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.

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Linking Chester Bennington's suicide to Linkin Park's music is dangerous and irresponsible

How we write and talk about suicide is a matter of life and death.

We are so wrong about suicide. What we want more than anything is for it to make sense. To turn the life of the victim into a good story, with all the narrative beats leading up to a satisfying conclusion in their death. No mess and no untidiness. That’s especially true when the person who has died by suicide is famous – someone on whom we are already used to writing our own meanings. We start to wind myths around them.

So when Linkin Park singer Chester Bennington apparently died by suicide on Thursday, this is what happened. People started looking for patterns, turning his work into a prelude to his suicide, even implying that his death brought greater meaning to Linkin Park’s tightly-wound songs. “Linkin Park star Chester Bennington’s hurt made beautiful music,” said one headline;  “Those lyrics […] are of course now extremely poignant,” remarked one obituary.

It should be obvious why it’s tacky to turn a human death into an intensifying filter for our own aesthetic responses. It’s perhaps less obvious, but more important, to understand why this is dangerous. Saying that Bennington’s suicide proves the worth of his music comes under the heading of “[promoting] the idea that suicide achieves results”, something the Samaritans warns against in its reporting guidelines. The reason for this warning is that such narratives contribute to the risk of “suicide contagion”, where other people attempt suicide in imitation of the reported act.

Two things make contagion an especially urgent issue here. Firstly, Bennington’s confessional lyrics mean his relationship with fans was always one of intense identification: for many, his words expressed their own most private and painful emotions, binding singer and listener in shared feeling. Secondly, Bennington himself may have been influenced by another suicide, with reports emphasising parallels between his death and that of Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell in May (and not, it must be said, emphasising them with much care for reporting guidelines).

“Suicide influence is strongest on those who are close to the victim in some way, or like them, in all meanings of the word,” writes Jennifer Michael Hecht in Stay, her thoughtful book on suicide as a social phenomenon. Bennington was a fan, a friend and a professional peer of Cornell’s. All the conditions for “closeness” were there – so why is there such carelessness about emphasising that same “closeness” between Bennington and his audience?

This is the truth about suicide: it is always a hideous accident, a terrible conjunction of urge and opportunity that tears through families and communities. There’s a temptation to think of suicide as a crime in which the only victim of violence is also the perpetrator (no mess and no untidiness), but this is so wrong. Those left behind are victims too. Exposure to suicide, whether through immediate bereavement or through media representations and reports, is a key risk factor in suicide attempts.

I suspect we would all feel better if suicide was an unstoppable reaction to uncontainable internal forces. Then, we’d have no collective responsibility. People like to share a quote from David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest where the author (who himself died by suicide) writes: “The person in whom Its [ie depression’s] invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high-rise.”

But suicide is hardly inevitable. Ninety per cent of people who survive attempted suicide once will not die by suicide. What does that mean for those who complete suicide at first attempt? How many of them, if they hadn’t had the dumb luck to be unsaved or unsavable, would have gone on to want to live? Suicide is a theft from the future self who could have chosen to go on, as well as a theft from those left grieving.

You can see how impulsive suicide is by looking at how suicide rates fall and rise. When particular means of suicide are taken away – for example, the detoxification of household gas, or the restriction of sales of paracetamol, or the introduction of barricades on tube platforms – there are fewer suicides. Not fewer suicides by that method, but fewer suicides overall: there is little substitution. And when suicide is given extensive, sensationalist coverage, rates go up.

How we write and talk about suicide is a matter of life and death. What if Foster Wallace or Cornell or Bennington had been lucky and survived? Their work would be the same. Same greatness, same flaws. The happenstance of suicide adds nothing, only wounds, and the media is morally derelict when it suggests anything else. We should never be careless of each other or ourselves when our carelessness has mortal consequences. 

If you've been affected by any of the issues addressed in this piece you can call the Samaritans on the free helpline 116 123.

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