1962 – 1996

The Beach Boys

Track analysis for “It's About Time

The Beach Boys are certainly the most important rock group to hail from the United States. At a time when groups such as The Beatles, The Kinks and The Rolling Stones were beginning their careers in Britain, The Beach Boys were really the only comparable American group. The Beach Boys also compare favorably to these British counterparts in terms of the lengths of their recording careers and the breadth of their accomplishments.

More than any other important rock group, The Beach Boys were a family act, including three brothers (Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson), and a cousin (Mike Love), and initially being managed by the father of the three brothers. Of the original and abiding five, only Al Jardine was a mere friend.

The group began by taking Chuck Berry’s sense of contemporary youth culture and adding a distinctive West Coast twist to it, blending in vocal harmonies from fifties pop, rock and rhythm’n blues groups. The band’s name, as well as the words from many of their early songs, evoked a distinctive mixture of sun and surf. Their early hits painted a picture of idyllic youth, with hot rods and surf boards, warm breezes, good friends, beautiful girls and tolerant parents. Almost single-handedly they created an image of Southern California as a modern utopia.

As the group evolved, Brian began to play the role of Phil Spector, relegating the rest of the band to that of Ronettes. While the rest of the band toured, Brian would stay home, writing new songs and recording backing tracks in the studio, using many of the same “wrecking crew” members who played on Spector’s hits. Like Spector, Brian favored a monolithic (and monaural) “wall of sound.” Also like Spector, Brian eventually became known for his demanding genius, his reclusiveness and his eccentricity, as well as his production talents. In conscious artistic and commercial competition with The Beatles, Brian worked to continually improve and evolve the group’s sound. This phase of the group’s career culminated in the release of the album Pet Sounds, a record hailed by many (including some of The Beatles) as a high-water mark for The Beach Boys and for rock in general.

The follow-up to Pet Sounds, called Smile, was to have been the masterpiece to match The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper, but somehow the long-awaited project never materialized. Several factors were probably to blame. Brian was heavily into drugs at the time, and these no doubt took their toll. Brian also revealed a sort of emotional immaturity that impeded the group’s growth to its next level. Mostly, though, everyone involved, including Brian, expected too much from the young prodigy. In an art form where collaboration is an essential element, the growing myth of Brian Wilson as solitary rock genius isolated the group’s key member just when he most needed the support of the group’s other participants and co-creators. So while the world (and the rest of the group) waited breathlessly for the masterpiece to be revealed, Brian continued to tinker and change direction, ultimately losing whatever focus on the next stage of the group’s evolution he may have once had.

The group’s next few albums, while producing some worthwhile material, failed to live up to the expectations of either audiences or critics, and managed only to alienate whatever following the group had built before. The group floundered for a couple of years, seemingly unable to chart a new course without Brian securely at the helm.

Starting in 1970, though, with Sunflower, the group began a new period of artistic growth. They began to operate as a super-group, in a fashion similar to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young. (During this period they even added two young black players, Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, as their rhythm section, in a fashion similar to CSN&Y’s use of Dallas Taylor and Greg Reeves.) Multiple members composed, sang lead vocals, and arranged their material. Also key to their artistic success during this period were a number of co-composers who enriched the group’s lyrics, always one of the their weak points, especially in a post-Dylan rock landscape.

They continued in this fashion through Surf’s Up and Holland. Unfortunately, hardly anyone noticed that they were making some of the best music of their careers. Audiences who grew up expecting surfing and car tunes from the group were not ready for the sophisticated lyrics of songs like “Surf’s Up” and “Feel Flows,” nor the somber mood of a song like “’Till I Die.” Rock critics of the time were looking for guitar-based sounds and instrumental virtuosity, and the group’s trademark vocal harmonies and Spectoresque production techniques made them seem like throwbacks to an earlier era.

Then something happened that was the salvation of the group commercially, and the downfall of the group artistically. In 1974, Capitol Records released a greatest hits compilation: Endless Summer. The timing was perfect. The rock audience had begun to splinter, and many baby boomers were unhappy with the music of the seventies. The best of the early Beach Boys reminded these listeners of happier times in their youth, when the world was less complicated, before Viet Nam and Watergate. The compilation went platinum, and The Beach Boys became a popular live act again, playing these “golden oldies” in concert. The desire to please this rediscovered audience proved too strong to resist, and later albums rarely rose to the artistic heights they had ascended to earlier.

Recommended CDs

Album Title: Good Vibrations

Original Release Date: 1993

Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)

This box set has a ton of good music, and is the most extensive compilation available. On the other hand, also included are demo tapes, previously unreleased studio works, backing tracks for obscure songs, and the necessary representation from their later albums — all of which I, for one, could do without. Perhaps more disappointing are the exclusion of some of the best non-Brian tracks, including “It’s About Time” and “Feel Flows,” both of which are absolute classics. I would think your money would probably be better spent selecting some of the original albums listed below rather than this, or any of the other, compilations.

Album Title: Greatest Hits-Vol. 1

Original Release Date: 1999

Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)

These are the group’s top commercial successes. Lots of great songs are included but there is no representation from the great albums that didn’t chart. If all you’re looking for is a collection of material you’ve probably already heard on the radio, then this is the CD for you.

