“The Beach Boys and The Satan”: “From ‘Beach Blanket Bingo’ innocence to post-psychedelic burnout”

By on June 17, 2015

“We were all messed up on drugs. We were doing witchcraft, trying to make witchcraft music,” Brian Wilson is quoted as saying, according to Nick Kent’s The Dark Stuff: Selected Writings on Rock Music, Updated Edition (Da Capo Press, 2002, p. 43), but we’ve already thrown you a bit of a curve, and clouded your mind with good old satanic obfuscation: this 1997 German TV documentary, Pop Odyssee 1 – Die Beach Boys und der Satan (that’s the actual German title), isn’t about witchcraft, it’s about satanic worship (but we’ll have a little about witchcraft here too, we promise).

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Brian Wilson, of course, is the focus of the recent theatrical release Love and Mercy, and has admitted that back in the past he was tormented by voices in his head that would distract and torment him. Among many of the subplots in the docu-drama is the fact that, in order to help Brian get back on track, the Wilson family turned to Dr. Eugene Landy for help.

Phawker writer Jonathan Valania calls Landy a “Mephistophelian psychiatrist/psychic vampire… (played with satanic aplomb by Paul Giamatti), who switches out [Wilson’s] steady diet of cocaine, LSD, sloth and self-pity for a zombie-fying regimen of prescription narcotics, fitness Nazism, and 24-7 mind control….”

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The Beach Boys and The Satan (that’s the English title) originally aired on German television as part of the “Pop Odyssee” series in 1997, but then was unavailable for more than a decade until it was released on DVD by Zeit Media. It was directed by German music documentary specialist Christoph Dreher, who apparently has quite an avid imagination and a rather unfocused way of working, so please understand us, we’re not promising Ken Burns-quality work here.

Our recommendation is that you should just sit back and enjoy the process of sorting through the thoroughly incoherent and convoluted compilation of clips being offered up here for their singular enjoyment and enjoy playing connect-the-dots along the way.

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The entire premise here hinges here on whether you think it’s possible that Brian Wilson and the rest of the Beach Boys made a deal with the Devil back in the 60s (back when Satan was apparently pretty busy collecting up the souls from the members of Black Sabbath, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and lots of others too).

The compressed history of Brian Wilson and the band are presented here as a kind of Teutonic tautology showing, over and over, how the Beach Boys went from making “surf music with vocals,” before collapsing during the recording of the original Smile sessions, to Wilson’s return to recording and performing, and all of it, one presumes, was the work of Satan working behind the scenes.

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(Not actually Satan)

One reviewer of the DVD called the documentary an “allegory for the progression of California youth culture from Beach Blanket Bingo innocence to post-psychedelic burnout is a promising approach to recounting now-familiar stories.”

Presented as evidence of that are conversational interviews — along with brief performance — by people like the late Kim Fowley (who briefly performs his song “1965”), filmmaker Kenneth Anger, surf guitar king Dick Dale, members of the surf combo Chantays (performing “Pipeline”), and David Thomas of Pere Ubu fame (performing a trust-us-you-have-to-see-this version-of “Surfer Girl,” which is sure to raise a few eyebrows, plus we’re sure you’ve always wondered what Thomas thinks of the Beach Boys’ version of “Sloop John B”), as well as interviews with Brian and the other Wilson boys (and Mike Love too, of course, which made us wonder — how is that you can make a deal with yourself? Kidding!).

There are many, many clips of the Beach Boys performing songs from their catalog, too, of course, mixed in with clips of Janis Joplin and Pulp Fiction. Yes, the movie, and we’re not sure what it all means, we’re still sorting that one out ourselves (the footage from Quentin Tarantino’s film is set to Dick Dale’s “Misirlou,” which we suppose provides the only real connection).

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(Still not Satan)

If there’s an actual theme here it’s that behind all the warm Southern California sunshine there’s a lot of dark stuff goin’ down, with drugs, murder and mayhem, including a brief interlude to mention Dennis Wilson’s tragic 1983 death and some discussion as to whether or not Satan might have had something to do with a pact made between Dennis and Charles Manson, and whether or not there’s a connection between the drummer and the Manson Family murders in August 1969.

The film, curiously, neglects to mention some of the actual connections, including “Cease to Exist,” the Manson song the Beach Boys recorded as “Never Learn Not to Love,” released on their album 20-20, which is one of the actual and substantial connections between them both — their alterations to his song and failure to acknowledge Manson in the credits (Dennis Wilson is listed as sole songwriter) are often cited as reasons for Wilson’s fear of retribution from Manson.

