How I’ve Grown to Love the Beach Boys

Brian WilsonJudging from the title, you must be thinking that at one time, I didn’t like the Beach Boys.

Yep. Hated ’em.

Growing up in the 80s, I was witness to only one Top 10 hit by the group, the horrendous “Kokomo” from the even worse movie, “Cocktail.” I found their sound formulaic, their lyrics inane and Mike Love’s voice like chewing aluminum foil.

Then I heard “God Only Knows.”

My first exposure to that song was a really bad cover by David Bowie from his 1985 album Tonight. But when I heard the Beach Boys’ version and started discovering chord progressions I never knew and hearing multiple harmonies intertwined, echoing each other and sometimes meeting in heavenly overtones, I knew I had to reassess this group.

I read Brian Wilson’s autobiography, Wouldn’t it be Nice, and saw how infatuated he was with creating harmonies as lush and intricate as his heroes, 50s doo-wop group The Four Freshmen. (It was his brother Dennis who was the surfer and suggested the subject matter for their early hits.) I read quotes from his ex-wife, Marilyn, recounting how “the difference was that Brian heard the music, the different instruments, the harmonies of the voices, and the production at the same time. He wrote, arranged, and produced it all! It was all there in his mind, and people would just look at him in amazement” (from¬†Wouldn’t It Be Nice: Brian Wilson and the Making of the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds).

Pet Sounds and onward

This sounded like a modern-day Mozart, in which all he had to do was write down what was playing in his head. With this new information, I dug deeper. I found that Pet Sounds was a major motivator for the Beatles to record Sergeant Pepper, and when Brian tried to top the Beatles with the revolutionary concept Smile, the music in his head began to betray him, and he began to crack up. He has since finished the album some 30 years later, but he is a shadow of his former self, shattered by years of mental illness and medication.

The Beach Boys’ catalogue finally began to take on a new light. I gained a new respect for the harmonies in “Surfer Girl,” listened more closely to the instrumentation in “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” and forgot David Lee Roth’s version of “California Girls,” opting instead to examine the non-conventional song structure and chord changes.

Some songs are still silly (“409,” “Surfin”), the lyrics about cars and surfing are still lame, and Mike Love’s voice still grates on my ears. But Brian Wilson is still affecting music lovers almost 50 years after he began his foray into rock and roll.

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