The Beach Boys are a rock and roll band from Hawthorne, California. A family band, the Beach Boys evolved from the children of Murry and Audrey Wilson. Murry Wilson (1917-1973), a machinist by trade, was also a pianist and songwriter who achieved minor success with “Two-Step, Side-Step” in 1952. Brian Wilson, the eldest son, took a keen interest in his father’s pastime, and taught his younger brothers Carl and Dennis to sing harmonies in the bedroom they shared. Brian recruited other singers aa well, a quest to intepret the rich vocal harmonies of the barbershop tradition, exemplified by groups like the Four Freshmen. As a result, cousin Mike Love and high school friend Al Jardine were added to round out the original quintet. Love played a key role in the band’s early development, singing lead on many of the band’s first hits while encouraging Brian Wilson to write his own songs. On the strength of their first regional hit, 1961’s “Surfin'”, the band earned a contract with Capitol Records and quickly achieved lifelong popularity with their brilliant harmonies and songs about the pleasures of southern California life.
Recognized hitmakers at a tender age, the band faced enormous pressure to produce, especially the group’s primary songwriter. The ambitions of managers and record companies conflicted with an artist compelled to explore a broader musical pallette. By 1965, Brian Wilson dropped out of the band’s hectic touring schedule, and then stepped away altogether as he faced headwinds against his evolving musical vision. Similar to most of the sixties California bands, the Beach Boys story is complex, filled with triumph, jealousy and tragedy. A fractured unit for the last thirty years, the band still has a chance at redemption and resolution, currently making a rare world tour as a cohesive unit.
The Original Beach Boys:
Brian Wilson (b. 1942), bass, piano, vocals, primary songwriter
Dennis Wilson (1944-1983), drums, vocals
Carl Wilson (1946-1998), lead guitar, vocals
Mike Love (b. 1941), vocals
Al Jardine (b. 1942), rhythm guitar, vocals
Other Important Contributors:
Bruce Johnston (b. 1942), guitars, vocals
David Marks (b. 1948), guitar, vocals
Los Angeles studio musicians known as “The Wrecking Crew”
These instrument and songwriting credits simplify the band member roles. In particular, Carl Wilson and Mike Love, plus lyricist Van Dyke Parks, contributed to the songwriting. For a short time, country musician Glen Campbell toured as a guitarist with the band.
Don’t Worry Baby
In his fine book about the greatest 1001 singles ever made, Dave Marsh ranks “Don’t Worry Baby” (#75 in his book, though only reaching #24 on the hit charts) as the band’s greatest triumph. He writes:
“Brian Wilson is most often celebrated for making a bunch of late sixties music nobody heard for twenty years and most weren’t all that bowled over by when they did, while his best records, the Beach Boys hits of the early sixties receive only generic critical comment — they’re songs about cars, surfing and girls, that’s all. Yet Wilson was a kind of rock and roll genius not because he became a whiz at recording studio technique but because he managed to make songs about cars, surfing, girls, and the pursuit of the elusive abstraction called “fun” both personal and transcendent.
The Beach Boys early singles caught the spirit of middle-class America in the pivotal stages of post-World War II affluence. Derived in equal measure from the romantic teen fantasies of Phil Spector, from the more mocking scenarios of Chuck Berry, and from harmony groups ranging from the straight pop of The Four Freshmen to the pure R&B of Frankie Lymon & the Teenagers, those were not only filled with telling details — Wilson, a recluse himself, worked with lyricists who knew their stuff — but never ignored the downside of the dream. Songs like “Don’t Worry Baby” set the stage for the eschatological ruminations of California singer/songwriters like Jackson Browne and even Randy Newman.”
“If those are “Don’t Worry Baby” ‘s roots, its lineage extends just as deeply into the future. Give it a country accent and you have an apotheosis of the seventies California rock epitomized by the Eagles. Similarly, Mike Love’s doo-wop bass balanced by a choral backdrop drawn straight out of the Four Freshmen handbook of harmonic corn sets the stage for Lindsey Buckingham’s seventies arrangements for Fleetwood Mac.
With “Don’t Worry Baby”, Wilson casually overturns every convention of a genre he all but invented, turning melodramatic car crash numbers like “Dead Man’s Curve” and “Tell Laura I Love Her” inside out. Rather than face death in order to prove his devotion or his cool, the singer is troubled because he’s “shot (his) mouth off” about his car and now fears he’s going to be defeated in a drag race (and lose the car, not his life or his love). Rather than toughing it out, he confesses that he feels this foreboding all the time. It’s a moment of male vulnerability that was probably unprecedented in rock and roll at that time, and one that laid the groundwork for every singer/songwriter confessional of the seventies. What rescues him from his own dread is his girl’s reassurance, which she repeats to him in the title phrase. That’s corny, too, but it’s also extremely effective. Not to mention useful, and maybe even emotionally truthful.”
