Great Beach Boys songs -- and there are actually dozens of them -- are magical. Forget for a moment the harmonic complexity of Brian Wilson's compositions, the sophistication of his arrangements and the grandeur of his and legendary producer Phil Spector's productions. Technical analysis of the Beach Boys repertoire doesn't explain why the band's music still jumps out of the radio decades after it was first recorded. But that the Beach Boys represented art and fun more than teenage rebellion just might. Try to find a pop group today that could toss out a song with the innocence of "God Only Knows" or the over-the-top wildness of "Good Vibrations" or the simple fun of "Surfin' Safari." It can't be done. Rock and roll doesn't have artists like that anymore.
Underrated by the general public, who considers it little more than a surf band, the Beach Boys has earned the appreciation of musicians such as Paul McCartney, David Crosby, Tom Petty and Thurston Moore, who have all cited the Beach Boys as a major innovative force in rock and roll. Formed in the Wilson family living room during Labor Day weekend 1961, the Beach Boys took only two years to become the most popular rock and roll band in America. By the time of the Today album sessions in late '64/early '65, Brian Wilson was doing things with pop music that had never been done before, writing songs with unparalleled lyricism, grace and harmonic counterpoint and producing his own version of the engineering techniques pioneered by Spector.
But that was then. The group known as the Beach Boys has undergone numerous lineup shifts over the years, and today's band has splintered into two separate acts, both capitalizing on the Beach Boys name. Neither of them involves Brian Wilson, who is undertaking a solo tour under his own name. While the band has yet to become a bunch of traveling impostors à la the touring groups that call themselves the Supremes or the Coasters, each B.B. group includes only one original Beach Boy. Al Jardine's touring band is called the Beach Boys Family and Friends, with a lineup of Jardine, an original Beach Boy who left the group for dental school in '62 but returned in '63, and his sons, Matt (who started touring with the Beach Boys in '88) and Adam, and Brian Wilson's daughters Carnie (forget the talk show, she can sing) and Wendy (yes, she's a knockout, and she can sing, too). Reports of the group's performances have been positive, particularly in the area of harmony, but some fans have left dissatisfied. They expected the Beach Boys and only saw a Beach Boy (and his family and friends).
Calling themselves the Beach Boys, the group coming to Houston Friday is fronted by Mike Love, David Marks and Bruce Johnston, with a backing band that includes longtime touring band members. The lead singer on a number of the group's biggest hits, such as "I Get Around" and "Surfin' U.S.A.," Love is an original Beach Boy; in fact, he's the only one never to have left the group. "I'm totally one of the millions of No. 1 fans of Brian Wilson," Beach Boy Johnston says. "But I'm also the same fan for Mike Love. People don't realize how important Mike's lyrics were in the scheme of things."
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In terms of official status, Jardine remains a Beach Boy, according to Brown & Dutch, the Beach Boys' public relations firm. He, like Brian Wilson, Mike Love and the estate of Carl Wilson, belongs to Brother Entertainment, the longtime Beach Boys management company. So no matter which Beach Boy performs which song on whichever day, the people at Brother are getting paid, even though Jardine's tour is not sponsored by the company, and Johnston once told the British rock magazine Mojo, "You will never see [Jardine] on stage with Mike [Love] and me again." (Johnston has since "disavowed the story of a rift with Jardine," and when discussing the Beach Boys' future plans, he did not rule out working with Jardine.)
Johnston, whose history includes writing the Grammy-winning "I Write the Songs" and arranging and performing background vocals for Pink Floyd's rock movie The Wall, joined the Beach Boys in '65 and, save for a six-year period between '72 and '78, has been a Beach Boy ever since. "I'm like a guy who was lucky enough to climb on the Concorde after it had already been tested," Johnston says of his tenure with the Beach Boys. "I'm just a lucky guy who can deliver the goods if needed."
