Beach Boys

Mozart On A Surfboard

Strongest album: Pet Sounds
Must to avoid: 20/20

Hyperbole, you say? Comparing a bunch of clueless dorks singing about fun, fun, fun and California girls to the greats of Western Civilization? Well, yes. Though it's forgotten by the general public, the Beach Boys created some of the most innovative and complex music of the 1960s - only the Beatles were as consistently groundbreaking. And my comparison's apt - most rock stars, if they were born in another era, would make their living singing folk standards or writing Tin Pan Alley jingles. Not main Beach Boy Brian Wilson. He, more than any other rock musician, bears the striking similarity in his approach to Romantic-era classical composers, and above all has the talent to pull it off. When he claimed that he was writing "Teenage Symphonies To God" he wasn't kidding. I once had a classical guitar major for a roommate who generally didn't like much pop music. He never liked any of the bands I played, with two exceptions. He liked some of the Kinks (see my reviews of those chaps). But what really bowled him over was Pet Sounds. He got excited and asked if I had any more Beach Boys albums. I didn't at the time, but since then I've aquired a few more. Because Brian Wilson couldn't write lyrics worth a wooden Indian, his music gets written off by many as teenybopper fluff. Don't let that get in the way of your appreciation - listen to the arrangements, the texture, the dazzlingly ahead of its time production, the melodies, and above all those gorgeous, stunningly sophisticated vocal harmonies.

There's shockingly little net material for such a commercially huge band. However, there are a few; the Pet Sounds webpage may be the best, with a ton of articles from old magazines. There's also a neat Brian Wilson webpage that has lots of goodies.

Surfin' Safari/Surfin' USA (originally released 1962 & 1963; reissued 1990)
Surfer Girl/Shut Down, Vol. 2 (originally released 1963 & 1964; reissued 1990)
Party!/Stack-O-Tracks (originally released 1965 & 1968; reissued 1990)

All of the Beach Boys albums from the '60s were released on Capitol as two-fer CDs with excellent track-by-track liner notes and bonus track. Unfortunately, the twisted scumbag greedy consumer-gouging corporate bastards have re-released the same albums as individual CDs, minus liner notes and bonus tracks. Considering that most Beach Boys albums contain a lot of filler and were rarely more than a half-hour long, the new reissues constitute monumental rip-offs that are hardly worth buying at inflated CD prices. The original two-fers, however, are almost all worth having - at an average of 28 or 29 tracks per CD, you certainly get your money's worth. The exception is the Party!/Stack-O-Tracks CD, which consists of the live Party! album and the karoake Stack-O-Tracks album - the Beach Boys' songs stripped of vocals so you can sing along. I realize my collection is incomplete without their first four albums, but until I see those two-fer 1990 reissues, I am not spending a dime on them. If at all possible, boycott the single-CD ripoff reissues and find old copies of the Capitol two-fers. Unless, of course, you want to buy the original albums on vinyl or tape, which is also a great option. The rest of the albums I will review individually; at the bottom of the page I also add my grades for the two-fer CDs.

Little Deuce Coupe (1963) **

I'll state my bias right away: I don't care for the early Beach Boys. In fact I don't care that much for the early Beatles, Kinks, or Stones, either. While undeniably catchy, most of their early hits (all of the aforementioned bands) were pretty simplistic and kind of hokey. This makes history as one of the first concept albums - all of the songs share the theme of cars, cars, cars, except for "Be True To Your School". This is mainly-in-one-ear and out-the-other material that would sound decent as filler on other Beach Boy albums but cannot carry the entire weight. Some of it's alright but hearing one formulaic 2-1/2 minute car song after another makes the whole thing seem monotonous. Catchy, but overall melodically stunted and demo-produced compared to Brian Wilson's later albums. At 21, he's still in his embroyonic stage, and with four other albums in a couple of years, the material is stretched way too thin - some of these tunes had to be borrowed from other Beach Boys albums to create this one. The obvious highlight is "Shut Down", and there's some okay stuff, but at this point the Beach Boys aren't anything more than better-than-average early '60s hitmakers.

All Summer Long (1964) ****

Brian Wilson's first flash of genius, this epitomizes everything the early Beach Boys were about. From the opening tune, "I Get Around", which I think may be the greatest album-opener in history, you get a stack'o tunes about sun, surf, girls, and summer. "All Summer Long" - you know that one, another great hit. "Wendy", covered by the Descendents two decades later, is my favorite Beach Boys song this week, especially the keyboard break - I love great keyboard breaks! Why aren't there as many as there are guitar solos? The cover of "Hushabye" - wow, where can I get my hands on a decent Pomus/Shuman compilation? "The Girls On The Beach" changes keys so much it'll drive you crazy, and demonstrates Brian's burgeoning talent. "Don't Back Down" sounds a bit too much like "Shut Down", but is otherwise fine. They had to change "Little Honda" to "Little Scooter" when they performed it on TV so they wouldn't appear to be endorsing the product. The rest is filler, with some real low points: the obnoxious "Drive In" with typically abysmal Mike Love lyrics, and "Do You Remember" that gets ruined with a an off-putting ode to Dick Clark. In other words, split down the middle between good and bad, but the good's just so good I have to hand it four stars anyway.

