I don’t want to alarm anyone but The Beach Boys are in us. Like, right now. All the time.
Even if you hate them, you cannot fail to know them and know that their sound is Their Sound. No one sounds like The Beach Boys.
Few – and growing fewer – of their fans were around for the first wave of Beach Boys love. I wasn’t a teen growing up in the 60s. I was a 90s girl, and although I didn’t own one of their albums for years, their songs became part of me in that cultural osmosis that we can’t avoid even if we want to. Music finds its way in, like moisture.
One of the most evocative songs of my junior school days was Good Vibrations. I was in a play about the whales that got stuck under the ice in Alaska, aptly but not mathematically-correctly named ‘Whale’, singular. I remember nothing about the play other than: 1) it made me sad because the whales were not happy under the ice and eventually died and 2) we couldn’t get real whales. And – 3) – we used The Beach Boys. When you do a play about America and you are not American but you want the play to seem American and you want to create the illusion of America, what do you do? You use the Beach Boys. And I loved it. Loved them. So much. They made me sway and feel a youthful lightness in my heart I had no need of augmenting with carefree music because I was already young. They made me feel a better kind of young. They made me reach for harmonies. It made me try to figure out similar harmonies to completely inappropriate tracks. I was one of those annoying girls who soften the best songs with their adolescent goo tones because they can’t sing rock, and it was all The Beach Boys’ fault. Why didn’t all songs sound like this? I embarked upon finding the inner Beach Boys in all music – even during my Rage Against The Machine phase. I truly believed that somewhere inside all of this noise was a lotus-like harmoniousness waiting to burst out. Which is balls-out bunkum. Some music is hard as fuck and that’s the point of it and Christ we need that too. But I didn’t know it then. Since that play, The Beach Boys have been a thing in my life. That joyous sway in the heart. The ‘other place’ness. The American teen dream and the waves and the sixties and the innocence and the surfing.
I DON’T EVEN SURF. BUT THE BEACH BOYS MAKE ME FEEL LIKE I CAN. Heck, I don’t even think The Beach Boys surfed. They rarely even dressed for the beach. Except Dennis, the tousled stud. Those preppy bumclench trousers would have lasered off their gonads if they’ve tried to do watersports in them. Maybe that’s how they got the high notes. So for a band that’s predominantly famous for songs about surfing, not being all that surfy but making other people feel surfy is quite a feat. No one else could pull such blaggardry off. It would be like Mumford & Sons banging on about cricket in three out of five songs or Adele writing an album called 3-1 about football results. The Mumfords don’t bat. Adele doesn’t do keepy-uppies. It would be ludicrous if her biggest hit was a belting ballad about Milwall. But The Beach Boys owned surf. They owned that spirit. And they instilled that spirit in millions of others across the world, some of whom have never seen an ocean or sat on sand. That is an epic achievement. *High fives The Beach Boys*
The Beach Boys also make you yearn for things you wouldn’t normally yearn for, like hickeys under the boardwalk, malt shakes (hooey), and public proposals when you are not of legal age. All that nonsense that sweeps around inside you like West Coast waves of imagination when you listen to them. Wouldn’t It Be Nice makes me want someone to get down on one knee and propose to me with a Hawaiian flower garland or a Cadillac tyre. I’d wear it, I actually would. Don’t Worry Baby makes me want to worry, like really demonstrably worry about everything, just so I can have someone sing that song to me. And I’m still really hacked off I’ve never had a friend called Rhonda. Even though Rhondas seem to take bloody ages to come to your aid when you need them.
And as with all songs you love with a fierceness, you get protective over them. When Richard Curtis used God Only Knows in Love Actually I almost kicked off. I hated him for it. “Don’t use that song, Richard – it’s not yours you schmaltzy twit. It’s mine. It’s everyone’s. But it’s not yours”, I bellowed in my head the first time I watched that atrocity, and again when I watched it, guiltily, for the thirtieth. And of course – that’s why Richard Curtis used it. Because God Only Knows with its ascending harmonies and its guileful magical repetitions evokes powerful emotions; emotions so powerful by a song so powerful the rest of the film somehow gets protected by some sort of by-product forcefield from its own shitness.
Despite all this, seeing Brian Wilson could so easily have been something I missed. I saw the tickets come on sale at my local theatre. I emitted a little ‘ooh’ at the delicious unlikeliness of Bri sticking even one Californian toe in Essex, then I cracked on and forgot to buy any. They sold out, fast. Luckily a friend had a spare and with that casual exchange I had a night I will never forget. Brian Wilson was coming to the Cliffs Pavilion. That means, essentially, The Beach Boys were coming to Southend. The West Coast, the Westest, further than Cornwall and then a few more thousand miles across another continent, was coming to our little oft-derided seaside town that I happen to love. That’s BIG.
I instantly wanted to go to the theatre and paint the dressing rooms. I’ve been in there. It’s alright for others, they can Flashwipe their own lavseat, I haven’t got time to look after everyone, but now Brian blinking Wilson was going to be shuffling around, humming like a total cutie, sitting on the same seats as mortals. I wanted to sneak in and steamclean everything, knock down some partition walls to give him more space. Make our beach better. He was going to judge our beach. A BEACH BOY WAS GOING TO TAKE ONE LOOK AT OUR PEBBLES AND WONDER WHY ON EARTH WE DIDN’T GO TO THE EFFORT OF ENSURING THE REQUISITE PHASES OF GEOLOGICAL CRUMBLING TO MAKE IT NICE FOR HIM. Then I realised that Brian Wilson wouldn’t care about all that tosh. Because Brian Wilson is hard.
But Brian Wilson is not hard.
Seeing him sitting at the keys on the stage made me do a little heart vomit. He looked so…old and frail. He stopped the opening of one song because he had heartburn. A dude trotted on stage to give him some liquid medicine which I hoped was hard liquor or the elixir of life to give him a little pep, but I suspect it was just swanky Pepto Bismol. But he did it. I heard the whole of Pet Sounds, live, plus extras. And it was amazing. And I cried. It was The Beach Boys. Well, Brian & Al Jardine. The others are…busy. (Not dead. Busy. The Beach Boys do not die.)
I turned round in the middle of Wouldn’t It Be Nice to watch the thunderous crowd behind me, up on their feet, arms in the air, singing. There in the air was everyone’s lives pooled in an invisible collective – all our memories stored in these songs, our youths, the youths we never had but imagined, the better young people that live somewhere inside us, the surf and the sea and the young love and the promise of growing old with that person The Beach Boys tell you you will find, were all there as we grew 90 minutes older and younger together.
I had an awful thought in the middle of the almost eerie You Still believe In Me, that this might be the last gig Brian played. A horrible guilty longer-than-nice thought about him just lying down afterwards and never getting up again. In bloody Southend. Later, in the bar, friends said they’d thought the same. I either hang around with some of the most maudlin people ever, or there really was a quiver of something frail in that tender-boisterous wall of joyful air that night, and we all felt it.
I walked home holding a mug with his face on. Not because I don’t think mass-produced merch is the complete antithesis of the artist’s soul, but because that mug was the closest I’d ever get to hugging Brian Wilson.
Few people get to play. Fewer get to play to millions across the world be it through machines or live. Fewer are remembered for very long. Fewer still get a chance to play themselves out. Brian Wilson will play himself out, and leave us the songs, on loop, ascending in endless harmonious thirds around the world, forever. The Beach Boys are in us.