‘You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone’: A Beach Boys Retrospective
“I know that you’ll feel better when you send us in your letter and tell us the name of your favourite vega-table”.
“…A diseased bunch of motherfuckers if ever there was one…” – Lester Bangs, Circus magazine, 1977
What is your perception of the Beach Boys? Presumably, something to do with I Get Around, Barbara Ann, or perhaps Surfin’ USA. If you’re more familiar with Baby Boomer pop culture, perhaps you’ll think of stripy blue shirts, going to the beach by hot rod, or getting a milkshake with your buddies on the strip. It’s all very quaint, or perhaps even ‘square’, to appropriate more Boomer terminology. The image is outdated - too white-bread, dorky, doughy, suburban, to mean much to anyone but pop culture archivists and beer-bellied nostalgia junkies, I hear you holler.
What if I told you there’s more to it than that? What if I told you that a tremendous amount of what we take for granted in pop music today can trace its roots back to those sun-drenched songs of joy? What if I told you that the Beach Boys were up there with Pink Floyd, the Velvet Underground, or the Beatles, for their chaotic creativity, production wizardry, and experimentation? Please, hear me out.
The story begins in the LA County suburb of Hawthorne, California. From their shared bedroom, three brothers, Brian, Carl, and Dennis, are forming a musical syndicate, with cousin Mike Love and school friends Al Jardine and David Marks. They had grown up listening to jazz groups like the Four Freshmen, and various old-timey show tunes, and Brian, in particular, had become enamoured with the sound of the human voice. He would teach his brothers and friends how to sing the harmonies on their favourite barbershop records, and eventually introduced a reel-to-reel tape recorder to the proceedings. Brian would typically play piano, and Dennis percussion. Carl Wilson and David Marks had both received guitars for Christmas, 1957 – the fusion of Brian’s studiousness with the immediacy of Chuck Berry-like guitars made for a killer, radio-friendly combination. They had recruited their brash cousin, Mike Love, to act as frontman, lyricist, and lead singer, and before long, were scoring hits with such ditties as Surfin’, Surfin’ Safari and Surfin’ USA.
The songs were primitive, and in the case of Surfin’ USA, essentially a reworking of a Chuck Berry melody, but already displayed an ability to draw in the listener with potent hooks and bright, oceanic instrumentation. Singles such as Little Deuce Coupe, although lyrically fluffy, subtly break conventional songwriting wisdom of the period, through unexpected chord progressions and gradually-improving production values. Delicate ballads, such as Surfer Girl, In My Room, and The Warmth of the Sun, begin to creep into their repertoire, foreshadowing the sublime emotionality of their later work. Somehow, they are not wiped out by the tidal wave of the “British Invasion”, when bands such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who and the Animals swamped the US charts.
By Little Saint Nick and All Summer Long, session musicians are being brought in, expanding the palette of sonic possibility further. Learning at the feet of echo-chamber-pop extraordinaire Phil Spector (responsible for all those dazzling girl groups like the Crystals and the Ronettes), Brian Wilson soon emerged as one of the most significant record producers of the 1960s, phasing himself out of the band’s live performances to focus on composition and production.
By the time of Beach Boys Today! and Summer Days! (And Summer Nights!!), we are hearing the first examples of the “pocket symphonies” that would characterise their creative zenith. On key tracks, such as Please Let Me Wonder and Let Him Run Wild, the virtuoso Wrecking Crew session musicians are introduced – their toolkit of saxophones, upright basses, vibraphones and organs, adds a third, fourth, fifth dimension to the songs. The sound engineering is becoming more nuanced, too – the dreamlike reverb that characterises Please Let Me Wonder in particular evokes a hazy, intoxicated summer evening, perhaps involving friends and a bonfire. Increasingly, Brian’s compositions are evolving into something far more sophisticated, too – listen out for the chiming guitar opening to California Girls. It sounds like condensed classical music.
The songs from this period start to sound timeless – when not distractingly clunky, the lyrics are simple, prosaic, naïve, but also honest and uncomplicated. In a song like I’m So Young, there’s no pretence, just sheer, vulnerable joy. There isn’t the arty opaqueness of a Bob Dylan or Jim Morrison style of lyricism, and it’s all the better for it.
In 1966, the Beach Boys released Pet Sounds, their most revered and perhaps only truly complete album- that is, as the saying goes “all killer, no filler”. This is the sound of Brian Wilson actualising as an artist. God Only Knows and Wouldn’t It Be Nice, the two best-known tracks, encapsulate the album’s ethos perfectly. We still hear them in adverts and romcoms to this day, and although it’s tempting to use terms like “broad” when art is taken out of its original context to sell other products, the recordings themselves are still dazzling. There are layers and layers of instrumentation, again from the Wrecking Crew; arrangements so rich you can lose yourself in them if you listen to them with headphones in the dark.
