seem like homeroom dorks. No matter that Paul McCartney cited Pet Sounds as an inspiration for Sgt. Pepper; the popular audience was slow to embrace Wilson's more sophisticated sounds, and the Beach Boys, who included two of Wilson's brothers (Carl and the late Dennis) and a cousin (Mike Love) along with guitarist Al Jardine, began to bristle under his leadership. Then Wilson came up with the 1966 hit that would give this retrospective its title.
"Good Vibrations" was the masterstroke of a compositional style in which Wilson would record a variety of instrumental tracks and then fit them into a final work, an instinctual process illustrated by the studio chatter included on the fifth CD. Smile was to be the album that took these techniques to dramatic extremes, and the music might have solved the group's image problem by clearly putting them in the experimental vanguard; instead, Smile became the most famous uncompleted album in rock & roll history. Between the group's lack of confidence in Brian's material (most written with Van Dyke Parks) and his escape from insecurity into acid and amphetamines, Brian had lost the will, if not the ability, to stitch the album's pieces into a coherent whole. Twenty-seven years later, Wilson, who traded an abusive father for a domineering shrink, is still trying.
The Beach Boys' fatal failure of will occurred just months before the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper, and neither Brian nor his group ever really recovered. The Beach Boys shamelessly dribbled out refashioned versions of Brian's Smile material to highlight subsequent albums. Now 30 minutes from the Smile sessions are included on Good Vibrations. Some of it is truly stunning — the musical intricacies of "Wonderful," recut in a simpler form for the group's Smiley Smile album, are every bit as rich as anything on Sgt. Pepper, and "Surf's Up" clearly had the potential to be the group's "A Day in the Life." Other material lacks the artistic authority with which Wilson blessed "Good Vibrations." A five-minute section of unused material composed around the themes of "Heroes and Villains," for instance, reveals a song whose parts should have added up to more than they did.
Disc 3 will surprise those who think the Beach Boys died after "Good Vibrations," for while the music never again scaled such ambitious peaks, the group continued to make some terrific records, through Surf's Up (1971). Disc 4 is a thorough summary of the past two decades, starting out with the billowy elegance of "Sail On Sailor" (1973) and bottoming out with the prefabricated fun of "Kokomo" (1989).
Box sets, like pop careers, are notorious for running out of gas before the final curtain; Good Vibrations, which takes three discs to cover the group's critical decade and supplements that with another disc of curiosities from the same period, strikes the proper balance. Among some intriguing, previously unreleased Brian Wilson songs, an early-'70s tune, "H.E.L.P. Is on the Way," finds the by-then-legendary recluse essentially calling himself a fat slob. Wilson's cheerful self-awareness borders on chilling.
To love the Beach Boys, who fought like dogs but stuck together like family, you've sometimes got to laugh to keep from crying. So it is with Good Vibrations, a collection of essential and enduring music that has aged with a grace denied to its creators.