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California Sound

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The California Sound refers to a popular music aesthetic engendered by 1960s pop and rock recording artists from the California area. It was first related to the California Myth, an idyllic narrative inspired by the state's beach culture that commonly appeared in the lyrics of commercial pop songs. Later, the Sound was expanded outside of its initial geography and subject matter[1][2] and was developed to be more sophisticated and bred studio experimentation[3] some of which was classified as sunshine pop.[4][5]

The Sound was originally identified for harnessing a wide-eyed, sunny optimism that marked southern California teenage life in the late 1950s and early 1960s.[6] Its imagery is primarily represented by Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys, who are credited for the Sound's instigation.[7][6][8][9] Along with Jan and Dean, the Beach Boys encapsulated surfing, hot rod culture, and youthful innocence within music which transformed a local lifestyle into American mythology.[10] Other propellants included songwriters and/or record producers Gary Usher, Curt Boettcher, Bruce Johnston, Terry Melcher, and Roger Christian.

The Beach Boys' surf music was not entirely of their own invention, being preceded by artists such as Dick Dale.[11] However, previous surf musicians did not project a world view as the Beach Boys did.[12] Wilson once said of its myth: "It's not just the surfing; it's the outdoors and cars and sunshine; it's the society of California; it's the way of California."[13] Al Jardine of the Beach Boys argued that "It’s not entirely a myth. There are still some elements that are certainly true, especially for a first-time observer. But to be able to come here and to drive that coast on Route 1 ... you experience the water and the animals and the sea life, the whole thing. It’s really magical. It really is."[14]

The California Sound gradually evolved to reflect a more musically ambitious and mature world view, becoming less to do with surfing and cars and more about social consciousness and political awareness.[15] Between 1964 and 1969, it fueled innovation and transition, inspiring artists to tackle largely unmentioned themes such as sexual freedom, black pride, drugs, oppositional politics, and war.[16]


File:Venice, California Beach.jpg
A young couple watching the sunset on a Los Angeles beach with surfboard in hand
Further information: Youth culture and Californian beach culture

The genesis of the California Sound is said to be the Beach Boys' debut single "Surfin'" in 1961.[17][18] While the band's leader Brian Wilson then collaborated with Jan Berry for several hit singles written and produced for other artists, they recorded what would later be regarded the California Sound.[19][20] University of Southern California history professor Kevin Starr has stated that the band was historically important for embodying the era of the Silent Generation, which he described as unpolitical.[21] He explained that the group "could not help but mythologize a landscape and way of life that was already so surreal, so proto-mythic, in its setting. Cars and the beach, surfing, the California Girl, all this fused in the alembic of youth: Here was a way of life, an iconography, already half-released into the chords and multiple tracks of a new sound."[18] The California Sound was thus a musical translation of the California Myth.[22] In the book Pioneers of Rock and Roll: 100 Artists Who Changed the Face of Rock, Harry Sumrall summarized:

[The Beach Boys] virtually defined the image of surfers, hot rods, sun, beaches, girls, and fun, fun, fun that became the California myth. The titles of their songs said it as well as anything: "Surfin' U.S.A.," "Little Deuce Coupe," "Surfer Girl," "Fun, Fun, Fun," "Dance, Dance, Dance," and "California Girls". With these hits and others, the group's bassist and songwriter, Brian Wilson, created a new sound in rock and roll. It was called the "surf sound," but in fact it was a combination of older rock verities set in entirely new lyrical and musical contexts.[23]
File:The Beach Boys (1965).png
The Beach Boys in a promotional shot used for their 1965 single "California Girls"

David Howard wrote that "Don't Worry Baby" was a "subtle harbinger for the growing dichotomy within the California Sound. While 'I Get Around' symbolized the sunshine ideal in all its carefree splendor, 'Don't Worry Baby' suggested something entirely more pensive and even slightly dark underneath its pristine facade."[20] Allmusic's review of the group's "All Summer Long" calls it a "potent example" of the California Myth's "idyllic dream world of sun, surf, and fun" while containing qualities of sunshine pop.[24] Author Luis Sanchez believes that the entirety of All Summer Long (1964) was "the nearest the Beach Boys ever got to a perfect version of the California myth."[25]

If Surfin' U.S.A. didn't literally transform America into an endless beach, it added vivid dimension to California mythos and took it further than anyone would have thought. You could call The Beach Boys’ version of Southern California cutesy or callow or whatever, but what matters is that it captured a lack of self-consciousness—a genuineness—that set them apart from their peers. And it was this quality that came to define Brian’s oeuvre as he moved beyond and into bigger pop productions that would culminate in Smile.

