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Music Reviews
12:56 pm
Tue December 10, 2013

A Nostalgic — But Bumpy — Journey With The Beach Boys

Originally published on Tue December 10, 2013 4:44 pm

All it takes is two seconds of hearing "Round round get around / I get around" and you're there — in the sun, on the beach, in the '60s. The Beach Boys vaulted up the charts while branching out from surf music to psychedelia. This year the remaining band members released Made in California, a six-CD box set loaded with outtakes and other rarities. Critic Ed Ward examines the rise and long decline of a beloved group with a unique sound.

The early Beach Boys story is pretty well known: The three Wilson brothers — Brian, Carl and Dennis — were music-crazy, and lived near the Pacific in Hawthorne, Calif. Dennis loved surfing; egged on by their father Murry, a failed musician, they made a record in 1962 with one of their cousins, Mike Love, and a friend, Al Jardine.

Surfin' was released on a local label. With Murry's help, the boys got a contract with Capitol Records in Hollywood, which had ultramodern recording facilities, a great studio and musicians who could be called in to augment The Beach Boys' modest instrumental skills. Their musical skills, honed by Brian, became incredible.

The Beach Boys took everyone by surprise. They didn't fade away with the surf craze: Brian had his finger on the teenage pulse, and the music also celebrated motorcycles, girls, cars, girls, school and dancing — with girls. It was hard to go wrong, especially with the group's vocals and Brian's writing and arranging skills. Between 1962 and 1965, The Beach Boys charted 22 singles, nine of which hit the Top 10 and two of which topped the charts.

The group started 1966 with a stumble — an odd song called "The Little Girl I Once Knew," which hid an ambiguous story behind an upbeat melody — but quickly went back to the top with an arrangement of an old calypso tune.

Brian Wilson had left the touring group by 1965 and was hard at work on an album that was like nothing anyone had ever made before, let alone a surf band. When Paul McCartney heard Pet Sounds, he realized how much the ante had been raised and went back to London to start making Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

By the time Pet Sounds was finally mixed to Brian's satisfaction and released, he'd already started on the next album, Smile. It would become his undoing, ending in number of acrimonious conflicts with the band, an album unfinished, and Brian Wilson retreating to his house, where the word got out that he'd suffered a nervous breakdown. Eventually, an album called Smiley Smile emerged with a hit song, "Good Vibrations," which had been recorded before Pet Sounds was even finished.

Brian continued to contribute to the band, but its next album — 1968's Friends — was, to put it mildly, uneven. The title track was a collaboration between the Wilson brothers and Al Jardine. When Brian stepped out solo, though, it got a little weird. "Busy Doin' Nothin'" was quite an apt title for his rambling bossa nova. Fortunately, Dennis and Carl were slowly coming up with some good material.

Dennis's "Slip On Through" emerged from the 1970 album, Sunflower, and at least integrated some contemporary flavor into the Beach Boys' formula. But with very few exceptions, the 1970s were a creative disaster for the band as it swung from hippie-ish meanderings to painfully crafted songs of nostalgia. Their only Top 10 record in the whole decade was a cover of Chuck Berry's "Rock and Roll Music."

Brian's well-publicized problems eventually receded. And yet, although the Beach Boys had made the leap from a fad to a vehicle for serious work, neither Brian nor anyone else — Dennis died in a swimming accident in 1983 and Carl of cancer in 1998 — could turn them into anything but a nostalgia act, which, sad to say, is pretty much what they became.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

In 2012, The Beach boys became another rock group celebrating its 50th anniversary. This year, they released "Made in California," an eight hour six disc retrospective of their career.

Rock historian Ed Ward has a review.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CATCH A WAVE")

THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) Catch a wave and you're sitting on top of the world. Don't be afraid to try the greatest sport around. Catch a wave. Catch a wave. Everybody tries it once. Those who don't just have to put it down. You paddle out turn around and raise. And baby that's all there is to the coastline craze. You gotta catch a wave and you're sittin' on top of the world.

(Singing) Not just a fad...

ED WARD, BYLINE: The early Beach Boy story is pretty well known: The three Wilson brothers - Brian, Carl and Dennis - were music-crazy, and lived near the Pacific in Hawthorne, California. Dennis loved surfing, and egged on by their father Murry, a failed musician, they made a record in 1962 with one of their cousins, Mike Love, and a friend, Al Jardine.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SURFIN'")

BOYS: (Singing) Bom bom dip di dit, surfing, surfing. Bom bom dip di dit, surfing, surfing. Bom bom dip di dit, surfing, surfing. Bom bom dip di dit, surfing, surfing. Bom bom dip di dit, surfing, surfing. Bom bom dip di dit, surfing, surfing.

