The Essential Guide to The Beach Boys
Mahnoor Imam explores the background, discography and prominence of The Beach Boys.
If you’re looking for classic and nostalgic American surf-rock, you can really never miss with the Beach Boys. Their legendary blend of pop, rock n’ roll and black R&B produced a unique sound that took off in early 1960s Northern America.
The original line-up included the Wilson brothers, Carl, Dennis and Brian along with their cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine. Formed in 1961 in Hawthorne, California, they were the quintessential suburban California artists. Carl Wilson as the lead guitarist drew on drenched spring reverb and a vibrato effect that runs through the entire song. Brian Wilson, along with Michael Love and Al Jardin were the main singers, applying innovative recording techniques and animated harmonies.
For their generation, they reflected Californian youth culture that revolved around surfing, fast cars, romance, and lulled relaxation by the beach. This aesthetic is perfectly captured in their first national hit ‘Surfin in the USA‘ hit number one on the Billboard 1963 chart, a classic symbol of California sound: nostalgic tunes popular in Southern California. Every hit is unmissable, from underappreciated singles like ‘All I Wanna Do’ to classic tropical hits like ‘Kokomo’.
Diving into one of their most critically acclaimed albums, All Summer Long (1964), much like the name suggests is a definitive summer anthem for those who are not ready to embrace the winter chill. Lead single ‘I Get Around‘ was the group’s first number one hit in the U.S and gained certified gold by the RIAA. It had an impressive 49-week chart stay and rose to fame after the British Invasion, a cultural phenomenon in the 1960s when British music gained popularity in Northern America. Although its roots are centred in summer, the Beach Boys do not revisit beach culture music after this album until much later. Influences include Chuck Berry, Otis Williams, the Everly Brother with a twisted element of jazz harmony. Popular tracks to listen to include ‘Little Honda‘, ‘Girls on the Beach‘, ‘Wendy‘ and ‘We’ll Run Away‘. Saturated with nostalgic salty beach spray, these tracks will send you straight to Southern California.
Their debut album, Surfin’ Safari is the archetype of garage surf, a genre mix of rock music and surf culture. The instrumental surf element included reverb-heavy electric guitars evoking crashing waves and classic barbershop quartet-like vocal harmonies and tonal qualities. During the first stages of surf music mania, the Beach Boys were at the epicentre. Although the band started with this classic pop energy, it soon abandoned its standard pop traditions and evolved to formulate the band’s own unique rock sound. Essentially, this later evolved to classic, “hot rod” rock revolving around cars and girls. More popular hits to check out include: ‘The Shift’, presented by Brian and Love as a “fashion statement”, ‘Moon Dawg’ considered to be the first surf record, originally a cover by the Gamblers, exposing it to a larger audience. Particularly ‘Surfin‘, a prototypical single composed after the surf craze of 1960s California.
Wilson at his most prominent stood on the ‘Pet Sounds’ album. Renowned as an album showcasing Wilson’s eccentric sound arrangement, any tool was an instrument, from water bottles to sleigh-bells, Electro-Theramins to harpsichords. ‘Here Today’ is an eminent example, implementing a jumble of 13 instruments without the threat of cacophony. This list included two baritone saxes, a bass trombone, a double bass, and a bass guitar on top of the looming pile. These instruments built up into the chorus of the song, resulting in an intense, dynamic tone. This impressive outlay even attracted attention from the likes of Paul McCartney who cites ‘Pet Sounds‘ as his favourite record. ‘Good Vibrations’ (released in the late 1960s) went into a tangent of a mosaic of psychedelic influences, coming at a confusing time for Beach Boy’s very own Brian Wilson. Building on from his inspiration of Pet Sounds, ‘Good Vibrations’ subverts from traditional pop music formulae boring tones to psychedelic experimentation. His lifelong struggles with mental illness and growing substance abuse fittingly translated into the psychedelic markings of this album. The drum lines in ‘Feel Flows‘ were entirely composed by Wilson although the bass is played by iconic Carol Kaye. Particularly great songs to come out of ‘Feel Flows‘ include ‘Dierdre’, ‘Tears in the Morning’ and ‘The ‘Forever’.
Brian Wilson’s formulaic creative process included slash chords, pedal tones, augmented chords along with a myriad of other sound techniques. ‘God Only Knows’ is an exhibition of Wilson’s specialty: descending bassline slash chords, potent and fervent tone resounding throughout the song. ‘I Get Around’ along with ‘Barbara Ann’, a mellow surf-side beach classic reminiscent of a harmonious barbershop quartet reached number one on the US Top 40 Hits chart. This showcases Wilson’s innovative engineering style, a major influence that directed the successful trajectory of the band that even paralleled The Beatles.
You will never fail to hear the influence of The Beach Boys, whether it’s in the form of a cultural reference in songs such as ‘The Greatest’ by Lana Del Rey or nestled in an “Oldies'” Spotify playlist.
Albums to Start With
‘The Beach Boys’ Starter Playlist:
Kokomo – Made in California
Disney Girls – Surfs Up
Good Vibrations – Smiley Smile
All I Wanna Do – Sunflower
Be True to Your School – Little Deuce Coupe
Got to Know the Woman – Feel Flows
All Summer Long (Mono) – All Summer Long
Why Do Fools Fall In Love – Shut down Vol. 2
Here Today- Pet Sounds
Surfin’ USA -Surfin’ USA