Fifty Years of Great Music: The Top 100 Artists (#15)


We've hit #15. Read on to find out who it is.

I can’t believe I’m admitting this, but up until about eight or nine years ago, I almost entirely dismissed the Beach Boys. I saw pictures and videos of clean-cut guys (to borrow from the era’s vernacular, they looked like a buncha “squares”) singing fluffy songs about surfing, girls and beachboys1cars—of which I had zero interest in two of the three. I knew their early tunes best, featherweight numbers like “Surfin’ Safari,” “Barbara Ann,” and “Fun, Fun, Fun.” I was also very familiar with their best-selling single “Kokomo” when it was everywhere on the radio—though yes, as a child of about seven or eight, I did like it, God help me. But I found their pop a little too genteel for my tastes and had no awareness of any sort of artistry, development, ambition or influence. They just kinda seemed like Bread with catchier tunes, the Monkees with more credibility. And I had difficulty giving much respect to any act that lets John Stamos be an “honorary member.” Which goes to show that anyone and everyone can be really, really stupid sometimes.

I kept reading and hearing about this album called Pet Sounds, this supposed pop masterpiece that rivaled the best work at the time from the Beatles. I was still quite skeptical but decided to cough up the cash one day and buy a copy. Needless to say, it was one of those dawning music epiphanies people are lucky to get more than three or four times in a lifetime, like first hearing Beethoven’s Ninth or first getting stoned and listening to Dark Side of the Moon. Opener “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” I already knew (and even at my grumpiest and most stubborn confessed was a terrific tune), but then I heard “You Still Believe in Me,” “(Don’t Talk) Put Your Head on My Shoulders,” “Sloop John B,” “God Only Knows,” “I Know There’s an Answer,” “Caroline No”…okay, every song, even that odd, little title track instrumental. And I had the special version that squeezes both the mono version and the stereo version on the same CD so I got to hear it all over again after it beachboys2finished. With the original “I Know There’s an Answer” (“Hang on to Your Ego”) as a bonus. Good day that was, let me tell you.

It’s unfortunate I had to go straight for their best work, leaving the only continuation to be a necessary downward slope, but the slope was gradual and very scenic. Make no mistake about it: they recorded several really good albums before and after Pet Sounds—particularly Today! and the underrated Surf’s Up—but they’re largely a “singles band” in the best terms possible. Thirty-six Top 40 hits in the US? No other American rock band has pulled off that feat. And while it might seem like a faint slight to distinguish them as the quintessential American rock band, during the height of the British Invasion, a little nationalism helped fight that redcoat scourge. So then what sense does it make that Pet Sounds sold better in the UK than the Beach Boys’ homeland? Must have been that obvious Beatles influence those Brits heard.

Oh, to have been a child of the sixties in order to witness the friendly “creative battle” waged between the Beatles and Beach Boys (friendly, despite Mike Love’s famously disparaging remarks about Paul McCartney among others during the group’s Hall of Fame speech). Here comes Rubber Soul, a classic LP with all original material and no filler taking pop in exciting new directions. The Beach Boys return the volley with Pet Sounds. The Beatles answer with Revolver. Beach Boys fire back with “Good Vibrations.” Beatles slam “Strawberry Fields Forever” down their throats. And while Brian Wilson loses his mind trying to finish his teenage symphony to God, the Beatles proactively devise something called Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the lovable surfin’ lads have to tap out.

beachboys3But while there’s no doubt in my mind that the Beatles had a more fabulous run than the Beach Boys, I’m left gobsmacked today by how wonderful so many of those sweet, carefree melodies the Cali kids came up with were. And if that was all there was to their story, they’d be a “classic” act. But this gang had Brian Wilson among its members, and long before their potential was reached, he was having anxiety attacks trying to be an innovative songwriter and focused performer at the same time. So while Carl & Dennis Wilson, Love and Al Jardine toured around the world with Glen Campbell (and later Bruce Johnston) serving as a stand-in for Brian, Brian was working hard at expanding and pioneering their sound. Tunes like “Don’t Worry Baby,” “Drive-In” and “Kiss Me, Baby” showed large advances in songwriting, production and maturing, melancholic lyricism. And then Brian heard Rubber Soul and knew he had to make Pet Sounds. It was written and recorded while the rest of the band was off performing to large crowds—all that was required was vocal tracks from the other members. Love resisted the “ego music,” but Brian was already planning his “pocket symphony” that would shake the world of pop music even further.