— Dave Marsh, “The Heart of Rock and Soul”
In My Room
One of my first and favorite reference guides, The Heart of Rock and Soul profiles six Beach Boys songs in five short essays. I am surprised he did not include “In My Room”, my favorite Beach Boys song and one of my dozen or so all-time favorite songs. It also has the appealing characteristic of being a B-side to the projected hit song, “Be True To Your School”. Like “Don’t Worry Baby”, “In My Room” expresses fear and vulnerability, but also the safe security of home, a favorite subject. But I’m over-analyzing things in an effort to explain. Let me simplify. It’s the most beautiful thing. I’ve felt that way for a long time.
“In My Room” is played in the key of B. In my limited experience of studying pop songs, this is unusual. No guitar standards use the key of B, which suggests Brian Wilson uses the piano to compose.
Not A Part Of My Childhood
The Beach Boys were not in my family’s home music repertoire, though we lived in relative proximity. Mom and I latched onto The Beatles early, and she was interested in the growing northern California music scene. The Beach Boys were a ubiquitous presence on AM radio, and I knew many of the songs, but there were no 45 singles or record albums in my family’s collection. and I never purchased any of their records until I was out of college, at least.
I remember a conversation at the first health club I belonged to, way back in 1982. I was discussing pop music with someone who thought the Beach Boys were the greatest band of all time, which I found strange but compelling. In particular, he was fond of the more experimental albums Pet Sounds and Smiley Smile, which are musically and lyrically more complex than the early surf and car songs.
Still, it took years to acquire interest beyond “In My Room” and a few of their hits. Getting an iPod in late 2004 compelled me to select a set of songs, using the Endless Summer compilation, plus the beautiful, unauthorized Lei’d In Hawaii studio sessions someone had given me many years ago.
My appreciation for the Beach Boys continues to grow, well beyond my expectations. As part of this exercise, the required study of record guides enabled me to find new songs from their early career. I’m fond of their early work, when the band played most of their instruments, before the use of studio musicians and Wall Of Sound production techniques. Examples of early songs that I enjoy are “Little Honda”, “Wendy”, and “Lonely Sea”.
Their old songs are filled with cliches and cool California jargon. I like this one from “Fun, Fun, Fun”:
“Well the girls can’t stand her,
‘Cause she walks, looks and drives like an ace now.
[you walk like an ace now you walk like an ace]
She makes the Indy 500 look like a Roman chariot race now,
[you look like an ace now you look like an ace]
A lotta guys try to catch her,
But she leads them on a wild goose chase now,
[you drive like an ace now you drive like an ace]
And she’ll have fun fun fun,
‘Til her Daddy takes the T-Bird away.
— Brian Wilson, Mike Love
My wife is from Hawthorne, California. She entered Hawthorne High School the year after Carl Wilson graduated. She’s the only daughter of a Wally and Beaver family from a conservative, working class town. She’s a tall and tanned beach girl in her youth, just a five minute drive away from Manhattan Beach. Never a surfer girl, she’s a beach bunny and she’s a Disney girl too; weekend trips to Anaheim were common. That square girl and this parallelogram boy see eye to eye.
Imagine how it would be to have the Beach Boys come from your high school. What motivation to be true to your school and be vigilant. Perhaps she was too vigilant, as she graduated a year early, a decision which changed her life’s direction, not to mention missing the chance to have the Beach Boys play her senior prom the following year.
“Little surfer, little one,
Made my heart come all undone,
Do you love me, do you surfer girl?
[Surfer girl, my little surfer girl]
I have watched you on the shore,
Standing by the oceans roar,
Do you love me, do you surfer girl?
[Surfer girl, surfer girl, surfer girl…]
We could ride the surf together,
While our love would grow,
In my woody I would take you, everywhere I go.
So I say from me to you,
I will make your dreams come true,
Do you love me, do you surfer…
Girl surfer girl, my little surfer girl
Girl surfer girl, my little surfer girl
Girl surfer girl, my little surfer girl
— Brian Wilson
I have been reluctant to move forward to the next band. Maybe because it’s summertime, or that I am carefully exploring the Beach Boys for the first time. The musicianship is solid but unspectacular. There are no great guitar solos here. The songs are simple and the voices are angelic. They make a nice, sentimental soundtrack for life, and I’m not ready to let go and move on.
Perhaps it’s the rivalry between southern and northern California that prevented the family from embracing the Beach Boys. I remember comparisons to the Beatles from elementary school days, but I’m afraid the Beach Boys were dismissed as too simple and square, when compared to the relative worldliness of the British bands. As it turns out, the simple songs about cars and girls and surfing are forever relevant, and cars and girls remain the two main things that make life fun. Life in northern California wasn’t that different than Tinseltown, and I am filled with nostalgia and a longing for younger days.
Meeting Brian Wilson
Last April, while on vacation in the Coachella Valley, we stopped for dinner at my favorite Mexican restaurant, a common occurrence while visiting the desert. El Gallito (“The Litte Rooster”) in Cathedral City has seating for forty people, cash only, no checks or credit cards, and there’s always a waiting list at dinnertime. The owners know me there, and treat me like an extended member of their family. One day we arrived at Gallito around six o’clock. As I walked to the front counter, I thought I recognized the tall gentleman who walked by to take his seat in the waiting area. I may have even tilted my head like a curious dog as he walked by. In announcing my desire for a table, I glanced at the wait list to see “Wilson – 3”. At times like this, I am careful to treat famous people as ordinary folks, and I did my best, while making a mild intrusion.
