Primer #8 - The Beach Boys

The Primer is our column wherein contributors compile a 60 minute playlist of a band near and dear to their heart. Using personal listening anecdotes, notes about specific tracks and a brief overview of each artist, The Primer is both a way for our contributors to trace their musical genealogy and for our readers to gain a new perspective on an artist they may have missed or dismissed.

Installment eight of the Primer series showcases the love that Tommy Plural has always held dear for The Beach Boys.

The Beach Boys were established 1961 in Hawthorne, CA by brothers Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, cousin Mike Love, schoolfriend Al Jardine, and neighbor David Marks. All of the members were multi-instrumentalists and songwriters but they were and are mostly known for their singing, with Brian's work as a songwriter and producer overshadowing the band itself as times. One of the most successful bands of all time, and somewhere very near the top in my mind.

Approaching this mix required me to basically set some ground rules. The Beach Boys are obviously one of the most famous bands of all time and their most well-known songs are woven into the background of supermarkets and incidental music across the western hemisphere and beyond. In order to truly give a primer within the constraints of 60-odd minutes allotted, I ended up treating the "hits" as benchmarks along the way. Much like The Beatles, I feel that their early "fun" songs are just as essential as the later "deep" or "experimental" material. That said, unlike the famed Liverpudlians that our California boys were destined to be "Bea-" neighbors on the record racks with for all eternity, the Beach Boys recording career stretches from 1961-2012. The possibility lurks that more new music may come. Brian Wilson also continues to make quality music often in collaboration with fellow Beach Boy Al Jardine, so this is not a bad thing. So to give the fuller picture, we have a lot of material to cover.

The omission of "Surfin USA" and "California Girls" and "Surfer Girl" and "Darlin" and many dozens more in no way dismisses those songs as being lesser quality than the ones that made it here, rather I'm just doing my best to tell the complete story and not everything could make the cut. The most offensive editorial decision is the presence of only a single Al Jardine vocal - out of the 9 official Beach Boys members, 8 of them would have been peerless lead vocalists in their own bands (no offense Dave, you're still a fine singer), so the fact that this mix is heavy on Brian, Carl, and Dennis Wilson lead vocals is not a knock on any of the others. Al's voice has never weakened - in 2017 he's the only of the surviving Beach Boys to still have the golden voice, and in the late 70s and early 80s he was pretty much the only one that could produce and sing hits for the band, so kudos to Al. 

As a kid I mostly listened to oldies radio, with some of my favorite songs including "Don't Worry Baby," "Sloop John B," "All Summer Long," "God Only Knows," and "Good Vibrations," and I remember being excited to catch a glimpse of the Beach Boys singing "Surfin USA" while they performed at the Ionia Free Fair as I was at the top of the ferris wheel. They were indeed ubiquitous, even if I never necessarily drew the connection between all of these songs. In 2001, I saw Brian Wilson, whom I vaguely knew to be the "crazy leader of the Beach Boys" performing an exciting and baffling rendition of "Heroes and Villains" on Late Night With Conan O'Brien and this planted the seeds for what became a teenage and, as it's looking to be, lifelong obsession.

My first Beach Boys product that I owned was the 2003 compilation "Sounds of Summer" which aimed to collect all of their Top 40 hits (though it doesn't include "The Little Girl I Once Knew," "Caroline No," and "It's OK" for whatever reason). I still feel this comp is a solid introduction to their catalog, and as far as "hits" it's pretty unbeatable - it would serve as a nice companion to my playlist as I only include 6 songs that are on that disc. Over the summer of 2003 - the first summer I had a driver's license, to make this meander even more in wholesome Americana - I borrowed Beach Boys CDs from the library with "Pet Sounds" and the 2-fer "Sunflower/ Surf's Up" being the discs that cemented my feeling that this was one of the great catalogs of music.

My starting combo of "I Get Around" and "Don't Worry Baby" stands as one of the greatest A side/ B side combinations of songs in history, and they showcase what makes the early music of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys so unique and timeless. Lyrically they're stuck in a world of early 1960s drag racing fantasy, but the arrangement and vocal performance completely transcends any shortcomings of the words - the sound of Brian Wilson singing about his regret for bragging about his car turns the lyrics into a fragile gospel, and Mike Love's aggressive and restless approach to singing about driving around town sells the fickle importance of those lyrics as well. This was their first number 1 single (at the height of Beatlemania) and it sounds like being young and alive, wrapped up in energetic guitar rock (performed by the band members with only horns and additional percussion performed by session musicians - these guys were a hell of a self-contained band) and jazz influenced vocal harmony, with a dreamy atmosphere that's hard to explain in the thick of it all. If this was all they ever released they would still be one of the great bands. 

Brian's arrangement of "Do You Wanna Dance" is one of their most dynamic recorded productions, with the swirling backing vocals behind Dennis' husky lead vocal adding a breathless excitement to the track. While "Help Me Rhonda" and "Fun Fun Fun" may have been bigger hits, I chose this track to represent the infectious hit machine that was the Beach Boys in the early and mid 60s. Plus it's the lead track to their flawless 1965 album Today!, which features some of their best ballads as well - "Kiss Me Baby" is here to represent that aspect. Like the hit that precedes this, "Kiss Me Baby" is a very dynamic production with cascading vocals, though this track oozes loneliness and regret, with Brian and Mike each delivering some of their best vocal performances.