If we think of a song as I Get Around as two-dimensional – caricatured, paper-thin, designed only to get you to dance, sing along, and buy the record, then the contents of Pet Sounds are more five-dimensional, giving the listener a sense of time and space. The precision in the instrumental performances and the way they’re recorded are detailed – where a “2D song” evokes the general feel of a party environment or day at the beach, recordings like Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on my Shoulder) or Let’s Go Away for Awhile captures the micro – the beads of sweat, the rays of sunlight, the sensation of falling asleep, or dusting off some artefact from your childhood. Pet Sounds presents the entire spectrum of human emotion, from the delirious joy of Wouldn’t it Be Nice, to the adolescent anxiety of That’s Not Me, to the self-absorption of I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times and Caroline, No. The lyrics, largely written by copywriter Tony Asher with input from Brian Wilson, are again fairly simple for the most part, but are brought to life by those amazing melodies and performances. It is on this record that Carl Wilson, lead singer on God Only Knows, emerged from the background to become, in my opinion, one of the greatest vocalists in all of rock. If you never listen to any other Beach Boys album, make sure you listen to Pet Sounds. It’s pop art.
Between Pet Sounds and the planned follow-up, the band recorded perhaps their best-loved single, Good Vibrations. The recording sessions ate up more than ninety hours of tape, and it is very much a “production-heavy” record, with each section being recorded separately, often in different studios, and then spliced together. Instruments such as the Electro-Theremin, driving cellos and jaw’s harp, drenched in misty reverb, provided a vivid and transcendent pop experience, and a feeling of greater significance than just another pop record. It has about three distinct sections, although it ultimately all sounds cohesive. Everything the Beach Boys stood for is contained in these three minutes and thirty-five seconds.
Pet Sounds proved to be the pinnacle of the Beach Boys’ recording career – the follow-up, Smile, failed to materialise the following year, in 1967. Articles circulating in the music press with titles such as “Goodbye Surfing, Hello God!” gave the “lost album” a legendary status among fans for decades. The project was ambitious, abstract, and profoundly artistic, with musical arrangements even more complex than Pet Sounds. Had it been released in 1967, it would most certainly have gone down in the annals of rock music history as a defining psychedelic/progressive masterpiece. Unfortunately, the extreme pressures of delivering such a complex album, which at times seemed to abandon conventional songwriting altogether, led to the project collapsing under its own weight. Brian Wilson and collaborator Van Dyke Parks flitted between concepts for the songs, whether it be the Native American genocide, the importance of eating vegetables, or a trippy depiction of a barn catching fire. Smile is hugely creative, but is also a lesson in maintaining order and the dangers of disappearing down “rabbit holes” of imagination. By the time of Smile, Wilson was recording short fragments; a hook here, a series of sound effects there, with the intention of weaving them all together to create full songs, and in turn sequences of songs, at a later date. This “modular” style of recording caused total chaos. The ambitious single Heroes & Villains, which failed commercially and ended up sounding rather minimalist when eventually put out as a single, has an entire disc chronicling its various permutations during the recording sessions. Since 2011, the original Smile recordings have been available commercially as The Smile Sessions, using a finalised track list. The key moments from the album are Our Prayer, Cabin Essence, and the operatic Surf’s Up suite. The album is colourful and childlike, and has that same wide-ranging exploration of emotions as Pet Sounds. It is pop music pushed to the extreme.
Smile marked the end of the band’s “high art” period – a replacement, Smiley Smile, was released to fill the gap in 1967. Smiley Smile, although a heavily compromised version of Smile, has its own strengths. It is one of the most profoundly bizarre, and perhaps off-putting, records you’ll ever listen to. All of the grandiosity of Smile is discarded, in favour of a lo-fi, slightly claustrophobic aesthetic. A song like Vegetables, which on Smile is crisp, harmonic, and led by a grand piano, morphs into a strange little curiosity, with the instrumentation largely consisting of dripping water sounds and the root notes being crudely plucked away on electric bass. It’s creepy, and barely qualifies as listenable, but nevertheless is an essential document of the creative process.
The next two records, Wild Honey, and Friends, continue the lo-fi production value established by Smiley Smile, but are less intense – “music for Brian to cool off to”, as Carl Wilson put it. Wild Honey is a sunshine pop, cold beer garden party kind of album, while Friends, with such tracks as Wake the World and Busy Doin’ Nothin’, are best described as “comfy” or outdoorsy, but also slight. For the first time as well, brother Dennis starts to contribute songs to make up for Brian’s flagging energy levels, as with Little Bird, and the band takes a more collaborative approach to record production.
