The Beach Boys were one of the most influential bands of the 1960s, depicting life as sunny, “good vibrations” in an idealized Southern California, as leader Brian Wilson evolved from simple feel-good harmonies into a revolutionary new pop sound. His sophisticated use of the studio led to such pop milestones as the album “Pet Sounds” (from 1966).
Wilson (b. June 20, 1942) was a student at Hawthorne High when he formed the band with brothers Carl (Dec. 21, 1946 - Feb. 6, 1998) and Dennis (Dec. 4, 1944 - Dec. 28, 1983), cousin Mike Love (b. March 15, 1941) and friend Al Jardine (b. Sept. 3, 1942). Their first sessions were in Brian's bedroom.
Dennis was the only committed surfer in the group, and he suggested that Brian create a song for his favorite sport. Brian and Love wrote “Surfin',” which was released as an independent single in 1961 and reached No. 75 on the pop chart. By now, the young band was being managed by the Wilson brothers' father, Murry Wilson (July 2, 1917 - June 4, 1973), and were soon signed to Capitol Records.
The hits came quickly: “Surfin' Safari,” “Surfin' U.S.A.,” “Surfer Girl” and many others. This wasn't surf music of the Dick Dale variety, rooted in shimmering guitar, but pure pop. “I Get Around" was their first No. 1 in 1964, followed by the chart-topping “Help Me, Rhonda” in 1965.
But that same year, Brian had a nervous breakdown while on tour. Soon, he retired from the road and devoted himself to crafting music in the studio. The result was “Pet Sounds,” not their bestselling album of the era, but one of the most influential musical statements of the 1960s. The album was followed by the single “Good Vibrations,” which hit No. 1 in 1966, marking the creative and commercial peak for the band. It took Brian six months to piece it together.
Later that year, Brian began collaborating with Van Dyke Parks on an album to be called “Smile.” The bandleader's worsening mental condition led to his destruction of many of the tapes. A few surviving songs (“Heroes and Villains,” “Our Prayer”) appeared on later albums, but Brian's role as dominant maestro of the Beach Boys was over, as he slowly retreated.
In the 1970s, the band continued to release new material. Sales declined, but the band's live show remained popular, as the Beach Boys became increasingly identified as an oldies act.
Brian emerged from his mansion to produce the band's 1976 comeback album “15 Big Ones,” which included remakes of rock oldies and new originals, including “It's O.K.” It hit No. 8 on the Billboard pop albums chart, and was Brian's first full album with the Beach Boys since “Pet Sounds.” The Beach Boys continued to tour and record albums, with the occasional Brian Wilson track.
Carl quit in 1981 for a solo career, but returned the next year. In 1983, Dennis drowned after diving into the water in Marina del Rey after a night of drinking.
Brian reemerged as a solo artist for the first time in 1988, releasing “Brian Wilson” to much critical attention but modest sales. The record was co-produced to great controversy by his therapist, Dr. Eugene Landy. Ironically, the Beach Boys (with no involvement from Brian) that same year scored their first No. 1 single since “Good Vibrations” with “Kokomo,” a song from the soundtrack to the Tom Cruise film “Cocktail.” The surviving Beach Boys reunited to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame later in 1988.
Legal battles between Love and Brian were resolved in the mid-'90s, securing Love co-writing credit (and royalties) to the songs “California Girls” and “Wouldn't It Be Nice.” Brian remarried and collaborated with Van Dyke Parks for “Orange Crate Art.” Carl was diagnosed with lung and brain cancer, retired in 1997, and died early the next year.
In 1998, Brian began touring regularly with a group of young musicians sympathetic to his expansive view of classic pop. They performed “Pet Sounds” on the road in 2000, and then in 2003 he reconvened with Van Dyke Parks to finish writing “Smile” and performed it live in London in 2004. A studio version was finally completed later that year and won a Grammy for best rock instrumental for the track “Mrs. O'Leary's Cow (Fire),” the first Grammy of Brian Wilson's groundbreaking career.