Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Family Music Artist Justin Roberts On New Album 'Space Cadet,' His Legacy With The Recording Academy's Chicago Chapter
Are you curious as to whether there's actually good children's music out there — and/or whether you should be part of the Academy? Meet Justin Roberts — a terrific family-music artist deeply involved with the Recording Academy's Chicago Chapter.
At first listen, Justin Roberts' new album is squarely for the kiddies. His sharply enunciated vocals are high and dry in the mix, leaving no room for misinterpretation. The rhythms bounce like Motown; the high-glucose melodies leap and bound.
But what if you listen to Space Cadet not as a family-music record, but as a straight-up power pop record? Because Roberts is a diehard fan of everyone from Brian Wilson to Scott Miller of Game Theory and the Loud Family — and thanks to his knack for ear-snagging compositions, he's up there with those eccentric geniuses.
"I just try to make stuff that I enjoy as an adult — things that get stuck in my head and/or move me emotionally." the four-time GRAMMY nominee says from his Chicago home. "And I've found that generally translates to kids and adults enjoying the music."
Part of this philosophy — call it the Give Kids A Little Credit clause — came from his experiences working in a preschool at age 20.
"I was surrounded by a lot of children's music of the time, and some of it seemed really saccharine or preachy to me," Roberts tells GRAMMY.com. "Kids are so smart and emotionally intelligent. I might try to tell them a good story, or give them something that relates to their life. But I don't try to tell them what to do."
By dignifying children and parents and serving the song above all else, Roberts has amassed a spectacular body of work in the family-music sphere. And his latest, Space Cadet — out July 15 — is one of his very best.
Using an accessible and age-appropriate palette, Roberts rockets in several directions — from jingle-jangle madness ("I Have Been a Unicorn") a zonked suite of movements ("Space Cadet") to tender balladry ("Whole Lotta Love in This World").
Aside from helming this sometimes-misunderstood musical space, Roberts has left another profound mark on music — that of a Recording Academy leader.
A former Trustee and President of the Recording Academy's Chicago Chapter, Roberts remains active in the Academy's Advocacy efforts — and even testified in front of the Senate Judiciary to help pass the important Music Modernization Act.
Below, check out a premiere of the official video for "Space Cadet." Then, read on for an in-depth interview with Roberts about his approach to family music, what he tried to convey with Space Cadet and how his experiences with the Chicago chapter shaped him.
This interview has been edited for clarity.
I almost hear this more through the lens of power-pop than family music. What first compelled you to write songs this way — tightly constructed and hyper-melodic with no dull moments?
I mean, I've been making music, and this is my 16th album. So, I think it has changed over time and I try different things. But I started off doing very folky-type records with acoustic guitars and all that, and gradually started writing for a band.
And I found, even early on, that the influences of what I listened to as an adult worked really well for kids. I worked at a preschool briefly and would play Sam Cooke songs for the kids — or a Ramones song if it was lyrically appropriate. I'm just a big fan of really melodic pop music, and a giant Brian Wilson fan. I love hearing music with a lot of things going on.
I write on the computer, primarily, when I'm doing demos. And if I hear something in my head, I add another vocal part or vibes or whatever it is to the demo, and then get in the studio and reconstruct that with actual musicians. Like real string quartets and things like that.
Something I learned early on from working with kids is that they'll take in a really simple, saccharine-type song, and they'll memorize it. But they'll also take in whatever you give them. So, I just tried to make stuff that I enjoy as an adult.
That makes me make things that get stuck in my head and move me emotionally — and I've found that generally translates to kids and adults enjoying the music.
Power pop can be summed up with a handful of acts — Cheap Trick, the Raspberries, et al — but its reverberations are everywhere. It seems to resonate within the family-music sphere too.
Yeah, exactly. There are tons and tons of ways you can make music for kids.
You know, I was working at a preschool in the early '90s — right out of college. I was playing in a band in Minneapolis, and I had the idea that it has to be really simple — like an "Itsy Bitsy Spider" kind of thing — or the kinds of folk music that were prominent in children's music in the '50s and '60s.
But then, as I was working with kids, I just found that they love anything. I started writing songs in ska or whatever kind of style that I wanted, and I just tried to make it honest. And it seemed to be something that they wanted to hear again and again.
I feel that people of all ages respond to music that's simple and fun. What loses kids, musically speaking? What elements cause their attention to wander?
That's a good question. I mean, there's a big difference between what I do on an album and what I do live. Because after I write the songs, I have to figure out a way to perform them. Because a kid's show is such an interactive thing that you have to constantly keep the audience engaged.
You can't just play songs; you have to find ways to make them a part of the show. Whether it's hand motions, call and response, or various dances — things that will keep them engaged in the variety of those [events] is really important.
When I'm making the album, I'm assuming it's going to be people driving around in their car, or listening in their living room or kitchen. There's going to be a variety of contexts and ways of paying attention. In general, I don't try to predict what people are going to like or not like. I put things on records that I like.
When it comes to family music, there's a fine line between sweet and saccharine. What tools are in your arsenal to not tip over into corniness?
It's probably my own inner critic, which is very strong. Maybe the time that I delve closest to that is when I'm doing a more heartfelt ballad. I'm hoping that it feels real, because it usually is when I'm writing it.
[Space Cadet] has a couple of those, just to give a little break from the 26 musicians, like on "Little Red Wagon" and "Everybody Get On Board." "Whole Lotta Love in this World" was something I hadn't really written anything like, although I'm a huge fan of those '70s drummers that used to play with fingerless gloves and do all these silly fills in ballads.
But I guess it's just a gauge of my own emotion when I'm writing something. And if I don't believe myself, then I stop writing. In general, if it moves me or makes me laugh as an adult, that's usually when I keep writing what I'm writing.
You mentioned Brian Wilson. The title track of Space Cadet has a totally Wilsonian feeling — it moves gracefully through disparate movements.
The thing I enjoy about that song is that it's definitely about a distracted ADHD-type kid — or me, as a person! [Laughs] It has, like, 20 different parts in it — three pre-choruses. And it has that scatterbrained feeling in the song itself.
Has a child ever offered you criticism — harsh or constructive — that compelled you to pivot your approach?
