IT WAS THE GENTLEST and most fruitful revolution in pop history. It began in late 1961 when three brothers, their cousin, and a school friend>"/>
IT WAS THE GENTLEST and most fruitful revolution in pop history. It began in late 1961 when three brothers, their cousin, and a school friend turned out their first "fun in the sun" 45, a ditty called "Surfin'." It was a musical escapism that, as the kid sibling said, "Set out to make the whole world sing," and went on from there to get catchy. The group was the Beach Boys; their leader and de facto guru, Brian Wilson.
Moore Theater, Friday, October 15
With their consummate mix of Chuck Berry-inflected riffs and Four Freshmen harmonies, the Boys scored 24 Top 40 hits in three years, including four number ones. Along the way, the surf and car genre became one of America's prime exports, and Ph.D. students in London and Paris ponder Wilson's lyrics to this day.
Despite the milquetoast image, there was always as much going on under Wilson's skin, as say, John Lennon's, and always earlier. The crackup began when Wilson was 22. Depressed over chronic stage fright and creeping deafness in one ear, he bellied up to 300 pounds and began quaffing mind-expanding drugs at a time when Keith Richards didn't yet drink or do cigarettes.
Wilson no longer played on stage after 1965, but he continued to write and improvise in the studio. Gradually the vanilla two-minute singles about sun, surf, and girls gave way to R&B, psychedelia, and something darker. In 1966, Pet Sounds virtually invented modern recording techniques. The key theme may have been a lush homage to Californian adolescence, but it sounded worryingly zany. Also for the first time, Wilson discovered the existential crisis. "Who am I?" he shrieked. But angst was for the New York street-poets; beach boys were meant to be flip and unflappable, and, as the band relentlessly cut acid into the sugar, they lost their market. For 10 years, only the PR machinery kept these specimens from a Jurassic social order on life support, churning out compilations of old glories. Wilson himself spent much of the decade meditating, solving math equations, and doodling at a piano built into a sandpit in his living room.
He reemerged in July 1976, flanked by his wife, sundry minders, and a full-time shrink named Eugene Landy. Two more anthologies hit the top 10 that summer. Shameless recycling and nostalgia for sun-drenched gems like "I Get Around" kept the show on the road, though at the cumulative cost of broken hearts, divorces, and lawsuits. Even the three Wilson brothers fought like ferrets in a sack. (Dennis Wilson drowned after a drinking binge in 1983, and Carl succumbed to cancer last year.)
In the desensitized world of ironic postmodern pop, it's perhaps not surprising that one of the "safest" of groups should turn out to be one of the weirdest—but that's another story. Brian Wilson survived, gave up dope and drink, lost weight, and launched a second act with 1998's Love and Mercy.
The solo stuff may be on the ropey side, and nobody's ever going to know why the Beach Boys mattered so much if they go on getting crassly repackaged. Namely, they were the first band to actually show what it was like to grow up: to start out as drones, bolt for the outside, and then finally rediscover the old pop virtues of melody and an ear for a hook. (Wilson was consistently a year ahead of Lennon- McCartney in this field.) Above all, the Beach Boys were the first great group after the initial thrill went out of rock 'n' roll around 1959. "Surfin'" was where the modern pop song started, and Wilson is one of the four or five men in the business alive today who actually did something fresh, if not new. "The album of all time" may be pushing it, but Pet Sounds was the major influence on Sgt. Pepper's and all that followed.
Despite the dodgy hearing and the duff voice, no Brian Wilson gig can go far wrong, given the abundance of superb tunes at his disposal. At worst, the hooks and choruses crackle with something that sounds like Britpop's elder brother. In peak form, Wilson simply encourages people to think. It's a glorious antidote to headbanging.