The Beach Boys are an American rock band, formed in Hawthorne, California in 1961. The group's original lineup consisted of brothers Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson, their cousin Mike Love, and friend Al Jardine. Emerging at the vanguard of the "California Sound", the band's early music gained international popularity for its close vocal harmonies and lyrics reflecting a Southern California youth culture of surfing, cars and romance. Initially managed by the Wilsons' father Murry, Brian's creative ambitions and sophisticated songwriting abilities dominated the group's musical direction. Rooted in doo-wop, rhythm and blues, and 1950s rock and roll, Brian led the band in experimenting with several genres ranging from pop ballads to psychedelic and baroque while devising novel approaches to studio arranging, record production, and vocal jazz harmony.
The Pet Sounds album and "Good Vibrations" single of 1966, primarily composed by Brian, featured a complex, intricate and multi-layered sound that represented a departure from the simple surf rock of the Beach Boys' early years. Soon after, Brian gradually ceded control to the rest of the band, reducing his input due to mental health and substance abuse issues. Though the more democratic incarnation of the Beach Boys recorded a string of albums in various musical styles that garnered international critical success, the group struggled to reclaim their commercial momentum in America. Since the 1980s, much-publicized legal wrangling over royalties, songwriting credits and use of the band's name transpired. Dennis Wilson drowned in 1983 and Carl died of lung cancer in 1998. After Carl's death, many live configurations of the band fronted by Mike Love and Bruce Johnston continued to tour into the 2000s while other members pursued solo projects. For the band's 50th anniversary, the surviving co-founders briefly reunited for a new studio album and world tour.
The Beach Boys are often touted "America's Band", and AllMusic stated that their "unerring ability…made them America's first, best rock band." The group had over eighty songs chart worldwide, thirty-six of them United States Top 40 hits (the most by an American rock band), four reaching number-one on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The Beach Boys have sold in excess of 100 million records worldwide, making them one of the world's best-selling bands of all time and are listed at number 12 on Rolling Stone magazine's 2004 list of the "100 Greatest Artists of All Time". The core quintet of the three Wilsons, Love and Jardine were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988.
At the time of his sixteenth birthday on June 20, 1958, Brian Wilson shared a bedroom with his brothers, Dennis and Carl – aged thirteen and eleven, respectively – in their family home in Hawthorne. He had watched his father, Murry Wilson, play piano, and had listened intently to the harmonies of vocal groups such as the Four Freshmen. After dissecting songs such as "Ivory Tower" and "Good News", Brian would teach family members how to sing the background harmonies. For his birthday that year, Brian was given a reel-to-reel tape recorder. He learned how to overdub, using his vocals and those of Carl and their mother. Brian would play piano with Carl and David Marks, an eleven-year-old longtime neighbor, playing the guitars they had each received as Christmas presents.
Soon Brian was avidly listening to Johnny Otis on his KFOX radio show with Carl. Inspired by the simple structure and vocals of the rhythm and blues songs he heard, he changed his piano-playing style and started writing songs. His enthusiasm interfered with his music studies at school. Family gatherings brought the Wilsons in contact with cousin Mike Love. Brian taught Love's sister Maureen and a friend harmonies. Later, Brian, Mike Love and two friends performed at Hawthorne High School. Brian also knew Al Jardine, a high school classmate who had already played guitar in a folk group called the Islanders. Brian suggested to Jardine that they team up with his cousin and brother Carl. It was at these sessions, held in Brian's bedroom, that "the Beach Boys sound" began to form. Love encouraged Brian to write songs and gave the fledgling band its name: "The Pendletones", a portmanteau of "Pendleton", a style of woolen shirt popular at the time and "tone", the musical term. Although surfing motifs were very prominent in their early songs, Dennis was the only avid surfer in the group. He suggested that the group compose songs celebrating the sport and the lifestyle which had developed around it within Southern California.
Jardine and a singer friend, Gary Winfrey, went to Brian to see if he could help out with a version of a folk song they wanted to record—"Sloop John B". In Brian's absence, the two spoke with their father, a music industry veteran of modest success. Murry arranged for the Pendletones to meet his publisher, Hite Morgan. The group performed a slower ballad, "Their Hearts Were Full of Spring", but failed to impress Morgan. After an awkward pause, Dennis mentioned they had an original song, "Surfin'". Brian finished the song, and together with Mike Love, wrote "Surfin' Safari". The group rented guitars, drums, amplifiers and microphones, and practiced for three days while the Wilsons' parents were on a short vacation. In October 1961, the Pendletones recorded the two surfing song demos in twelve takes at Keen Recording Studio. Murry brought the demos to Herb Newman, owner of Candix Records and Era Records, and he signed the group on December 8, 1961. When the boys eagerly unpacked the first box of singles – released both under the Candix label, and also as a promo issue under X Records (Morgan's label) – they were shocked to see their band had been renamed as the Beach Boys. Murry Wilson called Morgan and learned that Candix wanted to name the group the Surfers to directly associate them with the increasingly-popular teen sport. But Russ Regan, a young promoter with Era Records – who later became president of 20th Century Fox Records – noted that there already existed a group by that name, and he suggested calling them the Beach Boys.
Released in December 1961, "Surfin'" was soon aired on KFWB and KRLA, two of Los Angeles' most influential teen radio stations. It was a hit on the West Coast, going to number three in Southern California, and peaked at number 75 on the national pop charts. By the final weeks of 1961 "Surfin'" had sold more than 40,000 copies. Murry Wilson told the boys he did not like "Surfin'". By now the de facto manager of the Beach Boys, he landed the group's first paying gig (for which they earned $300) on New Year's Eve, 1961, at the Ritchie Valens Memorial Dance in Long Beach, headlined by Ike & Tina Turner. Brian recalls how he wondered what they were doing there: "five clean-cut, unworldly white boys from a conservative white suburb, in an auditorium full of black kids". Brian describes the night as an "education"—he knew afterwards that success was all about "R&B, rock and roll, and money".
Although Murry effectively seized managerial control of the band, Brian acknowledged that he "deserves credit for getting us off the ground... he hounded us mercilessly... also worked hard himself". In the first half of February 1962, Jardine left the band and was replaced by Marks. The band recorded two more originals on April 19 at Western Studios, Los Angeles; "Lonely Sea" and "409", also re-recording "Surfin' Safari". On June 4, the band released their second single "Surfin' Safari" backed with "409". The release prompted national coverage in the June 9 issue of Billboard where the magazine praised Love's lead vocal and deemed the song to have strong hit potential. After being turned down by Dot and Liberty, the Beach Boys eventually signed a seven-year contract with Capitol Records on July 16 based on the strength of the June demo session. This was at the urging of Capitol exec Nik Venet who signed the group, finding them to be the "teenage gold" he had been scouting. By November, their first album was ready—Surfin' Safari which reached 32 on the US Billboard charts. Their song output continued along the same commercial line, focusing on California youth lifestyle.
In January 1963, three months after the release of their debut album, the band began recording their sophomore effort, Surfin' U.S.A., placing a greater emphasis on surf rock instrumentals and tighter production. It has been hypothesized that the shift to a sound more typical of the surf rock genre was in response to the Californian surfer locals who were dismissive of the band's debut as it strayed from the sound of other surf acts. The LP was the start of Brian's penchant for doubletracking vocals. It was a pioneering innovation which provided the Beach Boys with an exceptionally bright sound.
After the moderate success of Surfin' Safari, Surfin' U.S.A., released on March 25, 1963 met a more enthusiastic reception, reaching number two on the Billboard charts and propelling the band into a nationwide spotlight. Five days prior to the release of Surfin' U.S.A. Brian produced "Surf City", a song he had written for Jan and Dean. "Surf City" hit number one on the Billboard charts in July 1963, a development that pleased Brian but angered Murry, who felt his son had "given away" what should have been the Beach Boys' first chart-topper.
At the beginning of a tour of the Mid-West in April 1963, Jardine rejoined the Beach Boys at Brian's request. As he began playing live gigs again, Brian left the road to focus on writing and recording. The result of this arrangement produced the albums Surfer Girl, released on September 16, 1963 and Little Deuce Coupe, released less than a month later on October 7, 1963. This sextet incarnation of the Beach Boys didn't extend beyond these two albums, as Marks officially left the band in early October due to conflict with manager Murry, pulling Brian back into touring.
Around this time, Brian began using members of the Wrecking Crew to augment his increasingly demanding studio arrangements. Session musicians that participated on Wilson's productions were said to have been awestruck by his musical abilities, as drummer Hal Blaine explained, "We all studied in conservatories; we were trained musicians. We thought it was a fluke at first, but then we realized Brian was writing these incredible songs. This was not just a young kid writing about high school and surfing." For composer Frank Zappa, the most exciting thing to him in "white-person-music" was when the Beach Boys used the progression V–II on "Little Deuce Coupe", calling it "an important step forward by going backward."
