|The Beach Boys|
[The Guardian, 1998]
IT'S BEEN 20 years since rock began to look at the Sixties as some kind of dressing-up chest in the attic, the lid barely closing on all the useful plunder and shiny baubles within. Since then, countless bands have aspired to sound like The Beach Boys, but not a single one has tried to look like them. Many would-be stars have dedicated more time and money to posing as their preferred Beatle or Stone or Velvet than they have to their music, which has often proved to be a mercy of sorts. But nobody ever looked at a picture of Al Jardine in a hooped varsity sweatshirt and thought, “That's gonna be me.”
Whatever cool the Beach Boys had is contained in the myths and legends of Mad Brian Wilson: Brian and his piano in the sandpit; Brian's horrified belief that his songs were starting fires in distant buildings; Brian unwittingly hitting on his own daughter at a Hollywood party. Brian the cuckoo-clock genius, the “rock'n'roll Mozart”, bringing back mind melting visions from the far reaches of his own deranged psyche.
A new television documentary suggests that the truth is both sadder and stranger. Endless Harmony follows the Beatles Anthology technique, telling the story in the band's own words, but it's a more honest and less self-serving piece of work. Brian Wilson is its central figure, naturally; but the role of the other Beach Boys in creating and, just as significantly, propagating some of the most extraordinary records of modern times is shown, and shown well.
Endless Harmony is a moving film, partly because it's full of wonderful music, but often because its subjects prove to be so endearingly ordinary. The truly preposterous thing about the Beach Boys, the almost revolutionary thing about them, is how un-rock'n'roll they were. There they stood, gods of the recording studio, a spur in the side of the Beatles and by extension every other forward-looking group of the time, and they were just a bunch of good ol' boys. Nice, respectable guys. They didn't even possess the supernatural cheesiness that would later characterise The Carpenters. The Beach Boys were exactly what they appeared to be: clean-cut California kids, real live Archie comics, full of praise for high school and the USA, who grew into stolid, prosperous American citizens. The only thing they didn't actually do was surf - except for Dennis Wilson. And Dennis always was the odd one out.
The three Wilson brothers, Brian, Carl and Dennis, all suffered miserably at the hands of their father, Murry. Murry, a musician himself, was the group's first manager; a roaring martinet who envied Brian's gifts and bullied him viciously; who would doubtless have done the same to Carl if Brian hadn't distracted his attention; and who frequently beat seven shades of shit out of the tearaway Dennis. Not surprisingly, Dennis responded by getting up to more trouble. In the delicious boy-scout phrasing of Al Jardine, he was always off “surfing or raising heck somewhere.” As the clips jump back and forth in time, we see Dennis as the wolfish young stud who teeny boppers would knock down the other band members to reach; and then as just another raggedy, bearded West Coast freak, hollowed out by years of excess, alternately chattering and mumbling in front of the ocean that would drown him in 1983. (Curiously, while the film doesn't shy away from such painful episodes as Brian's relationship with his parasitic shrink, Eugene Landy, there is no mention of Dennis's fascination with the repulsive Charles Manson, whose song, Cease To Exist, The Beach Boys recorded; or of the inadvertent roles he and producer Terry Melcher played in the events leading up to the Tate/ La Bianca murders.)
One of the many pleasures of Endless Harmony is the way it presents simultaneous snapshots of all the band members across the decades. Some of them barely change. The impish Al Jardine seems to be engaged a perpetual impression of Richie from Happy Days (although he does put in a brief shock appearance as Clint Eastwood.) Mike Love, his hairline already contemplating the long trek up his temples, starts his Beach Boy vocation looking like a Big Man On Campus frat-boy who's just landed his first graduate job as an insurance salesman. And while he later does turns as Captain Birdseye and Mr Natural, he remains essentially sensible and businesslike. Carl, who comes across as a genuinely quiet and gentle individual, just gets fatter and hairier until his death earlier this year. Bruce Johnston is Melvyn Bragg. Most worrying of all, inevitably, is Brian. As he withdraws first from the world and then from the band, we catch ever-rarer glimpses of him. All the while his mouth sidles up the side of his face until it winds up blu-tacked somewhere beneath his left ear. Brian looks first disturbed, then disconnected, then barely there at all. He becomes an enormous shell of a man, his world beating talent buried inside his phenomenal bulk and showing no sign whatsoever of trying to get out.
BRIAN'S dementia - fed by paternal abuse and untethered by hallucinogens - did nothing for his music. Just the opposite. It distanced him from his ability and his bandmates. His genius flowered on Pet Sounds and Good Vibrations despite and not because of his worsening mental condition. There is no telling what he might have accomplished if he hadn't begun the long retreat into his bedroom. Unable to coax him out, the band took the studio to him. It made no difference. They would record for hours while he lay a few feet away, occasionally shuffling out in his pyjamas to mutter instructions or add a few bars of piano. The clips and photographs show him gross and unshaven, with no shining madness in his eyes, just a vague, inanimate dread.
