The story of the Beach Boys is a kind of philosophical problem. Not that they didn’t make some albums still eminently worth hearing, if we go by the unit of the album: Pet Sounds, from 1966, is the prize pony, full of confident hits as well as deep-purple self-absorption (“God Only Knows,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Caroline, No”). For anyone justifiably wary of the whole idea of the pop masterpiece, Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), from 1965, is a great uncool record—cornball, hard-sell with its lists of proper nouns and tour-stop shout-outs (“Amusement Parks U.S.A,” “Salt Lake City,” even “California Girls”), but getting grand-scaled in tone and mass. SMiLE, started in 1966 and not really finished till 2011, is the art-song project, a kind of underground labyrinth of melody, exhaustingly effective in its final form.
But time and social change have been rough on the Beach Boys. Their best-known hits (say, “California Girls,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “I Get Around”) are poems of unenlightened straight-male privilege, white privilege, beach privilege. It is hard to imagine that they helped anyone toward self-determination or achieving their social rights. Brian Wilson’s great integrative achievement as a songwriter and producer was absorbed in bits and pieces by others—Paul McCartney especially—but it mostly worked for him alone. In their rhythm and humor the Beach Boys sound squarer all the time compared to Motown, the Beatles, and the Stones, and a lot of Phil Spector. Of course, it comes down to individual songs.
We all like songs. But we also tend to regard a cultural institution like the Beach Boys—a fifty-year-old rock band, heavy with institutional honor—as having some kind of fixed identity and owning some kind of essential rightness. What is, or was, the essence of the Beach Boys, and what were they right about? In this time of curation and reassessment, we have cash in hand and we are here to understand the Beach Boys. What are we paying into? What are we understanding?
Is it the Beach Boys as a performing and/or recording entity, neither of which since the death of Dennis Wilson in 1983 ever quite seemed the real thing, whatever “real” is? (The Beach Boys have never broken up per se, the way the Beatles did. But as of this writing in 2016, you can see two different versions of them: a touring band led by the singer Mike Love called the Beach Boys, which includes the non-original member and long-time on-and-off Beach Boy Bruce Johnston; or a touring band led by Brian Wilson, who does not have the legal right to call his band the Beach Boys, as well as the original Beach Boy Al Jardine, playing many of the same songs as Love does, as well as songs that were recorded under the name the Beach Boys but are basically Wilson’s.) Is it the corpus of the Beach Boys’ music, which is totally disunified: pre-and-post Pet Sounds, pre-and-post LSD, pre-and-post Dennis Wilson, with and without Brian as songwriter, with and without Brian as producer, and on and on? Or is it the projection, through time, of the individual members’ personalities, which have been widely simplified and are, finally, unknowable?
Brian Wilson’s storied vulnerability will never be quite squared with his demonstrated ambition: in a short amount of time, and before the age of thirty, he had dealt with great amounts of American musical culture. One class of his songs, like “Shut Down,” is built on Chuck Berry’s updated rhythm-and-blues—a driving beat under a twelve-bar blues pattern and wise patter about the will to win a drag race. (Roger Christian, a Los Angeles DJ, wrote the suggestive lyrics: “He’s hot with ram induction but it’s understood/I got a fuel-injected engine sittin’ under my hood.”) A different class, like “Let Him Run Wild” and “The Warmth of the Sun,” took up the lessons of the Four Freshmen’s vocal arrangements, moving them out of a jazz context and toward a new kind of rock and roll song—diffuse, harder to reduce, written with harmonic tension and shifting keys. For “California Girls,” Wilson composed a twenty-second prelude for electric guitar, bass, cymbals, and saxophone long-tones that suggested an American pastoral symphony. For “Guess I’m Dumb”—written in 1964 for Glen Campbell—you can hear him competing with Burt Bacharach, in sophisticated rhythmic phrasing and harmony, and with Phil Spector, in the imagining of sound as physical mass in a physical space.
The narrators of Beach Boys songs used their time as they liked: amusement parks, surfing, drag racing, dating, sitting in their rooms. Listeners through the mid-Sixties —I wasn’t there—must have responded to the way ordinary leisure and ordinary kicks could be enshrined by a cool, modern, prosperity-minded sentimentality. (Something similar had happened with bossa nova in Brazil, four years before the Beach Boys made their first records.) After that, listeners may have seen the paradox inside the Beach Boys’ music as a whole: the drive to be a man, to know the score, to win in small-stakes battles—the animating force of “Shut Down” and “I Get Around”—versus the drive to retreat and regress or live in a world of one’s own invention, which is the drift of Pet Sounds and SMiLE. Both sides of the paradox suggest a naive state. A lot of the allure of the Beach Boys may be about not knowing: about us not knowing them, which is pretty common in the relationship between pop stars and their audiences, but also about them—in some way, if only a performed way—not knowing themselves.
One possible standard for the Beach Boys as a band, as content, as knowable historical reality, is their appearance on Good Morning America, ABC television, December 1980. Joan Lunden, in New York, interviews the band remotely, through a television monitor. The occasion is the band’s twentieth anniversary, one of the non-musical publicity hooks that have kept Beach Boys music flowing through American commerce.
