Growing Up With Brian Wilson…

50 Years since Heroes & Villains

The Beach Boys: It’s there in the name isn’t it? Beach. Boys. Even if you didn’t know their music you would immediately conjure up an image of young lads spending carefree days in the surf and playing cheerfully on the sand… and singing about it. And, despite the fact that, as we all know, only one of them actually embraced surfing as a pastime, their songs have that veneer of bright breeziness, of untroubled blithe days of youth, sun and beach life.

You don’t need to look too far, though, to recognise that there was much more to the world they both created and the world in which they found they had to live. That there is complexity in the layered musical arrangements and harmonies is, of course, much recognised.  However, there is, I would argue, also complexity and maturity in the lyrics, a maturity that belies the youthfulness of the simple beach life that appears on the surface (or surf-face, if you will…)

I remember being fascinated by the multi-layered Good Vibrations, a song that combined the joys of adulation of the opposite sex, the rich warmth of summer and astonishing harmonies with non-linear yet mellifluous music.  But it was Heroes and Villains that really, truly astounded me. It’s sheer trickery — marvellous, wonderful musical trickery that leads the listener first here, and then there, twisting, stopping and re-starting.

Here there is not a hint of surf, of the beach, of hazy idleness: here is a tale of gun fights, culture clashes, small town rivalries and, ultimately, redemption. It is one of two songs that I am pleased to know – just because they are not easy to learn – all the words to, (the other being (White Man) In Hammersmith Palais). It is probably my favourite Beach Boys song (with the obvious exception of God Only Knows, which sits on a pedestal all of its own).

Elsewhere, there is a thread that persists in their lyrics, an already-yearning nostalgia for the time they were living in, a looking back even before it had passed. A fundamental anxiety about what life would be like once these responsibility-free, untroubled days were over and middle-age (as good — or bad — as old age to the youngsters they were then) had settled upon them.

Caroline, No, for example, has always struck me as incredibly poignant, a young man seeing the girl he once loved, now older and as lost to him as his youth, and wondering ‘Where did your long hair go? Where is the girl I used to know?’ The young writers (Brian Wilson and Tony Asher, 23 and 25 respectively) were recognising the passage of time and loss of innocence in a simple, yet telling couplet.  I remember hearing this as a 15-year-old and already dreading the girls I knew crossing the Rubicon into maturity, as evidenced by the cutting of their long hair, which itself seemed a metaphor for giving in to adulthood.

In Do It Again, there are similar nostalgic themes, written with prescience by Brian Wilson and, this time, Mike Love. ‘It’s automatic when I talk with old friends, the conversation turns girls we knew when their hair was soft and long…’ Again, the Beach Boys were turning the clock forward on themselves, and knowing, with wonderful sentimentality, that one day they’d be looking back on these times.

On a different but connected theme, In My Room, a melancholic, introverted ode to the trials and tribulations of being a teenager, of the inevitable angst that accompanies all the joyous liberation, gives us a scene most of us will recognise: the sanctuary of our room, where we put all our setbacks, our woes, our disappointments into perspective and lost ourselves within, well, ourselves. ‘In this world I lock out all my worries and my fears’. Which of us didn’t?

For every seemingly cheerfully hedonistic song, of the ‘right here, right now,’ fun filled and sun-warmed happiness type, there’s another which looks tentatively ahead and asks ‘where is this all leading?’ Take a look and listen (again) to When I Grow Up To Be A Man. That the future, with its responsibilities, its expectations and pressures, was even written about by a group famed for its surf sound, let alone done so with such tenderness and anxiety is a thing of wonder.  There’s an acceptance of the inevitability of growing up (old) that is both sad and yet optimistic, knowing it will be filled with other, new experiences.

I grew up by the sea, and spent a lot of my childhood and teens on the beach. I loved the Beach Boys sound; it really did form a soundtrack to those long days messing about with boards, girls, friends, of not really thinking beyond the next few hours. And yet..

And yet, it was the other songs, the thoughtful, ponderous, complicated, wistful songs that really struck me.  Even as I lived and loved those days, I was aware of how quickly they would be gone, how I would one day be remembering them with a warm fondness.  I lived them and remembered them at one and the same time. If that sounds depressingly sad, trust me, it wasn’t.  Without the Beach Boys telling me how, I would surely have enjoyed them less, rather than doubly so.

Go on, treat yourself, have a listen with fresh ears and be as nostalgic as you like.

One thought on “Growing Up With Brian Wilson…

  1. Really good piece. Other: I see your H&V and raise you ‘Sail On Sailor’; perhaps my favourite BB tune of all, musically. Which, in and of itself, is a pretty out-there sentiment 🙂