I remember it as if it were yesterday. It was the summer of 1998 and my parents and I were standing in line at Euston Station to buy tickets for the train to Liverpool. My father had promised me a pilgrimage to Penny Lane, Strawberry Fields and The Cavern Club for a straight-A academic performance, and I had achieved that goal by overcoming the astonishing power of a Chemistry textbook to lull me into a sound sleep. We had spent a few days in London seeing other relevant historical sites like Carnaby Street, Abbey Road and Denmark Street, and our next step in the plan was to head north for an excursion that would include Liverpool, Birmingham and Manchester (I was still in love with Liam Gallagher at the time).
Anyway, we’d finally made it to the head of the queue when two figures in rumpled suits carrying briefcases in their hands and fags in their mouths approached the line with harried, frantic looks on their faces. They looked towards the end of the queue, which was about ten transactions deep, looked at their watches and expelled a few expletives.
“You seem in a hurry,” I remarked. “Would you like to go ahead of us? We’ve got the time.”
“Oh, thank YOU!” said the taller, good-looking one. As luck would have it, a window became available immediately and the good-looking one rushed towards it, leaving me with his companion, who resembled a red-haired version of Marty Feldman.
“Train leaves in five minutes,” he explained, his eyes rolling every which way.
Our chat was interrupted by a sudden outburst of frustration from his companion. Apparently he’d run into a snag, but he used a phrase I had never heard before, one of such obvious power and expressive impact that it shook me to the core of my soul.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake!”
From that moment forward, I adopted that phrase as my own, saving it only for very special occasions when I needed something to express complete and utter disbelief at the stupidity of the human species.
Fast forward to the end of 1999. Amidst the predictions of Y2K doom and gloom, every media outlet was publishing their “best of the century” lists, covering best books, best movies, best set of tits . . . and of course, best albums. I was in one of the libraries scattered around the Claremont Colleges, finishing research on one of my first college papers (I think it was an analysis of how Byron’s club foot affected the meter of Don Juan). Because the stability of the Internet connection in the dorms was a jump ball proposition at best, I decided to hang around and use a more reliable access point to find out what was going on in the music world. As was my habit at the time, I began with the New Musical Express, or NME. Right there on the front page was the news: NME had named Pet Sounds the best album of the 20th century.
“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” I exclaimed, with great intensity and volume, crashing silence and library taboos as if a two-ton bomb had ripped through the roof. Everyone looked at me in surprise, some glaring, some smiling, but I had given them a moment they would remember all their lives, just as the harried traveler in Euston Station had given me.
There’s no question that Pet Sounds would definitely find a spot on my top albums list—the list of the most overrated albums of all time. The praise and attention that has been heaped on this record has elevated it to near-sacred status, a development I find completely unfathomable. I’ve listened to the album in mono and stereo, I’ve read all the reviews, I’ve read essays justifying its lofty position as the best rock album ever made, I’ve looked at the sheet music . . . and I can only conclude that this is a textbook example of what Hitler called “The Big Lie.” If you tell the masses a lie that is so extravagant that no one could possibly believe that anyone could make it up, they will believe the lie.
Christ, even Brian Wilson said it wasn’t as good as Rubber Soul, and Rubber Soul isn’t even The Beatles’ best. In my opinion, it’s not even The Beach Boys’ best. Pet Sounds was an album that took a few liberties with sound and instrumentation that other musicians claimed influenced their efforts. Influential? Yes, I suppose. Listenable? Barely. Enjoyable? That depends on personal taste, but when my dad and I talked about the inflation of Pet Sounds to iconic status, he made a very interesting comment. “Now that you mention it, I’ve heard a lot of people tell me how great it is and how influential it is, but I don’t think I’ve heard anyone say they actually liked it. I don’t think I’ve ever heard any of my friends play it, and I can’t remember the last time I played it.”
If anything, Pet Sounds reveals inherent deficiencies in The Beach Boys that they were never able to overcome. They never had to pay their dues, having lived a comfortable white middle class existence in a typically dysfunctional family in the Southern California Dream World of the 1960’s. Their earliest musical influences were clean white male trios and quartets like The Four Freshmen, and though much is made about how Carl turned Brian on to Johnny Otis’ radio program, The Beach Boys never immersed themselves in the blues, soul or R&B to the extent that The Beatles, Stones and Kinks did. As such, their attempts at finding the groove may have been mathematically correct but lacked feel. Beach Boys songs may make you tap your toes but they were completely devoid of the sexual tension present in truly great rock and roll. They produced clean, white bread rock and roll with emphasis on the harmonies, not the groove.
