By Suzanne Sparrow Watson
Last week I watched a television show that took me back 60 years, to the joy of languishing on the beach, slathering Coppertone on my body, and listening to “surf” music. The show was “A Grammy Salute to the Beach Boys” and it generated a fun, sometimes tearful, walk down memory lane. I have always loved the Beach Boys and to this day, I have their “Endless Summer” album on my car’s hard drive. I marvel at how I can forget why I’ve walked into a room, but when I hear one of their old songs, I can tell you exactly where I was when I first heard it. The Grammy show featured many of today’s top performers singing the Beach Boys’ hits, including John Legend, Brandi Carlisle, Hanson, Andy Grammer, Leann Rimes, and many others. Honestly, I didn’t recognize a lot of the groups, but I appreciated that they appreciated music from almost 60 years ago.
I spent two hours singing along with the performers and reveling in memories that can only be tied to the dual teenage emotions of fun and angst. I used to know a lot about the Beach Boys, but these days I only retain water, so I decided to re-familiarize myself with their backstories. For those of you who also grew up during this period, I thought you might appreciate the following fun, and some not so fun, facts about them.
- Brian Wilson was left to watch his two brothers one weekend when his parents took a trip to Mexico. They left him some allowance money to feed himself and his brothers, but Brian decided to use that money to buy musical instruments and recruited his brother Carl and his cousin, Mike Love, to help him recreate the harmonies of his favorite songs. Childhood friend Al Jardine and Brian’s other brother, Dennis, soon joined these efforts and thus began one of the most famous groups in American music.
- The Wilson brothers’ father, Murry, decided to involve himself in their endeavors as their manager. This was both a blessing and a curse for the boys. Murry helped get the group into the public eye, but he also had a chilling dark side. For much of the boys’ childhood, Murry was physically abusive towards his sons. He would beat and spank them for even the smallest infraction of his rules. In one of the strangest punishments, he removed his own glass eye and forced his sons to stare into his empty eye socket.
- Murry’s abuse of his sons not only had an emotional impact on them, but it also had a physical impact as well. Brian ended up mostly deaf in one of his ears as a result of his father hitting him so hard over the years. That makes the fact that he could compose such complex harmonies and instrumentations all the more impressive.
- Despite their reputation as the “surfer band”, Dennis Wilson was the only member of the group who surfed. In fact, Brian Wilson has an extreme fear of water and stays as far away from the beach as possible.
- Dennis was also the only member who initially had no musical training. They ended up assigning him to be the group’s drummer, thinking he could pick the skill up as he went along. Because of this, the group often hired professional drummers to fill in for him on many of its early recordings.
- One of the first songs that Brian wrote was called “Surf City.” In a gesture of friendship, he gave the song to the group Jan & Dean, instead of having the Beach Boys record it. Jan & Dean’s recording of the song ended up reaching number one on the charts. Needless to say, Murry was not happy.
- One of the group’s first big hits, and still one of their most popular songs, is the classic summer anthem “Surfin’ USA.” However, rock ‘n roll pioneer Chuck Berry noticed that the melody sounded suspiciously like an old song of his called “Sweet Little Sixteen.” Although Brian has never denied that the song’s melody was a reworking of the Berry tune, a back-and-forth copyright dispute between Murry Wilson and Chuck Berry’s record company resulted in the courts crediting the song solely to Wilson, then to both Wilson and Berry. Ironically, the song’s lead singer, Mike Love, received no formal credit at all despite his claim that he wrote the lyrics.
- During a tour in 1964, Brian Wilson suffered a full-blown nervous breakdown while on an airplane traveling between concert sites. His bandmates rushed to his aid as he began shrieking uncontrollably and shouting into his pillow. For the sake of his mental health, the group decided that he would retire from touring and instead would stay home and focus solely on songwriting and recording from that point on. The person who replaced him on that tour? None other than Glen Campbell.
- Although staying home gave Brian the time he needed to focus on creating more incredible music, it quickly took a dark twist. Around this time, a friend introduced Brian to psychedelic drugs, and they changed his life forever. At first, they opened up new avenues of creativity for him that would take the Beach Boys’ music to new and fascinating places, such as the Pet Sounds album, but their effects also added tremendously to the mental health struggles that he was already facing. Soon Mike Love and Brian Wilson began to fight about the direction of their music. In addition to the discord, they also suffered the tragic death of Dennis Wilson, who drowned in Marina Del Ray in 1983.
- After Brian regained his mental health, the group re-formed and in 1988 they released the song “Kokomo”, an instant classic that became their first Number One hit since “Good Vibrations” in 1966. The 22-year separation between these two tracks marked the longest-ever span between two Number One hits by any single band.
- In 2023 Mike Love and Brian Wilson are still feuding. Love and Bruce Johnston (who joined in 1965), have put together a “new” Beach Boys band and will begin a nation-wide tour in May, featuring all of the classic songs from the 60’s.
I don’t know if I would go see the “new” band, even if it was playing across the street. I guess I’d rather listen to my old CD and remember the original group, when they were in perfect vocal harmony, when we were all young and tan, and the summers were indeed, endless.