After "Surfin" made its unceremonious debut on the Candix and X labels in late 1961, then hit the lower end of the national charts in February 1962 on Candix, the five young men who sang the song might have easily fallen off the edge of the California coast, never to be heard from again. Though a version from a rehearsal of the song was released years later, it's more or less a curiosity for loyal fans to enjoy; the original production is thin, though appealingly so, as to sound like a demo disc on its own. The group was credited at first as simply Beach Boys, not the Beach Boys so much as any random crew of oceanfront idlers. Had that been the beginning and end of this seemingly faddish quintet, the world would have missed witnessing a fascinating arc of development in musicianship, vocal harmonies, songwriting skills and, in the case of group leader Brian Wilson, an uncanny knack for production and experimentation. Brian, at least for a time, overcame limitations like few in music history, making some truly excellent and compelling music that spoke to a specific fan base while reaching a much larger audience. To think it all started with 'Surfin is the only life, the only way for me, now me...'

Rather, on the basis of this single that was popular in Los Angeles at least, Hollywood's major label, Capitol, cut off the competition several months later and locked up the boys with a contract granting liberal creative freedom. "Surfin' Safari," a glossier counterpart to "Surfin," quickly hit the airwaves, enlightening most of the other 49 states with its appealing imagery of summer excursions on California beaches. Surf-centric instrumentals, thanks to Dick Dale and a few other tidal trailblazers, had made inroads by this time, while the blueprint for vocal surf music developed purely around the Beach Boys' concept, which contained elements of Four Freshmen-inspired harmonies and a brighter, happier guitar sound than most of the nonvocal surf-and-sand recordings of the day. This model held for perhaps a year or two, then began evolving rapidly as Wilson became restless to try different things, urged on by the inspiration of, or self-imposed competition with, his idol Phil Spector and British-based labelmates The Beatles. He and his partners in the waxboardian lifestyle proved to be up to the challenge and then some; the narrow potential of this act seemingly built strictly on sun, surf and hot rods transformed itself with an ever-changing, long-running body of work.

Murry Wilson didn't really expect to struggle in the music business the way he had for more than a decade, but it came down to the realization that his dreams would only be accomplished vicariously through his sons, his nephew and their friends. His short list of achievements in the music business prior to 1961 fell under the heading of songwriter; he peaked with the non-hit country tune "Two Step - Side Step," recorded in 1954 by Bonnie Lou in addition to a few other lesser-known artists. In the late 1950s his three teenage sons formed their own band, going through a few different names for the group including Kenny and the Cadets, Carl and the Passions and The Pendletones. Once he recognized they might actually have talent, Murry exerted his parental precedence and took control; as a father, and as a manager, he was strict and demanding, but he was not, at least in the early stages, without value to the group.

From the beginning, Brian Wilson was the band's creative center and driving force. He played keyboards and bass, though his main passion was writing music and creating the finished product, often doing so separate from the others. As a fan of Johnny Otis's radio show on KFOX, he incorporated rhythm and blues as one element of what would make his music unique. David Marks lived on the same block as the Wilson brothers in L.A.'s suburb of Hawthorne and often practiced guitar with Carl Wilson, though David wasn't involved in the group's recording debut. Carl's lead guitar style was based initially on the much-imitated workings of Chuck Berry, which he quickly altered to fit his own abilites, in the process creating a signature Beach Boys sound.

Cousin Mike Love made his own important contribution to the group's sound as eventual lead singer on the majority of their hit singles. Al Jardine, another close friend, joined the others, who frequently practiced in the Wilson brothers' bedroom. He had replaced Marks as rhythm guitarist by the time "Surfin" was recorded in October 1961 at a small L.A.-area recording studio. The other brother, Dennis Wilson, was the "surfer-dude" of the bunch and as drummer contributed the least to the band's creative process. Right around Christmas, with the surf instrumentals "Let's Go Trippin'" by Dick Dale and his Del-Tones and "Surfer's Stomp" by The Mar-Kets already established hits in L.A., radio stations KFWB and KRLA began playing "Surfin," celebrating Southern Cal's coastal pastime in a way previously unheard: with lyrics.