The funniest criticism I ever got was from [one of these] interactive kid shows where I'm often giving direction to the audience. I was, at one point, playing in L.A., and a maybe 8-year-old girl raised her hand. I said, "Yeah? What do you need?" And she said, "Why are you always telling everyone what to do?" [Laughs]
So, for the rest of the show, I was like, "This is just a suggestion. You don't have to do it!" I had to think about that for hours after the show was over.
What do people not understand about family music that you wish they would?
There's a huge variety of music being made now, in every genre you can imagine. There are a lot of people with their hearts in the right places, making great music for families.
One of the great compliments I often get is: not only do parents continue to listen to music after they drop their kids off at school, but I have adults now whose kids are 23. And they still like to listen to my records, which is the greatest compliment.
Can you talk about your relationship with the Academy over the years — and your work with the Chicago chapter, specifically?
After my first GRAMMY nomination [for Best Musical Album For Children for Jungle Gym at the 2011 GRAMMYs], I got a call from the Chicago chapter, asking me to run for the board. Which I did, and I lost. I ran again and lost. And, I think, the third time, I got on, and I served on the chapter for many years.
Eventually, I became the president of the Chicago chapter and a trustee for two terms. But the main thing that really got me involved in the Recording Academy, beyond just being on the board, was the Advocacy work that we were and are doing in D.C.
I started going to GRAMMYs On The Hill as a governor, and was very into trying to change laws to support creatives and musicians. Eventually, I went to testify in front of the Senate Judiciary for the Music Modernization Act with Smokey Robinson and helped propel that along to pass, which was amazing.
I'd always thought of the Recording Academy as just being about the GRAMMY Awards. But I learned about what they do with MusiCares and Advocacy, and the power of our members to change laws and make sure creative people are being treated fairly.
That's the whole reason I was in the Recording Academy — to make sure that stuff was happening. And being part of it was a powerful experience.
Nnenna And Pierce Freelon Are The First Mother & Son Nominated Individually At The Same GRAMMYs Ceremony: How They Honor A Husband & Father Through Music
Photo: Malcolm MacNeil/Mirrorpix/Getty Images
7 Artists Influenced By The Beach Boys: The Beatles, Weezer, The Ramones & More
Ahead of "CBS Presents: A GRAMMY Salute to the The Beach Boys," take a look at the profound influence of the harmonious Southern California trailblazers of a new sound of surf-rock and good-time vibes in the 1960s.
When talk turns to the history of American pop vocal groups in the 20th century, the conversation begins — and ends — with the Beach Boys. These California siblings and their high school compadres reinvented modern music, taking listeners on a sonic journey with their melodic harmony-rich hits. More than 60 years on, the group is still considered a touchstone for today’s artists and the pinnacle of pop.
The Beach Boys formed in the Los Angeles suburb of Hawthorne in 1961. The original lineup featured the three Wilson brothers (Dennis, Brian and Carl), cousin Mike Love and high-school friend Al Jardine. Initially, Murry Wilson (the siblings father) managed the group and helped land their first paying gig: opening for Ike and Tina Turner at the Ritchie Valens Memorial Dance in Long Beach on New Year’s Eve 1961.
It was an auspicious start to the year. That summer, the teenage quintet with a joie de vivre and a love of sun, surf, and sand signed to Capitol Records. The major label deal followed the success of their first two singles: "Surfin,’" which reached No. 3 on West Coast regional charts and sold 40,000 copies, and "Surfin’ Safari." The band’s debut full-length, Surfin’ Safari, climbed all the way to No. 32 on the Billboard charts.
The Beach Boys sophomore release, Surfin’ U.S.A., came out less than six months after their debut and saw Brian Wilson experimenting more with innovative studio techniques like double-tracking vocals. The album hit No. 2 on the Billboard charts — but the band's success and innovation had far from peaked.
1964's All Summer Long capped a year when the group played more than 100 shows around the world and recorded all or parts of four albums, largely leaving the beachy parts of their sound behind in favor of new sonic textures and more personal lyrics. Released in May 1966, Pet Sounds was the high point of this experimentation and cemented the group as innovators. The intricately arranged concept album peaked at No. 10 in the U.S., but reached second spot in the British charts. The record came to represent the future possibilities of pop and signaled a shift in music-making and studio wizardry. Today, it’s considered one of the most influential albums of the 20th century due to its pioneering production and introspective lyrics.
Dozens of artists have covered the album’s most well-known song: "God Only Knows," including: Glen Campbell, David Bowie, Olivia Newton-John and Wilson Phillips. Graham Nash cites "God Only Knows" as a significant inspiration to him when first learning the craft of writing songs.
All told, the Beach Boys released 29 studio albums, 11 live recordings and dozens upon dozens of compilations. The group was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1988 and they have been nominated for four GRAMMY Awards. The band have impacted everyone from contemporaries like the Beatles to current indie-folk rockers Fleet Foxes. Beyond commercial success — more than 100 million records sold, four No.1 Billboard hits and more than 33 Platinum and Gold Records (the greatest hits album Sounds of Summer: The Very Best of the Beach Boys sold three million copies alone) — there are few genres these California kids have not had an influence on over the past six decades.
In advance of the April 9 television special "A GRAMMY Salute to The Beach Boys" — which features Beck, Brandi Carlile, Fall Out Boy, Norah Jones, John Legend, Michael McDonald, Weezer, Charlie Puth and Mumford & Sons — GRAMMY.com shines a light on seven artists who count these sweet-singing melody-making trailblazers as essential to their musical education.
Listen to the vocal harmonies in songs like "Paperback Writer" and the complex arrangements, orchestration and time-shifts on "A Day in the Life" and try not to hear the sonic similarities. Pet Sounds came out the year before the GRAMMY-winning Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and early demos and acetates of the album ended up in the hands of the British band. Paul McCartney is also on record saying: "God Only Knows" is the greatest song ever written and he cries every time he hears it.
George Martin, the "fifth Beatle" and GRAMMY-winning producer who was the studio architect of some of the Fab Four’s biggest albums, heralded Wilson and acknowledged the Beach Boys' influence on Sgt. Pepper’s. "Brian is a living genius of pop music. Like the Beatles, he pushed forward the frontiers of popular music," Martin says in Charles L Granata’s book Brian Wilson And The Making Of Pet Sounds.
