For The Tribune-Democrat
Summer is just around the corner, and our thoughts drift to sun, sand and surf.
And the Beach Boys.
The Beach Boys have been as constant and perennial as the seasons themselves. In fact, the Beach Boys are celebrating their 50th anniversary this summer with a new studio album – their first in 20 years and a world tour.
All surviving original members – Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and David Marks – are back on board.
One of their most famous interim alumni, Glen Campbell, is on his own sellout tour from last year. Brian’s two younger brothers, Carl (1998) and Dennis (1983), have passed on.
Speaking of brothers, there is an eerily similar history to the United States’ Beach Boys and the United Kingdom’s Bee Gees.
Both groups had fathers who had a musical background, who encouraged their boys to play instruments at a young age. Both groups’ core members consisted of three brothers who sang tight three-part harmonies, whose musical styles evolved with changing times. And both groups wrote their own songs during their very successful careers. And with both groups the younger brothers passed away, leaving the oldest brothers as the surviving siblings.
The Beach Boys were uniquely American, celebrating the California lifestyle: Sun, sea, sand, surfing, girls and cars, although not necessarily in that order. It was a lifestyle chronicled in such hits as “Surfin’ USA,” “Little Deuce Coupe” and “California Girls.”
Ironically, Dennis was the only surfer in the group.
The style, subject matter and voices were as immediately identifiable as their striped shirts, establishing the Beach Boys as arguably the biggest act from the U.S. back then.
Even as the times and styles changed, Brian Wilson, the creative leader, never missed a beat, updating the Beach Boys sound with a seminal album called “Pet Sounds,” which was hailed by critics and musicians alike. Songs such as “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” (a personal favorite) and “God Only Knows” were hugely successful on the charts. The songs earned the album and Brian Wilson a diverse legion of fans, including Paul McCartney, Eric Clapton, Elton John, Roger Waters, Tom Petty, Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello. These musicians and others still reflect on how influential that album was to their own work, and the album led into possibly Brian Wilson’s epic song, “Good Vibrations.”
The following years were marked by occasional hits such as “Rock and Roll Music” (1976) and “Kokomo” (1988) and constant touring as various original members left and came back to the group. This period also had in-group fighting (creative differences) and lawsuits (who wrote what) that were filed and sometimes dismissed.
The past 30 years have been a period of survival of the group, figuratively and literally. Brian’s problems with mental illness (stress-related) and substance abuse (pharmaceutical as well as recreational) have taken their toll on him and his brothers.
Ironically, it is Brian, with his publicized struggles, who has outlived his two younger brothers, who had their own struggles with drugs and alcohol. Dennis, the youngest and self-proclaimed black sheep of the family, had an additional tribulation by befriending Charles Manson and his ‘family’ the year before their rampage of the Tate-LaBianca murder spree. Manson had so terrified Dennis that rather than throw the boarders out of his home, he moved to a new home.
It is in some way miraculous that the Beach Boys, after all the success and turmoil of the past 50 years, are still standing today.
The survivors are unified once again touring, and making new music for the millennium, with a new album out this month.
Now in their 70s, the Beach Boys have gone from striped shirts to tie-dyed shirts to Hawaiian shirts, still endeavoring to stay relevant while keeping their original fans by embracing the legacy that initially made them successful.
And while it is tempting to be judgmental of Brian Wilson’s excesses in life, credit must be accorded him as a musical genius whose brilliance in composing, producing and arranging gave us some of the most beautiful music in the history of rock and roll music.
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