A Beginners’ Guide To The Beach Boys

The Beach Boys are a hard band to get into. When Mike Taylor asked a while back in the comments to one of my posts which Beach Boys albums someone should try, I actually drew a blank. This is because the Beach Boys rarely made consistently good albums. They started their career when singles, not albums, were the important thing, made one big Album As Statement (Pet Sounds), and fell apart before what would have been their second (Smile).

The band’s work after that, from 1967-74, contains some of the best music ever recorded, but also some of the worst, because they were operating as a democracy. Brian Wilson, the songwriting and production genius responsible for their best music, became less and less interested, and the rest of the band tried to pick up the slack. Unfortunately, while Brian’s brother Dennis turned out to be a great songwriter/producer, and their brother Carl was pretty decent, the other band members really weren’t up to much. (They occasionally hit on something listenable, but more by accident than design).

So this means that for one reason or another, all the Beach Boys’ actual albums are patchy, and you have to do a certain amount of digging in order to find the good stuff.

So where does a beginner start?

First, you’ll probably want the hits. If so, the best of the many, many compilations available is one released in 2003, Sounds Of Summer. Amazon US currently have an offer on to get this with a free T-shirt for $20, incidentally. It’s a 30-track collection, with every track being a top 40 US hit. It contains most of the hits you’ll know (I Get Around, Help Me Rhonda, California Girls and so on), and at least some of these hits are also among the band’s best work – In My Room, Don’t Worry Baby, God Only Knows, Heroes & Villains, Wild Honey and Good Vibrations are great records by any standard.

But after this, you’ll want to get into the band’s artier side. There are various compilations that are meant to introduce this, but all are flawed in one way or another. The best thing to do is dive in at the deep end. The box set Good Vibrations: Thirty Years Of The Beach Boys can be picked up dirt cheap – if you’re OK with MP3s, in fact, you can buy the entire 5-CD, 130-track box set for twenty-one quid from Amazon, which may well be the best deal in the world.

That box set contains all the hits, most of the better album tracks, a half-hour-long selection of the best music from the Smile sessions, most of Pet Sounds, and the handful of decent tracks from the post-1977 albums. It’s not perfect – every Beach Boys fan will have their own list of a dozen or so songs that should be on there – but everyone will agree that what *is* on there is mostly essential, and everyone will differ as to those other dozen songs.

If you don’t want to go for the box set, or if you’ve already got it and still want more, the next step is the compilation Endless Harmony. This is a rarities collection put together as the soundtrack for a documentary on the band, and it says something about the perversity of the band that they would leave some of their best music unreleased.

After this, you want two essential solo albums – Brian Wilson Presents Smile (a reconstruction of a finished Smile album, newly performed by Wilson and his backing band) and Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue (get the two-CD deluxe version of this – it’s well worth it).

After you’ve heard all that, you’ll know whether you want to investigate any further or not. You’ll have an idea of the shape of the band’s career and which albums you should pick up. You’ll know if you want the full Smile Sessions box set, or if Brian Wilson’s version is enough for you. You’ll know if you want to hear more of the R&B-flavoured mid-70s stuff or the whimsical soft-psych late-60s.

One piece of warning, though – the Beach Boys’ albums are available on CD as two-albums-on-one-CD packages. Mostly this is OK, but in the late-70s the bands highs and lows were higher and lower than before. The Beach Boys Love You is one of the greatest albums the band ever did, but it’s paired with the frankly feeble 15 Big Ones. LA (Light Album), the last listenable album the band released, is paired with MIU, an album which is torture to sit through. And don’t buy anything (other than Brian Wilson solo albums) from 1980 on. Those albums (Keepin’ The Summer Alive, The Beach Boys, Still Cruisin’, Summer In Paradise and Stars & Stripes Vol 1) range from soulless competence (The Beach Boys, with its drum machines and Culture Club covers) to soulless incompetence (Summer In Paradise, a good argument that all sound recording and reproduction equipment in the universe should be destroyed, and everyone deafened, just in case they might accidentally hear the song Summer Of Love).

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

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19 Responses to A Beginners’ Guide To The Beach Boys

  1. londonKdS says:

    I’m sure the immediate response to this from many readers will be to try to find “Summer of Love” to see if it actually is that bad…

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Apparently one of the big problems with nuclear waste dumps is to try to make them unappealing to future archaeologists who may not be able to read English or understand radiation symbols. People have gone to huge lengths to come up with signs which unambiguously say “Do not investigate. This is not a place of honour. There is no treasure here. This is a place of evil and will kill you.” but they’re still worried about the archaeologists of 10,000 years from now.

      The relevance of this is left as an exercise for the reader.

  2. Larry Sojka says:

    Hey Andrew,

    I basically argree with everything in your statement, but I personally feel that you can safely recommend all of the studio albums from “Pet Sounds” up through and including “Surf’s Up” (I am embarrased to admit that I have never had the chance to listen to “Carl and the Passions-So Tough’ or “Holland”). Yes, almost all of those works have some duff tracks, but not as duff as some of the weaker tracks on the pre-“Pet Sounds” albums. For newbies, I guess the comps are the way to go. I pretty much love all of the Boy’salbums, even with the corny or weak songs, up to “Surf’s Up”, but that of course is just my opinion…

    I LOVE your Kinks posts, as soon as I am re-employed (which in this economy could be never), I am going to purchase all of your Beatles, Beach Boys, and (hopefully) Kinks tomes….you truly understand their music.


