The Beach Boys are one of those bands that nobody listens to even though they are idolized by every important musician or producer ever. Although they retained their popularity in Europe, Americans remember the band more for their bad radio hits than for Brian Wilson’s innovations in recording, composing, and arranging. His mental illness defined their entire career, and it was both their making and their undoing.
People adore the Beatles, but they have little knowledge of the band that pushed them to that position. Just as Shakespeare was not the most popular poet when he was alive, so too will Brian Wilson be remembered as the indisputable greatest of popular music in 100 years. This year there’s a biopic on him coming out called Love and Mercy that had outstanding reviews at last year’s independent film festivals, so hopefully the movie will shift public opinion some.
Today the Beach Boys’s saccharine radio fodder is mostly what populates their greatest hits CDs, so it’s difficult to collect a sample of what a true “best of” would be. Fortunately for you, I have all the albums from their artistic height (1966-1973) plus a few more, so I’ve done the synthesizing for you. But first let’s give a little background.
A Little History
People remember the Beatles vs. Stones rivalry, but that was all marketing hype. The real rivalry was between the Beatles and the Beach Boys. It was a classic rock arms race between the two countries, and Brian Wilson (pictured above) was determined to prove America was the better one.
The two bands were constantly building off of the what the other did. Although the Beatles greatly admired Brian Wilson, the sentiment was not entirely mutual. His mentally illness escalated so much that he thought they had stolen his master tapes in late 1966. When he first heard “Strawberry Fields Forever” on the car radio, he told his friend, “They got there first.”
The Beach Boys was the original boy band, but they soon grew tired of writing surf rock. The record label was very hesitant to let them break out of the genre because it had sold so well. If you look at the lyrics to “Don’t Worry Baby,” nominally about drag racing, it becomes apparent that the song was supposed to be about Brian’s mental illness and the record company forced them to make it into radio fodder.
Still, many (but not all) of these early songs had brilliant chord progressions and amazing harmonies, although the best songs from that era usually weren’t on the radio and sometimes weren’t released until decades later.
In early 1966, Brian Wilson put together the album Pet Sounds. Although it was too progressive and original to flourish commercially, critics and colleagues adored it, and it inspired the Beatles to make Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Pet Sounds is so layered and orderly—more like a painting than a pop album—that Andrew Loog Oldham, the then-manager of the Rolling Stones, said in a later interview, “I was raised in an agnostic family, and Pet Sounds actually gave me faith.”
I doubt most people will have such an existential experience with it, but it was the album that a) began psychedelia and b) presented an album as a collective whole instead of a cobbler of hits and filler songs. Yes, the Beatles had made some headway into that with Rubber Soul (1965), as did Dave Brubeck in 1959 with Time Out, but Pet Sounds was the big bang that changed the foundations of the music industry. All of the music you love from the next few years was trying to play catch-up to it.
However, acid and schizophrenia don’t mix well, and there was constant resistance to the new direction from singer and cousin Mike Love. In early 1967, Brian Wilson imploded shortly before he could finish his psychedelic Americana pseudo-classical opus, SMiLe. The album would have forever crushed the Beatles and won the rock n’ roll cold war for the Americans. But the album was shelved, and many of the songs were reworked in gloomy and strange ways for a different low-budget release, Smiley Smile. You can hear the defeatism in its arrangements in stark contrast to the prior optimism.
Smiley Smile was a fantastic album, but it wasn’t what was promised and left the listeners confused. With sparse commercial success in their psychedelic phase, the Beach Boys were still remembered as a dorky surf band, a genre of music Americans were no longer interested in. The band soon lost all popularity in America, although the drummer Dennis Wilson still kept his alpha image. The next several years saw some truly beautiful releases, but the American people had forgotten about the band and moved on. The band in turn gradually began to focus their touring on Europe.
The Beach Boys were (generally) not sanctimonious and preachy like the Beatles, but the band still offered up plenty of social commentary. Although it would be erroneous to say they were consistently red pill, they certainly had their moments when there were strong shadows of it.
1. “California Girls” (1965) – Being A Sex God
This song was an early attempt to thumb their nose at British rock. It actually isn’t about girls from California. It’s about how the band has travelled the world and banged lots of groupies. They’ve found that American girls were the most enjoyable in the world, and so they’re wishing all the girls from the east coast and midwest could move to California so they could continue banging them. My, how things have changed…
Brian Wilson said in a later interview,
It goes back to 1965 when I was sitting in my apartment, wondering how to write a song about girls, because I love girls. I mean, everybody loves girls.
Don’t you just love his phrasing?
In 1962, he began dating a 14-year-old groupie. Hot, right? She’s in the title picture, so you can cast your judgements. Two years later Brian married her. Such is the appeal of the coveted. This distant crooner, oozing with good looks, charisma, and talent. And out of all the fan girls, he chooses you.
