California! In rainy Britain in the monochromatic early 1960s, even the word seemed magical, conjuring a paradise of sun, sand and sea, where dreamy surfer boys and tanned, unblemished girls cruised with the top down through endless summers, with nothing more on their minds than having fun. If every baby boomer who fantasised about being in California had been teleported there back then, the combined weight of so much would-be happy humanity would have sunk it into the ocean.
It’s remarkable to think that this image we all had of America’s West Coast – which was every bit as vivid, epic and heroic as the image we had from the cowboy movies of America’s Wild West – was created by one single pop band: five clean-cut suburban teenagers in striped shirts and ironed trousers, only one of whom could surf. The Beach Boys didn’t invent the American Dream, but it would be hard to argue that they weren’t responsible for inventing California and America’s teenage dream.
I still recall how it felt to hear them burst out of the radio like sunbeams – ‘Surfin’ USA’, ‘Fun Fun Fun’, ‘I Get Around’, ‘California Girls’. I remember lying in my bedroom, ear glued to speaker of a small, beige transistor – our generation’s iPod – thrilling to songs like ‘Darling’ and ‘God Only Knows’, and almost levitating to the transcendent ‘Good Vibrations’.
The first time Brian Wilson heard a (subsequent) Beach Boys song on the radio he was 19 years old. That was 52 years ago. The song was called ‘Surfin’’, which Brian wrote for the five-harmony band he formed and named the Pendletones.
The small local label that put out their debut single decided without his permission to change it to something that sounded, well, surfier. In April 1962, the re-named Beach Boys were snapped up by major label Capitol and began releasing what seemed like an unending succession of sun-soaked classics.
Fifty was one of those numbers when it was hard not to get nostalgic – and nostalgia is big business, particularly in the ailing music industry
For some time now the Beach Boys – who have still been out there playing those songs half a century later – have been quite different to the band we grew up on. Two of the original members are dead (Brian’s younger brothers Dennis and Carl, in 1983 and 1998, at the ages of 35 and 51), but three are still alive and making music: Brian, his cousin Mike Love, and his old schoolfriend Al Jardine.
But only one of them is in the Beach Boys, or even has the legal right to use the Beach Boys name. And curiously, not to mention controversially, that person is not the band’s founder and resident genius Brian, but Mike Love. When Al Jardine toured with a band he dubbed Beach Boys Family and Friends, Love went to court and stopped it.
Even Brian’s acclaimed Pet Sounds tour, based around one of the albums he wrote, arranged and produced for the Beach Boys (an album many music critics consider the greatest of all time) had to have a solo billing. Good Vibrations it wasn’t.
A la recherche…
But 50 was one of those numbers when it was hard not to get nostalgic – and nostalgia is big business, particularly in the ailing music industry. Ever since the digital generation started demanding everything for free, including music, the few remaining major labels have relied heavily on repackaging old bands’ back catalogues and selling them to the folks who first bought them on vinyl.
Much the same sort of thing happened with concerts: a rash of reunions of bands who swore never again to share a stage, putting acrimony aside to play to the fans who saw them in their glory days and are happy to pay high prices to relive them for the night.
So it was no surprise when the original – surviving – Beach Boys undertook a reunion world tour last year. (Scheduled for 50 dates, they actually played 73).
Though even Billboard, the mild-mannered American music business magazine, wondered aloud if the dark, bitter past of America’s greatest pop band wasn’t insurmountable, the tour passed off relatively harmoniously.
The band even put out a new album, That’s Why God Made the Radio. It was patchy but praised for a trio of Wilson songs on the passing of time. Then – rather disconcertingly – they were all sent their own ways, and Love took his regular ‘Beach Boys’ back on the road…
Made in California is a six-CD set, including outtakes, demos and more, packaged in a ‘high school yearbook’ format