That “pocket symphony” cost as much as most entire albums in those days, but such is the price to pay for one of the most famous songs in rock history. Without pause, Brian began collaborating with Van Dyke Parks and moved on to the Smile project. And no one has ever had a better known or more endlessly discussed and theorized “lost album” than Smile—if Brian wasn’t as brilliant as he was, then “ego music” it must certainly be (cue the hundreds of parodies). But such an extraordinary undertaking by necessity creates tantalizing promise when never fulfilled (to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the band, those long lost sessions are finally, finally being beachboys4released to the public in a two-disc package later this year). Mental instability, drug addiction, and deterioration of health caused Brian to withdraw from the group—it seems a miracle today that the next five years would elicit albums like Wild Honey, Sunflower and Surf’s Up, all very good and all with extra contributions from the other members (Brian didn’t even “touch a pen” to more than half of the songs, and a lot of the ones he did have a hand in were lifted from scrapped sessions). And now we’re back to celebrating “The Beach Boys” instead of just the troubled genius Brian Wilson.

After an extended absence from the band, Brian returned to performing with the Beach Boys in 1976, but around the same time Dennis’ alcohol and substance abuse problems caused a diminished and ultimately absent role with the group. Though the Beach Boys would never be whole again (Brian began solo work in the 80s, Dennis drowned in 1983, Carl died of cancer in 1998, Jardine went on to form Beach Boys Family & Friends—and was sued by Love for the use of the Beach Boys name) different variations continued to record and perform over the years.

While their run from the early-60s through to the botched Smile sessions will always be heralded as the group’s “golden years” (and rightfully so), their continued work through to the early-70s, while uneven at times—the “leftovers and outsider” package of 20/20 is tame at best—had more than enough nuggets and admirable efforts. Besides a legacy of timeless pop tunes, the two things that the Beach Boys brought to popular music was the inventive songwriting of Brian Wilson during his ambitious and productive years (if not for Sgt. Pepper cracking Wilson’s noodle, who knows where else he could have gone) and the group’s trademark harmonizing. It’s nearly impossible for any group in their wake to do warm, pretty vocal harmonies without acknowledging the influence of the Beach Boys. Al and Carl would maintain a velvety equivalent pitch—emphasizing the beachboys5inspiration of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound approach on their developing sound as well—while Brian would hit the high notes, Dennis would contribute a raspier undertow, and Mike would do lead counterpoint. It’s not just that they all had good musical voices; the implementation, composition, lead-ins/falls, intricacy and layering were renowned around the world.

Worldwide cultural persuasion aside, the Beach Boys will forever be tethered to the state of California as myth. According to Timothy White, author of The Nearest Faraway Place, “Southern California was itself an improvisation…like his sunshine-bound forebears, Brian Wilson believed in the idea of California more than the fact of himself, feeling that the energy focused on the romantic concept could carry over into the substance of his existence.” And the romance of it sold. Another of their well-acknowledged accomplishments was in how smoothly they graduated from naivety to reflection. There was so much youthful exuberance, optimism and romance in those early songs that the gradual turn to wistful sadness and mature meditation practically mirrored the growing pains of their typically young fanbase. It’s even been speculated that the Cali-centric attitude even influenced a youthful migration that built up the hippie culture of the West Coast during the late-60s. So Brian Wilson contributed to the spawning of hippies? Damn, I’d have had a nervous breakdown, too.

Surfin’ Safari
Surfin’ USA
Surfer Girl
Little Deuce Coupe
Fun, Fun, Fun
I Get Around
Don’t Worry Baby
All Summer Long
When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)
She Knows Me Too Well
Kiss Me, Baby
Help Me Rhonda
California Girls
Good Vibrations
Then I Kissed Her
Heroes and Villains
This Whole World
Surf’s Up
…and the album Pet Sounds

Also endorsed: The Zombies, the Turtles, Van Dyke Parks

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Matt Medlock


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