The group, in Los Angeles, sits on a semicircular couch: the singer and guitarist Al Jardine (diffident, white suit over Hawaiian shirt), the lead singer Mike Love (diplomatic, ball cap and silver racing jacket), and the three Wilson brothers: the maestro Brian (puffy and impassive, thick beard, hair parted on the right), the singer and guitarist Carl (youngest and most eager to please, light suit over aqua-blue, open-necked shirt), and the singer and drummer Dennis (haggard and twitchy in the early morning after his thirty-sixth birthday—brown V-neck long-sleeve shirt and Native American-print knit vest).
Lunden: “Why do you think you’ve had such, you know, continued popularity?”
Dennis makes a rude, exaggerated shrug: Who knows? He is so, so tired. Three years later he would be dead.
Carl gives it a try. “Well, it’s the music, obviously,” he begins. “People enjoy sort of the happy, easygoing sort of spirited music that we make. The sound we all make together.” (What does all of that mean? Is that a style, an organizing principle, or the basis for anything?)
“You have teenagers, some of you,” notes Lunden, a bit later. “Do they like the music you play?
“Yes,” answers Brian, expressionless. He speaks out of the left side of his mouth because he is deaf in his right ear. “I have two daughters, Carnie and Wendy.” Lunden: “How old?” Wilson: “Twelve and ten. And they both love our music. I mean, they play our records on their record players.” (Off-camera, Dennis rumbles: “If they don’t, they go to bed early.”) A little later, Lunden again: “What do you listen to when you’re at home?”
Brian Wilson pauses for two seconds. “I listen to a record called ‘Be My Baby,’ by the Ronettes.”
Lunden laughs, perhaps because it is such an awkwardly specific answer, and because the idea that he might listen to one record over and over is funny. Mike Love begins a canned chuckle before Wilson has finished. “Ah, the legend lives on, right?”
The clip and everything about it—the occasion for its happening, Dennis’s shrug, Al Jardine’s silence, Carl’s gameness, Brian’s self-absorption, Mike Love’s critical stewardship of the narrative—seems to say a lot, in seven minutes, about who the Beach Boys are and how they worked together. In Mike Love’s skeptical, detail-oriented new memoir, Good Vibrations, Love mentions the Good Morning America debacle in an implied can-you-believe-I-had-to-put-up-with-this-bullshit kind of way, a tone that obtains through most of the book. He is known for preferring predictable success to artistic nuance—but this can’t quite be squared with the care he claims to put into his lyrics in songs such as “Good Vibrations” and “I Get Around,” nor with his lifelong interest in transcendental meditation. We shouldn’t necessarily think we know him.
Wilson doesn’t mention Good Morning America in his own new memoir (his second), I Am Brian Wilson, a book almost the opposite of Love’s: forgiving, chaotically associative. But he often brings up “Be My Baby,” and the song’s ability to “make emotions through sound.” You sense that this is where Wilson really lives: in emotions triggered by sound. The more the book makes that clear, the better it gets.
You will read of Wilson, at a party in the mid-1970s, drunk on chocolate liqueur, commandeering the turntable and playing the song’s drum intro ten times, until told to stop; “then I played it ten more times,” he remembers. (In Peter Ames Carlin’s Catch A Wave: The Rise, Fall & Redemption of the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson, published in 2006, the engineer Steve Desper tells of making a tape loop for Wilson consisting of only “Be My Baby”’s chorus, and leaving Wilson at home to listen to it. “I must have been gone for about four hours,” Desper told Carlin. “And when I came back, he was still listening to that loop over and over, in some kind of a trance.”) In describing his reaction to the song upon first hearing it, he remembers shooting a BB gun, as a boy, at a man in a bean field sitting on a motorcycle; pop!—the man fell off his motorcycle. It was like that, he explains: “Be My Baby” was the BB pellet, shot by someone crouching out of sight; Wilson was the motorcyclist, unaware of what was going to happen to him.
SMiLE may have been Wilson’s peak of creative ambition, perhaps of learning, perhaps of feeling that he knew himself and could believe in his own powers. The record is more Stephen Foster and less Chuck Berry, episodic and digressive, advanced and childlike, stylish and repetitive (he was entranced by the Rolling Stones’ “My Obsession,” a monument of repetition, which he saw being recorded in Los Angeles while making SMiLE). And it was a further step beyond Pet Sounds into new sounds: slide-whistles, marimbas, banjos, harpsichords, glockenspiel, body percussion, saws, hammers, and wild amounts of reverb.
It was also his Waterloo of drugs and psychosis. In I Am… Wilson appears fascinated and baffled by the question of what SMiLE means to people—the book is like Dennis’s shrug, but prolonged and more curious—even though he feels the record was “too much music—not too complicated but too rhapsodic, with too many different sections.” (Those are among the qualities for which many people worship it, and what his great underground-pop idolators of the 1990s—Neutral Milk Hotel, Animal Collective, the High Llamas—were most able to use.)
But back to “Be My Baby.” Wilson’s obsession with that song has indeed inflated to a myth, and Brian Wilson has perpetuated the myth. Neither Wilson nor the Beach Boys as such released a studio version of the song. The closest Wilson ever came to the curve of its melody in his own best work was in “Don’t Worry Baby,” recorded by the Beach Boys in 1964. But guess who did record and release a version, on his only solo album, Looking Back With Love, in 1981? Mike Love’s version is garish, cheesy, almost robotic. Its approach to a great song, Brian Wilson’s sacrament, is seemingly not to celebrate or interpret or amplify or investigate—only to reduce. Strangely enough, Wilson produced it. It feels almost like an insult, or a well-aimed BB shot: possibly a greatest hit. But it’s unclear who, or what, the target is.