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Revisiting the Beach Boys

I was quickly familiarized with the music of The Beach Boys in my earlier years. It wasn’t as if I had much of a choice; my father was – and still is – a major league Beach Boys fan. My sister quickly caught on to his taste and wouldn’t stop playing fucking “Kokomo,” that cheesy single about an escape to a dead industrial city in central Indiana which The Beach Boys had for some reason mistaken for a tropical second-world getaway resort. Eventually, Beki used The Beach Boys as the launching point to the logical next step in her musical taste development: New Kids on the Block and Vanilla Ice. In the meantime, I had gotten sick of a band I was already indifferent to, and that carried over into New Kids and Vanilla Ice. So when people of my generation today talk about how they always hated those two artists and never bought into the hype, I’m one of the very few people who isn’t lying through his teeth about it. But I always mention, with a haughty self-righteousness, that I was an MC Hammer fan!

I had grown up with a similar attitude towards The Beatles (my mother’s favorite band), but as I passed through my teenage years, I gave Beatles music another, closer listen. It grew on me, and I finally started to appreciate and even love a lot of it. But The Beatles were an actual rock band. The Beach Boys, with their complex vocal harmonies and barbershop doo-wop songwriting arrangements, had a much different style. The Beatles always placed more emphasis into what they were able to play, especially in their later years, when they were strictly a studio band. The music and studio magic were always as much a part of their songs as their vocalization. The Beach Boys always sounded to me like the vocals were meant to be the stars of the show all by themselves. Therefore, whereas I was mostly indifferent to The Beatles, they were spared the seething hostility I had for The Beach Boys, who reminded me so much of New Kids on the Block and, later, Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, and other boy bands who would come to torture me throughout the late 90’s.

Last week, I found myself at my local library branch placing an order for The Beach Boys album Pet Sounds, which is widely considered their best work (my father says he recalls not liking it very much himself) and one of rock music’s premier albums. When I say that, I mean it’s frequently mentioned in the same breath as The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the album that expanded the minds and imaginations of a million future musicians. Sgt. Pepper enlightened its millions of listeners to the idea that a rock album could be more than merely a compilation of songs desperately trying to capture the sound and atmosphere of a live performance. Its songs roll without pause, one blending into the next, as if they were written and arranged specifically to go together to the exclusivity of all others. Pet Sounds was released before Sgt. Pepper, though, and lately in my readings about music, I noticed a lot of people were saying Sgt. Pepper was influenced directly by Pet Sounds. For that matter, a few people had even taken the trouble to write off Sgt. Pepper as Lennon and McCartney’s hollow attempt to recreate what they heard on Pet Sounds, which ordinarily wouldn’t mean a whole lot to me. But in this case, one of the people saying it was Paul McCartney himself. My curiosity was piqued.

My father says he does own Pet Sounds, but on vinyl. Since the vinyl record player isn’t hooked up, I had to learn about this album the hard way and order the CD through the library system. That’s okay though, because I can always burn it if I like it.

During the wait, I started using my father’s computer to listen to his own Beach Boys downloads, which include a greatest hits album. As I gave that a listen, I began to believe what the critics had written about The Beach Boys being the American experimental equivalent to their vaunted counterparts in England. The hits on dad’s greatest hits album sounded chronological, and as the album moved along, I noticed how different it sounded in the later half. On a greatest hits album, the latter half usually does sound a little different from the earlier half. During the early half of a band’s musical career, the band usually can’t spend as much on studio time or technique, and so the songs are comparatively rawer and simple. As they mature and go into a prosperous career, bands tend to become more experimental. It’s musical maturation. But The Beach Boys underwent a dramatic change, beginning their career with the three-noters so commonplace in rock music before sound layering, psychedelic influences, echo and reverberation. The band’s content – so directly focused on the fun-in-the-sun southern California lifestyle beforehand – also expanded. I’m honestly excited about being able to listen to Pet Sounds, and I hope it lives up to its hype.

I had long wondered why the American bands I grew up listening to never sounded as innovative or inventive as the British Invasion bands of the same era. Jimi Hendrix aside, the United States never was able to produce a major, commercially successful band of experimenters on the level of The Beatles, Pink Floyd, or The Clash. I’m proud that rock music was invented in this country, as was blues, its direct forerunner, but it always felt like the British perfected it. The more I learn about The Beach Boys, though, the more I think they could have evolved into that creative group if only Brian Wilson hadn’t been driven mad by the creative standard he set for himself.

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About Nicholas Croston

I like to think. A lot. I like to question, challenge, and totally shock and unnerve people. I am a contrarian - whatever you stand for, I'm against.

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