The Beach Boys: Heroes and Villains

What a confluence today. The first day of summer alligns with the birthday of Brian Wilson (b. 1942) in the same year that the Beach Boys (est 1961) turned 60 and Mike Love (b. 1941) turned 80. I am going to try to cobble together a post that covers all three. As I mentioned here, I spilled an insane amount of ink on Wilson’s music in my ‘zine about 30 years ago, breaking down dozens of the Beach Boys’ songs musically. That’s the main reason I haven’t done a dedicated post on Travalanche to the group or on Brian yet, despite having written ones on Dennis (1944-1983) and Carl (1946-1998). It feels in the can, even if you can’t read it. And I’ll never do a separate post on Mike Love, because boo, hiss, right? So whatever I have to communicate on the topic can be folded into this one.

If the Beach Boys are not the oldest continiously existing major American pop group, that claim could certainly be defended. One now calls the surviving members “boys” in the same way one might use the word to describe those Civil War veterans in long white beards in silent newsreel footage. I am too young to have been present for their first wave (ha! I said “wave”) of success in the 1960s. My era of nostalgia would be their comeback period of the mid ’70s (when I was a tween) when they had top ten hit with a cover of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” (1974), and then hit the top ten with two compilation LPs containing their hits of a decade before, Endless Summer (1974), and Spirit of America (1975), which went to #1 and #8 respectively. This was a period when the Beach Boys, having gone out of fashion around 1966, were cool enough again to be the favorite group of kids I knew in Junior High. As it happened, my older brothers are about 15-20 years older than I, and I had their old Beach Boys records at my house, so over the years, I explored the group in depth despite the fact that their halcyon days antedated me. I am exceedingly well-versed in the music of their peak (1962-67). Later there were other phases. I fell HARD when the boxed set Good Vibrations: 30 Years of the Beach Boys came out (1993) for it included tons of long-coveted material from the legendary, doomed Smile project. It became the soundtrack for my stay at the MacDowell Colony a couple of years later, where I spent a solid two months writing in solitude, and this music informed the plays and screenplays I was working on at the time. Brian Wilson Presents Smile came out in 2004, instigating another booster shot. And then The Smile Sessions (2011) which now takes up a huge amount of space on my i-phone.

But as I hope I intimated, I’m not just crazy about the Quixotic Smile sessions, but the group’s whole catalog. It is a huge thing. It is not a catamaran, but an ocean liner. It dates to the Kennedy years, that period of post-war affluence, when mass numbers of American teenagers first had leisure time for activities like surfing and drag racing, or at the very least for dancing to record albums about those fads. Like the kids in My Three Sons, the Beach Boys were a product of suburban Southern California. I think of them as the first garage band, though without the grit we now associate with that term. The three Wilson sons were the offspring of Murry Wilson, a failed tin pan alley songwriter, and (we later learned) an autocratic and abusive taskmaster. Mike Love was their cousin. The fifth slot has belonged to various people: a kid named David Marks, a neighbor of the Wilsons’, played on their first albums, and he was a literal kid: 14 years old. He left after tussles with Murry and his slot reverted to Al Jardine, a school friend who’d also been there from the beginning. He is known best for bringing a kind of Kingston Trio vibe to the band, and for being the guy who sings lead on “Sloop John B” (until Love jumps in. He had a way of doing that).

These kids were not what one thinks of when one thinks of rock and rollers. The original ’50s rockers like Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis had rebel images, they seemed (and largely were) transgressive and dangerous. The English bands of the British Invasion were similar. But the Beach Boys had a different image. While Mike Love was into doo wop, and Carl Wilson played guitar like Chuck Berry, the group overall seemed like clean-cut, All-American kids. They played sports for their school teams. They sang in choral groups. They were a literal family, making them seem not unlike The Osmonds. When they sang, it wasn’t about “rippin’, tearin’ or ballin’ it up” like Little Richard, it was about spending time at the beach. And yes, drag racing is against the law, but what was more widely approved than worship of the automobile in post-war America? The success of the group was explosive, and they began breaking all sorts of sales records with their tunes, which I won’t insult you by listing here. Some of them are as well known as “Happy Birthday” and there are dozens of them. The period of 1961 to 1965 saw a steady stream of charting records, and they weren’t even particularly displaced by the British groups.

Later, when Brian Wilson opted not to perform live anymore, his vocals were sung by Glen Campbell and then Bruce Johnston (who’s also the guy who penned “I Write the Songs” for Barry Manilow). And Brian became the wizard who stayed put and cooked up masterpieces. In recent decades, an edifice of legend has swirled around the group dynamics, which were unusual. In the early days, if you’d asked the public who was the “leader” of the Beach Boys, many might have said Mike Love, the front man, the most visible and recognizable member of the group, with his nasal lead vocals and occasional bass backing parts. Some people undoubtedly still feel that way, for he’s the one at the live gigs, who engineered the 1988 comeback hit “Kokomo” and still garners a lot of press, though most of it is negative. Yet for many other fans, over the years, Love has become the villain of the Beach Boys story, for resisting Brian’s experimentation (“Don’t fuck with the formula” is the quote often attributed to him) and for his willingness to interface with conservative politicians. This controversy has come to a boil in recent years, as Love brought his edition of the Beach Boys to perform for Trump and his people, and has appeared on shows like Huckabee. Meanwhile, since Brian began to pull himself together after years of alienated seclusion, his image has been burnished as the crazy genius behind the Beach Boys, a kind of crackpot inventor to Love’s tacky game show host. Brian as Nikola Tesla, Love as Bert Parks. When Brian made his comeback, the public learned what only some folks knew in the ’60s, that he was the driving force behind the writing, arranging, and producing of their songs. Yet Love played a role in that as well, and in later decades he sued Wilson for songwriting credit and royalties. And as they have always been, the Beach Boys are a mirror for America.

I highly recommend the 2015 bio-pic Love and Mercy with Paul Dano and John Cusack playing young and old Brian respectively, and Paul Giamatti as the exploitive psychiatrist Eugene Landy, who engineered Wilson’s comeback but also had a Svengali-like hold over him. The ABC mini-series The Beach Boys: An American Family (2000) is also interesting (if flawed), with Kevin Dunn as the abusive, driving father-cum-manager Murry. For years my Beach Boys’ Bible was Stephen Gaines excellent 1986 book Heroes and Villains: The True Story of the Beach Boys, though naturally that tome is getting long in the tooth.

Brian turns 80 next year — maybe I’ll write about Smile then, or finally dig up my old ‘zine articles for my fellow obsessives. For more Beach Boys related posts go here.