English musician and radio presenter Jaime Cullum said this about The Beach Boys on "Vh1 100 Greatest Artists of All-Time": "When you think about pop music, The Beach Boys are like the guy who wrote the Bible. Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys invented what we have today and we wouldn’t be here without them."
Coming out after the heights of the original rock stars like Chuck Berry and Elvis and before the British Invasion that would usher a new era in pop music and culture, The Beach Boys began their careers exemplifying the classic, 1950’s California Americana lifestyle. Their songs focused on the joys of teenage life, youthful hope, and, of course, the beach life of the West Coast. However, what separated them from other groups was the production talents of the group’s bassist, producer, and de-facto leader, Brian Wilson.
As the British came and the music world shifted away from songs like "Surfin," "Surfin USA," and "Surfin Safari" and more towards introspective songs, Wilson led his band to the studio in the mid-1960s and produced what many consider the greatest album ever recorded. Unfortunately, not long after, Wilson’s mental health took him away from the band. Even without Wilson, the band continued strong into the next decades and beyond. Here is the untold truth of The Beach Boys.
It was a Family Affair
By the end of the 1960s, music groups featuring siblings dominated the pop charts. The Allman Brothers Band, The Kinks, The Carpenters, and The Jackson Five ended the decade as music stars. At the dawn of the decade, The Beach Boys got the ball rolling with a five-man lineup where four members shared blood, as detailed by Britannica.
The Wilson brothers grew up in suburban Los Angeles. Brian Wilson was the eldest brother, born in 1942, followed then by Dennis Wilson then Carl Wilson. Their father, Murry Wilson, operated a small machine shop and wrote songs on the side. Brian was the first to show an interest in music. According to Smooth Radio, Murry said that as a baby, Brian could repeat the melody of "When the Caissons Go Rolling Along" and at age 2 became fascinated by George Gershwin’s "Rhapsody in Blue." As a teenager, Brian began to train his brothers in how to harmonize similar to doo-wop groups of the era.
During this time, the brothers would spend more time with their cousin, Mike Love. Brian, Love, and two friends began to perform. Soon Al Jardine, a friend of Brian, joined the group named by Love as "The Pendletones." The lineup soon became Love, Jardine, and the three Wilson brothers. Despite his musical intellect, it took the insistence of Dennis to push Brian to write songs for the group, now going by the name, The Beach Boys.
Murry Wilson’s Abuse
Similar to Joe Jackson’s control over his sons in The Jackson Five, Murry Wilson had similar control in his son’s group. When not using his hand to guide the band’s direction and taking his financial cut, he was using it to strike his sons, especially the eldest Brian Wilson. In a 1991 interview with The Chicago Tribune, Brian spoke about some of the abuse he suffered at the hands of his father.
He said that his father, a failed musician himself, would refer to his son as a "loser" and demean his musicianship. Murry forced his eldest son in one episode to defecate in a newspaper like a dog as his mother watched him. ETV’s documentary of The Beach Boys also told more stories of abuse the boys suffered.
A neighbor of the Wilsons (and pre-Beach Boys member), David Marks, remembered his father having to break up a fistfight between Murry and Dennis Wilson. Brian also blames his father for becoming partially deaf in his right ear, as Murry once struck Brian with a two-by-four wooden board in the side of the head. In May 1965, Murry wrote Brian a 5,000-word disparaging note telling how disappointed he was in his son and how he had conducted the band, reports The Guardian. Murry would later sell off the band’s hit songs for $700,000 to the publishing wing of A&M Records in 1969. Murry would pass away four years later.
Rivalry with The Beatles
In many ways, The Beatles were the British version of The Beach Boys. While the Wilsons grew up near the waters of the beach, the Fab Four grew up near the shipyards of Liverpool. Both entered the music world playing regionally distinctive music with their spin — The Beach Boys’ "surf rock" and The Beatles’ "The Mersey Sound." So it is no surprise a healthy rivalry began between the two groups, who also admired each other’s work. When electing Brian Wilson into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Paul McCartney recalled becoming overcome with emotions when listening to The Beach Boys.
The rivalry, in a sense, began when the Fab Four entered the United States and the pop charts, knocking off The Beach Boys and every other musician that stood in their way. Though, according to Pretty Green, the rivalry truly began in 1965. After The Beatles released the successful album and film, "A Hard Day’s Night," Brian Wilson and the rest of the band followed suit, releasing their own album and film. When The Beach Boys released the album, "The Beach Boys Today," and the accompanying film, some people said that this inspired John Lennon to write "Help."
In December 1965, the rivalry hit a new point when The Beatles, seemingly tearing off their boy band image, released one of the most complex albums up to this point in rock history, "Rubber Soul." Brian Wilson answered this with his own masterpiece, "Pet Sounds."
By 1966, The Beach Boys were five years into their successful pop careers, though dark clouds blanketed them. In 1964, The Beatles stepped foot in the U.S. and were followed by other British acts who commandeered the charts from American artists. By the middle of the decade, these Brits began to experiment with their music, leading Brian Wilson to do the same. The result was possibly the greatest album of the 20th century, "Pet Sounds."
