The Beach Boys are an iconic American rock band, frequently cited as one of the most influential and commercially successful groups of all time. They are recognized for their intricate vocal harmonies, studio innovations, and musical impact that is still felt today. After rising to stardom with a string of hits that defined the '60s California Sound, they delved into progressive pop, experimenting with songs inspired by classical music and the avant-garde. Following their most esteemed work, Pet Sounds (1966), the group became symbols of psychedelic counterculture.
With the release of 1974's Endless Summer they became a more popular touring act, playing their greatest hits. They have recorded 36 Billboard Top 40 hits (including four number-one singles), have had over 100 million sales, and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.
Formed in Hawthorne, California in 1961, the original group comprised singer-musician-composer Brian Wilson, his brothers Carl Wilson and Dennis Wilson, their cousin Mike Love, and friends Al Jardine and David Marks. South African musicians Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar played and sang with the band on three key albums during the early 1970s. Many changes in both musical style and personnel have occurred in their sometimes-stormy career: Brian Wilson's mental illness, drug addiction and eventual withdrawal from the group; the deaths of Dennis Wilson in 1983 and Carl Wilson in 1998; and continuing legal battles among surviving members of the group.
In December 2011, five of the group's surviving members - Brian, Mike, Al, Bruce and David (But not Blondie or Ricky) - reformed in celebration of their 50th anniversary, announcing a new album and a 50-date international tour for 2012. The reunion ended immediately after the tour.
The group was formed in 1961 in Hawthorne, California under the leadership of Brian Wilson, and included his brothers Carl and Dennis, their cousin Mike Love and school friend Al Jardine.
The early inspirations of the group were the Wilsons' musician father, Murry, and the close vocal harmonies of groups such as The Four Freshmen. The group performed initially as The Pendletones, after the Pendleton woolen shirts popular then. Although surfing motifs were very prominent in their early songs, Dennis was the sole actual surfer in the group. He suggested to his brothers that they do some songs celebrating his hobby and the lifestyle which had developed around it in Southern California.
At first Murry Wilson, by many accounts a hard-driving man, steered The Beach Boys' career, engineering their signing with Capitol Records in 1962. In 1964 Brian Wilson fired his father after a violent confrontation in the studio. Over the next few years they became increasingly estranged; when Murry died some years later, Brian and Dennis did not attend the funeral.
The Beach Boys' early material focused on the California youth lifestyle (e.g., "All Summer Long", "Fun, Fun, Fun"), cars ("Little Deuce Coupe") and of course surfing ("Surfin' U.S.A.", "Surfin' Safari" and many others). Although their music was bright and accessible, these early works contained remarkably sophisticated musical ideas. During this period, Brian Wilson rapidly progressed to become a melodist, arranger, and producer of world-renowned stature. Their early hits made them major pop stars in America and other countries, although their status as America's top pop group was challenged in 1964 by the emergence of The Beatles, who became The Beach Boys' major creative rival.
Like The Beatles, the Beach Boys showed very fast development during the mid-'60s, drawing upon the innovations of songwriters and producers such as Burt Bacharach and especially Phil Spector. They produced the enduring classic "California Girls" in 1965, a banner year for popular music which also saw similarly advanced singles by The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Byrds, and James Brown. But it was the Beach Boys' role to create a myth of American freedom and dreams of adolescence, and increasingly, to articulate a dread of what lay after adolescence.
Brian's innovations and personal difficulties
During 1964, Brian Wilson began to suffer from anxiety attacks, and withdrew from touring to concentrate on song writing and record production. Glen Campbell served as Wilson's replacement on tours, until his own career success required him to leave the group. Bruce Johnston was asked to locate a replacement for Campbell; having failed to find one, Johnston subsequently became a full-time member of the band, first replacing Wilson on the road, and then contributing his talents in the studio.
Wilson's growing mastery of the recording studio and his increasingly sophisticated songs and complex arrangements reached an early peak with the acclaimed LP Pet Sounds (1966). Classic singles from that album, "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and "God Only Knows" showed Wilson's growing skill as a composer, arranger and producer. "God Only Knows" is said to have been the first pop single ever released in the U.S. to have the word "God" in the title (because of which many radio stations in the U.S. refused to play it.) "Caroline, No" also taken from Pet Sounds, was issued as a Brian Wilson solo single, the only time Brian was credited as a solo artist during the early Capitol years.
