The Beach Boys are arguably America’s quintessential pop group, but their importance has been unfairly diminished by the cultural fads with which they are associated: surfing and hot rods. Consisting of three brothers, a cousin, and a friend, the young group emerged from the working-class Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne in 1961 with “Surfin’,” an unpolished paean to the local surfing craze. Relying on the prodigious musical talents of the eldest brother, Brian Wilson, they combined harmonies inspired by innocuous vocal groups of the Fifties with rock music’s adolescent exuberance, capturing the hedonism of postwar American affluence.
Their exultant tributes to surf and auto culture resulted in several top ten hits over the next three years, including “Surfin’ USA,” “Surfin’ Safari,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” and “I Get Around.” Wilson’s talent for writing hits was such that even when he gave away his song “Surf City” for his friends Jan Berry and Dean Torrence to record, it resulted in a number-one single. Wilson sang harmony on the Jan and Dean recording of “Surf City,” and his rapturous falsetto palpably evoked teenage male Californian bliss in the refrain, which sang of a paradise where there are “two girls for every boy.” Casual listeners are today as likely to think “Surf City” is by the Beach Boys as by Jan and Dean.
Brian Wilson was minutely attentive to the possibilities of mixing sound and the other resources of the recording studio, and his elaborate musical arrangements rapidly approached in quality those of his most direct influence, the producer Phil Spector. While adolescents continued to enjoy the group’s fun-in-the-sun tunes, Wilson included on his albums ballads such as “Don’t Worry Baby” and “In My Room” that revealed both extraordinary skill in composition and emotional vulnerability. The coupling of commercial success with a growing musical sophistication thrust the Beach Boys into the vanguard of popular music. They were for a time America’s only match for the Beatles, with whom they shared a record label and an intense musical rivalry.
The mid-Sixties were highly competitive years in the development of popular music. Musicians began to regard themselves as recording artists rather than pop stars, and their work reflected this ambition. Albums became occasions for artists to improve on their previous releases and distance themselves from the pack. Wilson felt the demands of the era acutely. After releasing the brilliant Pet Sounds in 1966, a personal meditation on love and growing up that bore no trace of either surfing or hot rods, the twenty-three-year-old Wilson conceived of Smile, the highly anticipated follow-up (originally titled Dumb Angel), as his “teenage symphony to God.”
He envisioned the album as an affectionate critique of America’s mythic past, a cartoonish representation of Manifest Destiny from Plymouth Rock to Hawaii. Like the American composer Charles Ives, whose unconventionally impressionistic work sometimes seemed to attempt to include and interpret all of American culture, Wilson…
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