George Martin once said that “If rock music produced a genius it would have to be Brian Wilson.” No doubt he intended to include Wilson’s legendary production skills, his arranging prowess, his vocal abilities and his commercial sense within this description, but in the end we return to the songs.
If we begin just with the early hits, surely the list of Surfin safari, Surfin USA, Surf City (a hit for Jan and Dean), Surfer girl, Little deuce coupe, Fun fun fun, I get around, Hawaii, Dance dance dance, Little Honda, Help me Rhonda, Don’t worry baby, California girls, Friends and Wild Honey, is the most catchy string of hits ever (yes, including The Beatles run of eleven number-ones in a row plus the six that came after the ‘failure’ of their best single ever – Strawberry Fields Forever/Penny Lane).
Then there were their excellent covers: Sloop John B, Cottonfields, Then I kissed her, Do you wanna dance and Barbara-Ann, as fine a list of inserts for those moments of flagging inspiration as one will find, and all arranged and produced by Brian Wilson. Then there are a handful of unbelievably exquisite but uncommercial songs such as In my room, Caroline No, and (especially) The lonely sea. And then there is their ground-breaking album Pet Sounds, with the achingly beautiful Don’t talk – put your head on my shoulder, which everyone agrees raised the ante dramatically in album production terms, and which inspired The Beatles to hit back with Sgt Pepper’s.
And this isn’t even to mention Brian Wilson’s three greatest achievements – Good vibrations, Heroes and villains, and Surf’s up. And yet again there were those handful of songs that came out during and after the Good vibrations period (Wilson’s production times began to get ever lengthier) that perhaps are not quite as tuneful or catchy as the earlier hits, but are still just plain great; God only knows, Darlin, Wouldn’t it be nice, Do it again, and I can hear music. And then there are those numerous lesser but still achingly beautiful songs that appeared on their albums, typically The girls on the beach, The warmth of the sun, I just wasn’t made for these times and about a dozen or so more.
More thoughtful critics than me have analysed these songs to death so I won’t; Philip Lambert’s (2007) book Inside the music of Brian Wilson is a cornucopia of insights.
But The Beach Boys were never really hip in the way that the Beatles and Bob Dylan were, never socially or politically relevant (the wonderful Student demonstration time with it’s unforgettable line “the pen is mightier than the sword but no match for a gun,” came out after all the songs listed above). They looked like boys whom the girls’ parents might have approved of – always a killer! Those corny beach shirts and Mike Love’s car-and-surfing-and-romance lyrics and limited stage presence diluted any coolness they ever had, and when Jimi Hendrix offered his listeners the blessing of “May you never hear surf music again,” their squareness was complete (until the Grateful Dead unexpectedly invited them onstage at 2.00 a.m. at the Fillmore and the audience went crazy). Yet no one could argue with California Girls or Good Vibrations (and I’m sure Jimi wouldn’t have). Furthermore, we now know that their lifestyle was every bit at crazy as any other rock group, and that Brian’s political awareness kept pace with his times.
I believe that the list of hit songs and others that The Beach Boys put out were of a higher musical standard than anyone else ever in the history of popular music, and yes, that includes The Beatles. For, if we really consider songs such as She loves you and I wanna hold your hand just as songs, they are not quite as good (musically) as Fun fun fun and I get around. They are better records perhaps, catching the mood of the time better, and George Martin was also damn near a genius himself, and Geoff Emerick the sound engineer was a pioneer also. But The Beatles never produced a pop song quite so splendid as California girls; their most melodic hits such as Let it be and Hey Jude were much more formulaic. Yes, The Beatles also produced classic art-songs such as Yesterday, Eleanor Rigby, and She’s leaving home, and the transcendent Strawberry Fields Forever, but even these really only co-exist on the same level with Good Vibrations, Heroes and villains and Surf’s up. (and whatever else one thinks of Van Dyke Parks’ lyrics, they certainly didn’t fail). The extraordinary successes of the Beatles and Bob Dylan derive as much from their hipper appeal to popular fashions as to their songs. But musically, Brian Wilson was their better.
And something I only recently learned about the Beach Boys in comparison with the Beatles is that the Beach Boys always sang all their songs together in the studio, harmonising and taking different parts according to a master plan, whereas the Beatles used lots of tricks, overdubs and delays and the like, partly because John Lennon hated the sound of his own voice. Clearly it doesn’t matter a lot because both groups sound great, but it does underscore how different they were – the Beach Boys being a vocal group who used studio musicians (the Wrecking Crew) to get the instruments right, whereas the Beatles were performers who played their own instruments.
One of Wilson’s most endearing comments came when he said “People think because I had so many hits that I can write a song like Help me Rhonda whenever I want, but I can’t. It’s actually quite hard to write a song like Help me Rhonda.” I think that what he was referring to is the sheer catchiness of his best songs. The classical people pretend to look down their noses at ‘mere’ catchiness, although some of the most infectious tunes have actually been written by classical composers – the William Tell Overture by Gioachino Rossini for example, and the Sabre Dance from the ballet Gayaneh by Aram Khatchaturian. I don’t think any of us really knows how to write catchy phrases. Sometimes there’s a chord change involved, but not in those two pieces; they’re primarily rhythmic. Really, it’s all a bit of a mystery.