Pity the poor scriptwriter who had to come up with a happy ending to this year’s Beach Boys: An American Family miniseries. The saga of arguably the greatest American rock group lends itself more easily to tragedy: the deaths in 1983 and 1998 of brothers Dennis and Carl Wilson; third brother/genius Brian’s near-total breakdown and exploitation by parasitical producers and therapist-guru Dr. Eugene Landy; litigious band members facing off in court for the umpteenth time; or the group’s fateful 1987 collaboration with the Fat Boys. But TV biopics are duty-bound to conclude with a life-affirming comeback scene. So the filmmakers decided to end the story in 1974, when Endless Summer, a compilation of early surf hits, unexpectedly topped the charts, interrupting the Boys’ string of artistically ambitious commercial flops and giving them their first real taste of a lucrative future as an oldies act. Only in America would the moment of abandoning claims to relevance and accepting the mantle of nostalgia merchant be the obvious choice for a happily-ever-after denouement.
But the Boys did make a valiant effort to maintain vitality as a recording group through most of the ’70s. As the counterculture rendered Hawaiian shirts and GTOs passé, they struggled to become Beach Men. And if they floundered, well, so did a lot of us caught in the wake of youth culture’s overpowering wave. Their awkward efforts to grow up mirrored our own, which helps make the band’s ’70s Brother/Reprise records — out of print for a decade, and just now being reissued by Capitol — a fascinating collective document of growth and stagnation, genius and dreck, inspiration and resignation.
Each disc in the series pairs two vintage albums (except 1973’s excellent The Beach Boys in Concert, originally a double). Some twofers will sell better than others. There aren’t many faithful who won’t want Sunflower/Surf’s Up, a combo of albums from 1970 and ’71, which, while spotty, do bear several of Brian’s post-Pet Sounds mini-masterpieces, like the latter’s stunningly somber, luscious ”’Til I Die.” On the other hand, even their beloved maharishi might turn up his nose at M.I.U./L.A. (Light Album), two late-’70s LPs that put a curse on acronym titles for all time. Bottom line: Buy everything through the 1976-77 15 Big Ones/The Beach Boys Love You, and take a pass on anything after (unless you’re the kind of completist who really needs L.A.‘s 11-minute disco version of ”Here Comes the Night” digitally remastered).
Emotional maturity would not be their lyrical hallmark in the ’70s any more than in the ’60s, when they alternated fun-loving and super-loner personas. On these albums, more adult themes meant ramped-up social consciousness — usually in the form of painfully simple eco-anthems (”Don’t Go Near the Water” and ”A Day in the Life of a Tree” from Surf’s Up) or painfully simpler transcendental meditation jingles (Brian’s ”TM Song” and Mike Love’s divinely inspired ”Everyone’s in Love With You,” from the otherwise frolicsome 15 Big Ones, may have actually scared people into abandoning their mantras).
But if words were failing them, their musical growing pains were more rewarding; even some albums that Brian more or less sat out brim with delights. Take the ’72 curio Carl and the Passions — So Tough and 1973’s underrated Holland, which brought in short-lived additions Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin (black Beach Boys!) and included ”Sail On Sailor,” their last great — and least characteristic — hit. And In Concert, recorded on pre- and post-Holland tours, has a progressive, full-rock-band feel that suggests how they credibly shared bills with the Dead without coming off like Sha Na Na.
Sadly, that promising evolution was cut short by the success of Endless Summer, which set them on course for more nostalgia: 15 Big Ones brought Brian back for the dubious mission of arranging ’50s oldies. Its far better follow-up, Love You, was a primitivist, Moog-driven goof-fest that would, with lovably dumb classics like ”Johnny Carson,” forever cement Brian’s legend as a not-so-faux naif savant. But when that bombed, the always reactionary Boys abandoned their inner children for the adult-contemporary doldrums of L.A. Later, desperate attempts to recapture sandy fun — Keepin’ the Summer Alive/Beach Boys (’80/’85) — completed an ill-judged full circle back to boyhood.
I can suggest two happier endings than the miniseries’: (a) Programmable CD players let us mine these ’70s CDs for gold and sift out the AC and TM; or (b) while the others squabble over who gets to tour behind the official moniker, Brian triumphs with this summer’s symphonic Pet Sounds tour. It’s the comeback not of a brand name or even boomers’ fountain-of-youth fantasies, but an enduring piece of music. That may not be the perfect finis, but in lieu of eternal genius, we’ll take it.
Sunflower/Surf’s Up: B+/B-
Holland/So Tough: B/B-
In Concert: A-
15 Big Ones/Love You: B-/A
Summer Alive/Beach Boys: C-/D