I’m cross-posting this here because it generated a lot of dislike at my site and another, and I wanted you to share in the fun here.
I have listened to Part I and half of Part II of the Political Beats podcast about the Beach Boys, on the recommendation of my eldest son. They are episodes 60 and 61, hosted by various writers from Reason and National Review. No politics are discussed, and I don’t think I’d heard of these particular writers. They are big, big fans of the Beach Boys, and phrases like “preternatural genius” fall from their lips every few minutes. Still, they make good points and they tell a good story.
Brian Wilson, and “Pet Sounds” in particular, is supposed to be some pinnacle of rock creativity, consistently making Top 100 lists and having documentaries made. I have a few Beach Boys songs that I like very much. But mostly I just kept a “best of ” album around for fun, when I wanted that sort of summer sound occasionally. My son insists I played them a lot, which is why he likes them. This is untrue. I likely did overpraise “Good Vibrations” every time it came on the radio and made everyone stop talking so I could listen. I will acknowledge that.
1. Their voices were tinny, thin, nasal. I did not appreciate how young they were in those early songs, and might have been more forgiving of the lack of richness and tone. Even their instrumentation in the early years was circusy, trebly.
2. The lyrics were ignorable at best, but more usually a terrible distraction. One of the podcasters keeps talking about the great vulnerability and emotionality of the lyrics of many of their songs, such as “In My Room,” or “Warmth of the Sun.” For a folkie, used to PP&M, Bob Dylan, Simon & Garfunkel, this opinion is merely silly. I wrote equivalently good (or bad) lyrics in junior high, and better by late high school.
3. I thought the arrogant celebration of Surfing/Beach/Cars/California culture was annoying. It was one more feeding of the monster, that coolness was more important than anything.
On the plus side, the harmonies were spectacular, and the arrangements became more fascinating every year. I am a big fan of harmony, and their use of multiple lines always fascinated when I tried to hum along, even when I didn’t much like the song. They slowed things down, stopped, waited, used interesting percussion. I wasn’t hugely impressed with “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” or “God Only Knows” at first, but did find myself humming them years later. They actually are quite good.
No one covered these songs, except maybe “Barbara Ann,” a rather silly piece. They were just too difficult, with unusual timings and key changes. Try to sing the backup vocal precisely even on one of their easy songs, like “Fun, Fun, Fun.” I also appreciate the whole idea of competition and challenge with the Beatles, especially Paul McCartney, finding ever-better ways to use the studio and be creative. One can listen to songs like “Magical Mystery Tour,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” and “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” and hear the Brian Wilson influence. In the reverse direction, one can hear both Rubber Soul and Revolver in Pet Sounds. You will notice in the exchange that the Beatles have good lyrics, and the Beach Boys don’t, however.
Jimi Hendrix called it “psychedelic barbershop,” and I am confident that was more dismissive than complimentary. It does highlight what is happening in this music, however. This is not rock-n-roll, even though they started with that Lead/Rhythm/Bass/Drums package, the same as the Beatles. When the Beatles came out with Sgt Pepper, and the Beach Boys with Good Vibrations, those were clear announcements that this was pop music, not R&R.
I favored the folksingers and the harder rock of Jefferson Airplane, Vanilla Fudge, and Cream. Both of those audiences looked at pop music with a bit of contempt, and that was where I sat in those days. Harmonies, percussion, arrangements? Loved that, but I could get better ones in Christmas Carols, hymns, American Musical Theater, and yes, barbershop.
Good Vibrations did blow me away when it came out, and I went out and bought the album “Wild Honey,” which was terrible, and perhaps convinced me to never fall for that Beach Boys stuff again.
Unlike their earlier surfin’ music, their later stuff was not background party stuff that the kids could dance to (I gave it a 95). Nor was it anything that you could perform easily, though it was fun to sing along to. It had to be listened to, attended to. Even now, I only play them when I can pay attention.
Good Vibrations: Short sections of 26 seconds each, some repeated. They are not strongly related, but because of the chorus it holds together. The lyrics still suck.