Now I feel like I need to make a bold statement about songs that appear in the top twelve. This is the oldest song on the top 100 and only one of three songs released in the 1960s in my top 50 (along with “Sweet Jane” and “Israelites”). It is one of two songs by a band mentioned on Full House (along with R.E.M.) and the only song by a band who appeared on Full House (“April Girls” by Barry and the Rippers was a near miss).
When I was a kid, I thought the Beach Boys were stupid. Every single song from them sounded to me like a novelty, which is not unreasonable when you consider “California Girls.” Like a lot of young children of the early 90s, my brother had one of those tape recorder/players made to entertain kids and we used to find cheap and kid-friendly tapes to gift him to play on his little player. One of them was a compilation of surf songs that an aunt or someone probably found for $2 in the discount bin and it included “Surfin’ Safari,” which I thought and still sort of think is the stupidest song ever recorded. I’m again impressed with my ability as a child to sniff bullshit out in metaphors and themes. How is surfing at all like a safari? They just invented the concept because it sounded good. It was also on one of my brother’s tapes, possibly the same one, where I heard a song by the Beach Boys called “Surfin’” which--really cutting all frills on that one, are we Boys? I guess it was their first single and prominently features a Mike Love nod to Jan and Dean doing that surf-style scatting, which I couldn’t stand as a kid. It felt so geeky to me, just listening made me uncomfortable. I guess I understand it better now but still hate it because it sounds downright unpleasant. It’s been called the single that launched their career. *Launched their career?!* Really, America? You dug this?
Then, of course, came “Kokomo,” featured on the soundtrack album for the 1987 major motion picture COCKTAIL, which as I think I mentioned before was timed perfectly with the sexual awakening of my demographic, coinciding with Tom Cruise at his pre-Scientology peak. Suddenly the Beach Boys were relevant* and released another song that sounded dangerously like a novelty (in which the chorus just has them naming islands in the Caribbean). I didn’t immediately change my incredulity at old Beach Boys’ popularity given how stupid most of their songs were to me, but I surely softened. And did love “Kokomo.”
*The relevance of the Beach Boys in the late 1980s was immortalized in the “Beach Boy Bingo” episode of the second season of Full House, in which DJ is flummoxed to be excited to attend a concert the elder generation would also like to attend.
This tenderizing led the way to near-acceptance in my early 20s, only really due to their really strong influence on pop punk, which at the time was my bread and butter. Notable covers of Beach Boys songs by pop and pop-adjacent punk rock bands include “Wendy” by Descendents, “Don’t Back Down” and a ton of others by the Queers, as well as others by bands I’ve less been into but are still relevant to this discussion as Pennywise and Me First and the Gimmie Gimmies. There was of course the obvious influence on one of my very favorites of all time, the Ramones. I think a fair argument could be made that the Ramones was the next logical step from the Beach Boys in ways I’ll get into later. So like, if the Beach Boys are so influential to actually-good bands, there had to be more to them than surfy-surfy-beach-beach even if I couldn't see it.
Then came the release of Smile and the mid-2000s Pet Sounds renaissance. At last I finally had to ask what all the fuss was about, given that there was now officially hipster credibility attached with Pet Sounds/Brian Wilson songwriting enjoyment. I’d known “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” just from like, being alive. I also had some knowledge of “God Only Knows” but given my anti-Beach Boys prejudice, I mostly dismissed them as just being regular pop songs until I sat down and really gave Pet Sounds a chance. And whoa! I was incredibly and fairly quickly a Pet Sounds convert--it’s now probably a top-20 album for me.
I think what clicked is the recognition that there is a delicate art to writing a great pop song. In short: just because it’s catchy and pleasant and about something nice, doesn’t automatically make it less valuable than something that displays more salt-of-the-earth musical qualities like angst, an edge, and virtuosity (or I guess anti-virtuosity by the same token). I was musing yesterday about how as someone who was a tiny child in the 1980s and came of age in the 1990s, my musical tastes gelled during a time when pop music was kind of in a nadir. The R&B/hip-hop-influenced pop music of the 90s was great, but qualitatively different from your average post-punk-influenced (“new wave”) and lacked the shine and optimism that 80s pop seemed to have in common with 60s pop. That had me grow up with a native bias against pop which fed into my distaste for the Beach Boys compared to say the Beatles, whom I favored in high school. It would have blown my little mind to know that as an adult, I’d actually prefer the mostly bereft-of-complaints Pet Sounds to anything by the Beatles.
Pet Sounds is just packed with these expert-level pop masterpieces. “God Only Knows” is an easy other-standout song behind “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” A sweet and gentle love song adequately describing a love-of-a-lifetime, where it’s impossible to imagine a context without the other person. Related, peep this steaming pile of trash put together by some good and well-intentioned people:
Oh, how I hate it! A cover of a traditional Carribean folk song, the Beach Boys’ interpretation of “Sloop John B” is a close second-favorite on this album for me and a perennial karaoke standard, though I’m not sure how well I perform it. I am absolutely in love with this exceptionally charming promo video for it, which precisely captures the self-aware 1960s white California-boy context they dropped it in:
“I Know There’s an Answer” was one I never really thought about a whole lot until local pals Catscan! started including a their rendition in live sets and I was like “you know what? Yeah!”
