“Help Me, Rhonda”: The Beach Boys and the Labouring of Popular Music

By Grant Wong (@wongpopscholar)

The Beach Boys’ 1965 album Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!) looks and sounds like your typical early Beach Boys record. Its tracks, hits like “California Girls” and “Help Me Rhonda,” celebrate the simple joys of being a teenager in postwar America. Its album sleeve beams with summer fun, depicting the Beach Boys on a sailboat, leisurely drifting on the calm tides of the Pacific.  

            The LP’s liner notes tell a different story. Written by the Beach Boys themselves, they read as a collective venting session. “I’m still working on ideas for this album,” wrote Brian Wilson, leader of the band. “We had an unbelievable hassle trying to finish up the songs, especially after a three-week tour.”[1] Carl Wilson pleaded the band’s fans to excuse Brian’s absences: “my brother Brian… he’s been under terrific pressure at times to write, arrange and organize all the songs for our albums and singles, about 60 a year.”[2] Al Jardine wrote a cry for help: “If you look close at any one of the guys you’ll see the strain of our work… look for someone who seems to need a first-aid kit.”[3]

            It’s easy to forget that musicians like the Beach Boys were labourers just as much as they were artists.[4] Their 1966 Pet Sounds album, famous for hits like “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” and “God Only Knows,” was the product of twenty-seven painstaking recording sessions. This was a serious investment of time and effort, as the sessions took place over the span of four months and were often all-day affairs. Brian composed and produced the music in addition to directing the studio musicians who provided much of the LP’s instrumentation. The rest of the band toured in Brian’s place to buy him time in the studio and recorded the album’s vocals in between tours of Japan and the United States. Even touring, with its live performances and constant travel, had its own strains. Mike Love’s Summer Days liner notes spoke to how lonely it was: “there’s never enough time in any one city to really enjoy it – or maybe worse, it’s very seldom we ever have time to talk with and be with someone you know you would like.”[5]

            Even at the height of their fame in the mid-1960s, the Beach Boys faced incredible demands on their time and labour. Their British rivals, the Beatles, topped the charts and challenged the band to keep up with their sonic innovation. Capitol Records, their record label, saw the band as a passing fad and ceaselessly pressured them to produce new material. As such, their albums The Beach Boys Today, Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!), Beach Boys’ Party, and Pet Sounds, were composed, recorded, promoted, toured, and sold in the short span of two years, an exhausting endeavor. As each record charted in the Billboard top ten, the band was pressured again and again to top their previous efforts. Even the praise the band received heightened these tensions, especially as Brian gained his reputation as a pop musical genius as the result of Pet Sounds’ marketing campaign. As Mike recalled, “it was hard enough to keep up with the Beatles, but now [Brian] had to keep up with Mozart?”[6]

            Despite this hard work, the worth of the band’s work was continuously questioned. “Are the five touring Beach Boys merely sound puppets of recording genius Brian Wilson?” asked the music magazine Melody Maker in 1966. Carl offered a reply indicative of the pride he and the band had in their work: “everyone in the group contributes… We work hard to produce the end product of a high standard… But a lot of people aren’t doing this. They aren’t prepared to go into a studio and work. And it shows. You can tell from their albums which artists are really working on their records.”[7] While the Beach Boys may have embodied carefree summer fun in their music and marketing, they clearly understood their professional lives as labourious and serious.

            “I don’t think there’ll ever be a dull moment in my career,” said Brian in 1964. “I don’t want to be static, I must keep functioning… No, I’m not a genius, I’m just a hardworking guy.”[8] Imagining the Beach Boys and other musicians as labourers can be jarring – the artistic equivalent of learning how the sausage gets made – but it cuts through myth and speaks to a more appreciative understanding of their art. Of course, knowing this history doesn’t make the Beach Boys’ music any less fun. In fact, I find that it makes their soaring harmonies sound all the richer.

IMAGE: “1977 Craig Stereo Advertisement with the Beach Boys Motor Trend June 1977” by SenseiAlan is licensed with CC BY 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

[1] The Beach Boys, Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!), Capitol Records T 2354, July 5, 1965, liner notes.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] For more details on understanding musical work as labour, especially rock ‘n’ roll, see Michael James Robert, Tell Tchaikovsky the News: Rock ‘n’ Roll, the Labor Question, and the Musicians’ Union, 1942-1968 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014). For more on understanding cultural production as labour more generally, see Michael Denning, The Cultural Front: The Laboring of American Culture in the Twentieth Century (New York: Verso Books, 2011).

[5] The Beach Boys, Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!).

[6] Mike Love and James Hirsch, Good Vibrations: My Life as a Beach Boy (New York: Blue Rider Press, 2016), 147.

[7] Alan Walsh, “Brian Wilson’s Puppets?”, Melody Maker, November 12, 1966, https://keepinthesummeralive.tumblr.com/image/95112119825.

[8] Tom Nolan, “The Beach Boys: A California Saga,” Rolling Stone, October 28, 1971, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/beach-boys-a-california-saga-244579/.

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