he Beach Boys have long been referred to as "America's Band." Unfortunately, there are three acts currently touring that could lay claim to that title: Brian Wilson, creative genius of the group, touring on his own; Mike Love's Beach Boys, which also has longtime member Bruce Johnston; and Al Jardine's Family and Friends Beach Band, in which Al an original Beach Boy is joined by his sons and the daughters of Brian Wilson. The Family and Friends band can be dismissed somewhat easily, at least in relation to the other two. Al's contributions to the group were always on the peripherary with the exceptions of his lead vocal on "Help Me Ronda" and suggesting to Brian Wilson that the band cover "Sloop John B." So let's look more closely at the Beach Boys as represented by Brian and Mike: We see two very different but equally valid visions of the Beach Boys.
The Boys' first real single was a simplistic, surfing-oriented rewrite of Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen." Most of their early songs continued in that vein songs about beaches, girls, and cars ("Surfin'," "Surfin' USA," "Surfin' Safari," "Fun Fun Fun," "All Summer Long," "I Get Around"). It was a phenomenally successful formula: catchy and perfectly harmonized vocals, matched to upbeat and danceable tunes. By the end of 1964 two years into their career the Beach Boys had already had twelve top-40 hits. And the first week of December saw the Concert album at the top of the charts, with four other albums scattered among the top-200 sellers.
On December 23, 1964, Brian Wilson decided to stop touring with the band and focus on studio productions. The next album, The Beach Boys Today!, was a giant leap forward for them and for rock and roll in general. The second side, especially, represented a progress on both musical and lyrical levels. Songs like "Kiss Me Baby," "She Knows Me Too Well," and "Please Let Me Wonder" married youthful romantic dreams with stunningly brilliant arrangements.
Yet it is the early,
upbeat hits of the Beach Boys that are most preserved in the current,
Mike Love-led incarnation of the band. And having seen the Boys in concert
on Sunday at Wolf Trap park in Vienna, Virginia (as well as on Good
Morning America Friday), the continuous performances have kept them
pretty sharp. One might quibble that without Brian, the Beach Boys are
not really the Beach Boys, but it must be remembered that Brian has not
been a touring member of the band since that December night in 1964. Of
far greater impact were the deaths of brothers Carl and Dennis Wilson
(in 1998 and 1983, respectively). Yet with Mike Love the most recognizable
voice of the band, and lyricist of many of the early hits as well
as Johnston, who has been a member since 1965, the Beach Boys are worthy
of the name.
The harmonies remained tight, although they were aided by substantially younger bandmates who could hit the higher notes. Standout performances included the rarely played "Warmth of the Sun," the dedicated to Carl "God Only Knows," and the Boys' best song, "Good Vibrations," which was introduced by a lengthy '60s reminiscence by Mike Love that included a shot (or two) at a certain Arkansas-produced president. The crowd was most excited for the danceable numbers, from the opening "Surfin' Safari" to the show closing "Fun Fun Fun." With the exception of "All Summer Long," they seemed to play all of their big hits; Mike introduced one song by saying that it was a patriotic song, dedicated to people in uniform especially women in uniforms, cheerleader uniforms: "Be True to Your School," for which Mike reached successfully to hit the opening note. One particularly poignant moment came when Mike Love's young daughter came on stage and requested "Hushabye," which the band played perfectly. They also played their two best-known "party" songs: "Kokomo" and "California Girls," and the latter made the former look like the Cocktail soundtrack filler it was.
"Kokomo" is, of course, typical of what the Beach Boys had done since 1967. In the wake of Brian Wilson's creative collapse in that year, the band tried everything to regain their popularity: They moved to Holland to record an album; they tried covering several oldies; they went political, as Carl had declared himself a conscientious objector; they hired two South Africans and fired Bruce Johnston, who had filled in for Brian on stage and eventually became a full-fledged Boy. Johnston might have had the last laugh: While the Boys floundered, he won a Grammy for "I Write the Songs," sung by Barry Manilow but written about Brian. (Brian's first replacement was Glen Campbell, who was thanked for his tenure in the band with Brian's writing and production of "Guess I'm Dumb.") In any event, Bruce was soon back on the scene, where he remains to this day.
There was, of course, another burst of fame for the Beach Boys in the 1980s. The less said about the era that gave us "Kokomo" and guest appearances on Full House with John Stamos on the drums, the better. The 1980s also brought the Boys their first real public controversy: Interior Secretary James Watt banned them from performing in the nation's capital. Nancy Reagan had to invite them personally the next time around. In addition to stupid, Watt's action was curious, since everyone associated with the band has always defined their music as American; Mike Love who is the closest to being a cynic of anyone in the band has said that performing at the Fourth of July concert on the National Mall was the greatest moment of his life. Sunday, Secretary of Energy Spencer Abraham was in the crowd. The Beach Boys remain America's band.
Kevin M. Cherry is a writer living in Alexandria, Va.