Another fundamental flaw in the band that comes through loud and clear on Pet Sounds is that they never developed a social consciousness (their later attempts like “Student Demonstration Time,” are simply pathetic). The lyrics on Pet Sounds forever trapped in the amber of Wally and Beaver’s room: songs that nice, clean, white high school kids can play at their weekend swim parties. Eight of the eleven vocal songs on Pet Sounds are adolescent love songs with lyrics dripping with teenage naiveté, traditional middle class values and blatant sexism. They describe a world where girls are things that guys pass around; that the worst thing a girl can do is change and grow; and where young couples never engage in pre-marital sex. The two attempts to deal with personal growth or the meaning of life, “I Know There’s an Answer” and “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” contain awkwardly expressed, unfinished thoughts that add up to little more than mental stammering. An outsider named Tony Asher may have written most of the lyrics, but Brian Wilson thought they were wonderful and The Beach Boys recorded them. In 1966, Ray Davies did Face to Face, John Lennon wrote “Tomorrow Never Knows,” Bob Dylan released Blonde on Blonde and even McCartney got into the act with “Eleanor Rigby.” Ignoring a world where change was exploding all around them, The Beach Boys were still singing lyrics suitable for The Ozzie & Harriet Show.
And because of Pet Sounds, they call Brian Wilson a genius? Before I deal with this topic, let me explain that I don’t think any human being who has ever lived qualifies as a genius: not DaVinci, not Steve Jobs, not Einstein, not Mozart. It’s much more accurate to say that people have moments of genius; no one is a genius 24/7, 365 for an entire life. Every so-called genius has produced mountains of crap, theories that didn’t pan out or ideas that were flat-out bizarre. There have also been millions of genius moments of which we will never be aware, because the person who had the insight didn’t have the combination of connections and luck that could have rescued the genius moment from obscurity. Brian Wilson certainly had genius moments, but your won’t find them on this album—you’ll hear them on “I Get Around” and “Good Vibrations.” Some of the songs on Pet Sounds, like “Caroline No” and “God Only Knows” have lovely melodies and fascinating chord patterns, but the lyrics are so childish that the songs cannot possibly qualify as genius moments.
I can understand the influential aspect of Pet Sounds. In addition to the complex chord structures in some of the songs (although the minor sixths and sevenths do begin to get tiresome), the sudden shifts in key and tempo, the out-of-sync drum attacks, the use of alternative instruments and the harmonic complexity point the way to new possibilities. I don’t know if the animal sounds led to the ending of “Good Morning, Good Morning,” but they were another message that boundaries were there for the breaking. But in one sense, Pet Sounds marks a regression rather than a progression, for despite the complexity of the arrangements, Brian Wilson’s production style was still grounded in Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” approach. This is a major flaw in Pet Sounds, for there are many times when the mix fails to adequately distinguish the instruments. In contrast to Sgt. Pepper, Pet Sounds has an astonishingly small sound field, making many of the arrangements come across as terribly crowded. While part of this may have to do with Brian Wilson’s deafness in one ear that led him to do his final mixes in mono, the end result is less than satisfactory.
I don’t know how an album with a muddled mix and piss-poor lyrics can be called the greatest rock album ever, but then again, what do I know? I have similarly low opinions of other allegedly great albums, from Astral Weeks to Exile on Main Street to Abbey Road. The one thing that I will say in defense of my position is that it is my creation and has not been influenced by music industry propaganda . . . and those guys are better than Goebbels at making people believe in things that have no basis in reality—like the belief that Coldplay or Lana del Rey actually have talent.
Pet Sounds is Phil Spector on acid, nothing more, nothing less.
When it was time for me to start thinking about college, my parents encouraged me to consider alternatives beyond the invisible boundaries of Northern California. “It will be good for you to experience different cultures,” my mother told me. “It will be a great growth experience and give you a real feeling of independence,” added my father.
“Oh, bullshit,” I replied. “You want me out of the house so you can fuck in the living room any time you want.”
I think my mother blushed. The blush had nothing to do with prudishness; after all, this was a woman who had permitted her daughter to explore BDSM and gave her invaluable advice on all aspects of sexuality throughout her formative yeas. Still, the French have a sense of decorum, and in all the years I lived under their roof, my perpetually horny parents had confined themselves to their bedroom whenever they wanted to get their rocks off. Though they had fucked each other in the bright sunshine of open-air rock festivals and love-ins, and despite our unusually open and honest parent-child relationship, doing the deed was not an experience they wanted to share with their daughter in the room.