According to Vox, Brian’s first wife, Marilyn Wilson-Rutherford recalled Brian saying, "I need to make the greatest rock ‘n’ roll album. I’m gonna do it."
And this was a Brian Wilson album. Wilson suffered a mental breakdown on an airplane in 1965 and decided to stop touring with the band, as told by Rolling Stone. When the group returned in early 1966, Wilson was already working on the album. Working with the famed Wrecking Crew as studio musicians, Wilson painstakingly held complete control over the production of the album. The other four Beach Boys contributed their vocals and nothing else.
While the album did not sell as well as other Beach Boys albums, it left an aftershock on the music world. Beatles producer George Martin said The Beatles’ masterpiece, "Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band" would never have happened without "Pet Sounds" (via Rolling Stone). Rolling Stone ranked the album No. 2 on its list of the "500 Greatest Albums."
Brian Wilson’s Post-"Pet Sounds" Health
For Brian Wilson, following up on his landmark album proved to be as difficult, and his mental state only worsened from this failure.
According to Pretty Green, after the release of "Pet Sounds" in May 1966, the band released the single "Good Vibrations." The single topped the pop charts and became both a best seller and one of the best songs of the era. Still amid their rivalry with The Beatles, who would release "Revolver" a few months after "Pet Sounds," Wilson once again hit the studios to make his follow-up, "Smile."
According to Ultimate Classic Rock, Wilson would spend almost a year working on the album he called a "teenage symphony to God." Wilson’s perfectionism led the other Beach Boys to question his direction, and sessions stretched to a full year. That, as well as his growing dependence on drugs, led Wilson to take a break from the band and the other members to shelve "Smile." The music from the sessions would not be released until 2011.
Dennis Wilson’s Relationship with Charles Manson
Biography details in the spring of 1968, Dennis Wilson picked up two female hitchhikers on the road. Newly divorced, Wilson took the girls home and entertained them stories about spiritual guru, Maharishi Mahesh. The girls told Wilson they had a spiritual advisor as well, named Charlie.
The women introduced Wilson to their "spiritual guru," Charles Manson. Upon introducing himself, Manson knelt and kissed Wilson’s feet. Manson and his "family" moved into Wilson’s home as the two began a friendship throughout the summer. Wilson, living the free-spirit lifestyle, enjoyed the women and LSD provided by Manson, who was in turn interested in becoming a musician himself. Manson’s music and personality attracted figures like Neil Young and talent scout Gregg Jakobson, who wanted to feature him in a documentary. However, Manson failed to impress Wilson’s friend, Columbia Record producer Terry Melcher. Not long after the summer of 1968, Wilson’s and Manson’s friendship began to sour. Eventually, Wilson would leave his home just as the lease ran out, and Manson and his followers were evicted. Wilson would then take one of Manson’s songs and re-record it without crediting Manson.
Manson was so angry, he left Wilson a bullet and a warning to keep his kids safe, which, according to some sources, led Wilson to beat up Manson. A year later, Manson’s followers carried out their infamous murders (which was targeting Melcher). According to bandmate Mike Wilson (via Biography), Wilson carried the guilt for his previous relationship with the family for the rest of his life.
Dennis Wilson’s Death
"Maybe I just like a fast life. I wouldn’t give it up for anything in the world. It won’t last forever, either. But the memories will." According to Far Out Magazine, this was written in the liner notes for the group’s 1964 album, "All Summer Long." Unfortunately Dennis Wilson, the middle child of the Wilson brothers and an important contributor to Brian Wilson’s music, fulfilled the words on the album.
Dennis, like his brothers, suffered from his father’s abuse that led him to fill his life with what made him happy. In the band, Dennis was Brian’s greatest supporter. When the other members questioned Brian’s direction, Dennis stayed Brian’s rock. Dennis even went as far as to say, "Brian Wilson is The Beach Boys … He is the band. We’re his f***ing messengers. He is all of it. Period. We’re nothing. He’s everything."
After Brian’s self-exile following his worsening mental health, Dennis attempted to keep the band stable, though this often led to conflicts with his cousin and fellow Beach Boy, Mike Love. By the 1970s, Dennis’ lifestyle had become self-destructive, Rock and Roll Garage details. Despite growing more as a musician and releasing a cult classic debut solo album, "Pacific Ocean Blue," alcohol, divorces, drugs, and the memories of his father’s abuse eventually took their toll. On December 28, 1983, Dennis, in a drunken state, drowned attempting to recover items belonging to his ex-wife that he had thrown into the water three years prior. He was 39-years-old.
Relationship with John Stamos
Okay, this relationship is a lot less toxic than the one with Charles Manson. And unlike Manson, this is a relationship that continues to this day. The relationship began back when John Stamos was a child and a fan of the group. According to Aceshowbiz, Stamos finally met his heroes in 1985 when he was a star on the soap opera, "General Hospital," and his friend got him backstage to one of The Beach Boys shows.