"There’s no greater world created in rock and roll than the Beach Boys, the level of musicianship, I don’t think anybody’s touched it yet," Bruce Springsteen said in the documentary Brian Wilson: Long Promised Road.
Listen to "Girls in Their Summer Clothes" from 2007s Magic, which sonically could have easily fit on Pet Sounds 40 years earlier. Or put on your headphones and zone out to "Hungry Heart," the Boss’ first top 10 hit and try not to hear the Beach Boys' influence in the arrangement. In the documentary, Springsteen praises Wilson, his friend and musical mentor: "[He] just took you out of where you were and took you to another place."
Surf-rock influencing punk-rock? You bet. The Ramones were well aware of, and influenced by, the SoCal music movement of the 1960s when they exploded onto the burgeoning punk scene in 1974.
The Beach Boys were one of the messiahs from the past they worshiped and looked to while crafting some of their most enduring punk rock anthems. "Rockaway Beach" was penned by bassist Dee Dee Ramone to mimic the style of the Beach Boys earliest surf-rock hits, but was sped up to match the punk rockers energy. Many of the Ramones’s song titles and lyrics — just like the California group — clung to the innocence of youth and name-dropped local attractions and experiences that kids growing up in the boroughs understood.
Take these lines from: “I Don’t Want to Grow Up” : “I’d rather stay here in my room/ Nothin’ out there but sad and gloom/ I don’t want to live in a big old tomb on Grand Street.” Remind you of the pensive “In My Room” perhaps? Or, how about "Oh Oh I Love Her So," from Leave Home? Joey Ramone sings of falling in love by a soda machine and then riding the coaster with his girl down at Coney Island all night long. The song even ends with a surf-rock riff.
Not long after moving from the East Coast to Los Angeles, Weezer’s lead singer and songwriter Rivers Cuomo bought a copy of Pet Sounds. The album would go on to influence the early days of the alternative-rock band and Cuomo’s approach to songwriting, especially on their self-titled debut.
Weezer once covered the Beach Boys' "Don’t Worry Baby" and, on the GRAMMY-nominated Pacific Daydream (2017) there’s a song called "Beach Boys." In an interview, Cuomo reflected on Wilson’s wide-ranging, everlasting influence: "To me, he’s one of the standout talents of the century or of our culture. I think I’m a pea in comparison. But I certainly emulate him as do countless others." On the forthcoming GRAMMY salute to the Beach Boys, Weezer covers "California Girls."
While his friends were studying algebra, a teenage Robin Pecknold was studying The Beach Boys — specifically how they created their complex stacked harmonies. This musical education began the foundation for his band Fleet Foxes and their approach to harmonizing and making music. In this interview on Brian Wilson’s website, the songwriter refers to the Beach Boys music as his "textbooks." "My parents bought me a four track for my1 5th birthday and I would practice stacking harmonies for hours on end," he recalled.
From the layered harmonies that open "Sun it Rises," the first track on the band’s self-titled 2008 debut, and the intricate orchestration that follows, the Beach Boys comparison is evident. Pecknold acknowledges this influence in the liner notes, writing: "Whenever I hear 'Feel Flows' by the Beach Boys, I’m taken straight to the back of my parents’ car on the way to my grandparents’ place, fourteen with Surf’s Up in my walkman and the Cascade Mountains going by in the window."
In that same interview posted on Wilson’s website, Peckhold raved about Brian Wilson's influence on him as a young musician. "I remember being so driven as a teenager by how much amazing music Brian made in his early 20s. That he was such a prodigious master of his craft, making Pet Sounds at the astounding age of 23, always pushed me to get as good as I could as a musician, as soon as I could," Peckhold reflected. "But at some point I accepted that haste is no substitute for brilliance, there is only one Brian Wilson."
And, if this is not proof enough, Fleet Foxes sampled Wilson’s voice from "Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder)" on the song "Cradling Mother, Cradling Woman" on 2020s GRAMMY-nominated Shore.
The French synth-rock quartet that formed in 1995 show how the Beach Boys' influence spans not only generations, but borders. This admiration for the California soft-rock sounds of the 1960s and harmonious pop is most apparent on the GRAMMY-winning band’s sixth album: Ti Amo. Just like Pet Sounds, these cerebral musicians mine the depths of human emotions on this record and find the spaces in between to shed light on what we all feel. In this piece, Phoenix discusses how Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys influenced the sunny sounds of this 2017 record that is a love letter to Europe.
The Sha La Das
Family harmonies? Check. Summer vibes? Check. Led by father Bill Schalda and featuring the sibling sounds of his three sons — Will, Paul and Carmine — this band hail from Staten Island. Growing up, the brothers often sang on the front stoop with Bill providing guidance. Later, they sang backup on the late Charles Bradley’s Victim of Love.
Listen to the old-soul and do-wop of "Summer Breeze" from the band’s 2018 debut Love in the Wind and you are transported to southern California, circa 1961, and the first time the sunny sounds of the Beach Boys came across the airwaves.
10 Memorable Oddities By The Beach Boys: Songs About Root Beer, Raising Babies & Ecological Collapse
Photo: M. Macneill/Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix via Getty Images
10 Memorable Oddities By The Beach Boys: Songs About Root Beer, Raising Babies & Ecological Collapse
Move over, California girls: America's band didn't just sing about waves and babes, or innovate with 'Pet Sounds.' They sang and played about everything, and the results were often wonderfully bizarre. Here are 10 of those deep cuts.
An ocean of ink has been spilled about how the Beach Boys went experimental in the mid-1960s. But there's a strong case to be made that they were avant-garde from the jump.
Think of their synthesis upon arrival: Surf music by non-surfers; Chuck Berry guitar stylings fused with the vocal harmonies of the Four Freshmen; Brian Wilson's continuation of the studio lineage of Phil Spector; their reflection and galvanization of a burgeoning youth culture, bringing the Pacific to landlocked kids the world over.
And as per their psychedelic-era masterpieces — the luxurious, confessional Pet Sounds and the universe-sized, eventually terminated Smile — Wilson has engendered a widespread, and correct, comparison to Mozart.
What began as a family band singing Christmas carols ended up lasting six decades. The Beach Boys' music encompasses such disparate themes as muscle cars, transcendental meditation, environmental collapse, and "the church of the American Indian," and fantastical island getaways. Charles Manson, LSD, John Stamos — they’re somehow all in their cosmology.
