The Beach Boys are America’s most legendary rock & roll saga—and one of its most turbulent, with a twisted family history at the heart of it. The Wilson brothers were suburban California boys: Brian, the haunted pop genius hearing the harmonies in his head. Carl, the shy kid with the heavenly voice. Dennis, the wild-ass drummer who lived the cars-and-surf lifestyle Brian just sang about. Plus high school pal Al Jardine and a cousin of theirs named Mike Love, who prided himself on bringing the bad vibrations. They’ve spent over 50 years riding the wild surf — sometimes wiping out, often finding places nobody else could reach. Their hits are just the beginning — their catalog is full of timeless classics, gems buried on long-forgotten albums, crazed belly-flops. So here’s a map to the Beach Boys’ sprawl of a songbook.
“I only tried surfing once, and the board almost hit me in the head,” Brian Wilson told Rolling Stone in 1999. But he turned his fantasies into a California dream world of fast cars and cool waves – one that might even have room for a sacred misfit like him. Today! is full of yearningly complex tunes like “When I Grow Up (to Be a Man)” and “She Knows Me Too Well,” which feels like a Greek tragedy with doo-wop harmonies and surf guitars.
Brian got blown away by the Beatles’ Rubber Soul, and Pet Sounds was his response. He paid the price for ditching their hitmaking formula when Pet Sounds flopped. Now it’s one of the planet’s most beloved albums (ranking Number Two on Rolling Stone‘s list of the 500 greatest albums). Yet it’s still startling to hear, full of alien sonic details. Especially “God Only Knows,” a song everybody wishes they could sing, although only angels or Carl Wilson could reach the high notes.
A whole album of “Fun, Fun, Fun,” stretched out to a double-vinyl portrait of the life and death of the American dream. Endless Summer has all the early hits – from the joyride of “I Get Around” to the moody gloom of “In My Room.” It cuts off before Pet Sounds, but it still remains their essential anthology – if only because you’re guaranteed not to run into “Kokomo.”
Brian wanted to follow the monumental 1966 single “Good Vibrations” with an even more ambitious “teenage symphony to God.” But after a studio meltdown, he abandoned the project, finally finishing it with his touring band in 2004. Tapes from the original Sixties sessions were compiled in 2011. It still sounds otherworldly.
The last beach party before Pet Sounds. “California Girls” was an early taste of psychedelic sunshine and a vocal peak for Mike Love, while Carl found his voice as a lead singer in “Girl Don’t Tell Me.”
After the crash-and-burn of the Smile project, the Beach Boys got back to basics, banging out their purest rock & roll manifesto. No poetry, just a 24-minute rush of Carl Wilson soul and garage-band mania.
Full-grown men by now, the Beach Boys sound ruggedly soulful on Sunflower – their most optimistic and uplifting music ever, in mellow-gold soft-rock mode. Dennis steals the show with “Slip On Through” and “Forever,” while Love really soars on “Add Some Music to Your Day,” which could have been a cornball sermon but ends up touching. It’s their Abbey Road.
Brian cites Holland as one of his favorites, a surprising pick, since it’s one where he steps back into a secondary role. Holland is a messy but rewarding experiment in band democracy, full of quasi-prog touches. New guy Blondie Chaplin sings “Sail On, Sailor” their finest hit of the Seventies. The band took off to a Dutch village to record – hence the title – yet the European exile helped inspire the homesick beauty of Mike and Al Jardine’s three-part “California Saga.”
“I was in bed in the early Seventies,” Brian admitted. He lost much of the decade hiding in his mansion in a druggy haze. But he emerged for Love You, an oddity cherished by hardcore Brianistas. “I Wanna Pick You Up” remains one of rock’s loveliest fatherhood songs. The unlikely peak is “Johnny Carson,” a painfully candid ditty about being a lonely guy in his room watching late-night TV.
The title tune is their teen-spirit anthem, souping up the Chuck Berry riff from “Sweet Little Sixteen.” Despite a few too many tossed-off surf instrumentals, the LP shines on “Farmer’s Daughter” and the beach-goth ballad “Lovely Sea.”
Capitol wanted a quickie LP in time for Christmas, so the Boys trooped into the studio with some buddies and girlfriends and brewskis to slap out a bunch of covers (mostly Fifties oldies, plus the Beatles and Dylan) with acoustic guitars, hand claps, rowdy harmonies and a hell of a lot of bottles getting clinked. They even got a hit out of it: “Barbara Ann.”
How did the Beach Boys spend the Summer of Love? Hiding out in the studio, of course. Smiley Smile (imagined as a stripped-down Smile) is loose and quirky, not far from Dylan and the Band’s Basement Tapes. One of the few guests: Paul McCartney, who can be heard chewing celery on “Vegetables.”
Brian appeared on a 1967 Leonard Bernstein TV special, sitting alone at his home piano to stun viewers with his new song, “Surf’s Up.” The epic ballad (originally recorded for Smile) took years to get released, but it was worth the wait. Nobody has ever really figured out what Van Dyke Parks is going on about in the abstruse lyrics, but the Boys sing them like every word is true. It’s the climax of a mournful album about facing adulthood.