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Hall of Fame Flashback: The Beach Boys

Hall of Fame Flashback: The Beach Boys

Truly great artists have been making history using Fender instruments for decades, many of whom have been inducted into the prestigious Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Join us as we take a detailed look at some of those artists who make the Hall of Fame one of the world’s greatest monuments to one of the world’s greatest musical forms.

Written by Phil Gallo

Brian Wilson’s concept for the Beach Boys was a simple one: Combine the harmony vocals of the Four Freshmen with the rock ‘n’ roll style of Chuck Berry and the production values of Phil Spector, and compose lyrics about life as a teenager in Southern California. It fueled 28 top 20 hit singles, established the Beach Boys as the biggest selling American act of the 1960s and, once the formula ran its course, the door was opened for Wilson to create one of pop music’s enduring masterpieces, Pet Sounds.

When they were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, Wilson explained his motivation with a modest statement: “I wanted to write joyful music that made other people feel good.”

Formed in an afternoon when Wilson and cousin Mike Love had been left alone at the Wilson home in Hawthorne, Calif., they used grocery money to rent musical instruments and wound up writing a song together. Based on an idea from Dennis, the tune was “Surfin’.”

The Wilson brothers – Brian, Carl and Dennis – and Love had spent their high school years in the 1950s playing in bands and making recordings, often with neighbors David Marks and Al Jardine, both of whom played guitar. It wasn’t until August 1961 that Carl, Dennis, Brian, Mike and Al started to rehearse together, using the name the Pendletones. They would record “Surfin’” in October 1961 and within two months the Candix label released the track with a tune called “Luau” on the flipside. It would peak at number 75 on the Billboard chart.

With their name changed to the Beach Boys, they were signed to Capitol Records on the basis of that first single. They stuck with the themes of surfing, hot rods and girls, filling America’s airwaves in 1962 and 1963 with “Surfin’ Safari,” “Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “Surfer Girl,”  “409,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” “Fun, Fun, Fun” and “I Get Around.” The pace at which they recorded was astounding; in 1964 alone, they released four albums.

The records released from 1962 to 1964 were the only ones on which the original lineup played all the instruments. Jardine and Marks favored the Fender Stratocaster and a Rickenbacker; Brian exclusively used a Fender Precision Bass.

As much as Brian Wilson’s music was defining Southern California, an element of introspection creeped into the early albums, usually one song at a time. The pensive works “In My Room,” “The Warmth of the Sun” and “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)” demonstrated that Wilson was interested in more than just odes to waves and woodies; he was using music for introspection as well as to define California at the time.

As Brian’s musical ambitions grew, so, too, did the team he assembled to record. A December 1964 session was the first time outside help came in, specifically the “Wrecking Crew” Los Angeles session aces led by drummer Hal Blaine, which included bass guitarist Carol Kaye and guitarists Barney Kessel, Billy Strange and William Pitman. It was the beginning of the creation of two versions of the Beach Boys: a studio unit overseen by Brian and a touring band that featured the original members plus Bruce Johnston as Brian’s substitute on bass guitar and vocals.  

1965 album The Beach Boys Today! was the first under the new arrangement and, not surprisingly, the first Beach Boys album with no songs about cars or beaches. It reached number four on the U.S. albums chart and its first single, “Help Me Rhonda,” became the band’s first number-one single.

With each ensuing session, the size of the band increased while the reliance on guitar as the central instrument diminished. In October 1965, Brian enlisted Dick Reynolds to arrange his versions of three standards and lead a 43-piece orchestra at an L.A. studio. It gave him the confidence needed to proceed with the more adventurous compositions he had been working on, songs that would eventually become 1966′s Pet Sounds.

Inspired overall by the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and on particular songs by music from James Bond films (the song “Pet Sounds”) and Burt Bacharach (“Let’s Go Away for Awhile”), Pet Sounds took four months to record – a lifetime for a rock band at the time. Before the album was finished, Wilson started work on “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains,” two songs that would be cornerstones of Pet Sounds follow-up Smile. The live band, meanwhile, was headlining multiple-act bills, playing hits such as “Barbara Ann” to 16,000 people in San Francisco; 7,000 in Duluth, Minn.; and 12,400 in Los Angeles.