It was a big thrill for the Beach Boys, particularly R&B fan Brian. Wet behind their ears, sand still between their toes, the group made its first concert appearance opening for Ike and Tina Turner at the Long Beach Civic Auditorium on New Year's Eve. "Surfin" broke into the local top ten a couple of weeks later, then appeared on the national charts for a short time a month after that, just as Jardine decided to leave the group. Marks, the logical choice, took his place in the lineup. Dad Murry knew the boys had considerable potential (to make lots of money but not necessarily great music) and began approaching the major labels; after some effort, Nick Venet of Capitol Records showed interest and, in July 1962, signed the band to a contract.

"Surfin' Safari," written by Brian and Mike, illustrated what that first X/Candix single would have sounded like had it been recorded in more professional surroundings. Such a close rehash of the formula gambled with any sort of major label longevity, but it paid off; the song hit number one in Los Angeles at the end of August and was popular in many other areas, peaking just shy of the national top ten two months later. Brian had begun working with other writers including Gary Usher, a local musician whose uncle happened to live in the Wilson family's neighborhood. The two came up with "409," praising Chevy's popular muscle car, and it received its own fair share of airplay as the B side of "Surfin' Safari" (shortly afterwards, Usher produced a record for the Dot label by The Pendeltons, a variation on the Beach Boys' discarded early name).

The next single veered into non-surf subject matter. "Ten Little Indians," a lightweight ditty based on the well-known nursery rhyme, sold below expectations. Returning to the surf/car coupling that had worked well, the band released "Surfin' U.S.A.," which used the melody of Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" (but without initial writer credit to Berry...until Chuck clucked loudly, demanding and receiving his share of royalties). It returned them to the top of L.A. radio playlists in April '63 and went top ten on the Billboard and Cash Box charts, indicating there was at least some truth to the suggestion that 'Everybody's gone surfin'!' Another hot car song, "Shut Down," a creation of Brian and local deejay Roger Christian, was a flip side hit in its own right.

Al Jardine returned to the band, making them a sextet for several months until Marks left for good (though he would occasionally make contributions). Brian, taking advantage of opportunities to work with others, composed "Surf City" with Jan Berry (of Jan and Dean, for whom the Beach Boys had opened in concert); when J&D's version hit number one, Murry was furious with Brian for "giving away" a hit, but at that point it didn't really matter. The Beach Boys were just getting started. Another two-sided smash, ballad "Surfer Girl" (third L.A. number one, second national top ten) and hot rod rocker "Little Deuce Coupe," furthered the band's popularity in the summer of '63. With autumn came "Be True to Your School" ('...let your colors fly!'), an anthem for teens complete with cheerleader calls by The Honeys (a girl group Brian had discovered and produced as a side project at Capitol). Like those before it, the record hit number one in L.A. and top ten everywhere else. Wilson-Usher teen ballad "In My Room," on the flip, was also a hit. "Little Saint Nick" sold strongly during the holiday season, the eighth hit for the group during the 1963 calendar year.

Surf music, of the instrumental and vocal variety, peaked in 1963. Brian had sought creative control from the beginning, so Murry pressured the Capitol brass, who surprisingly granted it. As rare as such a situation was, it was a good move for the label and essential to the growth of the band. Had they kept going strictly as a surf-and-drag act, sustained success would have been difficult, even considering their status at the top of the surf music stack. The creative freedom allowed Brian to build upon the sunny California lifestyle their early hits indulged, while expanding at his own pace, which turned out be a rapid one. In Brian's eyes, Phil Spector had created the standard others imitated, and so he, as others, closely studied the master's techniques. When additional musicians were needed in the studio, he used "The Wrecking Crew," a crack group of L.A. musicians key to the success of thousands of the era's recordings, including Phil's "Wall of Sound" sessions (guitarists Al Casey, Barney Kessel and Billy Strange, saxophonists Plas Johnson and Nino Tempo, and drummer Hal Blaine were among the unsung heroes in question). But in early 1964, Brian Wilson's attitude underwent a slight shift, as a new gold standard presented itself.

