In the mid- to late-1960’s there are four Great Bands and the Beach Boys are one of them.
To be fair, the Beach Boys are not quite as cool and are nowhere near as dangerous as the Rolling Stones. They also don’t possess the virtuosic musicianship of the Who, nor the runaway creativity of the Beatles. But their ability to deliver perfectly-crafted bursts of California youth culture in sweet-as-sugar radio pop songs is mindblowing. This, combined with a talent for vocal harmonizing that borders on the occult, easily earns the three Wilson brothers, Mike Love and Al Jardine their spot among the other three Great Bands* mentioned above – the main difference being that unlike the others, the Beach Boys are from America.
On June 5th, the Beach Boys released their new album That’s Why God Made the Radio. It is their 29th studio album and it commemorates the band’s 50th anniversary. I’m going to repeat that last bit – their fiftieth anniversary. The significance of the band’s continued existence and the momentous appearance of an album’s worth of new material this summer cannot be overemphasized. Brian Wilson’s brothers Dennis and Carl, founding members of the band, died in the 80’s and 90’s. But he, Mike and Al – septuagenarians all of them and veterans of decades worth of internecine warfare over royalties, rights and all the other things bands fight over, have mounted a full-scale reunion. In doing so, they give us what may be their final gift, a heartbreaking, shimmeringly gorgeous record that borders on religious experience for fans of American pop music.
Brian Wilson’s arc, for the uninitiated, begins with the genius songwriter and composer going toe-to-toe with Lennon/McCartney, pushing the envelope in the studio both technically and creatively like no one else. The Beatle’s release of Rubber Soul drives Wilson to a near-madness in the studio and leads to the Beach Boys’ response, Pet Sounds, in 1966, this will become the band’s artistic peak and one of the most important records in rock history; its influence felt and cited by artists making records even now, some five decades later. It should be noted that Pet Sounds also had the distinction of being the driving influence behind the greatest album ever made, the Beatles’ 1967 masterpiece Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, according to Paul McCartney (and anyone who listens to them back-to-back).
After the triumph of Pet Sounds, one of the most universally acclaimed works of music ever, Brian Wilson, it’s main architect, will slip into a cycle of depression, drug abuse and mental illness. The Beach Boys will never fully recover.
But that was then. A string of health tragedies, in-fighting, new lineups, world tours, a pop-cultural landmark appearance on the show Full House, one-off hits like late-80’s curiosity “Kokomo”, and virulent court battles will keep the band and its lawyers busy through much of the ensuing 40 years. Ultimately, fences will be mended as best they can so that the legendarily incomplete record Smile can see the light of day the way Wilson intended it to. And then, I suppose, someone mentioned the idea of new material and a reunion. And here we are.
The thing about the new album is that it opens reverently with the flawless harmony that’s become the Boys’ signature, the opening track is a wordless hymn that seems almost to be beckoning us to our seats, as though services are about to begin. We are then treated to the album’s title track, a nostalgic paean to car culture, cruising and the unseverable connection between music and our memories.
From there, the Beach Boys do what they do best over the course of twelve new songs, which veer from the ineffable sunshine of “Isn’t It Time” to the introspective darkness of “Pacific Coast Highway” (sample lyric: Sunlight’s fading and there’s not much left to say. My life, I’m better off alone). The production throughout is flawless, every voice and instrument gives the very best performance it can thanks to the digital tools that Wilson could have only dreamt of back when he was making 4-track recording equipment sound like 24-track in 1966.
The album definitely feels like a goodbye and if it is, it’s a fitting one. By the time you hit the closing track, “Summer’s Gone,” you can almost feel the crunch of autumn leaves beneath your feet as the surfboards are stowed away for the season, and possibly for good. But the melancholia is fitting here. These are men who’ve lived full lives and are being honest about the passage of time even while they pine for the sunny days of their youth.
And an honest record is exactly what we need from the Beach Boys, not an orchestrated (read: manipulated) comeback extravaganza complete with auto-tuned vocoder and guest rap verses by Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj. There is a timelessness to this record and a classicism that is at once exciting and comforting to both casual fans and audiophiles who understand how important all this stuff truly is.
And so with That’s Why God Made the Radio, the Beach Boys have given us the gift of Endless Summer once again. This after 50 years, over 100 million albums sold, 36 US Top 40 hits (the most by any American band), 56 Hot 100 charted songs and four number-one smash singles. I hardly know how to thank them other than to buy it and play it over and over again until the iPod melts.
Happy July 4th.
*Please don’t start a rant about how The Doors belong in my Four Great Bands of the 1960’s. The Doors are a great band, but not a Great Band. They are on a slightly lower echelon than the four that I’ve named, resting comfortably alongside other great 60’s bands like Creedence, the Mama & the Papas, Cream, the Kinks and maybe even Jefferson Airplane. OK, scratch Airplane and I think you have a pretty solid Second Four Great Bands. Jimi and Janis and Dylan and Elvis and Donovan and Simon & Garfunkel are not being disparaged here, they’re just not bands. And the Grateful Dead don’t even enter into this discussion, sorry. Hopefully we’re all on the same page now – Josh