The Perfect Album

There’s a lot of buzz in the music industry about this summer’s Beach Boys reunion tour featuring all the surviving members, most notably, Brian Wilson. The word genius gets tossed around quite a bit in rock’n’roll circles, but in Brian’s case it’s well earned. Even though the band started out by borrowing Four Freshman vocal arrangements and Chuck Berry guitar riffs, it didn’t take long for Brian to stand out as a songwriter and producer. In the beginning, they capitalized on the California dream of sunshine, surfing and hot rods, but you could already see that Wilson was moving past the fads with songs like In my room and When I grow up to be a man.

When the Beatles came along, everything changed. Most of the band members wanted to stick with the formula, but Brian was ready to match anything that Lennon and McCartney created. The result was the album Pet Sounds, released in 1966. The closest thing to surf music was a rearrangement of the folk song, Sloop John B. The rest of the album was a musical photograph of the inside of Brian’s mind. From the haunting  Dont talk (put your head on my shoulder) to the remorse of I just wasn’t made for these times, Brian gave us glimpses of the inner conflicts that would eventually cripple him.

In my opinion, it is the closest thing to a perfect pop music album ever recorded. To this day I can’t listen to it without marveling at the depth and fullness of those songs, produced by a guy who was deaf in one ear. It still makes me smile.

And Smile was Brian’s downfall. Brian was already eons past Pet Sounds and ready to challenge Sgt. Pepper as the defining album of the sixties. The unreleased album (until 2004) has become the stuff of legend, even inspiring the movie Eddie and the Cruisers.

I have been fortunate enough to see the band three times. The first time was 1965 at the Memorial Auditorium in Sacramento. (Sac was the Boys’ favorite audience. The year before they recorded their first live album there.) It was the only time I got to see Brian, who quit touring with the band because of his hearing problems.

The second time was by far the best. In 1971, I was visiting friends in Forest Hills, New York, and found out the band was playing at Carnegie Hall. I took the double-A train downtown and bought a ticket from a scalper. The band was out promoting their new album Surf’s Up, and Brian had been replaced by Blondie Chaplin. (Blondie once appeared at the Nevada Theatre with rock legends Paul Butterfield and Rick Danko of The Band, but that’s another story.) It was a wonderful performance, and the band played mostly new material. But it was telling that even at the prestigious Carnegie, the stuff that got the biggest applause were the old surfing standards.

When I saw them again in 1974, they had totally reverted to the old Beach Boys, right down to the matching striped shirts. I like the old songs, but it was sad to see them become a nostalgia act.

Since then, Brian has made a comeback from years of drug use and mental illness. After all his highly publicized problems, it’s amazing that he is only surviving Wilson brother. (Dennis drowned and Carl died of lung cancer.) I doubt that I’ll make it to see them this time around, but it’s nice to know they are still out there making music. It’s the great thing about America, there are always second acts, and sometimes a third or fourth, if you can live long enough.

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9 Responses to The Perfect Album

  1. Judith Lowry says:

    Thanks Bob,

    I saw them once in 1962 at the Fox in SF, at a Dick Stewart Rock and Roll Revue.
    They were still in matching shirts.
    My friend and I got to go back stage and mingle with the stars, Tony Dow, Jackie Wilson, Joey Bishop, Annette Funicello and bunch of other entertainers.
    We chatted briefly with everyone so we could brag to our eighth grade friends, and I remember thinking how the Beach Boys were just kids like us, and what polite boys they were.

    You sure know how to bring back the memories Mr. Crabb.

  2. Ryan Mount says:

    Pet Sounds and Smile (both the unreleased and the 2004 Brian Wilson versions) are probably 2 of the greatest albums in popular music. In particular, Smile is such a huge achievement even it’s diluted 2004 take with the Wondermints. I’m almost inclined to think Brian Wilson is channeling George Gershwin, that is if I believed in such hocus-pocus stuff.

    I remember hearing Rhapsody in Blue when I was a wee lad and being completely overcome with it. Then I heard Pet Sounds a year or so later and thought we might have reached a popular music pinnacle. A few years ago I heard Smile for the first time, and my perspective of popular music and its craft have never been the same. To say I was “blown away” by Smile is an understatement. Surf’s Up (the song from Smile) might be the single most important song in popular music since the 1950s.

  3. San French says:

    Bob~ Couldn’t leave without throwing in my B.Boys story. I spent my Jr. HS years in the San Fernando Valley, and in the summer of ’62 (?) my friend Karl and I were out riding our bikes and made a stop at the Hughes Market shopping center very near our homes. Over in the corner of the parking lot, they were setting up what looked to be a stage on the back of a flat bed semi-trailer. We made inquires of the set-up crew and were informed that the Beach Boys were due to arrive shortly.
    They rolled up in twin blue Impala’s and were dressed in matching white peggars with blue plaid Pendeltons and Converse tennies. They played~LIVE!~ for about 20 mins. After they played, they flung a stack of their newest single (?) 45 into the audience, signed autographs and sped off to the next shopping center.
    If I only knew then what I barely know now! A memory I will never forget…and thanks for yours, my friend.

  4. Don Baumgart says:

    It was the Eagles auditorium in Seattle during the sixties and Mike Love was so stoned he once stopped a song, turned to the band behind him and asked if they remembered the words. They shook their heads. Later in the concert he wonderfully redeemed himself. After they played a lot of their newer stuff he said, “People say we just aren’t relevant any more. To those people I say, the exits are there, there, and there!” Immediately they thundered into Little Deuce Coupe. The crowd went crazy.

  5. Greg Goodknight says:

    I’ll be the turd in the punchbowl… never did care enough for the Beach Boys to buy an album, the incessant airplay at the time was enough for me. Part of this was age… ’62 had me in elementary school.

    Tight cords, great intonation. No complaints about musicianship, they were among the best.

  6. F. Jimez says:

    I thought SHUTDOWN VOL II. was the perfect album?

  7. RL Crabb says:

    Rolling Stone rates Pet Sounds at No. 2 (right behind Sgt. Pepper.) You can check out their top 500 here…

  8. Paul Cogley says:

    Summer of ’62 at YMCA Day at Hollywood Bowl: they walked slowly across the stage holding a long board like on their album cover, lip sinc’ing Surfin Safari. Girls all around spontaneously started screaming. Probably no one in the audience was over 13 years old.

    Next time I saw them was a summer day in ’89 at Great America in Santa Clara. Carl played on that tour and sang lead on a long set of songs from Pet Sounds. Wonderful.

    Beach Boys = Summer. Always been that way.

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