I was cool with that. Who the hell wants to watch their parents fuck?
Despite the phony sales pitch, I thought exiting the parental nest was a good idea, too, and I’d started researching the possibility even before they brought it up. I had three criteria: the place had to be within driving distance of a major league baseball team; it had to be somewhere with a vibrant nightlife; and it had to be a place willing to offer me at least a partial scholarship, since I wanted to pay off any student loans before I turned fifty. Although I was pretty good at fast-pitch softball and one mean bitch on the basketball court, I was never enough of a jock to consider a sports scholarship. Instead, I decided I would use my one inherited advantage and focus on schools interested in prospective students with French language skills. The combined criteria reduced my viable options to three major metropolitan areas: New York, Boston and Southern California. After all the data had been collected and the scholarships offered, I chose Southern California.
Dumbest fucking decision I’ve ever made.
I could have seen a shitload of games at Fenway. I could have immersed myself in the dynamic magic that is New York City. Instead I chose a place where you can’t do dick without a car and where you can’t do dick even when you get the car because of the traffic. Worst of all, I would be living near the home of my lifelong adversaries, the Los Angeles Fucking Dodgers. I think I chose L. A. because it was far enough from home without being too far and because after years of freezing my nipples in the San Francisco fog, I thought it was time to give them a break. Dumb, dumber, dumbest.
I spent four years in L. A. without a car, but fortunately I had some well-heeled dorm mates with wheels. Over the years we explored Southern California from San Diego to Santa Barbara, attempting to immerse ourselves in the Great California Myth of endless sunshine, convertibles and coastline. Things didn’t quite play out according to the fantasy. I can’t remember a single trip that didn’t involve some kind of traffic jam, no matter what time of day we were on the road. Layers of brown haze shielded the sun and hid the surrounding mountain ranges, even after the alleged reduction of particulates in the air and the banning of charcoal barbecues. The Santa Ana winds would clear the air for a day or two in autumn until wind-fanned blazes turned the sky into a reddish muck. And though our trips were invariably draining and dreary, we really had no other choice if we wanted to get off campus for a while, since most of the neighborhoods in the area surrounding the college were gang-ridden shitholes.
I survived by spending a lot of time improving my fucking skills and listening to Vin Scully call Dodger games in the spring and early fall. While I loathe the Fucking Dodgers, I adore Vin Scully. And no, I never fucked anyone while listening to Vin—that would be sacrilege!
Mythical California endures to this day, and has endured in the fantasies of millions of people for almost a century. In “Blue Yodel No. 4,” Jimmie Rodgers sung of California as a place “where they sleep out every night.” The Movietone newsreels picturing the Beverly Hills homes of Hollywood stars led millions of people suffering from the Great Depression to dream of swimming pool parties and cool cocktails served under bright sunshine or glistening nights. And while I’m sure that millions tuned into Baywatch during its 11-season run only to get a glimpse of Pam Anderson’s constantly expanding bosom, Pam wouldn’t have been able to display her admirable assets as cheerfully and blatantly had the show been set in Omaha or Grand Forks, for both practical and moral reasons. The myth is so powerful that those caught in its allure fail to realize that most of the myth only applies to Southern California, not the whole state. We would laugh our asses off every year as tourists invaded San Francisco in July hoping to catch California sunshine only to catch hypothermia from standing in Union Square dressed in tank tops and shorts.
Even the Southern California version of the myth doesn’t hold up too well unless you have very selective perception. The Pacific Ocean is fucking freezing, people! L. A. has been famous for its smog since World War II, when one day the smog was so bad the residents thought the Japanese had launched a chemical warfare attack. According to Chip Jacobs, one of the authors of Smogtown: The Lung-Burning History of Smog in Los Angeles, “People in Los Angeles were very proud of their air. They said that L.A. was the land of pure air, and that moving there could cure tuberculosis and alcoholism.” (You can read the article in Wired magazine here.)
It’s just one myth after another in Southern California.
The Beach Boys were the leading bards of the myth in the early to mid-1960’s. Even though very few of their fans would probably ever touch a surfboard, the imagery of riding the waves with your surfer girl cheering you on was intensely captivating. They successfully tapped into the American obsession with automobiles, underscoring the competitiveness American males have always felt in relation to their cars. Along the way they honored cherished American traditions and middle class values.
