Beach Boys PhotoFORMED: 1961, Hawthorne, CA

Beginning their career as the most popular surf band in the nation, the Beach Boys finally emerged by 1966 as America's preeminent pop group, the only act able to challenge (for a brief time) the over-arching success of the Beatles with both mainstream listeners and the critical community. From their 1961 debut with the regional hit "Surfin," the three Wilson brothers -- Brian, Dennis, and Carl -- plus cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine constructed the most intricate, gorgeous harmonies ever heard from a pop band. With Brian's studio proficiency growing by leaps and bounds during the mid-'60s, the Beach Boys also proved to be one of the best-produced groups of the '60s, exemplified by their 1966 peak with the Pet Sounds LP and the number one single, "Good Vibrations." Though Brian's escalating drug use and obsessive desire to trump the Beatles (by recording the perfect LP statement) eventually led to a nervous breakdown after he heard Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the group soldiered on long into the 1970s and '80s, with Brian only an inconsistent participant. The band's post-1966 material is often maligned (if it's recognized at all), but the truth is the Beach Boys continued to make great music well into the '70s. Displayed best on 1970's Sunflower, each member revealed individual talents never fully developed during the mid-'60s -- Carl became a solid, distinctive producer and Brian's replacement as nominal band-leader, Mike continued to provide a visual focus as the frontman for live shows, and Dennis developed his own notable songwriting talents. Though legal wranglings and marginal oldies tours during the '90s often obscured what made the Beach Boys great, the band's unerring ability to surf the waves of commercial success and artistic development during the '60s made them America's first, best rock band.

The origins of the group lie in Hawthorne, California, a southern suburb of Los Angeles situated close to the Pacific coast. The three sons of a part-time song-plugger and occasionally abusive father, Brian, Dennis and Carl grew up a just few miles from the ocean -- though only Dennis had any interest in surfing itself. The three often harmonized together as youths, spurred on by Brian's fascination with '50s vocal acts like the Four Freshmen and the Hi-Lo's. Their cousin Mike Love often joined in on the impromptu sessions, and the group gained a fifth with the addition of Brian's high-school football teammate, Al Jardine. His parents helped rent instruments (with Brian on bass, Carl on guitar, Dennis on drums) and studio time to record "Surfin'," a novelty number written by Brian and Mike Love. The single, initially released in 1961 on Candix and billed to the Pendletones (a musical paraphrase of the popular Pendleton shirt), prompted a little national chart action and gained the renamed Beach Boys a contract with Capitol. The group's negotiator with the label, the Wilsons' father Murray, also took over as manager for the band. Before the release of any material for Capitol, however, Jardine left the band to attend college in the Midwest. A friend of the Wilsons, David Marks, replaced him.

Finally, in mid-1962 the Beach Boys released their major-label debut, "Surfin' Safari." A more accomplished novelty single than its predecessor, the single hit the Top 20 and helped launch the surf-rock craze just beginning to blossom around Southern California thanks to artists like Dick Dale, Jan & Dean, the Chantays, and dozens more. A similarly themed follow-up, "Surfin' U.S.A.," hit the Top Ten in early 1963 before Jardine returned from school and resumed his place in the group. By that time, the Beach Boys had recorded their first two albums, a pair of 12-track collections that added a few novelty songs to the hits they were packaged around (unsurprisingly, the titles were Surfin' Safari and Surfin' U.S.A.). Though Capitol policy required the group to work with a studio producer, Brian quickly took over the sessions and began expanding the group's range beyond simple surf rock.

By the end of 1963, the Beach Boys had recorded three full LPs, hit the Top Ten as many times, and toured incessantly. Also, Brian began to grow as a producer, best documented on the third Beach Boys LP, Surfer Girl. Though surf songs still dominated the album, "Catch a Wave," the title track, and especially "In My Room" presented a giant leap in songwriting, production, and group harmony -- especially astonishing considering they'd been recording for barely two years. Brian's intense scrutiny of Phil Spector's famous Wall of Sound productions were paying quick dividends, and revealed his intuitive, unerring depths of musical knowledge.

