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.