Their music was often exciting and nearly always well-arranged. Their lyrics, on the other hand, were generally abysmal, ranging from corny to trite to almost offensive. I can’t think of another band who was more culturally oblivious, particularly given their origins in the activist 1960’s. They grew up in Hawthorne, only a few miles from the Watts riots of 1964 and completely ignored the existence of the deep racial divide that permeated Southern California during that period and the white fear that led Californians to install Ronald Reagan in the governor’s mansion for eight years. Part of me listens to The Beach Boys with a constant “oh, for fuck’s sake” perched on the edge of my lips.
But to judge The Beach Boys for their lack of cultural competence would be completely unfair. For chrissakes, people, they were kids during their peak period. Brian Wilson and Mike Love were the only two who had graduated from high school when “Surfin’ Safari” entered the charts, and Carl Wilson wouldn’t reach the age of eighteen until after The Beach Boys had recorded seven albums. They sung and wrote about the life they knew and the dreams they shared, and if they were unconscious to the advantage of white privilege, they were hardly alone in that regard. As they grew up they did develop greater social consciousness, as demonstrated in several tracks on one of my favorite Beach Boy albums, Surf’s Up. A couple of years after that, they would integrate the band and produce one of their best singles, “Sail On, Sailor,” with a black South African named Blondie Chaplin delivering the lead vocal.
Astonishingly, “Sail On, Sailor” is missing from this 30-song collection, as are two of my favorite Beach Boys tracks, “Disney Girls” and “Surf’s Up.” The compilers might point to the title of the collection and argue that selections were made based on the “sounds of summer” theme, but the presence of “Heroes and Villains” would negate their contention. As usual, the geniuses have fucked up the track order, making the narrative thread of The Beach Boys’ musical development hard to follow. However, the early tracks in particular are extremely formulaic, making a straight track-by-track analysis a bore. What I’ve decided to do is stay true to the narrative but group the songs into categories: Surf Songs, Car Songs, Transition Songs, Peak Period and Nostalgia.
One more caveat before we begin: I do not buy into the Brian Wilson Genius myth. Nothing personal against Brian, but I don’t buy into the genius myth for anyone, not even Einstein or DaVinci. All human beings are capable of moments of genius, many of which go unnoticed. Many brilliant discoveries have turned out to be the result of lucky accidents rather than conscious intent. And nearly all human endeavors are collaborative by definition, even if that collaboration involves something as simple as sharing an idea or talking through a problem. I couldn’t help but notice that Einstein published his Annus Mirabilis papers containing the Special Theory Relativity and E = mc2 right after he started making babies with his wife, so for all we know, it was a Big Bang Orgasm that permitted him to penetrate the mysteries of the universe.
Back to Brian Wilson: he had moments of genius that will be noted in their proper context. And now, Sounds of Summer . . .
Essentially, The Beach Boys’ Surf Songs were advertisements for the surfing craze in the early 60’s. It is very unlikely that many of the people who bought surf records ever learned how to surf or gave a shit about surfing. They weren’t buying instruction manuals, they were buying into the Great California myth of fresh ocean breezes, crashing waves and fantasies of stacked broads in bikinis.
The Beach Boys’ first single, “Surfin,'” (not in this collection) was essentially a lightweight doo-wop number that sounds like it was recorded on cardboard. In “Surfin’ Safari” they picked up the tempo and added some drama through stop-time choruses. In “Surfin’ U. S. A.,” they put Chuck Berry on a surfboard (and eventually gave him composer’s credit), and continued the heavy use of stop-time, but I think the decision to have Brian Wilson sing the hook in falsetto (“Everybody’s going surfin'”) was the key to the song’s success. The Four Seasons had ended 1962 with two chart-topping hits and Frankie Valli’s falsetto vocals were all the rage. Both songs contain lengthy lists of surfing hot spots around the world from Laguna to Peru and all the way to Australia, giving one the impression that everybody on the planet decided to say “Fuck the Cold War, let’s ride the waves!”
“Surfer Girl” capitalized on Brian’s falsetto and provided the high school crowd with a nice slow dance number. The song is rather stiff and formal, but as this was Brian Wilson’s first composition, stiffness is to be expected.
I find The Beach Boys’ Surf Songs to be dull and uninteresting. The truly exciting surf music of the time came from the instrumental artists like The Ventures and (especially) Dick Dale. Dale’s artistic intention was to capture the sounds he heard inside his head while surfing, and in taking that journey, he redefined the limits of electric guitars and amplification. When I listen to Dick Dale, I don’t learn where to surf or how to surf—I learn what surfing feels like.
The late 1950’s and early 1960’s saw the wholesale destruction of trolley lines and the widespread construction of highways all across the U. S. A. The automobile became a multi-faceted symbol of freedom, status and identity. As usual, no one thought about the consequences of spewing billions of tons of leaded carbon monoxide into the skies, but let’s not spoil our trip through the Great California Myth with unpleasant realities.
