The Beach Boys Story on BBC 6 Music: Surfing the airwaves

While there are those who will tell you that <em>Pet Sounds</em> is one of the most influential records of all time, the Beach Boys could be proper tedious.

The Beach Boys Story
BBC 6 Music

A six-hour series on the Beach Boys incorporating broadcast material both old and new (8-13 June, 4am) was so detailed, it sounded like an amorous and occasionally neurotic letter of persuasion to doubters, even giving us a precis of what surfing is. “A watersport where the participant stands on a floating piece of wood shaped like an ironing board.” Got it.

Then, of course, the archive monologues by wives of the band (“Well, one day Brian spilled hot chocolate on me”) and their husbands (“So we bumped into each other at a hamburger stand and someone said Mike can sing pretty good and then there’s Dennis, too – Dennis was always up for anything – and later we went round to Carl’s and he said . . .”)

While there are those who will tell you that Pet Sounds is one of the most influential records of all time, and there can be no denying that, around the age of 33, the sandybearded Dennis Wilson was the kind of sexy you feel in your bones – I’m talking actually feeling someone’s charisma neuralgically – still the Beach Boys could be proper tedious. Their song about root beer goes: “Root beer, oh root beer./ Root beer, oh root beer./ Root beer is my best buy./Cold beer, root beer, here a mug, there a mug, everybody chug-a-lug . . .” It’s only an early number, but Christ. And Mike Love sued Brian in the 1990s for leaving his name off the writing credits!

There’s a great story about BW going to see the bosses at Capital Records after they objected to any songs from the band that were not about root beer or surfing, and he showed up with a tape player with eight prerecorded, looped responses including “No comment” and “Can you repeat that?”. Refusing to utter a word, he played the various tapes when appropriate.

You can hear precisely that kind of pernickitiness coming through in “God Only Knows”, roundly accepted as one of the most romantic songs committed to vinyl. “If you should ever leave me/though life would still go on, believe me/the world could show nothing to me . . .” Hold on. Is it just me or does that not sound like mealy-mouthed nitpicking, or weirdly inappro priate small print, given the moment and the presence of an at-the-time groundbreaking number of 23 backing musicians? Life would still go on, believe me. And so defensive to boot! Give me “Here, There and Everywhere” any day.

The Beach Boys' Al Jardine and Brian Johnston performing in 1966. Photograph: Getty Images

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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The End We Start From imagines London underwater

Megan Hunter's fictional apocalypse is a tender one. 

It is six months after the flood. The nameless narrator of The End We Start From is a new mother and a refugee, and by the midpoint of the novel we have followed her and her baby from the “Gulp Zone”, where their London flat was swallowed, to a safe house that proved to be not safe enough, and then refugee camps, every move stripping life a little closer to the essentials. First what can be fitted in a car as you flee to safety, then what can be carried in your arms; first porridge, then only gruel.

Halfway through, the narrator and her baby make it to an island under the guidance of another new mother she befriended in the camps. Here, a family has established a small life of plenty. The narrator has left behind a “place of not-enough”, but here there is food to spare. Seeds grow into vegetables. The baby “likes to eat butter in chunks”. But where has the butter come from? There’s no mention of cattle on the island, no bucolic descriptions of churning. We’re told there is no electricity. So how do they have butter and why is it not rancid?

It’s a small thing, but an outsize irritant in a book whose prose is pared back to match the minimal existence it describes. Every detail feels weighted with significance because it was chosen over something else. Megan Hunter is a poet (this is her first novel), and her poetic instincts are underlined by the TS Eliot-referencing title, borrowed from Four Quartets: “What we call the beginning is often the end / And to make an end is to make a beginning. / The end is where we start from.”

Apocalypse and rebirth are central to Hunter’s story. Butter aside, it invokes a thoroughly plausible end of the world. Like Emily St John Mandel’s luminous Station Eleven, or Margaret Atwood’s MaddAddam trilogy, you read it with the conviction that this is what it would be like. (These stories are told from the perspective of the resourceful fortunates who make it through. Apocalypse literature kindly dodges the reality that, if it came to it, most of us would die whimpering in a dirt hole.)

But realism is not the only dictate here. The End We Start From is also deeply invested with symbolism. It begins with the narrator going into labour: “Finally I am waterless, the pool of myself spreading slowly past my toes.” Maternity is a kind of apocalypse, an end to being one kind of self who lives one kind of life, and the beginning of another. Names, like everything else here, are cut back to the barest essentials, becoming just initials. The narrator’s husband is R, her in-laws are N and G, and her baby Z – an alphabetical end who is at the beginning of his life. Anyone who has welcomed the catastrophe of a newborn into their lives is likely to feel sympathy for this parallelbetween infant and Armageddon.

There is a cost to the allegory, though, and it comes through in moments when Hunter sacrifices the merciless logic of calculating survival in favour of giving play to her metaphor. Milk is, as it would be for a new mother, a theme. The milk in the narrator’s breasts that keeps her baby alive becomes an analogue for all sustenance: “As for food, I have started to think of it all as milk,” she says. “I wonder how long we would survive, how quickly human milk runs out in famine.” Perhaps it’s inevitable, then, that the unexpected gift of security and nourishment the narrator and Z find on the island should be represented through dairy; but it also punctures a world you could otherwise believe in utterly.

Hunter’s apocalypse is a tender one. There is violence and disorder at the start: one of the most affecting uses of Hunter’s spare style is when the narrator’s mother-in-law fails to return from a brutal trip to gather provisions, and the narrator simply announces: “No G.” But while R chooses isolation and suspicion of others, leaving his wife and child to make his own way, the narrator chooses humanity. She tells us how she “falls in love”, deep and quick, with those with whom she forms alliances. To borrow again from Four Quartets, “The houses are all gone under the sea” – but The End We Start From promises the possibility of life afterwards. 

The End We Start From
Megan Hunter
Picador, 127pp, £9.99

Sarah Ditum is a journalist who writes regularly for the Guardian, New Statesman and others. Her website is here.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear