Courtesy of Capitol Records.

November 14, 2022

PONTIN | Where Can I Learn to Surf Around Here?

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In a valiant effort to ward off the impending and unavoidable Ithaca winter, I’ve been queuing up the Beach Boys on repeat. If you see me walking anywhere on campus, you can bet your bottom dollar I’m probably listening to one of three songs: “All I Wanna Do,” “Surfer Girl” or “Don’t Worry Baby” (which is, arguably, one of the best songs to grace musical history). I’ve been relying so heavily on these songs to stave off the seasonal blues — and blasting them so vehemently in my headphones — that I accidentally dropped my AirPod case somewhere along the walk to Olin Library from Collegetown last weekend. (If you’re curious, I did indeed recover the case in a leaf pile by the sidewalk outside of Snee Hall. Lucky!)

My quasi-obsession with the contagious, feel-good, easygoing joy of the Beach Boys began in mid-May. I was in the midst of transitioning to a remote internship after a semester spent studying abroad, and I was ridiculously committed to romanticizing my suburban summer. To solidify this notion into reality, I (of course) began by making a playlist to encapsulate all the good vibrations that I hoped would become the foundation for my summer. I gave it what is perhaps my least cryptic playlist title, and “it’s a beach boys summer” became the indisputable soundtrack for the sunniest season. I expanded the scope to encompass songs that emanated something adjacent to the Beach Boys’ easy-breezy California style, resulting in a collection largely dominated by late ‘60s and early ‘70s tunes by artists like The Monkees and Sonny & Cher. 

It’s hard to nail down exactly what it is about this genre that renders it such a powerful mood-booster. It could be the placid guitar riffs that weave their way into melodies like waves slipping onto sand, or perhaps the zealous yet mellow percussion that perfectly encapsulates how I imagine cruising down the Pacific Coast Highway in a T-Bird would feel. 

This question is only made more perplexing, however, when we consider what the lives of our storied Beach Boys actually entailed. The band’s set of three brothers suffered physical abuse from their father (who doubled as the band’s manager at the outset); legend recounts him removing his glass eye and forcing his sons to peer into the empty socket. Further, rumor has it that only one member was a genuinely avid surfer, and another was even afraid of the ocean. 

The band members were also no strangers to conflict, with two members taking out restraining orders against one another and a third member taken into FBI custody after refusing the draft. Hostile debates over songwriting credits and royalties have also plagued the group, as well as a present-day battle over rights to the “Beach Boys” name as it relates to current tours and performances. What’s more, one member even wedded another member’s illegitimate daughter and also had known ties to Charles Manson. Certain Beach Boys’ careers would end in tragedy long before our modern moment, however, with Dennis Wilson tragically drowning at the age of 39 and Carl Wilson passing away from lung cancer at the age of 51. 

How is it, then, that a band with such severe strife became the musical cornerstone of lovin’ and leisure? For those unbeknownst to the group’s cacophony of contention, it would be undeniably easy to believe that the band embodied the truest form of the ‘60s American Dream on the golden coast. The group is still upheld as one of the few to hold their own against the advances of the British Invasion, dominating the UK scene even as the Beatles craze swept the United States. 

Beyond the lifestyle that this music conveys, though, is intensely impressive technical composition. Brian Wilson, the band’s frontman and the mind behind so much of their music, has been hailed as a genius unlike any of his generation — and perhaps generations since.  Besides the sheer volume of his creations, including sixteen singles and nine albums in just a two-year period, the attention to detail on the band’s repertoire is unquestionable. 

This notion came to a climax in the group’s 1966 album Pet Sounds — home of classics like “Good Vibrations” and my personal favorite “God Only Knows” — at which point Wilson was experimenting heavily with psychedelics like LSD. He was among the first to electronically combine instruments in order to generate entirely new vocabularies of sound. He also dramatically expanded the range of instruments that had become part of the rock n’ roll vernacular, broadening the scope to include cellos, sleigh bells, theremins — and the list continues. He even speeds up his own vocal track to sound more youthful in the elegiac “Caroline No.”

In this way, the Beach Boys are so much more than a symbol of fun in the sun. The evolution from materialistic matters like cars and exotic destinations — I’m looking at you, “Little Deuce Coupe” — to startlingly profound anthems of introspection and yearning mirrors a growing frustration with defined status symbols in the public consciousness as the ‘60s progressed. There is so much indescribable depth, lyrically and compositionally, in the prolific works of the Beach Boys, and most saliently in Pet Sounds. Brushing off the ragtag band of surf rockers as a group “whose songs all sound the same” not only neglects to acknowledge the complexity embedded in their work, but also ignores the group’s role as a notable innovator whose indelible impacts on rock n’ roll continue to shape the musical landscape. 

I had the immense privilege of seeing the Beach Boys in concert in August before heading back to Cornell for the fall semester. Mike Love now heads up the operation, alongside his son Christian Love. Despite being among the youngest of spectators, I couldn’t have felt more awestruck for the duration of the performance. As I let myself become awash in a chorus of my favorite melodies and watched b-roll of California beaches tumble across the big screen, I couldn’t help but wonder…where can I learn to surf around here?

Megan Pontin is a senior in the School of Industrial Labor Relations. She can be reached at [email protected]. Rewind runs alternate Mondays.