Book Reviews

Becoming The Beach Boys, 1961-1963 (McFarland)

becomingbeachboys

Becoming The Beach Boys, 1961-1963
James B. Murphy
McFarland 

The Beach Boys had finished playing a concert. Though the splash they made on the West Coast was just starting to ripple through to the rest of America, the boys were busily playing every show they could get. Back at their hotel room, they awaited their post-show per diem, expecting their usual fifty dollars. To their amazement, their promoter brought in a large trash bag and poured it out on the bed. It was nearly three thousand dollars in cash. The five young men stared wide-eyed and silently; had they really just earned all this money? Were they really popular enough to have made all that cash?

Yes, indeed they were. This story is but one of the many interesting, compelling, and, frankly, unknown stories from the nascent days of “America’s Band” that can be found in the in-depth and quite essential biography, Becoming The Beach Boys. Though the band’s earliest music has remained quintessential American rock and roll fare, the history books give this time short shrift, instead focusing on the darker points in their career: Brian Wilson’s drug abuse and mental illness, the ill-fated and overrated self-indulgent lost drug “masterpiece” Smile, the tragic life of the unappreciated Dennis Wilson, and the divisive Mike Love. Becoming The Beach Boys is a very intense focus on the band’s beginnings, the story of the key players, and the context  from which the band was borne.

From the start, the book is determined to set the record straight and separate truth from half-truths, and it tackles the most controversial part of the story: Murry Wilson. Today, he’s often thought of as a bumbling, incompetent, untalented, abusive drunk who beat his kids on a regular basis, and who was determined to live out his failures through his sons’ success. To be sure, Murry could be aggressive and demanding. But was he truly untalented? No, he wasn’t. Common wisdom has him as a “failed” songwriter, when, in fact, he might be best referred to as a burgeoning part-time songwriter who managed to place quite a few songs with musicians, the most notable of which being Lawrence Welk. He would have delved into songwriting full-time, were it not for the fact that his machine shop took up most of his time, and the family was struggling financially. To be sure, he was aggressive with his sons, especially Brian, but those interviewed said that they saw nothing particularly abusive in his actions, as his behavior was the norm for parenthood at the time.

We also see a somewhat different picture of Brian Wilson. He’s often portrayed as being a sensitive young artiste who writes his songs with his heart on his sleeves, but here, he’s presented as being nothing short of a songwriting and recording machine; a guy who will spend all day in the studio, and then after finishing that session, would go out to other recording sessions and work for most of the night—all on a regular basis. Though he was a young man devoted to music—his brief time in college shows him to be a music major—he wasn’t necessarily thinking of being a songwriter, much less a frontman for a popular surf-rock band. His reticence towards touring that would cause him to leave the touring band in 1965 wasn’t an isolated incident, either; his disdain of touring was there from the beginning, as was his desire to quit the live band to be a studio producer. In fact, he bowed out of a number of regional tours, to disastrous results; it is their remembrance of what happened previously, then, that perhaps caused the band to react so violently to his later decision.

Also compelling is the story of Mike Love. Though a talented, intelligent young man, he found himself married as a teenager, and he soon came to realize that his choices had doomed him to a life of labor, working fifty or sixty hours a week to provide for his family, with no time for relaxation. He’s always been rah-rah about the band’s early material, somewhat dorky about his praise for fun and sun and girls and hot rods and surfing, but he did so for a reason–unlike Brian, he knew what a blue-collar life was like, and he didn’t much like it. His experiences added something to the mix that none of the other Beach Boys could: credibility.

Becoming The Beach Boys is a lively, vital read, with a ton of compelling stories, ranging from the state of independent record labels in Los Angeles and the dynamic of the West Coast music business, to the behind-the-scenes business wheelings and dealings of Murry that will give you a new perspective about how hard the man worked for his sons’ success, and most people haven’t realized just how important Al Jardine was to the band’s existence as well. Becoming The Beach Boys is an important work, as it is the first in-depth, unbiased look into the early years of one of America’s most successful rock bands.

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