Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music



U.S. vocal/instrumental group formed in 1961. Original lineup: Brian Wilson (b 20 June 1942), bass, keyboards; Carl Wilson (b 21 December 1946; d 6 February 1998 of cancer), guitar; Dennis Wilson (b 4 December 1944; d 28 December 1983), drums, keyboards; Mike Love (b 15 March 1941) vocals; Alan Jardine (b 3 September 1942), bass, guitar. The Wilsons were from Hawthorne CA near Los Angeles; Love was their cousin; they all sang, enjoyed harmonizing, and graduated from a simple two-part Everly brothers sound to a more complex Four Freshmen style. Wilsons' father Murry was an amateur songwriter; mother Audree occasionally made a fifth voice until Jardine joined: a schoolmate of Brian's interested in folk music, he was the best musician in their early days. When the Wilson parents left the boys at home while on vacation, they used food money to rent instruments and formed a group called Carl and the Passions (later the title of a 1972 LP; they also called themselves the Pendletones at one point). Only Dennis was interested in surfing, but he persuaded Brian and Mike Love to write songs about West Coast pastimes of surfing, cars and girls. Hite Morgan, a producer friend of Murry's, wanted a folk-song demo made; Murry recommended Jardine, the group went to Morgan's studio and played their primitive first song 'Surfin' '. Released on a small label late '61 with the group renamed the Beach Boys, this was a regional hit, no. 75 nationally. They played their first gig New Year's Eve, after which Jardine left for a year to study dentistry, replaced by David Marks on bass (a friend of Carl's), who moved to rhythm guitar as Brian took over bass. They cut three more songs by Brian and Love and Murry took them to Capitol, who signed them in 1962.
Brian Wilson was a consummate writer of teenage anthems, perfecting a blend of Chuck Berry rhythms, Freshmen harmonies and adolescent interests; they had 24 top 50 hits '62-6 (eight two-sided) including 13 top tens, three at no. 1 ('I Get Around' '64, 'Help Me Rhonda' '65, 'Good Vibrations' '66). 'California Girls' (no. 3 '65) was used as a theme for a UK airline commercial in the '80s ('Caledonia Girls'); other best-loved records were 'Surfin' USA', 'Little Deuce Coupe', 'Surfer Girl', 'Be True To Your School' (all '63). Brian, who suffered deafness in one ear, also worked with Jan and Dean, co-writing their '63 no. 1 'Surf City' with Jan Berry, produced the Honeys, a girl vocal trio (he married Marilyn), began to sample 'mind-expanding' drugs and had a nervous breakdown '64: he had never liked playing live and wrote and worked in the studio after the mid-'60s. The surf-and-car genre had worn thin by then but more grown-up songs continued to be hits.

Although the group did the singing, they often used session musicians in the studio, where Brian played, arranged and produced the records, replaced on stage by session player Glen Campbell, then permanently by Bruce Johnston (b 24 June 1944, Chicago): Johnston had started with Phil Spector '57, backed Ritchie Valens; he recorded with Terry Melcher as Bruce and Terry and as the Rip Chords and did Surfin' 'Round The World on CBS and Surfin' Pajama Party on Del-Fi, all '63-4. They continued to tour the world, almost the only major USA act to survive the British Invasion of '64. Inspired by the Beatles' Revolver, Brian recorded Pet Sounds '66, its advanced studio technique pre-dating the Beatles' Sgt Pepper, which was partly an answer to it: Pet Sounds was critically acclaimed, but after several top ten albums (Beach Boys Concert was no. 1 for four weeks '64) their masterpiece only reached no. 10, despite hit singles 'God Only Knows' and 'Wouldn't It Be Nice'. Following the smash success of the hi-tech 'Good Vibrations' (no. 1 USA/UK) the follow-up 'Heroes And Villains' reached no. 12 USA, no. 8 UK; it was the first on their own Brother label (Brother issues were on Capitol in the UK, then Warner/Reprise).
Brian began work on an album provisionally titled Smiles, collaborating with lyricist/boy wonder Van Dyke Parks, but his intake of psychedelic substances may have led to over-elaboration: the legendary album was not finished at the time. Mike Love had refused to have anything to do with it and the Beach Boys effectively became two camps; Brian now abdicated, though writing a few songs for various albums; the group was largely absent from the top 40 after '67. Personnel changes included the addition of Ricky Fataar and bassist/guitarist Blondie Chaplin, both ex-South African group the Flames which had been signed to Brother; Fataar replaced Dennis on drums, who had injured his hand. Daryl Dragon (later of Captain and Tennille) was added on keyboards; brother Dennis Dragon sometimes augmented the stage act on percussion (they were sons of classical conductor Carmen Dragon; Daryl also worked as the group's arranger). There were few significant albums in the early '70s except Surf's Up '71 and Holland '72. Sunflower '70 is highly rated by some as the last that had a measure of Brian's presence in it, but it only reached no. 151 in the album chart. They relocated to Holland under then-manager Jack Rieley; Johnston left because of personal differences with Rieley and the group was regarded as washed up. Compilations of early hits Endless Summer and Spirit Of America were enormous sellers (both two-disc sets, the former a no. 1 album USA '74).

