If you’re a Beach Boys fan, you know there’s much more to the sto­ry than the “America’s Band” exte­ri­or lets on,  a sto­ry that most casu­al observers have lit­tle idea about.  The music of the Beach Boys is most­ly con­sid­ered sun & fun fluff by out­siders, give or take Pet Sounds and The Smile Sessions.  If you’re inside the bub­ble of Beach Boys fan­dom, you see that music through the com­plex psy­chodra­mas that informed its cre­ation.  It’s a fas­ci­nat­ing sto­ry that breeds obses­sion if one can get past the decep­tive­ly sun­ny exte­ri­or.

The Beach Boys are also in a strange posi­tion where the books about them are either writ­ten by obses­sive fans or reporters with a clin­i­cal dis­tance.  Jon Stebbins’ The Beach Boys FAQ is a recent addi­tion and it man­ages to split the dif­fer­ence between the­se camps.  It’s the rare Beach Boys tome that can appeal to fans and neo­phytes alike because he man­ages to appre­ci­ate the music while being hon­est about the band’s foibles.

Like oth­er books in Backbeat’s FAQ series, The Beach Boys FAQ takes a more-or-less chrono­log­i­cal path through the sto­ry of Hawthorne, California’s claim to musi­cal glo­ry.  There are bio­graph­i­cal chap­ters that cov­er the dif­fer­ent phas­es of the group’s career as well as explo­rations of their albums.  Appropriately, Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations” each get their own chap­ters.  Fans will be hap­py to see that Stebbins devotes a gen­er­ous sec­tion of the book to the quirky, dis­tinc­tive and most­ly for­got­ten work the Beach Boys did in the lat­er 1960’s and ear­ly 1970’s before Mike Love trans­formed the group into America’s eter­nal sum­mer oldies tour­ing machine.

The straight­for­ward band his­to­ry stuff is off­set with chap­ters devot­ed to the kind of minu­ti­ae that fans will want to know: fans will be thrilled with entries on who sang lead on what song and also who played the instru­ments on par­tic­u­lar songs.  The lat­ter sec­tion is a big sur­prise, as it is wide­ly assumed that Brian Wilson side­lined the group in favor of ses­sion pros entire­ly dur­ing their big hit­mak­ing phase.  A sim­i­lar­ly fas­ci­nat­ing chap­ter devotes itself to who inspired the dif­fer­ent songs named after wom­en in the group’s cat­a­log.  The tale of the var­i­ous rumored inspi­ra­tions for “Caroline, No” plays like a pop music Rashomon.

However, the stuff that real­ly dis­tin­guish­es The Beach Boys FAQ are the opin­ion and analy­sis pieces that flesh out the facts and fig­ures.  Stebbins explores a wide vari­ety of top­ics on this tip, includ­ing an essay on why the Beach Boys were America’s answer to the Beatles as well as effec­tive char­ac­ter sketch­es of the group’s dom­i­neer­ing father Murry Wilson and the trou­bled but gift­ed Dennis Wilson.  Veteran fans are like­ly to be impressed with thought­ful, nuanced chap­ters on Brian Wilson’s psy­cho­log­i­cal issues and his tor­tured rela­tion­ship with tour­ing.  There’s even a fun chap­ter about the var­i­ous rea­sons that is so fun to hate on old Mike Love: many are jus­ti­fied but you might be inter­est­ed to hear he actu­al­ly had a legit­i­mate griev­ance, albeit a poor­ly han­dled one, regard­ing his law­suit for lyri­cal cred­it on the ear­ly Beach Boys hits.

Hardcore fans will take a shine to the clos­ing por­tion of the book, when Stebbins offers a long­time fan’s thoughts on the future of the Beach Boys lega­cy and first-hand accounts of attend­ing a few note­wor­thy Beach Boys reunions of the last few years, par­tic­u­lar­ly one for the cer­e­mony in which Hawthorne, California became a state land­mark for being the home turf of the young Beach Boys.  Stebbins has a long his­to­ry with the band, hav­ing writ­ten biographies of mem­bers David Marks and Dennis Wilson, and he’s able to mix the deep ana­lyt­i­cal explo­rations of a biog­ra­pher with the enthu­si­as­tic curios­i­ty of a fan and the access of an insid­er.

In short, The Beach Boys FAQ is the rare book on a musi­cal group that can serve a few dif­fer­ent mas­ters.  It offers a con­cise his­to­ry of the band as well as a thought­ful appraisal of their work plus it adds the kind of insight (and nov­el triv­ia fac­toids) that already ded­i­cat­ed fans will expect.  Regardless of what lev­el of Beach Boys fan­dom you occu­py, this pro­vides an engag­ing read for all inter­est­ed par­ties.