Music - John Harris rides the waves of The Beach Boys' changing fortunes

Few rock groups have ever found themselves in as incongruous a place as The Beach Boys occupied at the tail-end of the 1960s. Hippydom was at its apex, buoyed by the generational solidarity that arose in response to Vietnam. California was the counter-culture's wellspring - and yet the band who had been synonymous with the Sunshine State looked like relics of an altogether less adventurous age. "Dope, guns and fucking in the streets," went one of the era's more incendiary slogans - The Beach Boys, unfortunately, were still associated with surfboards, adolescent fumbling and malted milk.

Worse still, the musical visionary on whom the band had always depended was floundering. Pet Sounds of 1966 had been Brian Wilson's masterpiece, stunning The Beatles into creating Sergeant Pepper, but Wilson's attempt to answer back led him close to insanity. Smiles, recorded but aborted in 1967, was described by its author as "a teenage symphony to God" - small wonder that his goggle-eyed ambition caused an Icarus-like plunge into self-doubt and torpor.

By 1969, The Beach Boys were in the midst of a full-blown crisis. They split with their record label and succumbed to all manner of internal strife. Most alarmingly, in the wake of the Sharon Tate murders, it became clear that hippydom had not passed the group by, but they had fleetingly allied themselves with one of its more nightmarish manifestations. Charles Manson had befriended the drummer, Dennis Wilson, and the group had even included a Manson composition, "Never Learn Not to Love", on the album 20/20.

The need for a fresh start was glaring, as was the imperative to re-establish their link to US youth culture. Vietnam went some way to providing the key: the youngest Wilson brother, Carl, refused the draft on the grounds of conscientious objection and, in 1970, the group belatedly played their first anti-war benefit. Some members of the band, however, needed persuading about the merits of such un-American activities. When approached by the organisers of the pro-peace Big Sur festival, one of whose sponsors was Joan Baez, Mike Love famously blurted out: "How can we play up there? I think she's a commie."

Love, a cousin of the Wilsons and the band's resident arch-Republican, had long been convinced that The Beach Boys could only reignite their commercial fire by reverting to the world of sun, surf and pre-'Nam Americana. He had a point: for all their new-found hippyism, The Beach Boys would always be too square for the counter-culture, and yet their lurch leftwards also alienated those dependable fans - the kind who decried the peaceniks, called for the razing of Hanoi and dutifully voted for Nixon - who saw their songs as the embodiment of age-old American certainties.

Nevertheless, Love's nostalgia was held in check. The band's first album for Warner Brothers, 1970's Sunflower, served notice of a creative renaissance, as the group pooled their resources and sculpted an ensemble piece that, against all odds, oozed a forward-looking optimism. Its lyrical themes, however, could still sound cloyingly mainstream: "Add Some Music to Your Day", at one point mooted as the album's title track, evoked the kind of impossibly perfect townscape recently seen in The Truman Show - "Your doctor knows it keeps you calm/The preacher adds it to the psalms/So add some music to your day". You can almost picture the picket fences.

It was Surf's Up in the following year that marked the brief flowering of the new Beach Boys. Encouraged by Jack Rieley, a radio DJ turned career mentor, they infused their new songs with overtones of both mysticism and a new-found concern for the environment. The latter, in particular, represented canny thinking indeed: far from sounding like the product of market-minded cynicism, it suggested a considered take on the band's fabled love of the beach.

In tandem with the album's gleaming arrangements, it all made for something close to a masterpiece. There was only one glitch: a Mike Love song called "Student Demonstration Time". Its view of events at Berkeley, Kent State et al seemed ambiguous ("Stay away when there's a riot goin' on," he advised, helpfully) but, given Love's politics, it isn't hard to detect subtextual agreement with Nixon's view of college agitators: "Bums blowing up campuses." The band's dalliance with the counter-culture was already growing clumsy and confused.

For all its majesty, Surf's Up did little to arrest the commercial decline of The Beach Boys. Its relative failure sent them into a creative tailspin, and they produced one of the worst albums of their career, Carl and the Passions - So Tough, followed by the annoyingly patchy Holland. By now, a fatalistic return to sun and surf was looking inevitable; and, in November 1973, The Beach Boys released a live album that heralded their recreation as a nostalgia act. "California Girls", "Help Me Rhonda", "Surfin' USA", "Fun Fun Fun" - their paeans to the West Coast idyll were all present and correct.

In January, the Paris peace accords had sealed the US defeat in Vietnam. By April, the first stirrings of Watergate were fracturing the US body politic. The Beach Boys, meanwhile, had found their niche, reminding Americans of a time when their only source of angst was, in the poetic words of 1964's "I Get Around", "gettin' bugged drivin' up and down the same old strip".

Sunflower, Surf's Up and The Beach Boys In Concert have been released by EMI. Carl and the Passions - So Tough and Holland are re-released on 28 August

This article first appeared in the 21 August 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - What are we doing to our children?