The Beatles’ first No. 1 hit in the U.K., “Please Please Me,” came in February 1963 on Parlophone records.
The song that really helped kick start the Beatles’ rocket ride to international fame and fortune in the early 1960s was “Please Please Me.” In the U.K. fifty years ago, in February 1963, “Please Please Me” was the song that first sent the Beatles’ music to the top of the music charts — their first No. 1 hit. It was also the song that energized “Beatlemania” in the U.K. – the screaming crowds that began besieging the Beatles at their stage appearances, generating media attention far and wide. “Please Please Me,” in fact, was the tipping point – the take-off song that changed everything. Within a year of this song’s release, the Beatles would be a worldwide phenomenon, their music selling practically everywhere.
True, the Beatles’ first hit song was “Love Me Do,” which rose to No.17 on the U.K. charts in November 1962. But “Please Please Me,” their second single, was the Beatles’ first popular “hard rocking” song; the song that captured their youthful exuberance and musical drive. It was also the song that first offered that unique “Beatles’ sound”– an appealing mix of young male vocals in sync with driving guitars. “Please Please Me” captured that sound in an aggressive and engaging way. It was feel good music that was fresh, open, and hopeful. The public ate it up.
Music Player “Please Please Me”-1963
John Lennon sang lead and played harmonica on the song, George Harrison played lead guitar, Paul McCartney was on bass, and drummer Ringo Starr delivered the back beat. McCartney and Harrison also supplied the harmony and background vocals. It was a sound the world hadn’t quite heard before – and a sound, as time would tell, that would turn music to gold.
1963: George Martin in a sound booth at Abbey Road studios with the Beatles in the background.
Initially, however, “Please Please Me,” as originally written by John Lennon, didn’t have the chops to make it as a No. 1 hit – at least not in the eyes of George Martin, the person then in control of the Beatles’ fate in their first London recording sessions. In fact, “Please Please Me” almost didn’t make it at all.
In the U.S., meanwhile, this song also had something of a tortured history. Although it was released in America in early 1963 as it had been in Britain, it went largely unnoticed. “Please Please Me” would not fully emerge as a U.S. hit until more than a year later, in March 1964, when it would join four other Beatles’ songs to occupy the top five positions on the U.S. Billboard charts. But the story of “Please Please Me” in America captures some of the confusion, bungled business opportunities, and the general whirlwind that came with the Beatles euphoria in those crazy early days. More on that in a moment.
Sheet music cover for the Beatles’ “Please Please Me” issued by Dick James Music, Ltd., London.
“Please Please Me” was a John Lennon composition. Lennon described the inspiration for the song as coming from a combination of Roy Orbison and Bing Crosby influences. He wrote the song at his aunt Mimi’s house, having been listening at the time to some Roy Orbison tunes. Lennon was also taken with a line from Bing Crosby’s 1932 song, “Please” – the line being, “Please lend your little ears to my pleas…” Lennon said he loved “the double use of the word ‘please’.”
Paul McCartney pointed back to Orbison’s style. “If you imagine [Please Please Me] much slower,” McCartney said of the song, “which is how John wrote it, it’s got everything. The big high notes, all the hallmarks of a Roy Orbison song.”
In 1962 Lennon’s song was offered initially at the Beatles’ first London studio session in its slower form. George Martin, the studio engineer and manager of EMI’s Parlophone label, and the guy who had signed the Beatles in 1962, did not like Lennon’s song when he first heard it. He found it too slow and reportedly called it “a dirge” at one point. He suggested the song’s tempo be sped up and that the Beatles try a different arrangement. Reportedly, Martin also played a sped-up taped version of the song from an earlier recording that served as something of an “ah-ha” moment for the group. But Martin wanted the Beatles to record another song at their next session at Abbey Road studios on November 26th, 1962, one the Beatles had not written themselves.
Early Vee-Jay single of Beatles’ “Please Please Me,” released in the U.S. 1963, is distinguished by ‘Beattles’ misspelling, later corrected.
However, the Beatles prevailed on Martin to let them take another crack at “Please Please Me.” They had taken Martin’s suggestions on the song, sped it up, and added Lennon’s harmonica to the arrangement. “We lifted the tempo, and suddenly there was that fast Beatles’ spirit,” McCartney later recalled. The song was now much better. Still, it went through a series of more than a dozen studio takes before Martin was satisfied – and this time, he liked what he heard. “Gentlemen,” he is reported to have said from the recording booth to the group after the new version was completed, “I think you’ve got your first Number One.” After the Beatles’ first national TV appearance on U.K.’s Thank Your Lucky Stars show on January 19, 1963– which featured “Please, Please Me” – the song began its rise on the U.K. singles charts, hitting No. 1 on February 22nd, 1963.
In the U.S., meanwhile, George Martin had sent a copy of “Please Please Me” to EMI’s U.S. subsidiary, Capitol Records, in January 1963, urging executives there to distribute Beatles’ songs in the U.S. They declined, saying famously: “We don’t think the Beatles will do anything in this market.” Atlantic Records was also offered a chance to distribute “Please Please Me” in the U.S., but they also declined. At that point, other record labels began looking at the Beatles’1963 songs for U.S. release. One of these labels was Vee-Jay out of Chicago, an African American-owned label founded in the 1950s specializing in blues, jazz, rhythm and blues, and rock and roll.
Brian Epstein, who discovered the Beatles and became their manager, also negotiated early business deals and arranged for publicity.
On January 25, 1963, Vee-Jay obtained a U.S. contract to release a limited number of Beatles records for short time period. Sometime in February 1963, “Please Please Me,” w/ “Ask Me Why” on the B side, was released as a single on the Vee-Jay label. The song was played on Chicago’s WLS radio station where it rose to No. 35 on WLS music survey in March 1963. But “Please Please Me” did not chart nationally on Billboard at the time. The record, in fact, was a commercial flop at that point, selling fewer than 7,500 copies.