The album's meticulously layered harmonies and inventive instrumentation (performed by the cream of Los Angeles session musicians known as The Wrecking Crew) set a new standard for popular music. It remains one of the more evocative releases of the decade, with a distinctive strain of melancholy and nostalgia for youth. The album is still widely regarded as a classic and Paul McCartney has named it one of his favorite albums of all time, (with "God Only Knows" as his favorite song) often saying that it was a major influence on The Beatles' album, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Despite the critical praise it received, the album was poorly promoted by Capitol Records and failed to become the major hit Brian had hoped it would be (only reaching #10). Its failure to gain wide recognition hurt him deeply.
Because of his withdrawal from touring, Wilson was able to complete almost all the backing for the album while the Beach Boys were on tour in Japan. They returned to find a substantially complete album, requiring only their vocals to finish it off. There was some resistance from within the band to this new direction. Lead singer Mike Love is reported to have been strongly opposed to it, partly because he feared the band would lose its audience if they changed their successful formula, and partly because he personally disliked the new material, which he famously criticized as "Brian's ego music." At Love's insistence, Brian changed the title of one song from "Hang on to Your Ego" to "I Know There's an Answer". Another likely factor in Love's antipathy to Pet Sounds was that Wilson worked extensively on it with outside lyricist Tony Asher rather than with Love, even though Love had co-written the lyrics for many of their earlier songs and was the lead vocalist on most of their early hits. It should also be stated that Love, as recently as February 2008 in a top British music magazine, denies emphatically that he was opposed to Brian's new directions. Quite the contrary, contributing the lyrics to the classic form of "Good Vibrations," which certainly seemed to usher in flower power. He really is tired of this view of him as being Brian's nemesis. He could see Brian was destroying himself and that was what he feared.
Seeking to expand on the advances made on Pet Sounds, Wilson began an even more ambitious project, originally dubbed Dumb Angel. Its first fruit was "Good Vibrations," which Brian described as "a pocket symphony". The song became the Beach Boys' biggest hit to date, and a US and UK # 1 single in 1966 — many critics consider it to be one of the best rock singles of all time. In 1997 it was named the "Greatest Single of All Time" by Mojo music magazine, in 2000, VH1 placed it at number 8 on their "100 Greatest Rock Songs" list, and in late 2004 Rolling Stone magazine placed it at number 6 on their "500 Best Songs of All Time" list. It was also one of the more complex pop productions ever undertaken, and was reputed to have been the most expensive American single ever recorded, costing a reported $16,000 -- more than most pop albums of that time -- with sessions stretching over several months in at least three major studios.
In contrast to his work on Pet Sounds, Wilson adopted a modular approach to "Good Vibrations" — he broke the song into sections and taped multiple versions of each at different studios to take advantage of the different sound of each facility. He then assembled his favorite sections into a master backing track and added vocals. The song's innovative instrumentation included drums, organ, piano, tack piano, two basses, guitars, electro-theremin, harmonica, and cello. The group members recall the "Good Vibrations" vocal sessions as among the most demanding of their career.
Even as his personal life deteriorated, Wilson's musical output remained remarkable. The exact nature of his problems was a topic of much speculation. He abused drugs heavily, gained an enormous amount of weight, suffered long bouts of depression, and became paranoid. Several biographies have suggested that his father may have had bipolar disorder, and after years of suffering, Wilson's own condition was eventually diagnosed as schizophrenia.
The story behind "Smile"
Shortly after completing "Good Vibrations," Wilson met session musician and songwriter Van Dyke Parks, and in late 1966 they began an intense collaboration that resulted in a suite of superb new songs for the Beach Boys' next album, which was originally going to be titled Dumb Angel but was renamed Smile. Using the same methods as on "Good Vibrations," recording began in late 1966 and carried on into early 1967. Although the structure of the album and the exact running order of the songs have been subjects of endless speculation, it is apparent that Wilson and Parks intended Smile to be a continuous suite of songs that were linked both thematically and musically, with the main songs being linked together by small vocal pieces and instrumental segments that elaborated the musical themes of the major songs.
But some of the other Beach Boys — especially Love — found the new music too difficult and too far removed from their established style; another serious concern was that the new music was simply not feasible for live performance by the current Beach Boys lineup. Love was bitterly opposed to Smile and was particularly critical of Parks' lyrics; he has also since stated that he was becoming deeply concerned about Wilson's escalating drug intake. The problems came to a head during the recording of "Cabinessence," when Love demanded that Parks explain the meaning of the closing refrain of the song, "Over and over the crow cries uncover the cornfield." After a heated argument, Parks walked out and his partnership with Wilson came to an abrupt end.