Following a successful Australasian tour in January and February 1964, the band returned home to face the British Invasion through the Beatles appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show. Reportedly, Brian wanted more time to complete their next album, yet their record label insisted they finish recording swiftly to avoid being forgotten in the throes of the impending invasion. Satisfying these demands, the band hastily finished the sessions on February 20, 1964 and titled the album Shut Down Volume 2. Critics have found evaluating the album's worth difficult through the years. Though songs like "The Warmth of the Sun" and "Don't Worry Baby" are widely acclaimed and seen as impressive milestones in the artistic growth of the band.
In April 1964, during recording of the single "I Get Around", Murry was relieved of his duties as manager. Brian reflected, "We love the family thing – y'know: three brothers, a cousin and a friend is a really beautiful way to have a group – but the extra generation can become a hang-up". When the single was released in May of that month, it would climb to number one, their first single to do so. Two months later, the album that the song later appeared on, All Summer Long, reached number four on the Billboard 200 charts. All Summer Long introduced exotic textures to the Beach Boys' sound exemplified by the piccolos and xylophones of its title track. The album was a swan-song to the surf and car music the Beach Boys built their commercial standing upon. Later albums took a different stylistic and lyrical path.
By the end of 1964, the stress of road travel, composing, producing and maintaining a high level of creativity became too much for Brian Wilson. On December 23, while on a flight, he suffered an anxiety attack and left the tour. In January 1965, he announced his withdrawal from touring to concentrate entirely on songwriting and record production. For the rest of 1964 and into 1965, Glen Campbell served as Wilson's temporary replacement in concert, until his own career success pulled him from the group in April 1965. Bruce Johnston was asked to locate a replacement for Campbell; having failed to find one, Johnston himself became a full-time member of the band on May 19, 1965, first replacing Brian on the road and later contributing in the studio, beginning with the vocal sessions for "California Girls" on June 4, 1965.
After Brian relinquished touring, he became a full-time studio artist, showcasing a great leap forward with The Beach Boys Today!, an album containing a suite-like structure divided by songs and ballads which portended the Album Era with its cohesive artistic statement. During the recording sessions for Today!, Love told Melody Maker that he and the band wanted to look beyond surf rock and to avoid living in the past or resting on their laurels. The resulting LP had largely guitar-oriented pop songs such as "Dance, Dance, Dance" and "Good to My Baby" on side A with B-side ballads such as "Please Let Me Wonder" and "She Knows Me Too Well".
Today! marked a maturation in the Beach Boys' lyric content by abandoning themes related to surfing, cars, or teenage love. Some love songs remained, but with a marked increase in depth, along with introspective tracks accompanied by adventurous and distinct arrangements.
In June 1965, the band released Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!). The album included a reworked arrangement of "Help Me, Rhonda" which had become the band's second number one single in the spring of 1965, displacing the Beatles' "Ticket to Ride". "Let Him Run Wild" tapped into the youthful angst that would later pervade their music. In November 1965, the group followed up their US number-three-charting "California Girls" from Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) with another top-twenty single, "The Little Girl I Once Knew". It was considered the band's most experimental statement thus far, using silence as a pre-chorus, clashing keyboards, moody brass and vocal tics. The single continued Brian's ambitions for daring arrangements, featuring unexpected tempo changes and numerous false endings. Perhaps too extreme an arrangement to go much higher than its number 20 peak, it was the band's second single not to reach the top ten since their 1962 breakthrough. In December they scored an unexpected number two hit (number three in the UK) with "Barbara Ann", which Capitol released as a single with no band input. A cover of a 1961 song by the Regents, it became one of the Beach Boys' most recognized hits.
In 1966, the Beach Boys formally established their use of unconventional instruments and elaborate layers of vocal harmonies on their groundbreaking record Pet Sounds. It is considered Brian's most concise demonstration of his production and songwriting expertise. With songs such as "Wouldn't It Be Nice" and "Sloop John B", the album's innovative soundscape incorporates elements of pop, jazz, classical, exotica, and the avant-garde. The instrumentation combines found sounds such as bicycle bells and dog whistles with classically-inspired orchestrations and the usual rock set-up of drums and guitars; among others, silverware, accordions, plucked piano strings, barking dogs, and plastic water jugs. For the basic rhythmic feel for "God Only Knows", harpsichord, piano with slapback echo, sleigh bells, and strings spilled into each other to create a rich blanket of sound. It is considered by some as a Brian Wilson solo album in all but name, as other members contributed relatively little to the compositions or recordings.
Despite the critical praise it received, Pet Sounds was indifferently promoted by Capitol and failed to become the major hit Wilson had hoped it would be. Its failure to gain wider recognition in the US hurt him deeply. It was assumed that the label considered the album a risk, appealing more to an older demographic than the younger, female audience the Beach Boys built their commercial standing on. Pet Sounds reached number ten in the US and number two in the UK, an accomplishment which helped the Beach Boys become the strongest selling album act in the UK for the final quarter of 1966; dethroning the three-year reign of native bands such as the Beatles. In a 1972 review of the album, music journalist Stephen Davis wrote,
From first cut to last we were treated to an intense, linear personal vision of the vagaries of a love affair and the painful, introverted anxieties that are the wrenching precipitates of the unstable chemistry of any love relationship. This trenchant cycle of love songs has the emotional impact of a shatteringly evocative novel, and by God if this little record didn't change only the course of popular music, but the course of a few lives in the bargain. … nobody was prepared for anything so soulful, so lovely, something one had to think about so much.
Pet Sounds went on to be acknowledged as an important historical and cultural work. In The Album: A Guide to Pop Music's Most Provocative, Influential, and Important Creations, author James Perone championed the album for its complex orchestrations, sophisticated compositions, and varied tone colors, calling it a remove from "just about anything else that was going on in 1966 pop music." Beyond pop and rock, Pet Sounds expanded the field of music production. It was massively influential upon its release, vaunting the band to the top level of rock innovators. According to Brian, the album was designed as a collection of art pieces which belong together yet could stand alone. It is one of the earliest rock concept albums, and one of the earliest concept albums of the counterculture era. Many felt that in the realms of pop and rock music, the album set a higher standard. As an early album in the emerging psychedelic rock style, it signaled a turning point wherein rock, which previously had been considered dance music, became music that was made for listening to. Influenced by psychedelic drugs, Brian turned inward and probed his deep-seated self-doubts and emotional longings; the piece did not address the problems in the world around them, unlike other psychedelic rock groups. Instead, as Jim Miller wrote of the album's tone, " vented Wilson's obsession with isolation cataloging a forlorn quest for security. The whole enterprise, which smacked of song cycle pretensions, was streaked with regret and romantic lagour."
The album remains an evocative release, with distinctive lushness and melancholy. In 1976, journalist Robin Denselow wrote: "With the 1966 Pet Sounds album … Wilson had become America's equivalent of the Beatles with his ability to expand the limits of popular taste." Paul McCartney named it one of his favorite albums of all time on multiple occasions, calling it the primary impetus for the Beatles' album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967). In 2003, Pet Sounds was ranked second in "The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time" list selected by Rolling Stone, behind only Sgt. Pepper.
Seeking to expand on Pet Sounds' advances, Wilson began an even more ambitious project: "Good Vibrations". Like Pet Sounds, Brian opted for an eclectic array of instruments rarely heard in pop music. Described by Brian as a "pocket symphony," it contains a mixture of classical, rock, and exotic instruments structured around a cut-up mosaic of musical sections represented by several discordant key and modal shifts. it became the Beach Boys' biggest hit to date and a US and UK number one single in 1966. Coming at a time when pop singles were usually made in under two hours, it was one of the most complex pop productions ever undertaken, and the most expensive single ever recorded to that point. The production costs were estimated between $50,000 and $75,000 ($360,000 and $550,000 today) with sessions for the song stretching over several months in at least four major studios. According to Domenic Priore, the making of "Good Vibrations" was unlike anything previous in the realms of classical, jazz, international, soundtrack or any other kind of recording. It was an unequivocal milestone in studio productions, and continued in establishing Brian as an extender of popular tastes. To the counterculture of the 1960s, "Good Vibrations" served as an anthem. Rock critic Gene Sculatti prophesied in 1968, " may yet prove to be the most significantly revolutionary piece of the current rock renaissance."
Its instrumentation included the Tannerin, an easier-to-manipulate version of a theremin which helped the Beach Boys claim a new hippie audience. Upon release, the single prompted an unexpected revival in theremins while increasing awareness of analog synthesizers, leading Moog Music to produce their own brand of ribbon controlled instruments.
Brian met musician and songwriter Van Dyke Parks while working on Pet Sounds. A year later while in the midst of recording "Good Vibrations", the duo began an intense collaboration that resulted in a suite of challenging new songs for the Beach Boys forthcoming album Smile, intended to surpass Pet Sounds. Recording for the album spanned about a year, from 1966 to 1967. Although the purpose, concepts, and contents have been subjects of speculation, it is known that Wilson and Parks intended Smile to be a continuous suite of songs that were linked both thematically and musically, with the main songs being linked together by small vocal pieces and instrumental segments that elaborated upon the musical themes of the major songs. Surviving recordings have shown that the music incorporated chanting, cowboy songs, explorations in Indian and Hawaiian music, jazz, tone poems with classical elements, cartoon sound effects, musique concrète, and yodeling. It would go on to become the most legendary unreleased album in the history of popular music.