Back in Britain in 1963, “Please Please Me” was doing so well that Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein pulled the Beatles off their tour schedule to record their first album, naming it Please Please Me to capitalize on the popularity of the single. Some 14 songs – including “I Saw Her Standing There” as the lead track – were compiled for that album in one day after nine hours of recording over three sessions. The new Please Please Me album was released in late March 1963. Within four weeks it would be No.1 on the U.K. albums chart, remaining in that position for 30 weeks. New Beatles’ singles were also released in the U.K. through 1963, and these resulted in three more No. 1 hits: “From Me to You” w/ “Thank You Girl” in April 1963; “She Loves You,” w/ “I’ll Get You” in August 1963 ( which achieved the fastest sales of any record in the U.K. up to that time, selling 750,000 copies in less than four weeks); and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” w/ “This Boy” in November 1963, which had 1 million advance U.K. orders.
April 1963: Beatles with George Martin at EMI House in central London receiving their first silver disc for sales of more than 250,000 copies of “Please, Please Me.”
In the U.S., meanwhile, Brian Epstein in November 1963 phoned Capitol Records president, Alan Livingston, about the label’s refusal to distribute Beatles songs in America. Epstein played the Beatles’ latest U.K. hit song for Livingston over the phone — “I Want To Hold Your Hand” – and also mentioned to Livingston that the group was scheduled for February 1964 TV appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show. Livingston agreed to begin spending some serious money distributing and promoting Beatles’ songs in the U.S. On December 4th, 1963, Capitol announced it would begin selling “I Want To Hold Your Hand” in mid-January 1964. But after a few radio DJ’s in America began playing the song, Capitol undertook a rush production schedule to release “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” then targeting release for the day after Christmas, December 1963.
Vee-Jay’s promotional cover sleeve for Beatles’ ‘Please Please Me’ single following Jack Paar show, Jan 1964.
On January 3, 1964, Jack Paar, host of the late night U.S. TV talk show, “The Jack Paar Show,” aired a filmed segment of a Beatles’ performance of “She Loves You” from England. It was the first complete Beatles song aired on American TV, and for many Americans, the first time they had seen or heard the Beatles. Meanwhile, Capitol Records’ early release of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” proved wildly successful. By January 10, 1964, two weeks after the release, the single has sold 1 million copies – a staggering number at that time for an unknown music group from overseas.
Vee-Jay records, for its part, seeing the rising tide for all things Beatles, decided to take another shot at “Please Please Me,” and in mid-January 1964 re-issued the single, this time, with “From Me To You” on the “B” side. Some of Vee-Jay’s promotional record sleeves for the single featured headlines printed on the jacket that read: “The Record That Started Beatlemania,” and other text description noting the Beatles’ clip on The Jack Paar Show, their upcoming Ed Sullivan Show appearances, and press coverage in Time, Life and Newsweek magazines. “This Is The Record That Started It All,” said the Vee-Jay record sleeve. By January 25, “Please Please Me” finally entered the American Billboard chart at No. 69, soon rising to No. 1. Vee-Jay would sell at least 1.1 million copies of “Please Please Me” in its second offering, and would also sell at least four other Beatles’ singles, as well as the Beatles’ first U.S. album, Introducing…The Beatles, which came out ten days before Capitol’s Meet the Beatles!, also in January 1964.
Cover sleeve for the re-issued single of the Beatles’ “Please Please Me” in America by Vee-Jay Records.
“Please Please Me,” however, was just the beginning of the Beatles’ phenomenal rise in America during 1964. After their first national TV appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 8th when more than 70 million tuned in, their songs dominated the American music charts. In 1964 alone, the Beatles put 19 hit songs in the Top 40, and 30 in the Top 100. In fact, between January and March 1964, the Beatles accounted for 60 percent of all record sales in the U.S. Fifteen of their recordings in 1964 – nine singles and six albums – each sold one million or more copies, representing total Beatles’ record sales that year of more than 25 million copies.
“Please Please Me” may not be regarded as the Beatles’ best song ever by music critics or many of their fans, but it is certainly among the most important for launching their career, energizing their early style, and showing how adaptable and creative they could be when faced with criticism in the studio. In a special Rolling Stone magazine supplement of November 2010 reviewing the Beatles’ 100 greatest songs, “Please Please Me” is ranked at No. 20. Today, the song is still sold and downloaded by fans via Amazon.com, Apple’s iTunes music store, and other music sellers. For other stories on the Beatles at this website see “Beatles History: Eight Stories,” a sub-directory page with other Beatles’ story choices. Thanks for visiting. – Jack Doyle
Article Citation: Jack Doyle, “Please Please Me, 1962-1964,” PopHistoryDig.com, February 1, 2013.
Sources, Links & Additional Information
April 1963 poster for concert in Northwich, England with the Beatles at the top of the bill not long after “Please Please Me” hit the top of the charts. Small print above their name reads “Hit recorders of ‘Please Please Me’.” Poster was later sold at Christies in London, 2012.
The Beatles’ first album, Please Please Me, released in the U.K. late March 1963, hit No. 1 in April and held that position for 30 weeks.
“The Beatles,” in Holly George-Warren and Patricia Romanowski (eds), The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, Rolling Stone Press, New York, 3rd Edition, 2001, pp. 56-59.
Greil Marcus, “The Beatles,” in Anthony DeCurtis and James Henke, with Holly George-Warren (eds), The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock n Roll, New York: Random House, revised edition, 1992, pp. 209-222.
Frederick Lewis, “Britons Succumb to ‘Beatlemania’,” New York Times Magazine, December 1, 1963.
Lawrence Malkin, “Liverpudlian Frenzy; British Beatles Sing Up a Teen-Age Storm,” Los Angeles Times, December 29, 1963, p. G-4.