Though both traditional genders loved their cars, boys of the era—at least those boys who bought into the traditional masculine role—had a special relationship with their wheels. Cars were a symbol of manhood, an essential part of the mating ritual as well as a defensive weapon for guys to use against usurpers who wanted to steal their girls. “My car is faster than your car” is the early-60’s equivalent of “My dick is bigger than your dick,” and on weekends, boys in the burbs could often be found in their driveways, washing, polishing and lubing their virtual dicks.
I envision a world when someday men spend their Saturday mornings in the driveway washing, polishing and lubing their real dicks, while leather-clad mistresses stroll along the sidewalks and shop for their Saturday night entertainment. Let’s get down and get honest, people!
Reflecting the nature of boys in the testosterone rush period of life, The Beach Boys were much better at Car Songs than Surf Songs, and their love affair with automobiles had a longer run than their flirtation with the surf crowd. The Car Songs have more intensity, oomph and . . . well . . . drive. The first car song included in this collection, “Shut Down,” is relatively tame and bogged down by technical automotive language that only Car & Driver aficionados can understand, but The Beach Boys really got . . . well . . . into gear with “Little Deuce Coupe.”
The song that would later inspire Twyla Tharp to choreograph one of her finest ballets was actually the b-side to “Surfer Girl.” Infuckingcredible. Look, I don’t know what the fuck a flat head mill is or what it means to be ported and relieved, but I know a great rock ‘n’ roll song when I hear it. Mike Love sings this with oodles more confidence than he sang “Surfin’ U. S. A.,” Brian Wilson’s falsetto on the chorus is a brilliant exclamation point, and the group also sounds much more fluid on the doo-wop harmonies. The subtle chord shift on the chorus from V to ii drew the attention of Frank Zappa, who said, “One of the most exciting things that ever happened in the world of ‘white-person music’ was when the Beach Boys used the progression V-ii on ‘Little Deuce Coupe.'” I will ignore the culturally insensitive capitalist braggadocio of “I got the pink slip daddy” and move on.
The Beach Boys gave the chicks equal time in “Fun, Fun, Fun,” which features even stronger vocal work, particularly in the rounds that fill out the chorus and the fade. Yes, Carl’s intro is a slight modification of “Johnny B. Goode,” and yes, the lyrics describe a dumb ass broad rescued by a modern Prince Charming, but what I notice more than anything else on “Fun, Fun, Fun” is that Brian Wilson really had quite a gift for musical arrangement.
That gift is even more apparent on the Car Song to end all Car Songs, “I Get Around.” This is the only Beach Boys’ song that makes my diddle twiddle, despite its gory description of young studs choosing celibacy over the back seat (“None of the guys go steady ’cause it wouldn’t be right/To leave your best girl home on a Saturday night.”) Dudes! Get your greasy heads out from under those hoods and behold the wonder that is woman!
What gets me off about “I Get Around” is the sheer intensity generated by the drama in the arrangement itself. After a quick one-note lead-in, your ears are filled with a stunning vocal ensemble navigating the spring-tension progression I-VI7-ii-VII-V. When Mike Love sings the verses, it takes you a while to realize that the vocal lines pay no attention to the root chord, ramping up the tension even more. While the verse tension is resolved temporarily between couplets to allow Mike to catch his breath, the hand-clapping in the second couplet intensifies the excitement. We then experience brief resolution to the root in the first line of the chorus, but the spring-loaded nature of the chorus keeps you on the edge of your seat. The guitar solo passage seems to provide a bit of respite, but the transition is so smooth we hardly realize that the passage is in a different key than the original root. Another seamless transition brings us back to the verses, now located one half-step higher in the scale. And in a delightful act of sadism, the song never truly resolves itself because The Beach Boys opted for a fade instead of a close. “I Get Around” is a mini-version of a great Hollywood thriller, a rock ‘n’ roll and harmonic masterpiece that demonstrated that as far as musical arrangement was concerned, Brian Wilson had already surpassed Phil Spector (his idol) at this early stage in his career.
Apparently, Brian’s father, a music industry has-been, thought differently and tried to stop the recording because he felt something was wrong with the bass line. What a fucking idiot—the bass line on “I Get Around” is a rumbling, earth-shaking delight! Brian stood up for himself, and after some pushing and shoving, fired dear old dad. Yay!
