An American musical institution, the Beach Boys parlayed a repertoire of songs about surfing, cars, and girls into the basis for one of the country’s longest-lasting success stories.
The group formed in Hawthorne, California, in 1961 and included brothers Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, their cousin Mike Love, and friend Al Jardine. Mike Love sang most of the leads while Brian led on many ballads. Dennis and Al also led on various songs.
The group started out as Kenny and the Cadets, Carl and the Passions, and finally the Pendletones (named after an “in” shirtmaker at that time). Brian, who was a fan of George Gershwin, Stephen Foster, and The Four Freshmen, began teaching the others intricate Freshmen-styled harmonies. Murray Wilson, father of the three brothers and a sometime songwriter, took the boys to his publisher Hite Morgan, who in turn took the group to Keen Recording Studios. Dennis, as the only member of the group who surfed, thought the sport would be a good subject for a song and suggested it to Brian. Brian then wrote “Surfin’” and with Mike wrote “Surfin’ Safari,” the songs they made into demos on a fall day in 1961.
Murray then took the demos to Herb Newman, who owned Candix and Era Records. On December 8th Newman signed the group, and Era’s promo man Russ Regan (later president of 20th Century Fox Records) suggested they change their name to the Beach Boys. (The group wanted the name the Pendletones and Candix wanted the Surfers; Regan pointed out there already was a group called the Surfers.) In December 1961 “Surfin’” by the Beach Boys was issued on X Records (Morgan’s Label) as a promo issue and on Candix.
On February 17, 1962, “Surfin’” hit the national pop charts and reached number 75. (On December 31st the group had performed at its first important show under the Beach Boys name at the Long Beach Municipal Stadium in a memorial concert for Richie Valens, where they earned $300.)
In February 1962 Jardine left to study dentistry. On February 8th, Brian, Dennis, and Val Poliuto of The Jaguars recorded six songs for Hite Morgan’s Deck Records. The songs were “Surfin’,” “Surfin’ Safari,” “Karate,” “Little Surfin’ Girl,” “Luau,” and “Judy.” In May the Candix label folded and Murray Wilson, now acting as the group’s manager, started taking their demos around. Several labels, including Liberty, Dot, and Decca, passed on the group, but Capitol’s Nick Venet liked the demo of “Surfin’ Safari” and signed the boys in June. A master of “Surfin’ Safari” was quickly recorded (actually the February 8th demo with several Beach Boys overdubbing harmony parts) with new member David Marks, who’d replaced Jardine. On August 11, 1962, the song reached number 14 while the flip, a hotrod racing song called “409,” charted at number 76. The boys were cashing in on two American fads, and the formula of double-sided hits rolled on from there.
In early 1963 Jardine returned after apparently concluding that the safety of dentistry didn’t have the same allure as celebrity status with a rock and roll group. Marks, his earlier replacement, departed.
The February release of “Surfin’ U.S.A.” marked the beginning of the unique harmonies the group came to be known for. Brian was producing a new style of rock and roll with Chuck Berry rhythms and Four Freshman harmony. “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” which read “Wilson-Love” as writers on the label’s first pressing, was so close to Chuck’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” that all it took was the threat of a lawsuit to have later pressings list Chuck Berry as sole writer. Billboard’s March 9, 1963, review stated, “The boys scored with their last ‘Surfin’ side and this one will go right up after it. The side has strong beat and can be expected to blast off in Los Angeles.” By May 25th the powerpacked single was number three in the U.S.A.; it went on to reach number 32 in England and number nine in Australia. The flip, another hotrod song called “Shut Down,” reached number 23.
The next surfing/drag-racing two-sider was the group’s first ballad, “Surfer Girl” (#7 Pop, #18 R&B, #8 Australia), along with “Little Deuce Coupe” (#15 Pop).
Wilson and company were hitting the top of the music world; when their Surfin’ U.S.A. LP hit number two, the number one record in the country was Jan & Dean’s “Surf City,” written by their friend Brian Wilson. The group’s popularity was such that two nearly simultaneous LPs produced by Brian hit the top 10: the surf-themed Surfer Girl (#7) and the car-titled Little Deuce Coupe (#4).