Jack Gould, “TV: It’s the Beatles (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah); Paar Presents British Singers on Film,” New York Times, Saturday, January 4, 1964, Business, p 47.
CBS, Inc., Press Release, “The Beatles to Make Three Appearances on Sullivan Show,” February 3, 1964.
Richie Unterberger, Beatles Song Review, “Please Please Me,” AllMusic.com.
The Beach Boys’ first album, “Surfin’ Safari” of October 1962, had a modest showing on the charts at No. 32.
In the early- and mid-1960s, a new kind of music from the West coast was being heard across the U.S. It featured the California surfing and beach scene. The music was happy, fun-loving, and filled with beautiful harmonies. It appealed to millions. And the one group that popularized that sound and rode it to enduring fame was the Beach Boys, a California group of three brothers — Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson — plus cousin Mike Love and friend Al Jardine.
In America, the Beach Boys would become one of the hottest and most successful groups of the 1960s, credited with inventing “California rock” and “sunshine pop” — and along with the Beatles in the mid-1960s — pushing the envelope on a new and imaginative front of pop music composition. What follows here is a brief history of the Beach Boys’ early career, and in a companion Part 2 story, a more focused look at six of their 1963-1967 songs, with MP3 versions.
Beach Boys from top left, clockwise: Mike Love, Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson & Al Jardine.
The Beach Boys first started playing together as teenagers while attending Hawthorne High School in Hawthorne, California, a Los Angeles County town not far from Manhattan Beach and the Pacific Ocean. The Wilson boys had been encouraged by their parents to try music and sports during their school years. Brian Wilson, for one, had played varsity baseball at Hawthorne High.
In 1959, after Brian had graduated, he and cousin Mike Love started some singing together, with their group later expanding to include the two other Wilson brothers and friend Al Jardine. At first, they sang at family gatherings and also played locally under various names, Kenny and The Cadets, Carl and Passions, and The Pendletones. But that soon changed as good fortune came their way.
The Beach Boys Selected 1960s Hit Songs
“Surfin’ Safari” Sept ’62, #14 “Surfin’ U.S.A.” Apr 63 – #3 “Surfer Girl” July 63 – #7 “Little Deuce Coupe” Sept 63 – #15 “True To Your School” Oct 63 – #6 “In My Room” Nov 63 – #23 “Little Saint Nick” Dec 63 – #3 “Fun, Fun, Fun” Feb 64 – # 5 “I Get Around” May 64 – #1 “Don’t Worry Baby” May 64 – #24 “When I Grow Up” Aug 64 – # 9 “Wendy” Sept 64 – #44 “Dance, Dance, Dance”
Oct 64 – #8 “Warmth of the Sun” Oct 64 – #8 (B-side) “Do You Wanna Dance”
Feb 65 – #12 “Help Me, Rhonda” Apr 65 -#1 “California Girls” July 65 – #3 “Barbara Ann” Dec 65 – #2 “Sloop John B”
Mar 66 – # 3 “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” July 66 – #8 “God Only Knows” July 66 – #39 “Good Vibrations” Oct 66 – #1
_______________ Date: Release or Top 40 debut
In December 1961, the first record they made, titled “Surfin,” had success locally, charting on Los Angeles radio station KFWB and later rising to No. 75 on the Billboard national chart. By then they were using “The Beach Boys” as their group name — a name chosen by their first record distributor, Candix. On December 31, 1961 they appeared on the bill at the Ritchie Valens Memorial Concert in Long Beach, California, one of their earliest public appearances. By June 1962 they had made a demo tape of songs including “Surfin Safari,” Surfer Girl,” and “409” that later convinced Capitol Records’ Nick Venet to sign them to a recording contract. Other musicians and instrumentalists had picked up on the surf scene in the early 1960s before the Beach Boys had. But with the imaginative composing and songwriting of Brian Wilson, coupled with very smooth vocal harmonies and upbeat tempo, the Beach Boys soon became set apart from the rest.
Beach Boy Troubles
The Beach Boys’ rise to fame in the 1960s, however, wasn’t without its difficulties, including trouble on the homefront with their father, Murry, who was also their first manager. Murry, it would be later learned, was physically and verbally abusive toward his sons. Brian, who became the gifted musician and songwriter for the group, would have his own emotional and behavioral problems, and would descend into alcohol, drugs, and depression just as the group peaked. Other Beach Boys would have their ups and downs as well, and along the way there would be some strife within the group over musical style and direction. Yet, despite these troubles, the group managed to become one of America’s most popular, successful, and well-liked of the 1960s and beyond, as they would continue performing, in various forms, through the 2000s. But during their peak years of the early- and mid-1960s, they, along with the Beatles, became a dominant group on the pop charts and, also like the Beatles, an influential force in music making and popular culture.
According to Billboard, in terms of single and album sales, the Beach Boys are among the top-selling American bands of all time. Worldwide they have sold an estimated 100 million records (an estimate likely on the low side). Between 1961 and 1988, they turned out thirty-six Top 40 hits, more than any other U.S. rock band. They also produced 56 songs that charted in the Top 100. Four of their songs were No. 1 hit singles. Rolling Stone placed the Beach Boys at No.12 on the magazine’s 2004 listing of “The 100 Greatest Artists of All Time.” New compilations of Beach Boys’ music have appeared as recently as 2009. Currently on Amazon.com there are more than 100 offerings of various Beach Boys’ recordings.
As this illustration shows, the Beach Boys hit upon a productive formula of 1960s’ song-making that fell into three basic teen-appealing areas: cars, girls, and surf.
Surf, Cars & Girls
In the early 1960s, the Beach Boys hit upon a kind of magical if basic formula: turning out songs in three sure-fire, teen-appealing areas – cars, girls and surfing. The graphic at left illustrates these three thematic areas, showing where particular Beach Boys’ songs landed in that schema, some falling in two or more areas. The Beach Boys were teenagers themselves when they first started, and they fashioned their material from their own experiences with high school, cars, and teenage romance. And these were also the experiences of tens of millions of Baby Boomers — 78 million strong; all coming of age at the time. The Boomers would “grow up” with the Beach Boys’ music, become their primary audience and market in the 1960s and for decades thereafter. The Boomers, in fact, would prove to be reliable “repeat buyers” of Beach Boys’ music over the next 40 years as it was repackaged into tape, CD, and MP3 forms and also numerous compilation albums.
Although the only surfer among the Beach Boys was Dennis Wilson, who had first suggested they try some songs about surfing, they managed to successfully use that motif as part of their early group image. But what really distinguished the Beach Boys’ music was their distinctive sound, their gorgeous harmonies, and quite often, the creative vocal arrangements and instrumentation in their songs. Brian Wilson, in particular, would become the creative force behind much of the group’s music, serving as songwriter, arranger, and producer. Brian also co-wrote songs with Mike Love and others and initially shared lead singing duties during the first few years.
The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” album, with its title track, was the big breakout for the group in 1963, selling more than a millions copies and hitting No. 2 on the ‘Billboard’ albums chart.
Following their first local hit with “Surfin” in 1961-62, came broader national exposure with songs such as “Surfin’ Safari” in 1962, followed by “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and “Surfer Girl,” both in 1963. Other hits that year included songs with car, high school, and adolescent themes such as “Little Deuce Coupe,” “In My Room,” and “Be True To Your School.” Along with these early singles were several albums. Surfin’ Safari came in October 1962 and had a modest showing at No. 32. Surfin’ USA came next in March 1963, and along with the single of that name, was something of a breakout for the group, with both single and album rising to No. 2 on the U. S. Billboard charts. Surfin USA even outsold a number of the group’s singles at the time, which were then typically the more popular product. Surfin USA remained on the Billboard album chart for 78 weeks. Brian Wilson’s songwriting and vocal arrangements were found throughout this album, helped along with double tracking technology in the studio. The song credits for the title track, “Surfin USA,” are shared by Brian Wilson and Chuck Berry since the basic tune, though not the lyrics, was based on Berry’s 1958 hit, “Sweet Little Sixteen.” This album also includes five Beach Boys instrumentals.
Beach Boys shown in early 1960s photo with famous Capitol Records building in Hollywood behind them. They were the first rock group to sign with Capitol in 1962.
The Beach Boys’ third album, Surfer Girl was released in September 1963, featuring the title track by the same name, which was the first song that Brian Wilson ever wrote, originally penned in 1961 when he was 19. The Surfer Girl album was a million seller, and along with its title track “Surfer Girl,” both hit No. 7 on their respective charts. The album had a run of 56 weeks on Billboard. However, years later, music critics such as Richie Unterberger of the All Music Guide, would note that Capitol Records pushed the Beach Boys for too much material in too short a time, with the result that some of their albums, like Surfer Girl, did not have the quality songs they might have had. “Consequently,” says Unterberger, “most of their pre-1965 albums contain a high degree of filler, and thus stack up poorly next to those of such contemporaries as the Beatles, who were able to maintain high standards on almost all of their tracks.” That would change in some later albums, however.
Beach Boys’ Oct 1963 album “Little Deuce Coupe” focused on one of their themes, hot rod cars & car culture – rising to No. 4 on the ‘Billboard’ charts.
Quickly on the heels of Surfer Girl came an album of mostly car songs titled Little Deuce Coupe, released in October 1963. This album was motivated in part by Capitol Records putting out a compilation album of car songs from a variety of artists that had included one Beach Boys song.
To protect their turf in this arena, Brian Wilson then hurried production of the Little Deuce Coupe album as their “hot rod” collection, with a mix of old and new Beach Boys songs. One of their car songs, “409” — which refers to a an especially “hot” engine size of that day — was an earlier modest hit, released on the B-side of “Surfin Safari,” landing at No. 72 on the Billboard 100.
The album Little Deuce Coupe became a No. 4 hit on the Billboard charts and would eventually also sell one million copies. By the end of 1963, three of the Beach Boys’ LPs had risen into the Top Ten and the group was touring regularly.
Beach Boys performing at the October 1964 TAMI concert, from left: Al Jardine, Mike Love, Carl Wilson, and Brian Wilson. Not shown Dennis Wilson on drums.
In 1964 came more Beach Boys hits, such as: “Fun, Fun, Fun,” “Don’t Worry, Baby,” When I Grow Up,” and “Dance, Dance, Dance.” The group’s first No. 1 hit, “I Get Around,” came in June 1964. By the end of 1964, two years into their career, the Beach Boys had placed twelve hit songs in the Top 40. They also continued turning out albums. Shut Down Volume 2 came out in March 1964, followed by All Summer Long in July, which rose to No. 4 on the albums chart. On April 18th, 1964, the Beach Boys made their first appearance on the nationally-televised American Bandstand show with Dick Clark. They also began touring outside the U.S. in 1964, traveling to Australia in January and later, Europe and U.K. in September. The “British invasion” of the American pop music charts, led by the Beatles, was well underway by this time. But the Beach Boys abroad on their first tours in 1964 were well received, and their music would soon appear on record charts in those countries and the world over.
“Sunshine Pop Mythology” Early 1960s
“…California — in 1963, it was the one place west of the Mississippi where everyone wanted to be. Rich and fast, cars, women, one suburban plot for everyone, a sea of happy humanity sandwiched between frosty mountains and toasty beaches, all an easy drive from the freeway. But was it that simple and bright? Behind the pursuit of fun, you might hear a hint of tedium, or a realization that each passing day blemished the pristine Youth this culture coveted. Brian Wilson understood this perfectly and, characteristically, made it attractive and not a little heroic, as in ‘I Get Around,’ in which he expresses sheer frustration: ‘I’m gettin’ bugged drivin’ up and down the same old strip.’ His business was the revitalization of myths he wished were true and knew were false. The hollowness, properly dressed up as adolescent yearning, could itself be marketed in ‘teen feel’ pop songs.”
