By 1963, the aggressive sounds of ‘50s rockers had been almost completely absorbed in the velvety sounds of pop-rock, either from the East Coast Brill Building with its professionally crafted girl-group hits or from the West Coast with a group of talented amateurs.
Dick Dale, often billed as the “King of the Surf Guitar,” had pioneered the sound in 1961. An avid surfer, Dale’s instrumental songs were twangy toned guitar solos with heavy reverb and rapid staccato runs and solos. Dale, a left-handed Strat guitar player, would often play his guitar upside down and over his head in a manner that anticipated later guitar demi-god Jimi Hendrix. According to Dale, a young Hendrix was frequently in the audience in ’61 and ’62 when Dale and his band, the Del-Tones played in southern California. Dale attempted to create a musical sound that emulated the surfing experience. The rapid double picking style with machine-gun like solos and heavy power chords influenced hundreds of guitar players in Southern California in the early ‘60s, including the young Carl Wilson, guitar player for a group first called The Pendletones and then, The Beach Boys.
Dick Dale and the Del-Tones, “Misirlou”, 1962
Paralleling Dick Dale’s southern California guitar sound, another surfin’ instrumental group, The Ventures, from Tacoma, Washington scored a national hit with “Walk, Don’t Run” in 1960 (#2 on the charts). At the end of the ‘60s they would have another major hit with the theme song to the television show, Hawaii Five-O.
If Dick Dale and the Ventures provided the staccato instrumentals for the West Coast surf sound, The Beach Boys gave it the lyrics and vocals.
Starting as a family effort, brothers Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson were joined by cousin Mike Love and high school buddy Al Jardin. At various times they were known as The Pendletones, Kenny and the Cadets (oldest brother, Brian was “Kenny”), or Carl and the Passions. When Brian and Mike wrote a single “Surfin’” in 1961, the group found their niche and the teen surfin’ lyrics were born.
By 1962 the Beach Boys had a recording contract with Capitol Records and began releasing a series of hit songs including “Surfin’ Safari” (1962), “Surfin’ U.S.A.” (1963, supposedly a note-for-note recreation of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen”), and “Surfer Girl” (1963). The last song was the first to be produced by Brian Wilson, who had already been the main composer, arranger, and one of the lead voices in the group. With the addition of “producer” to his list, Brian Wilson became perhaps the first autonomous performer-producer in rock ‘n’ roll history.
The Beach Boys, “Surfin’ U. S. A.” 1963
The genius of Brian Wilson, like that of Phil Spector, Wilson’s idol, lay in his ability to hear complex vocal and instrumental textures in his mind and then oversee the realization of his aural fantasy in the studio. Key to the Beach Boy sound was the thick, complex vocal harmonies which were a throwback to ‘50s pop singing groups like the Four Freshmen, the surfin’ guitar sound augmented by elements from Chuck Berry, smooth, floating melodies and lyrics that recreated a high-schooler’s surfin’ Nirvana lifestyle for young teens across America. What self-respecting teenager in the middle of boring, snowbound Midwest lifestyle didn’t put on “California Girls” or “Surfin’ U.S.A” in the mid-’60s and dream of a better land far, far away? Only Chuck Berry had previously connected so personally with American teenagers with his lyrics.
The time period from 1963 to 1965 were the most critically and commercially successful for the group. “Little Deuce Coupe,” “In My Room” and “Be True to Your School” in 1963, “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “Don’t Worry Baby” and “I Get Around” in 1964, “Help Me, Rhonda” and “California Girls” in 1965 all made the Top 25 charts in those years, several to the Top 10.
Early in 1965 Brian Wilson suffered a suffered a nervous breakdown and was forced to leave the touring to the rest of the band with a young Glen Campbell replacing him for a short time. The time away from touring allowed Wilson to be creative in the studio an in 1966, Wilson finished one of his greatest contributions to rock ‘n’ roll history: the concept album Pet Sounds.
Theme or concept albums had occurred in the field of jazz for several years, but Pet Sounds was the first rock album to creatively link all of the songs together. Both Beatle Paul McCartney and George Martin, the Beatles’ producer, acknowledge that it was a monumental influence on the Beatles’ creation Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967. Pet Sounds included classic Beach Boys cuts “God Only Knows” (Beatle McCartney’s choice for favorite love song of all time) and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”.
The Beach Boys final hit of the ‘60s was “Good Vibrations” in 1966. “Vibrations,” the closest the Beach Boys ever approached to the psychedelic sound of the era, took 6 months and $16,000 to make, included such diverse instruments as harpsichord, Jew’s harp, sleigh bells and an unusual instrument called the theremin in addition to the standard rock and pop sounds.
The Beach Boys – “Good Vibrations” – 1968
The same year Brian Wilson began working on a masterpiece album with lyricist Van Dyke Parks entitled “Smile,” but the project was shelved due to Wilson’s drug addictions and failing health. Rumors of the project regularly surfaced in the decades since, but only two or three cuts (“Smile” and “Heroes and Villains”) have been released. Over the years, amateur Beach Boys fans have acquired the names of various songs to be included and other information about the project, but the final work seemed as elusive as a pink unicorn.
In a complete surprise, Brian Wilson completed the mythical project and released it in 2004 to widespread critical acclaim. Some critics prognosticate that if Smile had been released in 1967 as planned, it would have pushed the Beatles to another level of creative activity and perhaps might have delayed the breakup of their group by a year or two. While its true that the Beach Boys were the only serious competition the Beatles had in the pop-rock arena of 1966, any speculation beyond that is merely a fascinating exercise in elastic logic.
Although Smile will never receive the public acclaim as earlier works, the Beach Boys efforts of the mid-’60s remain as vibrant and accessible after 40 years as when they first appeared on the charts. They were inducted into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, the same year that they had a #1 hit with “Kokomo,” which also appeared in the movie “Cocktail”.
Regardless of the decade, for most fans, the songs of the Beach Boys are synonymous with the sound of summer and ‘60s surf music.
“Behind the Sounds: God Only Knows” – displays the genius of Brian Wilson in the studio