Album Title: Greatest Hits-Vol. 2

Original Release Date: 1999

Rating: 4 Stars (Recommended)

This album includes the second tier of the group’s commercial successes. Again, lots of great material, but mostly focused on the group’s earlier period.

Album Title: Greatest Hits-Vol. 3

Original Release Date: 2000

Rating: 3 Stars (Worthy)

The focus here is on the group’s later material. Classics such as “Surf’s Up” and “Long Promised Road” are included, but the second half of the CD includes singles from their final, retro period, such as remakes of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” and Buddy Holly’s “Peggy Sue.” These latter songs have little to recommend them.

Album Title: Surfin’ Safari/Surfin’ USA

Original Release Date: 1962

Rating: 3 Stars (Worthy)

One of the best things about The Beach Boys on CD is that almost all of their albums have been re-released in pairs, with two consecutively released albums on one CD. These are among the best deals available. This CD offers the group’s first two albums, on which they consolidate their early Surf sound. Includes “Surfin’ Safari,” “409” and “Surfin’ USA.”

Album Title: Surfer Girl/Shut Down, Vol. 2

Original Release Date: 1963

Rating: 3 Stars (Worthy)

Two more of the early albums, now beginning to show more of the Brian Wilson production influence. Shut Down Vol. 2 attempted to focus on cars rather than surf boards. Includes “Surfer Girl,” “Catch A Wave,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” “In My Room,” “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “Don’t Worry Baby.”

Album Title: Little Deuce Coupe/All Summer Long

Original Release Date: 1963

Rating: 3 Stars (Worthy)

Brian and the band continue to expand their talents. Includes “Little Deuce Coupe,” “Be True To Your School,” “409,” “I Get Around,” “Little Honda” and “Wendy.”

Album Title: Today/Summer Days (And Summer Nights)

Original Release Date: 1965

Rating: 4 Stars (Recommended)

Today was the logical predecessor to Pet Sounds. Brian had stopped touring by this time, and the music shows evidence of his expanding musical sophistication and increased focus on recording. Some of the songs also began to show signs of the mature introspection that was to dominate Pet Sounds. Includes “Do You Wanna Dance,” “When I Grow Up (To Be A Man),” “Help Me, Rhonda” and “California Girls.”

Album Title: Pet Sounds

Original Release Date: 1966

Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)

The group’s masterpiece. Comparable to The Beatles’ Revolver, this was an album full of consistently solid material, possessing a unified group sound, and with lyrics based more on the songwriters’ own lives, rather than the lowest common denominator of their audience’s expectations. Includes “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “You Still Believe In Me,” Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder,” “Sloop John B,” “God Only Knows,” “I Know There’s An Answer,” “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” and “Caroline, No.”

Album Title: Smiley Smile/Wild Honey

Original Release Date: 1967

Rating: 3 Stars (Worthy)

Rather than the expected masterpiece of Smile, the group’s next album — an altogether different work called Smiley Smile — was mostly significant for its relaxed silliness. Wild Honey was an attempt to infuse the group’s sound with R&B. Includes “Heroes and Villains,” “Good Vibrations,” “ “Wild Honey,” “Darlin’” and “Here Comes The Night.”

Album Title: Friends/20-20

Original Release Date: 1968

Rating: 3 Stars (Worthy)

More laid-back music from a group still lacking any clear musical direction, but these two albums still feature some notable music. Includes “Busy Doin’ Nothin’,” “Transcendental Meditation,” “Do It Again,” “I Can Hear Music,” “Bluebirds Over The Mountain,” “All I Want To Do,” “Never Learn Not To Love,” “Break Away,” “Our Prayer” and “Cabinessence.”

Album Title: Sunflower/Surf’s Up

Original Release Date: 1970

Rating: 5 Stars (Essential)

This is my favorite CD among the Beach Boys’ various packages. Sunflower and Surf’s Up are both interesting albums with lots of variety and lots of great music, even if neither is cohesive or consistent enough to be called entirely great. Similar to Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s Deja Vu or The Beatles’ self-titled “white” album, the varying musical approaches and thematic concerns are widely divergent. “This Whole World,” “It’s About Time,” “Long Promised Road,” “Feel Flows” “’Til I Die” and “Surf’s Up” are arguably all as good as it gets. Then you have Bruce Johnston’s pleasant schmaltz — “Deirdre,” “Tears In The Morning” and “Disney Girls” — which can either attract or alienate you, depending on your vulnerability to this kind of stuff. Other tracks are clearly not great, but are strange in various interesting ways: “Got To Know The Woman,” “Don’t Go Near The Water,” “Student Demonstration Time” and “A Day In The Life Of A Tree,” most notably. The combination of the two CDs makes for an interesting, idiosyncratic and ultimately powerful collection of music.

Album Title: Carl & The Passions - So Tough/Holland

Original Release Date: 1972

Rating: 4 Stars (Recommended)

Carl and the Passions gave brother Carl the chance to front the band for an album, and resulted in some pleasant if generally slight recordings. Holland was a more ambitious effort, and stands beside Sunflower and Surf’s Up as the highlights of this period for The Beach Boys. Includes “You Need A Mess of Help to Stand Alone,” “Marcella,” “All This Is That,” “Sail On Sailor,” “California Saga,” “The Trader,” “Only With You” and “Funky Pretty.”

Links

The Beach Boys

The band’s official site.

Unofficial Beach Boys Site

A good site with valuable information about the band.

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