5/02/2013

The Beach Boys: December 1966

Although I was a teenager living in California during the 1960s, I was never a surfer (or even a good swimmer), and I generally found The Beatles to more appealing than The Beach Boys. Perhaps it resulted from my own background: I was born in England, near Liverpool, and the music of Merseyside called to me more strongly than the music of surfboards and hot rods. Nevertheless, I did enjoy the sunny tunes of The Beach Boys, which I frequently heard on the radio, and I was pleased to have the opportunity to see them perform, at San Francisco Civic Auditorium, on December 28, 1966. I attended the show, along with a handful of boys from school, as the guest of Ted, another boy from school, on the occasion of his birthday. Ted was a serious fan of The Beach Boys (to the same degree that I was a serious fan of The Beatles), and our outing to see them was a gift to him from his family.

The Beach Boys got their start in Hawthorne, California, in the early 1960s, when Brian Wilson (vocals, bass, piano) and his younger brothers, Dennis (vocals, drums) and Carl (vocals, guitar), joined their talents with those of their cousin, Mike Love (vocals), and a friend, Al Jardine (vocals, guitar). Beginning as The Pendletones, they recorded their first single, "Surfin'" (written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love, after Dennis Wilson, who was a surfer himself, asked them to write a song about the sport), for Candix Records. When the single was released in December, 1961, however, The Pendletones had undergone a change of name, and henceforth were known as The Beach Boys, their former name having been changed by someone at Candix Records, without their knowledge. "Surfin'" received strong airplay on local stations and became a hit in California, and in 1962, The Beach Boys were signed to Capitol Records.

In October, 1962, The Beach Boys released their first album, Surfin' Safari, which was followed by Surfin' USA, Surfer Girl, and Little Deuce Coupe, all released in 1963. In 1964, they released four more albums, Shut Down Volume 2 (featuring "Fun, Fun, Fun," "Don't Worry Baby," and "The Warmth of the Sun"), All Summer Long (featuring "I Get Around" and "Wendy"), Beach Boys Concert (their first live album, recorded during shows in Sacramento), and The Beach Boys' Christmas Album, and continued to keep the same pace in 1965, with the release of Today! (featuring "Dance, Dance, Dance"), Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) (featuring "Help Me, Rhonda" and "California Girls"), and Beach Boys Party! (supposedly an informal recording of The Beach Boys performing at a private gathering). As 1965 ended, The Beach Boys, having released a number of albums and singles over several years, had ascended to the top of American rock'n'roll.

Brian Wilson, the leader of The Beach Boys (and also their primary composer), had ceased to perform with them by this time (Bruce Johnston filled in for him onstage), preferring to dedicate himself to the task of perfecting their recordings. He wanted to take their music beyond the shallow realm of teen activities, drawing his main inspiration from the songs of The Beatles, particularly the impressive tracks on their latest album, Rubber Soul. While the other Beach Boys were on tour, Brian Wilson remained in Los Angeles, busying himself, doggedly and painstakingly, with the process of recording a new album. During those sessions, the vocal harmonies of The Beach Boys received careful backing from other musicians, casually referred to as "The Wrecking Crew." The tracks that resulted (including "Wouldn't It Be Nice," "Sloop John B," "God Only Knows," and "Caroline, No") were released in May, 1966, as Pet Sounds, an exquisite album whose musical range was richly breathtaking, offering a bold departure from the past sound of The Beach Boys.

The show that I saw in San Francisco, in December, 1966, began with a few songs from The Royal Guardsmen, a lightweight combo whose single, "Snoopy vs. the Red Baron" (inspired by a character in the comic strip, Peanuts, by Charles M. Schulz), had become a hit. Next came a brief set from The Music Machine, with all of the members dressed in black outfits (with one black glove) and sporting black hair, playing a handful of songs that included their angry hit, "Talk Talk," followed by The Sopwith Camel, who lately had become known for the old-fashioned lilt of their single, "Hello, Hello," and The Seeds, a band from Los Angeles, whose edgy hit, "Pushin' Too Hard," was propelled by the surly voice of Sky Saxon. The last performance before the entrance of The Beach Boys was by the six members of Jefferson Airplane, the most famous band in the city, appearing with their new vocalist, Grace Slick, who had joined them several months earlier.

When the five members of The Beach Boys finally walked onto the stage, each one wearing a striped shirt and white slacks, they quickly commenced with one of their most familiar songs, "Help Me, Rhonda," and continued by running through a lively collection of their other hits. Mike Love, who wore a flat cap (presumably as a means of shielding his baldness from prying eyes) and had a trim beard, put himself at the forefront, and served as chief spokesman during the performance. Many of the girls in the audience screamed out their delight, and a scattering of flashbulbs popped around the hall as fans took photographs. Although the general response of the crowd was not as overly frantic as the thoroughly unrestrained behavior that I had witnessed at Candlestick Park when I attended a performance by The Beatles in August, 1966 (their last performance on a public stage, as it turned out), it was undeniably ardent.

The Beach Boys performed smoothly and enjoyably, but compared to the bands who supported them, especially Jefferson Airplane, they gave the appearance of being too clean-cut for their own good, and seemed in danger of falling behind the times. Musical currents of the day were starting to change direction, turning away from straightforward expressions of wholesome youth. The music of The Beach Boys had matured during 1966, as evidenced by Pet Sounds, but onstage, they still represented an essentially teenage outlook, while Jefferson Airplane, who would become a much stronger force within rock'n'roll during the coming year, represented an outlook that was more daring. The Beach Boys were settled in the safe and comfortable mainstream of American music, but Jefferson Airplane, in the hardness of their sound and the rebelliousness of their intent, clearly were flying elsewhere, heading toward a psychedelic future that soon would manifest itself in varied ways.

Notwithstanding any lack of overt hipness on the part of The Beach Boys, they carried on through the remainder of the 1960s and into the 1970s, creating new music and attempting to stay true to themselves. (Sometimes they had to go forward without the valued guidance of Brian Wilson, who frequently was diverted by his dark struggle with drugs and mental illness during that period). Their best recordings, from the early tunes that happily celebrated a carefree life of girls, cars, and fun in the sunshine, to the more sophisticated glories of "Good Vibrations," "Heroes and Villains," and "Surf's Up," to the easygoing appeal of "Wild Honey," "Darlin'," and "Do It Again," are justly regarded as prime exemplars of musical quality, but on that distant evening in San Francisco, in late 1966, the "boys" from Hawthorne (who actually were men in their twenties) were riding the crest of a wave whose particular strength, which once had brought them to the peak of fame, was about to wane.