The Beach Boys Album Reviews

As a casual music listener it’s easy to hear The Beach Boys’ sun-drenched hits, and conclude that the Beach Boys were all beaches, girls and cars, and no substance. But the group was led by Brian Wilson, one of the most talented musicians from his era, with an ear for sophisticated chord progressions, studio arrangements, and vocal harmonies. Working in isolation without musical support, deaf in one ear, domineered by his father, and strait-jacketed by a bubble gum pop image and a record company that expected three or four albums a year, Wilson overcame all of these obstacles to create some of the most transcendent music of his generation.

While the group’s image as Californian surf and party was a hindrance to Brian’s ambitions, their complex harmonies were always a huge asset to his record making, especially cousin Mike Love’s bass voice and his own gospel infected tenor and gorgeous falsetto. His brothers Dennis and Carl and friend Al Jardine are also capable singers, each bringing their distinctive styles to their leads; Carl in particular had a gorgeous soulful tenor, and he’s the strongest individual singer of the group. Bruce Johnston came on board to replace Brian in the touring band in the mid sixties.

The group’s rightfully acknowledged peak is 1966’s Pet Sounds, and there’s a sense of the group’s early records building up to this high point. Brian was disappointed when Pet Sounds sold fewer copies than its quickly tossed off predecessor Party!, but set off to make an even more ambitious followup entitled Smile. Collaborating with lyricist Van Dyke Parks, Wilson planned an album incorporating an Americana theme and an elements suite, with complex melodies, arrangements and orchestration. Faced with opposition from band members (especially Mike Love who wanted the group to return to their earlier surfing material), a mental fragility exacerbated by drug use, paranoia when a local building burned down on the same day that he recorded the fire element of his suite, and devastated when The Beatles released Sgt Peppers, Wilson abandoned the project, and while he’s produced some worthwhile music since, he’s never again been the confident maestro that he was in his 1965-1966 heyday.

His decline allowed other members of the group to share the spotlight, and it made their post Smile albums a fascinating mess. Mike Love gets a lot of bad press, but I think it’s mostly justified. His crass lyrical ideas impede the group’s early albums, even if they are sometimes an important part of the early group’s identity, while he later stifled the group’s creative ideas and his songwriting contributions were often hackneyed. The group’s albums can be frustrating – there are great songs scattered throughout their albums up to 1973, and even deeper in, but you sometimes have to sit through some dross on their lesser albums. With Brian not usually a lyricist, he’s often dependent on Mike Love or on an outsider like Van Dyke Parks or Tony Asher.

There are at least four distinct phases of the group:
1961-64: The Beach Boys’ early albums are spotty but often charming.
1965-66: Brian Wilson was at the peak of his powers, and Today!, Pet Sounds, and the Smile material are generally acknowledged as the group’s high points.
1967-73: With Wilson no longer able to contribute material consistently, the group became more democratic and less polished. Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson, and Bruce Johnston all emerged as songwriters, and there’s a lot of good material scattered on these albums.
1974 onwards: the success of the compilation Endless Summer made The Beach Boys primarily into a nostalgia act, even though there are still interesting studio recordings, particularly 1977’s Love You. At some point Mike Love took the group over altogether, and he and Bruce Johnston now tour as The Beach Boys.

At this point, I’ve skipped over the group’s first two albums – I generally think that most early sixties rock albums aren’t that strong, so I’m not that worried about them. I’ve also skipped over the live albums, Christmas albums, and 1965’s Party, which is effectively a covers album. I’ve only covered up to 1973’s Holland at this point, but I’d like to come back and cover select later stuff including solo albums from Brian and Dennis.

Ten Favourite Beach Boys Songs

‘Til I Die
Surf’s Up
Good Vibrations
California Girls
The Warmth of the Sun
Long Promised Road
Caroline No
God Only Knows
Kiss Me Baby