Many factors combined to put intense pressure on Brian Wilson as Smile neared completion: his own mental instability, the pressure to create against fierce internal opposition to his new music, the relatively unenthusiastic response to Pet Sounds in the United States, Carl Wilson's draft resistance, and a major dispute with Capitol Records. Furthermore, Wilson's reliance on both prescription drugs and amphetamines exacerbated his underlying mental health problems. Comparable to Brian Jones and Syd Barrett, Brian Wilson's use of psychedelic drugs—especially LSD—led to a nervous breakdown in the late-1960s. As his legend grew, the Smile period came to be seen as the pivotal episode in his decline and he became tagged as one of the most notorious celebrity drug casualties of the rock era.
Some Smile tracks were salvaged and re-recorded in scaled-down versions at Brian's new home studio. Along with the single version of "Good Vibrations", these tracks were released on Smiley Smile, an album which elicited positive critical and commercial response abroad, but was the first real commercial failure for the group in the United States. By this time the Beach Boys' management (Nick Grillo and David Anderle) had created the band's own record label, Brother. One of the first labels to be owned by a rock group, Brother Records was intended for releases of Beach Boys side projects, and as an invitation to new talent. The initial output of the label, however, was limited to Smiley Smile and two resulting singles from the album; the failure of "Gettin' Hungry" caused the band to shelve Brother until 1970. Despite the cancellation of Smile, several tracks—including "Our Prayer", "Cabin Essence" and "Surf's Up"—continued to trickle out in later albums often as filler songs to offset Brian's unwillingness to contribute. The band was still expecting to complete and release Smile as late as 1973 before it became clear that only Brian could comprehend the endless fragments that had been recorded. Smiley Smile was followed up three months later with Wild Honey, featuring songs written by Wilson and Love, including the hit "Darlin'" and a rendition of Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made to Love Her". The album fared better than its predecessor, reaching number 24 in the US.
Compounding the group's recent setbacks, their public image took a cataclysmic hit following their withdrawal from the 1967 Monterey Pop Festival for the reason that they had no new material to play while their forthcoming single and album lay in limbo. Their cancellation was seen as "a damning admission that they were washed up unable to compete with the 'new music'". This notion was exacerbated by Rolling Stone writer Jann Wenner, whom within contemporary publications criticized Brian Wilson for his oft-repeated "genius" label which he called a "promotional shuck" and an attempt to compare with the Beatles. However, Wenner later responded to their Wild Honey album with more optimism, remarking two months later that "n any case it's good to see that the Beach Boys are getting their heads straight once again".
Former band publicist Derek Taylor later recalled a conversation with Brian and Dennis where they denied that the group had ever written surf music or songs about cars, and that the Beach Boys had never been involved with the surf and hot rod fads, as Taylor claimed, "…they would not concede." As a result of their initial target demographic and subsequent failures to blend with the hippie movement, the group was viewed as unhip relics, even though they had once been, as biographer Peter Ames Carlin wrote, "the absolute center of the American rock ’n’ roll scene," a time when they had ushered the psychedelic era. In early 1969, Brian proposed that the group change their name from "the Beach Boys" to "the Beach", reasoning for the simple fact that the band members were now grown men. Going to the effort of acquiring a contract which would declare a five-way agreement to officially rename the group, Stephen Desper reported, "They all just kind of shrugged and said, 'Aw, come on, Brian, we don't wanna do that. That's how the public knows us, man. And that was it. He put the paper on the piano and it stayed there until I picked it up and took it away."
After meeting Maharishi Mahesh Yogi at a UNICEF Variety Gala in Paris, France on December 15, 1967, Love, along with other high-profile celebrities such as Donovan and the Beatles traveled to Rishikesh in India during February and March 1968. The following Beach Boys album Friends (1968) had songs influenced by the Transcendental Meditation taught by the Maharishi. The album reached number 13 in the UK and 126 in the US, the title track placing at number 25 in the UK and number 47 in the US, the band's lowest singles peak since 1962. In support of the Friends album, Love had arranged for the Beach Boys to tour with the Maharishi in the US, which has been called "one of the more bizarre entertainments of the era". Starting on May 3, 1968, the tour lasted five shows and was cancelled when the Maharishi had to withdraw to fulfill film contracts. Due to disappointing audience numbers and the Maharishi's withdrawal, twenty-four tour dates were subsequently cancelled at a cost estimated at US$250,000 (approximately US$1,610,000 today) for the band. This tour was followed by the release of "Do It Again", a single which critics described as an update of the Beach Boys' surf rock past in a late-1960's style. The single went to the top of the Australian and UK single charts in 1968 and was moderately successful in the US, peaking at number 20.
For a short time in mid-1968, Brian Wilson sought psychological treatment in hospital. During his absence, other members began writing and producing material themselves. To complete their contract with Capitol, they produced one more album. 20/20 (1969) was one of the group's most stylistically diverse albums, including hard rock songs such as "All I Want to Do", the waltz-based "Time to Get Alone" and a remake of the Ronettes' "I Can Hear Music". The diversity of genres have been described as an indicator that the group was trying to establish an updated identity. The album performed strongly in the UK, reaching number three on the charts. In the US, the album reached a modest 68.
In spring 1968, Dennis began a tumultuous relationship with musician Charles Manson which persisted for several months afterward. Dennis bought him time at Brian's home studio where recording sessions were attempted while Brian stayed in his room. It was then proposed by Dennis that Manson be signed to Brother Records, though Brian reportedly disliked Charlie, and so a deal was never made. Without Manson's involvement, the Beach Boys did record one song penned by Manson: "Cease to Exist" rewritten as "Never Learn Not To Love". The idea of the Beach Boys recording one of his songs reportedly thrilled Manson, and it was released as a Beach Boys single. After accruing a large monetary debt to the group, Dennis deliberately omitted Manson's credit on its release while also altering the song's arrangement and lyrics. This greatly angered Manson. Growing fearful, Dennis gradually distanced himself from Manson, whose family had taken over his home. He was eventually convicted for murder conspiracy; from there on, Dennis was too afraid of the Manson family to ever speak publicly on his relationship, let alone testify against him.
On April 12, 1969, the band revisited their 1967 lawsuit against Capitol Records after they alleged an audit undertaken revealed the band were owed over US$2,000,000 (US$12,860,000 today) for unpaid royalties and production duties. The band's contract with Capitol Records expired on June 30, 1969, after which Capitol Records deleted the Beach Boys' catalog from print, effectively cutting off their royalty flow. In November 1969, Murry Wilson sold Sea of Tunes, the Beach Boys' catalogue, to Irving Almo Music, a decision which according to Marilyn Wilson "devastated Brian". In late 1969, the Beach Boys reactivated their Brother label and signed with Reprise. Around this time, the band commenced recording for a new album. At the time the Beach Boys tenure ended with Capitol in 1969, they had sold 65 million records worldwide, closing the decade as the most commercially successful American group in popular music.
In 1970, armed with the new Reprise contract, the band appeared rejuvenated, releasing the album Sunflower to critical acclaim. The album features a strong group presence with significant writing contributions from all band members. Brian was active during this period, writing or co-writing seven of the twelve songs on Sunflower and performing at half of the band's domestic concerts in 1970. Sunflower reached number 29 in the UK and number 151 in the US, the band's lowest domestic chart showing to that point. A version of "Cottonfields" arranged by Al Jardine appeared on European releases of Sunflower and as a single, reached number one in Australia, Norway, South Africa and Sweden and the top-five in six other countries, including the UK.
After Sunflower, the band hired Jack Rieley as their manager. Under Rieley's management, the group's music began emphasizing political and social awareness. During this time, Carl Wilson gradually assumed leadership of the band and Rieley contributed lyrics. On August 30, 1971 the band released Surf's Up, named after the Brian Wilson/Van Dyke Parks composition "Surf's Up". The album was moderately successful, reaching the US top 30, a marked improvement over their recent releases. While the record charted, the Beach Boys added to their renewed fame by performing a near-sellout set at Carnegie Hall, followed by an appearance with the Grateful Dead at Fillmore East on April 27, 1971. The live shows during this era included reworked arrangements of many of the band's previous songs. A large portion of their set lists culled from Pet Sounds and Smile, as author Domenic Priore observes, "They basically played what they could have played at the Monterey Pop Festival in the summer of 1967."
