- Historic Sites
Brian Wilson’s Wave
For the brilliant songwriter behind the Beach Boys, the endless summer gave way to a very hard winter. Now he is back, with a work that wants to be no less than a musical history of the American dream.
August/September 2004 | Volume 55, Issue 4
Eager to put together a band to perform the song, Brian called in Al Jardine, a music-loving Hawthorne High classmate who had long pursued Brian about forming a folksinging group. Fourteen-year-old Carl came next, adding his sweet, smooth voice and the growing catalogue of Chuck Berry licks he was learning to play on his guitar. Dennis was the last addition, mostly at the insistence of Audree, who didn’t think it would be fair to leave him out, especially since he’d thought of the whole surfing-tune idea in the first place. The boys rented microphones, drums, amplifiers, and a standup bass and recorded a living-room demo over the Labor Day weekend. The tape impressed Murry enough for him to proclaim himself their manager. Soon the group was in a storefront studio on Melrose Avenue, recording their song for professional release.
Put out in early December, “Surfin’” became a hit in Los Angeles, and equipped with that small triumph, Murry took the band to Capitol Records, which in May 1962 released “Surfin’ Safari,” a more melodic, vividly worded version of “Surfin’.” A pop guitarist named Dick Dale had earlier pioneered instrumental surf music, capturing the energy of the waves in lightning-fast guitar arpeggios and wails, but the Beach Boys were the first band to spin beach life into song.
“Surfin’” and “Surfin’ Safari” took a nearly journalistic approach, describing beach life from the morning’s first surf report to the late-night dance parties on the sand. Later tunes celebrated the scene in greater detail, yet surfing was only one part of the Beach Boys’ California story. The group also produced car songs with a near-erotic level of specificity (“Everything is chrome, man, even my jack.... I’ll let you look, but don’t touch my custom machine”) and songs that made high school a place of personal, romantic, and political drama.
From 1962 through 1965 the group was constantly on the radio—from “Surfin’ USA” to “Fun, Fun, Fun” to “Little Deuce Coupe,” “Don’t Worry, Baby,” and on to “In My Room” and “I Get Around” and “California Girls,” all sparkling songs with a rich vocal blend. On television they were the very image of American youth: clean-cut, vigorous, tanned, ready to take on whatever the world had to offer. “You gotta be a little nuts / But show ‘em now, who’s got guts,” they sang. “Don’t back down from that wave!”
For a nonsurfer like Brian Wilson, who usually relied on lyricists to translate his feelings into words, the beach and the highway served as metaphors for both the pleasure and the fear he felt. Only a very few decades had passed since California’s beaches had been the only home available to penniless immigrants like the Wilsons’ grandfather Buddy and his family, who spent their first weeks in the state huddled in a tent pitched on the sands of Cardiff-by-the-Sea. That Murry’s children could now spend their summers cavorting in the waves testified not only to their own vigor but also to the strength of the society around them. Those neon-lit tales of cars, girls, and sand spoke of a distinctly American Utopia and the endless promise of transformation: “Catch a wave and you’re sittin’ on top of the world.”
Still, even the most triumphant Beach Boys songs had their undercurrents. In “Don’t Back Down,” big waves “sneak up like a ton of lead,” and cold-hearted women “dig the way the guys get all wiped out.” The ballad “The Warmth of the Sun” (reputedly written the day after John F. Kennedy’s assassination) concedes that “I cried when she said, ‘I don’t feel the same way.’” Brian Wilson’s dream of the West glimmered as not just a possibility but an absolute necessity. “My dad blew my mind,” he said to me a few years ago. “In a very positive way. As a matter of fact, so positive that it scared me to death. If you have a little bit of fear in you, you push harder.”
As the band’s sole composer, arranger, and producer, Brian pushed nonstop to assemble the Beach Boys’ output of up to three original albums and half a dozen singles a year. His strong, bell-like falsetto crowned the group’s vocal blend, and he served as bandleader and bass player on the concert tours. Eventually these pressures—along with the gloom lingering from his childhood—led to his first nervous collapse, at the end of 1964. Delegating tour duties to Brace Johnston, a Los Angeles musician who would remain with the band for most of the next four decades, Brian focused entirely on writing and recording.
Now limited by nothing but his imagination, he crafted pop songs that borrowed as much from Bach and Charles Ives as from Chuck Berry and Phil Spector. “When I Grow Up (to Be a Man)” featured a harpsichord as its lead instrument, while “California Girls” began with an orchestral prelude as spare and stirring as anything by Aaron Copeland, and “The Little Girl I Once Knew” incorporated a calliope-style organ and, more daringly, four-beat pauses that had no precedent in pop music. “Brian was way advanced of what anybody was doing at that point, and I think the Beatles recognized that,” Graham Nash recalled in the mid-1990s, thinking back to his days as a member of the British pop band the Hollies. David Crosby, his future band mate in Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, reached the same conclusion. “I thought, I give up. I’ll never be able to do that,” he said. “Brian was the most highly regarded pop musician in America, hands down.”