Many factors combined to focus intense pressure on Wilson as Smile neared completion, including mental instability, the pressure to perform against fierce opposition to his new music, the relatively poor response to Pet Sounds, Carl Wilson's draft resistance, and a major dispute with Capitol. Matters were complicated by his reliance on both prescription and illegal drugs, particularly marijuana and amphetamines, which only exacerbated his underlying mental health problems.
Just weeks before The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released, Smile was shelved. Over the next 30 years the legends surrounding Smile grew, until it became the most famous unreleased album in the history of popular music. Some of the tracks were salvaged and rerecorded at Brian's new home studio in drastically scaled-down versions. These were released, along with the completed versions of "Good Vibrations" and "Heroes and Villains", on the 1967 LP Smiley Smile, which would prove to be a critical and commercial disaster for the group.
Despite the cancellation of Smile, interest in the work remained high and versions of several major tracks — including "Our Prayer", "Cabinessence", "Cool, Cool Water", and "Surf's Up" — were assembled by Carl Wilson over the next few years and included on later albums. The band was expecting to complete and release Smile even until 1972, when it became clear that only Brian would ever be able to make sense out of the endless fragments that were recorded. A substantial number of original tracks and linking fragments were included on the group's 30th anniversary CD boxed set in 1993. Smile itself, in its original conception, did not surface until Wilson and Parks completed the writing and Brian rerecorded it as a solo project in 2004.
Mid-career brings changes
Following their peak popularity with the song "Good Vibrations" was a period of declining commercial success, with Smiley Smile and subsequent albums doing poorly on the US charts (although they fared better in the UK). Their image problems were not helped by the criticism that followed their withdrawal from the bill of the 1967 Monterey International Pop Festival as a result of Carl's draft problems, an event that would undoubtedly have been crucial in establishing their new sound had they been able to present their new material there.
The 1967 album Wild Honey, regarded by many critics as a classic, features exuberant upbeat songs written by Brian and Mike, including the hit "Darlin'", and a cover of Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made to Love Her". Friends (1968) is a quiet, tuneful, and largely acoustic album, influenced by the group's adoption of the practice of transcendental meditation. The title single, however, backed by Dennis' songwriting debut Little Bird, was their least successful since 1962. This was followed by the single "Do It Again", a return to their earlier "fun in the sun" style, which was moderately successful in the US, but went to #1 in the UK.
As Brian's health deteriorated in the late 1960s and early 1970s, his song output diminished and he became increasingly withdrawn from the group. To fill the void, the other members of the group began writing songs, and Carl gradually took over leadership of the band, developing into an accomplished producer. To complete their contract with Capitol Records before signing with Reprise, they produced one more album, 20/20 (1969), primarily a collection of leftovers (including some from Smile), cover songs, and several new songs by Dennis. One of Denny's songs, "Never Learn Not To Love", featured lyrics by Charles Manson originally titled "Cease to Exist". Besides "Do It Again", the album included their cover of The Ronettes' "I Can Hear Music", their last top 40 hit for seven years.
Their first two Reprise LPs were Sunflower (1970) and 1971's Surf's Up, featuring new songs by Brian and all the group members, plus selections from the aborted Smile project. According to the liner notes for the 2004 version of Smile, Reprise expected the legendary album to be completed and released as part of the new contract, but this was never to be; however, these albums included some of their most evolved and complex music since the Smile period.
The addition of Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin in 1972 led to a dramatic departure in sound for the band. Carl and The Passions - So Tough was an uncharacteristic mix including several songs unrecognizable as the Beach Boys. Although it includes the classic "Marcella", many consider the album among their poorest efforts. Continuing with Fataar and Chaplin, Holland (1973) was more successful. The album's lead single "Sail on Sailor," a brief return to the collaboration between Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, was one of the more emblematic of Beach Boys songs. Although it did not produce any top-40 hits, Holland was popular on free-form FM-radio, and includes several classics including Al Jardine's "California Saga/California".
In the summer of 1974 Capitol, in consultation with Love, released a double album compilation of the Beach Boys' pre-Pet Sounds hits, entitled Endless Summer. Helped by a sunny, colorful graphic cover, it caught the mood of the country and surged to #1 on the Billboard album chart, becoming their first gold record since "Good Vibrations", and stayed on the album chart for three years. The following year another compilation, Spirit of America, also did well. These sales performances demonstrated that the classic Beach Boys sound was back in fashion.