Johnston ended his first stint with the band shortly after Surf's Up's release, reportedly because of friction with Rieley. At Carl's suggestion, the addition of Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin in February 1972 led to a dramatic restructuring in the band's sound. The album Carl and the Passions – "So Tough" was an uncharacteristic mix that included two songs written by Fataar and Chaplin. For their next project the band, their families, assorted associates and technicians moved to the Netherlands for the summer of 1972. They rented a farmhouse to convert into a makeshift studio where recording sessions for the new project would take place. By the end of their sessions, the band felt they had produced one of their strongest efforts yet. Reprise, however, felt that the album required a strong single. This resulted in the song "Sail On, Sailor", a collaboration between Brian Wilson, Tandyn Almer, Ray Kennedy, Jack Rieley and Van Dyke Parks featuring a soulful lead vocal by Chaplin. Reprise subsequently approved and the resulting album, Holland, was released early in 1973, peaking at number 37. Brian's musical children story, "Mount Vernon and Fairway (A Fairy Tale)", narrated by Rieley and strongly directly influenced by Randy Newman's Sail Away album, was included as a bonus EP. Despite indifference from Reprise, the band's concert audience started to grow.
The Beach Boys in Concert, a double album documenting the 1972 and 1973 US tours, was another top-30 album and became the band's first gold record under Reprise. During this period the band established itself as one of America's most popular live acts. Chaplin and Fataar helped organize the concerts to obtain a high quality live performance, playing material off Surf's Up, Carl and the Passions and Holland and adding songs from their older catalog. This concert arrangement lifted them back into American public prominence. In late 1973, the soundtrack to American Graffiti, 41 Original Hits from the Soundtrack of American Graffiti, was released to mass commercial and critical success. The soundtrack included early Beach Boy songs "Surfin' Safari" and "All Summer Long" and was a catalyst in creating a wave of nostalgia that reintroduced the Beach Boys into contemporary American consciousness. In 1974, Capitol Records issued Endless Summer, the band's first major pre-Pet Sounds greatest hits package. The record sleeve's sunny, colorful graphics caught the mood of the nation and surged to the top of the Billboard album charts. It was the group's first multi-million selling record since "Good Vibrations", and remained on the album chart for two years. The following year, Capitol released a second compilation, Spirit of America, which also sold well. With these compilations, the Beach Boys became one of the most popular acts in rock, propelling themselves from opening for Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young to headliners selling out basketball arenas in a matter of weeks. Rolling Stone named the Beach Boys the "Band of the Year" for 1974, solely on the basis of their juggernaut touring schedule and material written over a decade earlier.
Rieley, who remained in the Netherlands after Holland's release, was relieved of his managerial duties in late 1973. Chaplin also left in late 1973 after an argument with Steve Love, the band's business manager (and Mike's brother). Fataar remained until 1974, when he was offered a chance to join a new group led by future Eagles member Joe Walsh. Chaplin's replacement, James William Guercio, started offering the group career advice that resulted in his becoming their new manager. Under Guercio, the Beach Boys staged a highly successful 1975 joint concert tour with Chicago, with each group performing some of the other's songs, including their previous year's collaboration on Chicago's hit "Wishing You Were Here". Beach Boys vocals were also heard on Elton John's 1974 hit "Don't Let the Sun Go Down on Me". Nostalgia had settled into the Beach Boys' hype; the group had not officially released any new material since 1973's Holland. While their concerts continuously sold out, the stage act slowly changed from a contemporary presentation followed by oldies encores to an entire show made up of mostly pre-1967 music.
15 Big Ones (1976) marked Brian's return as a major force in the group. The album included new songs by Brian, as well as cover versions of oldies such as "Rock and Roll Music" (#5), "Blueberry Hill", and "In the Still of the Night". Brian and Love's "It's O.K." was in the vein of their early sixties style and was a moderate hit. The album was publicized by an August 1976 NBC-TV special, simply titled "The Beach Boys". The special, produced by Saturday Night Live (SNL) creator Lorne Michaels, featured appearances by SNL cast members John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd.
For the remainder of 1976 to early 1977, Brian Wilson spent his time making sporadic public appearances and producing the band's next album Love You (1977), a quirky collection of 14 songs mostly written, arranged and produced by Brian. Brian revealed to Peter Ames Carlin that Love You is one of his favorite Beach Boys releases, telling him "That's when it all happened for me. That's where my heart lies." Love You peaked at number 28 in the UK and number 53 in the US and developed a cult following; regarded as one of the band's best albums by fans and critics alike.
After Love You was released, Brian began to record and assemble Adult/Child an effort largely consisting of songs written by Wilson from 1976 and 1977 with select big band arrangements by Dick Reynolds. Though publicized as the Beach Boys' next release, Adult/Child reportedly caused tension within the group and was ultimately shelved. Following this period, his concert appearances with the band gradually diminished and their performances were occasionally erratic.
The internal wrangling came to a head after a show at Central Park on September 1, 1977, when the band effectively split into two camps; Dennis and Carl Wilson on one side, Mike Love and Al Jardine on the other with Brian remaining neutral. Following a confrontation on an airport tarmac, the band broke up for two and a half weeks, until a band meeting on September 17, at Brian's house. In light of a potential new Caribou Records the parties negotiated a settlement resulting in Love gaining control of Brian's vote in the group, allowing Love and Jardine to outvote Carl and Dennis Wilson on any matter.
The Beach Boys' last album for Reprise, M.I.U. Album (1978), was recorded at Maharishi International University in Iowa at the suggestion of Love. Dennis and Carl made limited contributions; the album was mostly produced by Jardine and Ron Altbach, with Brian appearing as "Executive Producer". M.I.U. was largely a contractual obligation to finish out their association with Reprise, who likewise did not promote the result. The record cemented the divisions in the group. Love and Jardine focused on rock and roll-oriented material while Carl and Dennis chose the progressive focus they had established with the albums Carl and the Passions and Holland. Dennis withdrew from the group to focus on his second solo album and follow-up to Pacific Ocean Blue entitled Bambu. However, alcoholism and marital problems overcame all three Wilson brothers and Bambu was shelved. Carl appeared intoxicated during concerts (notably at appearances on their disastrous 1978 Australia tour) and Brian gradually slid back into addiction and an unhealthy lifestyle.
After departing Reprise, the Beach Boys signed with CBS Records. They received a substantial advance and were paid $1 million per album even as CBS deemed their preliminary review of the band's first product, L.A. (Light Album) as unsatisfactory. Faced with the realization that Brian was unable to contribute, the band recruited Johnston as producer. The result paid off, as "Good Timin'" became a top 40 single. The group enjoyed moderate success with a disco reworking of the Wild Honey song "Here Comes the Night" which was followed by their highest charting UK single in nine years: Jardine's "Lady Lynda" peaked at #6 in the UK Singles Chart. The album was followed in 1980 by Keepin' the Summer Alive, with Johnston once again producing. Carl was the only Wilson to influence the finished product. Brian managed to contribute several ideas, as seen in the Going Platinum television special documenting the album's release, but was otherwise persona non grata.
In 1981, Carl quit the group due to unhappiness with the band's nostalgia format and lackluster live performances, subsequently pursuing a solo career. He returned in May 1982 — after approximately 14 months of being away — on the condition that the group reconsider their rehearsal and touring policies, along with refraining from "Las Vegas-type engagements".
From 1980 through 1982, the Beach Boys and The Grass Roots performed Independence Day concerts at the National Mall in Washington, D.C., attracting large crowds. However, in April 1983, James G. Watt, President Ronald Reagan's Secretary of the Interior, banned Independence Day concerts on the Mall by such groups. Watt said that "rock bands" that had performed on the Mall on Independence Day in 1981 and 1982 had encouraged drug use and alcoholism and had attracted "the wrong element", who would mug attendees. During the ensuing uproar, which included over 40,000 complaints to the Department of the Interior, the Beach Boys stated that the Soviet Union, which had invited them to perform in Leningrad in 1978, "obviously … did not feel that the group attracted the wrong element". Vice President George H. W. Bush said of the Beach Boys, "They're my friends and I like their music". Watt later apologized to the band after learning that President Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan were fans. White House staff presented Watt with a plaster foot with a hole in it, showing that he had "shot himself in the foot". The band returned to D.C. for Independence Day in 1984 and performed to a crowd of 750,000 people.
Dennis' ongoing personal problems kept him out of the group's recent activities. His alcoholism continued to escalate, and on December 28, 1983, he drowned in Marina del Rey while diving from a friend's boat trying to recover items he had previously thrown overboard in fits of rage. Despite his death, the Beach Boys continued as a successful touring act.
On July 4, 1985, the Beach Boys played to an afternoon crowd of one million in Philadelphia and the same evening they performed for over 750,000 people on the Mall in Washington (the day's historic achievement was recorded in the Guinness Book of World Records). They also appeared nine days later at the Live Aid concert. That year, they released the eponymous album The Beach Boys and enjoyed a resurgence of interest later in the 1980s, assisted by tributes such as David Lee Roth's hit version of "California Girls". In 1987, they played with the rap group The Fat Boys, performing the song "Wipe Out" and filming a music video.
