Who are the Beach Boys?
One of the most commercially successful bands of all time, the Beach Boys are a central figure of rock history. Active since 1961, they have held a presence in the music world for nearly 60 years! Their unique, layered vocal harmonies, talented instrumentals, and innovative songwriting continue to be recognized and celebrated today.
The Beach Boys began their career as the most popular surf band in the country, producing hit singles such as “Surfin’ Safari”, “Surfin’ U.S.A”, and “Good Vibrations” in the 1960s. They were one of America’s first groups to play their own instruments and write their own songs, and one of the few to remain successful after the British Invasion in the 1960s. While surf rock was their initial calling, the Beach Boys experimented with their music and evolved with each passing era, dabbling in subgenres such as psychedelia, soul, and pop. Many of their later albums, particularly Pet Sounds, brought recognition to the band as one of the most influential bands of all time.
What is the Origin of the Beach Boys?
The band originated near the sunny beaches of Hawthorne, California. Three young brothers would often harmonize together, led by the oldest brother, Brian Wilson. Brian, Carl, and Dennis Wilson were often joined by their cousin, Mike Love, and later by Al Jardine, a friend from school. Fascinated by vocal acts from the 1950’s, Brian studied music and harmonies and began writing songs for the group. Love gave the fledgling band its first name, The Pendletones, a musical pun on the name of a popular, woolen shirt at the time called the “pendleton”. Inspired by surfing, Dennis suggested the group write songs that celebrated the Southern California lifestyle of surfing, girls, hot rods, fun, and sun.
The band was signed to Candix records in 1961 and released their debut hit, “Surfin”. Jardine left the band to attend dentistry school and was replaced with David Marks, a neighbor of the Wilson brothers. Candix wished to change the name of the band to the Surfers, but in lieu of finding a band of that name, settled on the name The Beach Boys. “Surfin’” reached number 75 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart as a regional hit for the band and kickstarted their rise to fame.
Band Members of the Beach Boys
- One of the founding members
- Songwriter and producer
- Retired from touring with the Beach Boys in 1964
- Brian is regarded as one of the most significant songwriters of the late 20th century
- At 78 years old, he is a current but inactive member, and has a net worth of $100 million
- Drummer, lead and backing vocals, songwriter
- As the only surfer of the group, he inspired the band’s early image and culture and image
- Dennis struggled with alcohol addiction, and in 1983, he drowned at age 39
- Co-founder and leader in the early 1970s
- Lead guitarist, backing and lead vocals
- Produced a bulk of albums from 1969-1973
- He died of lung cancer in 1998 at 51 years old
- Vocalist and lyricist
- Collaborated on songwriting during the Beach Boys’ peak in the 1960s
- Has contributed to every studio album, and currently has an exclusive license to tour as the Beach Boys
- A current and active member, Mike is now 79 years old with a net worth of $80 million
- First encountered the Beach Boys as a staff producer at Columbia Records in 1965
- Joined the band to fill in for Brian in live performances
- Became a vocalist on the band’s records, as well as an instrumentalist and songwriter
- He was dismissed from the band in 1972
- Rejoined in 1978 and has remained a member ever since
- 78 years old and worth $30 million
- Joined the band in 1962 to replace Al Jardine on rhythm guitar
- In August of 1963, he left the band due to conflict with Murry Wilson, the Wilsons’ Dad and manager
- Returned to the band from 1997-1999 for live performances
- Reunited with the group for their fiftieth anniversary tour and album release in 2012
- Marks is 72 years old and has a net worth of $20 million
- Joined in 1972
- Lead singer, guitarist, and songwriter
- Left the group in 1973 due to conflict with management
- He is now 69 years old and has a net worth of $15 million
- Joined in 1972
- Drummer on two albums with the Beach Boys and songwriter
- Left the band a year after Chaplin in 1974 to pursue other projects
- Fataar is 68 years old and worth $13 million
Style and Themes in the Music of The Beach Boys
The Beach Boys found their enormous commercial success as pioneers of surf rock and pop in America. Themes of youth, cars, surfing, girls, and sunny beaches established their California sound that brought surf rock culture across the nation. Along with the lyrically adolescent themes, the band’s use of the driving drum beats, layered instrumentals, and shimmering vocal harmonies quickly brought the aesthetic of sunny California to pop culture internationally as well. Their ability to apply harmonies not native to rock and roll became their signature approach, and their nasal singing voices, falsetto harmonies, driving melodies, and sudden group singing on key lines created the unique sound that audiences and critics raved about.
