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The Rock’s Backpages Rewind: The Beach Boys at 50

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Gene Sculatti's wife scorned the notion of 70-year-old men singing teen surf songs. So he drove down to Orange County to see for himself——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

"There's something ridiculous about a 70-year-old man going out there and singing 'Fun, Fun, Fun.'" So said my wife last week when I told her that a ticket to see the Beach Boys perform at an Orange County (California) amphitheater had dropped into my lap.

Is there?

My chance to find out came as I watched a visibly slower Mike Love, a slightly more-engaged-than-usual Brian Wilson, an energized Al Jardine, plus David Marks, Bruce Johnston and cohorts plow through two hours of hits, misses, rarities, and songs from a new, 50th anniversary album. By the time Love kicked off 'Fun, Fun, Fun' (in the encore), the group, augmented by Dean Torrence of Jan & fame (he lives in Huntington Beach , a short hop away from the venue), Marsha's question—indeed, all questions regarding the Hawthorne crew and their place in the pop firmament—had been rendered utterly useless.

Here's why. If one of the worst crimes anyone can commit these days is to have an "agenda," then Brian Wilson is a serial offender, booked as early as 1962 and '63 on multiple counts of trying to inflict massive, sustained amounts of beauty, exhilaration and positivism on the world ('In My Room,' 'Surfin' USA,' 'Catch a Wave,' etc.).

The Beatles, Stones and Dylan may have begun, respectively, with aspirations to be the world's best rock 'n' roll band, to be the John the Baptists of the blues, or to dominate as a musical and cultural icon. Wilson's mission was far more basic and intuitive, and that's likely what's kept the best of his music—and, as the 50 or so songs in Sunday's show proved, there's so much of it—front and center so long for so many people. The Beach Boys' catalog tracks a half-century's worth of pop itself: from early, insidiously complex paeans to sea and strip (with immodesty in check: contrasted with today's chest-thumping stars, their most arrogant boast was "Well, I've got the fastest set of wheels in town") and folk flirtations like 'Cotton Fields' and 'Sloop John B', to Pet Sounds art-rock, good-vibed psychedelia and post-Pepper back-to-basics ('Do It Again').

From the audience you could indeed "feel the love," irony- and snark-free. Huge rushes of it burst forth from the loges, the down-front and terrace seats when the stage screens projected video of the late Dennis and Carl Wilson, their vocals on 'Forever' and 'God Only Knows' synched to the backup singing and music played onstage. And it wasn't just the 50- and 60-somethings who sang along to 'Fun, Fun, Fun' because the tune is one of their (my) coming-of-age touchstones. There was the trio of teenage Latinas two seats over, up and frantically surf dancing through 'Help Me Rhonda' and 'Do You Wanna Dance,' and the young Asian woman and her daughter one row down, singing every word of 'Wouldn't It Be Nice.' In the parking lot before the concert, as the ticket line snaked its way to the entry gates, an interracial acappella quartet harmonized on 'And Your Dream Comes True' (last track on 1965's Summer Days—And Summer Nights! LP).

The show itself was enjoyable enough, but by its end what became clear was that, as good as the performers are/were, ultimately the enduring appeal of the Beach Boys resides as much in the songs as in the singers. Their abundant melodies, unifying harmonies and emotional range—from pure exhilaration at life's offerings to soul-wracking melancholy and grateful redemption—are what do it, and they all proceed from Wilson's singular agenda. He was made for these times, and those to come.

© Gene Sculatti, 2012

Read dozens more pieces on the Beach Boys — and on artists from Aaliyah to ZZ Top — at Rock's Backpages. 20,000+ articles by the best writers from the finest music publications of the last 50 years.

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