Guitarist David Marks was also a Beach Boy from '62 to '63, when he replaced Jardine on rhythm guitar. He played on a number of early hits, but he never sang, per Brian Wilson's demand. Though Marks did some sessions on Brian Wilson's thankfully unreleased album Sweet Insanity, he remained outside the Beach Boys fold until '97, when he was asked to sub for Carl Wilson, who was missing tour dates to undergo cancer treatments. "I asked why his guitar solos sound like the original records', because Carl played them, not David," says Johnston. "He said, 'Carl taught me all of them.' I said, 'Yeah, but they really sound like them.' He said, 'Well the difference is you guys have so much money you polluted the sound with all your outboard gear. All I have is this guitar and this amp, and that's why it sounds like the record.' "
While Marks may put some bite back into the sound, don't expect the shows to sound just like the records. Aside from Brian Wilson's layered productions being impossible to duplicate on stage, the fact is, depending on the song, three or four of the original Beach Boys voices are missing on any tune. While Bruce Johnston, Matt Jardine and Carl Wilson were able to tackle Brian Wilson's vocal parts in the past, the stage show now, with Jardine and Carl gone, relies on Johnston and other band members to perform Carl's and Brian's lead vocals and Jardine's harmonies. Reports are it sometimes works, and other times it just doesn't sound like the Beach Boys.
The true Beach Boys sound was established back in '66 when Brian Wilson and company entered a new musical realm with Pet Sounds. A landmark recording in rock history, Pet Sounds is a musical statement that reveals how artists can combine catchy pop hooks, beautiful melodies, brilliant harmonies, dynamic production and vocals that only these blond-headed heads in their primes could pull off with insightful lyrics. Gone were the surf, girls and cars. In their place were Brian Wilson and Tony Asher's words about the joys and pains of romance, unrequited love, isolation and alienation.
"What Brian did with Pet Sounds," says Beach Boys historian David Leaf, "was to create art rock." Leaf is probably right. Prog-rock guitarist Steve Howe cites "Wouldn't It Be Nice" as the song that changed his approach to guitar playing, and Pet Sounds is really a rock rock and roll album in that it revolves around one connected thought from beginning to end. Critically acclaimed and credited by Paul McCartney as the inspiration for the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper album, Pet Sounds was poorly marketed by Capitol Records. It didn't know what to do with its surf group's venturing into uncharted waters.
Though Pet Sounds hit No. 10 on the album charts and clocked in four Top 40 singles, it was considered a flop by the band, whose previous albums had set a high standard.
Despite the disappointing sales of Pet Sounds, the group continued its artistic rise with the Smile sessions, which delivered "Good Vibrations," a production masterpiece that features more than 20 vocal tracks and could be the most artistic single ever to top the pop charts. Yet as the Beach Boys continued with the Smile sessions in '67, tensions within the group grew, as did Brian Wilson's use of drugs. There are several theories why Brian Wilson called off the sessions, but only he knows for sure, and his answers to the question constantly change. His decision denied the record-buying public some of rock and roll's greatest music, as unauthorized copies of the Smile sessions reveal Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys as being more advanced, technically and artistically, than any other rock band of the day. The problem was that the Beach Boys never finished its sonic painting. The Beatles did. It was called Sgt. Pepper.
After Wilson aborted Smile, the group went into a tailspin but bounced back in '68 with the underrated Friends album. Brian Wilson's contributions became erratic from '68 to '73, and the members of the Beach Boys changed from Wilson's messengers to a group with more input from other members, most notably younger brother Carl Wilson and middle brother Dennis Wilson, who were both progressing as composers and producers. The Beach Boys' albums from this period contain some of the best songs of the era, though most failed to chart and have been underappreciated for decades. "The late '60s/early '70s was probably my favorite period," says Johnston. "But the Beach Boys weren't at the top of people's mind during that time. We have, like, a blackout period during that time."
Between '71 and '73 that all changed, in part due to the contemporary nature of the band's music and in part due to the direction and marketing efforts of then-manager Jack Rieley. The band members shed the surfer-boy image and were again considered hip by the rock press. Rolling Stone, the same magazine that had dismissed the Beach Boys in '67, called Holland one of the five best albums of '73. The band was relevant again.
The new direction would not last, however. In '74 Capitol Records released a compilation of surf, girls and car songs from the early '60s called Endless Summer. A chart topper, Endless Summer sold better than anything the Beach Boys had done in years.