When The Beatles suddenly appeared, with Capitol Records holding first dibs on U.S. distribution, the label put its top priority on the British phenomenon. The Beach Boys weren't happy about being relegated to runner-up status; Brian doubled his efforts to survive this formidable in-house competition of a sort. Actually, he considered just about everyone as his competition, especially Spector, the onslaught of British artists, the many Motown acts that had begun to account for a large percentage of the top hits, the Brill Building stable of hitmaking songwriters, and so on. Maybe he was overestimating his own talent...but then, as music pundits later found out, maybe not.

"Fun, Fun, Fun," which lived up to its name (as you'd expect from a guitar-driven pulse-pounder about a wild 'n' crazy girl in a T-Bird), went top ten in March, its impact lessened a bit under the crush of early Fab Four smashes like "She Loves You," "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "Please Please Me" and "Twist and Shout." The next 45 fared better: "I Get Around," a cruisin' tune perfectly in sync with American teens, became the band's first national chart-topper. The flip side pattern continued, with Wilson and Christian's impassioned "Don't Worry Baby" a hit as well. The remainder of 1964 went much as '63 had, with great records like "When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)" and "Dance, Dance, Dance." In December their seventh album, The Beach Boys in Concert, a live recording, surprisingly ascended to the previously elusive number one LP spot.

The group's members had gradually mastered the harmony style the Four Freshmen paved the path with back in the '50s; the sound set them apart from all other popular music acts of the 1960s. In 1965, Brian decided to step down from performing and concentrate on songwriting and producing. The others were left to tour without him. Glen Campbell, who'd played guitar at some of the group's studio sessions, toured with the band but left after a short time to concentrate on his own developing singing career. Bruce Johnston had started in the music business at Del-Fi Records, where he worked with Ron Holden (composing "Gee, But I'm Lonesome" among other memorable Holden recordings). In 1963, while the Beach Boys were breaking big, he and Doris Day's son Terry Melcher formed a surf band called The Hot Doggers, produced and sang with The Rip Chords, then had two minor 1964 hits as Bruce and Terry ("Custom Machine" and "Summer Means Fun"). They also produced "Beach Girl," Pat Boone's entry into the surf genre, and sang behind Wayne Newton on his too-cool "Comin' on Too Strong." In mid-'65, shortly after all this bustle took place, Johnston signed on as a permanent Beach Boy.

Around this time the Beach Boys decided they'd had enough of Murry Wilson's heavy-handed management style and fired him. Murry went straight out and found The Sunrays, molding them into a Beach Boys soundalike act, resulting in two notable hit singles on Capitol's Tower subsidiary, "I Live for the Sun" and "Andrea." He later recorded a pop instrumental album with studio musicians, 1967's The Many Moods of Murry Wilson, featuring his own compositions along with "The Warmth of the Sun" (an earlier Beach Boys song written by Brian and Mike) and "Italia" (an infectious lounge tune from the pen of Al Jardine).

Despite all these changes, the band had another stellar year, with "Do You Wanna Dance?" (a remake of the 1958 hit written and recorded by Bobby Freeman), "Help Me, Rhonda," with Jardine singing lead (another chart-topper) and "California Girls," one of the most memorable summertime/beach-related hits of the '60s. "The Little Girl I Once Knew," with its unusual stops and starts, was an intriguing Brian Wilson song hinting at the rhythmic complexity yet to come. Not all songs, of course, were written by Wilson and his collaborators; the Beach Boys often paid tribute to the artists of their childhood with unique renditions of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers' "Why Do Fools Fall in Love," The Crystals' Spector classic "There's No Other (Like My Baby)," and others. When "Barbara Ann" (the 1961 hit by The Regents recorded as an outtake) appeared as a single on Capitol early in 1966, Brian was taken aback, as he hadn't authorized the release. To everyone's surprise it became one of the group's biggest hits.

