Rethinking the Beach Boys

beach-boys-Heroes_and_VillainsAlthough the classic question of rock ‘n’ roll in the mid-Sixties was “Beatles or Stones?” in the neighborhood where I grew up there was more of a nationalistic cast to the debate: it was “Beatles or Beach Boys?”  Sociologically, in all-American terms, this was also the age of the Jets and the Sharks, and if the Stones might stand in for the bad boys, the Beach Boys represented the whitebread, clean-cut side of that divide.

As an adolescent, I was terrified of the local hoodlums with their greased hair and pointy shoes, but that wasn’t nearly enough to make me want to listen to the insipid harmonies of the California Boys.  I was an Anglophile before I even knew the word, an underdog who identified with the blues and its artists.

And then there was the other problem with the string of early Beach Boys hits: “Surfin’ Safari,” “409”, “Surfin’ USA,” “Shut Down,” “Surfer Girl,” “Little Deuce Coupe.” Surf, cars, surf, cars, surf, cars.  The subtext of both was “high school” and “girls.” Taken as a whole, the Beach Boys’ early catalog was a compendium of everything that I had zero interest in, and worse, that represented everything that made me feel inadequate and abnormal.  I despised the Beach Boys and everything that they stood for.

And despite what Paul McCartney (or anyone else) said, Pet Sounds did nothing to change my mind.  The orchestrations that supposedly enriched the vocabulary of rock ‘n’ roll on that album to me were just variations on Motown or Phil Spector.  Putting Pet Sounds up against other albums of the summer of 1966, Revolver, Aftermath, Sunshine Superman, even on the American side of the pond, the debut of The Doors, seemed just silly.

Of course, “Good Vibrations” changed all that.  It’s impossible for me to remember what it sounded like then.  The psychedelics hadn’t kicked in yet, even if the Beatles had introduced the sitar and in a way let  theremin of “Good Vibrations” in through the door they had opened.  The classical, multi-movement experiments of the Nice were still years in the future, and nobody was expecting Sgt. Pepper’s, or even, for that matter, “Strawberry Fields Forever.”  I do remember that by the time that the single’s followup, the even more complex “Heroes and Villains” appeared, whispers of the Who’s plan to write a “rock opera,” whatever that meant, were being heard.

And then there were the rumors soon to follow about a mad masterpiece called Smile and a song that sounded like it would take the Beach Boys’ history and radically revise it, “Surf’s Up.”  There were stories about the recording studio going up in flames, the tapes destroyed.  There were stories that Brian was unraveling.  And that brief flash of greatness, “Good Vibrations,” “Heroes and Villains,” and the promise of “Surf’s Up” wicked out.

It didn’t take long for the Beach Boys to start hawking nostalgia for their old way of life.  “Do It Again” is essentially a commercial for the days of sun and fun and California Girls. The funny thing was: it worked.  I loved the song, and I was willing to give the Boys a chance.

And in the decades since then the Beach Boys have become synonymous with American nostalgia, entertainment for patriots, everlasting symbols of a different kind of Camelot.  For those of us of a certain age, those odes to surf and cars evoke pleasures that I, for the most part, never experienced, never wished for.  And yet they are potent symbols, expressive of freedom from care, of times when the sun shone and the water was warm.  The greatest irony, of course, as Brian Wilson says in a scene from the film Love & Mercy, is that the Beach Boys themselves were never surfers and the real surfers never liked their music.  It’s all a dream, even if it is a very compelling one.

But the tug of the simple and unburdened life, where you always won the race and got the girl (or Rhonda would be there to help you get over the one who got away) came at me strongly when I saw the trailer for Love & Mercy, with its amazing montage of shots recreating the most iconic photographs of the Beach Boys with their surfboards and woodies, with their pet sounds in the studio.  And the promise that half of the movie would focus on the creation of Pet Sounds, dramatizing the days in which Brian Wilson edged closer and closer to creating his rock ‘n’ roll masterpieces, kept me on the edge of my Netflix queue all summer long.

In anticipation, I scoured the web for videos and anecdotes, read copiously in Wikipedia, and learned a great deal about how Pet Sounds (and later, the prototype of Smile) was put together.  And I’m glad I did, because I feel like the movie (whose tag line is “the life, love, and genius of Brian Wilson”) slighted the genius in favor of the life and love, and the chance to portray another tortured, misunderstood artist.  But I guess I should have known that melodrama would trump music, that creativity is hard to capture in the retelling and probably doesn’t make good theater even as it happens.

Still, armed with the knowledge that Brian crafted dozens and dozens of snippets of music, and layered them with all the instruments that weren’t native to rock ‘n’ roll, as well as with random noise and accident, I enjoyed the studio scenes.  They were told with more economy than I’d hoped for, just as all those iconic photographs of the Beach Boys were compressed into a few flashing seconds at the introduction to the movie.  Mostly, though, they helped me to hear the dense textures of Pet Sounds more clearly.  In addition, the scenes in which Brian’s sketches of songs—like the awkward piano performance of the early draft of “God Only Knows” reveal the simple pop song structures that underlay the songs.

And although the movie doesn’t dramatize the creation of “Heroes and Villains,” the central song of the late great triptych, it suggests how the combination of short melodic ideas and densely built-up musical, aural textures combined to create some of the most original and startling tunes of the Sixties, this side of Sgt. Pepper’s.  The film also gives us a glimpse of the genesis of “Surf’s Up” somewhere in 1966.  Even thought most of the world had to wait until 1971 to hear the song, when the Beach Boys released it on the album of the same name, I can’t help but wonder if an acetate found its way into the Beatles’ hands sometime back then and influenced the creation of “A Day in the Life.”  After all, Derek Taylor was doing publicity for both bands at the time.

One final note about Love & Mercy.  Although the reviews made a great deal of the somewhat audacious decision to cast two quite different actors to play Brian Wilson during the 60s and the 80s periods presented in the film, I found the real genius to be in the casting of all the Beach Boys in their heyday.  It captures, especially in Paul Dano as Brian and Brett Davern as Carl, just how young the boys were.  Brian was all of 23 when Pet Sounds was released, and Carl hadn’t yet turned 20.  I’m ten  years younger than Brian, so it seems only reasonable that I regarded him as a grown-up maestro when “Good Vibrations” blew me out of my chair, but now looking back, I’m astonished at the extraordinary talent and vision he had, even if madness lay that way.

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