(Singing) Surfing is the only life. The only way for me. Now surf, surf with me Bom bom dip di dit. Bom bom dip di dit. Surfing...

WARD: "Surfin'", heard here on home taped rehearsal, was released on a local label, and then with Murry's help, the boys got a contract with Capitol Records in Hollywood, which had ultra-modern recording facilities, and great studio musicians who could be called in to augment The Beach Boys' modest instrumental skills. Their musical skills, honed by Brian, became incredible.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE LONELY SEA")

BOYS: (Singing) The lonely sea, the lonely sea. It never stops for you or me. It moves along from day after day. That's why, my love, that's why my love you cannot stay...

WARD: The "Lonely Sea" isn't an outtake from their 1966 masterpiece "Pet Sounds." It's a track from 1963's "Surfing U.S.A." album and just gets better as it goes along. The Beach Boys took everyone by surprise. They didn't fade away with the surf craze. Brian had his finger on the teenage pulse and they also celebrated motorcycles, girls, cars, girls, school, and dancing...with girls.

It was hard to go wrong, especially with the group's vocals and Brian's writing and arranging skills. Between 1962 and 1965, they charted 22 singles, nine of which hit the Top Ten and two of which topped the charts. They started 1966 with a stumble, an odd song called "She's Not the Little Girl I Once Knew" which hid an ambiguous story behind an upbeat melody.

But they quickly went back to the top with an arrangement of an old calypso tune.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLOOP JOHN B")

BOYS: (singing) We come on the sloop, John B. My grandfather and me. Around Nassau town we did roam. Drinking all night. Got into a fight. Well, I feel so broke up I want to go home. So hoist up the John B's sail. See how the mainsail sets. Call for the captain ashore. Let me go home. Let me go home. I want to go home. Yeah, yeah. Well, I feel so broke up I want to go home.

WARD: Brian had left the touring group in 1965 and had been hard at work at an album that was like nothing anyone had ever made before, let alone a surf band. When Paul McCartney heard "Pet Sounds" he realized how much the ante had been raised and went back to London to start making "Sgt. Pepper." By the time "Pet Sounds" was finally mixed to Brian's satisfaction and released, though, he'd already started on his next album, "Smile."

It was his undoing - a number of acrimonious conflicts within the band, an album unfinished, and Brian retreating to his house where the word got that he'd suffered a nervous breakdown. Eventually, an album called "Smiley Smile" emerged with a hit on it, "Good Vibrations," recorded before "Pet Sounds" had even been finished. Brian continued to contribute to the band but their next album, "Friends," in 1968 was uneven.

Fortunately, Dennis and Carl were slowly coming up with some good material.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SLIP ON THROUGH")

BOYS: (singing) Lots of people with no place to go. I know a place where you can go. You've got the ticket. Come on, slip inside and let my song take you for a ride. Baby, baby, baby. Come on. Won't you let me be by your side for now and eternity? 'Cause I love you. Baby, I do now. Can't you see what has come over me? Oh, my life is growing like a big oak tree.

(singing) 'Cause I love you. Baby, I do now. Can't you see?

WARD: Dennis' "Slip on Through" comes from the 1970 album "Sunflower" and at least integrates some contemporary flavor to the Beach Boys' formula. But with very few exceptions, the 1970s were creatively a disaster as the band swung from hippie-ish meanderings to painfully crafted songs of nostalgia. Their only Top Ten record in the whole decade was a version of Chuck Berry's "Rock n' Roll Music."

Brian's well publicized problems eventually receded and yet although the Beach Boys had made the leap from a fad to a vehicle for serious work, neither Brian nor anyone else - Dennis died in a swimming accident in 193 and Carl died of cancer in 1988 - could turn them into anything but a nostalgia act which, sad to say, is pretty much what they became.

DAVIES: Rock historian Ed Ward reviewed "Made in California," the career retrospective box set from the Beach Boys.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG "THAT'S WHY GOD MADE THE RADIO")

BOYS: (singing) Tuning in the latest star from the dashboard of my car. Cruising at seven, push button heaven, capturing memories from afar in my car. That's why God made the radio. That's why god made - so tune right in everywhere you go. He waved his hand, gave us rock n' roll, the soundtrack of falling in love. Whoa. Falling in love. Whoa. Falling in - that's why God made the radio.

DAVIES: Coming up, John Powers reviews the latest in a Danish mystery series. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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