– Jim Miller, “The Beach Boys,” The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock n Roll, 1992, p 194.
Back in the States by late September 1964, the Beach Boys made their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, performing live versions of “I Get Around” and “Wendy” on the September 27th show. In late October 1964, they were one of the featured acts at “The TAMI Show” concert in Santa Monica, California (Teenage Awards Music Inter- national). The TAMI Show was a filmed concert event and it included other notable acts such as James Brown, Chuck Berry, the Rolling Stones, and the Supremes. In November 1964, The Beach Boys Concert album was released, comprised of 13 live music tracks from earlier performances they had given in 1963 and 1964 at the Civic Memorial Auditorium in Sacramento. This album — billed as their first “live” album — rose to No. 1 in the first week of December 1964 and remained there for the rest of the month. It was their first No. 1 album. Also released by then was The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album with a dozen Christmas songs. The Beach Boys had a previous Top Ten Christmas hit in 1963 with “The Little Saint Nick,” which also appeared on this album. The Beach Boys’ Christmas music would continue to do well in subsequent years. In any case, by the end of 1964, they had five albums on the pop charts simultaneously.
Brian Wilson in studio.
Brian Wilson, meanwhile, exhausted from his studio work and touring, suffered a nervous breakdown on a trip to Texas in late December. At this point, he decided to quit touring with the band, except for TV appearances, and focus more on the Beach Boys’ studio productions. On the road, meanwhile, there were stand-ins for Brian, including for a time, Glen Campbell and later, Bruce Johnston. But Brian’s studio work helped yield more Beach Boys hits in 1965. “Do You Wanna Dance” came out in February 1965; “Help Me, Rhonda” was a Beach Boys’ No. 1 hit in April; “California Girls,” which Brian Wilson and Mike Love wrote together, hit No. 3 in July; and “Barbara Ann” rose to No. 2 in December. The Beach Boys by this time had put16 singles in the Top 40.
One of 3 albums the Beach Boys put out in 1965 – “Summer Days (and Summer Nights)”.
Three new albums were produced that year as well: The Beach Boys Today! in March; Summer Days (and Summer Nights!) in June; and Beach Boys’ Party! in November. Of these three, The Beach Boys Today! marked a progression in the group’s music, using more complicated arrange- ments on some tracks — including strings, horns, piano, keyboards, and more percussion. This album rose to No. 4 and sold more than a million copies. Summer Days (and Summer Nights!) was also a success, becoming their ninth consecutive gold-certified album, rising to No. 2 on the Billboard albums chart. Brian Wilson, however, was just warming up, musically. His next venture would be an album that would influence and challenge the Beatles; an album named Pet Sounds. More on this in a moment. First, a little closer look at Brian Wilson.
“Brian’s Song” 1960s
A very young Brian Wilson, foreground, with equally young David Marks behind him, in the studio, early ‘60s.
Brian Wilson found his musical muse very early in childhood. Murry, his father, who had tried his own hand at song writing with little success, noticed that Brian could hum entire tunes from memory even before he could walk. Brian reportedly wrote his first song at age five. Although born deaf in his right ear, Brian taught himself to play the piano by watching his father play, observing the patterns and chord progressions. As a child, he could also play songs from memory after hearing them only once, this discovered by a music teacher who had given young Brian accordion lessons.
Home life for Brian and his brothers was difficult, especially with their father, as the boys suffered physical and emotional abuse. Brian, in adolescence, used his music as an escape, playing the piano at times to drown out the bickering and fighting at home. Although he played some sports in high school, he withdrew into music, also used it to avoid social situations. But with music, Brian’s brain was wired for sound, “thinking in three part harmony,” as he once put it. As a boy, he was inspired the first time he heard the Four Freshmen singing on the radio. Their harmony “struck a chord” with Brian which he sought to emulate.
Young Brian Wilson at mic, early 1960s, with Mike Love, in recording studio.
Brian Wilson’s songwriting and studio production for the Beach Boys soon became phenomenal. During the six years from 1962-68, he produced 14 albums and wrote over 120 songs. In so doing he kept the Beach Boys in keen competition with the recording giants of that day, such as Phil Spector and the Beatles. In all, Wilson produced about half of the Beach Boys’ single hits, three of which were No. 1 best sellers. He also wrote music with Jan Berry of “Jan & Dean” fame, and also sang background and sometimes lead vocals on Jan & Dean’s songs. In fact, the big No. 1 Jan & Dean hit of late July 1963 — “Surf City” — was originally Brian’s idea, and he co-wrote the song with Jan Berry. And at Jan’s invitation, Brian also sang lead vocals with him on the song — a development which did not please Brian’s father or Capitol records at the time, as Jan & Dean were viewed as the competition, and Brian, working for another label. But Brian and Jan were just friends in music and they worked well together.
Brian Wilson, 2nd from right, performing with the Beach Boys at unidentified venue, likely in the 1963-65 period.
Wilson was a genius at studio production. Explained Time magazine writer Richard Corliss: “Brian was a triple whiz: at pop composition, vocal arrangement and record production. He elevated harmony to sophisticated choral work. …[H]e made his magic on a primitive eight-track recorder. …[He] devoted just one track to the band and the other seven to vocals; …he doubled each vocal part to thicken the stew of sound. Brian, the self-taught studio maven, was his own George Martin [famous Beatles producer] — a wizard at weaving eccentric instruments and his pal’s voices into a majestic aural tapestry.”
