The Beach Boys’ ‘That’s Why God Made the Radio’ Begs to Be Knocked

The Beach Boys’ That’s Why God Made the Radio is unsettling and inoffensive in a way I cannot compare to any album except God Bless Tiny Tim.

That's Why God Made the Radio
The Beach Boys
5 June 2012

That’s Why God Made the Radio (2012) is the Beach Boys‘ 29th and final studio album. It reunites the surviving trio of Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, and Mike Love; veteran associates Bruce Johnston and Jeff Foskett (who has a falsetto that could crack sea-glass); writing collaborator Joe Thomas; and David Marks, a second-guitarist who last played with the band in 1963. Like Smile (1967), it begins with a wordless a cappella hymn that foreshadows the songs to follow: in this case, bright and seamless minor-major harmonies and squeaky-clean jazz breaks that make the Beach Boys sound like an even whiter Steely Dan.

Brian Wilson intones his wholesome antiseptic plan to spread “the love and sunshine / to a whole new generation” on the title track that follows. Jim Peterik, its co-writer, drew the title from a conversation with Wilson about the AM radio fizzing rapture through the speakers of his Plymouth Valiant in the good old days. Of course, said Wilson, “That’s why God made the radio.” He spends the following 11 songs using every moon-June-spoon scheme from Tin Pan Alley in an attempt to prove himself wrong.

“Isn’t it Time” is an anthem to “the feeling of / the magic of that summer in love” as sure as death itself that “the good times never have to end”. On “Spring Vacation”, Love insists that this overproduced fun, fun, and fun “could go on forever / as long as we can all stay together”, and so cheesily that Wilson makes John Mellencamp sound like Morrissey. The organ reverb on “Beaches in Mind” would be no less out of place on a Phil Collins record and convinces the listener that Wilson has nothing else in mind. The Love-penned “Daybreak Over the Ocean” is a come-back-baby dirge replete with synth syncopation, phased drums, and gated reverb. It suffers interest because Wilson’s inamorata is not, this time, swept away by another surfer; she’s dead, and he prays to join her soon. It’s the only song on the record that he didn’t produce.

With “Daybreak Over the Ocean”, one grasps that this teenybopper kahuna has aged. The then elderly Wilson’s vow that “not a care in the world is where I want to be… / the place in the sun where everyone can have fun” takes on a predominantly senile, death-rattle air wholly absent in the blithe mouth of a 20-year-old. This album contains the Beach Boys’ first mention of another place and time (the past). Even Smile engaged with the dreams and genocides of colonial America strictly as they were present. In “Cabin Essence”, which Mojo Magazine deemed “Smile in microcosm”, Wilson warbles that he’ll “build you a home on the range”, his croon overwhelmed by Chinese workers running the iron horse.

Like ’60s beach-party films, the running theme of ’60s Beach Boys records was a schizoid reassurance bankrolled by sun, surf, and sand in a wistful, youthful, turtle-waxed world apart from race riots and nuclear holocaust. No surprise that the “Shelter” in this final album’s namesake song denotes a time “when the world was just you and me”. The parochial bliss continues, now a big-screen pastiche, in “The Private Life of Bill and Sue”: “Wasting time on a sunny day… / Their lives are like a movie scene.” In Wilson’s world heaven is always a thing of the past, but here it is therefore unattainable.

In the saccharine calypso “Strange World”, the beach is, for the first time, the backdrop for something less than a chaste vital Sears & Roebuck romance. Through Wilson’s eyes, Santa Monica Pier becomes a purgatorial wasteland: “We watch the people who gather here / The uninvited who’ve lost their way / And now we’re all here to stay.” The men (it’s a testament to their legend that they share a dwindling number of teeth between them, and yet one is still tempted to call them boys) doo-wop and dum-dee a swan song: “Multi-colorful lives we run / To catch a glimpse of the setting sun.” By the time Love You released in 1977, Wilson was – while still insisting that “we’ll live forever / we’ll never die” – already begging God to “please let us go on this way”.

“From There to Back Again” turns its twin runaway plaint, the half-century older Beach Boys ballad “We’ll Run Away”, inside-out. Wilson pleads reedily with his woman not to leave behind the past (embodied in the older song by parents sure that the lovers aren’t ready to elope) but to leave the present. “Why don’t we feel the way we used to anymore… / I wish that we could get from there to back again… / Through our compromise, paradise / Is just another place up on the wall… / Another place in time”. It’s uncanny even to hear these sun-kissed pipe dreams yield to earnest songs of “compromise”.

Wilson saves the familiarly trippy Beach Boys cathedral harmonies for the last two songs. Forget nostalgia; they’re downright funereal. By “Pacific Coast Highway”, he’s run out of if’s and why’s. “Sometimes I realize my days are getting on / Sometimes I realize it’s time to move along…  / Sunlight’s fading, and there’s not much left to say / My life, I’m better off alone… / Goodbye.” As if the metaphor weren’t thin enough, “Summer’s Gone” (inexplicably co-written by Jon Bon Jovi) was the initially slated title track. It’s a sparse but salient Auto-Tuned echo of “Caroline No”, and ends the album with chimes and rain.