And all that just scratches the surface of this culture-shifting, endlessly relitigated, gorgeously weird band, an American phenomenon with no real analog. With roughly half a dozen divergent personalities (depending on the lineup), three of them bound by DNA, all of them geniuses in their own way, their catalog was bound to contain almost as many oddities and curiosities as simply great songs.
For their singular efforts, the Beach Boys are about to get their own GRAMMY celebration. On April 9 from 8 to 10 p.m. ET, "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys," a two-hour tribute special featuring a lineup of heavy hitters, including John Legend, Brandi Carlile, Beck, Fall Out Boy, Mumford & Sons, LeAnn Rimes, St. Vincent, Weezer, and many more, will air on CBS and be available to stream live and on demand on Paramount+.
Naturally, this special homes in on the hits, from "Surfin' U.S.A." to "California Girls" to "Good Vibrations" and beyond. But if you'd like to go deeper, here are 10 memorably zonked deep cuts in their long voyage. (Note: this list focuses less on late-period collaborations and era-specific genre crossovers than core albums from their first two decades.)
"Chug-A-Lug" (Surfin' Safari, 1962)
The Beach Boys introduced themselves not just with a "Let's go surfin' now/ Everybody's learnin' how," but with a "Here a mug, there a mug, everybody chug-a-lug." So begins "Chug-a-Lug," the fourth song from their debut album, Surfin' Safari, wedged between "Ten Little Indians" and "Little Girl (You're My Miss America)."
Co-written by Gary Usher — the man responsible for their early "car songs" — the message of "Chug-a-Lug" is simple: we, the Beach Boys, are drinking a lot of root beer. In the verses, the three Wilsons — Brian, Carl and Dennis — yak about girls and cars at the root-beer stand; then-guitarist David Marks and an unknown "Larry," "Louie," and "Guy" join in on the fun. ("Gary" is concievably Usher.)
But talk of being "glued to the radio," "ordering fries," "chas[ing] that chick," et al are peripheral to the thesis. The bouncing-off-the-walls rhythm evokes not merely nursing a soft drink with your friends, but madly guzzling it. "Give me some root beer," Love intones.
"Lonely Sea" (Surfin' USA, 1963)
It takes about five seconds of listening to the Beach Boys' earliest music to perceive a wounded heart in the center — and its owner is Brian Wilson.
You hear it in his keening "Everybody's gone surfin'!" in "Surfin' USA." Ditto "Catch a Wave," when he pleads in falsetto, "But don't you treat it like a toy." And the sparse, spectral "Lonely Sea" seems to contain that fragile essence in microcosm.
"It never stops for you or me," Wilson sings, casting the Pacific as a metaphor for universal human angst. "It moves along from day to day." From "In My Room" to Pet Sounds and beyond, you can trace the DNA of "Lonely Sea" to every sad, lonely Beach Boys song in its wake — a number calculable only by NASA.
"Amusement Parks U.S.A." (Summer Days [And Summer Nights!!], 1965)
Starting around 1963's Surfer Girl, Wilson upped the ante with each successive Beach Boys album, interweaving their surfing and hot-rod songs with embellishments with harpsichords, harps, cheerleaders, marimbas, and other outside-the-box instruments.
Some tunes in this pre-Pet Sounds era, from "Be True to Your School" to "The Little Girl I Once Knew," split the difference between the early hits' youthful exuberance and their psychedelic innovations. "Amusement Parks U.S.A." is one such example; while it's essentially about taking your girl to Disney, the whirling calliopes and sound effects render it a mind movie.
Instead of landing at wholesome and innocent like its predecessor, "County Fair," "Amusement Parks U.S.A." sounds like a Tilt-a-Whirl shaking apart, each shaky note and carnival bark adding to the heavy, leaden atmosphere.
Clearly, the psychological pressure was building; within a couple of years, it would burst. No matter how many reboots of their early hits they would go on to attempt, the Beach Boys would never quite return to the carefree universe of "Amusement Parks U.S.A."
"The Times They Are A-Changin'" (Beach Boys' Party!, 1965)
Every canonical masterpiece has its on-ramp or lead-up; what's Pet Sounds'?
Somewhat shockingly, the album immediately preceding Pet Sounds was Beach Boys' Party!, where our heroes recorded cover songs (and two cheekily rendered hits) in an intentionally offhanded, slapdash manner in the studio and layered party noises on top.
The result is a charming curio, and the album did give the world their hit version of "Barbara Ann." But amid doo-wop funnies like "Papa-Oom-Mow-Mow," the inclusion of "The Times They Are A-Changin'" — Bob Dylan's Ecclesiastical folk hit about the passing of kings and values and generations — is a wonderfully puzzling one.
Al Jardine, the band's resident folkie, takes this one. "Al's gonna sing a 'test song!" one of the Boys, possibly Love, announces amid a clatter of funny voices.As Jardine warbles the 'test song's thunderously significant lines, the overdubbed revelers fall over themselves giggling.
"Little Pad" (Smiley Smile, 1967)
As forever carved in the annals of rock mythology, the hyper-ambitious, multitudinous Smile (was it a comedy record? A history book? A symphonic ode to the elements?) was never to be. Despite Wilson's 2004 reimagining and the later Smile Sessions boxed set, the world will never know exactly what the album would have ended up as.
Instead, the world got Smiley Smile; despite containing monumental cuts meant for the aborted work, like "Heroes and Villains" and "Good Vibrations," the world ultimately received it as an ersatz Smile. Or, as Carl Wilson famously called it, "a bunt instead of a grand slam."
Between those aforementioned hits are assorted oddities — outgrowths and fragments of the shelved material — including the deliciously stoned "Little Pad," which wanders from laughing fits to blissed-out humming to ukulele-laced daydreams of Hawaii. Like the rest of the album, it may have been at a different scale than Wilson hoped for, but it'll make you smile all the same.
"A Day in the Life of a Tree" (Surf's Up, 1971)
Something of a darker companion piece to its radiant predecessor Sunflower, Surf's Up also drew heavily from the Smile sessions. And despite tunes like the lighthearted "Take a Load Off Your Feet" and wistful "Disney Girls (1957)," it feels freighted with a brooding, defeated atmosphere — as well as a potent environmental and political conscience.