Brian Wilson, however, had his demons, which emerged at a most untimely juncture, precisely during the Beach Boys’ best years. By the mid-1960s he struggled with alcohol and drugs alongside the pressure of turning out the Beach Boys’ music. Early in 1965, he became involved with drugs and also had associated bouts of depression. Still he turned out the hits, some of which were written during, or in the aftermath of, drug experiences. In 1988, the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame called Wilson “one of the few undis- puted geniuses” in pop music. By 1968 he became addicted to cocaine. Years went by with Wilson’s condition undiagnosed, as even friends passed it off as merely “Brian’s odd behavior.” Wilson subsequently went through a period of about 20 years of ups and down with his drug problems, rehabilitations, and periodic lapses. In 1988, after the Beach Boys were inducted into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame, he began a fuller recovery and also a solo recording career which he has continued though the 2000s. At the Beach Boys’ induction into the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame in 1988, Brian was singled out in the induction notice as “one of the few undisputed geniuses in popular music.” Wilson, added the Hall of Fame notice, “possessed an uncanny gift for harmonic invention and complex vocal and instrumental arrangements.” An offering of some of his creations with the Beach Boys can be heard in the six musical samples that appear in Part II of this article.
Despite the San Diego Zoo’s animals, “Pet Sounds” refers to Brian Wilson’s favorite or “pet” sounds in the album and also the initials of his studio idol, Phil Spector.
“Sooner or later Brian Wilson had to grow up,” writes Tom Moon in his book, 1,000 Recording to Hear Before You Die. “Summer might last forever, but at some point slinging surf music was gonna get old.” Calling the album a “carefully sculpted and lavishly arranged set of songs,” Moon also lauded Pet Sounds as “a high-water mark of pop craft in general.” He also called it Brian Wilson’s most mature music making. And although the album has the California sunshine of the early Beach Boys, it is now seen “through darker lenses,” as Moon puts it – by people old enough to remember the carefree days, but are now tempered by adult knowledge, real life experience, lost love, and the call of responsibility. Pet Sounds, in a sense, was a Beach Boys graduation of sorts, to a new level of musicality.
Released in May 1966, Pet Sounds included notable singles such as, “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” and “The Sloop John B,” among others. However, U.S. audiences turned up their noses to this album at first, in part because it was not the old sunshine pop that many knew and loved, and in part because many just didn’t get it. In fact, even among the Beach Boys themselves, there were some pretty fierce differences over the making of this album and moving away from their previous formula. Capitol executives, in fact, wanted to shelve the album and only reluctantly agreed to its release, providing little promotion. When it then rose only to No. 10 on the U.S. album charts, Capitol — despite the success of some of its songs like “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” — produced and released a compilation album in July 1966, Best of the Beach Boys. Brian Wilson viewed Capitol’s act as sabotage. Pet Sounds, in fact, had actually done better in the U.K. when it was released there six weeks after the U.S. release, rising to No. 2 and getting rave reviews.
Brian Wilson, circa 1965-66 on the cover of Charles Granata’s 2003 book on the making of “Pet Sounds.”
In any case, there later proved to be lots of good and lasting music in Pet Sounds, regarded by critics in later years as a pop masterpiece and perhaps Brian Wilson’s finest work. Still, initially — compared to previous Beach Boy’s successes — Pet Sounds was something of flop commercially. It wouldn’t be until the year 2000 that the album would sell one million copies. Yet in 1966 there was a lot going on with the music that was Pet Sounds. It was also one of the first “concept albums” — where all the songs more or less hung together musically and/or thematically — and so, was leading the transition in the business, along with the Beatles, away from singles as the primary pop format. Pet Sounds tells a story of romance in part, beginning idealistically in its first track with ”Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and ending with some disillusionment in its last track,”Caroline, No”.
“Certainly Pet Sounds is a melancholy work,” observes Peter Ames Carlin, a music critic who has written on the Beach Boys. “But the beauty of the songs, coupled with the sheer invention of [Brian Wilson’s] production, is rapturous. The album echoes with that distinctly utopian feeling that anything is possible…”
Pet Sounds would be lauded in later years by the critics for its innovative use of folk, blues and jazz blended with those perfect Beach Boy harmonies. But beyond that, Pet Sounds showcased Brian Wilson as studio wizard who, like his idol Phil Spector, became a pioneer of using the studio “as an instrument” (see also at this website, for example, “Be My Baby“). With various studio techniques such as multiple tracking, Wilson made layers of vocal and instrumental music, doubling them in some cases, and also in other instances, combining them with echo and reverberation. On one level of listening the resulting music may have seemed simple and straightforward. Yet on closer inspection, Brian Wilson’s arrangements were revealed to be some of most musically adventurous and complex then in pop music. Paul McCartney and Beatles’ producer George Martin both acknowledged that Pet Sounds was the inspiration for Sgt. Pep- per’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Wilson had lots of help in making this album — from lyricists such as Tom Asher, expert studio musicians such as the famed “Wrecking Crew,” and engineers like Larry Levine. Still, Pet Sounds came to be seen as Brian Wilson’s masterwork, regarded by insiders as a significant piece studio experimentation. And not least, Pet Sounds was also a competitive prod to the Beatles.
In fact, Brian Wilson had been inspired to do Pet Sounds because of the Beatles’ Rubber Soul album, which had been released in December 1965. Said Wilson of hearing that album: “Rubber Soul was a collection of songs…that somehow went together like no album ever made before, and I was very impressed…[and] challenged to do a great album.” The Beatles, in turn, were goaded by Pet Sounds to produce Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Paul McCartney and Beatles’ producer George Martin both acknowledged that Pet Sounds was the inspiration for Sgt. Pepper’s. In 2003, Pet Sounds was ranked No. 2 by Rolling Stone magazine in its list of “The 500 Greatest Albums of All Time,”second only to Sgt. Pepper’s. The album has also be given similar lofty praise by several other surveys and music magazines, including MoJo, The Times newspaper of London, New Musical Express (NME -UK), some calling it “the greatest album in history.” Although the album cover shows animals at the San Diego Zoo, the title, “Pet Sounds” is said to derive from other factors, among them, Brian’s wish to pay tribute to Phil Spector by naming the album using his initials, and also for “Pet Sounds” meaning those sounds on the album that were Brian’s favorite or “pet” sounds.