The Beach Boys were smart enough to realize that the surf fad and the car fad would fade like all the other fads that defined the emptiness of this period in American social history. Their attempts to explore alternatives reflected their limited life experience, resulting in a mix of songs that range from what-the-fuck-were-they-thinking to signs of genuine musical progress, even before Brian Wilson took up marijuana and devoted his time and energy exclusively to the studio.
The only reason I appreciate “Be True to Your School” is that I can evaluate it by using my four favorite words: oh, for fuck’s sake. Loyalty to one’s educational institution is a ridiculous tradition, especially given the shitty education provided in American high schools. For me, one of the most terrifying moments for in Rebel Without a Cause was when the straights hassled James Dean for accidentally stepping on the school insignia as he entered the building—enforced conformity to meaningless shit violates everything I believe in. And the pom-pom girls in this song drive me up the fucking wall.
Equally appalling is the insipid, “When I Grow Up to Be a Man,” a series of astonishingly naïve questions like “Will my kids be proud or think their old man is really a square?” Well, yeah, if you wrote a song with lyrics like this, fuck yeah, your kids are going to think you’re a square. Duh!
In an even more appalling example of b-side insanity, “In My Room” was in fact the b-side of “Be True to Your School.” Don’t even try to get your head around that one. What makes “In My Life” remarkable isn’t so much the music or even the arrangement, but its undeniable sincerity. Ironically, the three Wilson brothers shared a room during most of their childhood, but after the parents announced it was bedtime, they would sometimes practice harmonies in that darkened room. That effect is reproduced in the first verse, with Brian, Carl and Dennis entering on successive lines. The room was the sanctuary from the parents who would never understand us, a place where we could indulge our imaginations and tend to our fears. As simple as the song is, it captures an essential experience of growing up in Western cultures . . . at least for those of us who have the means to afford homes with bedrooms.
Although technically its lyrics would place it in the Car Song category (a silly story about challenging the guys to a race and seeking support from one’s love interest), “Don’t Worry Baby” better fits the transition song category due to its remarkable melodic movement. Though the chord structure is comparatively simple, the melody glides beautifully up and down the scale, aided by Brian Wilson’s superb phrasing. The upward key change in the chorus reflects the lifting of the hero’s spirits once he connects with his girl. The harmonies are Beach Boy Beautiful, but here the melody takes center stage . . . one of the loveliest melodies in pop music history.
Trying to get out of the fad market by singing dance songs was a curious choice, and their version of “Do You Wanna Dance?” compares poorly to Bobby Freeman’s original. The Brian-Carl-Mike original, “Dance, Dance, Dance” is MUCH better, an energetic romp that allows Dennis Wilson some space to bash away. I love the key change in the middle of the last verse, which propels the song to a fabulous fade.
The Transition Songs include two of their best-selling singles, “Help Me, Rhonda” and “Barbara Ann.” The first doesn’t do much for me, as the guy-on-the-rebound-picking-through-the-leftovers theme turns my stomach. “Help Me, Rhonda” is the equivalent of “Eight Days a Week,” a formulaic and pleasant number designed to keep the band in the Top 40. “Barbara Ann” is a novelty song that demonstrated that a.) The Beach Boys knew how to throw a party and b.) that they could harmonize on the fly. They were stunned by the song’s success, as am I.
The Beach Boys’ Peak Period (and by “peak” I mean their artistic peak, not their commercial peak) corresponds roughly to the period of Pet Sounds and the aborted Smile project, at least in terms of what the public heard. The shift actually began earlier in 1965 after Brian Wilson started smoking dope as a form of stress therapy after suffering a nervous breakdown. He certainly wasn’t the first musician to turn on and would certainly not be the last. Artists in nearly every field of endeavor have turned to drugs for a variety of reasons: to enhance perception and open sleeping pathways in the brain; as a quick fix for self-esteem issues; or just because they liked to party. Brian Wilson never struck me as a party animal, and while he likely suffered from self-esteem issues due to his father’s constant carping, I think it’s safe to say that while stress may have led him to marijuana, his enduring motivation was to explore new avenues in music. The risk in taking that path is that the usefulness of drugs has an expiration date, just like a bottle of aspirin. At a certain point, depending on the individual’s constitution, drugs can dull the senses, encourage isolation or lead to psychological disabilities, like anxiety disorder and paranoia.
I won’t make any conclusions about Brian Wilson, but I will say that his drugged-up state of mind likely contributed to his abandonment of the Smile project. While critics rave over Pet Sounds, it’s really more of an experimental album than a cohesive, coherent masterpiece. From the evidence of the scattered pieces left over from the Smile project, recently compiled in The Smile Sessions, it’s unclear whether or not that unfinished album would have been Brian Wilson’s envisioned masterpiece, but it would have been nice to find out.
