Back in 1962, six young men from California had a dream. They would start a band, impress the girls from their high school, and find an exciting release from the suburban boredom they’d grown up in. Against the tall odds of making it in the music business, they had a few secret weapons. They had a hard-ass manager/father with a furious determination to live vicariously through his sons’ success. They had an enthusiastic leader with a prodigy’s talent and a budding interest in recording technology. And they had a song about surfing, which in the early 60s was at least enough to get you on the radio in LA.
The Beach Boys, as they would soon be called (not entirely by choice), went on to become one of the most iconic bands of the era. A pop success, they would later marshal leader Brian Wilson’s talents to compete with the biggest names in rock, and produce some of the most remarkable records of the decade. Guitarist David Marks would leave after only a few years, but the three Wilson brothers, their cousin Mike Love, and their friend Al Jardine would stick together (in one way or another) for the long haul. Carl Wilson died in 1998 of cancer, and his brother Dennis had drowned in 1983. But even by then, the Beach Boys had already become a sad reflection of themselves, regressing lyrically even as their advancing age rendered their newest tributes to teenage lust creepy and distasteful.
Fans love to reflect on the Beach Boys’ golden era: the Brian Wilson masterpiece Pet Sounds, the psychedelic revelation of “Good Vibrations”, or even the latter ensemble glories of Sunflower and Holland. But any honest historian of the band will have to admit that, from at least ’75 on, they started sucking. Soon, they were sucking real bad. In recent decades, the band had more or less dissolved without actually breaking up. Wilson and Jardine were each touring solo, and Love was carrying on the Beach Boys name in a perpetual tour of casinos and county fairs. Imagine one of those nostalgia-laden tribute bands, but with one of the original guys actually in it.
For their fiftieth anniversary in 2012, the boys reunited for one more album and tour. Joining them were former comrade Marks, and longtime member Bruce Johnston (who has hitched his star to the Love band, for God-only-knows-what reason). After one last summer of good times, they soon resumed feuding as before. With Wilson’s solo career humming along and a 60th anniversary cash-grab only a distant possibility, it’s safe to assume that the recording career of the entity known as “the Beach Boys” has at last come to an end.
That career began with a song, “Surfin’”. An amateur effort (recorded on the cheap, the guitars basically inaudible), it nevertheless led to modest success and a recording contract. “Surfin’” was in many ways a fluke, written on the suggestion of Dennis Wilson (the only dedicated surfer in the group) when the others were stumped for ideas. But it became a prototype for the sound and style the Beach Boys would tend to duplicate. Beyond the subject matter, it features a rhythm and blues-style melody and shuffle beat, prominent backing vocals, and an earnest, straightforward lyrical style: these boys like surfin’, and they’re going to tell you why.
“Surfin’” leads off side B of their debut album, Surfin’ Safari. The title song leads off side A, and is mainly an update of its predecessor. Though it definitely benefits from improved production values, “Surfin’ Safari” is a better song on just about every front. One thing that hasn’t changed, however, is the earnest lyrical style. There are no clever turns of phrase, no double meanings to parse. Just matter-of-fact lines colored with local slang:
“Early in the morning we’ll be starting out,
some honeys will be coming along.
We’re loading up our woody with our boards inside,
and heading out singing our song.”
The Beach Boys would apply this simple praise approach time and again, on more topics than just surfing. On Surfin’ Safari, they extoll the virtues of root beer (“Chug-a-lug”), fast cars (“409”), and girls in tight dresses (“The Shift”). They dwell on romantic insecurities in a few songs: “County Fair” is a hilariously over the top example of the old muscular-bully-steals-the-girl story, complete with a female voice calling the protagonist a loser for failing to ring the bell with the hammer. The overall vibe of this album, however, is of a gang of self-confident “bros” cruising for good times.
A faithful cover of “Summertime Blues” reminds the listener that it ain’t always easy being a white kid with a driver’s license. And speaking of white people, for my money the Beach Boys never reached lower (and believe me, they’ve reached low) than when they recorded “Ten Little Indians”. Expanding on the familiar (and infamous) rhyme, the song is racist and inane and (mercifully) only one minute and twenty-six seconds long. It may not rank with hanging around with Charles Manson in terms of lapses of good judgment, but at least they got a decent song out of that experience.
The basic elements of the Beach Boys’ style were in place, but Surfin’ Safari still doesn’t quite have the sound they would become known for. The backing vocals are more tentative and less dynamic than they would become on their second album (Surfin’ USA). Mike Love’s nasal lead vocals are front and center on most songs, but Brian Wilson’s high falsetto barely makes an appearance, except in the novelty song “Cuckoo Clock.” The contrast between them, which would do so much to define the sound of classic songs like “I Get Around” and “Surfin’ USA”, had not been developed yet.