Much of the chatter about the album centers around Brian Wilson's magisterial ode to death, "'Til I Die," and the elliptical, Smile-salvaged masterpiece of a title track. Just as startling, though, is the ecological lament "A Day in the Life of a Tree."
"Feel the wind burn through my skin/ The pain, the air is killing me," Rieley laments over funereal organ and not much else. "Oh Lord, I lay me down/ No life's left to be found/ There's nothing left for me." Dark Beach Boys doesn't get much darker than this.
"Chapel of Love" (15 Big Ones, 1976)
Literal bell sounds ring in the Beach Boys' cover of the R&B-pop classic that the Dixie Cups made famous. Such is the rest of 15 Big Ones, a conscious step back from original material after the wonderful (and unfairly ignored) Holland and Carl and the Passions.
But what could have marked the Beach Boys plugging back into their roots after a decade of freewheeling experimentation — their Let it Be, perhaps — is something else entirely. 15 Big Ones coincided with their infamous "Brian's Back!" campaign, where they heralded the return of their troubled leader from a backseat role.
Instead of sounding like a retreat to an earlier template, though, 15 Big Ones is its own strange organism; even when the material is as happy-go-lucky as can be, the sound and execution are dense and enveloping — even vaguely menacing.
As the hook of "Chapel of Love" rolls on and on, the cumulative effect is less of puppy love than Sleep's doom-metal opus Dopesmoker.
"I Wanna Pick You Up" (The Beach Boys Love You, 1977)
The most divisive album in the Beach Boys' catalog by some margin, The Beach Boys Love You is considered by some to be their final masterpiece and a return to Pet Sounds-style magic; others regard it as a shocking example of outsider art by a rock institution.
The answer may lie somewhere in the middle. While tunes like "I'll Bet He's Nice" and "The Night Was So Young" are as beautiful as anything Wilson ever wrote, there's no accounting for the profound quizzicality of tunes like "Johnny Carson," "Honkin' Down the Highway" and the one-minute Roger McGuinn co-write "Ding Dang."
Honestly, about three-fourths of The Beach Boys Love You could be on this list, but there's arguably no more bizarre moment on the record than "I Wanna Pick You Up."
Therein, a ragged-sounding Dennis Wilson describes caring for an infant (or infantilized romantic interest?), from bathing to feeding to finally, soothing to sleep, leading to the unforgettable final line: "Pat, pat/ Pat, pat, pat her on her butt," with a repetition of the final word for emphasis: Butt.
"Hey, Little Tomboy" (M.I.U. Album, 1978)
Despite being more conventional than "I Wanna Pick You Up," "Hey, Little Tomboy" — a holdover from Wilson's uncompleted, big-band-influenced project Adult/Child — lands in a (somehow) even stranger zone. Here, a stereotypically boyish girl undergoes a transformation into a lipstick-clad, capital-W woman.
As one critic put it, "<a href="https://web.archive.org/web/20140726074318/http://www.globalimageworks.com/clip-brian-wilson-interview-beach-boys-1874_023?id=45092">It's politically incorrect in every way by modern standards, yet its innocence and simplicity are undeniably charming — and just so Brian."
But regarding this highly unorthodox creation, let's [hear it from the architect himself: "It's about a little girl who is sort of a roughneck, and this guy convinces her to become a pretty girl… We're very happy with it."
"When Girls Get Together" (Keepin' the Summer Alive, 1980)
Dr. Love's lifetime inquiry into what makes California girls' psychologies really tick arguably reached its apogee with "When Girls Get Together," a cut from the obscure Keepin' the Summer Alive. The song is less fun in the sun than an austere march, complete with regal horns and tinkling mandolin.
"When girls get together/ They don't waste time on things like weather and stuff," Love announces. "They all just play around and never seem to discuss it enough." But just as he seems to establish that womens' conversations are frivolous, a heel turn: "This must have been going on prehistory/ They may not ever solve the mystery/ But they'll go talk until eternity."
Such are these Loveian koans, which will be carved into the Book of Boys for scholars to parse millennia from now. And such is the dual legacy of America's band: They gave us a songbook in turns blissful and ingenious, and delightfully, inexplicably strange.
The Beach Boys' Sail On Sailor Reframes Two Obscure 1970s Albums. Why Were They Obscure In The First Place?
Photo: Carson Ellis
Meet The Nominees For Best Children's Music Album At The 2023 GRAMMY Awards
Ahead of the 2023 GRAMMYs, Best Children's Music Album nominees Alphabet Rockers, Divinity Roxx, Wendy & DB, Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band, and Justin Roberts discuss how they've broken diversity and age barriers by making music for kids.
The Best Children's Music Album category name has changed a few times over the years, but awarding outstanding songs made for kids has been part of the GRAMMYs since its inception in 1959, when Ross Bagdasarian Sr.'s "The Chipmunk Song" was crowned the Best Recording for Children. Sixty-four years later, the Best Children's Music Album nominees at the 2023 GRAMMYs are all celebrating this youthful corner of the music business for making strides in diversity, inclusion and representation in a digital world.
"What an exciting time for children's music!" enthuses Divinity Roxx, whose album Ready Set Go is one of this year's nominees. "There are so many incredible and diverse artists dedicated to enriching the lives of children through music and content that inspires, empowers, and encourages… The digital era allows us to connect directly with fans and smashes the barriers to accessibility for artists and music lovers."
Though streaming has outstripped physical sales across the board in the music industry, children's music has endured in all forms.
"While I feel like kids' music has been totally transformed, I think children's music was always a little beyond the curve on streaming," notes Justin Roberts, a five-time GRAMMY nominee whose Space Cadet is up for Best Children's Music Album. "I think physical sales had a longer life in kids music than in many other genres. I also keep hearing that the album is dead and it is a world of singles and playlists, but I've been moved by how many kids and parents mention the deeper cuts on Space Cadet… It's been amazing to feel like the kids music world has exploded with streaming, both in terms of the diversity of music being made and the more global reach of the songs."
Regardless of a listener's preferred format, the content of children's music is gaining more substance. And the audience spans more generations than ever.