Cameron Crowe on Pet Sounds 2003
“I was thirteen, and I wanted to buy a Jackson 5 cassette. The knowing geek behind the counter shook his head and advised me to get Pet Sounds instead. Desperate for his cool-guy validation, I bought it. It sounded weird, introverted, not that melodic. And what about that cover? Odd-looking guys dressed like Elizabethan-period accountants feeding animals at the zoo? I thought the album sucked and I stashed it in a drawer. Within a year, Linda Alvarado (not her real name) savagely broke my heart. For some fateful reason, I gave Pet Sounds another chance. Suddenly, music was more than just confection. Those strange guys feeding animals at the zoo understood; even the music sounded like I felt. …Suddenly, music was more than just confec- tion. Those strange guys feeding animals at the zoo understood… [T]he music sounded like I felt… When you find songs so personal that they feel like someone’s been reading your diary, you tend to study the album credits to find out who the hell wrote this stuff. And that leads you to the heartbreaking genius of Brian Wilson. Pet Sounds is the high-water mark of songwriting and production so meticulously rendered that you ache hearing these songs; they’re filled with secret cries for help disguised in baroque and candy-coated harmonies, the sound of Brian Wilson’s universe coming together and falling apart. The album was a flop in its day, unappreciated in a world addicted to Wilson’s Beach Boys hits. Just three years ago , it finally went platinum. For me, Pet Sounds is a souvenir, a masterwork, an underdog story and a record that takes you gently by the lapels and says, “Here’s what it feels like to be alive.”
Cameron Crowe, Writer/Director, “My Number One: Pet Sounds,” in Rolling Stone, “500 Greatest Albums of All Time,” December 2003, p. 104.
Cover sleeve for the Beach Boys’ single, “Good Vibrations,” a million-seller that hit No.1, December 1966.
But there was even more to Pet Sounds that did not meet the eye when it was first released. For Brian Wilson had another song he was preparing for Pet Sounds that he held back from the album — a song entitled “Good Vibrations;” a song he felt wasn’t quite good enough at the time. But once Wilson saw that Pet Sounds was not getting such a good reception on the U.S. Billboard album charts, he went back to work on “Good Vibrations.” In fact, he spent several months working on it, at a cost of some $50,000, which then was a huge amount of money for a single — then Wilson’s goal for the song. He used over 90 hours of tape and dozens of musicians in four different recording studios to create the 3:35 minute song. “Good Vibrations” was part early venture into psychedelia and part very complicated music, using instruments from cellos to the high-pitched electro-theremin, an instrument whose whirling sound can be heard in the background of the song throughout its recording. Richard Corliss, Time magazine music writer observes of the song:
“…[T]he patchwork fabric of modes, moods and melodies in “Good Vibrations” is immediately disconcerting, but that’s part of the listening thrill: not knowing, for once in a pop song, where the heck it’s headed. The flower-power verse bleeds into the doo-wop excitations before modulating into the giddy chorus of countertenor voices (“Good, good, GOOD”) that escalate almost to infinity, as if a seraph were having an orgasm. Now the scheme is repeated; but just as we think we’re on to Wilson’s plan, he steals our compass by introducing another rapturous fragment with harpsichord backing (“I don’t know where but she sends me there”) and yet another, in a slower tempo (“Gotta keep those lovin’ good vibrations a-happenin’ with her”), that appears to fade out. Then the jolt of a harmonic “Ahhh” and, one last time, we’re back in the chorus…”
Beach Boys at Capitol Records with president Alan Livingston showing off two gold records, 1964-65.
Although this “good vibrations’ sound was not quite old Beach Boys, and it wasn’t exactly danceable or singable, it nevertheless rose on the music charts. Released in October 1966, it quickly became a hit, selling over 400,000 copies in four days. By December 1966, it was the No.1 hit in America and also reached that mark in the U.K. and Australia. It also sold over one million copies.
Musically, Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations” marked a peak for the Beach Boys sound. These recordings also marked an ending of the more traditional Beach Boys era. By December 1966, Brian Wilson was exhausted and depressed. But in late 1966 and early 1967, he had set out on a next project; a next step in expanding his musical exploration in the mold of “Good Vibrations.” Musically, Pet Sounds and ‘Good Vibrations’ marked an ending of the more traditional Beach Boys era. This was a project for an album he called “Smile.” But here Brian came up against some pretty stiff resistance from Mike Love, in particular, and he seemed to back off and then retreat into drugs and depression. Missing album deadlines, Brian went into seclusion and then in and out of mental difficulty for years. From then on, although there would be flashes of the old Beach Boys’ success in the 1970s and 1980s — a few hits songs, more compi- lation albums from Capitol, and halting emergences of Brian Wilson’s participation and talents — the Beach Boys were never quite the same again. Infighting and lawsuits in later years would also mar their legacy. Still, for much of the public, the Beach Boys lived in memory, encased in their 1960s golden sound. In actual form too, the group would continue, though reconstituted from time to time, with Mike Love as leader, touring successfully well into the 2000s.
Capitol’s 1981 “Beach Boys Medley” single, side A, with a four-minute mix of their greatest 1960s hit. German label shown.