This playlist could easily just include all of Pet Sounds, but for the sake of acknowledging the 45 years of recording that came after this, I've only put on the song that screams most-essential, "God Only Knows." Fine lyrics (from Brian's then-collaborator Tony Asher), an incredible arrangement, and one of the great vocals of all time by the then-19 year old Carl Wilson. And, as Brian himself is always happy to point out, Paul McCartney once said this was his favorite song.

The moment I first put the ‘Sunflower’ CD into my car stereo outside of the Hall-Fowler Library in Ionia, Michigan in July 2003 is still vivid in my mind.

The saga of the Beach Boys must acknowledge the 1966/67 "lost" album Smile. Largely a collaboration by Brian Wilson and the marvelous Van Dyke Parks, "Smile" was an obsessively recorded musical experiment with impressionistic lyrics that for a host of reasons Brian failed to complete, beginning the Beach Boys' commercial decline. Brian finished his own version in 2004 and the original sessions were given a proper release in 2011, but I feel fortunate that I became a fan just prior to all of this and was able to just barely experience the mystery of this album - most of the key songs were released in various forms on the Beach Boys albums from 1967-1971, offering a glimpse into what surely would have been one of the classic albums had it arrived at its first scheduled release of December 1966. I have included the 1967 version of "Heroes and Villains" and the original "outtake" version of "Wonderful" to represent the bizarre beauty of the Wilson/ Parks songwriting team. There's more Smile later in this playlist, much like how it originally was presented to the world.

The late 60s/early 70s (from the albums Wild Honey through Holland) are probably my favorite era of the Beach Boys for many reasons. Brian's music and lyrics flourished in a completely not-self-conscious manner, Dennis blossomed as a songwriter, Carl developed as a producer, and all of the guys were at the top of their vocal game. Stone cold classics from this era include "Wild Honey," "Darlin," "Here Comes the Night," "Aren't You Glad," "Time to Get Alone, "Be Here In the Morning," and more that I feel wrong not having on this playlist, but Brian's slice-of-life earworm "Busy Doin' Nothin" and Dennis' hymn-like and brief "Be Still" are here to represent the self-produced and artistically relaxed late 60s era of the band.

1970's Sunflower is, in my mind, the most essential Beach Boys album next to Pet Sounds and Today!. The moment I first put this CD into my car stereo outside of the Hall-Fowler Library in Ionia, Michigan in July 2003 is still vivid in my mind. All of the guys from the classic Brian-Mike-Carl-Al-Dennis-Bruce lineup contribute as songwriters and everyone delivers the goods. Brian's "This Whole World" is exuberant, hypnotic and extremely complicated musically while still being one of the great less-than-2-minute pop songs. Mike"s "All I Wanna Do" sounds like it could be a college radio hit in the present day, and Dennis' "Forever" is simply one of the finest love songs and deservedly the song he is most remembered for.

The early 1970s saw the Beach Boys mount a comeback as a great live band (as heard on their 1973 In Concert live album) and stars of underground FM radio. If they would have continued on this trajectory they would likely be remembered as a more-popular Byrds or even an American Rolling Stones, but aggressive nostalgia in the mid-70s and band in-fighting led them to become an oldies jukebox revue and artistically irrelevant by the early 80s. In 1971, however, they were releasing music like Carl's "Feel Flows" and Brian's "Til I Die," showcasing the sound of their majestic vocals in more esoteric and introspective settings. A nearly two minute flute solo? The 70s man, you shoulda been there.

1973's "Sail On Sailor" was the closest thing to a proper mainstream hit the boys had in these so-called "wilderness years," with the lead vocal sung by Blondie Chaplin, who, along with fellow South African musician Ricky Fataar, joined the Beach Boys for a few years in the early 70s, coinciding with Bruce's exit and Carl firmly assuming studio and live leadership of the band. I don't tend to gravitate towards much of this sort of bluesy "boogie rock" that was so in vogue at the time, but when the Beach Boys do it (as the result of another Brian Wilson/Van Dyke Parks collaboration) I'm on board. Why this isn't part of the 30 song playlist every classic rock station has to stick to and "Black Water" and "Let It Ride" are is one of the great mysteries of commercial success. Balancing out this era is "Only With You," a dreamy, relaxed love song written by Dennis and Mike and sung by a peak-of-his-powers Carl.