"Music is slowly taking a turn from teaching school lessons and promoting play to instilling life lessons and questioning our humanity," share Kaitlin McGaw and Tommy Soulati Shepherd of Alphabet Rockers, who were nominated for The Movement. "Music can be a soundtrack for how to be. We listen to all genres of music and children's music continues to spark imagination and connection between generations."
Also nominated in the category are Wendy & DB and Lucky Diaz & the Family Jam Band; this year's Best Children's Music Album winner will be announced at the 2023 GRAMMYs on Feb. 5. Below, hear more from each nominee about what makes children's music so special — and why a GRAMMY nomination is the cherry on top.
Alphabet Rockers — The Movement
In 2022, Oakland's Alphabet Rockers released their sixth album, The Movement, which includes young lyricists singing about diversity and strength in unity. Songs such as "Juneteenth" and "Restorative Justice" educate about the past as well as current issues.
"We write for the moments where families have the 'big' conversations, and we do it with great joy," Alphabet Rockers' Kaitlin McGaw and Tommy Soulati Shepherd share. "Whether a child is 3 and learning about fairness, or 6 and learning about racism, we write to weave real narratives into family conversations."
They add, "Plus, we make songs that we want to turn up no matter the age of who is around. Whether carpooling or hosting family parties, we know the music plays to all of us."
This is Alphabet Rockers' third nomination in the Best Children's Album category. Their 2019 album, The Love, and 2017 album, Rise Shine #Woke were also nominated.
Justin Roberts — Space Cadet
The 16th full-length release from Justin Roberts, Space Cadet engages listeners young and old with lyrics about acceptance and inclusion set to beats and melodies meant for wiggling. The power pop album has earned the Chicago singer/songwriter his fifth GRAMMY nomination.
"It means so much to know that my fellow musicians still feel that my work deserves this special recognition," he says. "I'm always trying to make something new and different from what I've done before, and even when I feel pretty good about it, it's hard to know if it will translate. Hearing this kind of positive recognition from your peers is always a sign that it did."
Wendy & DB — Into the Little Blue House
The fifth children's album by Wendy & DB (Wendy Morgan and Darryl Boggs), Into the Little Blue House sings sweetly to preschoolers about topics such as curiosity, history, diversity, and science, all to the tune of Chicago blues.
"Making music that resonates with today's children and their families is at the heart of everything we do," the duo shares. "One very important state of children's music is the remarkable wave of increased diversity within the children's music world. That is very exciting to see."
This is their first GRAMMY nomination, and they are thrilled to be recognized: "This honor has left our team feeling gratified, encouraged and truly humbled."
Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band — Los Fabulosos
Los Fabulosos has earned the Los Angeles-based Lucky Diaz and the Family Jam Band a second GRAMMY nomination — and second in a row, as their first nomination came last year for their 2021 album Crayon Kids. They are also two-time Latin GRAMMY winners for Best Latin Children's Album (Mejor Álbum de Música Latina Para Niños) as well as four-time Latin GRAMMY nominees.
"We get to be a part of something that connects parents to their children, across the world, which connects us to humanity on a greater level," says Lucky Diaz and Alisha Gaddis. "That is a privilege and a responsibility."
The lighthearted humor that's present on the album also peeps out when the band is asked how it feels to be GRAMMY-nominated: "Wait... we're GRAMMY-nominated?!"
Divinity Roxx — Ready Set Go!
A former touring bassist and musical director for GRAMMY record-breaker Beyoncé, Atlanta's Divinity Roxx is also breaking barriers with her Best Children's Album nomination. Her 2021 LP, Ready Set Go! — an album of positivity anthems that infectiously spread joy, love and unity to bouncy beats — isn't just her first nomination, it's the first nomination for a Black woman in the Best Children's Music category.
"I am honored to stand on the shoulders of great pioneers like Ella Jenkins, who dedicated her life to making music for the most vulnerable among us," she says. "The award show falls on my birthday this year, so no matter who takes home the award, I will be celebrating and basking in the light of it all throughout the rest of the year!"
Photo courtesy of the artist
The Beach Boys' 'Sail On Sailor' Reframes Two Obscure 1970s Albums. Why Were They Obscure In The First Place?
Popular wisdom dictates that the 1970s saw the Beach Boys' long, slow sunset. But 'Sail On Sailor,' which encompasses two hidden-gem LPs, shows them to be at the top of their game.
Updated Saturday, March 18, 2023, to include information about the "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys" tribute special.
The Recording Academy and CBS are honoring the Beach Boys with "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys," a star-studded, two-hour tribute special featuring a lineup of heavy hitters, including John Legend, Brandi Carlile, Beck, Fall Out Boy, Mumford & Sons, LeAnn Rimes, St. Vincent, Weezer, and many more, who will perform all your favorite Beach Boys classics. Learn more about "A GRAMMY Salute To The Beach Boys" and watch the tribute special on Sunday, April 9, from 8 – 10 p.m. ET/PT on the CBS Television Network and live and on demand on Paramount+.
Hindsight might be 20/20, but still: the fact we ever let strangers from 50 years ago dictate our understanding of music history cost us dearly. Case in point: the Beach Boys.
Through the lens of the critical aggregate, the story of America's Band goes something like this: Their imperial phase crescendoed with 1966's Pet Sounds: that album earned five stars across the board, while satellite albums like 1965's Today! and 1967's Wild Honey hover around four.
Which, fair. But here's where it gets strange.
If we're to take the critics at face value, 1971's Surf's Up is just about the final Beach Boys album worth hearing at all. (Their almost outsider-music-strange 1977 fluke The Beach Boys Love You and their polished 2012 reunion album That's Why God Made the Radio are the exceptions that prove the rule.)
A full 10 post-Pet Sounds albums generally earned lukewarm to flat-out scathing reviews. Some of them might be your bag; some might not be. But here's the implication: the Beach Boys' downfall began with 1972's Carl and the Passions — "So Tough" and 1973's Holland. (The Rolling Stone Album Guide gave both two stars, which tracks with the rest.)
Half a century on, it's difficult to listen to either in good faith and believe that to be true. Because whether or not you dig these tunes as much as their early hits and mid-'60s masterworks, the songwriting, performances and production are at a high caliber that's borderline inarguable. This isn't the Beach Boys at a low ebb. It's the Beach Boys at the top of their game.
