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Music

The Beach Boys

They get around

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

How do you get people to engage you in a decade-plus-long musical argument that they will pursue with the kind of dogged determination usually reserved for solving cold cases or making it to the end of Infinite Jest? Simply posit that you believe the Beach Boys to be the best American band of all time.

For some reason, either because no one wants to believe the Beach Boys could be worthy of such an honor (sacrilege!) or because they don’t like truth and facts and things that are factually true (likely), people will put forth an inordinate amount of time and effort to try and prove me wrong. This is typically an exercise in futility, mind you, but since it allows me to evangelize on behalf of the Beach Boys, I have no problem entertaining whatever arguments/alternate theories/outlandish claims others might make.

Mind you, this is no half-baked, barstool musical theory. In fact, making a persuasive argument on behalf of the Beach Boys is a truth attack that can be waged on several different fronts.

We can run the numbers. More than 100 million—that’s a conservative approximation of the albums the Beach Boys have sold worldwide, although, depending on who you ask, that estimate is shy about 250 million albums or so. Thirty-six of their songs have charted in the Top 40 (the most by an American band), with four of them hitting number one. They’ve been members of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for nearly a quarter of a century, Rolling Stone slotted them in at number 12 on their list of the greatest artists of all time, while their album Pet Sounds sits at number two on their list of 500 best albums (the minds at Time, Spin, NME, Mojo, and more all feel similarly).

The Beach Boys changed music as we know it. And they did it a couple of times. The first time they did it was with songs about surfing and a lifestyle and aesthetic to match. I’m not saying they invented surf music—it certainly existed before the brothers Wilson (Brian, Dennis, and Carl) teamed up with Mike Love and Al Jardine to harmonize about surfin’ safaris, surfer girls, little deuce coupes and all the other sun-soaked accoutrements of the Southern California lifestyle—but the Beach Boys were the ones responsible for bringing it to the masses in a major way. And they did it with their then-innovative but now-trademark intricate vocal harmonies, Brian Wilson’s inventive production and an infectious sound that helped them find continued success during the British Invasion that would be the death knell for so many other American bands.

Which brings us to the Beatles, and perhaps my strongest argument for the Beach Boys as America’s best band. When Pet Sounds was released in 1966, it was the second time the Beach Boys permanently altered the musical landscape—except this time the effects would be much more far-reaching and profound. With its astonishingly layered production and vocals, cohesive and forward-thinking vision, unconventionally psychedelic sound, novel and never-before-seen recording techniques and utter fearlessness (a lot of drugs were involved. It was the ’60s), Pet Sounds was no less than groundbreaking—and the Fab Four couldn’t help but take notice. Or, to put a finer point on it, they couldn’t help but feel they’d been put on notice.

What followed, in 1967, was the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a musical event considered by anyone who considers such things to be a pretty momentous event in the history of popular music. After all, it is only widely regarded as being the best album of all time by many critics and experts. In fact, it is the album that bested Pet Sounds on that Rolling Stone list I mentioned earlier. And Paul McCartney has freely admitted the impetus to create Sgt. Pepper’s came from the Beatles’ desire to make an album as good as Pet Sounds, and that he played the Beach Boys’ record on repeat in the studio as the Beatles were recording. If you don’t find that to be irrefutable proof that the Beach Boys are America’s best band, well, you are not a person whose opinions are subject to reason and there’s really nothing to be done about that.

But the story of the Beach Boys isn’t all awards, accolades and friendly creative rivalries with the Beatles. Indeed, much of their history has been marred by sadness and tragedy, much of it of their own making. They’ve endured the deaths of two of the Wilson brothers (Dennis and Carl), and the very public drug-induced mental breakdown of Brian Wilson, for all intents and purposes, the creative genius behind the band. They’ve also dealt with considerable acrimony between the members, which, in the past, has devolved into lawsuits among the surviving original members. However, they seemed to have put much of that behind them, and surviving members Mike Love, Al Jardine, and Brian Wilson took the stage together for the first time ever for a run of 70-plus shows in 2012.

When they play Aug. 31 at the Silver Reef Casino’s Event Center, Jardine and Wilson won’t appear, but Mike Love and Bruce Johnston (who has been performing live with the band since 1965) will be front and center, singing all the classic Beach Boys hits in perfect harmony, just like they have been for half a century now. It’s no less than what you’d expect from the best American band of all time.

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