The Beach Boys is a band people connect with songs like “Barbara Ann“, “Surfin’ USA“, “California Girls” and “I Get Around“. But we don’t want to talk about the songs that come up on the radio still today every day. This band is more than that. Let’s start in the year 1966, it is five years after their first single “Surfin‘”. Even what is considered to be their best work by critics should be questioned:
A lot has been written about Pet Sounds. As everyone knows it was named no. 2 in the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time by the Rolling Stone magazine, just behind the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. But is it really that good?
Of course… tastes differ. Songs like “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?“, “(Don’t Talk) Put Your Head On My Shoulder“, “God Only Knows” and “Caroline, No” are masterpieces. If you listen to the backing tracks only you really start to see all its splendor. Brian Wilson is a genius, there’s no doubt about that. Although he gave his session players (watch the movie!) wrong sheets of music he simply knew what he wanted and was able to tell them. Wilson took Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and made it his own. Then he introduced the modular concept of composing songs: little snippets were recorded in various studios across L.A., and then Wilson was able to combine them how he wanted to. A great example of this is a song that was released shortly after Pet Sounds: “Good Vibrations” came out as a single in 1967.
And it was the beginning of the end; it is where the mastermind of Brian Wilson really began to start and to fail. While taking too many drugs he lost control of himself and of his music. The follow up to Pet Sounds with the name SMiLE was never finished. After hearing Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, having too much pressure from his band mates and from his record company Capitol, feeling bugged by Phil Spector and his father, as well his unstable personality, Brian Wilson decided to put it into a shelve. Only few recordings of it were used on Smiley Smile (1967) and some following releases of the Beach Boys, now under the control of his brother Carl Wilson. Even though Brian only took rarely part in future recordings The Beach Boys released a series of very good albums. One should especially mention Sunflower (1970) and Surf’s Up (1971) – and even though they didn’t sell at all the band tried their best to keep up to date. They contain very lovely (Folk) songs, great arrangements and beautiful lyrics. “‘Til I Die“, “Disney Girls (1957)” and “Forever” are perfect examples of how the Beach Boys sounded without all that car, surf and beach nonsense.
Only 30 years later, in 2004, Brian Wilson gave it another try to finish his masterpiece. With the help of some musicians he did a re-recording and named it Brian Wilson presents Smile. But that was long after he lost his beautiful falsetto voice. The year 2011 saw the release of The SMiLE Sessions. Finally everyone could hear what he was doing in the studio 45 years earlier: roundabout 20 songs would have made the greatest records of all times. The album was meant to be about the four elements: water, fire, air, and aether. It contains cowboy songs, country music, comic songs, doo-wop, barbershop music, chanting, noise, cartoons, and field recordings with a unified homage to Americana. Also it is through-composed like a classical opera. An a dinner table Wilson once called it a “teenage symphony to God” – and that’s what it is! Even in its final incomplete form, it’s a stunning piece of music that every music lover should be aware of. In 2013 Wilson and The SMiLE Sessions received a Grammy Award for the Best Historical Album.
Shouldn’t SMiLE be on the Rolling Stone list? It definitely should! The last update was in 2010, we are hoping for some acknowledgement in the near future. Pet Sounds is a very good record but even after its release in 1966 it wasn’t seen as a chef-d‘œuvre. Although its successor was officially never finished it is the true masterpiece of Brian Wilson.
The best Beach Boys albums:
1. The SMiLE Sessions (2011)
2. Sunflower (1970)
3. Surf’s Up (1971)
4. Pet Sounds (1966)
5. Summer Days (And Summer Nights!) (1965)