    Larry Sojka
    Maryland, USA

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Thank you very much.
      Yes, all those albums are stronger than the earlier albums, but they’re still full of tracks like Bluebirds Over The Mountain or Don’t Go Near The Water, which could easily put newcomers off. That’s why I think the box set is the best way to go.

  3. TAD says:

    MIU is a pleasant album, I’d say. In the same way that Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” is a pleasant album. That’s either a compliment or a criticism, depending on your perspective.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Oh, they’re very different, in my view. Nashville Skyline has some good songs on it.

      • TAD says:

        I’d say they’re similar in that they both represent the artist in extreme safe mode. Although you could argue in Dylan’s case that his refusal to rebel was itself a characteristic act of rebellion.

        In the Beach Boys case, MIU was damage control following the raw and biting Love You album.

        Agreed though, Nashville Skyline has better songs. :) Although I’ve always liked Matchpoint of Our Love.

  4. Now after reading this, the only track I am curious to hear is “Summer of Love…”
    I would have to buy some obscure CD to hear this, presumably, and thus increase its sales; was this your intention, or is this a case of the law of unintended consequences? It’s so hard to take things at face value these days!

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Don’t say I didn’t warn you. I am *ONLY* embedding this video because of the fear that someone might actually go out and buy that album.

      When watching this, part of the Beach Boys’ performance on Baywatch, some things to note:
      The bloke on drums, John Stamos, is *hugely* famous in America. He’s a ‘special guest star’.
      The creepy bloke singing lead has the surname Love, and wrote the song.
      Brian Wilson (tall, leather jacket, confused looking) had apparently never heard the song before recording this video, hence the look of pain.
      Watch Carl Wilson (beard) try desperately to keep some last vestige of dignity in this mess.

  5. It’s not that bad! Looks very much like this was intended as a promotional vehicle for Baywatch with The Hoff doing the lead “vocal,” but maybe he wasn’t well that day and didn’t turn up for the shoot, and the rest of the group just switched round to cover. Makes sense to me anyway.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Not that bad! Did you hear the bit where he sings “Doing unto others is the golden rule, but doing it with you would be so very cool”? Or “Why don’t you let me take you on a… LOVE vacation”? Or the vocoder?

      And unfortunately that isn’t what it was intended for – that was the opening of a Very Special Episode of Baywatch where the Beach Boys performed several more times. And that track was from an album that had been released the previous year.

    • The “Summer of Love” video actually has surprisingly little to do with Baywatch. It’s more a Beach Boys music video that uses the imagery of Baywatch without actually being Baywatch. I’m pretty sure there are no Baywatch stars in it. It was tacked onto the start of the Beach Boys episode but wasn’t really part of it (but later in the episode, the Hoff met Mike, Al and Bruce and got them to play a benefit gig on Santa Monica pier; Wilsons were conspicuously absent from the episode proper even though they were credited, and the script sometimes referred to the band as “Mike Love and the Beach Boys”). So it has as little appeal for Baywatch fans as it does for Beach Boys fans, and fails even to do what cynical celebrity crossover cash-ins are supposed to (season 6 was a really bad time for that, also including the episode that can accurately be summed up as: “Stephanie finds out she’s got cancer, and CJ meets Hulk Hogan”). But it is arguably the pinnacle of everything Mike Love aspired to: a perfect storm of bouncing breasts and terrible music. The song also featured on the Baywatch soundtrack CD, which provides the unusual experience of hearing the Beach Boys outperformed by the Hoff!

      (Now I’ve revealed how much I know about Baywatch I’ll probably have to kill myself, or at least never comment here again.)

      • Andrew Hickey says:

        Actually, that episode *is* sadly relevant for Beach Boys fandom, as while Carl and Brian don’t appear in the rest of the episode, it marks David Marks’ first TV appearance with the Beach Boys since 1963, and was the start of his slow return to the band which culminated in him being a full-time member from 1997-99 and rejoining for the upcoming tour.

        • TAD says:

          This episode is also noteworthy in that Bruce plays bass onstage for the first time since the 1960s, I think.

  6. Tilt Araiza says:

    Let’s not forget Summer Of Love was originally supposed to feature Bart Simpson.

  7. Pingback: ‘Smile’ – My First 25 Years : Where is The Love? « Arkhonia

  8. Hal says:

    “The creepy bloke singing lead has the surname Love”. Ahahaha! Rarely has a more apt description of Mike Love been written. Brian Wilson – “confused-looking”, ha, yes but almost anyone in that situation would likely have a Brianesque “Where am I? Who am I? What am I doing?” expression on their face. Heh.

  9. Josh says:

    Summer in Paradise is a bad song. To make it even worse, the song is so-referential you can’t help but realize how they used to make great songs.

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