You can’t truly know the Beach Boys until you move beyond their greatest hits. The surfing/car/Pet Sounds classics are indeed great and will always be essential to understanding and appreciating the band. But ultimately, they’re part of a narrative marked only by success. In reality, the Beach Boys’ legacy is one of massive highs and crushing lows, genius validated and genius thwarted, commercial acceptance and commercial rejection. It’s anything but the Beatles’ tidy, triumph-upon-triumph story. It’s messy, and there’s just as much famine as feast, embarrassing flops as chart toppers.
In Fifty Sides of the Beach Boys, Mark Dillon celebrates both. He tells the Beach Boys’ long, complex and fascinating history through their long, complex and fascinating songbook. This book is the story of “California Girls” and “Disney Girls (1957)”, Pet Sounds and L.A. (Light Album) . It’s all there; Dillon doesn’t cut corners. He doesn’t just shower praise on Brian Wilson and leave it at that. And he doesn’t pretend that, for lengthy stretches, the Beach Boys weren’t ultra passe. No, Dillon gives us the band in full: the surf-rockers and the shaggy DIY psych-popsters; the clean-cut family outfit that became “America’s Band” and the spurned act that once relocated to the Netherlands and released an album called Holland; the cutting edge purveyors of a Four Freshmen/Chuck Berry hybrid sound and the aging legends who ended years of chart futility with a song for the Cocktail soundtrack.
In the Beach Boys’ long history is a lot of history. Using the songs as jumping-off points — an efficient and successful method — Dillon explores much of it.
The pivotal moments are all accounted for: the early successes, the Pet Sounds triumph, Brian’s meltdown and the collapse of Smile, the fertile but clunky late ’60s and early ’70s, the mid-’70s resurgence powered by the Endless Summer hits compilation, the flailing late ’70s, “Kokomo”, Brian’s comeback, the resurrection of Smile, and the recent 50-year reunion.
To bring this story to life, Dillon uses a simple formula. Every chapter of Fifty Sides of the Beach Boys has a title that’s some variation of “Carol Kaye on… California Girls” or “Cameron Crowe on… Feel Flows”. Dillon delves into the writing, recording, background and historical context of the music and incorporates the views of someone — often a famous someone — whom he considers to have an informed opinion. The people he interviews vary from session musicians (Kaye) and celebrity fans (Crowe) to producers (Steve Levine) and family members (Carnie Wilson) to the Beach Boys themselves (every living member). It’s an approach that doesn’t always work – sometimes the discussions veer well off course – but for the most part it leads to enjoyable, detail-rich takes on the songs and the corresponding moments in band history.
For example, in the chapter on “Forever”, Dillon covers far more than the simple, spellbinding beauty of Dennis Wilson’s ballad off Sunflower. With the help of Gregg Jakobson, the song’s co-writer, he digs into Dennis’ regrettable association with Charles Manson, the psychological underpinnings of it, and how it may have contributed to Dennis’ self-destructive ways throughout the ’70s. Jakobson also comments on what it meant to be a friend and collaborator of Dennis’ – the boozing, the drugs, the girls, the need to occasionally intercede and save the handsome drummer from himself. Sadly, Dennis did embody rock star excess.
Yet, as Dillon points out, “Forever” shows what a sensitive and soulful side he had, as well. The author describes the cut as “gorgeous”, which is surely true. Buried on an album that reached only #151 on the US charts, “Forever” languished in obscurity for many years before finally achieving some recognition in 1991, when John Stamos (a sometimes Beach Boys drummer) played a cover of it on an episode of the sitcom Full House. Dillon is right to heap praise on “Forever”. It’s one of those gems, like “‘Til I Die” and other material from the Sunflower and Surf’s Up era especially, that measures up to the band’s “greatest hits”.
If the “Forever” chapter is something like the Dennis Wilson story, then “Surfin’ U.S.A” is the David Marks story (he’s the “forgotten Beach Boy”), “Help Me, Rhonda” is the Alan Jardine story, “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” is the Tony Asher story (he co-wrote Pet Sounds with Brian), “Disney Girls (1957)” is the Bruce Johnston story, and so forth. The overarching narrative takes shape in the many wide-ranging details about these songs. To learn about how Brian as a young producer worked with veteran session musicians, read “Hal Blaine on… Fun, Fun, Fun”.
To learn about the terror that Father Murry Wilson often was, read “Peter Bagge on… I’m Bugged at My Ol’ Man” (and a handful of other chapters). To learn about how the Beach Boys’ ranks once grew to include a South African band called the Flame, read “Blondie Chaplin on… Sail on Sailor”. And to learn about a weird song and a weird album (Love You), read “Peter Ames Carlin on… Johnny Carson”. Those aren’t all familiar songs, are they? Yet Dillon recognizes their importance to the big picture, even as hits like “Surfin’ Safari” and “409” don’t have chapters of their own.