“Be True to Your School,” a rocking paean to school loyalty, with the Honeys cheerleading alongside the boys’ contagious harmony, reached number six on December 21, 1963 (#27 R&B), while its flip, the ballad “In My Room,” rose to number 23.
“Fun, Fun, Fun,” one of their brightest rockers, with Love on lead and a Chuck Berry-style guitar intro, reached number five on March 21, 1964, and number six in Australia.
Their first number one came next as “I Get Around,” again with Mike on lead, hit the top spot most appropriately on July 4, 1964 (#7 U.K.), pushing Peter and Gordon’s “A World Without Love” from the pinnacle.
The exemplification of the Beach Boys’ rich, full harmony was on the flip, “Don’t Worry, Baby” (#24), which Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones called one of the greatest singles ever.
More great rock and roll followed in 1964 with “When I Grow Up” (#9 U.S., #44 and #27 on two U.K. chartings, #20 Australia) and “Dance, Dance, Dance” with Brian on lead (#8 U.S., #24 U.K., #36 Australia). On December 23rd, while on a plane trip from Los Angeles to Houston, Brian suffered a nervous breakdown brought on by an overwhelming schedule of writing, producing, recording, and touring. To help his recovery he stopped touring with the band, and guitarist/singer Glen Campbell joined to perform on the road.
With original material in short supply, 1965 ushered in a remake of an oldie, the Bobby Freeman hit “Do You Wanna Dance” (#5, 1958) with Dennis leading the way; it danced up to number 12. By April, Bruce Johnston (the Ripchords, “Hey Little Cobra,” #4, 1963) had replaced Glen Campbell.
“Help Me Rhonda” entered the scene in the spring of 1965 and became their second number one, pushing the Beatles’ “Ticket to Ride” out of first place.
Despite a hearing loss in his right ear, Brian continued to write and produce commercial vocal harmony hits. One of them, “California Girls,” had the most readily identifiable keyboard intro of any ‘60’s hit, and with Love on lead it reached number three on August 28, 1965. The spontaneous-sounding party recording of the Regents’ “Barbara Ann” soared to number two nationally, with Dean Torrence of Jan and Dean guesting on lead.
Meanwhile, a 1927 folk song with Jardine on lead, “Sloop John B.,” sailed to number three on May 7, 1066.
It was followed by the bouncy Brian Wilson and Tony Asher-penned slice of life, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” (#8 U.S., #2 Australia). The flip side, “God Only Knows,” earned a distinction beyond its number 39 chart position when Paul McCartney called it the greatest love song ever written. It reached number two in England, where “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” was totally ignored.
All the hits up to this time were simply appetizers to the main course, a song Brian and Mike wrote and that Brain spent six months working on. The song, recorded in 17 different sessions in four Los Angeles studios (Western, Gold Star, RCA, and Columbia) and costing the then unheard-of sum of over $16,000 to produce, was titled “Good Vibrations.” Influenced by Phil Spector (Brian had already recorded The Crystals’ “There’s No Other” with the Beach Boys and would later record other Crystals and Ronettes songs), Brian built a heavily overdubbed and echoed rock symphony that appealed to the public, complexities and all. It reached number one on December 10, 1966. In the U.K. it reached number one and in Australia number two.
The group then toured the U.K. and was promptly voted the world’s best group in the annual NME poll, displacing the Beatles.
It was no easy task following “Good Vibrations,” and it took 10 months for Capitol to issue the next Beach Boys single. The British didn’t wait as long, issuing an LP cut, the Beach Boys’ version of the Crystals’ “Then He Kissed Me” retitled “Then I Kissed Her.” It went to number four and number 28 in Australia.
“Heroes and Villains,” a complex but less commercial composition, finally reached the American airwaves, climbing to number 12 (#8 U.K., #11 Australia).
The group returned to straight-ahead rock and roll with recordings like “Wild Honey” (#31 U.S., #29 U.K., #10 Australia, 1967), “Darlin’” (#19 U.S., #11 U.K., 1967), “Do It Again” (#20 U.S., #1 U.K., #1 Australia, 1968), and “I Can Hear Music” (#24 U.S., #10 U.K., #30 Australia.)