Suffice to say, Pet Sounds is an incredible album. As someone who generally turns her nose up at music released before 1970 (I also don’t sit around reading Shakespeare), it’s right at home in my regular rotation along with the Bowie, Ramones, Talking Heads, etc. But far exceeding my love for Pet Sounds is how much I absolutely adore “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.” It’s another song that kind of got lost in the shuffle for most of my life because it was always kind of there, a song you would occasionally hear out in public or on your parents’ radio or what have you. Like, when you grow up with them in the background you sort of have to work to distinguish it from “Good Vibrations” and “Surfer Girl” and other pleasantly sugary pop offerings.
I can’t honestly point to this moment as the turning point but it certainly helped. Sometime in the wild and wonderful mid-2000s, I was up late with friends drinking and talking about stuff as we did when for some reason the subject of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” came up. My good pal Derek piped up and referenced a past relationship in which “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” was *their song* and I was like “holy shit, that’s genius,” having never really settled on an *our song* with the love of my life. I acknowledged that I was a total sucker for it and another friend said it made sense I’d love “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” because, he reasoned, I’m a “love dork.”
Well, shit. I guess I am. Gonna be 100% honest and admit that back when Pete and I were teenagers and it was infeasible for us to spend the night together due to distance, then living arrangements and parental brow-knitting, the simple joy of sleeping in the same bed with someone you loved was actually aspirational. I would usually spend afternoons and evenings with Pete when I was in college, but with rare exceptions, I slept at home in my parents’ house. It’s silly and almost embarrassing to admit but we would spend like 20 minutes saying good-bye at night, every night. It was a lot of expended energy, going home at night. The romantic notion of saying “good night” and staying together still makes me a little emotional, thinking about those two kids, dutifully parting ways at 3:00 AM on a Sunday morning after watching Saved by the Bell on TBS (which would have aired before work/school for you in the Eastern time zone).
“Wouldn’t It Be Nice” is the very intentionally-placed first song on Pet Sounds. It’s not just the best song on the album, but it’s the Pet-Soundsiest song, which makes it an ideal first track*. Being a classic pop radio standard, it took a serious listen in my mid-20s to really notice the crazy musicianship and the fucking *effort* put into this one little bubblegummy track. It’s kind of funny that even in the height of his whacked-out experimental songwriting, he couldn’t help but write cutesy love songs. I did enjoy the Brian Wilson musical biopic** Love & Mercy and the extent to which his obsessive and anal retentive approach to managing an entire orchestra is painfully on display. I believe it. But the grandiosity manages to be subtle at the same time, apart from the tympani. Tympani can’t do subtle. In any case, the effect is a creamy and absolutely correct accompaniment to the Boys’ signature four-part harmonies. Oh, it’s pure magic. It’s perfect.
*Had a recent late night conversation about what the best first-track on any album as being the best solid representation of what the artist was trying to do at the time. I said “Safe European Home” by the Clash off of Give ‘Em Enough Rope, but now I wonder if it’s “Wouldn’t It Be Nice.”
**Musical biopics are a guilty pleasure of mine. They’ve had a really rough run recently, culminating in the sure-fire colossal embarrassment Starman, whose fucking PAINful trailer recently dropped and oh ma it’s worse than you could imagine. However for my money, The Beach Boys: An American Family is a very fun and low-concept alternative to Love & Mercy if you’re looking for a straightforward narrative and not a work of cinematic art.
Pete and I saw Brian Wilson (finally) on his REAL last tour, marking the 50th anniversary of Pet Sounds (actually taking place 51 years after its release because the tour dragged out). He and his band played the album from start to finish plus a shit ton of Beach Boys standards. I had more fun than Pete did. Pete who thought that Brian Wilson seemed to be propped up behind the piano, but I’d definitely say he was more with us than poor Daniel Johnston the last time we saw him (or maybe any time we saw him). I do remember enjoying the Pet Sounds part of the performance but to be honest I think my favorite part was when they launched into “Good Vibrations” in the encore because it seemed like the most Beach Boysey thing I could imagine. And the drummer was wearing a leather jacket to make us think it was Stamos, which was a nice treat for me.
One more bow on the Beach Boys’ evolution in my estimation--in 2013 I had to go to California on a business trip and circumstances allowed Pete to join me. It was a weird one that required me to travel throughout the state by car from Riverside, through Santa Ana, up to Santa Maria and ending up in San Francisco. This took place over the course of a week and we were able to enjoy a weekend in Santa Barbara for our troubles, all on the company’s dime. The ride from Santa Ana to Santa Barbara fell on a Saturday and we strategically took the long way, up along the Pacific Coast Highway. Keeping in mind that I grew up in Hawaii, have spent a lot of time in California over the years--I shouldn’t have been so taken with that drive, but goddammit if I wasn’t blown away by the iconic and beautiful land- and seascapes. We listened to a Beach Boys greatest hits collection on repeat after we hit the coast north of Los Angeles and I have to be honest--it was perfect. It was an obvious but a completely ideal soundtrack to that extraordinary drive. The Beach Boys finally made 100% sense to me.