The summer of Wilson’s life left him where he began. “It’s finally sinking in / One day begins / Another ends / I live them all and back again.” His hair greys as he stays in the sand: “I’m gonna sit and watch the waves / We laugh, we cry / We live then die / And dream about our yesterday.” The pies have fallen from the sky straight to the devil and the deep blue sea. Simplicity can be brilliant, and it can be juvenile. A quick Google search reveals that every song on this grizzled septuagenarian farewell is classified as children’s music.

No moment in That’s Why God Made the Radio begs a more cynical suspension of disbelief than that in “Spring Vacation” when Love chimes with Wilson, the cousin he’d spent the last 20 years suing, “we’re back together / easy money”, railing shameless benedictions of “What’s it to ya / Hallelujah!” They assure us with less conviction than a Calvinist youth choir that they’re “still having a [contractually-obligated] blast”. It’s enough that Wilson can assure us of anything at all, given that his last few records sound like an invalid reading off a glitchy cue with a gun to his temple. He’s in top adenoidal form here.

Perhaps the album’s foremost distinction is that it seals the Beach Boys’ name on a loftier note than their previous record, Stars and Stripes Vol. 1 (1996) (pop-country self-covers), or the last release bearing their name, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston & David Marks of the Beach Boys salute NASCAR (1998) (MIDI-heavy self-covers, available only at your local “76” gas station). 

While many critics panned the record, few accounted for its fame. While several Beach Boys albums charted higher than That’s Why God Made the Radio, none debuted on the Billboard Top 10. It debuted at number three, setting the band’s highest-ever American album chart start and placing higher than Pet Sounds (1966), which peaked at number ten. The 49-year-and-one-week span between the album’s release on 5 June 2012 and the top ten chart of the single “Surfin’ USA” on 15 June 1963 surpassed the Beatles’ previous record for the longest chart span (47 years, seven months, and three weeks).

Most fans of this milquetoast ode to salad days seem more to admire the circumstances under which it was achieved. Wilson slowly and surely became a homebound and hermitic casualty after a schizoaffective breakdown in 1964, wherein he became obsessively self-conscious over his image and self-medicated with food, drugs, and booze. He placed himself under the care of psychologist Eugene Landy in the ’70s and ’80s. It was as rehabilitative as it was dictatorial: Landy charged Wilson today’s equivalent of $1.2 million annually, additionally receiving a quarter of his publishing royalties and songwriting credits on his solo albums.

Beach Boys: 2012 Reunion | Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Beach Boys (2012 Reunion) / Photo: Louise Palanker via Wikipedia (cropped)

The ’90s were an unending, internecine spate of defamation, conservatorship, publishing rights, and songwriting credit lawsuits volleyed between the Beach men. Wilson’s second wife Melinda attested that, when they married in 1995, he was embroiled in nine. By the end, Love controlled the band. He kicked Wilson and Jardine off the Beach Boys’ 50th-anniversary tour and performed county-fair and casino acts under the name with his licensed scabs, recently headlining the Safari Club International Convention in Reno and Donald Trump’s re-election fundraiser in Newport Beach. His greatest sin was “Kokomo”.

That’s Why God Made the Radio practically begs to be knocked. If you had a nickel for every time an old Beach Boys song is mentioned, you’d have enough to sue them yourself. Impossibly angelic harmonies clear a few seconds here and there; the rest becomes more confounding with each listen. I love it sincerely, profoundly, and madly. It is as unsettling as it is inoffensive in a way I cannot compare to any album I have ever heard except God Bless Tiny Tim (1968). It couldn’t have been a better end to the band’s career because it casts a final, fading backward glance at the myth which bore it, burnishing good vibrations with fabricated fraternity long after the California wine curdled. 

This farewell record cedes a dream that disillusioned its fans long ago. The decades have pared it to the barest Beach Boys elements of chromatic harmony and claptrap verse. The songs belay the band’s most prefab dullness, their most church-like genius, and little in between. In true Californian fashion, the album is only as foreboding as it’s fatalistic. As Wilson chants in an inoffensive falter: “The world has changed / and yet the game / Is still the same.” Nothing remains to want, and nothing remains to prove. That’s why God made the radio, to fill the air with a past that leaves no trace. Squint your ears. There’s nothing new under the sun, sun, sun.

Works Cited

Beviglia, Jim. “The Beach Boys: That’s Why God Made The Radio”. American Songwriter. 2012.

Petridis, Alex. “The Beach Boys: That’s Why God Made the Radio – review”. The Guardian. 31 May 2012.

“‘That’s Why God Made the Radio‘ by the Beach Boys”. Culture Fusion. 22 April 2013. 

“That’s Why God Made the Radio by the Beach Boys”. Song Facts. N. d.