For decades, the Beach Boys have been synonymous with “endless summer” and the sound of Southern California. Their lush harmonies and lyrical odes to the beach, surfing, and fun are perennial favorites, but there are also Beach Boys songs that are really dark. Some of their tunes tackle everything from mortality and lost love to madness. But don't be embarrassed when you look over these Beach Boys songs you never realized are messed up – their catchy choruses hide a lot of weird and gross stuff.
On the surface, the Beach Boys were an all-American band. Hailing from Hawthorne, CA, the group consisted of the three Wilson brothers (Brian, Carl, and Dennis), cousin Mike Love, and neighbor Al Jardine. Together they recorded some of the most beloved albums in music history. Pet Sounds is the band at its peak; the album’s groundbreaking recording techniques even influenced The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
However, fame wasn’t always easy, and those challenges were often reflected in the band’s lyrics. From Brian’s breakdown and Dennis’s addiction issues to the emotional abuse the boys suffered under their cruel father/manager, Murry, the reality of the group's personal suffering was often laid bare. These secretly messed up Beach Boys songs reflect the darkness hidden under a golden veneer of sun and sand.
"Never Learn Not To Love" is a darker-than-usual Beach Boys song, not only because of its unhealthily obsessive lyrics, but due to its authorship. Charles Manson, the infamous murderer-slash-cult leader, first composed the song under the title "Cease To Exist." A frustrated musician, Manson was elated when Dennis Wilson asked to record it. However, there was one caveat: he was not to change Mason’s composition in any way.
But Wilson did. He changed the title, he punched up the lyrics, and he put his name on it. An enraged Manson showed up at Wilson's house and threatened to kill him, but didn't go through with the violent act; instead, Wilson supposedly beat Manson up. The humiliated Manson’s grudge against Wilson, music producer Terry Melcher, and the Hollywood elite overall eventually led to the Tate-LaBianca murders of August 1969.
Composer: Charles Manson, Dennis Wilson
By 1971, the summertime vibe the Beach Boys made their brand was a relic from a more innocent time. Under the guidance of manager Jack Rieley, the now world-weary band released their most vulnerable and melancholy album to date, Surf's Up. The existential Brian Wilson-penned track "Til I Die" expressed his overwhelming feelings of mortality, as he explained:
"I'd been depressed and preoccupied with death... Looking out toward the ocean, my mind, as it did almost every hour of every day, worked to explain the inconsistencies that dominated my life; the pain, torment, and confusion and the beautiful music I was able to make. Was there an answer? Did I have no control? Had I ever? The ocean was so incredibly vast, the universe was so large, and suddenly I saw myself in proportion to that, a little pebble of sand, a jellyfish floating on top of the water; traveling with the current I felt dwarfed, temporary. The next day I began writing 'Til I Die,' perhaps the most personal song I ever wrote for the Beach Boys."
Albums: Surf's Up
Composer: Brian Wilson, Chris Schlarb
"I’m Bugged At My Ol’ Man" is a novelty ode to Brian Wilson’s father, Murry, from Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!), released in 1965. The track is representational of Murry’s well documented, real-life abuse toward his son. In it, the narrator describes his father’s over-the-top punishments against minor infractions, which leave him locked in his room, with his possessions taken away, his hair cut off, and bread crumbs and water being the only thing for him to eat.
If you’ve ever felt lonely and adrift in the world, Pet Sounds’ "I Just Wasn't Made for These Times” might be your jam. The introspective Brian Wilson/Tony Asher-penned lyrics take the point of view of an empathetic, yet alienated, protagonist who can’t find comfort in any crowd.
In 2011, Wilson said, “Either I'm too far ahead of my time' or 'I'm not up to my time'... [Now] I do feel I was made for these times."
Albums: Pet Sounds
Composer: Brian Wilson