The following year, "I Get Around" became the first number one hit for the Beach Boys. Riding a crest of popularity, the late 1964 LP Beach Boys Concert spent four weeks at the top of the album charts, just one of five Beach Boys LPs simultaneously on the charts. The group also undertook promotional tours of Europe, but the pressures and time-constraints proved too much for Brian. At the end of the year, he decided to quit the touring band and concentrate on studio productions. (Glen Campbell toured with the group briefly, then friend and colleague Bruce Johnston became Brian's permanent replacement.)

With the Beach Boys as his musical messengers to the world, Brian began working full-time in the studio, writing songs and enlisting the cream of Los Angeles session players to record instrumental backing tracks before Carl, Dennis, Mike and Al returned to add vocals. The single "Help Me, Rhonda" became the Beach Boys' second chart-topper in early 1965. On the group's seventh studio LP, The Beach Boys Today!, Brian's production skills hit another level entirely. In the rock era's first flirtation with an extended album-length statement, side two of the record presented a series of downtempo ballads, arranged into a suite that stretched the group's lyrical concerns beyond youthful infatuation and into more adult notions of love.

Two more LPs followed in 1965, Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) and Beach Boys' Party. The first featured "California Girls," one of the best fusions of Brian's production mastery, infectious melodies, and gorgeous close harmonies (it's still his personal favorite song). However, dragging down those few moments of brilliance were novelty tracks like "Amusement Parks USA," "Salt Lake City" and "I'm Bugged at My Old Man" that appeared a step back from Today. When Capitol asked for a Beach Boys' record to sell at Christmas, the live-in-the-studio vocal jam-session Beach Boys' Party resulted, and sold incredibly well after the single "Barbara Ann" became a surprise hit. In a larger sense though, both of these LPs were stopgaps, as Brian prepared for production on what he hoped would be the Beach Boys' most effective musical statement yet.

In late 1965, the Beatles released Rubber Soul. Amazed at the consistently high quality of songs on the album, Brian began writing songs -- with help from lyricist Tony Asher -- and producing sessions for Pet Sounds, a song suite charting a young man's growth to emotional maturity. Though other group-members were resistent to an album with few obvious hits, they spent more time working on the vocals and harmonies than any other previous project. The results, released in May 1966, more than justified the effort. One of the best-produced and most influential rock LPs ever released, Pet Sounds culminated years of production work and songwriting. Critics praised the album, but the new direction failed to impress American audiences. Though it reached the Top Ten, Pet Sounds missed a gold certificate (it was the first album to do so since their debut LP). Conversely, worldwide reaction was not just positive but jubilant. In England, the album hit number two and earned the Beach Boys the honors for best group in year-end polls by NME -- above even the Beatles, hardly slouches themselves with the releases of "Paperback Writer"/"Rain" and Revolver.

The Beach Boys' next single, "Good Vibrations," had originally been written for Pet Sounds, though Brian removed it to give him more time for production work. After Pet Sounds, he resumed working on "Good Vibrations" and eventually devoted up to six months (and three different studios) for recording. Released in October 1966, it capped off the year as the group's third number one single and still stands as one of the best singles of all time. Throughout late 1966 and early 1967, Brian worked feverishly on the next Beach Boys' LP, a project first named Dumb Angel but later titled Smile, that promised to be as great an artistic leap beyond Pet Sounds than that album was compared to its predecessors. He drafted Van Dyke Parks, an eccentric lyricist and session man, as his songwriting partner, and recorded reams of tape containing music which grew more and more speculative as time wore on. Already wary of Brian's increasingly artistic leanings and drug experimentation, the other Beach Boys (especially Mike Love) grew downright hostile when called in to add vocals to Parks lyrics like, "A blind class aristocracy / Back through the opera glass you see / The pit and the pendulum drawn / Columnaded ruins domino / Canvas the town and brush the backdrop" (from "Surf's Up"). A rift soon formed between Brian and the band: they felt his intake of marijuana and LSD had clouded his judgment, while he felt they were holding him back from pushing his productions into the psychedelic era.

