On Father’s Day, “Good Vibrations” came on the radio and I started thinking about my dad. He was a huge Beach Boys fan, and when I was growing up, he would often sing, hum or whistle one of their songs as he was cooking dinner or walking our dog around the block. 

While he didn’t pass on his love of The Beach Boys to me, (I always preferred the music of the boys from Liverpool), he did pass on his love of 1950s and ‘60s rock ‘n’ roll. 

But for those fans who still love The Beach Boys, this is your summer. The Boys recently released their first studio album with new material in more than 20 years and are currently in the middle of their 50th-anniversary tour — the first time all three surviving original members (Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine) have played together on stage since 1996. 

After all these years, could The Beach Boys and their music still be relevant? Or are they just cynically riding a giant wave of baby boomer nostalgia toward one last payday? 

 

California boys

Brothers Brian, Carl and Dennis Wilson, cousin Mike Love and high school friend Al Jardine formed the group in California in 1962, but the story of The Beach Boys is the story of Brian Wilson.

Just two years later, he suffered an anxiety attack and retired from touring, but he continued focusing on writing and recording music with studio musicians while the other members toured. 

Wilson was subsequently diagnosed with bipolar disorder and schizoaffective disorder, which made him paranoid and caused him to hear voices. In an interview in Newsweek magazine this month, he admitted he still hears the voices when he’s not singing or writing. 

Critics agree that The Beach Boys peaked musically in 1966, with the release of their “Pet Sounds” album, but it didn’t sell as well as their previous records. 

After that, Wilson’s mental illness — compounded by drug abuse — sidelined him, and Love took over, supposedly shutting down Wilson’s legendary “Smile” project and almost immediately turning the band into a nostalgia act, with song after song about endless beach parties. 

The next 40 years were a jumble of lineup changes, mediocre new studio albums, repackaged greatest-hits albums, multiple internal band lawsuits and tragedies: Brian Wilson turning into a recluse for most of the 1970s, the alcohol-related drowning of Dennis in 1983 and the cancer death of Carl in 1998. 

But through it all, The Beach Boys’ sold more than 100 million records, and their music remained in the American consciousness via continuous play on classic-rock and oldies stations, movie soundtracks and television commercials for product like Sunkist.

Back to the beach

In 1988, the Boys were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and soon after, Brian Wilson recovered enough to begin recording and touring with his own band. By 2004, he even finished and released “Smile.” But difficulties with the other Beach Boys remain.

“I don’t really like working with these guys,” he told a Rolling Stone magazine interviewer last October, when asked about a possible reunion with the other surviving members. “It all depends on how we feel and how much money’s involved.”

Apparently, quite a bit of money was involved: The Boys announced the 50th-anniversary tour three months later. The tour began in May and, so far, has sold more than $70 million in tickets. 

The July 13 concert at Chateau Ste. Michelle in Woodinville, Wash. — with ticket prices ranging from $45 to $125 — has been sold out for weeks. 

On May 17, they appeared on the cable-shopping channel QVC and sold more than 15,000 copies of the new album, “That’s Why God Made the Radio,” in one hour. The new album was released everywhere else June 5 and reached No. 3 on the U.S. charts, The Beach Boys’ highest-charting record in 37 years. 

 

Fun in the sunset

The very first concert I went to see was The Beach Boys, with my dad, at a high school football stadium in Bridgeport, Conn., on Aug. 15, 1986. The opening act was 1980s one-hit-wonders Katrina and the Waves, who, most assuredly, will never celebrate a 50th-anniversary tour. 

I don’t remember too much of the concert, or even if Brian Wilson was there. (For many fans, whether Brian is there is like the difference between seeing The Beach Boys and seeing a Beach Boys cover band.)

I do recall thinking The Boys and their music looked and sounded old, even back then. I also recall that Dad remained typically stoic during the concert: No boisterous hand clapping, singing along or dancing on top of his chair like a lot of other folks. 

I do remember him saying, immediately after the show, “The music is always better on the record than live,” as we walked to the station wagon. 

He died nine years ago, and all these years later, I wonder what he was thinking about while we watched the show. Was he reminiscing about the 1960s and his life 20 years earlier? 

I wonder how many fathers and sons — or maybe fathers, sons and grandsons — will be at Chateau Ste. Michelle next month, along with combinations of mothers, daughters and granddaughters, too, listening to The Beach Boys together. For those folks, The Beach Boys are still relevant, whether their songs are as permanent as a family bond or as fleeting as the final note in a starry, summer sky. 

 

MATTHEW WILEMSKI, an award-winning columnist, lives in Wallingford.