There aren’t many bands who encapsulate American pop music’s golden age more succinctly than the sprawling talent of The Beach Boys. Comprised as a family band, centred around the Wilson brothers Carl, Dennis and Brian with additional help from their cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine, The Beach Boys became America’s answer to The Beatles very soon after the British invasion had posed the question. For a while, there was no band who better told America’s post-war story than the Californians.
Through their songs, The Beach Boys made good on their name and sung about the sunshine, sand and salutations of West Coast living. It meant that surfing and chasing girls in hot rods were at the top of the agenda, and The Beach Boys found their spot at the top of the pop pile thanks to their unique sound and Brian Wilson’s unstoppable talent for songwriting. Of course, it wasn’t the full story, and The Beach Boys had far more to offer than simple surf songs and a harmony that struggled to be beaten. Below, we’re bringing you ten of our favourite songs from the band as a reminder of their immense talent.
In 1961, as The Beatles reminded only the most distant murmurs, Brian Wilson finished penning his song ‘Surfin” and gathered himself a band. Recruiting his brothers Dennis and Carl, as well as his cousin Mike and friend Al, he assembled his group around the piano and began orchestrating what would become The Beach Boys’ very first song. Brian was only 19 at the time but already showing the kind of promising songwriting style that would see, and the band, flourish throughout the sixties.
Through a series of pop smashes and the kind of exposure only afforded to the best provided The Beach Boys with a pop platform to succeed, Brian Wilson was driven by creativity over commerciality, and he used the decade to stretch his muscles. As the years went by, the desire for the band to outstrip their surfer boy image became all the more prevalent. Through their music, we saw a band not only grow but mature and become one of the most important voices of 20th-century pop.
Below, we’re taking a closer look at our ten favourite songs from the band and how they helped shape a legacy like no other.
The Beach Boys 10 best songs:
10. ‘I Get Around’
It’s hard to ignore one fact about The Beach Boys, whether you think they’re a little too ‘obvious’, perhaps even flirting with the possibility of being ‘tacky’, the truth is that The Beach Boys are fun. What better song to show off that inherent joy than the wonderful ‘I Get Around’.
Taking the beach fun they had enjoyed with ‘Surfin’ Safari’ and ‘Surfin’ U.S.A.’ on to the open roads, Mike Love and Brian Wilson use some creative license to get the band motoring. By 1964, The Beach Boys had asserted themselves on the charts, and this song was another step toward worldwide fame — it allowed the West Coast to shine through without such unattainable beachside rhetoric.
The band wasn’t all about Mike Love and Brian Wilson, though, and by the time the group released 1971’s Sunflower, Dennis Wilson had progressed from being an adequate drummer to being one of the band’s chief-musical experimenters. The best vision of this innovation was on the wonderful ‘Forever’.
The ballad is joyfully appointed and stands up to the competitive element that ran throughout the group’s songwriting. It was clear Dennis had found his voice and, as one may have expected, it was a delicately poised one. ‘Forever’ is arguably the standout song on the album and ranks highlight as Dennis’ best.
8. ‘Til I Die’
1972’s Surf’s Up may not go down in history as one of The Beach Boys’ greatest albums of all time, but it did contain this absolute beauty. ‘Til I Die’ is one song that typifies the band. Not only is it a sweet ballad wrapped in the scintillating harmonies of the Wilson brothers, but the song was an open reflection of the troubles Brian was facing in his life as the world grew smaller.
Following a nervous breakdown, Wilson was being kept off the tour schedule and was having his life largely controlled by those around him. “I’m a cork on the ocean/Floating over the raging sea/How deep is the ocean?” sings the band, heartbreakingly showcasing the demise of the genius. But perhaps the saddest moment comes with Wilson’s acceptance of the situation, singing: “These things I’ll be until I die.”
7. ‘In My Room’
Part of what made The Beach Boys such a massive commercial entity in the early days was the band’s shining innocence. While The Beatles represented something a little bit dangerous, The Beach Boys were the all-American clean-cut outfit who would promptly have your lawn cut for payment of a cold glass of lemonade. It was songs like ‘In My Room’ that helped put them there.
However, scratch away at the surface, and the reality of this innocent song becomes very dark very quickly. Wilson and his brothers had suffered greatly at the hand of their abusive father, Murray. Brian has since gone on to refer to his father as “cruel”, and it’s clear that a younger Brian sought the refuge of his room. It turns this song into a completely different proposition.
6. ‘Heroes & Villains’
Trying to follow an album like Pet Sounds was always likely to pose a challenge but Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys responded the very next year with Smiley Smile and, within it, brought some of their best tunes too. ‘Heroes & Villains’ must be remembered as one of those great tracks.
Wilson and Van Dyke Parks settled down to write the song together as part of the record and brought a sense of worldly humour to the album. It’s a song that not only enjoys impressive lyrical displays and the kind of myriad of musical instruments one expects from the group, but with a sense of whimsy that is often missing from their other work. In truth, it soon turns into a sinister doo-wop bop that deserves revisiting.
5. ‘I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times’
Released as part of Pet Sounds in 1966, ‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’, arguably one of Wilson’s finest yet most overlooked songs. It’s a track that shattered the fourth wall and broke Wilson’s vision of himself to his awaiting audience.
The record is littered with deeply personal affections that seemed to make every song feel all the more genuine and wholesome. Quite often, the melancholic lyrics would blend seamlessly into the pulsating and captivating music which Wilson expertly coaxed from his over-worked session musicians. Heaven and hell arrived in a selection of different pop songs plucked from Wilson’s brain.
