Sun, sand, surfing, girls, it didn't matter in which order, the Beach Boys sung about it. More than any other group in popular music, the California quintet, of which Carl Wilson was a founder member, became associated with the locale they came from and sold the blend of consumerism and hedonism it represented to the world. Their irresistible Sixties hits like "Surfin' USA", "I Get Around", "California Girls", and "Good Vibrations" still crop up in movies and commercials and instantly spell Los Angeles, the home of "Fun, Fun, Fun".
Yet the band's career was never as easy and straightforward as its music. Carl's older brother Brian Wilson, very much the tortured genius and creative force behind the classic recordings, suffers to this day with mental illness while Dennis Wilson, the drumming middle brother, drowned in 1983. From the mid-Sixties, when Brian quit touring, Carl, the baby brother and most capable musician, took control of live performances and held the group together. When Brian also withdrew from studio dates in the Seventies, Carl kept the ball rolling during sessions.
On the surface, the Wilson brothers were as American as apple pie. Murry and Audree, their parents, had settled in Hawthorne, a nice middle-class suburb of Los Angeles. Carl, born in 1946, was the youngest of three brothers and soon started singing with Brian and Dennis. Their mother would sometimes join in.
Carl had not even turned 15 when he and his brothers hooked up with their cousin Mike Love and neighbour Al Jardine to form Carl and the Passions and play Four Freshmen, Chuck Berry and Everly Brothers songs in their garage while their parents were away.
Carl later recalled:
I guess our only ambition in those days was to form a group. None of us knew exactly what we were doing back then. Dennis was the best surfer and he was the one who really had the idea of the band. Brian had written a lot of songs and I had been fooling around with a guitar for a long
time, so eventually we got together and began doing a few dates. We were just five dummies starting out. We were totally innocent and lucked out.
At first, the quintet couldn't even settle on a name, becoming in turn the Pendletones, Kenny and the Cadets and, most famously, the Beach Boys. Carl admitted in interviews,
When we decided to call ourselves the Beach Boys, we were thinking of water, of the ocean. Water is such a beautiful thing. I think it may have been different for us all along the line if we had not been called the Beach Boys. We came on very big in the surf days. It was just beginning to became a popular sport and our songs came right in as a vehicle to its rising general appeal.
Dennis made a list of surfing expressions and geographical locations and suggested they wrote something in tune with the surf craze. Brian and Mike came up with "Surfin' ". Murry, their father, saw dollar signs and appointed himself manager. In 1961, "Surfin' " was released on the small Candix label and charted nationally. The following year, Capitol Records offered Murry and the boys a major deal and the Beach Boys signed on the dotted line, scoring an incredible run of Top 20 hits over the next four years: "Surfin' Safari", "Surfin' USA" and "Surfer Girl" were soon followed by "Fun, Fun, Fun", "I Get Around", "Help Me Rhonda", "California Girls", "Barbara Ann", "Sloop John B" and "Wouldn't It Be Nice".
With their stripy red and white college shirts and boy-next-door grins, the Beach Boys captured the hearts of America. They posed with surfboards, with hot rods, on yachts and their records sold millions. But all was not well. Murry, a frustrated musician/performer himself, became a kind of tyrannical dictator, pushing his charges to the limit. Brian, deaf in one ear after a childhood accident, felt the pressure of carrying the band on his shoulders the most. Too many concerts, too many singles, too many B-sides and album tracks were needed to feed the business monster created by their father and Capitol Records.
"There was too much tension in the family. It was difficult separating the family thing from the group thing," revealed Carl a few years later.
It was a blow to us when Brian decided not to tour with the group any longer, but he needed time to work on his writing and the tour schedules were heavy. I was very close to Brian. I was with him the day he couldn't continue any longer.
A lookalike, Glen Campbell, a Beach Boy session regular, was briefly drafted to replace Brian for live appearances. Brian had also become obsessed with the Beatles, whom he rightly saw as his only rivals. In May 1966, with the symphonic Pet Sounds, he hoped to top the Fab Four's achievements but they came back with Revolver and then Sgt Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Brian tried to go one better with the mythical Smile but most of the finished tracks eventually came out as Smiley Smile.