2. “Here Today” (1966) – Oneitis Is Poison
The narrator warns his friend about this girl he’s seeing. The narrator used to go out with her, and he knows she’s toxic. Sure, she’s tons of fun at the beginning, but be warned that she’ll crush your heart.
You know, it seems like most songs ranting about a girl are from the perspective of after the breakup, not before. Instead Brian gives some preventative maintenance. Don’t be fooled by illusory notions of infatuation. Keep your options open and don’t get attached, or she’ll leave you a fragment of a person.
See also from the same album “I’m Waiting For The Day,” which gives a good insight into the beta mind.
3. “Surf’s Up” (written 1966 but released 1971) – The Fallibility Of Established Society
Perhaps this was originally a prediction about the fall of old aristocratic culture, but today insane liberals occupy the place that stodgy conservatives did then. “Surf’s Up” is a reminder that ideologies change and systems fall. The feminazis will not rule forever. The title of the song itself was a reference to how the band was finished with surf rock.
Just as the song’s music has abrupt shifts in tone, so too do social systems. The lyrics are written so that one is not entirely sure what is going on, much like a transient society.
Yet it is also a warning. No culture is impervious. Protect your society, or else it will crumble under a tsunami. In our case, that tidal wave is modern liberalism, which (among other things) seeks to distort the nature of the sexes and deny that people act on the values of their racial culture.
4. “Til’ I Die” (written 1969 but released 1971) – You Are Not Special Or Unique
This song is so depressing that the band didn’t want to release it. Brian came up with the inspiration for it while on the seashore, brooding on how insignificant and mortal everything is. He was lauded as one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, yet even he did not consider himself anything monumental. The chords try to imitate the shifts of the ocean.
This is one of the few songs Brian wrote without a lyrics consultant. He compares himself to a drop in the ocean, a rock in a landslide, and a leaf on a windy day. His realization of this is painful for him, yet he comes to terms with the inevitability of it all. It is a song of hopelessness, morbidity, and resignation.
It’s like he was trying to write a song for drinking alone. The song is perfect with a pack of heavy cigarettes. The CD should come with a razor.
5. “This Whole World” (1970) – Girls Crave Drama
A weird song where the different sections don’t quite fit with each other. But there is a verse,
When girls get mad at boys and go,
Many times they’re just putting on a show.
But when they leave, you wait alone.
Despite the trendy leftism of the time, the Beach Boys had been around enough women to be wary of trusting them. In a song otherwise optimistically celebrating love and human unity, Brian gives an unapologetic blanket stereotype that girls want attention and emotions even if it hurts others. Girls are crazy and selfish, Brian Wilson warns us. They will be the sweetest or the most brutal people you will ever know.
Women will be all into you, and then they’ll flip in an instant for no real reason, and often there is nothing you can do about it. All that time and money you spent on her? Gone, and she won’t even tell you why. You’ll blame yourself, you’ll think you were too upfront or too coy, but really, she’s just a narcissistic child in an adult’s body. Every woman has this within her, even if she doesn’t realize it. God only knows why women are so cold.
6. “Disney Girls (1957)” (1971) – The End Of The American Dream
This one actually was written by Bruce Johnston, and it’s one of my favorites. A bit of an acquired taste, though.
Bruce laments the fall of the American Dream. The white picket fence of the 1950s? The Ward and Judy Cleaver? All fantasies now. As fantastical as Disney itself. Liberalism has begun its course, and society is the worse off for it. Maybe it’s not unattainable, and the song seems optimistic. But it’s clear that this is no longer common reality. The nuclear family has become historical fiction.
But perhaps there’s another layer to this. He’s lived the international rock star life. And what is it he’s wanting? The simplicity of suburban living. He realizes all he’s ever wanted was a good church girl to have a family with and return to the juvenility that Disney represents. It’s an abrupt nostalgia after an abrupt social upheaval.
Oh reality, it’s not for me,
And it makes me laugh.
Oh, fantasy world and Disney girls,
I’m coming back. […]
She’s really swell,
Cause she likes
Church, bingo chances, and old time dances. […]
It’d be a peaceful life
With a forever wife
And a kid someday.
But it’s also clear that this is a wish upon a star. His lyrics are toying. Bingo chances and old time dances? A person only wants something that dorky if he lives in a culture of suffocation. He never explicitly says any of this, so there’s not a specific lyric I can point to. But you feel the theme running deep throughout the whole of the work.
As a final note, in 2012 Bruce Johnston called Obama a “socialist asshole” at an autograph signing. He continued, “And who’s the Republican asshole? Our guy isn’t any good.” No apologies. Capitalism is as American as apple pie (although neither are very prevalent anymore). And the Beach Boys are America’s band.