With nary a granule of intended irony, The Beach Boys — scare quotes optional but totally warranted — are touring this summer to celebrate the 50th anniversary of their 1964 hit, “Fun, Fun, Fun”. Considering all of the death, drug abuse, family squabbling, dead-horse flogging, and Full House tie-ins that have characterized this band’s long and sordid history, no song is a worse summation of what they’ve become than “Fun, Fun, Fun”. And yet Mike Love and Bruce Johnston won’t be denied.
Sans mastermind Brian Wilson, of course, the Boys are coming soon to a concert hall or casino near you. The tragicomic trek is sure to feature all of the group’s feel-good hits, but it got us thinking about some of the least fun tunes in their repertoire — the ones they really ought to be playing at this stage in the game.
The following list includes purposefully sad gems from their classic early period, unsettling masterpieces from their psychedelic heyday, and just plain awful cuts from the four decades since. These are songs of heartbreak, death, despair, and ecological decline, among other topics. The only thing more depressing would be a musical retelling of the group’s history. Luckily, there’s no one left in the lineup with the talent or energy to write it.
“The Lonely Sea”
At the end of the day, when all the surfers have gone home, the sea keeps rolling, just as it always has, just as it always will. “It never stops for you or me,” Brian Wilson sings on this surprisingly deep 1963 ballad, and the same goes for the girl he’s really singing about. Whether she’s a loner or just a serial dater, she’s drowning Wilson’s heart, and the eternally sad-eyed genius delivers his lines like a guy who’s about two seconds from burying his head in the sand and having an epic cry.
“A Young Man Is Gone”
In the early ‘60s, teen tragedy songs were all the rage, and this one’s about a daring boy racer who dies in his car. For all the reverence the fellas sing it with, there’s not much excitement or background info on the fallen hero. At least the Shangri-Las gave us a reason to miss the dude who bites it in “Leader of the Pack”.
“I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times”
These are the seven words everyone figures will one day adorn Brian Wilson’s tombstone. Like most of Pet Sounds, it’s an achingly gorgeous listen, but man, it’ll take the wind out of your John B sails faster than the first mate getting drunk and breaking into the captain’s trunk or the cook eating up all your corn.
“The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow)”
For years, legend had it that Brian Wilson destroyed the tapes for this freaky, shrieky SMiLE instrumental, as he believed it was responsible for a string of fires in the L.A. area. Turns out he never actually did, but listening back to the ’66/’67 recordings — or even the versions that wound up on Smiley Smile and Wilson’s 2004 solo SMiLE reboot — you can see why he’d have wanted to. In the context of the SMiLE song cycle, “Fire” makes sense, as it nicely builds tension before “Love to Say Dada” (or “In Blue Hawaii”, as it was renamed in ’04). By itself, it’s torture, and it must have terrified a young Brian to discover he was capable of such cacophony.
“She’s Goin’ Bald”
Built from a SMiLE scrap called “He Gives Speeches”, this perplexing ’67 oddity is, as the title suggests, all about a woman losing her hair. As the Boys watch her brush in vain and ultimately fall to the floor in distress, all they can do is laugh. When the Eltro Information Rate Changer kicks in, transforming the vocals into a kind of primitive robotic taunting, it takes on an even more sinister edge. Is the heroine suffering from radiation poisoning in some hellish future dystopia? If so, can she muster the strength to sock Mike Love in the jaw?
“Don’t Go Near the Water”
Never known for their activism, the Beach Boys take on the issue of water pollution with this 1971 tune. Next to Marvin Gaye’s similarly themed “Mercy, Mercy Me”, which dropped the same year, the tune feels pretty slight, and lines like, “Toothpaste and soap will make our oceans a bubble bath/ So let’s avoid an ecological aftermath” make the whole situation ever sadder. The earth’s oceans are turning to poison, and this is supposed to spur people to action?
“’Til I Die”
The harmonies are to die for, and speaking of death, Wilson uses a series of gloomy metaphors — “a cork on the ocean,” “a leaf on a windy day,” and “a rock in a landslide” — to describe the miserable existence he’s destined to lead until his last breath. “Feeling shipwrecked on an existential island, I lost myself in the balance of darkness that stretched beyond the breaking waves to the other side of the earth,” Wilson once said of the 1971 track.
The good news: This 1977 ode to America’s favorite TV host only took Brian 20 minutes to write, so it’s not like he wasted a ton of time that could have been devoted to something more worthwhile — like doing just about anything other than penning a song about Johnny Carson. Apologists insist it’s an autobiographical tune about the pressure Wilson felt to always be on, like a comic with a nightly talk show, but if that’s the case, lines like “Who’s a man that we admire?/ Johnny Carson is a real live wire” make this a wasted opportunity to do something really clever.
On a superficial level, “Kokomo” is a sweet and refreshing pop trifle, but dive in a little deeper, and there’s a turd at the bottom of this pina colada. First off, Brian Wilson doesn’t appear on the track, which topped the Billboard Hot 100 in November 1988, and the only Beach Boy with a hand in the writing was Mike Love. Even if you can get past the cheesy ‘80s production and egregious sax solo, it bears mentioning that the titular island doesn’t actually exist. For all the talk of cocktails and moonlight and relaxation, this is a song about a paradise you can never, ever reach. In a sense, it’s the ultimate Beach Boys song — and the opposite of fun.
Five years earlier, a Beach Boys tune with this title would’ve meant fun and sun. Here, the waves are catastrophic, and “columnated ruins domino,” crushing what’s left of a decadent American society that’s been plundered wholesale by a “blind class aristocracy.” At least that’s one way to read this lush, cryptic SMiLE centerpiece. At no other point on the famously scrapped concept record is lyricist Van Dyke Parks sharper — check out how he works the word “holocaust” into the phrase “the music hall a costly bow” — and Wilson responds with music rich enough to have caught the ear of Leonard Bernstein.