A new boxed set out Dec. 2 provides just the portal to reexamine these albums — or hear them for the very first time. Containing both remastered albums and a litany of alternate takes and live tracks, Sail On Sailor - 1972 recontextualizes both Holland and Carl and the Passions not as creative drop-offs, but proof they maintained the flame longer than many thought.
The punchy, mid-fi Carl and the Passions — “So Tough” is a sampler platter of eight diverse personalities. (Bruce Johnston, who joined in 1965, had temporarily left the band at this point.) "He Come Down" is an inspired gospel pastiche; "Marcella" is one of their most radiant and infectious rockers; the mystical, intoxicating "All This is That" is like a realm unto itself.
At the top of 1973, they released the mellow, thoughtful Holland. Also featuring South African additions Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, the album may somewhat hinge on two uptempo R&B tracks, "Sail on Sailor" and "Funky Pretty." But it's a top-to-bottom marvel, from the elliptical "Steamboat" to the California Saga suite to Mount Vernon and Fairway (A Fairy Tale), its fantastical bonus EP composed by Brian Wilson.
"There are some great songs on that record," Brian Wilson wrote of Holland in his 2016 memoir. "'Steamboat' kicks ass. I really like 'Only With You' and 'Funky Pretty,' too. It's a damn good record no matter where or how we made it."
That same year, Mike Love dismissed Carl and the Passions in his own memoir, calling it "a disjointed rush job, hastily assembled between live gigs… More than anything, the album emphasized how confused we were about our brand."
But Elton John heard it differently.
"This is an album which I have loved for a long time," John gushed in the liner notes for the album's 2000 reissue. "This album is a step away from Pet Sounds, but still has moments of breathtaking genius and experimentation. When this record was released, I remember how different and fresh it sounded. It still does."
Together, the eclectic, driving Carl and the Passions and misty, faraway Holland act as two sides of the same coin. They are twin portals into the Beach Boys during the pivotal year of 1972, and can also reset fans' understandings of their creative vitality throughout that entire decade.
"It's the culmination of the [album-oriented rock] Beach Boys," says Howie Edelson, the creative consultant to the Beach Boys' Brother Records who played a major role in assembling Sail On Sailor. "They needed a lot of help to be pushed up the hill to become AOR. Because, as you know, Sunflower is this aural delight. But it ain't FM!"
"I'll put Holland alongside any Crosby-Nash album, or any Neil Young, or any Stills, or any Jackson Browne album." Edelson continues to GRAMMY.com. "They're all emanating from the same vibe and process."
But before we understand why the world didn't see it that way, it's worth examining the conditions that led to Carl and the Passions — "So Tough" and Holland.
Igniting A Flame
This era of the Beach Boys is partly defined by two ace South African musicians who had joined their ranks: guitarist Blondie Chaplin and drummer Ricky Fataar.
Carl Wilson had found the pair via their band the Flame; enthused, he asked them to join his band. With original member Dennis Wilson in front of the stage rather than behind the kit due to a serious hand injury, Chaplin and Fataar gave the once-innocent, striped-linen act propulsion and brawn.
"The members they brought on board are from South Africa during apartheid," Jerry Schilling, who managed the Beach Boys in the '70s and '80s and manages them again today, tells GRAMMY.com. "I think that's beautiful. I think that's what music does."
This new formulation of the Beach Boys hit the road hard, in a staggering live run that would crescendo in 1974 — when their Endless Summer compilation rocketed them back into the zeitgeist. "They didn't spend that much time off the road," Edelson says; for a dynamic example of their live prowess during this time, check out their full Carnegie Hall performance from Thanksgiving 1972, featured on Sail On Sailor.
"We can play harder rock than we've ever been able to before with Blondie and Ricky," Mike Love reported at the time, according to the Sail On Sailor liner notes. "Brian is still writing for the group; this is being fused with the new element of creativity within the group from the other fellas. Dennis is into strings and orchestrations; he wants to do classical things."
This quote speaks to the teeming, multifarious nature of the Beach Boys at the time. "It's like three different bands," Edelson observes. "I always think of them as an organization or conglomerate rather than a group."
Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Although Brian Wilson was and is a once-in-a-generation phenom, this "organization" thrived even when he was in the backseat, as a non-proactive member.
"I would say that Brian Wilson — after six years of writing, arranging, performing, producing, playing and singing — downshifted," Edelson says. The music he made was more personal, with less of a frantic need to compete on the Billboard Hot 100.
"He might not have been competitive, but he was just holding his work to another standard," he continues. "There was no product or filler. Everything he created during this period was absolutely authentic. If he didn't end up finishing it, it stayed unfinished."
"We know that Brian Wilson is a genius, and it tells me that a genius like Brian was able to delegate," Schilling says. "He let the band show their talents as well, which is quite amazing."
The various chemical reactions within the expanded band made for startlingly variable music, from the oddly Band-sounding "Hold On Dear Brother" to the luxurious strings of "Cuddle Up" and beyond.
"The band was disjointed, recorded across random studios separate from each other," marvels Joshua Henry, who produces the rediscovered cult singer-songwriter Bill Fay. "Which makes the brilliant moments even more amazing."
This could have led to a behemoth triple album, like George Harrison's All Things Must Pass two years prior. "I thought that Carl and the Passions should have been three separate albums," Carl Wilson later reflected. "I wish that Brian had been strong enough to produce the record, because it could have been an ass-kicking, great record."
In the end, the band had to stuff all of their multitudes into 35 minutes — and instead of a feast, fans got an appetizer plate. "It's a pu pu platter. And a pu pu platter can be a meal, but it's a pretty weird f—ing meal," Edelson quips. "It's like, 'Did you eat?' 'Yeah, I ate, but I didn't really have a meal.'
"And that's the downfall of Carl and the Passions," he says. "It feels as though it's a taster for several large meals that don't come."
A No-Confidence Vote
What else contributed to Carl and the Passions being a flop in the marketplace? For one, the title was confusing to consumers — a tip of the hat to Carl Wilson's leadership, and a casually assembled pre-Beach Boys band. Whatever the motivation, it was released as something of a bonus disc to their masterpiece.
"It did not just come out as Carl and the Passions. You got Carl and the Passions — which didn't even say 'Beach Boys' on it — and Pet Sounds as a double LP," Beach Boys archivist Alan Boyd explains to GRAMMY.com.
