Villains and Heroes: In Defense of the Beach Boys
BRIAN WILSON AND COMPANY are currently at the center of an intense contemporary rock controversy, involving the academic "rock as art" critic-intellectuals, the AM-tuned teenies, and all the rest of us in between. As the California sextet is simultaneously hailed as genius incarnate and derided as the archetypical pop music copouts, one clear-cut and legitimate query is seen at the base of all the turmoil: how seriously can the 1968 rock audience consider the work of a group of artists who, just four years earlier, represented the epitome of the whole commercial-plastic "teenage music industry?"…
The answer is a simple one. The Beach Boys' approach to their music is as valid now as it was in 1962 and vice versa. Brian Wilson owes no one any apologies for his music, present or past.
The most popular charge leveled at the Beach Boys is their apparently excessive immersion in and identification with mass culture and "commercialism"…. [An] association with mass culture was indeed a characteristic of the Beach Boys' music up until 1966. Moreover, it was an "honest" association…. Wilson's world circa 1962 was seriously involved with all the then dead serious/now ludicrous manifestations of adolescence: hot rods, surfing and making-out in the school parking lot really do exist. A fascination with popular culture has proven to be a significant part of the twentieth century artist's personality. It has served [Andy] Warhol and Chuck Berry (the Beach Boys' earliest influence) equally well.
Southern California teenage culture provided Brian Wilson with material for his art in 'Surfin' Safari' and 'Little Deuce Coupe', as did the drug experience in 'Good Vibrations', as does whatever in Wild Honey. The aforementioned charges would, however, have been valid (as certainly they are when applied to performers like Jan & Dean) if the Beach Boys' music had proven to be of no artistic merit, but such is not the case. Despite the oversaturation of the public with surf and drag argot, despite the fact that their recordings became somewhat anachronistic for a while, the Beach Boys have maintained a consistent impressive musical output….
In retrospect, the first Beach Boys music was a relatively crude product. In their initial LP effort, Surfin' Safari, the only talent evidenced is Brian Wilson's empathy, his ability to assimilate his environment and structure it into lyrical form. In their third LP, Surfer Girl, the Beach Boys emerged as the first authentic "rock 'n' roll group," in the modern sense; they were at once composers, singers and musicians, arrangers and producers, the first major self-sufficient rock band. In Surfer Girl Brian Wilson supervises the whole recording operation; still working with the formula, he is able to create a work of variety and subtlety.
By Little Deuce Coupe the formula has been polished to high gloss, directly working from Chuck Berry and Four Freshmen stylings. Brian's proficiency at composing intriguing melodies is displayed in 'Car Crazy Cutie' and 'Spirit of America'. The formula works perfectly, for the last time.
What ensued after Little Deuce Coupe was a period of artistic transition which lasted roughly from 1964 to 1966. From Shut Down Volume 2 through Beach Boys Party Album formula is necessarily discarded and the LPs become uneven collections, replete with boring bull session fillers, displaying commendable experimentation and sophistication, moments of beauty amid dullness.[The] most ambitious of the group's transition efforts [was] The Beach Boys Today! While it avoids contextual unity Today! is remarkable in its embodiment of Brian's oft quoted "voices-as-instruments" philosophy. The perfect vocal intricacies of 'She Knows Me Too Well' and 'Please Let Me Wonder' originally elicited Jack Good's famous quote that "Beach Boys' records sound as if they were sung by eunuchs in the Sistine Choir." A precursor of Pet Soundsorchestration is found in the elaborate treatment given Spector's Ronettes' 'I'm So Young'. Perhaps more than any previous work, Today! substantiated Brian's stature as one of the all-time great composers of melody in rock (along with Lennon-McCartney, John Phillips and Smokey Robinson).
Two important singles mark the Beach Boys' final transition phase. 'Sloop John B' early in 1966 was a partially effective attempt at erasing youth cult leaders image by adapting folk-rock to traditional Beach Boys' style. 'God Only Knows', a truly distinctive 45, was the lead-off cut on the most fascinating and creative Beach Boys album to date, Pet Sounds. Pet Soundswas by no means a revolutionary work in that it inspired or influenced the rock scene in a big way. It was revolutionary only within the confines of the Beach Boys' music. The concept behind the album was part of a tradition established by Rubber Soul; Rubber Soul was the definitive "rock as art" album, revolutionary in that it was a completely successful creative endeavor integrating with precision all aspects of the creative (rock) process–composition of individual tracks done with extreme care, each track arranged appropriately to fit beside each other track, the symmetrical rock 'n' roll album.