—Luis Sanchez[26]

The Beach Boys continued expanding their version of the California Myth until it could no longer be confined to pop music terrain, transcending the limits of genre, commercial expectations, and geography.[1] Aiding this was Wilson's successes with collaborator Gary Usher. The duo helped create a major new market revolving around the California Sound, allowing musicians Bruce Johnston and Terry Melcher to turn their attention to the Rip Chords, a group who then had hits with the hot-rod themed "Hey Little Cobra" and pseudo-surf "Summer Means Fun".[27] Historian Matthew Allan Ides wrote:

The writing duo of [Gary] Usher and [Roger] Christian, like that of Terry Melcher and Bruce Johnston, provided most of the lyrics, production and promotion to the vocal pop music that like instrumental surf music became associated with Southern California youth culture. Ironically, both Usher and Christian had come to California from the East Coast in the late 1950s, and neither had much experience with surfing or local youth. Nonetheless, Usher and Christian translated their impressions of teen life in Southern California into lyrics. Usher’s songs included "In My Room" and the "Lonely Surfer," and Christian’s hits numbered "Surf City," "Little Old Lady From Pasadena," and "Don’t Worry Baby."[28]

Transformation and decline

Terry Melcher's mid-1960s productions for the Byrds popularized folk rock, inspiring a new trend in the California Sound's lyricism.[2]

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The result of Wilson's increasingly artistic interpretations of pop music form helped transform the California Sound into a more musically ambitious and mature world view.[29] Melcher soon worked with the Byrds, producing their 1965 folk rock single "Mr. Tambourine Man".[30][31] Its recording was based on Wilson's production approach to "Don't Worry Baby".[31] Melcher's "commercially golden formula" with the Byrds was immediately co-opted by many Los Angeles-based recording artists such as the Turtles, the Leaves, Sonny & Cher, and Barry McGuire. The lyricism behind the California Sound gradually became less to do with surfing and cars and more about social consciousness and political awareness.[31] In Bill Flanagan's view, after the Beach Boys epitomized the California Sound, Crosby, Stills, & Nash "ratified it".[9] Arnold Shaw summarized in The Rock Revolution (1969):

The California Sound went from one extreme to another—from "Be true to your school!" to "Let's freak out!", from the Surf Sound to fuzztone and feedback, from celebration of the open road to a search for strange inner experiences, from the thrill of speed to liberation through sensory overload, from the excitement of bodily motion to the explosiveness of mind-expanding drugs, and from the Beach Boys to the Mothers of Invention—a process in which the Boys themselves underwent an audible, if not visible, transformation.[32]

In September 1965, Wilson was quoted saying: "I HATE so-called 'surfin' music.' It’s a name that people slap on any sound from California. Our music is rightfully 'the Beach Boy sound'—if one has to label it."[33] By 1966, Wilson had already begun moving away from the perceptibly lightweight themes that had established his group's image,[34][35] expressing a willingness to "get out of the Eisenhower mindset" as told by collaborator Van Dyke Parks.[34] Meanwhile, Gary Usher was enlisted by the Byrds to helm their transitional 1967 release Younger Than Yesterday which incorporated folk rock, jazz-influenced pop, novelty space rock, and colorful psychedelia.[36]

