Welcome to Beach Boys Week, in celebration of #94 in the 33 1/3 series, Beach Boys’ Smile by Luis Sanchez (out now!). In his first entry, Sanchez looks at the beach and surf movie legacy of Brian Wilson and Co.
One of the greatest ironies of the Beach Boys early music is that, for all its power to evoke a sense of Southern California place and mindset, only Dennis Wilson is remembered as an actual surfer. One theme I explore in my book is the tension between authenticity and inauthenticity, how this tension figures in the Beach Boys’ music, and why it has mattered as an organizing principle in the writing of rock history. This tension presents itself not only the group’s early surf records, but also in their association with the mid-‘60s spate of teenage beach party movies.
The Beach Boys were actually just one among scores of other groups and performers who defined the sound of the beach movie genre, which, despite its commercialism and often-reductive presentation of the bohemian surfer lifestyle, still manages to convey the pulse and energy of mid-‘60s California. Perhaps one of the biggest missed opportunities in the group’s career was the movie in the Beach Boys were set to star as themselves, The Beach Boys Hawaiian Style, which fell through as a result of a conflict surrounding the rights to the soundtrack material. Still, the group’s sound and image added a distinct element of bounce and brightness to some of the beach and teen movies from the period.
1. Muscle Beach Party. Directed by William Asher, 1964, American International Pictures
Brian Wilson co-wrote six tunes with collaborators Gary Usher and Roger Christian for American International Pictures’ Muscle Beach Party, including “Muscle Party,” “Muscle Bustle,” “My First Love,” “Runnin’ Wild,” and “Surfer’s Holiday.” The movie stars Mouseketeer Annette Funicello and teen idol Frankie Avalon, and features appearances by Dick Dale and the Del Tones and singer Donna Loren, all of whom perform to the backing tracks of these songs, which were produced Wilson and Usher.
In this early sequence, you get a sense of the Muscle Beach Party’s attitude and style, as well as a terrific glimpse of surf guitar hero Dick Dale hamming it up.
2. The Monkey’s Uncle. Directed by Robert Stevenson, 1965, Disney.
Though it stars the iconic beach party girl, Annette Funicello, this Disney-produced teen movie strays from the beach party formula. The producers managed to get the Beach Boys to appear on screen to back Funicello as she sings the movie’s title track, which was written by movie songwriters Robert Sherman and Richard Sherman.
“The Monkey’s Uncle”
Considering they don’t figure into the movie’s plot and the song wasn’t written or produced by Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys’ appearance might seem somewhat gimmicky. Yet the visual presence and the sound of their voices set a fitting tone for the movie.
3. Ride the Wild Surf. Directed by Don Taylor, 1964, Columbia.
Brian Wilson co-wrote the title song for this beach party movie with Jan Berry, of the surf pop duo Jan & Dean, and Roger Christian. The movie itself is known for its more authentic depiction of surfing as well as being shot in Hawaii.
“Ride the Wild Surf”
Though the song went on to become hit record for Jan & Dean, it bears the characteristic sweep and catchiness of Brian Wilson’s best surf songs.
4. Beach Ball. Directed by Lennie Weinrib, 1965, Paramount.
This obscure beach party movie is known less for its story than for the variety of music it features, including the Hondells’ “My Buddy Seat,” written and produced by Brian Wilson, who also sings on the track. There are also on-screen appearances by the Supremes, the Righteous Brothers, the Four Seasons, and the Walker Brothers.
The Hondells were a studio band started by Brian Wilson-collaborator Gary Usher. Their appearance in Beach Ball, performing “My Buddy Seat” is a good example of the oblique way in which Brian Wilson’s music slipped itself into beach party movies.
5. The Girls on the Beach. Directed by William Witney, 1965, Paramount.
Maybe the most intriguing of the beach party movies associated with the Beach Boys, The Girls on the Beach revolves around a farcical story in which group of sorority girls trying to save their house book the Beatles for a benefit concert. That the group doesn’t actually appear doesn’t take anything away from the terrific music that does. The movie features appearances by the Beach Boys, pop singer Leslie Gore, and the Crickets, sans Buddy Holly, all delivering some quality performances.
The best thing about this Beach Boys appearance is the way it seems to holds up on its own, as if the movie was conceived as the context for this performance rather than vice versa. The buzzing, lusty energy of this scene never seems to wane.
For anyone interested in exploring this aspect of Southern California culture further, I highly recommend the book Pop Surf Culture: Music, Design, Film, and Fashion from the Bohemian Surf Boom (2008), by Brian Chidester and Domenic Priore.
Beach Boys’ Smile is available on Amazon, at Bloomsbury.com, or wherever 33 1/3s are sold.