Rubber Soul established itself as the necessary prototype that no major rock group has been able to ignore; Rubber Soul, [the Rolling Stones'] Aftermath and Pet Sounds are of the same classic mold. Brian's omniscience is surely felt in Pet Sounds, the master hand collecting and selecting, shaping his musical expression to exhibit all of the parts of the whole; the Freshmen harmonizing, Spector's cavernous hollows of sound, lush 1940's movie music, adolescent romanticism. Like the prototype, Pet Sounds was a final statement of an era and a prophecy that sweeping changes lay ahead.
'Good Vibrations' may yet prove to be the most significantly revolutionary piece of the current rock renaissance; executed as it is in conventional Beach Boys manner, it is one of the few organically complete rock works; every audible note and every silence contributes to the whole three minutes, 35 seconds, of the song. It is the ultimate in-studio production trip, very much rock 'n' roll in the emotional sense and yet un-rocklike in its spacial, dimensional conceptions. In no minor way, 'Good Vibrations' is a primary influential piece for all producing rock artists; everyone has felt its import to some degree, in such disparate things as the Yellow Balloon's 'Yellow Balloon' and the Beatles' 'A Day in the Life', in groups as far apart as (recent) Grateful Dead and the Association, as Van Dyke Parks and the Who….
Smiley Smile was an abrupt collection of comic vocal exercises. The most promising cuts, 'Vegetables', 'Gettin' Hungry' and 'She's Goin' Bald', act as illustrations of the voice-as-instrument thing (they're mainly freaky-hip vocal diversions, not even songs), but Smiley Smile was predominantly a downer.
As if enough fuel hadn't been added to the fire, shortly after the radical (it is nothing if not experimental) Smiley Smile, an astonishingly conventional album, Wild Honey, made its appearance; the Beach Boys come on really schizoid now. In Wild Honey they have the audacity to fool around with r&b, a territory indeed alien to them. Surprisingly, Wild Honeyworks well. It isn't the least bit pretentious; it's honest, and convincing. A whole lot of soul is used up on 'Wild Honey' and 'Darlin',' as well as the re-make of Stevie Wonder's 'I Was Made To Love Her.' 'Aren't You Glad' achieves a Miracles style smoothness via a Bobby Goldsboro-type song, and Brian's weird ear for melody is again evidenced in 'Let the Wind Blow' and 'Country Air.' Wild Honey is ambitious but not obnoxious. It's where the Beach Boys presently are at, in many ways it is where they have been all along (a kind of lyrical romance rock); and it is precisely where they belong, doing their thing uniquely like no one else can.
The Beach Boys' most recent work, Friends, may actually be their best. This album represents the culmination of the efforts and the results of their last three LPs. Demonstrating their highly distinctive approach and their own sense of organicism, Friendsderives primarily from Pet Sounds, Smiley Smile, Wild Honey, and little else. The characteristic innocence and somewhat childlike visions imparted to their music are applied directly to the theme of the album: friendships. As usual, the lyrics tend to be basic, yet as expressive as they need to be; words, like individual voices or instruments, are all part of the larger whole of music; the sole qualifications for Beach Boys' lyrics is that they partake of, and don't visibly harm, melody.
Friends is certainly less "complex," as regards harmonic intricacies, than much recent Beach Boys work. Compared to Pet Sounds and Smiley Smile, Friends seems to be vocally thin. The emphasis is on very strong melodies and it is here that Brian Wilson scores again…. In 'When A Man Needs A Woman' Wilson again treats sex as he did in 'Gettin' Hungry' (Smiley Smile), with a stunning directness and surprisingly effective simplicity. Friends differs little in effect from most other Beach Boys albums. It is another showcase for what is the most original and perhaps the most consistently satisfying rock music being created today.
© Gene Sculatti, 1968