1969’s 20/20, although boasting some excellent exercises in production, feels rather hollow. Carl’s rendition of The Ronettes’ I Can Hear Music, however, is one of the high points of their entire discography, in my opinion, as is Al Jardine's spirited take on the traditional folk song Cottonfields. A single from that period, the Brian Wilson composition Break Away, is also worth hearing for an insight into the band’s feel during this period – less consistent, with an undercurrent of lethargy, but still capable of delivering the goods when the stars align.
1970 gave what few Beach Boys fans were left Sunflower, another “summery” album, with more excellent production values. Brian Wilson, although no longer the dominant composer by this point, contributes one of the most dazzling songs in his entire repertoire, This Whole World, a which changes keys four times in the first minute. Dennis Wilson continues to come into his own as a writer, bringing Slip on Through and It’s About Time, two soulful rock n rollers, and acoustic ballad Forever, to the table. Mike and Brian’s All I Wanna Do is considered influential to the shoegaze genre. On-off member Bruce Johnston also contributes Tears in the Morning and Deidre – catchy enough, but a little artificial. Sunflower peaked at number 151 during a four-week stay in the US Billboard charts. Not good.
The following year, the band delivered Surf’s Up, the gimmick of which was the inclusion of the title track that had received a cult status (among the even fewer fans remaining) because of its association with Smile. Surf’s Up is a fascinating album – you can really hear a raggedness and exhaustion as the band frantically try to keep the enterprise afloat, with less and less clear direction. Carl Wilson contributes two masterpieces – Feel Flows and Long Promised Road, which are emotive and progressive, thanks to the spiritual lyrics contributed by then-manager Jack Rieley. The album has a dark undercurrent throughout, even the cover, a dark green illustration of a sculpture depicting a dead/dying man slumped over on a horse, is a far cry from the preppy beach shots of a decade earlier. The opening track, Don’t Go Near the Water, feels like a post-apocalyptic parody of the Beach Boys, as Al Jardine and Mike Love preach the importance of treating the oceans with respect. Brian contributes two severely depressed but transcendent pieces, Til I Die, which seems to be about the band itself and well as himself being in a slump, and A Day in the Life of a Tree, written from the perspective of a tree choking to death on polluted air. The title track closes the album, slightly spruced up by Carl Wilson’s production, and finishing with a new coda inspired by sections from Smile. The “child is the father of the man” group harmonies at the end, especially Mike Love’s baritone, are my favourite moment in the entire Beach Boys discography – to me, it is the sound of the gates of Heaven opening, with each singer doing their bit in painting a touching auditory painting.
Next came Carl & The Passions: So Tough and Holland, sister records featuring songs and instrumentation from Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, members of funky South African group The Flame. The sound on these two records is again ragged, and shows traces of country rock, as on the scatty You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone. These two records show a band desperately trying to integrate themselves into the seventies’ rock pantheon – it seems odd in retrospect to hear a group famed for their group vocals handing over the microphone to a new member, Blondie Chaplin, on Holland’s powerful opener Sail on Sailor. Brian attempts to mimic the Rolling Stones with Marcella, and actually pulls it off, while Carl and manager-wordsmith Jack Rieley contribute The Trader, an emotional song about the colonisation of North America and the impact on the indigenous people and animals. These albums are oddities, but show that desperation can lead to inspiration.
I’ll stop here, because I think 1973’s Holland marks the end of the Beach Boys’ initial run of progressive albums. The albums that followed generally were more aimed at the nostalgia crowd, once they twigged on to the fact that they could sell out venues by playing their early surf and car songs. Brian Wilson is mostly absent from many of these later records, on account of his being imprisoned in his own home by radical psychologists recruited to help him with his substance abuse and mental issues. One such album, 1992’s Summer in Paradise, sold less than 1,000 copies, bankrupted a label, and has never been mentioned again by anyone in any official association with the band. In 1983, Dennis Wilson drowned while drunk, and in 1998, Carl Wilson died of lung cancer. Today, Mike Love and Bruce Johnston carry the reigns of the Beach Boys brand on the road, while Brian Wilson tours under his own name with Al Jardine and Blondie Chaplin in accompaniment.
The Beach Boys are a strange band, perhaps one of the strangest. They produced some of the most experimental and influential music in the Western pop canon, and also some of the most unbearably crass and desperate music ever recorded. You can hear their rising and falling energy levels with each album in their voices and production decisions. There’s a narrative in their story of youthful exuberance, budding intellectualism and philosophy with Pet Sounds and Smile, and the ensuing depression, with peaks and troughs, in the subsequent projects leading up to Holland. It’s a story in and of itself.