Instrumentally, you could hardly get more basic than the guitar and drum line up on display here. Some of the band members were still learning their instruments when “Surfin’” was recorded, but on the album they were at least competent enough to pull off a credible surf instrumental, “Moon Dawg”. Wilson’s interest in recording techniques and unconventional instrumentation would eventually push the Beach Boys into far-out sonic territory. But on their debut album, they sound fairly conventional: enthusiastic, youthful, and not entirely sure of what they’re doing.
By 2012, the Beach Boys knew exactly what they were doing. Their twenty-ninth studio album, That’s Why God Made the Radio, is a deliberate throwback to the golden age of the Beach Boys. Hence its two main difficulties: the “boys” themselves were pushing seventy, and there’s no real way of saying when exactly that golden age was, or what made it so golden. Pet Sounds? Sunflower? Surfin’ Safari? Or was it Smile, an album that never actually got finished in its time? The album’s general approach is to split the difference: drawing on arty conceits (the wordless intro “Think About the Days”, or the three-song suite that closes the album) to recall their greatest studio triumphs, while reverting to their basic “good times” formula for a few tracks in the middle (“Spring Vacation” and “Beaches in Mind”).
If That’s Why God Made the Radio has any really compelling reason to exist, it’s to mitigate the disaster of the band’s 90s albums, Summer in Paradise and Stars and Stripes Vol. 1. Often poignant and always listenable, it avoids its worst potential and even feels like a breath of fresh air. It’s hard to see it as anything but a blessing for fans, who no longer have to mutter darkly about a thoroughly ignoble termination of a long and storied career. It will never be ranked as a masterpiece, but as a “last album” it is eminently adequate.
Surfin’ Safari found the band learning how to play together, but for the most part they don’t really play on this album at all. Most of the complex instrumentation was handled by Brian Wilson’s band, leaving the band to sing. Were it not for the cover art, one could easily conclude that this was another Wilson solo album with a few guest vocals; it fits in pretty well with the tone of his most recent work. In that light, That’s Why God Made the Radio serves mainly as a convincing argument that Wilson does not need his old band any more, since they don’t make that much of a difference.
The title track is a special case of the Beach Boys “praise song”, a tribute to the things in life they love best. This time it’s not surfing or root beer that gets the treatment, but music itself. It’s not the first time they’ve lauded music for its spiritual properties (“Add Some Music” and “That Same Song” both covered this ground in the 70s), but its sheer gee-whiz rejoicing is endearing, and probably as direct an expression of Brian Wilson’s actual relationship with recorded sound as he’s ever sung:
“Feel the music in the air,
Find a song to take us there.
It’s paradise when I lift up my antenna,
Receiving your signal like a prayer.”
In fifty years of writing songs, lyrics were never the band’s strong suit. But their straightforwardness has always come across as a kind of honesty. Their willingness to let bigger concepts than simple desire or fun into their songs has elevated the words into a kind of quasi-maturity.
The whole thing nearly comes crashing down in the awful, annoyingly self-referential “Spring Vacation”, with rhymes like “spring vacation/good vibrations/summer weather/we’re back together” threatening to expose the entire operation for a cynical cash grab. But a quick glance at the writing credits allows the listener to blame most of these low points on Mike Love. The gentle nostalgia of “Isn’t it Time” comes across much better, as does the tender chorus of “Shelter.” And because no Beach Boys album would be complete without a non sequitur, Wilson offers us “The Private Life of Bill and Sue”, a sort of bemused contemplation on celebrity obsession and tabloid culture. It is a very interesting song.
The Beach Boys built their reputations on intricate and precise vocal arrangements, and That’s Why God Made the Radio doesn’t let up in that regard. It does come with a great many reminders of the ravages of time, however. Auto-tune is an obvious component in the mix, but the sound of the Beach Boys changed irrevocably a long time ago, when Wilson’s voice lost much of its former range. The falsetto that used to define his ballad singing is mostly lost to him, and what would once have been arranged as a “Brian” part is now taken up by side-man Jeff Foskett. Foskett can hit the notes, but it takes more than that to resurrect a voice.
Fifty years is a very long time to make music, and given this band’s particular history, it’s amazing enough that they actually managed to put out one last decent album. Saddled with all the baggage they have, with years of acrimony and mental illness on top of some massively twisted expectations, it’s safe to say that their days of producing groundbreaking and fearlessly experimental music are never coming back. But at the final tally, That’s Why God Made the Radio doesn’t suck. For a Beach Boys fan, that’s enough.