Fifty Sides of The Beach Boys, The Songs That Tell Their Story
They have been around forever. They are The American Band. Everyone loves the Beach Boys. Everyone loves the Brian Wilson story, his rise, fall and triumphant return. Everyone still mourns the loss of his two brothers, Dennis and Carl. And we know that Brian and his cousin Mike did not always see I to I. You know all the stories. You know all the songs.
Or do you? How about “Girl Don’t Tell Me,” “Here Today,” “Little Bird,” “Feel Flows,” “Johnny Carson,” or “Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow?” If these do not ring a bell or bring back a happy summer memory, what of “Caroline No” or “This Whole World?” No? Then surely: “Surfer Girl,” “In My Room,” “Fun, Fun, Fun,” and “Help Me Rhonda.” These are but one dozen from the fifty that Mark Dillon explores through his interviews with fifty folks who had somehow, either up close and personal or from the distance of time and audio recordings, intersected with the Beach Boys and their sweeping oeuvre.
Dillon’s book was released when the surviving Beach Boys* ignored, at least for the moment, any lingering animosities, lawsuits, personal and professional obligations to reunite for their 50th Anniversary Tour. Dillon’s prose is merely proficient and too often causes the essays to lag, but if you have a cursory knowledge of the group and want to know more, Fifty is a very good introduction. Before you get to the songs, you get a quick, down-and-dirty but accurate and well-documented history. For this, and for each individual essay, one per song, endnotes are supplied. The book has a smattering of b/w photographs, some familiar, some not so much, and it is indexed. The size of the book is a smidgen less than a standard 45 RPM record and the front cover could either mimic a picture sleeve, or, because of the Capitol Records-like graphics, a downsized LP cover. Either way, it is clever and attractive.
The interviewees run from the obscure (Sean O’Hagen) to the obvious (Mike Love). (Information about each interviewee blends into the essay itself; I would prefer an appendix giving this information in a formal manner.) Dillon uses snippets from his notes from each of his interviews and incorporates these into the text, relating opinions and often supplying information about the recording sessions, the personnel involved, the instruments used, the finished recordings and their variants. The casual fan may find some of this material unexpectedly revealing. For example, many more people—session musicians, producers, engineers, lyrists, collaborators and various hangers-on—had contributed to the music than just the original five Boys themselves. Many more instruments had been used besides guitars, keyboards, and drums. And a reminder: Selecting only fifty songs is selecting a small percentage of the catalog, especially if the solo albums and collaborations are taken into account. But, again, this book constitutes a fine introduction for the casual fan; it can be used as a handy companion piece for attentive listening.
And it is surely symptomatic of our age: The amount of information given in Dillon’s book, culled from a well-chosen but relatively short bibliography and from the interviews, although seemingly vast, is in reality a very small representation of the research that has been created surrounding the group, research that keeps growing exponentially. What makes me scratch my head is my wondering how far and how long this will eventually continue—how long will there be music lovers who will avidly care about the Beach Boys and who will invest their time and their attention to this wave of popularity, this sea of tunes, this ocean of scholarship?
* Al Jardine, Bruce Johnson, Mike Love, David Marks and Brian Wilson—with Blondie Chaplin sometimes along for the ride.
Copyright 2016, Bill Wolf (speedreaders.info).