Brian Wilson Paul Williams - Essay

Paul Williams

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

[The Beach Boys] are moving forward all the time.

Each Beach Boys album since Pet Sounds has been (or seemed) a little less sophisticated. Retrogression? Not at all, but to prove that, we'd better decide what "forward" is.

Forward is the direction in which time moves. It's kind of like "out," which is the direction in which cosmic matter moves. There is no possibility of reversal inherent in this movement, nor even of angular shift. Those concepts have no meaning. Can a line stretching from zero towards infinity turn around? I mean, try to visualize it. At best, it would no longer be a line; and the basic assumption we make in calling something a line is that it is, at least, a line. So forward is a description of how time moves, just as outward might describe how space moves, if we think of "space" the concept rather than the objects that move about within space.

Now, "forward" as applied to the Beach Boys must have to do with their relationship to time. Do they move forward in time (or rather, with it)? Yes, of course, everybody does. Do they make progress? To answer that, we must consider their work as existing in time, and ask: is there a real movement (if there is, it couldn't be anything but forward) from the Beach Boys' earlier creations to their more recent ones? Not, do they get better?—that would require a highly subjective judgment (I, personally, do not think they get better; I feel they are as great now, or conversely, were as great then—I don't favor any particular period). Rather, do they incorporate the past in the present, do they seem to learn, do they operate out of some kind of awareness of past accomplishment and failure, or are they striking out anew from the beginning, the origin, every time? The question is, is there some kind of real expansion evident in the achievements of the Beach Boys as time goes on, something that would justify our considering one album as a step forward from a previous one?

This is very difficult to answer; it breaks down into a matter of subjective judgment no matter how we try to avoid that. I would say that, taking the various albums the Beach Boys have done and shuffling them, it is not necessarily evident that there are "more advanced" and "less advanced" albums. They have reached different audiences at various times sophisticated. Retrogression? Not at all, but to prove that, we'd better [say] that they were only good up to this point, or since that point ("Good Vibrations" is one popular dividing line). However, I would argue that, from the point of view of the longtime listener who has taken them pretty much for what they are, the Beach Boys have covered more distance than almost any other group in rock.

Can I explain that statement? I hope so. It must be remembered that the consistent listener himself moves forward with time; he heard Pet Sounds in 1966 and Smiley Smile in 1967 and Friends in 1968. So each new record the group releases may well seem to him not merely another piece of plastic to be measured against past pieces, but rather the most recent advance of a continually expanding body of work…. (pp. 9-10)

In terms of the listener, he feels himself moved further (at least I do) by each new album the...

(The entire section is 1360 words.)