The Beach Boys: The story of Brian Wilson and the California sound

4 October 2022, 15:15 | Updated: 1 November 2022, 11:04

By Mayer Nissim

The Beach Boys burst onto the scene as teen surf icons, but grew into one of the most influential bands of all time.

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Starting as a garage band and swiftly becoming pop superstars, The Beach Boys eventually became one of the most influential groups of all time.

Their lead songwriter Brian Wilson was the key to their incredible music, but it was also the stunning vocal harmonies of all the Boys that made – and still makes – the band so iconic.

As well as selling over 100 million records worldwide, the group have piled up countless awards and accolades over the years.

They're in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they've got a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, and they've probably topped more Best Single and Best Album charts than anyone else in pop history.

So it's long overdue for us to induct The Beach Boys into our own Hall of Fame, and take a celebratory look back at their remarkable career.

When did The Beach Boys form and who was in their original lineup?

The Beach Boys in 1962
The Beach Boys in 1962. Picture: Getty Images

The roots of the Beach Boys go back to the childhood years of the Wilson brothers: Brian, Dennis and Carl.

You could argue that it all began on Brian's 16th birthday on June 20, 1958, when Brian was given a reel-to-reel tape recorder.

Brian shared a bedroom with 13-year-old Dennis and 11-year-old Carl, and having watched his sometimes songwriting dad Murray play the piano and listened to vocal groups like The Four Freshman, he taught his brothers how to sing and recorded (effectively producing them) on his new birthday present.

Also joining the Wilson brothers was their 11-year-old neighbour, while they also became close to Wilson cousin Mike Love and high school pal Al Jardine.

Mike Love christened the band The Pendletones, while surfer Dennis urged the group to write songs about surfing.

Brian Wilson, not a surfer, did just that with 'Surfin'', while he and Mike Love collaborated on 'Surfin' Safari'.

Dad Murray hooked the group up with his publisher Hite Morgan, and it was Hite's wife Dorinda who insisted they record it.

The demo made its way to Herb Newman who signed the group and put out 'Surfin'' under the name The Beach Boys, a name Ezra Records promoter Russ Regan came up with.

So the founding members of The Beach Boys were: Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine and Mike Love.

Who has been in the Beach Boys over the years and who is in the current touring lineup?

The Beach Boys in concert in 1964
The Beach Boys in concert in 1964. Picture: Getty Images

There have been over 50 members of the Beach Boys touring lineups over the years, and they've had countless studio session players work with them, but we'll generally stick to the list of "official members".

The boys' childhood friend David Marks joined the lineup from 1962-63, and later played with the group in 1997-99 an 2011-2012.

While he was never an "official" member, when Brian Wilson stopped playing with the band then-session musician Glen Campbell (yes, that Glen Campbell) toured with the group in 1964 and 1965.

Bruce Johnston joined the group in 1965, staying with the lineup until 1972 before leaving and rejoining in 1978.

When Brian Wilson was in-and-out of the group and Dennis had injured his hand, Blondie Chaplin became an official member from 1972 to 1973, and Ricky Fataar from 1972 to 1974.

Original member Dennis Wilson died in 1983, drowning at Marina Del Rey. Carl died in 1998 of lung cancer.

The current "official" Beach Boys are Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston, but the current touring lineup only includes Mike and Bruce.

So if you see The Beach Boys in concert today, you'll be getting: Mike Love and Bruce Johnston as well as Tim Bonhomme, Scott Totten, John Cowsill, Christian Love, Brian Eichenberger, Randy Leago and Keith Hubacher.

What are The Beach Boys most famous songs (and albums)?

The Beach Boys released their first album Surfin' Safari in October 1962, before churning out album-after-album-after-album, finishing off their first era with Beach Boys' Party! in November 1965.

They released three albums in 1963, another three in 1964 and another three in 1965. Nine albums in three years, with eight of them reaching the top ten, and the other charting as high as 13.

These albums are all a great listen and are littered with the hits that made the Beach Boys pop icons, but it was when they slowed down a touch that they made the records that still top those 'Best Ever' lists.

Pet Sounds was released in May 1966, and was followed by the 'Good Vibrations' single just a few months later.

After that, Brian Wilson failed to make his SMiLE album (until his re-working of the whole project for 2004's Brian Wilson Presents Smile), with the Smiley Smile album rising from its ashes in 1967.

