The Beach Boys just announced their foray into orchestral music, The Beach Boys With The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, due June 8. And true to the title, the unique collaboration aims to pair some of Beach Boys leader Brian Wilson’s classic compositions like “God Only Knows,” “In My Room” and “California Girls” with an orchestral backdrop.
While this would seem to be a stretch for the “Surfin’ USA” performers, the Beach Boys were a deeply experimental band even at their most user-friendly — they always integrated rock rhythms, barbershop harmonies and a haunting choral sensibility into their unique sound. Acknowledging the latter, Wilson stated this about Orchestra: “I always knew the vocal arrangements I did back in the 1960s would lend themselves perfectly for a symphony.”
Over this synthetical band’s various ups and downs, they’ve explored various facets of that unique sound, including some strange detours in style that had no precedent in their catalog: big band jazz, Nashville country, electronic music, even rap. To celebrate the Beach Boys’ trip to the symphony, here are 5 of their wildest genre experiments.
1977: Brian Wilson Holes Up at Home, Crafts His Bootlegged “Sinatra Album”
The Beach Boys recorded their fair share of unreleased albums, including 1967’s Smile and 1970’s Landlocked. But the oft-bootlegged Adult/Child, which can be found in full on YouTube, is Brian’s strangest cry for help. He wrote these big band pastiches for Frank Sinatra in mind, and even had the Chairman’s arranger, Dick Reynolds, assemble the horn and string sections. A couple of the tunes stand up to any ballad on Pet Sounds, and others, like “Hey! Little Tomboy”’s creepy leering at a girl who throws out her skateboard and “shaves her legs,” mostly reflect Wilson’s declining mental state. Considering it was recorded during rough times of obesity, alcoholism, drug abuse and Wilson going as far as digging a grave in his backyard for himself, Adult/Child offers a degree of quixotic beauty; it’s their “outsider art” moment. Case in point: when Mike Love first heard Brian’s horn-accented, swinging demos, he responded in horror: “What the f— are you doing?”
1979: To Capitalize On an Era, The Boys Unleash a 11-Minute Disco Track
“Here Comes The Night” began its life as a pleasant soul pastiche released on 1967’s Wild Honey. And the band never really touched it again… until 13 years later. That’s when the rather harebrained decision was made that the Beach Boys needed to capitalize on the disco movement. Guess you had to be there: the Boys’ Bruce Johnston teamed up with another Wilson-like pop auteur, Curt Boettcher, best known for his work with Sagittarius, The Association and Paul Revere & The Raiders. The two constructed an unwieldy, 11-minute disco mix of “Night” complete with buckets of Vocoder. Despite the Beach Boys’ past commercial dominance and the ascent of the disco movement, “Here Comes The Night” stalled out at No. 48 on the Hot 100.
1987: The Beach Boys Recruit The Fat Boys to Rap on “Wipe Out”
All Beach Boys diehards have some sort of opinion on the group’s 1988 song “Kokomo,” a Brian Wilson-less tropical hit released on the soundtrack of the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail. But by any stretch of the imagination, “Kokomo” was a commercial renaissance for the Beach Boys b(r)and, landing them their first No. 1 hit on the Hot 100 since “Good Vibrations” all the way back in 1966. It would seem “Kokomo,” which the band still performs to this day, survived the late-‘80s asteroid: Cocktail sports a 5% on Rotten Tomatoes and the Beach Boys album it belongs to, Still Cruisin’, has been out of print for years. That’s just as well: Cruisin’ contains one of the weirdest Beach Boys curios ever: a duet of the surf-rock classic “Wipe Out” with The Fat Boys rapping all over it.
1992: Mike Love Raps “Summer of Love” for a Planned Duet With Bart Simpson
It’s almost a rite of passage for Beach Boys fans to start growing curious about the increasingly esoteric or ill-advised obscurities the band left behind in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s — Carl and the Passions — So Tough, Love You, M.I.U. Album — and start sniffing around. 1992’s Summer in Paradise, the only Beach Boys album without any involvement from Brian Wilson, is the unquestionable boss-level of this game. Recorded with all-electronic instrumentation on the obsolete Macintosh Quadra with a beta version of Pro Tools and featuring a CGI blue whale on the cover, the long-out-of-print Summer in Paradise went even further off the deep end by featuring a song meant as a duet with Bart Simpson. “Summer of Love,” another rap-damaged oddity, was initially written up as a pitch to The Simpsons‘ creators, who turned it down for inclusion. Surprise: It ended up on Baywatch.
The Beach Boys’ final album for 16 years (until they released their lovely reunion album That’s Why God Made the Radio in 2012) was a dipped toe in the country music world. Partially recorded in Nashville and featuring country stars like Willie Nelson and Toby Keith, Stars and Stripes Vol. 1 featured redone versions of “Caroline, No” and “Fun, Fun, Fun” with dobro, pedal steel and sawing fiddle. Brian Wilson was credited as a composer and arranger, but according to the Peter Ames Carlin book Catch a Wave, he was “treated like an invalid” by the other Beach Boys at the sessions. Stars and Stripes Vol. 1 is still hanging out in their discography without a Vol. 2, and its commercial failure stalled Wilson’s prospects, leaving his much-anticipated collaborative album with power-popper Andy Paley shelved. Yet, Stripes has a special place — it’s the last Beach Boys album the much-missed Carl Wilson would appear on before his death.
Whether recruiting Nashville’s finest or actually getting Frank Sinatra’s arranger on board, it’s hard to fault even the Beach Boys’ more off-the-wall genre experiments when they always went so all-in.