Even with that loss, The Peak Period was pretty impressive, but I see the period as one that began almost a year before Pet Sounds with the release of “California Girls.” Brian had just experienced his first acid trip, an experience that often expands boundaries and shatters apparent limitations. Given his arrangement of “I Get Around,” Brian was already pre-disposed to the concept of avoiding the obvious resolution to the root chord that characterizes most pop music, so the acid probably served to give him permission to explore that concept even further.
The orchestral prelude is a stunning piece of music, and quite daring for the time. While relatively long introductions were not unheard of, the music in those introductions conformed to the basic melody of either the chorus or the verse. Roy Orbison’s “Only the Lonely” is a good example of such an extended introduction, a compressed rendering of the basic melody that clocks in at 19 seconds. The introduction to “California Girls” lasts 22 seconds but bears little musical resemblance to the song proper. However, the slow, reflective tempo and the descending pattern evoke visuals of the early evening sun in its descent towards the ocean’s horizon as it spreads a golden hue over the undulating water. It’s the end of a beautiful day at the beach, and the beach is where you find the girls. Though Brian Wilson pointed to Bach as his inspiration, I agree with other critics who find the intro more Copland than Bach. Regardless of origin, it is a moment of genius.
The song proper is also full of surprises, as many a guitarist who has tried to figure out the chords has learned. The chorus is tricky, constantly dancing around the root with descending I and ii7 pairings (B to C#m7, then A to Bm7, then G to Am7). The layered, cascading background vocals are harmonies particularly delightful, and while the lyrics are typically simplistic, the power of the music forces them into the background.
Three tracks from Pet Sounds made it into this compilation. “Sloop John B” stuck out like a sore thumb on Pet Sounds, even with the slight chord modifications suggested by Al Jardine. It’s a competent Beach Boys performance but the song itself is rather boring. “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is a musical masterpiece that exposes The Beach Boys’ greatest weakness: due to Brian Wilson’s limited life experience, they rarely deviated from social norms and expectations, painting naïve, idealized views of the world that bear little connection to reality:
Maybe if we think and wish and hope and pray it might come true
Baby then there wouldn’t be a single thing we couldn’t do
We could be married
And then we’d be happy
Hmm. Half of all marriages in the United States end in divorce, in part because people believe that thinking and wishing and hoping and praying can make it all come true. I’m sorry, but Tinkerbell wand-waving is not a reliable path to secure and vibrant relationship. Most of the lyrics for Pet Sounds were written by hired hand Tony Asher, who defined his role as interpreting Brian Wilson’s concepts into lyrics, and like Michael Jackson, Brian Wilson spent way too much time living in Neverland.
The final piece from Pet Sounds is “God Only Knows,” one of Paul McCartney’s favorites. Apparently there was some controversy over the use of the word “God” in a pop song, and though religious references generally turn me off, I don’t find the use of the word offensive in that sense. What I do find offensive is that the phrase “God only knows” is itself a tired cliche that severely weakens the impact of the song. From a musical perspective, the song is another brilliant composition, a melange of inverted chords and consistently delayed resolution that builds to a satisfying conclusion.
The highlight of the Peak Period is certainly “Good Vibrations,” a recording masterpiece equal to “Strawberry Fields Forever” in terms of the use of recording technology to build coherent compositions from recorded fragments. Unlike some of the muddled messes on Pet Sounds, “Good Vibrations” has a more holistic feel and a clear sense of intention. Carl Wilson’s contributions—the lead vocal and the idea to use a cello to accentuate the bass line—proved to be as crucial to the outcome as the distinctive sound of the Electro-Theremin. Hal Blaine stepped in for Dennis Wilson on the drums, and his work is exceptional, focused more on building tension than providing rhythmic continuity. “Good Vibrations” has been classified as both a suite and a pocket symphony; I think of it more as a fully realized portrait in sound that would prove to be The Beach Boys’ masterpiece.
The artistic and commercial success of “Good Vibrations” would also lead to The Beach Boys decline, and the evidence for that is found in the song “Heroes and Villains.” This equally complex piece has a long and complicated history, beginning life as the first song for the Smile project and winding up as the single that shattered Brian Wilson’s hopes that The Beach Boys could compete with The Beatles as recognized recording artists. The process of recording umpteen sections in spurts and piecing them all together later that worked so well on “Good Vibrations” failed them here, as the song never really comes together. There are fabulous moments, like the harmonies in the chorus sections, but the lyrics are unintelligible and the jigsaw puzzle is left unfinished. Brian Wilson’s continuing obsession with Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound is painfully apparent on this track and others during the Peak Period, for while it worked wonders to fill up the sound field in the golden era of 45’s, it was a dated approach that resulted in muddy recordings, especially after piling on layer after layer, fragment after fragment.