As Boyd explains, a settlement with Capitol Records meant the band temporarily retained the rights to their post-1965 albums, so Warner/Reprise released Carl and the Passions as a bundle with Pet Sounds.
"The bright idea was every time they put a new Beach Boys album out, they attached one of the old ones from the late '60s that people didn't get to buy because Capitol didn't promote it or whatever," Boyd says. Mark Linett, who co-produced Sail On Sailor, characterizes it as "the confusion of these two completely disparate records that have no connection."
Edelson posits that Carl and the Passions' release only six months after Surf's Up made it slip through the cracks, and that second disc of live tracks — a la The Byrds' sprawling 1970 album (Untitled) — "would've probably pushed the album into a more positive space."
"I think the artists may have been ahead of the record companies," Schilling admits.
Leaving This Town
For Carl and the Passions' follow-up, the Beach Boys and their pivotal new manager, Jack Reiley, decided to decamp to the Netherlands for a change of scenery. But it wasn't that simple: each member and his family, as well as their staff, had to relocate to a different continent. On top of that, they dismantled and shipped their entire studio.
"Oh, the cost was tremendous," Brian Wilson later recalled, as per the Sail On Sailor liner notes. "I mean, the equipment in the first place cost $190,000 to build. . . it's an elaborate system. But the shipping costs, too, were tremendous to bring back." (Getting the increasingly fragile Brian to commit to the move was a Sisyphean ordeal on its own.)
Given their new, bucolic climes, Carl Wilson predicted they'd make music that would "breathe the atmosphere of this country — peaceful and relaxed."
And it does, sort of. Due to any number of factors associated with being so far from home, Holland swirls with a darker energy — even when it peps up for highlights like the hard-rocking, Chaplin-sung title track, "The Trader" (sung and especially beloved by Carl Wilson) and "California Saga: California."
"It seems like we were writing and singing about a California we were remembering," Brian Wilson wrote in his memoir, "but the truth is we were writing about a California we were imagining."
In the second section of "California Saga," "The Beaks of Eagles," Love recites a moody, primeval poem written by Al Jardine and his first wife, Lynda, based on Robinson Jeffers' poem of the same name.
"Lenin has lived and Jehovah died/ While the mother-eagle hunts the same hills, crying the same beautiful and lonely cry," he intones. And "Only With You" is a stunning piano ballad sung by Carl Wilson, suffused with melancholy and longing.
The 10-minute, six-section bonus EP Mount Vernon and Fairway — named after the location of Mike Love's childhood home in Baldwin Hills — was a burst of invention increasingly uncommon for Wilson at the time. And it bears the influence of Randy Newman's Sail Away, which Wilson clung to like an emotional life raft at the time.
"He's so far away from home. He's in Holland. He's scared and slipping away. He turned 30, and he didn't wear 30 well," Edelson says. And while Sail Away is full of dry, mordant character studies, Edelson thinks Wilson connected more to the Stephen Foster- or George Gershwin-style orchestration, and its portrait of American life — however satirical.
"It was this little piece of this unsophisticated, plain America," he says. "He didn't see all the things that we also saw. He just heard home, and he was a guy who needed home badly on every level."
Wresting The Waters
Although it earned stronger critical marks than Carl and the Passions (Rolling Stone hailed its “occasionally unnerving simplicity of viewpoint as at its frequently ornate perfection), Holland didn’t exactly rocket them back to 1964 fame.
This was despite an ad campaign that quizzically trumpeted a return to fun in the sun: "Holland is the best Beach Boys album in years," it read. "No qualification to that statement — this is music which captures the first freshness of those summer-y surfing days."
One reason why the album didn't do well, Edelson opines, comes down to the visual aspect of both. "The Beach Boys never had great cover art, in an era where you needed to have great cover art," he says, adding drolly: "I mean, Holland is brown. And the other one is just red."
Despite landing a modest FM hit in "Sail On, Sailor" — Holland was basically subsumed in the marketplace the following year by Endless Summer.
"They were the biggest band of '74 without a new album out. It wasn't like they were touring Holland; they were just touring," Edelson says. He evokes the Fab Four's bestselling 1973 greatest-hits compilations: "They could have topped Holland. But it's like the Beatles had gotten back together in '76 and had to top the Red and Blue albums."
Following the Endless Summer surge in interest and popularity was the infamous "Brian's Back!" period. Despite the rapid evolution of the band even with Brian Wilson absent or half-engaged, they hung their destiny on their once-driven leader. Then came the jukebox-like covers album 15 Big Ones, and the strange and handmade Love You.
"They believed, perhaps incorrectly, that by 'going back,' they would be able to finally move forward — e.g. Brian as the taskmasker 'hit machine,' which simply didn't exist anymore. It didn't even exist in 1968 let alone 1976," Edelson says.
"Despite the fantastic publicity and sold-out arenas," he adds, "that creative misstep caused them to lose important FM traction."
The Beach Boys in 1972. Photo courtesy of the artist.
The Beach Boys eventually split into competing and often warring touring factions, commanding what Linett calls "mutual, divergent and, at times, completely incompatible fanbases." The rest is history; today, Mike Love's Beach Boys and Brian Wilson's solo band soldier on in separate markets.
But to get a handle on this heretofore misunderstood chapter in the Book of Beach Boys, a line from Carl and the Passions' benediction "He Come Down" springs to mind.
"Hey-yon-du-coma-nauga-ton means 'Avoid the suffering before it comes,'" Love sings, evoking Sanskrit. "Krishna said a long time ago: 'To let the arrow fly, first pull back the bow.'"
"In other words, you can meditate and dissolve stress within, and have enough effect on the environment to change your trajectory just enough to where there's no terrible collision that's going to screw you up, or your family, or society," Love explained to Edelson during a recent GRAMMY Museum event.
The Beach Boys would go on to suffer much worse calamities than bad reviews — like the deaths of Carl and Dennis Wilson, and Brian's mental state entering freefall before his eventual salvation.
But on Holland and Carl and the Passions, you hear a band riding high, feeling the turbulence, but battening down the hatches and holding on tight. Through restful waters and deep commotion. Feeling frightened, unenlightened. But sailing on.
Brian Wilson Is A Once-In-A-Lifetime Creative Genius. But The Beach Boys Are More Than Just Him.