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'I Enjoyed the Heck Out of It': Reflecting on The Beach Boys With The Beach Boys

Thursday, 30 May 2024 Written by Jeremy Blackmore

Photo: Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

For more than half a century The Beach Boys have represented the endless sound of summer against a backdrop of the Californian surf, set to some of the most gloriously transcendent harmonies ever committed to tape. In a remarkable run of success that produced some of the 60s’ most memorable and beloved hit singles, the band also produced one of that decade’s most revered albums in ‘Pet Sounds’, one that rivalled even The Beatles in ambition and creativity.

But their story is also one of family, once combined in harmony, later fractured, and of tragedy, with the early deaths of two original members. With the surviving Beach Boys now entering their 80s, it’s fitting their lasting legacy is being celebrated with two new landmark projects – their only official book, The Beach Boys by The Beach Boys, and a documentary simply called The Beach Boys, which streams on Disney+ and reunites the band in a coda, made even more poignant given legendary composer Brian Wilson’s recent diagnosis with a “major neurocognitive disorder”.

Perfect companion pieces, both book and film capture the group's astounding rise from humble beginnings as a Hawthorne garage band to internationally renowned act, covering the release of their first single, Surfin' Up to their renaissance as a major live attraction in the late 1970s. Through their unique sound, complex harmonies, feelgood live shows and use of innovative recording techniques, The Beach Boys became woven into the cultural fabric of America and influenced generations of musicians globally. The book and film document how it happened. 

Featuring never-before-seen photographs and footage, the two projects contain interviews with Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston and archival chats with Brian’s late brothers, Carl and Dennis. It’s an approach that recalls the career-spanning Beatles Anthology series and tie-in book and comes in the wake of the Liverpudlians’ groundbreaking Get Back series and Let It Be movie.

Speaking at a press conference to launch the documentary, Jardine said: “It seems to be the right time for it because we’ve all had such a rich experience singing all those great harmonies and just being out on the road and having a wonderful time. We’re kinda lucky because we’ve been able to kind of have, over the decades, a renewal with new fans and a whole new audience, really. I guess we had to do it.”

Love, who still tours with Johnston as The Beach Boys, continued: “It was not a problem signing up for it. I mean, Disney wants to do a documentary on your career and your music. What a phenomenal opportunity at this stage of our career to have these wonderful accolades by so many people and the hard work and forensics that went into some of this documentary.

“I’m just honoured and delighted it’s happening. It happens, it coincides with the 50th anniversary of the ‘Endless Summer’ [hits compilation] album. Al goes out as The Summer Band from time to time, and we sing more than a dozen of the songs on that album every night we go on stage. So, really, it’s kind of miraculous that over 60 years after we started, we’re singing these songs and getting a great response and a great appreciation. So, we’re grateful and have nothing but gratitude. I feel it’s a huge blessing to have this documentary.”

Brian added: “I’m super happy with the way the documentary turned out. They did an amazing job. It really brought me back to those days with the boys, the fun and the music. And of course, those incredible harmonies. There's love in the music and people can relate to the love, regardless of whether you're two years old or 92 years old. For me, music is about love. Love is the message I want to share. I hope people feel that in my music. That makes the hard work worth it.”

The two projects are illuminating about how, as teenagers, the band first discovered that magical, seamless blend of voices, heavily influenced by vocal quartet The Four Freshmen which provided their harmonic education. Meanwhile, it was Dennis, the only Beach Boy who surfed, whose lifestyle would inspire his brother, Brian, and Mike to write songs about surfing and cars.

Brian’s startling ability to hear harmony parts and remember them, would eventually lead him to produce as well as compose. As Jardine said at the press conference: “Whenever we started a song, the arrangement was already in Brian’s head. So, it was really easy. Brian would put his right hand on the piano, on the keys, and each one of us was a note. He’d sing the melody, and then I’d take the next one. I was like the second tenor. Carl would be third tenor, and then you had Mike on the baritone. 

“And if Dennis was there, he was somewhere in the middle. It was always on Brian’s hands on the keys. But the trick was you had to remember your part. If you didn’t, then it screwed it all up and we had to start over. So, we were pretty good at remembering the parts.”

Love adds they were obsessed by the blend of voices. “We were always looking for somebody who could blend as well as harmonise,” he said. “Anybody can sing a note, but can four people blend together? That was our obsession. So, Al met Brian in school, and he could blend as well as sing a note. He could sing a lead, and so can I, but on a four-part harmony, I would take the bottom. I’d take the bass. Like on Don’t Worry Baby, I’d be singing the bass part. In My Room, bass part. Surfer Girl, bass part. Warmth of the Sun, bass part. But all the other parts, you had to blend. The backgrounds have to blend. We worked our buns off to do that.”

Phil Spector’s ‘Wall of Sound’ style of production had a profound impact on Brian, who fixated on Be My Baby by The Ronettes, recorded with legendary session outfit The Wrecking Crew. It fuelled Brian’s desire to produce, and the Beach Boys’ Don’t Worry Baby was his response – a major turning point as he too started to use the studio to build multi-layered recordings. As Jardine says in the book, they were just keeping up with the pace of Brian’s productivity.

Brian’s mental health, as he struggled to cope with constant touring, is dealt with delicately, with a vintage clip of Dennis admitting how terrified he was for his brother. With Brian remaining at home to compose, Johnston joined the band and took his place on the road.

