Will: 50 years on, Beach Boys still get around

By George Will, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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COLUMBIA, Md. -- Three hours before showtime, Brian Wilson says: "There is no Rhonda." Sitting backstage, gathering strength for the evening's 48-song, 150-minute concert, Wilson was not asked about her, he just volunteered this fact. The other members of the Beach Boys seem mildly surprised to learn that the 1965 song "Help Me, Rhonda" was about no one in particular.

Not that it matters; the sound is everything. Attention must be paid to baby boomer music-cued nostalgia, and no one pays it better than the Beach Boys. They are currently on a 50th-anniversary tour that has more than 60 concerts scheduled and others still being booked. Their new album, "That's Why God Made the Radio," debuted at No. 3 in Billboard's listing, and with this the Beach Boys topped the Beatles for most weeks on Billboard's top-10 album chart.

Their band began in 1961 in Hawthorne, in Los Angeles County, when the parents of Brian, Dennis and Carl Wilson went away for a weekend, leaving the boys with meal money they used to rent instruments and record a song called "Surfin'." They rode a wave of fascination with California to the top of pop music.

Given California's dystopian present, it is difficult to recall that the Beach Boys' appeal derived not just from their astonishing harmonies (which derived from the Four Freshmen) but also from their embodiment of a happy Southern California that beckoned to the rest of the nation.

Playing to the boomers

The Beach Boys were eventually dethroned but invigorated by the challenge of the British Invasion, particularly the Beatles.

Brian Wilson has long been troubled by mental illness, but he responded to the challenge of the Beatles album "Rubber Soul" with "Pet Sounds," including "God Only Knows," which Paul McCartney called "the greatest song ever written." The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper" was a response to "Pet Sounds." Leonard Bernstein called Brian Wilson, the Beach Boys' creative engine, "one of today's most important musicians," and the Joffrey Ballet danced to Wilson's music.

Dennis and Carl Wilson died long ago, but today's band includes three original members -- Brian, Al Jardine and Mike Love -- plus David Marks, who grew up down the street from the Wilsons, and Bruce Johnston, "the new guy" who first joined the group in 1965. The Beatles dissolved in 1970; the Beach Boys are the first American band to enter a second half-century.

Boomers must be served, so Mick Jagger, who long ago said, "I'd rather be dead than sing 'Satisfaction' when I'm 45," is singing it at 68. In 1966, the 31-year-old Elvis Presley asked the Beach Boys for advice about touring; he has been dead for nearly 35 years but they play on, all of them approaching or past 70, singing "When I Grow Up (to Be a Man)" without a trace of irony. Southern California in their formative years was not zoned for irony.

George F. Will is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Email: georgewill@washpost.com.