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A Nostalgic — But Bumpy — Journey With The Beach Boys

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A Nostalgic — But Bumpy — Journey With The Beach Boys

Music Reviews

A Nostalgic — But Bumpy — Journey With The Beach Boys

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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In 2012, The Beach Boys became another rock group celebrating its 50th anniversary. This year, they released "Made in California," an eight-hour, six-disc retrospective of their career.

Rock historian Ed Ward has a review.


THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) Catch a wave and you're sitting on top of the world. Don't be afraid to try the greatest sport around. Catch a wave. Catch a wave. Everybody tries it once. Those who don't just have to put it down. You paddle out turn around and raise. And baby that's all there is to the coastline craze. You gotta catch a wave and you're sittin' on top of the world.

(Singing) Not just a fad...

ED WARD, BYLINE: The early Beach Boy story is pretty well known: The three Wilson brothers - Brian, Carl and Dennis - were music-crazy, and lived near the Pacific in Hawthorne, California. Dennis loved surfing, and egged on by their father Murry, a failed musician, they made a record in 1962 with one of their cousins, Mike Love, and a friend, Al Jardine.


THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) Bom bom dip di dit, surfing, surfing. Bom bom dip di dit, surfing, surfing. Bom bom dip di dit, surfing, surfing. Bom bom dip di dit, surfing, surfing. Bom bom dip di dit, surfing, surfing. Bom bom dip di dit, surfing, surfing.

(Singing) Surfing is the only life. The only way for me. Now surf, surf with me. Bom bom dip di dit. Bom bom dip di dit. Surfing...

WARD: "Surfin'", heard here on home taped rehearsal, was released on a local label, and then with Murry's help, the boys got a contract with Capitol Records in Hollywood, which had ultra-modern recording facilities, and great studio musicians who could be called in to augment The Beach Boys' modest instrumental skills. Their musical skills, honed by Brian, became incredible.


THE BEACH BOYS: (Singing) The lonely sea, the lonely sea. It never stops for you or me. It moves along from day after day. That's why, my love, that's why, my love, you cannot stay...

WARD: The "Lonely Sea" isn't an outtake from their 1966 masterpiece "Pet Sounds." It's a track from 1963's "Surfing U.S.A." album and just gets better as it goes along. The Beach Boys took everyone by surprise. They didn't fade away with the surf craze. Brian had his finger on the teenage pulse and they also celebrated motorcycles, girls, cars, girls, school, and dancing with girls.

It was hard to go wrong, especially with the group's vocals and Brian's writing and arranging skills. Between 1962 and 1965, they charted 22 singles, nine of which hit the Top Ten and two of which topped the charts. They started 1966 with a stumble, an odd song called "She's Not the Little Girl I Once Knew" which hid an ambiguous story behind an upbeat melody.

But they quickly went back to the top with an arrangement of an old calypso tune.


THE BEACH BOYS: (singing) We come on the sloop John B, my grandfather and me. Around Nassau town we did roam. Drinking all night. Got into a fight. Well, I feel so broke up I want to go home. So hoist up the John B's sail. See how the mainsail sets. Call for the captain ashore. Let me go home. Let me go home. I want to go home. Yeah, yeah. Well, I feel so broke up I want to go home.

WARD: Brian had left the touring group in 1965 and had been hard at work at an album that was like nothing anyone had ever made before, let alone a surf band. When Paul McCartney heard "Pet Sounds" he realized how much the ante had been raised and went back to London to start making "Sgt. Pepper." By the time "Pet Sounds" was finally mixed to Brian's satisfaction and released, though, he'd already started on the next album, "Smile."

It was his undoing - a number of acrimonious conflicts within the band, an album unfinished, and Brian retreating to his house where the word got out that he'd suffered a nervous breakdown. Eventually, an album called "Smiley Smile" emerged with a hit on it, "Good Vibrations," recorded before "Pet Sounds" had even been finished. Brian continued to contribute to the band but their next album, "Friends," in 1968 was uneven.

Fortunately, Dennis and Carl were slowly coming up with some good material.


THE BEACH BOYS: (singing) Lots of people with no place to go. I know a place where you can go. You've got the ticket. Come on, slip inside and let my song take you for a ride. Baby, baby, baby. Come on. Won't you let me be by your side for now and eternity? 'Cause I love you. Baby, I do now. Can you see what has come over me? Oh, my love is growing like a big oak tree. 'Cause I love you. Baby, I do now. Can't you see?

WARD: Dennis' "Slip on Through" comes from the 1970 album "Sunflower" and at least integrates some contemporary flavor to the Beach Boys' formula. But with very few exceptions, the 1970s were creatively a disaster as the band swung from hippie-ish meanderings to painfully crafted songs of nostalgia. Their only Top Ten record in the whole decade was a version of Chuck Berry's "Rock n' Roll Music."

Brian's well-publicized problems eventually receded and yet, although the Beach Boys had made the leap from a fad to a vehicle for serious work, neither Brian nor anyone else - Dennis died in a swimming accident in 1983 and Carl died of cancer in 1998 - could turn them into anything but a nostalgia act which, sad to say, is pretty much what they became.

DAVIES: Rock historian Ed Ward reviewed "Made in California," the career retrospective box set from the Beach Boys.


THE BEACH BOYS: (singing) Tuning in the latest star from the dashboard of my car. Cruising at seven, push button heaven, capturing memories from afar in my car. That's why God made the radio. That's why God made - so tune right in everywhere you go. He waved his hand, gave us rock n' roll, the soundtrack of falling in love. Whoa. Falling in love. Whoa. Falling in - that's why God made the radio.

DAVIES: Coming up, John Powers reviews the latest in a Danish mystery series. This is FRESH AIR.


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