When presented with Pet Sounds, Capitol Records executives immediately considered shelving the project. They reluctantly agreed to release the album in May 1966 in the United States, where it reached number 10 on the charts. The album fared much better when it was released six weeks later in the U.K., drawing rave reviews and climbing to number two on the national album chart.

Despite double Pet Sounds hits “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows,” Capitol decided to release compilation album Best of the Beach Boys in July 1966, which Brian perceived as sabotage. As his drug use escalated, so too did his erratic behavior – a sandbox containing a piano was placed in his living room, he had his house re-designed monthly to affect the mood of rehearsals, and sessions started to bear little fruit.

“Good Vibrations,” a project so much larger in scope and expense than other records that it was tagged the Gone With the Wind of singles, was released in October 1966 and put the Beach Boys back at number one. Its success led Brian to push the boundaries even further with Smile despite the objections of the other Beach Boys.  Hallucinogenic drugs and his weakened mental state prevented Brian from controlling the project, which was finally halted in May 1967. The piece would not be completed until 2005.

The failure to see Smile completed led to Brian and the Boys restricting the ambitiousness of their recordings. Carl, Dennis, Mike, Al and Brian resumed work in the studio as a band playing their own instruments, first on the abridged version of Smile — called Smiley Smile — then Wild Honey (1967), Friends (1968) and 20/20 (1969). Friends was the first Beach Boys album without a top 40 single.

Operating as a group, the Beach Boys created their own label, Brother Records, in 1970 and moved to Reprise from Capitol. 1970′s Sunflower, their first release on Brother, saw the emergence of the other Beach Boys as songwriters, particularly Carl. Surf’s Up followed in 1971, and as new members came in, they produced Carl and the Passions – “So Tough” in 1972 and Holland in 1973, generating the hits “Marcella” and “Sail On, Sailor.”

Nostalgia for the early 1960s had created a new marketplace for the Beach Boys as a concert attraction. In 1974, Capitol Records released Endless Summer, a double-LP hits collection that hit number 1 and made  “Surfin’ U.S.A.” a top-five hit a dozen years after its initial release. The Beach Boys became “America’s band.”

In 1976, amid considerable hoopla, Brian rejoined the group after spending nearly three years in bed. 15 Big Ones, their first studio album in nearly four years, went top 10 and their version of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” hit number five.

Brian’s involvement with the band increased on 1977 release Love You, but he soon drifted away from the band. Mike Love and Bruce Johnston guided the other Beach Boys releases in the ’70s; Love’s long association with transcendental meditation resulted in M.I.U. Album (1978) and the returning Johnston produced 1979′s L.A. (Light Album), the band’s first release for Caribou Records.

The 1980s were a mixture of sadness, recovery, infighting, touring and an out-of-the-blue number-one hit. Carl Wilson, hoping to force the band to perform new material live, briefly quit in 1981 to make a solo album, but promptly returned to the fold (he had one more solo disc, 1984′s Youngblood). “Kokomo,” the single featured in the 1988 film Cocktail hit number one.

Tragically, Dennis Wilson drowned in December 1983 in Marina Del Rey, Calif., at the age of 39. He had recorded a single solo album, Pacific Ocean Blue, which was released in 1977 and reissued in 2008.

Brian’s conservatorship became a legal fight with members of the Beach Boys on one side and his psychologist, Dr. Eugene Landy, on the other. Once the lengthy court battle had dissolved the Wilson-Landy relationship, Brian had to go up against his cousin and former bandmate Mike Love, who was successful in getting a jury to grant him co-writing credits on 30 Beach Boys songs.

It was in 1988, the same year the Beach Boys entered the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, that Brian emerged as a solo artist. His eponymous debut included the songs “Love and Mercy” and “Melt Away,” and seemed to indicate that Wilson’s writing and recording career were back on track. However, it wasn’t until 1995 that Wilson released second and third solo albums I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times and Orange Crate Art.

Carl Wilson succumbed to brain and lung cancer in 1998 at age 51.

Brian was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2000 and continues to record and perform; solo album That Lucky Old Sun was released in 2008.

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