In the summer the last record they recorded for Capitol, “Break Away,” reached number 63; the Beach Boys then signed with Warner Bros./Reprise, reestablishing its Brother label (which “heroes and Villains” first appeared on) and by March 7, 1979, were back on the charts with “Add Some Music to Your Day” (#64).
The group’s image suffered in the late ‘60’s in performance; they were perceived more as an oldies group in the midst of the progressive rock movement. They rectified the situation in 1970 when they appeared at the Big Sur Festival in North California, making fans of the new hip rock crowd. They solidified that status in February 1971, playing Carnegie Hall in New York to overwhelming positive response and splitting the bill in April at the Fillmore East with the Grateful Dead.
The Beach Boys were starting to look different in 1972. Dennis was sidelined after a mishap with a windowpane that put h is right hand out of action. Bruce Johnston left for a solo career. The two were replaced by Rick Fataar and Blondie Chaplin of the South African group Flame.
Meanwhile, their Warner Bros. records were proving not to be of the caliber of the Capitol sides. As if to prove the point, a reissue by Capitol of “Surfin’ U.S.A.” in the summer of 1974 reached number 36, higher than any of the six singles Warner Bros. had issued to date. The Warner Bros. material was getting more creative input from the group and less from Brian. Brian’s return to producing a full LP’s worth of music (15 Big Ones, titled after their 15th anniversary) brought the group back to the top five for the first time in 10 years. His simple formula? Back to Chuck Berry for “Rock and Roll Music” (#5 U.S., #36 U.K., #30 Australia) in the summer of 1976. The LP contained mostly oldies like “In the Still of the Night” and “A Casual Look” but it hit number eight in the nation, so it was obvious what the public wanted from the Beach Boys.
By then Dennis was back and Fataar and Chaplin were out.
That year, through the Beach Boys’ relationship with longtime fan and Chicago producer James William Guercio, the group sang backup for Chicago’s hit “Wishing You Were Here” (#11, 1974).
In 1977 the Beach Boys signed with Guercio’s Caribou label and by 1979 charted with a disco-flavored remake of “Here Comes the Night” (#44) originally on their 1968 Wild Honey LP.
Johnston rejoined the group in 1979. On July 4, 1980, the Beach Boys played a free concert in Washington, D.C., before half a million people, which became an annual event through the ‘80’s.
In 1981 the “Stars on 45” craze prompted Capitol to edit a bunch of the group’s early hits into “The Beach Boys Medley” that reached number 12 (#40 U.K., #2 Australia). This in turn encouraged Caribou to issue the old Del-Vikings hit “Come Go With Me” (#18, 1981 – the dark ages of doo wop).
In December 1983, Dennis Wilson drowned while swimming alongside his boat at Marina del Ray Harbor in Los Angeles, an ironic twist of fate for the only actual surfing Beach Boy.
In 1985 the group got its act back together for the best original since the early days. With Mike Love on lead and Brian’s falsetto sounding strong, “Getcha Back” and its harmony intro right out of The Mystics’ “Hushabye,” reached number 26. The energy remained high with “Rock ‘n’ Roll to the Rescue” (#68, 1986) and a remake of The Mamas and the Papas’ “California Dreamin’” (#57, 1986).
The Beach Boys enjoyed a number of recording collaborations. In 1984 they did a 45 with The Four Seasons on “East Meets West” (FBI). In 1987 they teamed with Little Richard on “Happy Endings” (Critique) and in 1988 with the Everly Brothers on another recording of “Don’t Worry Baby” (Mercury). The weirdest pairing was their 1987 hit with the Fat Boys, “Wipe Out” (#12, Tin Pan Apple).
The Beach Boys came full circle in 1988 with “Kokomo,” the Jamaican-rhythmed number one hit from the film Cocktail, with Mike on lead.
An amazing barometer of their appeal is the fact that between 1962 and 1981 they were only off the charts for two years, 1972 and 1977. They started a new streak in 1985 and charted at least once each year through 1989.
– Jay Warner