In the mid 1960’s and into the 1970’s, the Beach Boys began experimenting in their music and evolving their sound. Fuzzy guitar sounds, complicated, layered instrumentals, and experimentation in recording techniques established the Beach Boys as innovators of rock music. Their musical style delved into psychedelic rock and featured non-traditional use of instruments such as the electro theremin. Adolescent themes were abandoned for more mature lyrical content of emotions and spirituality.
Surfin’ Safari (October 1, 1962)
The Beach Boys enjoyed their peak years starting in 1962 after being signed a seven year contract with Capitol Records. With Capitol, the band debuted their second single, “Surfin’ Safari”, along with “409”. This led to the completion of their first album, also titled Surfin’ Safari, the first rock album of the time that consisted entirely of original songs.
Surfin’ USA (March 25, 1963), Surfer Girl (September 16, 1963) and Little Deuce Coop (October 7, 1963)
In 1963, The Beach Boys produced their first top ten single that would propel them into the national spotlight. The single, “Surfin’ U.S.A” was soon followed by an album of the same name that reached number two on the Billboard charts. Brian had started becoming more active in the studio and was able to double-track the group’s vocals, a recording technique that resulted in a deep, resonant sound. The success of this album launched the surf music craze and established the new California sound in rock music.
Near the middle of 1963, Al Jardine accepted Brian Wilson’s invitation to rejoin the band on tour, allowing Brian to take a break from touring and focus on writing and recording music. This arrangement resulted in the albums Surfer Girl and Little Deuce Coop.
Shut Down Volume 2 (March 2, 1964), All Summer Long (July 13, 1964), and The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album (November 9, 1964)
Shut Down Volume 2 was a follow-up album to a Capitol Records compilation album, Shut Down, that featured hot rod music from multiple bands including the Beach Boys. Produced by Brian Wilson, the album reached number 13 on US Charts.
In 1964, the Beach Boys returned home from a worldwide tour to find their support waning due to the British Invasion, the cultural phenomenon of the mid-1960s when British culture and music became widely popular in the United States. Bands such as the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Who, and the Kinks were ruling the charts, pressuring the Beach Boys to keep pace. They proved they could compete with these British groups with the release and success of the single, “I Get Around”, which climbed to number one.
The album All Summer Long, reached number four that year in the U.S., introducing exotic textures in their music. Brain wrote his last surf song with this album, and later albums would begin to leave the adolescent themes in favor of more mature content, paving a new stylistic path for the band.
The Beach Boys wrapped up 1964 with the release of The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album. This album featured a forty-one piece studio orchestra, with five original Christmas-themed songs and seven reinterpretations of traditional Christmas music. It was regarded as one of the finest holiday rock albums of the time.
The Beach Boys Today! (March 8, 1965), Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) (July 5, 1965), and Beach Boys’ Party! (November 8, 1965)
By the end of 1964, Brian withdrew from touring again to concentrate on being in the studio to record and produce. Carl took over as the onstage frontman, and session musician Glen Campbell served as Brian’s temporary replacement in concert. During this time as a full-time studio musician, Brian pushed the Beach Boys into a new scene and left the surf aesthetic behind. Inspired by the music of Phil Spector, Brian started doubling and tripling instruments to create a big, deep sound. In 1965, the Beach Boys released their first experimental album, The Beach Boys Today! At this time, Campbell was replaced by Bruce Johnston of Columbia Records.
The band continued their transitional phase into late 1965 with albums Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!), which included the hit songs “California Girls” and “Help Me, Rhonda,” and the album Beach Boys’ Party!, a live-in-the-studio album. 1964 closed out with another top twenty single, “The Little Girl I Once Knew”, which was considered the band’s most experimental statement at that point.
Pet Sounds (May 16, 1966)
With the release of the album Pet Sounds in 1966, the band established its presence as an innovative rock group. This album featured complicated, layered instrumentals, electro theremin, fuzzy guitar sounds, and even the unconventional use of sounds of dogs barking, water jugs, and silverware. Pet Sounds was the first album to depart from the established electric rock band format and is considered one of the most influential albums in music history. The entire album has since been inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and is regarded as an early concept album that furthered the legitimacy of popular music.
1966 brought the single hit “Good Vibrations,” which reached the top of the Billboard Hot 100 and was the band’s first number one hit in the U.K. The album, Smile recorded that year, in contrast, was never released, although some tracks were found in later releases.
In late 1966, the Beach Boys were becoming at odds with Capitol Records, who did not support the band’s new direction. Initially devised to give the Beach Boys creative and promotional control, they settled on distributing Brothers Records through Capitol Records.
