|A photo of the boys from the back of their 1985 eponymous album|
The 60s icons' accomplishments are legendary and most are attributable to their main man, Brian Wilson. He was so dominant that he didn't even need the band in order to succeed. The proof is that much of their legendary album, Pet Sounds, lacked involvement by the other group members.
This post is not going to be a soap opera. No discussions of Wilson's health or the band's internal strife will be discussed here even though they both played a large part in The Beach Boys' decline. This post is only an attempt to properly place them within the pantheon of pop music gods.
There are music lovers who don't care for The Beach Boys because of the subject matter of their early songs. Surfing, cars, girls on the beach, high school and summertime fun can be considered quite lightweight and silly when stacked up against more serious artists who were making big names for themselves during the same era. Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Peter, Paul and Mary immediately come to mind. By 1965 The Beatles had moved on from "yeah, yeah, yeah" to headier stuff. "In My Life," "Nowhere Man," "Help," "Yesterday," and "Day Tripper" all demonstrated maturity while "California Girls" (despite its sophisticated arrangement) and the bare bones production that is "Barbara Ann" were still catching waves at the top of the charts. Fortunately, in 1966 Pet Sounds soon appeared and elevated the group's artistic profile greatly.
Early on the boys tapped into American teenage culture perfectly. They were loved by those who were part of the Southern California social scene, by kids who couldn’t find a beach or a surfboard within a thousand miles of their homes, and by those who drove 1965 Ramblers instead of hot rods. They lived vicariously through the Wilson Brothers and their bandmates. The quintet became symbols of a Utopian, teenage lifestyle many 60s American kids wished for and some believed actually existed. The Beach Boys were the cool kids on the block.
Those very early Wilson/Mike Love compositions are classics but when the group's leader finally set loftier goals for them it was well past time. The Beach Boys couldn't sing about ocean waves forever, could they? By the mid-70s their best creative years were behind them and they became an oldies act due to either commercial considerations or lack of inspiration. In reality, it was probably both.
Their 1985 eponymous album, featuring Brian Wilson's return, had a song called "California Calling" that had Al Jardine singing the phrase "totally rad." This from a band whose oldest members were now in their 40s. Think about the contrast. More than a decade earlier John Lennon, who would be approximately the same age as The Beach Boys if he were alive today, gave the world "Imagine."
Many years ago a music writer, I wish I could remember who, claimed The Beach Boys were folk musicians because their songs contained a basic element of the genre. Per Wikipedia, folk music tells stories about a national or regional culture. It is probably pushing the wall of the genre to consider "Fun, Fun, Fun," and "Don't Worry, Baby," folk songs but I get his or her point.
For me it was always about the band's harmonies and melodies. Sometimes I didn’t care about their lyrics. I just wanted to hear the guys sing. I've heard it said that their falsetto voicings and doo wop influenced harmonies sound dated today but considering so many young musicians continue to recognize The Beach Boys as one of the great American groups of all time their legacy will live on. There are many abundantly talented vocalists who can harmonize quite well but no one has ever been able to do it as magnificently as Bruce Johnston and the five guys from Hawthorne, CA.