Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Chicago Is a Summer Festival

Beach Boys at Summer's End

At the turn of the decade, when the protest/jazz/post-psychedelia of Chicago was revving up, the Beach Boys were at their nadir. To the vast majority of visible "rock fans" they epitomized a banality barely escaped. This banality pervaded both the fun-fun of their wheels-and-surf image and the anti-heavy choirboy feel of their music itself. Their involvement with Transcendental meditation, then a discarded Beatle fad, only made them more ridiculous, and even those who considered Brian Wilson some kind of genius were discouraged by their more or less correct conviction that he had dropped out of the group forever.

But at the same time the Beach Boys were a touchstone for real rock and rollers, all of whom understood that the music had its most essential roots in an innocently hedonistic materialism. And of course we are vindicated. If Chicago has any competition in the rock success sweepstakes, it is from the Beach Boys themselves, at a new peak after 13 years. But I'm not sure I like the terms of the victory. I can live with the Maharishi as Dale Carnegie--TM does seem to help some people--and I can live without Brian Wilson as long as his songs live on. But I miss the innocence that made the Beach Boys' hedonistic materialism so entrancing. Many of their new fans are young enough to be buying early-'60s collections like Endless Summer and Spirit of America the way I used to buy Charlie Parker records. But that they cheer even louder for Chicago indicates how grown-up they feel compelled to be. For Chicago really is the Beach Boys grown up--well-meaning but cluttered, fatally de-simplified. The joint tour, an event that matches the Stones as this year's traveling rock festival, is on one level an accident of commerce: both groups are now managed by former Mother of Invention Jim Guercio. But like so many found metaphors, it rings true.

The Beach Boys have never sounded better. Stripped of the clutter of the early '60s, with Guercio providing the appropriate musical directions as well as playing bass, their lyrics projected full and harmonious to the farthest reaches of Madison Square Garden, and up front they were a revelation, as beautiful as all the fools who compared them to madrigal singers have always claimed them to be. And Chicago was tolerable, especially once I moved to a corridor and read a Nabokov novel while they played. It was just like listening to the radio; I was amazed at how many of their songs I recognized, and how little they offended me.

Then there was a third set which acknowledged the essential equality of the two bands. All the musicians were on stage, alternating Chicago and Beach Boys songs. The vibes, as they used to say, were very good, and the Beach Boys segments were so wonderful, somehow unaffected by Chicago's clutter, that I felt pettish remembering that Daddy took the T-Bird away quite some time ago now. Inside that huge arena it was as if time had stopped. The kids had shining faces, as if all the different promises of the '60s had come together. But they hadn't; the innocence was gone; the good vibes were an intention of commerce. I'll take my pleasure where I find it. But, despite the wonderful music, I didn't quite get satisfaction Thursday night.

Village Voice, June 23, 1975

Postscript Notes:

This was the second part of a three-part article.