For a new album 15 Big Ones '76 (no. 8 USA) Brian was persuaded to rejoin part-time, causing the most media interest in ten years, the album named for their anniversary as well as its number of tracks. Dennis did solo Pacific Ocean Blue '77, regarded as underrated. Johnston wrote 'I Write The Songs', a massive hit for Barry Manilow '76 (won a Grammy), and made album Going Public '77 including the song; he also did vocal arrangements for Pink Floyd (The Wall '79, also sang on it), and meanwhile rejoined the Beach Boys '78 as they changed labels to Caribou, later became effectively their producer by default. Single 'Lady Lynda' (written by Jardine for his then wife) made the UK top ten '79 but releases were sporadic: Fataar, Chaplin and the Dragons left; Carl and Dennis cut solo albums; Johnston produced for his own label; everyone seemed to be waiting for Brian to recover his lost genius when Dennis drowned while swimming after heavy drinking. In spite of the problems of individuals with drugs and alcohol, deep public affection was ensured by nostalgia for the sun-drenched all-American subject matter of the songs; when US Secretary of the Interior James Watt tried to prevent them playing at the 1983 4th of July celebrations on the Mall in Washington DC, wanting Las Vegas entertainer Wayne Newton instead, he was laughed out of court.
They made their first original album in five years with Culture Club producer Steve Levine: The Beach Boys '85 was not more inspired than its title, but they were already an established legend. A TV special The Beach Boys: 25 Years Together '87 was taped in Hawaii with guests Campbell, Ray Charles, Everly Brothers, Fabulous Thunderbirds; at Johnston's suggestion they sang backup on the Fat Boys' 'Wipeout' '87, a no. 12 hit bringing their work to a new younger audience; and their 'Kokomo' '88 was a no. 1 hit (from film Cocktail), all this despite Johnston's sadness because Brian wasn't doing it, and at the loss of the 'magnificent and difficult' Dennis. Their father, jealous of their success, had sold their entire catalogue for $700,000 '69, leading to the usual pop industry lawsuits.

With Brian spending all his time in bed, psychotherapist Eugene Landy had begun treating him in the mid-'70s, the controversial method including constant monitoring and isolation from visitors; Landy left after a dispute with management but came back '82 when Brian's condition deteriorated, leading to Brian's solo album Brian Wilson '88, co-written and co-produced by Landy: it was ropey, but the unreleased Sweet Insanity c.'90 with lyrics by Landy and his girlfriend was said by those who heard it to be better, rejected by WB and presumed lost. Nobody liked Landy (b 26 November 1934, Pittsburgh PA; d 22 March 2006, Honolulu) but he may have saved Brian's life; the family got rid of him again '91. I Just Wasn't Made For These Times '95 compiled remakes of lesser-known vintage songs and amounted to an incredibly wistful autobiography, accompanying a TV documentary of the same name directed and produced by Don Was. Orange Crate Art '95 on WEA made with Van Dyke Parks also had Brian's keening, falsetto-like voice still intact. His Imagination '98 included lyrics by Jimmy Buffet and J. D. Souther. He had in fact begun a long, slow comeback out of the clutches of his demons; The unfinished Smiles had been bootlegged in the 1980s but was finally finished, a new recording released in 2004 to good reviews full of affection for Brian. His new album That Lucky Old Sun 2008 on Capitol prompted one critic to speculate that he had overcome his crippling stage fright. Jim Fusilli in the Wall Street Journal wrote about Brian's influence on younger popsters like Starling Electric, Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver, claiming that nobody wrote vocal harmonies better than Brian Wilson.

All the Beach Boys' work is in print including many compilations; Thirty Years Of The Beach Boys: Good Vibrations '93 was a five-CD set; and four-CD The Pet Sounds Sessions '97 included both mono and new stereo versions of one of the most influential albums in rock's history. Stars And Stripes Vol. 1 '96 on River North had Brian and Carl, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston and Al and Matt Jardine providing backing for country singers on their own classics: the highlights were Timothy B. Schmit on 'Caroline No' (arranged by Jimmy Webb) and Willie Nelson on 'The Warmth Of The Sun'. Heroes And Villains '86 by Steven Gaines was a book, Summer Of Dreams a biopic, Brian's ghosted autobiography was Wouldn't It Be Nice.

Billy Hinsche formed the pop trio Dino, Desi and Billy with the sons of Dean Martin and Desi Arnaz in the mid-'60s; they opened for the Beach Boys when Hinsche was 13, and he became a close friend and later an in-law (his sister married Carl). He also sang on Dennis's first two albums. In 2008, producers Gregg Jakobson (the original producer of Pacific Ocean Blue) and James William Guercio (ex-Zappa Mothers of Invention) and engineer/producer John Hanlon (Neil Young, R.E.M.) reissued Dennis's POB and his second album Bambu (unfinished at the time because Dennis and Carl were forced to sell their studio). The two-disc reissue was an expensive and complicated labor of love, in memory of a Beach Boy whose potential was never realized because of a downward spiral of drink and drugs. Jon Stebbins co-wrote the liner notes; he'd called his biography of Dennis The Real Beach Boy.