After spending most of the previous two albums in the background, Brian returned to the forefront for a pair of mid-70s albums, showcasing a gruff baritone singing voice and an obsession with synthesizers. This was the time when Brian's struggles with mental illness started becoming well known to the public, and in many ways it was unethical for the band to push him into the spotlight to capitalize on the renewed interest in their 60s catalog happening at the time. While songs like "It's OK" and "Had To Phone Ya" show a penchant for the sunny hits of previous years, for the most part their try-hard comeback album attempt "15 Big Ones" is a mess and is the beginning of their legacy unraveling. Closing track "Just Once In My Life" is one of the rare moments of brilliance, with Brian's desperate choruses complimenting Carl's confident verses over a successful arrangement of Brian marrying thick analog synths to the wall of sound. The 1977 album Love You is a polarizing work, with some fans feeling it's a borderline violation of Brian's mental state and others feeling it's a final strike of inspiration with Brian completely disregarding commercial expectations to produce music that made him happy. I fall more toward the latter - it's a hell of a listen and for the most part the tracks crackle with energy. It's impossible to ignore that Brian's voice is shredded at this point, with Dennis not too far behind, and the songs for the most part are rather bizarre, but I don't think anyone can argue that this album is not pure in its artistry. "The Night Was So Young" is one of the more palatable songs to the uninitiated, so if this song strikes a chord I recommend the rest of the album.

Brian didn't feature prominently in the creation of a Beach Boys album again until 2012, though the band continued to release albums with or without his involvement from 1978 to 1992. For the most part this music is for completists only, though 1979's Light Album is an overlooked swan song for the band as an artistic entity. The disco remake of "Here Comes The Night" is a giant blemish on this album, though as an exercise in the genre it is well done, and Brian and Carl's "Good Timin" was a deserved minor hit for the band even if it was an outtake from 1974. Carl and Dennis are the true stars of this album, and I've picked their collaboration "Baby Blue" to represent this flickering out era. It's also the last lead vocal of Dennis' released before he drowned in 1983 which makes the track even more haunting. 

There's a few gems from the 80s ("Goin On," "Getcha Back," "Where I Belong," and "Somewhere Near Japan" being the closest to essential) but for the most part the 80s are more notable for marking the beginning of Brian Wilson as a solo artist. In the mid-90s Brian, in collaboration with songwriting partner Andy Paley and producer Don Was, attempted to rejoin the band to make an album but the sessions fell apart after only a few songs were completed. Unreleased until 2013, 1995's "You're Still A Mystery" demonstrates that the architect of "Pet Sounds" was still able to drive the band toward a satisfying album, but as with so many things with this band it wasn't meant to be. Carl Wilson passed away from cancer in 1998 and the band truly splintered at this time, with Mike Love licensing the name "The Beach Boys" to tour with Bruce Johnston and a cast of sidemen while Brian Wilson and Al Jardine recorded and performed as solo artists. Original guitarist David Marks re-emerged at this time and has bounced between collaborating with the other surviving members as well as his own solo work. Early 70s members Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar are well respected sidemen with long and impressive resumes of their own.

In 2012 Brian wrote and produced the bulk of a new album called That's Why God Made The Radio to commemorate 50 years of the Beach Boys and came together with Mike, Al, Bruce, and Dave to tour as a band once again. The album is very slick and has its missteps, but to the longtime fan it's a truly astonishing album with how close it comes to being great at times. I have included the Al-sung "From There To Back Again," a yearning and unpretentious look to the past featuring prominent vocal turns from Brian and Mike to represent this album. The band once again splintered at the end of their 2012 tour in classic dysfunctional Beach Boy fashion, despite Brian's claims that he wanted to continue recording music as a group. At the time of writing Mike and Bruce tour as the licensed "Beach Boys" while Brian and Al tour and record together along with Blondie Chaplin and sometimes David Marks. Which means, if you're paying attention, that there's more Beach Boys involved in the Brian Wilson project than the band called "The Beach Boys".

Things can't end on that sour note, so I'm closing out this playlist with the two highest artistic achievements in the Beach Boys catalog. "Surf's Up" was a Smile era song that Carl finished for release in 1971. There are many alternate versions of this song, but to me this is still the definitive one. Probably the best song of the Brian/Van Dyke partnership, I don't exaggerate when I say it's possible there's no other song in history that's quite as beautiful as this song. The sadness in Brian's voice as he sings "I heard the word, wonderful thing, a children's song" before the final cascade of group vocals is likely my favorite moment in recorded music. Finally, the song that was meant to be the lead single for "Smile" but instead was merely their biggest and most influential single of all time, "Good Vibrations" closes out this list. Some of Brian's best and most progressive writing and arranging along with some of Mike's best lyrics and one of the most gorgeous lead vocals from Carl (still just 19 years old here) simply make this one of the best. I always get excited when I hear this song, and I don't think that will ever change, much as the music of the Beach Boys will never cease to hold onto its beauty whether the band ever makes peace with itself or not. 

As a coda, and violation of a statement I made in the first paragraph, I'm including a live studio session of the 2012 reunion-era band performing "Surfer Girl." Call it the encore or the bonus track, but god damn listen to a back-from-the-brink Brian on the bridge. Out of sight!

Tommy Plural is a singer, guitarist and raconteur for Lansing based rock outfit The Plurals. He also  maintains a rigorous schedule with a cadre of other mid-Michigan bands and is one of the founders of GTG Records.