Smiley Smile (September 18, 1967) and Wild Honey (December 18, 1967)
Under pressure and contractual obligation to record an album for Capitol Records, Smiley Smile came together as a homespun version of the unreleased Smile, recorded at Brian’s home studio. It was the first album that the entire band was credited for production, rather than Brian alone. It peaked at number 41 in the US, their worst selling album to date. While it performed better in the UK, it was the start of the Beach Boys era of faltering popularity.
Wild Honey was immediately recorded and released in an attempt to salvage their standing. The album was an excursion into soul music, and mainly featured Brian at the piano singing with very little group singing. This was unusual at the time and had a non-conforming approach.
Friends (June 24, 1968)
After Mike Love met Maharishi Mahesh and traveled to Rishikesh, India, the album Friends was made with songs influenced by the Transcendental Meditation the Maharishi taught. Love arranged a tour with the Maharishi in the U.S. that lasted five shows and was canceled due to the Maharishi withdrawing. Friends peaked at number 126 in the U.S.
20/20 (February 10, 1969)
The Beach Boys experienced their lowest point in popularity in the late 60s with Brian’s song output diminishing and the presence of negative public image issues involving Charles Manson. Dennis befriended Manson, an aspiring singer-songwriter, and even proposed he be signed to Brothers Records. The deal was never made, however, the Beach Boys recorded one song by Manson without his involvement. “Cease to Exist” was rewritten as “Never Learn to Love” and released as a single for the album 20/20.
While Manson was enthused to have the group record a song by him, he had accrued a large monetary debt to the group. Because of this, Dennis omitted his credit on the release, and Charles Manson’s cult followers took over Dennis’ home in an angered response. Dennis distanced himself from Manson, however, when Manson was suspected and later charged of the Tate-LeBianca murders; his connection to the Beach Boys received media attention, shedding negative light on the band for some time.
Sunflower (August 31, 1970)
By the time their contract with Capitol Records ended in 1969, the Beach Boys had sold 65 million records worldwide, making them the most commercially successful American group in popular music. The group signed with Reprise records in 1970, and this contract stipulated that Brian be involved on all albums and to revive the Beach Boys’ Brother Records imprint. Sunflower featured writing contributions from all members, and received critical acclaim in both the U.S. and the U.K. It did not do well on the charts, however.
Surf’s Up (August 30, 1971)
At the encouragement of their new manager Jack Reiley, the band completed “Surf’s Up”, a track that had gone unfinished from the unreleased album Smile. Reiley also suggested recording songs featuring more socially conscious content, and the group stopped wearing matching uniforms. In August of 1971, the Beach Boys began gaining back their fame with a televised concert for ABC-TV in Central Park, aired as Good Vibrations in Central Park. Later that month, they also released the album Surf’s Up, which included the title track. It was moderately successful, reaching the U.S. top 30.
Carl and the Passions – “So Tough” (May 15, 1972)
Bruce Johnston had left the band after Surf’s Up release, and, at Carl’s suggestion, Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin filled in for Bruce and Dennis. Dennis had injured his hand and could not drum, so Fataar took over on drums and Chaplin took over on guitar. The duo also sang and contributed in songwriting, restructuring the band’s sound. Carl and the Passions – “So Tough” featured two songs by Chaplin and Fataar. The album met moderate commercial success.
Holland (January 8, 1973)
In the summer of 1972, the entire band and their families moved to the Netherlands to work on their next project. “Sail On, Sailor” was a single that featured a soulful vocal led by Chaplin. The resulting album, Holland, peaked at number 37. Chaplin and Fataar left the band shortly after the album’s release, in 1973 and 1974 respectively.
15 Big Ones (July 5, 1976)
Throughout 1974-75, Brian exhibited destructive behaviors of abusing drugs, alcohol, and food. He attempted to branch out for other musical endeavors, but was urged to continue working with the Beach Boys. In October of 1975, Brian’s wife persuaded him to admit himself into the care of psychotherapist Eugene Landy.
In January of 1976, the Beach Boys returned to the studio to record an album of doo wop and rock standards along with a few originals. 15 Big Ones was met with mixed reviews, but contained a few singles that would ultimately become the band’s only top ten hits of the 1970’s.
The Beach Boys Love You (April 11, 1977)
A collection of songs mostly written, arranged and produced by Brian Wilson alone, The Beach Boys Love You was one of his favorite releases. It contrasts albums before and after it because it was genuinely Brian’s project with little outside interference. Fans and critics were divided over this album, some considering it a work of genius, while others found it childish.
M.I.U. Album (October 2, 1978)
Band tensions reached an all time high at the end of 1977 and the band started to fall apart. Carl and Dennis believed in a progressive direction while Love and Jardine wanted to focus on rock material. Withdrawing from the group, Dennis started a solo album. Largely a contractual obligation, M.I.U. Album was their last album with Reprise. The title stems from Maharishi International University, where the album was recorded at Love’s suggestion. It held few contributions from Carl and Dennis. The album was not received well initially, but some tracks reappearing on archival releases later were met with success.
