Few groups in the history of music can match the Beach Boys, not only in worldwide popularity but in creative impact. The early singles that first brought them to national attention blended widely differing instrumental influences — Chuck Berry’s rock-’n’-roll songs with the surf guitar twang and rumble of Dick Dale — and then drenched the result in gorgeous, complex vocal group harmonies. When I spoke recently with Mike Love, one of the founding Beach Boys and the leader of the group that will play the Granada on Friday, September 21, he remembered where it started: a bunch of California kids singing in a car “coming home from youth night at the church.” It’s the kind of clean-cut image that made them American icons as young men. But don’t let the folksy symbolism fool you: There was a lot more to the Boys’ music, even in those early days, than church, surfing, cars, and girls. Consider the reverence with which these miniature symphonies were regarded (and recorded) a decade later by another breakthrough group that they inspired: punk pioneers the Ramones.
While it’s the teenage, surfing-era Beach Boys that stuck in the popular imagination, critical consensus regards the baroque psychedelic pop of Pet Sounds as the group’s finest and most influential achievement. The band’s exploitation of the recording studio on that record, as well as on their greatest song, “Good Vibrations,” launched thousands of ambitious efforts to use multitracking, unconventional instrumentation, and subtly haunting arrangements to propel popular music beyond previous generic boundaries. Despite the burden of being portrayed ad nauseam as the guy who resisted Brian Wilson’s increasingly arcane musical dreams, Mike Love is still proud of his role in that experimental phase. He chose “Good Vibrations” as the title of his memoir, and he takes pride in the way that his son Christian sings “God Only Knows,” one of the most iconic tracks off Pet Sounds. Christian, who was raised, along with several other young Loves, on Mesa Lane, will open for The Beach Boys at the Granada on Friday.
There will be no musicians named Wilson onstage when The Beach Boys reach the Granada Friday night, but there’s no question that Love and fellow longtime band member Bruce Johnston are doing the most authentic live representation of the full range of The Beach Boys’ music that has been presented in this century. Their command of the band’s early hits is impeccable — years of playing “Surfin’ Safari” and “California Girls” in venues ranging from the open skies of the Kansas State Fair to the hallowed precincts of London’s Royal Albert Hall have etched the pop and fizz of these deliciously carbonated confections in their collective muscle memory. It would be a mistake, though, to underestimate their interest in and ability to re-create the later material, particularly some of the great songs from the neglected period immediately after the notorious collapse of the Smiley Smile sessions, songs such as “Darlin’,” which Love says they always do, and “Wild Honey,” which drummer John Cowsill sings. And don’t forget that it was Mike Love, along with John Phillips, Terry Melcher, and Scott McKenzie, who in 1988 wrote the great “Kokomo,” which, thanks in part to a young Tom Cruise flipping bottles, became one of the greatest comeback number-one singles in the history of rock.
Love describes his tireless touring as a reflection of being “obsessed with re-creating The Beach Boys’ music as well as possible live.” On 150 nights or more a year, The Beach Boys of today come out united in harmony — not as an abstract metaphor for collective agreement but instead as the real sonic thing, human voices locked into beautiful chords, resonating in real spaces and resounding in real time.
The Beach Boys play Friday, September 21, 7:30 p.m., at The Granada Theatre (1214 State St.). Call (805) 899-2222 or see granadasb.org.