A Lost Pop Symphony (NY Review of Books)

an album by Brian Wilson

Nonesuch, $19.98

The Beach Boys are arguably America’s quintessential pop group, but their importance has been unfairly diminished by the cultural fads with which they are associated: surfing and hot rods. Consisting of three brothers, a cousin, and a friend, the young group emerged from the working-class Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne in 1961 with “Surfin’,” an unpolished paean to the local surfing craze. Relying on the prodigious musical talents of the eldest brother, Brian Wilson, they combined harmonies inspired by innocuous vocal groups of the Fifties with rock music’s adolescent exuberance, capturing the hedonism of postwar American affluence.

Their exultant tributes to surf and auto culture resulted in several top ten hits over the next three years, including “Surfin’ USA,” “Surfin’ Safari,” “Little Deuce Coupe,” and “I Get Around.” Wilson’s talent for writing hits was such that even when he gave away his song “Surf City” for his friends Jan Berry and Dean Torrence to record, it resulted in a number-one single. Wilson sang harmony on the Jan and Dean recording of “Surf City,” and his rapturous falsetto palpably evoked teenage male Californian bliss in the refrain, which sang of a paradise where there are “two girls for every boy.” Casual listeners are today as likely to think “Surf City” is by the Beach Boys as by Jan and Dean. (more…)