L.A. (Light Album) (March 19, 1979)
After departing from Reprise in 1980, the Beach Boys signed with CBS Records and continued enjoying moderate success under Johnston as producer. Brian was unable to contribute due to issues in his personal and financial life caused by mental illness and addiction. This was Johnston’s first time back in the band since his departure in 1972. The album did not fare well, however “Good Timin” became a top 40 single.
Keepin’ the Summer Alive (March 24, 1980)
Released on Brother, Caribou, and CBS Records Keepin’ the Summer Alive was Johnston’s second album production since rejoining the group. It included new materials and old songs that had not been released. Although he was absent for most of the album, it is the last recorded with Dennis Wilson. He died of an accidental drowning in the Marina del Ray in 1983.
The Beach Boys (June 10, 1985)
The band’s first digitally recorded album, The Beach Boys features appearances from iconic musicians Steve Wonder, Ringo Starr, and Gary Moore. The band hired Culture Club producer Steve Levin, who introduced drum machines, synthesizers, sampling, and hi-tech recording technology to the group. The album was considered entertaining and met moderate success.
Still Cruisin’ (August 28, 1989)
In 1988, The Beach Boys unexpectedly claimed a number one single with the release of “Kokomo” for the first time in twenty-two years. The song appeared in the film Cocktail and became the band’s largest selling single of all time. The album Still Cruisin’ was a haphazard attempt at compiling recent and classic songs that had been featured in films. Due to “Kokomo” and other big hits featured on the album, it went platinum in the U.S.
Summer in Paradise (August 3, 1992)
The only album to not feature any new contributions from Brian Wilson, Summer in Paradise has been described as the bands lowest point commercially. It failed to chart, and it along with Still Crusin’ are out of print.
Stars and Stripes Vol. 1 (August 19, 1996)
The mid-90’s brought lawsuits involving song accrediting disputes between Love and Brian, Brain’s rights to his songs from the 60’s, defamation clarimed by Love against Brian, and a restraining order against Dr. Landy. After these trials were resolved, Brain contacted Andy Paley of Sire Records to collaborate on new material for the Beach Boys. The project never took off, however the band did come together to record Stars and Stripes Vol. 1, an album of Beach Boys songs sung by country music stars.
In 1997, Carl was diagnosed with lung and brain cancer. He continued to perform with the band until his death in 1998 at 51 years old.
That’s Why God Made the Radio (June 5, 2012)
Following Carl’s death, the band split into separate groups. They continued to have their ups and downs, coming together in 2006 for the 40th anniversary of Pet Sounds, and again in 2012 to reunite for a new album and a 50th anniversary tour. That album, That’s Why God Made the Radio, debuted at number three on U.S. charts.
Legacy and influence of The Beach Boys
The musical legacy that the Beach Boys created influenced various movements and genres of recent decades, including psychedelia, power pop, progressive rock, punk, alternative, and lo-fi. During the 1960’s, the group’s California sound turned the subculture of surfing into a mainstream advertising image that would be seen in television and film. Their music from the surf band era established a musical identity for Southern California and shifted the center of popular music from New York to California.
During the 1970s, music of the Beach Boys was frequently used in advertising jingles and imagery. They also inspired the development of “yacht rock”, a sailor and beach-goer aesthetic in pop culture at the time. Many punk artists showed influence from the Beach Boys with cover versions by punk bands such as Slickee Boys, Agent Orange, Bad Religion, the Descendents, and the Vandals. The Beach Boys influence on the punk genre would later give way to indie rock.
With over 100 million records sold worldwide, the Beach Boys’ impact continues to be seen with each passing generation. The band routinely appears in the upper reaches of ranked lists, and many of their songs and albums appear on lists devoted to greatest albums or singles of all time. In 1988 the core quintet consisting of the Wilson brothers, Jardine, and Love were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Awards and Notable nominations.
- Billboard/Nielsen Soundscan’s – top-selling American band for albums and singles
- American group with most Billboard Top 40 chart hits at 36
- The Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award
- Acclaimed music – number 11 of 1000 recommended artists of all time
- Rolling Stone – number 12 of 100 greatest artists of all time
- Beach Boys Historic Landmark at the location of the Wilson house
- Star on Hollywood Walk of Fame
- Vocal Group Hall of Fame
- Best Historical Album for The Smile Sessions boxed set
- Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – 5 founding members
- The Beatles
- The Rolling Stones
- The Surfaris
- The Rivieras
- The Chantays