The Beach Boys saw out the decade with Wild Honey, Friends and 20/20. Brian Wilson withdrew from the group after the failure to complete SMiLE, and flipped in and out of the group over the years that followed.

The group's 1970s albums like Surf's Up and Carl and the Passions – "So Tough" have grown in stature over the years, while they enjoyed a return to the top of the charts in 1988 in 'Kokomo', which featured on the Cocktail soundtrack and then the Beach Boys album Still Cruisin'.

Albums followed, with the pick of the bunch being the 50th anniversary That's Why God Made the Radio, which saw Brian Wilson's brief return to the group and took the band back to number 3 in the album charts.

The very biggest Beach Boys songs over the years include:

  • Surfin' U.S.A.
  • Little Deuce Coupe
  • Be True to Your School
  • Fun, Fun, Fun
  • I Get Around
  • When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)
  • Dance, Dance, Dance
  • Help Me, Rhonda
  • California Girls
  • Sloop John B
  • Wouldn't It Be Nice
  • God Only Knows
  • Good Vibrations
  • Heroes and Villains
  • Surf's Up
  • Kokomo
  • That's Why God Made the Radio

Who wrote The Beach Boys' songs?

When The Beach Boys kicked off their career, it was at at a time when many popstars didn't write their own music.

That was never the case with The Beach Boys. Most of their very best-loved songs were primarily written by their resident genius Brian Wilson, who also produced many of their 1960s classics.

Their first album Surfin' Safari featured songs written by Brian together with either Mike Love or friend of the band Gary Usher, as well as a few covers.

As the years went on, the albums continued to include Wilson co-writes, with Brian writing the music and usually Love (but sometimes Usher or Roger Christian) providing the words, as well as a smattering of covers.

The Beach Boys in 1967
The Beach Boys in 1967. Picture: Getty Images

Pet Sounds saw Brian join forces with lyricist Tony Asher, while Van Dykes Parks pitched in on Smiley Smile.

As the decade came to a close and Brian's health issues caused him to slip in and out of his role in the band, the rest of the group picked up the slack with their own contributions, including the likes of Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston.

With that said, there wasn't a Beach Boys album without a new songwriting contribution from Brian Wilson until 1992's unloved Summer in Paradise – and even that included a reworking of Brian and Mike Love's 'Surfin'', the first Beach Boys single.

When did Brian Wilson leave (and rejoin, and leave) The Beach Boys?

As the band's main songwriter, often their producer, a lead vocalist and multi instrumentalist, Brian Wilson was always the heart of The Beach Boys.

Technically, he's also never left the band – which may be a surprise to those of you who have seen the group playing live and even releasing albums without him.

It's true that there have been several occasions when Brian has left the touring lineup of the group, or drifted far apart from them in the studio.

He first withdrew from the group as early as 1964, after suffering a nervous breakdown. He retired from touring, but still dominated the group's songwriting, effectively taking complete control of the musical output in the studio too.

As noted when we spoke about who wrote the Beach Boys' songs, Brian's involvement in the group reduced further by the end of the 1960s, though he was often always around in some capacity.

Brian returned to the touring lineup between 1967 and 1983 before he was forced from the group, making only sporadic appearances as a special guest in the years that came.

He finally rejoined as a full touring member for the band's 50th anniversary reunion tour in 2011 and 2012, before leaving the group once more.

Since then, The Beach Boys have continued to tour, led by Mike Love and with longtime member Bruce Johnston in the lineup.

Meanwhile, Brian Wilson plays The Beach Boys music and his own tunes under his own name, backed by a band including long-time former Beach Boys Al Jardine and David Marks.

Will The Beach Boys get back together with Brian Wilson?

After the group's fruitful 50th anniversary fizzled out, there were hopes of another proper reunion with the surviving original members and long-time members –  Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and David Marks around their 60th anniversary.

Despite some lovely reissued material, a live reconciliation didn't happen.

The door hasn't completely closed though, and Al Jardine hinted tantalisingly at the possibility.

"We’re hoping to put together 10 or so concerts, worldwide, maybe something for charity, while we still have our voices," he said in September 2021.

"It would be the appropriate time to come back together and do some great things."

For his part, Bruce Johnston all-but ruled out a studio reunion, but also backed a live comeback saying: "I would expect a televised event."