In 1975, the Beach Boys staged a highly successful joint concert tour with Chicago, with each group performing some of the other's songs, including their previous year's collaboration on Chicago's hit "Wishing You Were Here". Beach Boy voices were also heard on Elton John's 1974 hit "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me", but following Holland, the group produced no new music until 1976.
15 Big Ones marked the return of Brian Wilson as a major force in the group. This album includes several new songs composed by Brian, and several of his arrangements of favorite old songs by other artists, including "Rock and Roll Music" (which made #5), "Blueberry Hill", and "In The Still of The Night". Brian and Mike's "It's OK" was a return to their earlier "fun-in-the-sun" style, and was a moderate hit.
In 1977 the Beach Boys released the LP Love You, a collection of 14 songs mostly written by Brian alone, including more "fun" songs ("Honkin' Down The Highway"), a mature love song ("Let's Put Our Hearts Together") - a quirky mix ranging from infectious to touching to downright silly. Although not a commercial success, the album has since gained the status of a classic within the Beach Boys' oeuvre.
Brian's contributions diminished over the next several albums until he again virtually withdrew from the group. Although he appeared sporadically with them in concert, he contributed little to their performances or recordings. Despite a much-publicised "Brian's Back" campaign in the late '70s, most critics believed the group was past their prime. Many expected that Brian would one day become the latest in a long line of celebrity drug casualties.
Deaths of Dennis and Carl Wilson
In the late 70s Dennis Wilson also began to suffer increasingly from drug and alcohol abuse, and some of the group's concert appearances were marred when he and other band members showed up onstage drunk or drugged. The band was forced to publicly apologize after a shambolic performance in Sydney in 1979 during which several members of the group appeared to be drunk. In spite of his own frequent drinking, Dennis Wilson managed to release his first solo work, Pacific Ocean Blue, and to launch the now famed work-in-progress Bambu, with friend and musician Carli Muñoz.
In 1980, the Beach Boys played a Fourth of July concert on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. before a vast crowd. This tradition continued for the next two years, but in 1983 Secretary of the Interior James Watt banned the group from playing on the Mall, saying that rock concerts drew "an undesirable element". This drew howls of outrage from the many of the Beach Boys' American fans, who stated that the Beach Boys sound was a very desirable part of the American cultural fabric. First Lady Nancy Reagan apologized, and in 1985 the group appeared on the Mall again. The group most recently appeared on the Mall in 2005 for the Fourth of July concert.
Dennis Wilson's problems had escalated in the early 1980s, and he accidentally drowned in late 1983 while diving from his boat as he drunkenly tried to recover items he had previously thrown overboard. Despite Dennis's death, The Beach Boys soldiered on, and they enjoyed a resurgence of interest later in the 1980s, assisted by tributes such as the David Lee Roth version of "California Girls". In 1987, they played with the rap group The Fat Boys, covering the song "Wipe Out" and filming a video for it. They scored their first #1 in 22 years with the 1988 song "Kokomo," which was featured on the soundtrack of the hit Tom Cruise movie Cocktail and which became their biggest-selling hit ever. In 1996 they guested with Status Quo on a re-recording of Fun, Fun, Fun, which was a British Top 30 hit.
Members of the band appeared on sitcoms such as Full House (starring sometimes drummer John Stamos) and Home Improvement in the 1990s, as well as touring occasionally, but their declining career contrasted dramatically with the massive public interest and rabid critical praise that followed Brian's gradual return to touring in the 1990s. The critically acclaimed documentary I Just Wasn't Made For These Times, important in restoring Wilson's reputation, saw him performing for the first time with his now adult daughters, Wendy and Carnie, and included glowing tributes to his talents from a host of major music stars of the '60s, '70s, and '80s.
Tragedy struck the Wilson family again in 1998 when Carl Wilson died of lung cancer. In 1997, while Carl was in the hospital fighting his cancer, David Marks rejoined the group, subbing for Carl. After Carl's death, Al Jardine was forced out of the group due to a conflict with Love. Brian Wilson was pursuing a solo career at the time, and had no desire to work with the Beach Boys. Permission was given to Mike Love to tour under the Beach Boys' name, and from 1998 to 2011, "The Beach Boys" consisted of Mike Love and Bruce Johnston. Marks toured with them from Carl's death until the summer of 1999, when he left the group due to health reasons. Their tours remained popular, even as they came to be viewed primarily as a nostalgia act. Meanwhile, Brian Wilson and Al Jardine each separately pursued solo careers with their new bands.
