The Beach Boys' saga encompasses triumph and tragedy, innovation and excess, success and disappointment. It also involves some of the most acclaimed popular music ever created, thanks largely to the prodigious talents of sonic architect and main creative force Brian Wilson.
To the generation that came of age in the first half of the 1960s, the Beach Boys will forever be identified with the vision of an innocent, carefree pre-flower power America. The quintet's lengthy string of early hits – “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “I Get Around,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “Surfer Girl” — mythologized middle-class teenage life and the golden ideal of California, with an undercurrent of melancholic romanticism that would assert itself more strongly in the group's later work.
Based in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne, California, the Beach Boys were a family affair, comprised of brothers Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson along with their cousin Mike Love and their neighbor Al Jardine. Managed by the Wilsons’ father Murry and featuring close five-part harmonies influenced by the vocal group the Four Freshmen, the Beach Boys released their first record, Surfin’ Safari, in 1962, with the title track becoming the first in a long string of hits.
As the decade progressed, Wilson's innovative songwriting, arrangements, and vocal harmonies advanced rapidly, sealing his position as one of the era's preeminent musical visionaries. His knack for creating expressive sounds and his mastery of the recording studio yielded such classics as the 1966 album Pet Sounds and the epic single "Good Vibrations," which were as advanced — sonically, compositionally, and harmonically — as anything being made in popular music at the time.
But those musical highs soon turned negative, as Wilson's ongoing refusal to stick with the group's hitmaking formula caused tension within the band, and led to his 1967 magnum opus, Smile, being shelved. Brian's increasingly fragile mental state soon led him to withdraw from the band, the studio, and the world for extended periods. Meanwhile, the band he founded — helmed by Love, with a shifting cast of members — spent much of the 70s and 80s torn between its dual identities as contemporary recording group and a crowd-pleasing oldies act, with the latter eventually winning out. Dennis Wilson (the only Beach Boy who actually surfed) drowned in California in 1983; Carl Wilson fell to cancer in 1998.
The Beach Boys' story recently gained a degree of closure when a resurgent Brian Wilson reemerged from decades in the shadows to launch an unprecedented return to musical activity. That activity included reviving his lost masterpiece Smile on record and onstage, leading to the original recordings finally being released to the public in 2011. Wilson, Love, and Jardine reunited in 2012 for the Wilson-produced album That’s Why God Made the Radio – the Beach Boys’ highest charting record since the mid 1960s – which was followed by a 50th anniversary world tour, documented on a double live CD.