More Beach, More Problems: The Beach Boys’ “Problem Child”

During the salad days of youth, almost nothing can top a carefree day at the beach. But as the taut allure of youth gives way to the wrinkles and sags of middle age, those trips to the beach may start to feel a little predatory from an outsider’s perspective. For the Beach Boys, those 60s rock icons who built an entire career around an idyllic vision of glistening white bodies lounging on America’s sandy shores, getting older meant jacking up the nostalgia factor, especially when the songwriting went sideways and the hits became fewer and far between. What can I say: sometimes life’s a beach.    

By the 1980s the Beach Boys were struggling to survive amid a series of personal crises that threatened to shatter them for good. Dennis Wilson’s battle with alcoholism alone, which led to his untimely death in 1983 after drowning while trying to salvage items he’d thrown from a friend’s boat, would be enough to spell the end of most bands. Yet to make matters even worse, during this period his older brother Brian increasingly fell under the spell of psychologist and psychotherapist Eugene Landy, who controlled virtually every aspect of the bandleader’s life, gradually alienating him from the other Beach Boys, who were left without his once prolific creative touch. With Dennis gone and Brian out of the picture, vocalist and lyricist Mike Love took firm control of the Beach Boys brand, righting this derelict vessel and steering it away from troubled waters, albeit at the expense of almost everything that made the group so inspiring in the first place (she sure wasn’t the “Sloop John B” anymore). 

If you’re a child of the 80s this is probably the period of the Beach Boys you grew up with, marked by their appearance on the family-friendly sitcom Full House, where Mike Love requested a vegetarian pizza like he was Malcolm X, as well as their collaboration with rappers the Fat Boys. Needless to say it was all rather embarrassing, kind of like a drunken uncle trying to ingratiate himself to your crew at a party. Did it reek in the way that only a bunch of middle-aged white dudes yearning to stay relevant in an era of eerily unfamiliar music can? Of course. However, business remained surprisingly brisk for the Beach Boys. In 1988 the group landed their first US number-one single in 22 years with the release of “Kokomo”, a brainless geography lesson about a couple vacationing on a fictitious island off the Florida Keys. The timing was fortuitous: as the Beach Boys’ vision dulled, so did that of their audience, aging baby boomers eager to see the past through rose-coloured glasses. They didn’t care that the Mike Love-led Beach Boys were simply treading water. If it was about a beach and a malt shop, they were happier than a pig in shit.

Hot on the heels of “Kokomo”, the Beach Boys released the title track for the 1990 film Problem Child, the comedic tale of a seven-year-old degenerate named Junior who terrorizes friend and foe alike. Written by Terry Melcher, the influential Byrds producer whose close call with the Manson Family is the stuff of legend, the song “Problem Child” is a cringe-worthy ode to youth, fatalistically sung by a band that was by this point running on fumes and the public’s seemingly endless appetite for the 60s. The song’s lyrics would make any boomer feel right at home, with Carl Wilson asking, “who wants to grow up, who wants responsibility,” before answering with a resounding “not me.” How ironic: the generation that refused to step aside and let their own kids grow up is warning us that adulthood’s a trap. I’ll bear it in mind while you complete that $40,000 kitchen reno. Next up Carl turns his attention to the song’s titular problem child, telling him that “you’re just a kid now, but soon you’ll be a King of Hearts,” and to watch for the moment when “that girl next door might turn into a work of art,” which may bring with it the possibility of future romance. It’s a frightening turn that smacks of a darker agenda. No wonder these “boys” have been cruising the beach so long. Hey, Carl: I saw the way you were eyeing those kids at the wave pool. Step off, beach man.

The video for “Problem Child” is slightly more fun-loving than the song, although Carl Wilson’s dark sunglasses lend him an aura of grim death, given his demise at the hands of lung cancer only a few years later. Here we have a fly-on-the-wall style recording sesh as the Beach Boys, backed by the steady beat of John Stamos on the skins, crank out their latest jam. The only problem is Junior, who violates the sacred red light of the recording booth and mercilessly pranks the group. Much like the musicians on the Titanic, the band heroically play on, despite all these juvenile distractions, which include Junior hilariously dumping a box of SUDS in Mike Love’s saxophone. Perhaps most notably, the video features the Beach Boys recording “Problem Child” in front of a giant screen showing footage from the Problem Child film, which paints an amazing picture of how the group unwinds between takes. With so much death and destruction in this saga, who can really blame them? Maybe we should all be so young at heart.

 

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