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In John Phillips autobiography: Papa John, he tells of an invitation he received to join Terry Melcher and Beach Boy member Dennis Wilson, at Wilson’s mansion (Manson’s entire “Family” moved into the Beach Boys mansion for nearly a year): Wilson said: “This guy Charlie’s here with all these great-looking chicks. He plays guitar and he’s a real wild guy. He has all these chicks hanging out like servants. You can come over and just screw any of them you want. It’s a great party.”

This Manson-Wilson connection (which seems, from the credits, is going to be a pretty big deal) is actually dispensed with so rapidly when we come it that we had an image of a cartoon-ish Satan suddenly appearing and standing behind the poor editor of Die Beach Boys und der Satan, working like a frenzied hermit in a small, darkened editor’s booth, leaning over the poor soul and saying ‘that’s quite enough’, after a mere twenty seconds, adding, chillingly, ‘let’s move on.’ Then poof! Satan disappears in a puff of smoke, and we’re suddenly off to something else.

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There’s a lengthy discourse on Pet Sounds here too, and interviews between veteran record producer Don Was and Brian Wilson from 1996, taken straight from I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, the 1995 biographical musical documentary that examined the ups and downs of Wilson’s life.

Now, about witchcraft: there’s also some of the footage of the Beach Boys recording their Smile track “Fire,” with Brian and the band wearing fireman’s helmets, and that brings us right back to some of the quotes he made in the 70s about that particular session.

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Nick Kent’s book has this full quote: “We were all messed up on drugs. We were doing witchcraft, trying to make witchcraft muisc. I was stoned on hashish and grass and I got a little too much into this one tape called ‘Fire’. Then, a place down the street burned down the same day we did the song. And I said to myself ‘Somehow we must have burned that building down.’ And I threw the tape away and erased all the tapes, except… I erased ‘Fire’. All the rest that we kept, they were just like twenty-second little pieces, trying to imitate Phil Spector, and not getting anywhere near him. I was crazy then, I was a crazy person.’

Phil Spector In The Studio

Here’s a video presentation by a Christian organization who quote that Warner Bros. Records president Larry Waronker claimed to have encountered at least five different entities that use Brian Wilson’s body as their home. We’d love to hear more about that!

And here’s a fun web page we found — with a few helpful bible quotes sprinkled throughout that you can read for extra credit — that says:

“Everyone reading this article needs to be warned about the evil music of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. Obviously, Wilson is NOT a born again Christian; but, rather, is a child of Satan (Ephesians 2:2). It is frightening when people, who don’t even know if God exists, write ‘spiritual’ music for the masses to listen to. Brian Wilson is of the world, and the world receives their own (John 15:19). Wilson is the enemy of God (James 4:4). Spiritual Music or Witchcraft?..”

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Yes, that IS the question, isn’t it?

Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys and Eugene Landy Sighting at Elaine's Restaurant

Here’s another:

“Satan is so deceitful that he has convinced an older, and supposedly wiser, Brian Wilson, that his music is of God; but, it surely is not. Brian Wilson’s music may be of the god of this world, Satan (2nd Corinthians 4:4); but it is not of the Lord Jesus Christ, the God and Creator of the Universe.”

It all comes down to who you want to believe, we guess: God, Satan, Brian Wilson, …

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Let’s go back to that Nick Kent book again for a final quote. Kent is describing the Beach Boy’s Smiley Smile album — which had included several Smile compositions that had, in Kent’s words, ‘undersold their worth considerably,’ adding:

“There was a lot of silly shit as well: dumb pot-head skits, so-called healing chants and even some weird ‘loony tunes’ items straight out of a cut-rate Walt Disney soundtrack. Twenty-five years after its release it would become regarded as a top-rate ‘chill-out’ album for those looking for something a bit spooky and otherworldly to float down from, after a long lysergic exploration of the senses.

At the time of its release, though, it appear like the single most underwhelming musical statement of the sixties, the work of a bunch of doo-wop singing acid casualties. What was it that Murray [Murry is the correct spelling, Nick] had screamed at Brian that day back in early ’66 when he’d stormed into the house and thrown his son’s secret pot stash all over that hideously coloured carpet in the living-room?

‘Y’know, Brian, the one thing God gave you was a brain. If you play with it and destroy it, you’re dead, you’re a vegetable… There are going to be people killed and people in sanitoriums and insane asylums because they played with God.'”

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About Bryan Thomas

Bryan Thomas has been a freelancing writer/critic for All Music Guide, and a contributor to Launch, Music Connection, Big Takeover and numerous other publications and entertainment websites, blogs and zines, most of them long gone. He's written more than sixty sets of liner notes. He’s also worked for over twenty years at mostly reissue record labels -- prior to that he worked in bookstores and record stores, going all the way back to the original vinyl daze. He lives in the Miracle Mile neighborhood of Los Angeles, CA.