In Howard's description, "One can view the evolution of the California Sunshine Sound as a mirror of the evolution of the 1960s. Commencing with its post-Eisenhower narrative and insulated complacency, the early California Sound was predicated on Wilson, Usher, and Melcher's simple fun-in-the-sun ideals."[29] It ran into decline by the end of the 1960s due to the West Coast's cultural shifts occurring in tandem with the psychological descent of Wilson and Melcher's associations with the Manson murders, with Howard calling it the "sunset of the original California Sunshine Sound ... [the] sweetness advocated by the California Myth had led to chilling darkness and unsightly rot".[37]

According to Flanagan, by the 1970s, the "spirit" of the California Sound was kept fresh by singer–songwriters such as Lowell George, Jackson Browne, Tom Waits, and Rickie Lee Jones while avoiding what Flanagan called the Sound's "clichés".[9]


Surf music

Main article: Surf music

The California Sound is sometimes referred to interchangeably with surf music.[7]

Folk rock

Main article: Folk rock

Sunshine pop

Main article: Sunshine pop

Efforts by Curt Boettcher in 1966 created an offshoot of the California Sound directed toward sunshine pop.[38]

Artist examples

Native to California

Outside of California

Other California sounds

Some areas within the state of California are connected to their own distinguished "sounds" including the San Francisco Sound (San Francisco, 1960s)[41] and the Bakersfield sound (Bakersfield, 1950s).[citation needed] Ides noted: "The Los Angeles sound as popularized in the mainstream obscured or disregarded the contributions made by the working-class, the nonwhite and women."[44]


  1. ^ a b Sanchez 2014, pp. 13–14.
  2. ^ a b Howard 2004, p. 61.
  3. ^ Howard 2004, p. 49–50.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k Wheadon, Bret. "The California Sound". The Beach Boys: The Complete Guide. 
  5. ^ Howard 2004, p. 69.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g Howard 2004, p. 49.
  7. ^ a b Browne & Browne 1986, p. 194.
  8. ^ Massey 2000, p. 47.
  9. ^ a b c Flanagan 2010.
  10. ^ a b Goggans & Difranco 2004, p. 358–59.
  11. ^ Sanchez 2014, p. 13.
  12. ^ Miller 1992, p. 193.
  13. ^ a b Bisbort & Puterbaugh 2009, p. 172.
  14. ^ "Al Jardine And The Myth Of California". American Songwriter. February 6, 2013. 
  15. ^ Howard 2004, pp. 61–62, 83.
  16. ^ Shuker 1994, p. 35.
  17. ^ Howard 2004, p. 51.
  18. ^ a b Starr 2009.
  19. ^ Priore 2005, p. 24.
  20. ^ a b Howard 2004, p. 57.
  21. ^ "Giving the Beach Boys a permanent address". Baltimore: The Sun. March 28, 2004. 
  22. ^ Howard 2004, p. 50.
  23. ^ Sumrall 1994, p. 15.
  24. ^ "All Summer Long song review". Allmusic. 
  25. ^ Sanchez 2014, p. 30.
  26. ^ Sanchez 2014, p. 32.
  27. ^ Howard 2004, pp. 59–60.
  28. ^ Ides 2009, pp. 264–265.
  29. ^ a b Howard 2004, p. 83.
  30. ^ a b Gilliland 1969, show 33.
  31. ^ a b c Howard 2004, pp. 61–62.
  32. ^ Shaw 1969, p. 147.
  33. ^ Beach Boys, The (September 1965). "The Things We LOVE and the Things We HATE". <span />16 Magazine<span /> (16 Magazine, Inc.) 7 (4). 
  34. ^ a b Priore 2005, pp. 28, 39.
  35. ^ Reid, Darren R. (2013). "Deconstructing America: The Beach Boys, Brian Wilson, and the Making of SMiLE". Open Access History and American Studies. 
  36. ^ Howard 2004, p. 70.
  37. ^ Howard 2004, p. 84.
  38. ^ Howard 2004, pp. 50, 69.
  39. ^ Gilliland 1969, show 37.
  40. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "The California Sound of the 60's". Allmusic. 
  41. ^ a b Gilliland 1969, shows 41-42.
  42. ^ Goggans & Difranco 2004, p. 359.
  43. ^ Gilliland 1969, show 44.
  44. ^ Ides 2009, p. 253.



Further reading