With the other Beach Boys away, Brian worked tirelessly with the Wrecking Crew. He was in complete command of his vision, seeking to top The Beatles’ Rubber Soul with songs that reflected how he felt about life — something spiritual, something visionary — rather than cars and the beach. Upon their return his band mates, who had left California as a surf group in early 1966, were required to adopt a completely different style of music and singing.

Love talks about the ‘phenomenal’ vocal sessions in the book. They were intense but highly rewarding, and difficult at times because of Brian’s obsession with getting things absolutely perfect along wit his ability to hear things most people couldn’t. “As a consequence,” Love says, “if you listen to the vocals on ‘Pet Sounds’, they’re some of the best ever recorded. I mean, they’re flawless.”

Their label, Capitol, was alarmed by this new direction and instead of supporting the album fully they put together a greatest hits album that damaged sales. But ‘Pet Sounds’ soon found admirers among the Beach Boys’ peers. Johnston talks about taking an advance copy on a promotional trip to London where John Lennon and Paul McCartney were awestruck and championed the album, as did EMI and the British press.

Perhaps the crowning achievement that year was the pocket symphony Good Vibrations, ultimately the biggest production of their career. The book details the three months of studio sessions and how Love’s lyrics intended to capture the mood of the times. But from such triumphs, the story then takes a darker turn. 

In 1966 Beach Boys publicist Derek Taylor used the tagline ‘Brian Wilson is a genius’, which ultimately increased pressure on an increasingly troubled man, hurt by the lack of label support. Melody Maker went as far to ask if the rest of the band were “Brian Wilson’s puppets”. “It would have been easier for Brian to cope with his genius if we’d all been promoted,” suggests Love in the documentary.

Brian began work on what was intended to be his crowning glory, the ‘Smile’ album, but in archive interviews in the documentary he admits drugs “messed my mind up” during this period. The film hears too from lyricist Van Dyke Parks, who reveals Love challenged him on his often surrealistic writing. Ultimately, concludes Brian, “I wanted to do my kind of music, they wanted to do theirs. It was inappropriate for the Beach Boys, too weird.”

Love admits ‘Smile’ was too much for his cousin to finish. Brian retreated, the band dropped out of the Monterey Festival and missed their moment to be part of the zeitgeist. While some of the songs from the ‘Smile’ project emerged over the course of the next five years, the music press, expecting something to rival ‘Pet Sounds’, were critical, disappointed in their run of late 60s albums.

It’s into these years, in particular, where the book offers greater insight. Whereas the six-part Beatles Anthology lasted more than 11 hours, Disney’s The Beach Boys clocks in at 113 minutes, while covering a longer time span. Inevitably, it takes a more broad approach, focusing largely on more well-known plot points, although watching the participants talk candidly about their experiences offers a very human and, at times, very telling and emotional experience. Nor does the film, or book, shy away from some – though far from all – of the many tensions in their long story. One area that is explored, for example, is the Wilson brothers’ relationship with their often-abusive father Murry and the impact of his controlling management style.

The book’s fascinating deep dive into the Beach Boys’ fallow years touches on lesser told stories such as Carl’s opposition to the Vietnam draft and Love’s visit to India with The Beatles to study under Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It explores the fascinating early 70s period when they sought to reinvent themselves with a PR campaign designed to appeal to new rock audiences. Carl came into his own as the ‘touring band’s captain’ and ‘spiritual compass’, becoming more involved in production. Increasingly progressive studio work touched on environmental concerns.

It was with the Capitol ‘Endless Summer’ hits compilation, however, that a new generation discovered their music. As the Disney+ film notes, the irony was they were trying to get away from a reputation as a surf group and yet, ultimately, it saved them. Able to reproduce their greatest hits live, they became a huge headline act. Indeed, the book concludes with the triumphant 1980 Independence Day concert at the National Mall in Washington D.C., for an audience of over half a million people.

Love, often a divisive figure among fans, talks with real warmth about his bandmates and is moved to tears at the end of the documentary. “We’ve had our ups and downs,” he says. “We don’t talk much. If I could, I’d tell them I love them, and nothing could erase that.”

But, just as the Beatles’ Get Back ended with an uplifting moment on the Apple rooftop, the Disney+ film too ends on a high, of sorts. In a moving final scene, the remaining Beach Boys – including Brian and original member David Marks – reunite once more at Paradise Cove – the location for the cover photograph for their very first album, 1962’s ‘Surfin' Safari’.

“Times change, and individuals literally come and go,” Love says. “When I look at the film, I feel some sadness because Dennis is gone, Carl’s gone. Brian’s had his rough times and stuff. So, there is some sadness and melancholy, but there’s an awful lot of appreciation for the work we did together and the love of music that united us even in spite of individual differences at times.”

Jardine reveals that, unseen in the finished documentary, the band played some songs during their brief beachside reunion. He explains why he took part. “We’re still here, so let’s enjoy it again,” he says. “It was just like when we started. We did Surfin’ Safari. We did Fun, Fun, Fun, which Brian asked, “Can we do it again?” We did Fun, Fun, Fun twice. I love Surfin’ Safari, and then there was Paradise Cove, where it all started, really, with that first album…I just enjoyed the heck out of it.”

  • ‘The Beach Boys’ is streaming now on Disney+.
  • The Beach Boys by The Beach Boys is published by Genesis Publications

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