Brian Wilson is rightfully hailed as a recording studio innovator, the man who turned the recording studio into an instrument. The problem with studio-centric music is that it discounts the value of musicianship; today you can fix lousy vocal performances with auto-tune and cover for incompetence by patching together pieces from various takes. Studio-centric artists also lose the direct connection to the audience that makes music come alive through human interaction. Studio-centric musicians dominate the scene today, and though some are quite talented musicians, many are clueless. So while Brian Wilson opened the doors to new possibilities in music creation, the emergence of ubiquitous recording software has encouraged studio-centricity and created a generation of lazy musicians who rely more on technology than imagination. This sad development is certainly not Brian Wilson’s fault: given his active imagination and deep musical knowledge, Brian Wilson would have likely made magic with today’s technology.
From this point forward, with the exception of Surf’s Up and a few tracks on Holland, The Beach Boys would regress into their past, abandon all artistic pretensions and prepare themselves for the fairground and casino circuits.
Two singles from the Wild Honey album are included here: the title track and “Darlin.'” The album was The Beach Boys attempt at “chill music,” a combination of ersatz soul and second-hand R&B. “Wild Honey” resurrects the Theremin to no good effect; “Darlin'” is the better track, but that’s not saying a whole hell of a lot. The only thing Wild Honey proved is that The Beach Boys had no business doing soul music.
“Do It Again” is the symbolic surrender of any ambitions The Beach Boys may have still had in terms of forging new musical pathways. The song screams, “Once The Beach Boys, always The Beach Boys.” Here in the pivotal year of 1968, with people all over the world taking to the streets to protest war, violence, racism and hatred, The Beach Boys offered up a double dose of nostalgia for those still insistent on glorifying the Great California Myth:
Suntanned bodies and
Waves of sunshine the
California girls and a
Warmed up weather
Let’s get together and
Do it again
A triple oh-for-fuck’s sake to that one.
The rest of the collection is hardly worth the energy it takes to listen to it. “I Can Hear Music,” released in 1969, continues the back-to-the-glorious past theme, a song that could have made the cut for Beach Boys Today. Their barbershop quartet version of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” (1976) is musical sterilization at its worst. “Come Go with Me” (1978) is a cover of the Del-Vikings’ 1956 doo-wop hit. “Good Timin'” (1979) features insipid lyrics and harmonies very reminiscent of “Don’t Worry Baby.” “Getcha Back” is another trip down memory lane via the doo-wop route, and “Kokomo” is one final travel catalogue of warm, sunny beach locales throughout the world.
Putting aside the disappointments of the later years, The Beach Boys compiled a catalog that few American bands can match for quality and, particularly in their Peak Period, originality. While some of their songs may seem silly and dated, a surprising number of songs in their catalog sound as fresh today as they must have sounded fifty years ago. Brian Wilson’s compositions and arrangements rank among the best in rock history, and while they were relatively weak on the lyrical side, they made up for that deficit with exquisite harmonies, perfectly executed. The Beach Boys were also a hardworking band who took pride in their professionalism, and though I never saw them live, my father did. We’ll close with his thoughts on The Beach Boys as performers:
I saw them twice—once when I was in high school at the old Circle Star Theater in San Carlos, when they were still wearing the striped shirts and white pants, and once in Long Beach after Surf’s Up came out. I don’t remember much about the first concert except I noticed Brian wasn’t there and the girls were screaming their heads off, but I remember the second show as if it were yesterday. I had traveled south with a buddy of mine who had somehow landed some passes, and while we’re waiting for them to come on we’re speculating about what they’d play—how much of their old stuff and how much of their new stuff. When the lights went dim, I turned to my buddy and said, “Well, we know we won’t be hearing ‘Good Vibrations.'” So The Beach Boys come out, take their places and they open with . . . “Good Vibrations!” I swear I had tears in my eyes the moment Carl sang the opening “I.” I couldn’t believe they were doing it on stage—and they knocked it out of the park. They didn’t do much of the surf stuff, mostly new material, but they closed with “Fun, Fun, Fun” and brought down the house. As we were walking out and going over the performance, my buddy turned to me and said, “You know what really blew me away? How much they love doing what they’re doing. Those guys love their music. That’s their secret, man—they love what they’re doing and give it all they’ve got.”