Personnel changes through the years
From the start, The Beach Boys have undergone many variations in composition, being represented by fill-ins as often as not. Wilson neighbor David Marks appeared on their first four albums and was a member from 1962 to 1963 as a temporary replacement for Jardine, who had left the group to pursue a career in dentistry. Marks rejoined the band in 1997, during Carl Wilson's last illness, and remained with them for two years.
Glen Campbell toured for several months with the group in 1965, as a touring replacement for Brian, who had played bass in concert. Campbell was subsequently replaced by Bruce Johnston, who later became a permanent member. During the mid-1970s drummer Ricky Fataar and guitarist Blondie Chaplin joined the band.
Though not official members, The Beach Boys' supporting band has featured many notable musicians over the years. Keyboard player Daryl Dragon, later famous as half of the pop duo Captain & Tennille, toured with the band, along with his future wife Toni Tennille. Carli Muñoz, who had been playing percussion with the band since 1970, in 1971 replaced Daryl Dragon as keyboard player until 1981. Jeff Foskett joined the touring band in 1981 as a guitarist and vocalist and remained with the group until 1990, Foskett is currently a member of Brian Wilson's group. Billy Hinsche, of Dino, Desi, & Billy fame, was also a longtime member of the supporting band throughout the '70s, '80s, and '90s. Daryl Dragon's brother Dennis Dragon was a percussionist for the group in the early '70s. Bobby Figueroa was a drummer and percussionist for the Beach Boys in the 1970s and 80s. Mike Meros was a longtime keyboard player for the group, leaving in 2001 to join Alan Jardine's Endless Summer Band (Meros passed away in late 2007). Mike Kowalski was a longtime drummer for the band, starting his Beach Boys tenure in 1969, and continuing with the group throughout the '70s, '80s,' 90s, and '00s, only to leave in 2007. Ed Carter played guitar and bass for the group from 1969 through the late 1990s. Carter joined Al Jardine's Beach Boys Friends and Family in 1999.
Some of the changes in The Beach Boys' organization were less formal. They enjoyed a casual collaboration with fellow Southern Californians Jan and Dean. Much to the consternation of other band members, Wilson composed "Surf City" and gave the song, without compensation, to Dean Torrence. Jan and Dean, at the time not nearly as popular as The Beach Boys, recorded the song and scored their first number one single, long before the Beach Boys reached the same milestone. Years later, Torrence happened upon the studio where the Beach Boys were recording their "Beach Boys' Party!" album. He joined in the singing, and can be heard singing harmony in the "Barbara Ann" cut from that album.
After the death of Carl Wilson, Mike Love received permission from Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, and the estate of Carl Wilson to tour under the Beach Boys name. In 1998 and 1999, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston, and David Marks toured under this incarnation of the Beach Boys. In 1999, David Marks left so he could focus on fighting his Hepatitis C (He was fully cured in 2004.). From 1999 to 2011, Mike Love and Bruce Johnston have played up to 100 shows a year, sometimes more, under the Beach Boys banner.
Jardine toured for a while with the Beach Boys Family & Friends (which for legal reasons quickly became Alan Jardine Family & Friends Beach Band), featuring his sons Matt and Adam, Wilson's daughters Carnie and Wendy, former Beach Boys sidemen Ed Carter , Bobby Figueroa, and Carl's brother-in-law Billy Hinsche, among others. Jardine now tours as the Endless Summer Band which includes his two sons, Hinsche, and several other performers including members of the pop/rock band Tripsitter.
In December 2011, surviving members Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, David Marks, and Bruce Johnston reunited for a new studio album and an extensive 70-plus date "50th Anniversary Celebration" world tour. They used musicians from both Brian Wilson's solo band and Mike Love's touring "Beach Boys" as sidemen. The reunited Beach Boys played to enthusiastic crowds all over the world.
In 2012 Mike Love announced that he and Bruce Johnston had booked shows for their scaled down version of the Beach Boys. Wilson, Jardine, and Marks wanted to continue with the reunited line up, but for various reasons, Love did not.
In 2013, Mike Love and Bruce Johnston are continuing to tour under the Beach Boys name. Brian Wilson has been in the studio, it is not known whether the sessions are for the Beach Boys, or for Brian solo material. Brian Wilson also plans to play two shows with Al Jardine and David Marks, one show in Ohio, and the other at the Greek Theater in Los Angeles. A live album and/or DVD, and a career-spanning box set entitled "Made In California" was released in 2013.
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