In the 1970s, although the Beach Boys attracted new listeners and fans on tour, their biggest success still seemed to come from their 1960s music. Capitol Records went to the Beach Boys vault in mid-decade and issued a repackaged hits collection titled Endless Summer in June 1974. That album rode a wave of oldies nostalgia at the time, helped along by the 1973 film and soundtrack American Graffiti and the TV show Happy Days. The Beach Boys’ Endless Summer album in this setting did very well, rising to No. 1 on the music charts in 1974, and remaining on the charts for three years, selling more than 500,000 copies. There were also two “Brian’s back” albums in the 1970s, including 15 Big Ones of 1976. But Brian by then had really retreated from the dominant role he once had in the group and also had continuing personal problems to manage. By the late 1970s and early 1980s, some of the original Beach Boys were also experimenting with solo recording. In 1981, Capitol Records turned out another 1960s compilation as a single, “The Beach Boys Medley,”comprised of a 4:08 minute medley of eight of their songs on the A side and the full version of “God Only Knows” on the B side. “Beach Boys Medley” rose to No.12. There would also be an occasional Beach Boys’ hit song or a cover version. Late 1981 saw “Come Go With Me,” a 1956-57 Del-Vikings song, become a Beach Boys’ Top 20 hit. Interior Secretary James Watt inadvertently gave the Beach Boys a touring and career boost by calling them “the wrong element.” But tragedy came to the group in December 1983, and hit hard, as Dennis Wilson drowned in a diving accident off Marina Del Ray, California. He was 39.
On subsequent summer tours in the mid-1980s, the remaining Beach Boys, with some additional new members, could still play to huge audiences, many fans still enjoying the Beach Boys sound regardless of group composition. At Fourth of July concerts in 1984 and 1985, the Beach Boys played to huge crowds in Washington and Philadelphia — 750,000 in Washington in 1984 and one million in Philadelphia in 1985, and back to DC again that same evening in 1985 to perform for another 750,000 on the National Mall. ( The Beach Boys’ stock had been raised considerably in the mid-1980s after a political faux pax by U.S. Secretary of the Interior James Watt called them “the wrong element”and banned them from playing on the Mall — which by the next year had been reversed by none other than fans Nancy and Ronald Reagan). By 1988, the reconstituted Beach Boys had their first No.1 hit in 22 years with the song “Kokomo” which was written for the movie Cocktail starring Tom Cruise — a song written by John Phillips, Scott McKenzie, Mike Love, and Terry Melcher.
Capitol’s Gold Mine Beach Boys Compilation Albums
1975 Spirit of America
1976 20 Golden Greats
1982 Sunshine Dream
1983 Very Best of The Beach Boys
1986 Made in U.S.A.
1989 Still Cruisin
1990 Summer Dreams
1993 Good Vibrations: 30 Years
1995 The Best of The Beach Boys
1997 The Pet Sounds Sessions
1998 Endless Harmony Soundtrack
1998 Ultimate Christmas
1999 Greatest Hits Vol 1
1999 Greatest Hits Vol 2
2001 Hawthorne, CA: Birthplace
2002 Classics – by Brian Wilson
2003 Sounds of Summer: Very Best
2004 Sights & Sounds: CD/DVD
2006 Pet Sounds – 40th Deluxe
2007 The Warmth of the Sun
2008 U.S. Singles Box, 1962-1965
2009 Summer Love Songs
___________________________ Most of these are compilation albums with1960s music; U.S./U,K.; partial list.
Through the 1990s, the Beach Boys continued to tour in America as a nostalgia act. Brian Wilson, meanwhile, appeared in a 1995 TV documentary that ran on the Disney Channel, I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times, in which he performed with his then adult daughters, Wendy and Carnie. But just as the band appeared to be pulling together for a new studio album in February 1998, Carl Wilson, a life-long smoker, died of lung cancer after a long battle with the disease. He was 51 years old. By then, Brian Wilson and Al Jardine, though still legally members of the Beach Boys organization, each pursued solo careers with new bands. Through the late 1990s, in fact, there were three different Beach Boys-connected tours — Brian Wilson had a solo tour; Mike Love lead the more or less “official” Beach Boys group, and Al Jardine had the “Beach Boys Family”group, later re-named the Endless Summer Band. ABC television in February 2000, aired a docudrama miniseries, The Beach Boys: An American Family, which gave many a view of the Beach Boys’s family life they hadn’t known before. Capitol Records was still mining the old Beach Boys music vault, and in 2000, began a reissue campaign focused on the group’s out-of-print 1970s’ LPs. In early 2004, Brian Wilson, to rave reviews in London, released the long-delayed SMiLE album — the aborted follow up to Pet Sounds which he had started but abandoned in the late 1960s. Brian continued recording, writing, and performing into the 2000s.
Yet it remained that the old days and the old Beach Boys’ sound was what emerged periodically in the post-1960s period for renewed recognition. In mid-June 2006, the surviving Beach Boys members — Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, and David Marks — set aside their differences and reunited at the Capitol Records building in Hollywood. The special occasion was a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Pet Sounds album.
Capitol Records mined the Beach Boys’ 1960s vault endlessly. Still, this “Very Best of...” offering in 2003 sold 2 million copies by June 2006.
Also celebrated at the Capitol Records gathering was the “two-million-copies-sold” certification of another Capitol greatest hits compilation, Sounds of Summer: The Very Best of the Beach Boys. That album, which had been released in June 2003, shot up to No. 16 on Billboard, staying on that chart for 104 weeks. At the Capitol Records ceremony, Brian Wilson accepted the awards for his late brothers Carl and Dennis. And Brian, separately, was feted in Washington, D.C. in 2007 for his musical achievements, receiving Kennedy Center honors.
The Beach Boys story though, on one level, is a sad tale. For it replays one of those human dramas in which brilliance and talent rise to an accomplished even joyous level for a short, intense period of time, then for reasons of human frailty and the whims of gods and markets, can never quite be repeated again. The Beach Boys certainly had their shining moment, with an incredible run of creative output in the 1962-1966 period. They made beautiful music then that filled the world with a brighter sound; a brightness and optimism that can still be heard today. A sampling of some of that music, featuring their gorgeous harmonies, can be found at “Early Beach Boys, Pt. 2: Six Songs,” which includes six full songs and more detail about each song’s history and popular reception.