The Beach Boys Today! (1965) ****1/2

The great step forward on the journey towards Pet Sounds. The first side's typical Beach Boys, with some good material like the delectable single "When I Grow Up To Be A Man" and "Don't Hurt My Little Sister", and some not-so-good like the inferior original "Help Me Ronda" and the cover of "Do You Want To Dance" done better by the Ramones a decade later. The second side is one of the greatest second sides in all of popdom. Brian lays his heart on the line in a sustained suite of ballads, an unusual move in 1965. "Please Let Me Wonder", "Kiss Me Baby", and the doo-wop cover "I'm So Young" point towards the introspective, less immediately accessible direction Brian would take in the near future, with perfectly-sculpted arrangements and (of course) gorgeous, complex harmonies. "She Knows Me Too Well" may be may favorite, however - bittersweet, with a heartbreaking guitar line and an even more heartbreaking falsetto cry at the end that brings a dry tear to my eye. Only Dennis Wilson's shaky vocal on "In The Back Of My Mind" and the interview segment track "Bull Session With Big Daddy" mar a perfect side. My second favorite Beach Boys album (do you have to ask what my favorite one is? Well, you'll find out in a sec...)

Summer Days (And Summer Nights!) (1965) ***1/2

A good album that's a regression in some ways despite a few advances. There's much more filler here than on the previous album, a flaw that is not made up for by the "Ticket To Ride"-style "Girl Don't Tell Me"; the startling "Let Him Run Wild"; the lovely instrumental "Summer Means New Love"; the 4/4 la-la-la laden "You're So Good To Me", and a few other moments. "California Girls" and "Help Me Rhonda" were the singles, and for some reason I never cared a whole lot for either one. Fine though they are, they don't really compare to other Beach Boys singles. And the filler is some of the worst the Beach Boys have delivered, which says a lot. A completely unneccessary remake of "The Boy From New York City" (changed to "Girl", of course) sits side by side with the obnoxious "Amusement Parks USA" and the even more obnoxious "Salt Lake City" - hey guys, Mormons don't surf in the desert! The album ends with a weird one, "I'm Bugged At My Old Man". Musically there's not much happening, just Brian chopsticking out a generic melody on the piano, but the lyrics are of note. Brian tries to lighten the problems he had with his father/manager, Murray Wilson, and cracks up in the middle of the song. Considering what has been revealed in later years about Brian's relationship with his father, the effect is pretty creepy, to say the least.

Pet Sounds (1966) *****

What can I say that hasn't been said before? Paul McCartney's favorite album, the direct inspiration for Sgt. Pepper. Also the subject of a Doonesbury cartoon in which the dying AIDS patients hears this on CD and mutters as his last words, "Brian Wilson is God". Does it or does it not live up to its reputation? No, of course not - no album can survive the "greatest of all time" tag, and if you go into it with that expectation, you're bound to be disappointed. On the other hand, if you are the type who believes that the Beach Boys are nothing but surfin' fools who aren't worth your time, this album will demolish all your objections and make you an awestruck fanatic. I have personally witnessed this happen to several nay-sayers upon exposure to the rare beauty of Brian Wilson's unique corner of the audioverse. A sustained suite of songs that document the pre-breakdown heartache of Brian's soul, more than any other '60s album it broke new ground in defining just what heights pop music could reach in terms of complexity and innovation - and the heights stretch as high as Brian Wilson's talent, which is to say the level of genius.

"Wouldn't It Be Nice" begins the album with an uplifting note that won't be repeated on this predominately melancholy set of songs. Though it's on the surface optimistic, the oft-quoted line "in the kind of world where we belong" hints at an unreachable longing for escape from the very painful real world. After watching Roger Moore's Roger And Me I can't help but think of that poor laid-off automobile worker who pulls over to the road crying when he hears it on the radio. "God Only Knows" appears incongrously in Boogie Nights in a bizarre scene that did not fuse at all with the music. Whatever its later misuse (in an admittedly great movie, however), it remains one of the most transcendently beautiful pieces of pop heaven, the chords ascending higher and higher unto a genuinely spiritual uplift - enough to make even non-believers raise their ears to the sound of angels. "I Guess I Just Wasn't Made For These Times" - the title says all. No loss of innocence has ever hurt as much as "Caroline No". I could go on with this song-by-song stuff for a long time, but you can get a better review than mine in the liner notes. So much has been written about this album I genuinely can't think of anything to add without in some way regurgating someone else's ideas. Suffice it to say this is the only album I know of that's been turned into a four-disc box set, which contains an a capella version of the entire set. From anybody else an a capella version might prove extremely silly, but hey this is the Beach Boys we're talking about - no one else ever employed the human voice as such an exquisite instrument like these guys did. Of course, a box set does seem like overkill. Alone among the Beach Boys albums, it was reissued without another album in tandem, which is as it should be. The CD reissue adds three bonus tracks, which are kind of superflous save for "Hang On To Your Ego", which is "I Know There's An Answer" with different lyrics and is a must-hear.