Endless Summer's success, combined with Jack Rieley's departure in '73 and Brian Wilson's not writing any new material, meant the group's tours would eventually focus on the hits and little else. "People, when they go to concerts," says Johnston, "if it's too long or they don't recognize it, they tend to kind of squirm."
Since '75 the band has released only seven albums of new material. Those records have been inconsistent at best, and some, such as Love You and MIU, are just plain embarrassing, though some fans would beg to differ. In '88 the band recorded "Kokomo," and it hit No. 1, 25 years after the last Beach Boys single reached the top spot. Despite the band's less-than-stellar work on tape over the past two decades (and, to be fair, there have been a few really good songs), it has remained a consistent summer touring band that gets thousands of fans to attend concerts of hits made famous more than three decades ago.
When Carl Wilson died on February 6, 1998, it was the first time the Beach Boys' future as a touring band was ever in doubt. Though Brian Wilson had eschewed the rigors of the road and high-decibel live performances in favor of composing and producing, and had not performed regularly with the Beach Boys since a Houston gig in '64, his absence on stage was never that devastating. In the beginning, the group was hot enough commercially and artistically to get by. That Johnston could adeptly pick up Brian's vocal parts and that Brian was about to hit his creative apex with Pet Sounds only helped create greater interest. The Beach Boys also survived the death of Dennis Wilson, whose performances of "Lady" and "You Are So Beautiful" were concert highlights. But as gifted a writer and magnetic a performer as Dennis was, his life was out of control at the time of his death in '83, and he was at best unreliable.
Carl Wilson was different. He assumed the leadership role when brother Brian wouldn't and eventually couldn't. Carl Wilson wrote some of the most powerful songs in the '70s, and it's his voice on "God Only Knows" and "Good Vibrations" that makes the biggest statements. When Carl Wilson pursued a solo career in the early '80s, his angelic voice and commanding stage presence were sorely missed by the remaining cast. "He was a fabulous character," says Johnston. "He had a very calming effect on a lot of his friends. What we miss is an incredible, cool bandleader. It was really fun to have someone make sure everyone doesn't invent new vocal parts. Every night I used to go back and stand by the drums for the first two verses of 'God Only Knows,' just so I could listen and watch it. That voice was a fabulous, fabulous voice."
Carl Wilson's death has not ended the Beach Boys, at least not the touring band. Though the group was tacit about its future plans for several months after his death and only sporadically performed in '98, Johnston says there was never any question the Beach Boys would continue in some form. "Why wouldn't you?" he says. "Why would you stop because one person dies? That does not compute. I don't think the Rolling Stones stopped when Brian Jones died. We applied the Dennis Wilson theory. We went from Dennis's press conference, after he died, right into the studio two hours later. There's something bigger than any of us, and that's the songs. The music is the star here."
"When you go to see the Beach Boys, you're going to get a history lesson," says Johnston. "You're going to get surf, girls, cars, album tracks like 'Hushabye' and 'Wendy' and lots of hits. Then you'll get the Pet Sounds era. We might add 'Heroes and Villains.' It's kind of like having a real big house, but you still have furniture in the attic that you swap off to other parts of the house. We're just figuring out what we're doing."
As for future plans, Johnston says a television miniseries about the Beach Boys is in the works, and A&E is working on a Biography documentary on Brian Wilson. Johnston expresses a desire to work with Brian Wilson again, but, while there have been talks with Wilson about that, no one has initiated contact. Brian Wilson's next move is always uncertain. But Johnston hopes the Beach Boys can do something, while at the same time not sacrifice who and what the band is about.
"You have to kind of appreciate your legacy," Johnston says, "and it's still nice to kind of go around and run around the track. You do what you do at the time you do it, and you have to mature with your maturity and groove with it. You don't want to be pathetic. You don't want to keep reinventing yourself like Madonna. I think Madonna's really pathetic. She has this very cool little voice and some clever stuff, but she just keeps reinventing herself. For what? You have to put the music and the art first. I think the spotlight is your reward for doing something really great, not for just being outrageous. That's not art."
The Beach Boys will perform Friday, April 16, at the Aerial Theater at Bayou Place. Call (713)629-3700 for ticket information and showtime.
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