I used to think the Beach Boys’s story ended after 1967, when Brian Wilson suffered a mental breakdown while trying to complete a follow-up to Pet Sounds. I thought the ’70s were a black hole for the band, a period of time when none of its members did much of anything until they somehow reemerged on the oldies circuit in the ’80s. The ’80s and beyond being the time when The Beach Boys were Reagan’s favorite band, released “Kokomo” and played ridiculously huge shows on the National Mall on the fourth of July — the time when they nearly destroyed all their artistic credibility.
So I used to think the recording sessions of what was supposed to be Smile were the last gasp of a great band before they became symbolic and sad, and that made the products of those sessions tantalizingly exciting. There’s a point in the piano ballad “Surf’s Up” where Brian Wilson sings his impressionistic lyrics faster and faster, shoving words together as he goes, “The glass was raised, the fired-roast / The fullness of the wine, the dim last toasting,” in his high-pitched voice. Then, much more slowly, Wilson sings, “A choke of grief heart hardened I / Beyond belief a broken man too tough to cry” with all the weight of this project on his vocal chords, all the terrifying pressures and wonderful ambitions of trying to make tangible the sounds he hears in his head, of attempting to create the greatest album of all time. That moment was like sand running through my fingers — less than 30 seconds of absolute beautiful perfection that never really came to full fruition.
But as it turns out, the ’70s weren’t really the dark ages for the quintessential American band. I don’t have to imagine what it would’ve been like had Brian Wilson continued to make music with the Beach Boys, because there’s a run of relatively little-known, commercially not very successful records that the band did in the decade after Pet Sounds. A lot of it is terrible — like the lazy, drugged-out covers of old standards on 1976’s 15 Big Ones — some of it has strong critical standing — like 1971’s Surf’s Up, which actually does include a version of its brilliant title track — but to me, the most fascinating Beach Boys recording of this entire decade is 1977’s Love You.
Love You is an alternately hilarious, horrifying and thrilling journey through whatever Brian Wilson was thinking at the time. From the very beginning, just five seconds into “Let Us Go On This Way,” it already feels like somebody forgot to add more to the backing track, with Carl Wilson seemingly abandoned by the drums and organ, left out to dry with just the bass of a synthesizer. But somehow, it works — by the time all the other Beach Boys come in on vocals, “Let Us Go On This Way” has transformed into a stellar lead-off number, an energizing joy.
I have no idea how Brian Wilson got the other Beach Boys to go along with this record. I almost imagine him with a devious grin on his face in the recording studio as he watches Mike Love — notorious for resisting many of Brian’s groundbreaking ideas in the ’60s — lay down the vocal track for “Johnny Carson,” with lines like “he speaks in such a manly tone.” Then there’s Brian’s slipshod “Solar System,” which isn’t so much a song as it is what you would get if you took a six-year-old who liked planets and plopped him in front of a piano. But Love You also has “Love is a Woman,” a touching, tender, last call song, “Roller Skating Child,” a throwback to the early ’60s Beach Boys singles, and “Good Time,” this complexly arranged, deceptively catchy track with faux horns augmenting its choppy chorus. Love You is awesome because it dares you to hate it while knowing you’re going to keep coming back for more.
What’s especially amazing about Love You, though, is its prescience. It totally anticipates new wave experiments, arty bands like Talking Heads and synth-pop in general years before they hit the mainstream. Love You is the work of musicians who just have too much talent to make anything bad. It’s a Nobel-Prize winning physicist drunkenly stumbling out of a bar at 2 a.m., still able to solve equations you could never hope to understand. It’s enthralling madness, frustrating as hell because there’s so much junk and yet so much transcendence.
And Love You is actually my second huge, mind-blowing discovery of Beach Boys material. The typical progression of understanding for most music lovers initially marks the Beach Boys as the guys who did “Surfin’ USA” and “California Girls” — great bubblegum pop singles — but then you listen to Pet Sounds in its entirety or you hear “Good Vibrations” and realize they’re truly one of the all-time greats. And now, their story has become even more interesting to me as I try to navigate the part-trainwreck, part-glorious-epiphany period that is their ’70s.
But you might be wondering why the Beach Boys story is even relevant in 2015, and that’s fair — songs about taking pretty girls out on the California beach might not mean a lot to a large group of people. Hell, they don’t even mean much to me. But, for myself and many others, the Beach Boys are the band that most reflects old-school America and its culture, and to get under the surface of their work and uncover as much as we can is to discover more about ourselves and the lives we live.
The Beach Boys are one of the best bands for constant re-listening because what’s going on beyond the music is always wild. There’s almost-painful nostalgia and idealism in the early work, incomprehensible genius in the middle period, a mental breakdown, then an uncomfortable, uneven burnout and now, unfulfilling comfort. And as self-absorbed as this sounds, I see myself in all of this. No, I have no fucking clue how Carl Wilson pulled off that heart-bursting vocal on “God Only Knows.” I can’t even begin to explain how something like “Fun, Fun, Fun” or “Help Me, Rhonda” works. But as I’m writing, and even just as I’m living my everyday life, I want to be Brian Wilson. I want to think up impossibly huge ideas and break my brain while I’m trying to stretch the limits of what’s possible to make them reality.
But I hope I’m not quite there yet. I’d like to think that I’m slowly making my way toward Pet Sounds, some piece of work that I help create that leaves a lasting mark on people, that does some sort of positive good for the world. I’m listening to and studying the Beach Boys so much right now because the mystery and brilliance of what they did deserves obsessive attention — needs it, even, if I want to figure out its secret. And if I do follow that path, whatever it is that I do, I just have to hold out hope that the people I love will still indulge me enough when I crash and start to flail around wildly so that I can somehow hit upon Love You.