The band formed in Hawthorne, California in 1961. It consisted of three brothers, a cousin, and a friend and was managed by the father of the Wilson brothers. Brian, Carl, and Dennis were all good singers and the band's sound was patterned after vocal combos like 'The Four Freshmen' heavy on layered 3 and 4 part harmonies. Their early songs were aimed at short, radio-friendly singles that captured the southern California lifestyle. The songs were all about summer romance, fast cars, and surfing. As time passed, Brian, who was the principal songwriter, became more and more agoraphobic to the point of mental illness. However his writing burgeoned into complex arrangements, unique chord structures, and singularly progressive sounds.
Initially, their main influences were doo-wop and barbershop groups from the fifties. In time, the vocally-oriented British Invasion groups became added influences and there was a perceived sense of rivalry with the Beatles in particular. Brian Wilson was one of the singularly most creative songwriters of the sixties and his greatest competition was the duo of Lennon and McCartney.
Main Creative Force
Brian Wilson was the primary songwriter and arranger who also took over a great deal of the production duties when the band finally removed his father, Murry, from the mix.
Most Likely To Be A Mainstream Rocker
In terms of his lifestyle and general interests musically, Dennis, the drummer, was probably the one who might have found work with other sixties bands.
First Hint of Prog Brilliance
'Pet Sounds' emerged as uniquely powerful for a band known for songs like Surfin' Safari and California Girls.
God Only Knows and Wouldn't It Be Nice were two of the most sophisticated pop songs of their day, though lyrically they fit right into the Beach Boys' canon of love songs. The harmonies, rhythmic breaks, and chord changes were totally unique in popular music of the sixties.
Brian Wilson's magnum opus was to be the album 'Smile' which would not be completed until the end of the century. But the tracks that did emerge from its early work were amazingly progressive. One song from the planned album, Good Vibrations, was absolutely a piece of Prog Rock history, featuring several time changes as well as a theramin.
Influenced By Them
Without question, the Beach Boys, like the Beatles, influenced many of their contemporaries who did all they could to replicate their formula for success. Numerous surf music bands emerged in that period, most notably their friends, Jan and Dean. Other groups, like the Byrds, tried very hard to emulate the vocal harmonies even as they morphed toward the psychedelic era. In later years, other composers would study Brian Wilson for understanding into creating unique song structures.
The Almighty RRHOF saw fit to recognize the Beach Boys fairly early in 1988. Mike Love, who may rival Brian Wilson for most mentally unstable Beach Boy, delivered a disturbing diatribe of an acceptance speech that attacked some of the greatest artists of rock and roll's entire history. In a lot of ways, there are two legacies associated with them. The first is that of the Beach Boys as a good-time, summer-fun, beach-party band and they certainly deserve a place in the history of rock and roll. The second legacy is that of Brian Wilson, a tortured artist who pushed the creative boundaries in ways no one quite understood and which to date, no one can duplicate. It is that second legacy that makes the Beach Boys a Proto-Prog band.
My Personal Take
My older brother owned dozens of Beach Boys singles on the old Capitol 45 rpm records. I listened to them often - generally without having a choice - and came to be intimately familiar with the Beach Boys catalog from the early days through 65 or so. My familiarity with Pet Sounds and some of the more experimental stuff didn't emerge until around 1975 when they released Endless Summer and I realized I had very fond memories of the Beach Boys from when I was being programmed by my brother back in the sixties. I saw them live in 1976 at KU and later at an outdoor Summer Jam show in Kansas City. I certainly never regarded them as progressive and as far as their live shows went, it was really hard to see them as anything but a good-time, party band. The complexity of their later albums and the brilliance of Brian Wilson as a composer really didn't emerge for me until the early 80s when I was doing radio work. It's still hard for me to view them as anything but the surf music, car song band they tended to be and still tend to be performing live. Brian's re-emergence as a composer and performer certainly adds to their progressive legacy, however. It remindes us that there was more to them than sun, sand, surfing, and horsepower.