As recording for Smile dragged on into 1967, Brian began working fewer hours. For the first time in the Beach Boys' career, he appeared unsure of their direction. If Smile ever appeared salveagable, those hopes were dashed in late June, when the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Its unparalleled critical success proved to be the last straw for Brian's fragile emotions, and he all but quit recording for the project. In August, the Beach Boys finally released new material, the single "Heroes & Villains." Very similar to the fragmentary style of "Good Vibrations," though a distinctly inferior follow-up, it missed the Top Ten. Then, in September, the group cobbled together a few Smile tapes plus new recordings of Smile songs and emerged with a new album, Smiley Smile. Carl summed up the LP as "a bunt instead of a grand slam," and it all but destroyed the group's reputation for forward-thinking pop. As the Beatles ushered in the psychedelic age, the Beach Boys stalled with the all-important teen crowd, who quickly saw the group as '50s doo-wop throwbacks. The group also squandered a chance to headline the pioneering Monterey Pop Festival in summer 1967. Though the Beach Boys regrouped quickly -- the back-to-basics Wild Honey LP appeared before year's end -- their hopes of becoming the world's preeminent pop group with both hippies and critics fizzled in a matter of months.

All this incredible promise wasted made fans, critics, and radio programmers undeniably bitter toward future product. Predictably, both Wild Honey and 1968's Friends suffered with all three audiences. They survive as interesting records nevertheless; the skeletal white-boy soul on Wild Honey and the laidback orchestral pop of Friends made them favorites after fans realized the Beach Boys were a radically different group in 1968 than 1966. Sparked by the Top 20 hit "Do It Again," a song that saw the first shades of the group as an oldies act, 1969's 20/20 did marginally better. Still, Capitol dropped the band soon after. One year later, the Beach Boys signed to Reprise, which even gave the group their own label, Brother Records, in response to the Beatles' Apple Recordings.

The first LP for Brother/Reprise was 1970's Sunflower, a surprisingly strong album featuring a return to the gorgeous harmonies of the mid-'60s and many songs written by different members of the band. Surf's Up, titled after a reworked song originally intended for Smile, followed in 1971. The songs on Surf's Up were eccentric and frequently loveable; one song, "Til I Die," ranks as the most beautiful Brian Wilson song composed after 1967. During sessions for the album, Dennis put his hand through a plate glass window and was unable to play drums. Early in 1972, the band hired drummer Ricky Fataar and guitarist Blondie Chaplin, two members of a South African rock band named the Flame (Carl had produced their self-titled debut for Brother Records the previous year).

Carl and the Passions - So Tough, the first album released with Fataar and Chaplin in the band, descended into lame early-'70s AOR-rock. For the first time, a Beach Boys album retained nothing from their classic sound. Brian's mental stability wavered from year to year, and he spent much time in his mansion with no wish to even contact the outside world. He occasionally contributed to the songwriting and session load, but was by no means a member of the band anymore (he rarely even appeared on album covers or promotional shots). Though it's unclear why Reprise felt ready to take such a big risk, the label authorized a large recording budget for the next Beach Boys album. After shipping most of the group's family and entourage over to Amsterdam (plus an entire studio), the Beach Boys re-emerged in 1973 with Holland. The LP scraped the bottom rungs of the Top 40, and the single "Sail On, Sailor" (with vocals by Chaplin) did receive some FM radio airplay. Still, Holland's muddy sound did nothing for the aging band, and it earned scathing reviews.

Perhaps a bit gun-shy, the Beach Boys essentially retired from recording during the mid-'70s. Instead, the band concentrated on grooming their live act, which quickly grew to become an incredible experience. It was a good move, considering the Beach Boys could lay claim to more hits than any other '60s rock act on the road (even the Stones). The Beach Boys in Concert, their third live album in total, appeared in 1973.

