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Fifty Sides of the Beach Boys

A closer, deeper look at one of America's greatest pop bands of all time.

By Carlo Wolff / June 27, 2012

Fifty Sides of the Beach Boys: The Songs That Tell Their Story By Mark Dillon ECW Press 289 pp.

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Canadian journalist Mark Dillon’s book about one of the most important American pop groups is fan-based journalism at its best – and much more. It’s an entertaining, even-handed examination of the great southern California band through commentary on 50 of its tunes by members, collaborators, and musicians the Boys influenced. Timed to coincide with the reconciled group’s 50th-anniversary tour and a new album, Fifty Sides of the Beach Boys is far more keeper than souvenir.

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Over their often-conflicted career, the Beach Boys have been inspiring, experimental, courageous, innocent, wounded – and creative. Brian Wilson, their troubled yet persistent leader, is a musical genius. The other Boys were lesser lights, but Brian couldn’t have wrought what he did without them.

Journalism about Brian, his entrepreneurial and aggressive cousin Mike Love, and Brian’s brothers Carl and Dennis – the first dead of cancer, the second drowned – is usually framed as a story of heroes and villains, and the Beach Boys were indeed dysfunctional. Wilson père Murry, a failed musician, was a tyrant, which Dillon doesn’t soft pedal. At the same time, Dillon gives Murry his due as a goad to the group’s creativity. He even tempers a commonly held negative view of Eugene Landy, the discredited Hollywood psychoanalyst Brian’s wife, Marilyn, hired in 1975, suggesting in an interview with “15 Big Ones” engineer Earle Mankey that though Landy was a control freak who charged outrageous prices for his counsel, he did help the errant and troubled Brian return to the studio.

In 1967, when the Beach Boys foundered over “Smile” (original title: “Dumb Angel”), a storied album that went officially unreleased until last year, I bought Van Dyke Parks’ brilliantly opaque “Song Cycle,” one of the earliest free-form rock recordings. In Dillon’s interview with “Smile”-obsessed Apples in Stereo leader Robert Schneider, Dillon says Parks abandoned his collaboration with Brian Wilson on “Smile” because of resistance from other group members, instead settling into work on “Song Cycle.” Such back stories give “50 Sides” factual muscle. (Too bad Parks wouldn’t make himself available for an interview.) 

When I interviewed Mike Love in 1970 in Burlington, Vt., during Love’s visit to a Transcendental Meditation center to push Maharishi Mahesh Yogi’s methodology, I found him smug and guarded. The headline on my  Burlington Free Press story: “Lie Around Your Lear Jet and Be a Star.”

In 1982, as a reporter for the Schenectady, N.Y. Gazette, I reviewed the Beach Boys at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center and found myself backstage standing next to Brian Wilson. He was bearded and heavy and seemed in a kind of trance. At the end of 1986, after I moved to Cleveland, my first freelance article for the Cleveland Plain Dealer packaged an interview with Stephen Gaines, a Beach Boys biographer, with commentary on “Smile,” the aborted and at that time heavily bootlegged album many consider the group’s crowning achievement.

The Beach Boys matter to me.

After reading this book, which features interviews with everyone from group stalwart David Marks (on this summer’s reunion tour) to Dennis’ good friend and touring band associate Billy Hintsche to “Sail on Sailor” lead vocalist Blondie Chaplin, they might well matter to you, too. In effect, Dillon joins the reader to the Beach Boys’ family, extended over 50 years and as many tunes, many of them unexpected choices that will send you back to your iDevice. They might even persuade you to fire up your turntable.

Turns out, despite Brian’s assertion that he wasn’t made for these times, the Beach Boys were made for all times.

The author of “Cleveland Rock & Roll Memories,” Carlo Wolff is developing “Invisible Soul,” a book about underground Cleveland soul music from doo-wop to disco.

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