By Joanna Karausz
From the release of their first album, The Beach Boys were promoted as a surfer band and represented everything great about California surf culture: their laidback attitude, boyish charm, and their affinity for rock and roll, hot rods, and girls. Yet their sound took a unique turn in the latter half of the 1960s that would shape the Beach Boys as the American equivalent to the Beatles and, with a string of hits, they lived up to their reputation, becoming one of the most iconic bands in history.
The Beach Boys began when a trio of brothers (Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson), their cousin (Mike Love), and childhood friend (Al Jardine) began harmonizing and writing tunes in their California home. They were inspired by the rock and roll music the heard growing up, most notably the harmonizing sound and barbershop tradition of the popular group the Four Freshmen.
The Beach Boys skyrocketed into fame in 1962 with their debut album Surfin’ Safari. Spending 37 weeks on the Billboard chart, the album set the tone for the group who continued to write music about the laidback California youth culture, always making sure their songs featured their signature tight harmonies. Their next few albums, like Surfin’ U.S.A and All Summer Long, included hits like “Surfin’ U.S.A” and “I Get Around” and established The Beach Boys as the premiere American band.
In the late 1960s, the band began to grow and evolve its sound. When The Beach Boys released what would later become their biggest hit, “Good Vibrations,” it not only charted at number one in the U.S.A.; it also reached the number two spot in the U.K., a major success for the band that had not been able to break into the English charts prior to “Good Vibrations.” Although still featuring the harmonies the band became known for, the song is noted for being incredibly musically complex. The intricate vocal layering is reminiscent of a type of counterpoint found in music from the Baroque period. The instrumentation is also unique for the popular music of the time; the single features an organ and stringed bass along with the cello, tambourine, harpsichord, and others. The overall sound of “Good Vibrations” is influenced by the psychedelic era and has a melancholic and nostalgic feel for lost youth.
The arc the band created by their music echoes the time period during which it was produced and mimics the maturation of its audience. Perhaps that is why the Beach Boys are noted as being “America’s Band.” No other American group has captured the change from the carefree feeling of the early 1960s to the more reflective and thoughtful mood of the 1970s.