No matter where you go in the summertime, you’ll probably hear The Beach Boys. Whether it’s at a theme park, a summer barbecue, or at Coney Island in July to see the musical legends live in concert, The Beach Boys have provided the soundtrack to summer for generations. They also paved the way for future artists to create all the summer jams we love. Catch a wave and ride back to 1960s California to see how The Beach Boys changed music forever with these ten iconic songs.
A certified gold hit from the band’s second studio album, ‘Surfin’ USA’ rocketed The Beach Boys to national success in 1963. Unlike nearly all The Beach Boys’ songs to follow, the music to ‘Surfin’ USA’ was not written by band member and main songwriter Brian Wilson. Instead, the song was set to the music of ‘Sweet Little Sixteen‘ by Chuck Berry, and it was recreated to incorporate The Beach Boys’ signature harmonies and beach theme. The song showcased the vocal abilities of the group with each singer taking multiple parts, and it aimed to transport all American kids to the beach with this 1963 album of the same title. With the Beatles dominating mainstream music, this song solidified The Beach Boys’ ‘All-American’ sound.
Like ‘Surfin’ USA’, ‘Barbara Ann’ made use of the incredible vocal talents of the three Wilson brothers, their cousin, Mike Love, and friend, Al Jardine. Originally sung by The Regents in 1961, The Beach Boys version, featured on their 1965 album The Beach Boys Party!, peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1965. The two-minute song was a hit due to its clean, catchy harmonies and progressive vocal arrangement.
The story of a teen boy whose girlfriend reassures him before a drag race, ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ was a soft, beautiful song about fear and doubt. While most of The Beach Boys’ songs at the time were about surfing and sunshine, ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ took on more serious themes of young love. Critic David Howard wrote that the song represented a ‘dichotomy’ in California sound- that something under the bright façade was dark and dangerous. Though this may have been true, it also turned out to represent growing social unrest in the 60s. California was known for its sunshine but would later be the center of anti-war movements.
Capitalizing on their California surf life identity, Brian Wilson composed ‘California Girls’ in 1965 after his first psychedelic experience. The song includes an orchestral prelude, and it features one of the earliest successful attempts at verse-chorus form, where the verse and chorus are sung to different music. This composition method has since been adopted into pop music as common practice. Wilson also cited inspirations from Broadway. The song is considered the epitome of California Sound and Surf Rock, and it is included on the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s list, ‘500 Songs That Shaped Rock n’ Roll‘. The song also inspired movies and numerous covers, including, yes, Katy Perry’s 2010 ‘California Gurls’.
This 1964 hit almost didn’t make it through recording. ‘Fun Fun Fun’ was about a teenage girl whose father took her car away. The Beach Boys were all about California Sound, but this song also fed right into something known as the ‘California myth’ – an idyllic idea of the lives of teenagers in southern California, featuring the teens themselves as bright-eyed, innocent, and perpetually tan. It was perfect for dancing and singing along, and it proved that The Beach Boys could write a great song about pretty much anything.
The darker lyrics marked the transition of The Beach Boys from All-American pop stars to struggling former icons, all while showcasing a gentler version of the group’s harmonies. Released in 1969, the late 60s and 70s saw fluctuating group membership and immense changes in the music industry. While they continued to tour and create new music, their iconic surf sound gave way to the Wall of Sound. The California Sound had also evolved from The Beach Boys’ signature sunshine music to harder rock n’ roll that directly addressed ambitious themes like war, drugs, and sexual freedom.
Co-written by Brian Wilson and Mike Love, this song was released as a single in 1964, and it topped at number seven on the Billboard Hot 100. The song features an a cappella intro and launches into an upbeat rock-pop song with a lead falsetto sung by Brian Wilson. The song marked continued difficulties for Wilson because he refused to give co-writing credit to Love, until Love sued him in 1994. During recording, the band fired manager (and father) Murray Wilson but commented that they loved making music together as a family. They claimed the song was about the band members themselves, just hanging out and being a group of young guys. ‘I Get Around’ is listed at number 316 on Rolling Stone’s ‘500 Greatest Songs of All Time‘.
The introductory song for the 1966 album, Pet Sounds, ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ used the Wall of Sound technique and took 21 takes before the band was satisfied with the recording. The song was a wistful anthem for teens who wished to be grown-ups in a time where many teens were disconnected from their more traditional parents, even though they were afraid to go against them. Like most Beach Boys songs, ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ featured innovative uses of music in the composition and production, incorporating jazz and classical songwriting techniques into the pop song. The song was voted number seven on Pitchfork Media’s ‘Best Songs of the 1960s’ list.
Groundbreaking for several reasons, this 1966 Pet Sounds song drew from several musical inspirations. With ‘inside-out’ composition, critics went as far as comparing the pop song to the work of classical composers such as Bach and Handel. The Beach Boys proved once again that pop music could be complex and emotional, paving the way for huge production budgets and darker themes in the music that would follow. The song was also the first song on U.S. radio to say the word ‘God’. Considered a bold move, the band maintained that the God they were referring to was not literal, and that the song was about a relationship between two people.
By far the most iconic and successful Beach Boys song of the group’s career, ‘Good Vibrations’ was a defining song of the 1960s, rock-pop, and music production. With an unprecedented production budget, ‘Good Vibrations’ was one of the first mainstream pop songs to utilize computers and synthesized instruments. Despite criticisms on the ‘inhuman’ methods, the song earned the Beach Boys a Grammy, and it is number six on the ‘500 Greatest Songs of All Time‘ list, according to Rolling Stone. ‘Good Vibrations’ paved the way for the electronic music to come in the 70s. It characterizes both the composition prowess and wholesome, American summer that defined the iconic group and its music.