|Why The Beach Boys Matter, by Tom Smucker, 2018. (Pictured on the cover: Bruce Johnston, Al Jardine, Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson, and Mike Love. Not pictured on the cover: Brian Wilson.)|
The Beach Boys have been one of my favorite groups since I was a little kid. Even before I got into the Beatles, I was a Beach Boys fan. I’ve been listening to a lot of the Beach Boys lately, so I was pretty excited to pick up a copy of Tom Smucker’s 2018 book Why The Beach Boys Matter.
Smucker is a long-time fan of the Beach Boys, and his passionate defense of their importance is carefully thought out. Smucker also doesn’t overstate his case. He’s never arguing that the Beach Boys are better than the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, and he’s never arguing that Pet Sounds is the greatest album of all time. Smucker writes of Pet Sounds: “I never believed it should be everybody’s favorite album. Or everybody’s second-favorite album. Or that there was something insensitive about not responding to it at all.” (p.84) I strongly agree with this style of criticism. I try not to write in hyperbole about music, movies, or literature and I appreciate other critics who follow the same principle.
Why The Beach Boys Matter is divided into short chapters that cover various aspects of the Beach Boys’ musical career, such as “Cars and Guitars,” “Suburbs and Surf,” and “Fathers, Shrinks, and Gurus.” At just 176 pages, Why The Beach Boys Matter packs a lot of content into a short volume. Smucker does an excellent job summarizing the Beach Boys’ long career, examining their influences and their place in American pop culture.
A lot of writing about the Beach Boys tends to lionize Brian Wilson and vilify Mike Love. Smucker doesn’t fall into this trap, and does an admirable job of being fair to both Brian and Mike. Smucker writes of Love: “Mike’s the Beach Boy who’s worked the hardest to puzzle out how and where they can position themselves in the current moment, and where they fit into the past.” (p.121)
Smucker takes us through the up and down of the Beach Boys, from their staggering early success—13 Top Ten singles in the U.S. from 1963 to 1966—to Brian Wilson’s retreat from the group in the late 1960’s, as their commercial fortunes waned and the other Beach Boys stepped up and tried to fill the void. The band continued to make strong music during this era, but they didn’t produce any huge hit singles or albums. Then in 1974, the Beach Boys’ old label, Capitol Records, put out a greatest hits compilation covering their 1962-65 years. It was called Endless Summer, and it spent three years on the Billboard album charts, hitting number one four months after it was released. Suddenly the Beach Boys were hot again, but it was for their old songs. Rolling Stone magazine named the Beach Boys the “Band of the Year” for 1974. The Boys were back, but the success of Endless Summer meant that their old material would overshadow whatever new songs they came out with. Smucker points out that during the early 1970’s the Beach Boys turned into a great live band. They were a group so confident in their abilities that they would actually open concerts with “Good Vibrations,” a song considered by many to be the group’s masterpiece.
The Beach Boys, and Brian Wilson, have continued to thrive well into the 21st century. It’s now almost sixty years since the first Beach Boys record was made, and their music still sounds as vibrant as ever.