Sail On, Beach Boys
Issue 16, Volume 112
By Madison Kim
For many, the Swinging Sixties were a time of political and cultural revolution: a decade defined by JFK’s assassination, the Vietnam War, and Martin Luther King Jr. A rising sentiment of anti-war and a man on the moon. The everlasting Beatle phenomenon.
However, amid the shifts of the time emerged a scene that traced back to the coastlines of the West, where the scantily-clad youth eagerly soaked up the ripeness of the American dream under the summer sun, lounging in the leisure-bound lifestyles of affluence and suburbia. The surf craze of the ‘60s dominated the American scene, and riding on the forefronts of this movement were the one and only Beach Boys, soon-to-be trailblazers that would begin the Californian legend in earnest and later set it in stone.
Emerging as a family band from Hawthorne, California, the Beach Boys’s original lineup consisted of brothers Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, cousin Mike Love, and mutual friend Al Jardine, all united under the de facto management of the Wilsons’ notoriously abusive father, Murry Wilson. After the band’s initial formation in 1961, it was not long until their beach-certified albums catapulted them to national prominence. Aptly named “Surfin’ Safari” (1962), “Surfin’ USA” (1963), and “Surfer Girl” (1963), their albums spawned timeless summer classics, with hits like “Fun Fun Fun” (1964) and “Surfin’ USA” striking gold on the national charts. Their signature doo-wop harmonies and catchy riffs would cement The Beach Boys’s legacy as a symbol of American boyhood. To those who had the privilege, it was easy to lose oneself in the fantasy of the Beach Boys; paradoxically, these beliefs would lead to their eventual dismissal when compared to their British counterparts.
In all fairness, their earlier albums certainly do seem to encapsulate Californian summers in all their glory: painting a perfect picture of babes draped over chipped-enamel Mustangs, ripped surfers riding the waves into the sunset, a world full of rainbow-colored beach balls and beaches galore. However, while such portrayal of the West Coast catapulted them to national prominence, to others, the Beach Boys seemed to only pander to white, suburban teenagers: baby boomers with time to spare and no pressing concerns. Such preconceived notions of the band’s apparent juvenility continue to plague their legacy today.
Nevertheless, the eventual arrival of the Great British Invasion (and the subsequent Beatlemania that resulted) urged principal songwriter Brian Wilson to stash away the surfboards and pivot The Beach Boys’s creative direction away from their Californian roots. “I Get Around” (1964) marked the group's first chart-topping hit in the United States. Its album, “All Summer Long” (1964), is regarded by Wilson as a “turning point” in the band’s artistry; it strayed from the band’s traditional focus on cars, surf, and girls, and instead relayed semi-autobiographical lyrics. The band would continue to focus on crafting a body of music that was more intimate and complex, and in 1965, the release of the Beatles’s “Rubber Soul” (1965) would inspire Wilson to craft an album for the history books.
Universally hailed as one of the greatest albums ever created, “Pet Sounds” (1966) is simply transcendent, with each harmonic progression unraveling the decadence of human emotion, translating the purity of the soul, and dissecting the delicateness of intimacy. Wilson’s intricate instrumentation ranges from tinkling sleighbells and reverbing bongos to the eerie whirs of a theremin, rattling Coca-Cola cans, and run-of-the-mill bicycle horns. Such backdrops, coupled with lush, baroque compositions and sparse musical passages, create an illusion of echoey-omnipresence within the tracks, subsequently emphasizing the band’s signature layered vocals and creating a woodwind symphony of pop-psychedelic perfection. “Pet Sounds” seems to take inspiration from the revels of nature itself; like ebbing tides, music beds seem to fade in and out of the echo chambers of sound. The chord progressions are as wispy and elegant as a summer breeze. Most importantly, like the natural passage of life, “Pet Sounds” is cohesive and refined: no single track is inconsequential, a landmark during a time when albums were seen as fillers for a few hit singles. Once seen as a cash grab, an artist’s cumulative discography was now lauded as a work of art.
Quite ironically, however, the release of Wilson's magnum opus would begin the subsequent decline in the band’s commercial appeal. Much to his dismay, the album peaked at tenth on the Billboard Charts and received substantially less recognition than previous releases. Nevertheless, “Pet Sounds” is still credited as one of the most influential albums in music history. The quintessential track “God Only Knows” has been covered by over 30 artists, and Paul McCartney himself once dubbed it the greatest song ever written. Another standout track, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” is distinguished for its complex instrumentation and Wall-Of-Sound arrangement. The album revolutionized the orchestration and harmonization of melodies in music production and was crucial in the development of psychedelia, art-rock, and even punk. The Beatles have even acknowledged “Pet Sounds” as the primary influencer of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (1967).
The band’s next single, the widely acclaimed “Good Vibrations” (1966), marked the Beach Boys’s last hit before their slow submergence into irrelevancy. As the years rolled on, the band’s musical output came to a crawl as Brian became less and less involved in its production. Their authenticity was questioned, their production was criticized, and their albums struggled to chart.
Unfortunately, the ‘70s and ‘80s continued to be plagued with tragedy. As Brian was drawn into a wormhole of drugs and mental illness (one of the many consequences of rapid fame), tensions within the band erupted. Restraining orders were implemented between several members, lawsuits were passed back and forth, and, in the midst of such conflicts, Dennis Wilson, the only surfer of the group, drowned in Marina Del Rey.
Ultimately, the Beach Boys’s last number-one single came on July 18, 1988, with the release of “Kokomo” (1988). Since then, the band has embarked on several anniversary tours and is expected to participate in a 60th-anniversary celebration this coming summer.
In a time when the coasts of California no longer hold the same relevancy, it is no surprise that The Beach Boys have been dismissed by some as passé and anachronistic, their legacy seemingly cemented as the simple, striped boys on the seaside. Nevertheless, their discography is treasured as a hallmark of American history, immortalized as the feel-good tunes that defined an era. With a career that spanned over 50 years, the Beach Boys have solidified themselves as one of the most significant rock bands of all time.
Were the Beach Boys considered an international phenomenon, on par with the global dominance of the Beatles? Arguably not. Did their earlier discography dissect the true depth of the human psyche or critically analyze the social and political turmoil of current events? Not particularly. But what does it matter? Close your eyes and submerge yourself in the rich melodies, the exuberant expressions of boundless love, and the musical embodiment of the summer heat on your skin. Let the harmonies run through your body like the setting tide and drown in the neverending magic of the Beach Boys, in the Californian summers that will live on in memory for decades to come. Who knows? When you open your eyes, perhaps you'll wake up somewhere on the other side, on the shores of Kokomo, a place where destined lovers are reunited with tropical drinks in hand. And wouldn’t that be nice?