.

The Beach Boys

    Surfin' Safari
    Surfin' USA
     Surfer Girl
    Little Deuce Coupe
    Shut Down, Vol. 2
   All Summer Long
   Beach Boys Christmas Album
     Today!
   Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!)
    Party
      Pet Sounds
    Smiley Smile
     Wild Honey
   Stack-o-Tracks
     Friends
     20 20
      Sunflower
    Surf's Up
   Carl and the Passions—So Tough
   Holland
      Endless Summer
   15 Big Ones
     Love You
  M.I.U.
  L.A. (Light Album)
  Keepin' the Summer Alive
     Good Vibrations Box
      Pet Sounds Box
    Greatest Hits, Vol. 1, 2, 3
   Hawthorne, CA: Birthplace of a Musical Legacy     Sounds of Summer: The Very Best of the Beach Boys
     Pet Sounds: 40th Anniversary

No pop musician has expressed the thrill and pain of being a teenager better than the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. Early hits such as “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” and “I Get Around” provided a road map to ’60s suburban California kicks, and put dreams of riding the waves at Doheney, Del Mar, Tressles, and Laguna in the minds of kids who’d never even seen the Pacific Ocean. Of course, not all the songs were about waves and cars—from the start many were about Brian Wilson’s own loneliness, vulnerability, and deep psychic pain. The delicately melancholy “In My Room” and the yearning ballad “Surfer Girl,” both from 1963, hinted at a heavy undertow pulling below the group’s frothy surface.

Wilson formed the Beach Boys in 1961 when he was 20, with his two younger brothers, Carl and Dennis, their cousin Mike Love, and neighbor Alan Jardine (who was replaced on two early albums by another childhood friend, David Marks). The ¬group’s first recording, the crude doo-wop anthem “Surfin,” became a regional radio hit and drew the attention of Capitol Records. The next single, “Surfin’ Safari,” released on Capitol in 1962, hit #14 on the pop charts and was followed by “Surfin’ USA,” which mapped out Wilson’s vision: to combine Chuck Berry’s rock & roll guitar with the intricate vocal harmonies of the Four Freshman.

Listening to the Beach Boys’ early material is a thrill—you can hear Wilson’s confidence and abilities grow with each new song, as he crafts increasingly daring instrumental arrangements, drives the group’s sunny vocal harmonies into unexpected, often magical places, and develops ingenious ways of using the studio to make his music come to life. “Don’t Worry, Baby” and “The Warmth of the Sun,” from 1963’s Shut Down, Vol. 2, are among the most lush and wonderful songs the Beach Boys ever recorded. “I Get Around,” with its handclap rhythm, surf guitar riff, and Wilson’s wild falsetto, is a career high point. Even the mediocre Beach Boys Christmas Album is memorable for Wilson’s use of studio orchestration—something that would come to mark his brilliant mid-Sixties productions.

By 1964, the Beach Boys rivaled the Beatles as the world’s preeminent pop group—and it was a rivalry Wilson took extremely seriously. Touring took its toll on the Beach Boys’ leader, though, and at the end of a 1964 European trip Wilson suffered a nervous breakdown and decided to quit the road. While the rest of the group toured (with Glen Campbell initially replacing Wilson on stage, later Bruce Johnston), Brian stayed home to work on new songs. This marked a turning point—allowing Brian unlimited time to perfect his arrangements and develop his studio craft. For Today!, he wrote most of the lyrics, cut the backing tracks, and planned the vocal arrangements. By the time the group came home, all they had to do was lay down their vocals. The Beach Boys had essentially become Brian’s band. And Brian wasn’t writing novelty surf songs anymore. The results crystallize on side two of Today. The music is orchestral, idiosyncratic, and revealing—a direct line into Wilson’s troubled romantic soul. “Kiss Me, Baby” and “Please Let Me Wonder,” in particular, are as complex and personal as any pop music ever made. While Pet Sounds, from two years later, remains Wilson’s masterpiece, the second side of Today is where that album really starts.

Following Today, the Beach Boys rushed out Summer Days (and Summer Nights!), notable mainly for the stellar single “California Girls,” then Brian went back to the studio to finish Pet Sounds. Inspired by the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, Pet Sounds was Wilson’s attempt to make an entire coherent, emotionally honest record—a song cycle of loneliness, hope, and the search for love. It was also his most elaborate production, for which Wilson created complex, unorthodox instrumental landscapes to give his songs a breathtaking majesty. “God Only Knows,” one of the great love songs of all time, and “Caroline, No,” ¬Brian’s heartbreaking meditation on lost innocence, may be the most remarkable tracks, but from start to finish Pet Sounds is mind-blowingly transcendent even 29 years after it was made.

Ironically, Pet Sounds didn’t sell well—the next album, Party, a mostly acoustic “live” album recorded with friends (including Jan and Dean) in the studio, sold much better on the strength of its #2 single, “Barbara Ann.” Also notable are three Beatles covers and a version of Dylan’s “The Times They Are a-Changin’.”