Mixed in with the central story are small details that keep coming up and eventually start to feel like important plot points. Throughout the book, a number of people express deep, envy-soaked admiration for Dennis’ abilities as a performer. He was an “animal”, according to John Sebastian of the Lovin’ Spoonful. (Dillon also includes a chapter that explores Dennis’ solo album Pacific Ocean Blue.) Another fact reinforced several times is that, while the Beach Boys’ fortunes tanked stateside in the wake of Smile‘s undoing, Europe and especially the UK became a refuge for the band. And the same weird, more esoteric material that Europeans were drawn to later became a source of inspiration for contemporary indie-rock groups. James Mercer of the Shins contributes to the chapter on “Girl Don’t Tell Me”, and Yo La Tengo’s leadman Ira Kaplan sings the praises of “Meant for You”, which is the shortest song the Beach Boys ever released.
It’s also remarkable to learn about the many, many industry connections the Boys developed over the years, whether they were fill-in band members, session players, collaborators, co-writers or tour mates. Some of the names that surface along the way: the Lovin’ Spoonful, Jan and Dean, Three Dog Night, Chicago, the Captain and Tennille, Glenn Campbell, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Charles Manson, Papa John Phillips, John Stamos, Stevie Wonder, Carol Kaye, Hal Blaine and the Wrecking Crew, Van Dyke Parks, and more. Yes, a 50-year career will have this effect, but it’s still striking to see one noteworthy name after another enter the narrative.
Where Dillon occasionally errs is in focusing too much on the guest contributors and not enough on the Beach Boys. In the chapter about “Don’t Worry Baby”, the discussion heavily favors Roger McGuinn and the Byrds, while the song – one of the band’s finest – gets short shrift. This is true, though to a lesser degree, of the section on “Barbara Ann”, which goes into detail about Jan and Dean. Elsewhere, some of the guests simply have scant insight to offer (see “Zooey Deschanel on… Wouldn’t It Be Nice”), and others are awkwardly shoehorned into the mix (see Jace Lasek of the Canadian band the Besnard Lakes on “Good Vibrations”). It’s space that Dillon could have filled with more relevant material. (But, as an aside, I’ll take the always engaging and eloquent Alice Cooper on Brian’s delicate confessional “In My Room” every time.)
As with any book of this kind, there’s also the joy of encountering little tossed-off facts that you didn’t know prior. As in: Phil Spector’s “Be My Baby” – a song that Brian counted among his favorites – was the inspiration for “Don’t Worry Baby”. Or, before “California Girls” had lyrics, Brian called it “You’re Grass and I’m a Power Mower”. I also didn’t know that the Beach Boys were scheduled to perform at the Monterrey Pop Festival in 1967 but had to cancel for a variety of reasons. This apparently played a role in the Boys becoming “uncool”, a tag that would follow them for many years.
Finally, what’s the most rewarding deep cut that Dillon unearths? The honor goes to “Little Bird”, a loopy acid-folk dittie from Dennis that you’ll want to play on repeat for summers at a time. Though it was just a b-side and hailed from an album, Friends, that peaked at #126 in the US, Dillon notes that “Little Bird” was “the first solo composition by a group member other than Brian to be included on a “7”. Not bad for the “eye candy”.
The bigger point is that Dillon shows just as much respect to a vagabond like “Little Bird” as he does to the classics that many of us know and love. After all, the Beach Boys’ story is found in both. Like the mental ailments that Brian battled, the band’s years of chart exile and critical disappointment are deeply humanizing. Few groups have experienced as steep of a fall as the Beach Boys did. They helped pioneer a sound; they released a slew of hits; they stayed relevant during Beatlemania; they became avatars of California’s youth culture; and they earned immortality with a record often called the greatest of all time. And then their leader lost his way, and the band stumbled, and stumbled some more. From Wild Honey and Carl and the Passions – “So Tough” to Surf’s Up and 15 Big Ones, they released one “comeback” album after another, but they could never put it all together.
Even when the critics gave a thumbs up or sales were decent, they couldn’t quite recapture the old magic. Yet they didn’t break up. Faces changed, members died, and infighting persisted, but the Beach Boys remained. Why? Maybe they always felt they were close or maybe their innate American optimism wouldn’t allow them to call it quits. Whatever the reason, they stayed the course, and their diligence, even if it didn’t always pay off, seems deserving of our respect. And one of the best ways to honor them is by digging into the music of their wilderness years. The first time you hear a song like “Little Bird” or “All I Wanna Do”, you’ll experience that wonderful thrill of discovery. If you need a guide, Fifty Sides of the Beach Boys will more than do the trick.