Sweet but Sly: The Best of The Beach Boys

By Daniel Garrett

The Best of The Beach Boys
Capitol Records, 1990 & 2005

I grew up hearing the songs of The Beach Boys, who often sounded like boy angels.  Their songs were pleasant interludes, but did not seem to have much to do with the grit and groove of real life.  Hearing them now, the songs seem like the secular hymns of America.  “Fun, Fun, Fun,” a song about a girl’s having fun in a car away from her father, suggesting independence, mobility, pleasure, and a little subversion, alludes to doo-wop with its choral singing, and to rhythm-and-blues with its strong rhythms.  (It is still possible to hear Chuck Berry in the song’s rhythms.)  Its brief intimation of a clashing intensity actually does herald the music of the future.  One watching boy finally has a chance with the girl in that song, after her father takes her car and the boy offers her a ride in his.  With a slow, intricate opening that could commence a very different song, “California Girls” is a sweet but sly review of the nation’s girls, from the perspective of a very straight guy who has discovered and begun to study the opposite sex, preferring California girls.  It is as if guys with an ice cream-and-soda restaurant jukebox came together with guys from a barbershop quartet, a beach party, a circus band, and a church choir to create the music of “California Girls.”  The Beach Boys’ songs can seem deceptively simple; and yet, for instance, the instrumentation and arrangement of the song “Good Vibrations” create a mystique that the lyrics are too imprecise to name, filling out their vision: “I don’t know where, but she sends me there” and “Gotta keep those love vibrations a-happening.”  In its complement and contrast of voices, rhythms, and tones, the music has a marvelous density.  How can music seem both simple and complex?  Is it that many simple things together create complexity?  Was the band inspired by Phil Spector or Berry Gordy’s Motown?  The music of The Beach Boys may be the music of men who know what transcendence sounds and looks like, but not all the practical steps to get there—except for the creation of music.

The Beach Boys formed in 1961, signed with Capitol Records in 1962, and are known for songs such as “California Girls” and “Good Vibrations” and the albums Pet Sounds and Smile, and they are celebrating their 50th anniversary now, in 2012, with a reunion tour.  Their story is very American in many ways: though the group’s principal songwriter, Brian Wilson, wrote sunny songs, his childhood and adult life were quite stormy.  Brian Wilson’s mother drank, and his father beat him; and as a man Brian Wilson was drug-addled and dependent on a psychologist—but in later life Wilson, who has been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and received a Kennedy Center honor for his music contributions, seems to have achieved a stable life with a second wife.  His songs were dreams rather than realities—or, at best, moments torn out of time, away from change and consequence.  The band included Brian Wilson with his brothers Dennis and Carl and cousin Mike Love with friend Al Jardine (not all the original members are alive now).  The group’s members were sometimes helped in the studio by great session musicians called the Wrecking Crew.

Youthful boredom and male bragging come together in “I Get Around,” which contains very busy music, a shifting arrangement with twangy guitar and choral harmonies and clapping.  Honestly, an aura of precision, purity, and polite manners may be what defines the music’s perceptible whiteness.  In the very doo-woppish “Help Me Rhonda,” the narrator asks a new girl to help him forget an old girlfriend.  The vulnerability is explicit, as the narrator was going to marry his old girlfriend, suggesting a rare male eagerness for commitment.  The song’s chugging beat inspires dancing.  “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is a fantasy of adulthood, of marriage and happiness: and it asks, “Wouldn’t it be nice to live together in the kind of world where we belong?”  It is fascinating that though some of the band’s harmonies are high-voiced, there is no femininity in its sound.  This is masculine sensitivity, but the Beach Boys do sound like boys rather than men; and in “Barbara Ann,” so reminiscent of the 1950s, the theme is romantic rather than sexual.  “Surfer Girl” is a soft, downbeat ballad; and it seems like an exemplar of a genre or sensibility—casual and deeply romantic, devoted and sunny—that could not have existed without the band.   “Surfin’ USA,” a piece of sports advocacy, has some grind and twang to it; and “Be True to Your School,” literally a rah-rah anthem, promotes school pride, comparing it with loyalty to a girl.  How sweet.  The light pleasures, infatuations, and concerns of youth are preserved in these songs, like butterflies in amber.  The music of The Beach Boys articulates a vision of American normality that may not have been true for everyone but the yearning in it is certainly deep and familiar—so very human.

Daniel Garrett, a graduate of the New School for Social Research, and the principal organizer of the Cultural Politics Discussion Group at Poets House, is a writer whose work has appeared in The African, All About Jazz, American Book Review, Art & Antiques, The Audubon Activist, Black Film Review, Changing Men, Cinetext, Contact II, Film International, The Humanist, Hyphen, Illuminations, Muse Apprentice Guild, Option, Pop Matters, Quarterly Black Review of Books, Rain Taxi, Red River Review, Review of Contemporary Fiction, Wax Poetics, and World Literature Today.  Daniel Garrett has written extensively about international film for Offscreen, and comprehensive commentary on music for The Compulsive Reader.  He has an internet log, “The Art Notes of a Solitary Walker,” focused on visual art.  He has written a novel, A Stranger on Earth.

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