By 1988, Brian Wilson had officially left the Beach Boys and released his first solo album, which received critical acclaim. During this period the band unexpectedly claimed their first US number one hit single in 22 years with "Kokomo", which had appeared in the movie Cocktail. Written by John Phillips, Scott McKenzie, Mike Love and Terry Melcher, the song became the band's largest selling single of all time. The video for the song received heavy airplay on the music video channel VH1, and prominently featured actor John Stamos on conga drums. Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame earlier in the year, the group became the second artist after Aretha Franklin to hit number one in the US after their induction. They released the album Still Cruisin', which went gold in the US and gave them their best chart showing since 1976. In 1990, the band gathered several studio musicians and recorded the Melcher-produced title track of the comedy Problem Child. Stamos again appeared on the video, and later appeared singing lead vocals on "Forever" (written by Dennis Wilson for the Sunflower album) and on their 1992 album Summer in Paradise. Having no new contributions from Brian Wilson due to interference from caretaker Eugene Landy, Summer in Paradise was poorly regarded by both critics and fans, was a commercial disaster and would become their last album of original material for two decades. Members of the band appeared on several television shows such as Full House, Home Improvement, and Baywatch in the late 1980s and 1990s.
In 1989, Wilson filed a lawsuit to reclaim the rights to his songs and the group's publishing company, Sea of Tunes, which he had supposedly signed away to his father Murry in 1969. He successfully argued that he had not been mentally fit to make an informed decision and that his father had potentially forged his signature. While Wilson failed to regain his copyrights, he was awarded $25 million for unpaid royalties. Soon after Wilson won his case, Love discovered that Murry Wilson had not properly credited him as co-writer on dozens of Beach Boys songs. With Love and Brian Wilson unable to determine exactly what Love was properly owed, Love sued Wilson in 1992, winning $13 million in 1994 for lost royalties. In interviews, Love revealed that on some songs he wrote most of the lyrics, on others only a line or two. Even though Love sued Wilson, both parties said in interviews that there was no malice between them; they simply couldn't come up with an agreeable settlement by themselves.
In 1993, the band appeared in Michael Feeney Callan's film The Beach Boys Today, which included in-depth interviews with all members except Brian. Carl confided to Callan that Brian would record again with the band at some point in the near future. A few Beach Boys sessions devoted to new Brian Wilson compositions occurred during the mid-1990s, but they remain largely unreleased, and the album was quickly aborted due to tenuous relations. In February 1996, the Beach Boys guested with Status Quo on a re-recording of "Fun, Fun, Fun", which became a British Top-30 hit. In June, the group worked with comedian Jeff Foxworthy on the recording "Howdy From Maui", and eventually released Stars and Stripes Vol. 1 in August 1996. The album consisted of country renditions of several Beach Boys hits, performed by popular country artists such as Toby Keith and Willie Nelson. Brian Wilson, who was in a better mental state at the time, acted as co-producer.
In early 1997, Carl Wilson was diagnosed with lung cancer after years of heavy smoking. Despite his terminal condition, Carl continued to perform with the band on its 1997 summer tour while undergoing chemotherapy. During performances, he sat on a stool and reportedly needed oxygen after every song. Carl was able to stand, however, when he played on "God Only Knows". By 1998 the cancer had spread to his brain. Carl died on February 6, 1998, two months after the death of the Wilsons' mother, Audree.
Following Carl's death, the remaining members splintered. Love, Johnston and former guitarist Marks continued to tour without Jardine, initially as "America's Band", but following several cancelled bookings under that name, they sought authorization through Brother Records Inc. (BRI) to tour as "The Beach Boys" and secured the necessary license. In turn Jardine began to tour regularly with his band dubbed "Beach Boys: Family & Friends" until he ran into legal issues for using the name without license. BRI, through its longtime attorney, Ed McPherson, sued Jardine in Federal Court. Jardine, in turn, counter-claimed against BRI for wrongful termination. BRI ultimately prevailed after several years. Love was allowed to continue to tour as The Beach Boys, while Jardine was prohibited from touring using any form of the name. Released from Landy's control, Brian Wilson sought different treatments for his illnesses that aided him in his solo career. He toured regularly with his backing band consisting of members of Wondermints and other LA/Chicago musicians. Marks also maintained a solo career. Their tours remained reliable draws, with Wilson and Jardine both remaining legal members of the Beach Boys organization.
In September 2004, Brian Wilson issued a free CD through the Mail On Sunday that included Beach Boys songs he'd rerecorded, five of which he'd co-authored with Love. The 10 track compilation had 2.6 million copies distributed and prompted Love to file a lawsuit claiming the promotion hurt the sales of the original recordings. Love's suit was dismissed in 2007 when a judge determined that there were no triable issues.
On June 13, 2006, the five surviving Beach Boys (Wilson, Love, Jardine, Johnston and Marks) appeared together for the celebration of the 40th anniversary of Pet Sounds and the double-platinum certification of their greatest hits compilation, Sounds of Summer: The Very Best of The Beach Boys, in a ceremony atop the Capitol Records building in Hollywood. Plaques were awarded for their efforts, with Brian accepting on behalf of Dennis and Carl.
On October 31, 2011, the Beach Boys released surviving 1960s recordings from Smile in the form of The Smile Sessions. The album—even in its incomplete form—garnered universal critical acclaim and experienced popular success, charting in both the Billboard US and UK Top 30. The band was rewarded with glowing reviews, including inclusion in Rolling Stone's Top 500 album list at number 381. The Smile Sessions went on to win Best Historical Album at the 2013 Grammy Awards. Brian Wilson personally accepted the award stating "I guess Van Dyke and I were on to something after all."
In February 2011, the Beach Boys released "Don't Fight the Sea", a charity single to aid the victims of the 2011 Japan earthquake. The single, released on Jardine's 2011 album A Postcard From California featured Jardine, Wilson, Love and Johnston, with prerecorded vocals by Carl Wilson. Rumors then circulated regarding a potential 50th anniversary band reunion.
On December 16, 2011, it was announced that Wilson, Love, Jardine, Johnston and Marks would reunite for a new album and 50th anniversary tour in 2012 to include a performance at the New Orleans Jazz Festival in April 2012. On February 12, 2012, the Beach Boys performed at the 2012 Grammy Awards, in what was billed as a "special performance" by organizers. It marked the group's first live performance to include Brian since 1996. The Beach Boys then appeared at the April 10, 2012, season opener for the Los Angeles Dodgers and performed "Surfer Girl" along with "The Star-Spangled Banner". In April, the new album's title was revealed as That's Why God Made the Radio. The first single from the album, the title track, made its national radio debut April 25, 2012, on ESPN's Mike and Mike in the Morning and was released on iTunes and other digital platforms on April 26. That's Why God Made the Radio debuted at number three on US charts, the group's highest charting album since 1974's compilation Endless Summer and its highest charting studio album since 1965's Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!). It became the band's first top ten studio album since 1976's 15 Big Ones. The album made its debut in the UK at number 15, its highest studio album debut since 1971's Surf's Up. The album also made US chart history by expanding the group's span of Billboard 200 top ten albums across 49 years and one week, passing the Beatles with 47 years of top ten albums.
Later in 2012, the group released the Fifty Big Ones and Greatest Hits compilations along with reissues of 12 of their albums. The next year, the group released Live – The 50th Anniversary Tour a 41 song, 2-CD set documenting their 50th Anniversary Tour. While there were no definite plans, Brian stated that he would like to make another Beach Boys album following the world tour. In August 2013, the group released Made in California, a six disc collection featuring more than seven and a half hours of music, including more than 60 previously unreleased tracks, and concluding the Beach Boys' 50th anniversary campaign. That same year, former members of the Beach Boys touring band, Bobby Figueroa, Billy Hinsche, Ed Carter, Matt Jardine (son of Al Jardine), and Philip Bardowell (sometimes with Randell Kirsch and others) united to form California Surf, Incorporated, performing Beach Boy songs.
In June 2012, Love announced additional touring dates which would not feature Wilson. Wilson then denied knowledge of these new dates. On October 5, Love announced in a self-written press release to the LA Times that the band would return to its pre-50th Reunion Tour lineup with him and Johnston touring as the Beach Boys without Wilson, Jardine, and Marks:
I did not fire Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys. I cannot fire Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys … I do not have such authority. And even if I did, I would never fire Brian Wilson from the Beach Boys. … This tour was always envisioned as a limited run … As the year went on, Brian and Al wanted to keep the 50th anniversary tour going beyond the 75 dates … However … we had already set up shows in smaller cities with … the configuration that had been touring together every year for the last 13 years. Brian and Al would not be joining for these small market dates, as was long agreed upon.