Brian soon returned to the studio with the idea of making an album even more complex than Pet Sounds—one he intended to change pop music forever. Collaborating with lyricist Van Dyke Parks, Wilson started on Smile, which featured intricate vocal sections, songs divided into suitelike parts, and generally the most far-out experiments he’d attempted. The other Beach Boys didn’t support Brian’s extravagant efforts, and Wilson, already wrestling with his own mental instability and the emotional fallout from experiments with pot and LSD, buckled under the pressure. The album was abandoned. Rerecorded versions of various songs appear scattered over Seventies albums, but it wasn’t until 2004 that Wilson went back into the studio to complete the project he intended to be his masterpiece (see Brian Wilson entry).

One hint at what Wilson was initially attempting with Smile, however, is “Good Vibrations,” which he had started during the Pet Sounds period and released as a single in 1966. Recorded in three studios over six months, it is one of the most densely woven songs ever recorded—a “pocket symphony,” Wilson called it, in which he layered vocal track upon vocal track, and employed instruments including tubas, marimbas, and a theremin, to create three and a half of the most riveting minutes in pop music. Released as a single in October 1966, “Good Vibrations” stayed in the Top Forty for 12 weeks.

The next Beach Boys album, Stack-o-Tracks, is essentially a Beach Boys karaoke record containing just instrumental backing tracks that “you can play along to”—fascinating for Beach Boys obsessives, perhaps, but unnecessary for anyone else. The group attempted to salvage the Smile fiasco with the inconsistent Smiley Smile, for which they pieced together rerecorded portions of Smile’s epic “Heroes and Villains,” “Vegetables,” and the lovely “Wonderful.” (It also contained the “Good Vibrations” single.) Released in September 1967, at the height of the summer of love, LSD, and political turmoil over the Vietnam War, the album was like a strange throwback—it highlighted how out of touch these suburban California surfers had become with the psychedelic times. The album bombed, and the Beach Boys’ commercial career never quite recovered.

But while the group wouldn’t have another #1 song until “Kokomo” in 1988, the Beach Boys continued to make some fascinating, mostly overlooked music into the ’70s. One of the great thrills of discovering the Beach Boys, in fact, is to dig through these later albums for hidden gems. Wild Honey, Friends, Sunflower, Surf’s Up, and Love You are all fantastic albums in their own way, and great songs can also be found buried on the often-dismissed Carl and the Passions, 15 Big Ones, and Holland.

Wilson floated in and out of the group during this time, no longer intent on being the producer or dominant songwriter, but just an occasional contributor. Brothers Carl and Dennis stepped up to fill ¬Brian’s shoes—Carl proved himself a talented producer and the group’s most exciting lead singer, with a warm R&B-styled sound; Dennis also produced tracks, and demonstrated a gift for writing songs with gentle, introspective melodies. Unlike the grand productions of Wilson’s mid-’60s records, these albums are sparse, simple, free of studio flourishes—not as ambitious, for sure, but easygoing and warm.

Friends, from 1968, typifies the period. If you can get past sappy wannabe-hippie tracks such as “Wake the World” and “Transcendental Meditation,” the album is gorgeous, with standout moments including “Meant for You,” one of Mike Love’s finest vocals, and Brian’s “Busy Doin’ Nothin’,” a samba shuffle in which Wilson details his homebound life—the lyrics even include a to-do list for the day and an invitation to come visit him (complete with directions to his house). Wild Honey is a rougher album of California soul, on which Carl contributes his finest vocals on the excellent “Darlin’” and “I Was Made to Love Her,” a tribute to Stevie Wonder. 20/20, similarly, features excellent vocals by Carl on songs such as “I Can Hear Music” and “Time to Get Alone,” as well as Dennis’s sweet “Be with Me” and another of Brian’s stay-at-home gems, “I Went to Sleep.”

The next album, Sunflower, is the epitome of Seventies California cool. Songs such as “This Whole World,” “Add Some Music to Your Day,” “Forever,” and “Cool, Cool Water” are filled with crisp melodies, delicate harmonies, and a mood of hope and sunshine. While it’s often written that the Beach Boys never recovered once Brian abdicated leadership, Sunflower is a testament to what they could still do as a group. Surf’s Up is darker, with a four-minute title track (including the lines “surf’s up/there’s gonna be a tidal wave”) that’s like the hangover to all the group’s early surf-song highs. The album also features the excellent “Long Promised Road,” “Feel Flows,” and Brian’s heartbreaking “’Til I Die.” Carl and the PassionsSo Tough is weaker, with a few standout cuts such as “You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone” and “Marcella.”

