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Where Did the Beach Boys’ Sound Come From?

A few years before the Beach Boys made their first record, the three brothers who formed the original core of the group sang together in the bedroom they shared in a tract home in suburban Southern California. Close quarters fed close harmony, and Brian, Carl, and Dennis Wilson taught themselves to emulate the sound of the pre-rock vocal groups—the Four Freshman and the Hi-Lo’s, in particular. One voice short of the four necessary to fit the model, they enlisted their cousin Mike Love to join them, and beefed up the band with Brian’s schoolmate Al Jardine, who could play the guitar and the bass. It’s slightly more than 50 years now since the group recorded its debut single, “Surfin’,” written by Love and Brian Wilson for a small label called Candix Records. Begun as a vocal harmony group, the Beach Boys famously became something more, as Brian experimented with studio technology, sonic textures, and drugs. Re-organized (but not exactly reunited, since Carl and Dennis Wilson are no longer living), an assemblage of members of various early configurations of the group have been touring and this week released an overhyped new album with the cleverly jokey, if somewhat self-celebratory title That’s Why God Made the Radio.

The album is, for the most part, nostalgic lite-rock silliness. The songs, put together by Brian Wilson and various collaborators—chief among them, Joe Thomas, an industrial music-content provider who had worked with Brian Wilson and the other Beach Boys on early projects; Jim Peterik, whose pedigree is contained in his big hit, “Eye of the Tiger,” for Survivor; Mike Love, who contributed lyrics of banality staggering even for him; and Jon Bon Jovi—yes, the actual Jon Bon Jovi. A couple of the tracks, “From There to Back Again” and “Summer’s Gone,” are sweetly lyrical; and only one, “Spring Vacation,” is absolutely terrible. The great strength of the album is the luxurious sound of its singers’ voices in harmony. That sound seems to have had quite a bit of help in the studio; Brian uses a quasi-ghost singer, Jeff Foskett, to sing his parts along with him, and I can recognize Auto-Tune on two tracks, “Pacific Coast Highway” and “From There to Back Again.” Still, it’s a beautiful sound that exists nowhere else in pop music.

That’s not to say it came from nowhere, though. Since Doc Watson’s death last week, I’ve been attuned to the ways in which major innovators in one sphere of music (Watson in bluegrass, the Beach Boys in rock-era pop) built their innovations from early influences in other spheres (Watson in Western swing, the Beach Boys in pre-rock vocal harmony).  In the Beach Boys’ case, we can see clearly how this could happen by imagining a day in the Wilsons’ house in the late 1950s. On the radio that God gave the boys, they would have heard the early rock-and-roll that provided the hot-rod attitude, as well as the chord structure, of their first songs. And on TV, they would have seen the male harmony groups that innovated the silkily intricate vocal work that would later come to be thought of as the Beach Boys sound. It came first from the Four Freshman, a quartet started by another team of brothers, Ross and Don Barbour; and the Hi-Lo’s, a group led by the wildly inventive vocal arranger and singer Gene Puerling.