Four days later, Wilson and Jardine submitted a written response to the rumors stating: "After Mike booked a couple of shows with Bruce, Al and I were, of course, disappointed. Then there was confusion in some markets when photos of me, Al and David and the 50th reunion band appeared on websites advertising his shows … I was completely blindsided by his press release … We hadn't even discussed as a band what we were going to do with all the offers that were coming in for more 50th shows." Love accused Wilson's statements in this press release to be falsified by his agents, again affirming that the presupposed agreements were "well-documented", and that Wilson had halted further touring dates. On December 13, Wilson and Jardine played a Christmas show at which they performed the Beach Boys Christmas songs. Following this appearance, Wilson announced concert dates featuring himself, Jardine and Marks. Love and Johnston continued to perform under the Beach Boys name, while Wilson, Jardine, and Marks continued to tour as a trio, and a subsequent tour with guitarist Jeff Beck also included former Beach Boy Blondie Chaplin at select dates. Reflecting upon the band's reunion in 2013, Love stated: "I had a wonderful experience being in the studio together. Brian has lost none of his ability to structure those melodies and chord progressions, and when we heard us singing together coming back over the speakers it sounded like 1965 again. Touring was more for the fans. … It was a great experience, it had a term to it, and now everyone's going on with their ways of doing things."
Jardine, Marks, Johnston and Love appeared together at the 2014 Ella Awards Ceremony, where Love was honored for his work as a singer. Marks sang "409" in honor of Love while Jardine performed "Help Me Rhonda". They closed the show by performing "Fun, Fun, Fun". Wilson's long time band associate Jeff Foskett also appeared, but not Wilson. On May 15, 2014 the touring Beach Boys (Love and Johnston) announced a tour celebrating "50 Years of 'Fun Fun Fun'", named for their 1964 single. The tour featured the addition of Foskett, who replaced Mike's son Christian. Foskett left Wilson's band due to encumbering responsibilities, and hopes that Wilson and Love's band would someday converge, believing that the two Beach Boys don't "personally have a problem with each other." As of September 2014, Jardine has maintained that a continued reunion with the Beach Boys is "really up to him … He claims he didn't, that he fired us after the reunion … He’s a brilliant songwriter, and unfortunately he has brilliant lawyers. We wish him all the best, but doggonit, you know, we’d like to be Beach Boys, too. There you go." As Jardine restates " doesn’t really want to work with us," biographer Jon Stebbins speculated that Love declined to continue working with the group due to the lesser control he had over the touring process, coupled with the lower financial gain, noting: "Night after night after night after night, Mike is making less money getting reminded that Brian is more popular than him. And he has to answer to people instead of calling all the shots himself."
In Understanding Rock: Essays in Musical Analysis, music theorist Daniel Harrison summarizes:
Even from their inception, the Beach Boys were an experimental group. They combined, as Jim Miller has put it, "the instrumental sleekness of the Ventures, the lyric sophistication of Chuck Berry, and the vocal expertise of some weird cross between the Lettermen and Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers" with lyrics whos images, idioms, and concerns were drawn from the rarefied world of the middle-class white male southern California teenager. … it was the profound vocal virtuosity of the group, coupled with the obsessional drive and compositional ambitions of their leader, Brian Wilson, that promised their survival after the eventual breaking of fad fever. … Comparison to other vocally oriented rock groups, such as the Association, shows the Beach Boys' technique to be far superior, almost embarrassingly so. They were so confident of their ability, and of Brian's skill as a producer to enhance it, that they were unafraid of doing sophisticated, a cappella glee-club arrangements containing multiple suspensions, passing formations, complex chords, and both chromatic and enharmonic modulations.
Influenced by doo-wop and rhythm and blues, they began as a garage band playing 1950s style rock and roll. During their early years, the Beach Boys released music that displayed an increasing level of sophistication, a period where Brian Wilson consistently acted as the group's primary bandleader, songwriter, producer, and arranger for the group's most commercially and critically successful work. Together, the band reassembled styles of music such as surf to include vocal jazz harmony, creating their unique sound. In addition, they introduced their signature approach to common genres such as the pop ballad by applying harmonic or formal twists not native to rock and roll. Miller observed, "On straight rockers they sang tight harmonies behind Love's lead … on ballads, Brian played his falsetto off against lush, jazz-tinged voicings, often using (for rock) unorthodox harmonic structures." Harrison adds, "But even the least distinguished of the Beach Boys' early uptempo rock 'n' roll songs show traces of structural complexity at some level; Brian was simply too curious and experimental to leave convention alone." This new sound was quickly associated with the Modernism movement blooming in the Los Angeles music scene. The band later went on to incorporate many genres, from baroque pop to psychedelia and synthpop.
In early 1964, Brian began his breakaway from beach-themed music. Later in November of the same year, the group expressed desires to advance from the surf rock style for which they initially became known for. Experimentation with psychotropic substances proved pivotal to the group's development as artists. The following month, Brian was introduced to cannabis before quickly progressing to LSD in early 1965. Of his first acid trip, Brian recalled that the drug had subjected him to "a very religious experience" which enlightened him to indescribable philosophies. The music for "California Girls", the first Beach Boys song which Bruce Johnston participated in, came from this first LSD experience, as did much of the group's subsequent work where they would often partake in drug use during recording sessions.
Brian is quoted saying: "Everyone contributed something. Carl kept us hip to the latest tunes, Al taught us his repertoire of folk songs, and Dennis, though he didn't play anything, added a combustible spark just by his presence." Early on, Love sang lead vocals in the rock-oriented songs, while Carl contributed crisp guitar lines on the group's ballads. In a 1966 article which asks "Do the Beach Boys rely too much on sound genius Brian?", Carl responded that every member of the group contributes ideas, but admitted that Brian was majorly responsible for their music.
The band's earliest influences came primarily from the work of Chuck Berry and the Four Freshmen. Performed by the Four Freshmen, "Their Hearts Were Full of Spring" (1961) was a particular favorite of the group. By deconstructing their arrangements of pop standards, Brian educated himself on jazz harmony. Taking this into mind, Philip Lambert noted, "If Bob Flanigan helped teach Brian how to sing, then Gershwin, Kern, Porter, and the other members of this pantheon helped him learn how to craft a song." Other general influences on the group included the Hi-Los, the Penguins, the Robins, Bill Haley & His Comets, Otis Williams, the Cadets, the Everly Brothers, the Belmonts, the Shirelles, the Regents, and the Crystals. While the Beach Boys are not often associated with blues, Brian has called this a misapprehension, citing Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder as influences. Regarding surf rock pioneer Dick Dale, Brian clarified that his influence on the group was limited to Carl and his style of guitar playing.
The influence of the Beach Boys' peers combined with Brian's competitive nature drove him to reach higher creative peaks. Sometime around late 1963, he heard the song "Be My Baby" (1963) by the Ronettes for the first time, revamping his creative interests and songwriting. "Be My Baby" is considered the epitome of Phil Spector's Wall of Sound production technique, a recording method that would fascinate Wilson for the next several decades. Brian later reflected: "I was unable to really think as a producer up until the time where I really got familiar with Phil Spector's work. That was when I started to design the experience to be a record rather than just a song." He kept "Be My Baby" on his living room jukebox, and would listen to it whenever the mood struck him.
Other prominent inspirations for Brian included Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" (1924), the Beatles' Rubber Soul (1965), and composer Burt Bacharach. Author Domenic Priore wrote that, in a subtle way, Brian grew to appreciate the potential of what a pop song could do after being partially spurred on by the dynamics of Bacharach's "Walk On By" (1964), a song which would become just as influential to him as "Be My Baby", supporting his strive to achieve a sense of dynamics in his recordings while he began pulling away from a purely Spector-inspired approach to production. Brian supported this by saying, "Burt Bacharach and Hal David are more like me. They’re also the best pop team — per se — today. As a producer, Bacharach has a very fresh, new approach."
Brian identified each member individually for their vocal range, once detailing the ranges for Carl, Dennis, Jardine (" progress upwards through G, A, and B") Love ("can go from bass to the E above middle C"), and himself ("I can take the second D in the treble clef"). He declared in 1966 that his greatest interest was to expand modern vocal harmony, owing his fascination with voice to the Four Freshmen which he considered a "groovy sectional sound". He added, "The harmonies that we are able to produce give us a uniqueness which is really the only important thing you can put into records — some quality that no one else has got. I love peaks in a song — and enhancing them on the control panel. Most of all, I love the human voice for its own sake." Rock critic Erik Davis wrote, "The 'purity' of tone and genetic proximity that smoothed their voices was almost creepy, pseudo-castrato, a 'barbershop' sound." According to Brian: "Jack Good once told us, 'You sing like eunuchs in a Sistine Chapel,' which was a pretty good quote."
From lowest intervals to highest, the group's vocal harmony stack usually began with Love or Dennis, followed by Jardine or Carl, and finally Brian on top. Jardine explains, "We always sang the same vocal intervals. … As soon as we heard the chords on the piano we’d figure it out pretty easily. If there was a vocal move envisioned, he’d show that particular singer that move. We had somewhat photographic memory as far as the vocal parts were concerned so that never a problem for us." Striving for absolute perfection, Brian's intricate vocal arrangements exercised the group's calculated blend of intonation, attack, phrasing, and expression. Sometimes, he would sing each vocal harmony part alone through multi-track tape. Jimmy Webb has said, "They used very little vibrato and sing in very straight tones. The voices all lie down beside each other very easily — there's no bumping between them because the pitch is very precise."