The waiting area is very small, a hallway where eight to ten people often wait, sitting face to face close enough so patrons have to squeeze by. That evening, me and my wife sat across from Brian Wilson and his two similarly aged female companions, waiting for the greatest Mexican food ever created.
“Pardon me sir, is your name Brian?”
“Hi. My name is John, and I wouldn’t normally bother you, but I wanted a chance to introduce my wife. You both went to the same high school.”
A short, slightly awkward conversation ensued, where wife and Hawthorne’s most famous son exchanged pleasantries about how much things had changed in their hometown, plus a short discussion of the great food. I resisted urges to jump up and down, while yelling “I can’t believe you wrote In My Room!”, or even a humble thanks for all his hard work. We just let them eat their dinner in anonymity and peace.
Post-Script, June, 2015: We saw the movie “Love And Mercy”, which details Mr. Wilson’s break from psychologist Dr. Eugene Landy, and coincidental romance with his wife Melissa Ledbetter. It’s now clear that we met his wife Melissa and their good friend Gloria, which made the fine movie even more rewarding.
Beach Boys Song Notes:
1. Lei’d In Hawaii, an unauthorized collection of recordings, provides the following five songs from the September 11th, 1967 sessions at the Wally Heider Studios in San Francisco, California:
God Only Knows (Live)
California Girls (Live)
Surfer Girl (Live)
Help Me Rhonda (Live)
We’re Together Again (Live)
2. The superior alternate version of “Fun, Fun, Fun” (Alt) and “In My Room (German)” can be found on the remastered Surfer Girl/Shut Down Vol. 2 collection.
3. The good iTunes version of “Surfin'” is found on the remastered Surfin’ Safari/Surfin’ U.S.A. collection.
4. The Beach Boys owe a debt to Chuck Berry. “Surfin’ U.S.A.” is structurally the same as Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen”. The introduction to “Fun, Fun, Fun (Alt)” is the same as the introduction to “Johnny B. Goode”.
5. “Little Deuce Coupe (Live)” and “Don’t Worry Baby (Live)” are found on The Beach Boys Concert/Live In London.
6. Mike Love’s younger brother Stan Love played basketball professionally in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Stan’s son Kevin Love is currently a star NBA player.
7. “Heroes And Villains (Alt)” can be found on The SMILE Sessions.
Beach Boys Songs:
In My Room, The Beach Boys ★★★★★
Surfer Girl, The Beach Boys ★★★★★
Don’t Worry Baby, The Beach Boys ★★★★
God Only Knows, The Beach Boys ★★★★
God Only Knows (Live), The Beach Boys ★★★
Surfer Girl (Live), The Beach Boys ★★★
California Girls, The Beach Boys ★★★
Good Vibrations, The Beach Boys ★★★
The Warmth Of The Sun, The Beach Boys ★★★
Surfin’ U.S.A., The Beach Boys ★★★
Wouldn’t It Be Nice, The Beach Boys ★★★
Lonely Sea, The Beach Boys ★★★
Help Me Rhonda (Live), The Beach Boys ★★
We’re Together Again (Live), The Beach Boys ★★
Wendy, The Beach Boys ★★
Caroline No, The Beach Boys ★★
I Can Hear Music, The Beach Boys ★★
Catch A Wave, The Beach Boys ★★
Little Deuce Coupe, The Beach Boys ★★
Little Deuce Coupe (Live), The Beach Boys ★★
When I Grow Up (To Be A Man), The Beach Boys ★★
Graduation Day, The Beach Boys ★★
Don’t Worry Baby (Live), The Beach Boys ★★
Little Honda, The Beach Boys ★★
Help Me, Rhonda, The Beach Boys ★★
Sloop John B, The Beach Boys ★★
Sail On, Sailor, The Beach Boys ★
Surfin’, The Beach Boys ★
Surf’s Up, The Beach Boys ★
California Girls (Live), The Beach Boys ★
I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, The Beach Boys ★
Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder), The Beach Boys ★
I Get Around, The Beach Boys ★
Surfin’ Safari, The Beach Boys ★
Shut Down, The Beach Boys ★
Fun, Fun, Fun (Alt), The Beach Boys ★
In My Room (German), The Beach Boys ★
Farmer’s Daughter, The Beach Boys ★
Miserlou, The Beach Boys ★
Noble Surfer, The Beach Boys ★
Girl Don’t Tell Me, The Beach Boys ★
Heroes And Villains (Alt), The Beach Boys ★
Graduation Day, The Four Freshmen ★
Miserlou, Dick Dale & The Del-Tones ★★
Miserlou (Live), Bobby Fuller Four ✭
Johnny B. Goode, Chuck Berry ★★★★
Sweet Little Sixteen, Chuck Berry ★★★★