Smiley Smile (1967) ***1/2

This is where the story gets a bit complicated. A lot has been said and written about this period of the Beach Boys' history, but let me try to condense the gist of it. Basically, Brian was engaged in a game of oneupmanship with the Beatles - Rubber Soul begat Pet Sounds, "God Only Knows" inspired "Paperback Writer". Of course it was inevitable that the Beatles, who boasted three immensely talented songwriters as opposed to the Beach Boys' lone genius, would eventually win. Brian's attempt to beat the Beatles was tentatively entitled Smile. Work on the album took a for the time unprecedented entire year, several months of which were spent perfecting the single "Good Vibrations", a landmark theremin-crazy recording. The tracks that have surfaced from Smile, some of which turned up on later Beach Boys records, prove that if it had seen release, it would have been a masterpiece. Unfortunately, that never occurred. Sometime in early 1967 Brian heard Sgt. Pepper and became distraught that he could never beat the Beatles (this sounds strange to me, since in retrospect Sgt. Pepper easily qualifies as the Beatles' weakest album). Somehow - details are sketchy about this - Brian destroyed the master tapes to Smile and suffered a nervous breakdown. In their stead the Beach Boys offered tangle of fragments and semi-successful experimentation, some of which was originally destined for Smile and some of which wasn't. By this time Brian's abilities had become damaged by excessive drug use, and a giggly, stoned undercurrent runs through much of the album. One could perhaps see this as one of the earliest psychedelic albums, with its druggy atmosphere and emphasis on bizarre, mind-expanding sounds as opposed to conventional songs. Though a huge letdown from Pet Sounds, it remains intriguing; unfortunately a great deal of it fails to be as compelling as it is intriguing. The singles, "Good Vibrations", and the brilliantly structured mini-suite "Heroes And Villians", are the clear highlights. Weirdness abounds, as evidenced by "Vegetables", which guests Paul McCartney on the percussion instrument the carrot and may be the only song to feature the sound of eating as a prominent musical backdrop. There's also the Woody Woodpecker Symphony, the odd humor about a woman who loses her hair, and the moment when the Beach Boys break down in giggles and have to start the song all over again. Well worth a listen, though as I said not as enjoyable as it is interesting.

Reader Comments

Etan Gery,

Hey, checking out your beach boys reviews, you mentioned a "planned" 2-CD box set dedicated to good vibrations. It did indeed get released, only as a *3* CD set...check out for a review.

Wild Honey (1967)****

After getting experimentation out of their system, the Beach Boys settled down to deliver a back-to-basics album, thereby breaking new ground by being the first band to travel the well-trod path of going arty and then getting back to your roots. The production and performances are basic compared to the Beach Boys' output in the previous 3 years; notably absent is the group singing that characterizes the Beach Boys - several of these songs contain a lead vocal sans backup vocals. This has been characterized as the Beach Boys' "white soul" album, mainly for the excellent Stevie Wonder cover "I Was Made To Love Her" and the hit title track, both of which feature more-than-credible gritty lead vocals from Carl Wilson. Other than that, I can't really say that this really sounds much like classic soul, though the vocals display a more African-American influence than previously. Though none of this rises to the level of, say, "Wendy" or "She Knows Me Too Well", it's much more consistent than any other Beach Boys album save for Pet Sounds - almost all the songs are good, and there's no embarrassing filler. Okay, there is one really terrible track, "Mama Says", about the vitally pressing subject of brushing your teeth. And the fact that the biggest hit and catchiest song, "Darlin'" dates back to 1963 indicates that Brian's talent was clearly in decline. Otherwise, this is an excellent and highly underrated album that consistently provides a steady stream of pleasures, with a lot of warmth and a bit of humor (check out "I'd Love Just Once To See You" for a surprise ending). Some of the elements, like soul vocals and acoustic guitars, are un-Beach Boys enough to explain the confusion among their audience that made this album a commercial bomb. The fact that most hippies considered the Beach Boys unhip squares singing about blondes and surfboards didn't help, either. Too bad they'll never hear "I'm So Glad", which I have a really hard time getting out of my head today.