The group's instrumental combo initially involved Brian on bass guitar and keyboards, Carl on guitar, and Dennis on drums. From an early age, Brian demonstrated an extraordinary skill for learning music by ear on keyboard. Using major Hollywood recording studios, he arranged many of his compositions for a conglomerate of session musicians informally known as the Wrecking Crew due to the increasingly complicated nature of the material. As a result, a number of songs do not credit the Beach Boys as instrumentalists, but nearly invariably as lead, harmony, or backing vocalists. It's the belief of Richie Unterberger that "before session musicians took over most of the parts, the Beach Boys could play respectably gutsy surf rock as a self-contained unit." In spite of this, Carl Wilson continued to play beside these musicians whenever he was available to attend sessions. In archivist Craig Slowinski's view, "One should not sell short Carl's own contributions; the youngest Wilson had developed as a musician sufficiently to play alongside the horde of high-dollar session pros that big brother was now bringing into the studio. Carl's guitar playing a key ingredient."
Brian's experiments with his Wollensack tape recorder provide early examples of his flair for exotica and unusual percussive patterns and arranging ideas that he would recycle in later prominent work. Through attending Phil Spector's sessions sporadically, Brian learned how to act as a producer for records while being educated on the Wall of Sound process. From then on, Brian received some production advice from Jan Berry. As they collaborated on several hit singles written and produced for other artists, they recorded what would later be regarded the California Sound. The positive commercial response to Brian's structurally irregular and harmonically varied pop compositions gave him the prestige, resources, and courage to further his creative aspirations. He proceeded to explore many unusual combinations of instruments while emphasizing inventive percussion and progressively ambitious lyricism.
Although he was often dubbed a perfectionist, Brian was an inexperienced musician, and his understanding was mostly self-taught. He handled most stages of the group's recording process from the beginning, despite Nik Venet being credited for producing their early recordings. With regards to Brian's mid 1960s productions, ethnomusicologist David Toop characterized his style as "cartoon music and Disney influence mutating into avant-garde pop". Before 1966, Brian's mastery of songwriting proved that he was capable of applying odd harmonic progressions, unexpected disruptions of hypermeter, jazz theory, tempo changes, metrical ambiguity, and unusual tone colors successfully within a pop context. He made on-the-spot decisions about notes, articulation, and timbre; composing at the mixing board and using the studio as a musical instrument. Despite this, in most cases he was forced to rely on outside collaborators when it came to adding lyricism to his compositions. It was at this stage that Brian usually worked with bandmate Mike Love whose assertive persona provided youthful swagger that contrasted Brian's explorations in romanticism and sensitivity.
He preferred mixing live as performances were recorded, as opposed to mixing after the fact. He was open to changes suggested by others while recording, often taking advice and suggestions and even incorporating apparent mistakes if they provided a useful or interesting alternative. He experimented with processed effects including varispeed, reverberation, slapback echo, and filtering signals through a Leslie speaker. Once an instrumental track was completed, vocals would then be overdubbed by the group. On Surfin' U.S.A. (1963), Brian began doubletracking. As was practiced by other record producers from the 1960s, most of his mixes ended up in single-channel monaural, believing that varied stereo speaker placement took his control over the sound image away to the listener.
Eschewing Capitol Studios which Brian considered inadequate, engineer Chuck Britz often collaborated with him at Western 3 of United Western Recorders, also serving as a buffer between Brian and the oft-berating Murry whenever he was present. Once Britz assembled a preliminary recording setup, Brian would take over the console, directing the instrumentalists from the booth using an intercom or verbal gestures after supplying them with chord charts which were sometimes written incorrectly. It's reported that even though Britz was responsible for setting up recording, Brian would then adjust his configuration to a large extent. As Brian's productions advanced, he became recognized for his pop artistry, vocal harmonization, incessant studio perfectionism, forward-thinking song structures, engineering and mixing know-how, and creative multitasking abilities. Session bassist Carol Kaye noted, "We had to create parts for all the other groups we cut for, but not Brian. We were in awe of Brian." Friend Danny Hutton expressed similar feelings while highlighting Brian's studio proficiency, citing what he believed to be an extraordinary talent at harnessing several different studio spaces while piecing together discrete instrumental patterns and timbres cohesively. He noted, "Somebody could go in right after Brian’s session and try to record, and they could never get the sound he got. There was a lot of subtle stuff he did. … People don’t talk that much about it. They always talk about his music. He was fabulous in the studio, in terms of getting sounds. You’d sit there, and that was him. He was just hands-on. He would change the reverb and the echo, and all of a sudden, something just — whoa! — got twice as big and fat."
Foreshadowed by Beach Boys' Party! (1965), much of the group's recordings from 1967–1970 displayed sparse instrumentation, a more relaxed ensemble, and a seeming inattention to production quality. Brian briefly experimented with musique concrete and minimalist rock approaches to music before retreating to his home recording studio to record "manic" material in the 1970s, enacting syncopated exercises and counterpoints layered on jittery eighth note tone clusters and loping shuffle grooves. During the infancy of Brian's home studio, the group was forced to improvise many technical aspects of recording. In one instance, they used an empty swimming pool as an echo chamber.
When Brian abdicated from the group, the other members were forced to take a more active production role. This is believed to have faltered the quality of their music. Richie Unterberger believes that after the December 1967 release of Wild Honey, "the Beach Boys were revealed as a group that, although capable of producing some fine and interesting music, were no longer innovators on the level of the Beatles and other figureheads." The album marked the beginning of Carl's increased role as producer, who described it as "music for Brian to cool out by," signaling a mellower approach which would pervade into the 1970s. In 1968, Dennis contributed original songs to Friends, revealing himself as a broodingly soulful songwriter and singer, while Bruce Johnston devised a moody instrumental, "The Nearest Faraway Place", for 20/20 the following year. Sunflower (1970) marked an end to the experimental songwriting and production phase initiated by Smiley Smile (1967). Of the albums between Surf's Up (1971) and Holland (1973), Daniel Harrison wrote that they "contain a mixture of middle-of-the-road music entirely consonant with pop style during the early 1970s with a few oddities that proved that the desire to push beyond conventional boundaries was not dead." While Harrison adamantly states "1974 is the year in which the Beach Boys ceased to be a rock 'n' roll act and became an oldies act," Love You (1977) is perceived by some as an oddity that sounds like no other record in their catalog with synthesizer-laden arrangements played almost entirely by Brian. Referring to "naysayers" of the album, the underground fanzine Scram wrote "fuck … a truly original mix of humor and sadness. The original numbers always dance just a step away from the cliché, dealing with simple lyrical themes that make you wonder why they had never been explored before."
Regarded by some critics as one of the greatest American rock groups and an important catalyst in the evolution of popular music, the Beach Boys are one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful bands of all time. The Beach Boys' sales estimates range from 100 to 350 million records worldwide, and have influenced artists spanning many genres and decades. The group's early songs made them major pop stars in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia and other countries, having sixteen hit singles between 1962 and 1965. They were one of the few American bands formed prior to the 1964 British Invasion to continue their success. Among artists of the 1960s, they are one of few central figures in the histories of rock. Their early hits helped raise the profile of the state of California, creating its first major regional style with national significance, and establishing a musical identity for Southern California, as opposed to Hollywood. This also associated the band with surfing, hot-rod racing, and a contemporaneous teenage lifestyle and fantasy. There had been surf bands formed prior to the Beach Boys, but none which projected a world view as the Beach Boys did.
Brian's work is credited as a major innovation in the field of music production. According to Erik Davis, "Not only did the Beach Boys write a soundtrack to the early '60s, but Brian let loose a delicate and joyful art pop unique in music history and presaged the mellowness so fundamental to '70s California pop." Only 21-years-old when he received the freedom to produce his own records with total creative autonomy, he ignited an explosion of like-minded California producers, supplanting New York as the center of popular records, and becoming the first rock producer to use the studio as a discrete instrument. The Beach Boys were thus one of the first rock groups to exert studio control.
The group was among early (or earliest) instigators of psychedelic rock, acid rock, art rock, art pop, and progressive rock, Besides the Beatles, the Beach Boys attracted a following from a great number of their pop or rock contemporaries during the 1960s, including the Rolling Stones, Harry Nilsson, Cream, George Martin, the Who, Roger Waters of Pink Floyd, Lou Reed of The Velvet Underground, and Frank Zappa. In the 1970s, the Beach Boys' were paid homage by punk rock artists such as Ramones, Patti Smith, and Lester Bangs. Additionally, they influenced pioneering musicians for glam rock: David Bowie and Marc Bolan; krautrock: Faust, Kraftwerk; power pop: Big Star; and post-punk: Talking Heads. Later, the group bore a strong influence on indie rock.