Holland is a mess of an album recorded mainly in Holland without Brian, but features a pair of his excellent songs, “Sail on Sailor” and “Funky Pretty” (both sung by drummer Ricky Fataar.) 15 Big Ones, featuring mostly covers, was an attempt to capitalize on Brian’s return to the band (which didn’t last), but the next year’s Love You is one of Wilson’s most overlooked works, essentially a Brian solo album, with gentle piano melodies in songs that show a man who’s been damaged but not destroyed. (It also features some hilarious and bizarre tunes, such as “Johnny Carson,” an adoring ode to the late-night television host.)

The album didn’t get much attention, and the Beach Boys went on without Brian, releasing a string of inconsequential albums including 1978’s MIU, produced by auxiliary Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, 1979’s L.A. (Light Album), and the abysmal Keepin’ the Summer Alive. In 1988, the Beach Boys topped the charts with “Kokomo,” from the Cocktail movie soundtrack, but the next and last album, 1992’s Summer in Paradise, produced by Mike Love, is perhaps the group’s worst.

After a long period of mismanagement, much of the group’s catalogue became available again in the early 2000s. The great Beach Boys two-record compilation is 1974’s Endless Summer, an album that helped put them back on the map after their Sixties slide. Capitol also launched a series of well-done two-for-one releases of all the original albums (with superb liner notes), and a new series of greatest-hits packages. Though it’s a behemoth collection (five discs in all), even casual fans will find plenty to love on Good Vibrations, which includes key parts of all the group’s albums, plus an excellent selection of alternative takes, a capella tracks, and demos, as well as the only officially released portion of the Smile sessions. It also includes a bonus disc of unreleased material including great tracking sessions, demos, and rarities.

Also wonderful is the Pet Sounds Box set, a painstakingly compiled five-disc collection (with a 125-page explanatory booklet) that includes the first ever stereo mix of Pet Sounds (Brian recorded in mono, because he was deaf in one ear), as well as bonus tracks, in-progress studio sessions, vocal-only tracks, and alternative takes. Pet Sounds: 40th Anniversary is no match for the extensive box set, but the two-disc set includes both mono and stereo mixes of the album. Also included is a documentary DVD with interviews about the sessions with Brian Wilson, lyricist Tony Asher and studio bass player Carol Kaye.

Beach Boys Greatest Hits, Vols. 1–3 is a basic introduction that breaks down the group’s major songs chronologically. Endless Harmony is a mixed bag of unreleased tracks, including stereo mixes of “Kiss Me, Baby,” a great live version of “Do It Again,” and another mix of Brian’s devastating “’Til I Die.”

Hawthorne, CA: Birthplace of a Musical Legacy is two discs of leftovers, alternate versions, studio clowning, and other arcana—nothing essential but lots of fun. The only other current collection is Sounds of Summer: The Very Best of the Beach Boys, which gathers all their hits, from “Surfin’ Safari” to “Kokomo.” Perhaps modeled after The Beatles 1, a massive success, Sounds of Summer is not nearly as impressive—unlike the Beatles, the Beach Boys’ best stuff often wasn’t the hits, but the secret treasures.

After a long period of mismanagement, much of the group’s catalogue became available again in the early 2000s. The great Beach Boys two-record compilation is 1974’s Endless Summer, an album that helped put them back on the map after their Sixties slide. Capitol also launched a series of well-done two-for-one releases of all the original albums (with superb liner notes), and a new series of greatest-hits packages. Though it’s a behemoth collection (five discs in all), even casual fans will find plenty to love on Good Vibrations, which includes key parts of all the group’s albums, plus an excellent selection of alternative takes, a capella tracks, and demos, as well as the only officially released portion of the Smile sessions. It also includes a bonus disc of unreleased material including great tracking sessions, demos, and rarities.

Also wonderful is the Pet Sounds Box set, a painstakingly compiled five-disc collection (with a 125-page explanatory booklet) that includes the first ever stereo mix of Pet Sounds (Brian recorded in mono, because he was deaf in one ear), as well as bonus tracks, in-progress studio sessions, vocal-only tracks, and alternative takes. Pet Sounds: 40th Anniversary is no match for the extensive box set, but the two-disc set includes both mono and stereo mixes of the album. Also included is a documentary DVD with interviews about the sessions with Brian Wilson, lyricist Tony Asher and studio bass player Carol Kaye.

Beach Boys Greatest Hits, Vols. 1–3 is a basic introduction that breaks down the group’s major songs chronologically. Endless Harmony is a mixed bag of unreleased tracks, including stereo mixes of “Kiss Me, Baby,” a great live version of “Do It Again,” and another mix of Brian’s devastating “’Til I Die.”

Hawthorne, CA: Birthplace of a Musical Legacy is two discs of leftovers, alternate versions, studio clowning, and other arcana—nothing essential but lots of fun. The only other current collection is Sounds of Summer: The Very Best of the Beach Boys, which gathers all their hits, from “Surfin’ Safari” to “Kokomo.” Perhaps modeled after The Beatles 1, a massive success, Sounds of Summer is not nearly as impressive—unlike the Beatles, the Beach Boys’ best stuff often wasn’t the hits, but the secret treasures.

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