Friends (1968) ***1/2

A further move towards simplicity, and a continuation of Brian Wilson's deterioration as a songwriter (and, if you read the biographies, as a fully functioning person). This is a nice, gentle soft-rock album, pleasantly relaxing but rarely exciting. Which isn't to say it's a bad album; the melodies and harmonies haven't diminished a bit, even though the production and focus has. This really has some lovely moments, especially the glowing 38-second opener "Meant For You". As the title of the album indicates, this is an album celebrating the joys of friendship, and the genuine warmth that the Beach Boys exudes is refreshing and not particularly sappy. Most soft-rock feels exploitative, but not this, and so I have no reason to resist it or feel played for a fool. The wordless "Passing By" is one of Brian's best compositions. However, by this time Brian had trouble focusing enough for an entire album, which meant that the other Beach Boys step in for a greater role. This means a couple of passable items from Dennis Wilson, making him the first Beach Boy other than Brian to write songs (other than the long-standing practice of other Beach Boys writing lyrics to Brian's music, which does not impress me considering the poor quality of your average Beach Boy lyric). Dennis shows some promise and has obviously picked up a few good ideas from his older brother, but naturally his songs are no match for Brian's best and he is by far the weakest singer in the group, with his shaky, half-whispered vocals. The low point is Mike Love's hippy-dippy "Transcendental Meditation" complete with gratingly shouted vocals and off-key sax. Despite that one gaffe, this is a quite pleasant album, though perhaps too pleasant for its own good.

20/20 (1969) **1/2

An inconsistent patchwork of singles and miscellaneous material, it points the direction the Beach Boys would unfortunately take in the future, as Brian becomes increasingly unfunctional and the rest of the band tries to unsuccessfully take up the slack. The obvious gaffes are the ones in which the Beach Boys stray too far afield into areas in which they display borderline incompetence - the Hendrix-y guitar of "Bluebirds Over The Mountain"; the New Age piano piece "The Nearest Faraway Place", written and performed by session bass player Bruce Johnston (a sure sign of the band's songwriting problems); Dennis' raunchy "All I Want To Do" that fades out with sex noises; and Al Jardine's take on "Cotton Fields", an as inappropriate choice of cover material for Beach Boys if there ever was one. The single, "Do It Again" is an almost not lame attempt to recapture the pre-Pet Sounds Beach Boys sound. Much better is Carl's cover of Phil Spector's "I Can Hear Music". This album also contains Charles Manson's infamous "Cease To Exist", here titled "Never Learn Not To Love" and credited to Dennis Wilson. This album is mainly good for the final two cuts, the neo-Gregorian chant "Our Prayer" and the brilliant "Cabinessence". These are two of the missing pieces of Smile, recut since the originals were destroyed. It's also further proof that Brian's talent had all but evaporated considering that songs written in 1966 are by far the strongest ones of the record. After this the Beach Boys basically became a traveling oldies act, in the process ruining their reputation. I haven't checked out any of there '70s or '80s albums and don't have much of a desire to, though I hear Sunflower and some other albums have their moments. But really, crap like "Kokomo" doesn't exactly entice me to rush out and check into their late period.

Little Deuce Coupe/All Summer Long ****

Though Little Deuce Coupe is expendable, All Summer Long certainly isn't; I almost knocked the grade of this two-fer down a half-star because of the first album. The bonus tracks are innessential, with an alternate take of "Be True To Your School" and the unreleased, slightly lecherous "All Dressed Up For School" the most interesting.

The Beach Boys Today!/Summer Days *****

It's easy to ignore filler when you've got 29 songs to choose from, and considering the wealth of great material this may be the best Beach Boys CD you can get your hands on. The bonus tracks are pretty nifty, especially the great single "The Little Girl I Once Knew".

Smiley Smile/Wild Honey ****

The weirdness of Smiley Smile and the straightforwardness of Wild Honey complement each nicely, and present a compellingly varied side of the band. The bonus tracks are mainly alternate takes from Smile - the work-in-progress versions of "Good Vibrations" are a fascinating glimpse into Brian's creative process; over the course of various takes, it begins to sound like an unfinished symphony. Apparently a 2-CD box set containing every take of "Good Vibrations" was planned but never got off the ground. It sounds insane - I mean, it's a good song, but no song deserves 2 CDs devoted to it!

Friends/20/20 ***

The Beach Boys' final two '60s albums have their moments but are fairly lightweight and inconsistent. If you're already a fan, they might be of interest; everyone else should proceed with caution. Of the bonus tracks, the great lost single "Breakaway" is one of my favorite Beach Boys songs and one of Brian's final stabs at greatness.

Post Your Comments

Breakaway from this page.