Over the years, the group's songs have been the subject of many tribute albums, several of which are compiled from cover versions contributed by various artists from a wide range of backgrounds including Japanese noise, pop punk, rockabilly, and trip hop. In the 1990s, the Beach Boys received a resurgence of popularity with alternative rock groups. Those who advocated for the band included founding members of the Elephant 6 Collective: Neutral Milk Hotel, the Olivia Tremor Control, the Apples in Stereo, and of Montreal. United by a shared love of the Beach Boys' music, they named Pet Sounds Studio in honor of the group. Other influenced artists who gained prominence in underground circles during the 1980s and 1990s include shoegaze band My Bloody Valentine, electronica outfits Daft Punk, Saint Etienne, The High Llamas, the Avalanches, Stereolab, and alternative rock musicians Radiohead, Sonic Youth, Frank Black of Pixies, and Paddy McAloon of Prefab Sprout. In Japan, their music affected the work of noise rock bands Seagull Screaming Kiss Her Kiss Her and Melt-Banana, along with J-pop performers Tatsuro Yamashita, Flipper's Guitar, and Yellow Magic Orchestra.
The Beach Boys' influence has continued to pervade in such millennial artists as Air, Animal Collective, Fleet Foxes, MGMT, and Frank Ocean.
Professor of cultural studies James M. Curtis wrote in 1987,
… we can say that the Beach Boys represent the outlook and values of white Protestant Anglo-Saxon teenagers in the early sixties. Having said that, we immediately realize that they must mean much more than this. Their stability, their staying power, and their ability to attract new fans prove as much.
Throughout their career, the Beach Boys struggled with their public image and audiences. Musicologist Charlie Gillett explains, "By 1965, the Beach Boys had become an American pop institution, but although they continued to cultivate a visual image in line with their name and early repertoire, there was a limit to how many different ways Wilson could celebrate the wonders of living in Southern California … Originally, many serious pop fans dismissed the group as trashy pop for kids, the Beach Boys began to attract wide admiration just as Brian Wilson found the strain of public adulation more than he had bargained for; retreating from live performances, Wilson spent most of his time in the recording studio, constructing the songs." Their growing complexity caused their live performances to suffer in the mid 1960s, when the group began to be derided by audiences for their uniformed striped shirts compounded by low key reproductions of songs which demanded complicated orchestrations. In their earliest performances, the band wore heavy wool jacket-like shirts which were favored by surfers in the South Bay before switching to their trademark striped shirts and white pants. In the latter half of the decade, the Beach Boys promoted anti-war activism, Transcendental Meditation and environmentalism. In 1970, the group ceased wearing matching uniforms on stage and began emphasizing political and social awareness. Drawing from their associations with Charles Manson and Ronald Reagan, Erik Davis observed, "the Beach Boys may be the only bridge between those deranged poles. There is a wider range of political and aesthetic sentiments in their records than in any other band in those heady times—like the state , they expand and bloat and contradict themselves."
Peter Ames Carlin noted that while the Beach Boys' contemporaries grew more intellectually aware, "Capitol continued to bill them as 'America’s Top Surfin' Group!' Their TV appearances still took place on sets dressed with surfboards, beach balls, and chicks doing the twist in candy-colored bikinis. And when the summer sales season neared, everyone still expected Brian to crank out another batch of ready-made tunes set on the beaches, highways, and backseats he’d long since lost interest in describing." He adds, "Clearly, the group’s disconnect from the cultural avant-garde was not all Capitol’s doing or even entirely a product of the group’s own commercial motivations. Bear in mind that the Beach Boys themselves were still college-aged, only none of them had been to college, nor (with the possible exception of Brian) had they shown much discernible interest in what you might call the world of ideas. … This makes the humanities students among us slap our foreheads and moan with sorrow." Collaborator Van Dyke Parks has spoken that he and Brian were conscious of the counterculture, and that the two had felt estranged from it, but also that it was necessary to adhere to due to a willingness to "get out of the Eisenhower mindset." Parks stresses, "At the same time, he didn't want to lose that kind of gauche sensibility that he had. He was doing stuff that nobody would dream of doing. You would never, for example, use one string on a banjo when you had five; it just wasn't done. But when I asked him to bring a banjo in, that’s what he did. This old-style plectrum thing. One string. That’s gauche."
Despite the group's immense popularity and success, some consider that the extent of their contribution to Western music canon is undervalued. In 1967, Lou Reed famously wrote, "Will none of the powers that be realize what Brian Wilson did with the chords?" Pitchfork Media posited, "At some point, you learn that the Beach Boys weren't just a fun 1960s surf band with a run of singles that later came to be used in commercials; at their best, they were making capital-A Art. … Once you've absorbed , you find yourself going back through songs like "Don't Worry Baby", "The Warmth of the Sun", and "I Get Around", finding a deeper brilliance where you once heard only pop craftsmanship." Discussing the 2011 release of The Smile Sessions, The Los Angeles Times wrote, "…certainly every library of American recording history needs this; university composition departments, music professors, budding recording engineers and composers should study it." Online publication NewMusicBox — which normally devotes itself to new American music that is outside the commercial mainstream — argued,
carefully reassembled reconstruction of the lost Smile album finally earn Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys the same pride of place in American music history held by other great innovators like, say, Ives, Gershwin, Cage, Coltrane, James Brown, etc.? Sadly, probably not. But this has more to do with the vagaries of reception history than with actual history. For many people, the Beach Boys will always be perceived as a light-hearted party band that drooled over "California Girls" while on a "Surfing Safari". That image of the group has not been helped by the endless recycling of their greatest hits on recording compilations, their latter-day cover-band-version-of-their-former-selves concert appearances, and the lasting presence of these early songs as the soundtracks for countless commercials over the years encouraging revelers to have some "Summer Fun."
Daniel Harrison contests that the group produced work which could "almost" be considered art music in the Western classical tradition, and that group's innovations in the musical language of rock can be compared to those that introduced atonal and other nontraditional techniques into that classical tradition. He explains, "The spirit of experimentation is just as palpable in Smiley Smile as it is in, say, Schoenberg's op. 11 piano pieces." While the group "went into the great void beyond," such notions were not widely acknowledged by rock audiences nor by the classically-minded at the time. Harrison concludes: "What influences could these innovations then have? The short answer is, not much. Smiley Smile, Wild Honey, Friends, and 20/20 sound like few other rock albums; they are sui generis. … It must be remembered that the commercial failure of the Beach Boys' experiments was hardly motivation for imitation. In the end, we must conclude that the Beach Boys' late-1960s experiments were not reproducible." Referring to the groups' reaction to the commercial success of their 1976 greatest hits compilation Endless Summer, Harrison writes, "they returned to the beach, knowing they would never leave it again." Erik Davis wrote that by 1990, "the Beach Boys are either dead, deranged, or dinosaurs; their records are Eurocentric, square, unsampled; they've made too much money to merit hip revisionism." From the same period, Jim Miller wrote, "They have become a figment of their own past, prisoners of their unflagging popularity—incongruous emblems of a sunny myth of eternal youth belied by much of their own best music. … The group is still largely identified with its hits from the early Sixties."
The group routinely appears in the upper reaches of ranked lists such as "The Top 1000 Albums of All Time". Many of the group's songs and albums including The Beach Boys Today! (1965), Smiley Smile (1967), Sunflower (1970), and Surf's Up (1971) are featured in several lists devoted to the greatest of all time. The 1966 releases Pet Sounds and "Good Vibrations" frequently rank among the top of critics' lists of the greatest albums and singles of all time. In 2004, Pet Sounds was preserved in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress for being "culturally, historically, and aesthetically significant." On Acclaimed Music, "Good Vibrations" is ranked the third best song of all time, while "God Only Knows" is ranked twenty-first; the group itself is ranked eleven in its 1000 most recommended artists of all time.
In 1966 and 1967, reader polls conducted by the UK magazine NME crowned the Beach Boys as the world's number one vocal group, ahead of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. In 1974, the Beach Boys were awarded "Band of the Year" by Rolling Stone. On December 30, 1980, the Beach Boys were awarded a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, located at 1500 Vine Street. The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988. Ten years later they were selected for the Vocal Group Hall of Fame. In 2001, the group received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2004, Rolling Stone ranked the Beach Boys number 12 on its list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Brian Wilson was inducted into the UK Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in November 2006.
The Wilsons' California house, where the Wilson brothers grew up and the group began, was demolished in 1986 to make way for Interstate 105, the Century Freeway. A Beach Boys Historic Landmark (California Landmark No. 1041 at 3701 West 119th Street), dedicated on May 20, 2005, marks the location.
The Beach Boys also appear in the beach party films The Girls on the Beach in which they perform three songs "The Girls on the Beach", "Lonely Sea", and "Little Honda" and The Monkey's Uncle in which they perform "The Monkey's Uncle" with Annette Funicello.
The life of the Beach Boys is the subject of two TV movies: Summer Dreams: The Story of the Beach Boys and The Beach Boys: An American Family.
The Beach Boys appeared in an episode of Full House entitled "Beach Boy Bingo", which aired on November 18, 1988.
The Beach Boys also appeared in Season 6, Episode 4 of Baywatch (1995).