Then, in mid-1974, Capitol Records went to the vaults and issued a repackaged hits collection, Endless Summer. Both band and label watched, dumbfounded, as the double-LP hit number one, spent almost three years on the charts, and went gold. Endless Summer capitalized on a growing fascination with oldies rock that had made Sha Na Na, American Graffiti, and Happy Days big hits. Rolling Stone, never the most friendly magazine to the group, named the Beach Boys their Band of the Year at the end of the year. Another collection, Spirit of America, hit the Top Ten in 1974, and the Beach Boys were hustled into the studio to begin new recordings.

Trumpeted by a barely true marketing campaign that trumpeted "Brian's Back!," 1976's 15 Big Ones balanced a couple of '50s oldies with some justifiably exciting Brian Wilson oddities like "Had to Phone Ya." It also hit the Top Ten and went gold, despite critical misgivings. Brian took a much more involved position for the following year's The Beach Boys Love You (it was almost titled Brian Loves You and released as a solo album). In marked contrast to the fatalistic early-'70s pop of "Til I Die" and others, Brian sounded positively jubilant on gruff proto-synth-pop numbers like "Let Us Go on This Way" and "Mona." However idiosyncratic compared to what oldies fans expected of the Beach Boys, Love You was the group's best album in years. (A suite of beautiful, tender ballads on side two was quite reminiscent of 1965's Today.)

After 1979's M.I.U. Album, the group signed a large contract with CBS that stipulated Brian's involvement on each album. However, his brief return to the spotlight ended with two dismal efforts, L.A. (Light Album) and Keepin' the Summer Alive. Mismanagement of financial matters by Mike Love's brothers Stan and Steve had fostered tension between him and the Wilsons -- by 1980, Dennis and Carl had left the Beach Boys, both for solo careers. Dennis had already released his first album, Pacific Ocean Blue, in 1977, and Carl released his eponymous debut in 1981. Brian was removed from the group one year later, after his weight ballooned to over 300 pounds. The tragic drowning death of Dennis in 1983 helped bring the group back together for 1985's The Beach Boys. Though the album was endemic of overly slick '80s production techniques, it returned the band to the Top 40 with "Getcha Back."

It would be the last proper Beach Boys album of the '80s, however. Brian had been steadily improving in mind and body during the mid-'80s, though the rest of the group grew suspicious of his mentor, Dr. Eugene Landy, a dodgy psychiatrist who reportedly worked wonders with the easily impressionable Brian but also practically took over his life. Landy collaborated with Brian on his autobiography Woudn't It Be Nice and wrote lyrics for Brian's first solo album, 1988's Brian Wilson. Critics and fans enjoyed it, but the charts were unforgiving, especially with attention on the Beach Boys once more. The single "Kokomo," from the soundtrack to Cocktail, hit number one in the US late that year, prompting a haphazard collection named Still Cruisin'. The group also sued Brian, more to force Landy out of the picture than anything, and Mike Love later sued Brian for songwriting royalties (Brian had frequently admitted Love's involvement on most of them).

Despite the many quarrels, the Beach Boys kept touring during the early '90s, and Mike Love and Brian Wilson actually began writing songs together in 1995. Instead of a new album though, the Beach Boys returned with Stars and Stripes, Vol. 1, a collection of remade hits with country stars singing lead and the group adding backing vocals. Also, a Brian Wilson documentary titled I Just Wasn't Made for These Times aired on the Disney Channel; an accompanying soundtrack featured spare renditions of Beach Boys classics by Brian himself. Carl's death from cancer in 1998 was a shock to bandmembers, fans and friends. Then, Brian began recognizing his immense influence on the alternative community -- he worked with biggest-fans Sean O'Hagan (of the High Llamas) and Andy Paley on a series of songs that would form his second solo album. Again, good intentions failed to carry through, as the recordings were ditched in favor of another overly produced, mainstream-slanted album named Imagination. By early 1999, no less than three Beach Boys-connected units were touring the country -- a Brian Wilson solo tour, the "official" Beach Boys led by Mike Love, and the "Beach Boys Family" led by Al Jardine. In 2000, Capitol instituted a long-promised reissue campaign, focusing on the group's long out-of-print '70s LPs. ~ John Bush, All Music Guide