"I suppose Pet Sounds was our Sgt Pepper's," said Carl. "After that, Smiley Smile was nothing more than a wild freak-out, and Wild Honey a trip in simplicity. Of all the many things that we've ever recorded, `Good Vibrations' was one of the simplest." At the time in 1966, this neo-symphonic recording took an unprecedented 90 hours and cost $50,000. But the pinnacle of Brian Wilson's sonic achievements reached No 1 on both sides of the Atlantic and is often voted one of the best singles ever made.
Brian Wilson had collapsed into a mind-numbing paranoia, fuelled by drugs and alcohol, but managed to contribute to albums occasionally. The vocalist Bruce Johnston had now joined full-time and the Beach Boys soldiered on: "Heroes and Villains", "Do It Again" and "Breakaway" kept them in the British Top 10 but their entourage was pulling them in different directions. Mike Love had became a devotee of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi while Dennis was hanging out with Charles Manson, who even co-wrote a few songs with him. Carl, a conscientious objector, was fighting the US authorities, who wanted to send him to Vietnam.
He took over the running of the band, singing lead on their cover of Phil Spector's "I Can Hear Music". In 1970, the Beach Boys formed their own Brother label and released Sunflower and Surf's Up which showed their ecological concerns, way ahead of the times. Recruiting extra members like Ricky Fataar (later of the Rutles) and Blondie Chaplin, the group kept touring. After 1972's nostalgic Carl and the Passions and 1973's disastrous Holland, the Endless Summer compilation put the Beach Boys back at the top of the American charts but also condemned them to the nostalgia circuit, though their hit-laden set often upstaged other artists on the same bill (Elton John in particular suffered at Wembley Stadium in 1975).
In 1976, Carl and various associates appointed a therapist, Eugene E. Landy, to look after Brian, who appeared on 15 Big Ones. Landy's controversial treatment achieved results but later the family disapproved of his financial dealings (he tried to gain 25 per cent of Brian's future royalties) and sacked him in 1990. Subsequent Beach Boys albums and singles only fitfully worked and Carl followed Dennis and Brian into cocaine and alcohol dependency.
Adrian Baker (later to have a major hit with "Classic") even replaced Carl for a couple of years while he released a couple of unsuccessful solo albums (Carl Wilson and Youngblood) at the beginning of the Eighties. The Beach Boys, the group that once symbolised the American dream had become a nightmare, a sad parody of its former self, a franchise to be exploited by whoever was on stage.
Yet, even after Dennis drowned in December 1983, the band somehow carried on. "The idea of disbanding never came up really. The Beach Boys are my family. I love them all," declared Carl. During the rest the Eighties, they appeared at Live Aid, collaborated with Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons, with Roger McGuinn of the Byrds, and, more unlikely, the Culture Club producer Steve Levine and the novelty rap act the Fat Boys (their joint remake of the Surfaris' "Wipe Out" was in the charts in 1987).
In 1988, Brian Wilson finally released a solo album and the Beach Boys were inducted into the Rock 'n' Roll Hall of Fame. They even returned to the top of the US singles charts with the languid "Kokomo", which was heavily featured in the 1988 film Cocktail (starring Tom Cruise).
But the feuding started again with Mike Love's claiming he had co-written many of Brian's songs. Still the group carried on touring (recording an ill-advised collaboration - "Fun, Fun, Fun" - with Status Quo in 1996) until the end of 1997 when Carl was treated for lung cancer.
Equally proficient on Fender Stratocaster, Gibson Les Paul or 12-string Rickenbacker, Carl Wilson could easily copy the staccato guitar style of Chuck Berry and especially the surf-guitar hero Dick Dale, and recreate on stage the catchy licks and snappy solos which had contributed to the Beach Boys' early success 35 years ago.
Because a veritable coterie of session musicians (Glen Campbell, the late Tommy Tedesco) appeared on their backing tracks, Carl often didn't receive the credit he deserved. Vocally, he was easily the equal of Brian, as demonstrated in the exhaustive four-CD box-set, The Pet Sounds Sessions, released recently.
- Pierre Perrone