The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson, & California Pop
from the music journals of Bob Rixon

First of all, I am a devoted fan & listener.   Yet, so much  of my notes concerning Brian Wilson & The Beach Boys have been aimed at countering the wild claims made about Brian's genius & at challenging the uncritical, indiscrimate praise heaped upon his creative work after "Good Vibrations."   Brian was once a brilliant pop songwriter, bandleader & producer.  Held to those standards, he generally receives praise & gratitude  from me.  But a great composer must accomplish more, much more, over the course of a long career.  & no pop artiste has disappointed me more over the past 35 years than Brian Wilson.

The wide variety of BB influenced pop vocalese over the post-Good Vibrations years (Association, 5th Dimension, Cyrkle, Nazz, Critters, Fleetwood Mac, Raspberries, Hollies, CS&N, Free Design) is stylistically pre-Heroes & Villains. The BB's still released good singles, most of which stiffed. They pulled together two fine albums (Wild Honey, Sunflower), several likable ones with the virtues of weirdness (Friends, 15 Big Ones, Love You), the remainder mediocrities (Carl & the Passions) if not abysmal failures (Surf's Up). But none of these sold all that well or counted for much in the larger scheme of pop music.  
The central fact of Brian's adult life is that he suffered an incapacitating, nightmarish mental illness for several decades, rooted in Murry Wilson's horrific abuses & Audrey Wilson's passivity; instigated by the overwhelming pressures of success & Brian's own compulsive & insatiable competitiveness (Be True to Your School, sis boom bah).  The great tragedy is that all the people around Brian in the late Sixties pretended nothing was wrong - this includes his bandmates, his wife, his entourage & hangers-on, Van Dyke Parks, & the critics who described his mind as being "gloriously blown" when it was cool to think being depressed, paranoid & agoraphobic was some sort of positive counter-culture "statement."  In L.A., Brian's condition was an ugly secret everyone knew. I've long suspected that only Carl Wilson & maybe Charles Manson had any insight into the chaos that was the Beach Boys. 
 & so the Beach Boys, who WERE California pop, had the potential of being the world's most harmonious, inoffensive hippies & then maturing into a marvelous hybrid of Martin Denny & the Mills Brothers.


Like the Beatles & The Rascals, the four older Beach Boys (Brian, Mike, Al & Bruce) were an apotheosis of the Fifties, a fullfillment - the Greek term for it is "kairos." As First Generation Rock & Roll teenagers, they were their own history. These bands ended as much as they started. The sound in Brian's head - Four Freshman on top of Chuck Berry - was the simplest formula & also the strangest, like fighting over control a car radio in 1958. Using both was genuinely progressive. Beginning with "art rock" & "punk", every subsequent trend  has been reactionary. "Progressive rock" wasn't progress at all.

By the mid-sixties the Beach Boys were a band in need of lyricist.  Brian was emotionally arrested.  Mike Love, whether through lack of talent or unwilliness to study Smokey Robinson, wasn't up to the new challenges presented by Bob Dylan, John Lennon or Jagger/Richards. Tony Asher was adequate on Pet Sounds. But the band never recovered from its association with Van Dyke Parks. His abominable influence would haunt the Beach Boys forever after.

For all of their humor & high spirits, the Beach Boys were unable to poke fun at themselves & their predicament - at least in the studio. Their predicament always was being The Beach Boys.  Parody was handed over to Jan & Dean, brilliant genre auteurs whose formula was Freddy Cannon Meets The Wrecking Crew Via the Hollywood Argyles.  Little Old Lady from Pasadena! Honolulu Lulu! No surprise that Brian hides inside Jan & Dean's best singles.

If humor, taste, left coast doo wop roots, friendship with Brian Wilson, collaboration with Bones Howe & Hal Blaine count for something, call me a Jan and Dean fan. These two smart nutballs were genre auteurs in their hits & their B-sides.   Problem is, there's no real five star compilation.  For the later post-Jan, folky/Smiley Smile material, go with the Dean Torrence anthology, a pleasant surprise (Dean also an ace LP cover designer). Sloan & Barri's incredible "Theme from the T.A.M.I Show ("They're coming from all over the world!") seems to have disappeared without a trace. The great covers of "Bucket-T" (I swear they chant "Buck it till you fuck it") & "Mighty GTO" & strange instrumentals like "B-Gas Rickshaw" are hidden away on the original "Dead Man's Curve/New Girl In School." What remains are a string of brilliantly contrived & produced singles serving up Southern Cal surfing, sand, sunshine, silliness, safe sex & acceleration sans Brian's angst.  & Brian loved 'em for it. So do I.
4/04 R.I.P. Jan Berry

Pet Sounds, a very serious record,  influenced The Beatles, who turned themselves into Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band & recorded an LP that doesn't get serious until the final track.  California Days: What does "I'm bugged at my old man" tell us about Murray Wilson? Nothing. It tells us plemty about how fear & loathing had arrested Brian's emotional development.   Brian wished he could say, to Murray's face, "I'm going to bugger you  old man with a broomstick."  We know Pet Sounds is really about evasion & denial.  Dion captured some of the hollow, compulsive machismo driving "The Wanderer." Denny sang it live to get laid. "Rosie on my chest," indeed. More likely on her knees. Wild Honey gave us "I'd love just once to see you..." Was that a joke?  See who? Why not just crawl under the girl's pool cabana with Elvis?  Carl & the Passions, their last chance, was more false labeling, a one hit wonder named "Marcella."  "One arm over my shoulder, sandals dance at my feet, eyes that knock you right over, Oo Marcella so sweet" is American poetry Van Dyke Parks couldn't improve upon.

Anyway, the Boys stumbled hit or miss from 1966 to 1970. With Sunflower it seemed that The Beach Boys had renewed themselves, rediscovered their strengths, caught up with their fans & positioned the group for a nice ride through the Seventies. Sunflower is wonderful album, not a bad song on it.   It sounds mostly like Carl's album. They never made another really good album.


 The problem with Surf's Up begins with the title, which is false, & the design, which is conflicted.  I despised Surf's Up as much as I loved Sunflower. All the shit The Beach Boys left off Sunflower is back in full force; Van Dyke Parks,  the ghost of Smile, the self-conscious artiness, & instead of likable Mike Love nasal corn one gets Mike Love ruining "Riot in Cell Block Number Nine."

When Bruce Johnston crafted a first rate lyric for "Disney Girls," the tongue-in-cheek wit got buried under the sentimentality of a gorgeous arrangement & choirboy vocals. Whose fault this was, I don't know. The lyric clearly points away from the impression the cut presents as a whole.  Neither Bruce nor Brian nor Daryl Dragon knew how to musically handle its satirical tone. But for a mildly mocking wah wah, you'd never know "Disney Girls" was a joke from beginning to end. It needed just a touch of Kurt Weill, or the Jive Five, or Randy Newman.  It's still the standout cut on Surf's Up, an otherwise dreary album. The Beach Boys could idealize themselves as they never actually existed ("Do It Again," "Getcha Back") but were incapable of parodying themselves

Nobody really expects rock & rollers to improve as they age, & the few that do are pleasant surprises.  But if you claim someone is a genius, a serious composer, a writer of art song, mini-cantatas, whatever,  & that artist arrives at the age of 63 having made a career out of an unfinished "masterpiece" abandoned at the age of 27,  with nothing subsequent even approaching the creative level of what he did at age 24, no word to describe him would be more accurate than "failure." The circumstances of the failure only soften the critical judgment, but the verdict is unchanged.

Sandy Hook by Bob Rixon
writing & photograph © Bob Rixon