A new generation of US bands cites the Beach Boys as a huge inspiration. Why now?
TEN YEARS after Oasis soaked up the multi-coloured madness of the Beatles and Blur updated the woozy whimsy of the Kinks, a very different kind of psychedelia is on the tip of every cool musician’s tongue. Step forward, the harmony-drenched sounds of new American psychedelia, and its own generation of alternative rock groups. This scene, led by bands such as Fleet Foxes, Grizzly Bear and Animal Collective, shares one inspiration: the more experimental sounds of the late-career Beach Boys. But why the Beach Boys and why now?
Robin Pecknold of Seattle’s Fleet Foxes, the hirsute, baroque pop quintet that Mojo magazine recently called “America’s next great band”, has one theory. “The Beach Boys’ music soaks up all of America, from the sunny sound of Hawaii to the folk songs of the south to the intelligence of the north-east. In hard times, it’s about remembering the romance of the country, and also about the power of the human voice to convey those emotions.”
In 1966, the Beach Boys had entered a strange phase in their career. While political and sexual revolutions were empowering the group’s contemporaries, Brian Wilson had begun an intense collaboration as a songwriter with the songwriter and arranger Van Dyke Parks. The plan was to make a lush concept album called Smile, one that Wilson described as “a teenage symphony to God”, inspired by the band’s single ‘Good Vibrations’. Back then, the album never materialised. Under the weight of Wilson’s mental illness and drug abuse, and the band’s internal wrangling, the recording sessions fell apart, leaving a mysterious trail of songs that would be revisited by Wilson only years later. His version of Smile was premiered at the Royal Festival Hall in London in February 2004, and finally released the following September. Not surprisingly, its influence quickly bubbled into the mainstream.
Pecknold, the son of baby boomers who themselves grew up in the late 1960s, remembers hearing bootlegs of Smile long before 2004. As he talks about the effect they had on him, his voice glows with happiness. “They just blew my mind. They were so inventive and committed — the product of a man who just couldn’t do anything else. There was also an incredible honesty to it, which we and other bands relate to. Because in American music today, it’s almost like there’s a trend against irony.”
Today, as in the late Sixties, America is a country whose reputation has been battered by an unpopular war. Perhaps this is why bands have been driven towards the innocence and purity of their musical roots. This is certainly the case with Fleet Foxes, who mix Beach Boys-inspired, spiritual harmonies with folk and hymnal flavours that suggest something deeper in their cultural make-up. And it doesn’t matter to these bands that such influences were deeply unfashionable until recently.
Other harmony-loving, influential young American groups such as Midlake and Band of Horses take another Beach Boy, Brian’s little brother Dennis, as a huge inspiration. Though best known for his early death in 1983 and his brief friendship with Charles Manson, Dennis Wilson was also a cult solo performer. After sharing a tense childhood with his brother in the shadow of their controlling father, Murry, he made his classic debut album, Pacific Ocean Blue, in 1977. It is a long-deleted LP full of heartfelt, psychedelic soul songs. Fans have clamoured in recent years for its re-release, and it at last emerges this month.
The upbringing of Brian and Dennis Wilson has another link with the new generation of psychedelic groups: almost all of them have had intensely musical childhoods. Take the influential Brooklyn quartet Grizzly Bear, whose electronic take on the Beach Boys’ late-Sixties reverb has resulted in two gorgeous albums, Horn of Plenty (2004) and Yellow House (2006). Their frontman, Ed Droste, another huge fan of Brian Wilson, has talked proudly about his late grandfather being a professor of music at Harvard for 40 years, his mother being a music teacher who plays the autoharp, and the constant singing he enjoyed at home as a child.
Elsewhere in New York, the avant-garde Animal Collective are one of the most fashionable groups around, a shifting band of musicians who all met at school in Baltimore and learned classical instruments. To date, they have made eight experimental albums that warp Beach Boys harmonies into unsettling shapes, but only recently have they penetrated the mainstream press.
Animal Collective’s biggest related success has been Person Pitch (2007), the third solo album by one of its members, Panda Bear, which the critic Simon Reynolds described as sounding “like the Beach Boys if they’d joined Hare Krishna”. It earned five-star ratings in the Observer and the Independent and made the top tens of end-of-year polls, all for a record inspired by the birth of Lennox’s daughter, Nadja, and a wealth of deeply spiritual, innocent harmonies.
Perhaps it is a result of the Beach Boys’ influence on pop culture that this summer you can’t get away from them. Besides the critical adoration being heaped on the Dennis Wilson reissue, it is encouraging that Brian Wilson himself has become as industrious as he was in the mid-Sixties. On 19 May, he announced his return to Capitol Records, where the Beach Boys made their first album, Surfin’ Safari, in 1962. On 1 September, he will release his latest solo album, That Lucky Old Sun. Like Smile, it was written and recorded with Van Dyke Parks, who is experiencing a career renaissance of his own after arranging the folk harpist Joanna Newsom’s hugely acclaimed Ys and collaborating with the British psychedelic group the Shortwave Set.
“It’s a great honour to be here,” said Wilson at the press conference to announce That Lucky Old Sun, rocking gently on his feet like a child. Bright yellow banners like party decorations welcomed him home. Then he spoke some words that said everything about his past, his present and the effects of his legacy on the young generation: “It’s a very sentimental time in my life.”
© Jude Rogers, New Statesman, 12 June 2008