Stamos told Kelly Clarkson in an interview on her show that while backstage, he was catching the eye of many female fans. Mike Love went to Stamos’ friend to ask who the actor was. His friend told him who he was and that girls tended to follow him around. Love immediately told him to get on stage with them. Since then, Stamos has been associated with the band as much as Spike Lee is associated with the New York Knicks. Stamos appeared in the music video for their big 1980s comeback, "Kokomo," and has become a part-time member of the band when he was not starring on television, as he explained on "The Howard Stern Show." Stamos would cover Dennis Wilson’s ballad, "Forever," both in "Full House" and on The Beach Boys album, "Summer in Paradise."
Brian Wilson’s Relationship with Dr. Eugene Landy
With his mental stability worsening by the end of the 1960s and into the 1970s, Brian Wilson’s entire life began to go astray. His weight ballooned, and he was, inaccurately, diagnosed to be suffering from paranoid schizophrenia, as told by Do You Remember. At this point, a seeming angel of salvation came to his life in the form of Dr. Eugene Landy. However, the next two decades would show that Landy was far from angelic.
Landy took advantage of Brian, like Brian’s father, Murry Wilson. Landy would scream at Brian if he showed any irregularities and over-medicated the struggling artist. Despite the calls of his brother, Carl Wilson, to try to have Landy removed, Brian was completely dependent and loyal to his doctor. It was not until Brian began dating Melinda Ledbetter that she began to slowly remove Landy out of her future husband’s life.
In 2014, the biopic, "Love and Mercy," showed the troubling relationship between Brian and Landy and Ledbetter’s efforts to remove the doctor — though, in reality, Carl did much of the work. Even then, Ledbetter said the biopic did not come close to show how bad the abuse was. Eventually, Landy would have his medical license revoked for overmedicating his famous patient, and Brian was correctly diagnosed as having schizoaffective disorder with mild manic depression, allowing him to get back to becoming a full-time musician.
Carl Wilson’s Death
According to Pitchfork, after Brian Wilson’s mental health issues forced him out of the driver seat of the band, it was the youngest Wilson brother, Carl, that took the reins throughout the next decades. Under Carl’s leadership, the band became one of the most successful touring acts in the world. Despite Brian’s legacy of being the musical leader of The Beach Boys, Carl held the reins of the band more than twice as long as Brian. And despite the initial objections of his brother, Carl was able to save his brother from the grips of Dr. Eugene Landy
As told by Brain Sharper, Carl was a heavy smoker from as young as 13-years-old. By the 1990s, this took its toll on the youngest Wilson. In 1997, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. The next year, Carl would pass away at the age of 51, two months after his mother passed away. In 2000, the last album he recorded, "Like a Brother," featuring Robert Lamm and Gerry Beckley, was released.
Mike Love’s Unpopularity
Well, someone has to be the least popular in the group. However, in a family unit, it is odd to see that unpopularity extend to the members themselves, as well as fellow musicians. Mike Love, cousins to the Wilsons and the lead singer and de facto frontman of the group, has grown to become one of the most hated men in popular music.
At The Beach Boys’ induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, Love’s speech more than ruffled a few feathers of his contemporaries. When talking about the harmonies he and the band practice inside and outside the studio, he commented on the lack of personal relationships Paul McCartney and Diana Ross had with their old bands, The Beatles and The Supremes, who were also being inducted that night. He ended the speech by saying Mick Jagger was "too chickens**t" to share the stage with the band … which Mick Jagger would later do that evening to perform.
Still, these claims of harmony with the members of bands might ring hollow seeing that Love routinely fought his fellow Beach Boys. According to Pitchfork, Love has feuded with Al Jardine and Melinda Ledbetter and, as told by Far Out Magazine, he called Dennis Wilson "a drugged-out-no-talent parasite." Still, this is chump change compared to his feud with Brian Wilson.
Brian Wilson vs. Mike Love
In a way, the rivalry between Mike Love and Brian Wilson is similar to the rivalry of their British contemporaries, John Lennon and Paul McCartney. However, unlike the Brits, fans tend to look at the Wilson/Love feud differently. While Lennon and McCartney were seen as equals, many see Brian as the clear genius and leader of The Beach Boys.
This is something that has bothered Love, who, according to the Herald-Tribune, has felt he has been viewed as riding Brian’s coattails from Brian Wilson fans. Love successfully sued for the name of the band in order to tour as "The Beach Boys" and receive writing credits on 35 songs.
Love famously told Brian, "don’t [mess] with the formula" when Brian wanted to evolve the band’s music from simple songs to "Pet Sounds" and "Smile," as told by Brain Sharper. Love feuded with Dennis Wilson, even after Dennis had an affair with his wife, and publicly pushed for Brian to return to the band before he was mentally ready. In 2012, the group decided to have a 50th-anniversary tour with the three surviving original members (Love, Brian and Al Jardine). The tour ended prematurely, with the other members blaming Love. As of 2019, Brian said he has no plans of joining the band again without "big changes" being made.