Smile, made around this time, is regarded as a Great Lost Album, but the brilliant snippets of songs hardly add up to an Abbey Road. Brian was The Beach Boys' Lennon & McCartney and George Martin rolled into one. The trouble was, he looked it. But he wasn't acting like it. Inspired by Rubber Soul and Revolver to make the cohesive Pet Sounds, he now quite literally couldn't get it together. While The Beatles assembled Sergeant Pepper, Smile lay in fragments. “At one time,” Mike Love summarises, “Brian was very dynamic, creative, disciplined in the studio. He was now shattered, afraid, paranoid, in his room, wouldn't come out, couldn't do anything.” Love points to Heroes And Villains as “The last dynamic Brian moment.” That song was first taped in 1966, a mere four years into The Beach Boys' recording career.
In a way, Love is right. Brian Wilson would never again generate something as thrilling as Heroes And Villains, or any of the other, numerous, breathtaking tracks he had constructed for the band in their so far brief career. But as late as 1971, he would come up with the astoundingly sad and lovely 'Til I Die, which in its own fashion explained everything he had done - or failed to do - over the last few years. The song portrays a frightened, fatalistic man who sees himself as a “cork on the ocean, a leaf on the breeze”. Basically, Brian went limp and left the rest up to destiny.
Without Brian, the rest of The Beach Boys were thrown onto their own resources, and between them they didn't do too shabbily. Impressive chunks of the Sunflower and Surf's Up albums were effectively Brianless, and we see the band giving erratic but sometimes outstanding live performances. One particularly affecting sequence pieces together shots of Carl singing God Only Knows down the years with undimmed reverence and humility before the absolute, profound beauty of the song his brother gave to him.
Then, in 1974, everything changed. The Beach Boys released an album that far outsold every record they'd made in almost a decade. Endless Summer was a greatest hits collection, ignoring the experiments and the peculiar philosophising of recent times in favour of the run of Sixties hits leading up to Good Vibrations. It brought home an inescapable fact to the band: they were now a nostalgia act, a throwback to happier and more innocent days when a number entitled Be True To Your School could be performed with a straight face. They were in huge demand as a touring band. What The Grateful Dead were to hippies old and new, The Beach Boys became to straight America - a never-ending reminiscence roadshow, which instead of marijuana and tie-dye offered barbecue and Hawaiian shirts.
This marked the end of the band as a creative force and the acceptance of a new role, that of a continuing cabaret which would turn up anywhere the sun was shining. Their song, Do It Again, became a kind of anthem for the portly and the balding, exhorting them to climb into their station wagons and return to the scenes of their youthful pleasures. “We became America's band,” says Love, over a shot of him sharing a podium with Ronald Reagan. Which is appropriate enough - a fantasy band for a fantasy president, both of them locked into illusions of an America which, if it had ever existed, was long since gone.
For the last quarter-century, The Beach Boys have been Butlinised, selling a Golden Age vision of beaches, hot dogs, surfer girls, Cadillacs and fun, fun, fun. Watching Endless Harmony, you can see how ruthlessly that vision was updated to peddle those old songs. The early clips show happy teenagers in modest bikinis, frugging and twisting around their beach blankets, wholesome as milk. The remarketed Beach Boys came with silicone-enhanced models in high-cut swimsuits, glossy make-up and frosted coiffures. You could treat it as an analogy of the way culture cannibalises its past, but even if you didn't want to go that far, you couldn't find a better example of how the Eighties sucked the lifeblood out of early rock'n'roll.
In doing so, they also did an immense disservice to the bands concerned. Not that any of the bands complained. With the royalties flowing in like a full moon riptide - along with fresh opportunities playing the nostalgia circuit to fellow baby boomers flush with a free-market cash harvest - no prudent old rocker could be blamed for keeping shtum and pocketing his share of the action. When you hit middle age, an artistic reputation often seems less important than a comfortable retirement, and rightly so. It's nice to know the remaining Beach Boys are well provided for. They've earned it. Murry Wilson blew most of their early revenue, anyway.
Endless Harmony is a fine reminder of how much more there was to the band than hamburgers, sand and jalopies. The Beach Boys transcended a corny California beach mirage to realise a purer notion of joy. They demonstrated that genius doesn't always come packaged in the right bodies, or even the right sunglasses. They were weird in the way your relatives are weird, and the music they devised was often nothing short of magical. If your dad had been a supremely gifted oddball with his own band, this would have been it.
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