Charleston musician David Stewart developed a deep love for the Beach Boys in elementary school.
“When I was in the third grade, I used to run home from school to put Beach Boys records on my phonograph,” says Stewart, probably the biggest Beach Boys fanatic of local band the Blue Dogs. “I took those records from my folks back in 1975, when I was seven years old or so. I put on Pet Sounds and Spirit of America [a best-of compilation issued in 1974]. They changed my life. The guitar sounds and keyboard sounds were cool, but it was the melody and the harmony that did it. They made you look off in the distance at nothing and get in the zone.”
Popular for their twangy guitars and beaming, Southern-tinged harmonies, the Blue Dogs have been a local favorite for more than 15 years. Fronted by rhythm guitarist and lead singer Bobby Houck and upright/electric bassist and vocalist Hank Futch, they consistently deliver roots-rock with elements of bluegrass, country, and classic power pop. With Stewart, drummer/singer Greg Walker, and a handful of special guests in tow, they’re a solid act that’s equally at ease performing at the Dock Street Theatre, an outdoor music festival, or a marsh-side oyster roast.
The Blue Dogs have co-headlined and opened for a variety of big acts over the years. This Sunday, they’ll experience one of their most unique supporting roles when they share the stage with American pop-rock legends the Beach Boys.
City Paper met up with Houck and Stewart last week and inquired about their own personal experiences with the music of the Beach Boys — and their opinion of the band’s legacy. They had plenty to say.
Houck admitted he grew up loving another 1974 collection of hits titled Endless Summer. “I wouldn’t say the Beach Boys influences the Blue Dogs in a major way, but going back to Endless Summer and Pet Sounds, I can catch elements that are very similar, especially the harmonies,” he says.
The velvety, three-part harmonies of some of the acoustic anthems and groovier pop-rock tunes on the Blue Dogs’ most recent studio album Halos & Good Buys certainly approach the golden tones of mid-’60s-era Beach Boys hits.
To Stewart, it was the sophisticated songwriting style more than the vocal harmonies that distinguished the Beach Boys from other pop bands. He strongly believes they created a healthy portion of the musical vocabulary and language that songwriters and bands still use today.
“The song ‘God Only Knows’ stands out to me,” Stewart says. “When I got older and started teaching guitar, I started really analyzing their music. I realized that it was much more sophisticated than I’d thought. They go beyond the stuff most songwriters initially come up with. When I listen to them now, I’m entranced, just like I was when I was a kid.”
While Stewart loves the big hits like “I Get Around,” “Help Me, Rhonda,” “California Girls,” and “Good Vibrations,” his absolute Beach Boys favorites include deep cuts like “The Little Girl I Once Knew” and “A Young Man is Gone.” He prefers some of the more melancholic ballads and songs on the uniquely orchestral Pet Sounds.
“The Beach Boys have influenced every bit of my musical approach,” Stewart says. “It’s been very intrinsic. There’s a song on Halos & Good Buys that Bobby and I wrote called ‘My Forever You.’ After Hank and Bobby did their vocal parts, I heard it, and the last line of the last chorus sounded so much like the Beach Boys. It was beautiful. The Beach Boys might not have inspired those harmonies directly, but their music gave me an idea of beautiful rock and timeless music.” They really paved their way and created their own musical genre,” Stewart adds. “And they absolutely stand up today. So many of their songs have these resolves that are so satisfying. They had strange arrangements, but they made sense.”
Led by original singer and multi-instrumentalist Mike Love and longtime member Bruce Johnston, the Beach Boys recently made plans to celebrate their official 50th anniversary.
The group first came together as a family affair in Hawthorne, Calif., near Los Angeles, in early 1961. Three brothers and a cousin — Brian Wilson on vocals and keys, Carl Wilson on guitars, Dennis Wilson on drums, and Love on vocals and keys — joined forces with the encouragement and sometimes-tyrannical guidance of father/uncle Murray Wilson. They released their first single, “Surfin’,” in ’61. Singer/guitarist Al Jardine joined the band in 1963. Johnson, a veteran session player, joined in 1965.
By the time they started recording 1966’s Pet Sounds — an ambitious and arty collection of some of Brian Wilson’s most emotional and psychedelic songs yet — the songwriter’s genius for song arrangement, melody, and lyrics was evident.
“Brian Wilson was the mastermind, and most everybody agrees with that,” says Stewart. “I read that Brian described his most emotional writing heyday that he felt like music was pouring out of his chest. His wife said that he used to lean over the piano and just cry. He was a conduit. That’s not taking lessons from a textbook; that’s something coming from a higher power or something.”
The Beach Boys’ career took weird (and often nasty) detours in the 1970s, ’80s, and ’90s. There was a creative decline and periods of feuding, legal battles, lineup changes, and awkward comebacks. The feuds continue today. Wilson performs with his own ensemble. The “official” Beach Boys act is led by Love, and the “Beach Boys Family” is led by Jardine. It’s confusing, but fortunately the songs remain the same.