The Beatles' Rubber Soul came out in late 1965, immediately affecting the way Brian approached his music-making. Awestruck at the progress the Beatles had made in such a short time, he challenged himself to create a complete album that could compare to it. The result was Pet Sounds, which featured some of Brian's best work: "Sloop John B" (a folk song from the West Indies dating to the 1920s, it had been popular in 1960 as "The Wreck of the 'John B'" by Jimmie Rodgers), "Caroline, No," which came out as a Brian Wilson solo single, and a double-sided hit 45 cowritten by Brian and Tony Asher often cited as the Beach Boys' best: "Wouldn't it Be Nice" and "God Only Knows." The Beatles, in turn, loved the album and, according to Paul McCartney, it was partly responsible for inspiring them to greater heights, achieved the following year with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, a blockbuster that, by the standards of many music fans, was and still is unbeatable.

Brian, often working alone during his creative process, continued to challenge himself; in 1966 he gave it his all with a song he called a "pocket symphony." The idea for "Good Vibrations" came from a comment his mother had made: "People give off vibrations." He liked the "good vibes" concept and those words became a common phrase in the peace-and-love hippie movement of the late '60s. Over the course of several months and at a cost exceeding 50 thousand dollars, his complex three-and-a-half minute creation was recorded in short segments with layered vocals and an attention-grabbing theremin (made famous in the '50s as an instrument ideal for scoring sci-fi and/or horror films). Fortunately, the finished master captured the public's imagination as he'd planned and in November the Beach Boys had their third nationwide number one hit.

The ambitious Smile album ended up as an infamously shelved project. Never completed, in part due to Brian's ongoing struggles with his mental health, its various pieces were finally released in a collection decades later. Tracks were doled out to the public here and there for several years; "Heroes and Villains," a summer '67 hit on the Wilsons' own Brother label (distributed as a one-shot by Capitol), perhaps the best-known. As for Brian, he experienced a number of breakdowns through the years and, as his focus on music blurred, so went the Beach Boys...the group's popularity waned near the end of the decade. This is not to say there weren't some high points; "Darlin'," "Friends" and "Do it Again" (the latter revisiting their beachfront beginnings) were outstanding late-decade examples.

In the spring of 1969, "I Can Hear Music" (written by Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich, it had first been recorded by The Ronettes in '66) was the last Beach Boys single to reach the top 40 for a period of several years. Capitol let their contract lapse soon afterwards and in 1970 they signed with Reprise Records, reviving the Brother label and continuing more or less as before, though group members gradually went their separate ways, leaving Carl Wilson to lead the Beach Boys through a steep commercial downturn during the first half of the decade. The disagreements and difficulties with their father years earlier came to a head when he sold the rights to the group's original songs, without Brian's or anyone's knowledge, for a relatively small amount. In 1973, Murry Wilson, just 55 at the time, died from a heart attack. His relationship with his sons had deteriorated to the point that Brian and Dennis refused to attend his funeral.

By 1975 Brian had returned to the band. Sticking around for the next few years, he was involved in the group's summer '76 return to the top ten with an oddball remake of Chuck Berry's "Rock and Roll Music." Troubled brother Dennis Wilson's death by drowning in 1983 came as a blow to everyone, but the group kept going, loyal fans stayed with them, and Brian Wilson continued his on-again, off-again contributions while dealing with his own personal problems. In 1988, the group (without Brian) climbed all the way to the top of the charts one last time with the catchy "Kokomo" from the hit movie Cocktail starring Tom Cruise. Record sales pretty much stopped cold after that, except for a number of well-received reissue albums. But the story is ongoing; there are details enough to fill several books covering The Beach Boys in the decades since that time, with material for new chapters taking place right this minute.

- Michael Jack Kirby



Surfin' Safari Fun, Fun, Fun I Get Around When I Grow Up (To Be a Man) Four by the Beach Boys Do You Wanna Dance? Help Me, Rhonda California Girls Let Him Run Wild The Little Girl I Once Knew Barbara Ann Girl Don't Tell Me Sloop John B Good Vibrations Heroes and Villains Darlin'