Wilson told Esquire that the song was “a social statement. I felt like I didn’t belong, that my ideas were ahead of the times. But it’s nice to know how much people love and respect what I did back then and I’m in a better place now than I was when I was younger.” It’s true that Wilson was far ahead of his time both musically and psychologically, the singer always had an old head on his shoulders.
4. ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’
In 1966 The Beach Boys released ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’, the now-iconic opening track from the band’s pioneering album Pet Sounds. The song would be a shining piece of the album’s jigsaw and act as a bright and beaming pop refrain.
Two months after the album’s release date, the Beach Boys released ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ as the lead single and, quite remarkably, chose ‘God Only Knows’ as the B-side. As a simply astounding double bill, the two tracks have both had their iconic vocals isolated. It allows a window into the song’s conception. While the song has been credited as being written by Brian Wilson, Tony Asher, and Mike Love, the band have since confessed that the band’s leader Wilson is predominantly responsible for its formation. “The innocence of the situation—being too young to get married—seemed to be immensely appealing to him,” Asher once said.
The somewhat intimate lyrics depict a young couple in love, resenting their age as a factor as to why they cannot go on the run to get married and, when discussing the words, Wilson described the song as “what children everywhere go through” before adding that “wouldn’t it be nice if we were older, or could run away and get married.”
3. ‘Don’t Worry Baby’
Few songs touch Brian Wilson in a more personal way than The Ronettes song ‘Be My Baby’. Written in part by the infamous producer Phil Spector, Wilson paid homage to the song with his own attempt at a ’60s girl group bop, providing the world with the similarly wonderful ‘Don’t Worry Baby’.
Lyrically, the song centres on the story of a drag car racer needing the support of his girl before he can hit the accelerator pedal. But, in truth, this matters very little to one’s enjoyment of the song. Instead, we are given a universal and attainable depiction of a man in need of reassurance.
Speaking with Goldmine in 2011 Wilson said of the song: “I wrote that with Roger Christian and it took me two days to write it. I started out with the verse idea and then wrote the chorus. It was a very simple and beautiful song. It’s a really heart and soul song, I really did feel that in my heart. Some say it’s about a car and others say it’s about a girl, who’s right? It’s both. It’s about a car and a woman.”
It’s about as perfect as pop music can get.
2. ‘Good Vibrations’
A number one hit is all well and good, but you only really know you have a timeless classic when it’s allowed to age—gracefully or otherwise. It’s fair to say that The Beach Boys’ ‘Good Vibrations’ is certainly in that category. Not only is it a cheery pop song but also a subversive piece of artistic prowess. Wilson created the song following his interest in what his mother once determined as “cosmic vibrations” and how dogs would bark at people with bad vibrations. It was enough to spark some of the most well-known lyrics of all time.
‘Good Vibrations’ is one of The Beach Boys’ most ubiquitous tracks. Going a long way to help popularise the phrase, Wilson’s pop masterpiece from the Smiley Smile LP, the song, took many learnings from Pet Sounds and saw Wilson try to enact his own version of the Wall of Sound. With help from Tony Asher, he got the lyrics moving too. “Brian was playing what amounts to the hook of the song: ‘Good, good, good, good vibrations.’ He started telling me the story about his mother,” Asher recalled. “He said he’d always thought that it would be fun to write a song about vibes and picking them up from other people. So as we started to work, he played this little rhythmic pattern—a riff on the piano, the thing that goes under the chorus.”
The track remains one of the most textured, cultured and delicately balanced pieces of pop music you will ever hear. As poignant and poetic as it is catchy and luscious. It is without doubt one of the finest piece of pop music ever composed and a mark of the sheer genius, Brian Wilson had in his mind and at his fingertips.
1. ‘God Only Knows’
Brian Wilson’s songwriting in the early days of The Beach Boys inevitably included cars, surfing, and always the pursuit of girls, California or otherwise. The combination of those lyrics with the band unique rhythm made for perfect pieces of great American candy-pop for us all to rot our teeth with. But it was on 1966’s Pet Sounds, Wilson’s masterpiece, that his ultimate love song appeared in the form of ‘God Only Knows’.
The song that Paul McCartney once called “the greatest song ever written” (often cited as the inspiration for his own ‘Here, There, and Everywhere’) would go on to find it’s home on the dancefloors of countless weddings, as it to this day remains Brian Wilson and Tony Asher’s masterpiece of emotion.
When a song is so culturally large as ‘God Only Knows’ is, one expects the song to have been crafted meticulously, and pawed over for hours, when, in truth, these things often happen in an instant. And so it is true for this track as the story goes as Wilson told The Guardian, “I wrote ‘God Only Knows’ in 45 minutes. Me and Tony Asher,” though it must be said, the execution of the song to record took a lot longer.
The track would be covered by many artists following its release as generations continue to find and discover the intricate beauty of Brian Wilson’s songwriting. While Brian would happily share the credit for this track with Asher and his brother, Carl, the song remains to this day as a beacon of his genius, the moment he cultivated his sound into the ultimate love song.
Wilson once described the track as “a vision … It’s like being blind, but in being blind, you can see more. You close your eyes; you’re able to see a place or something that’s happening.” The ideas he conveyed in ‘God Only Knows’, he said, “Summarised everything I was trying to express in a single song.” From Wilson, that’s high praise indeed.