Today I Learned: The Beach Boys Got an "F" on Their First Hit Song

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I’m just going to come right out and say it. Sometimes, grades are stupid and teachers are wrong. Never was there a greater demonstration of the shortcomings in our modern grading system than the day Brian Wilson received a failing grade for what would eventually become the Beach Boys’ first Billboard hit.

The general consensus today is that the Beach Boys helped draw the blueprint for the house of rock and roll. Most informed observers also agree that Brian Wilson is a genius. The latter claim is supported by a catalogue that is equal parts pop-bubblegum perfection and hauntingly beautiful sonic experimentation. Music historians also agree that Brian Wilson’s greatest masterpiece, the 1966 landmark release Pet Sounds, would in fact be the spark of inspiration (and the competitive challenge) that inspired Paul McCartney to invent Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band the following year.

Anyway, Brian Wilson’s less-than-enlightened high school music teacher apparently didn’t see it coming. Back when Wilson was an aspiring songwriter and a student at Hawthorne High School, he submitted an early version of “Surfin’” as a class project. His music teacher, Fred Morgan, was not impressed by the song.

To be fair to ol’ Mr. Morgan, it was a decidedly primitive incarnation of an emergent sound. But “Surfin’” captured, in their earliest stages, many of the elements that would soon make the Beach Boys world-famous, merging street-corner doo-wop, layered vocal harmonies, Chuck Berry’s riffs, and some slightly-tubular surf soloing.

So yeah, an “F” just seems spiteful. I mean, the kid wrote a song. You couldn’t find your way to giving him a “C”? By the way, for those who aren’t aware, Brian Wilson has struggled mightily with depression throughout his life and has bravely persevered with his career in spite of the obvious psychic scars he still carries with him.

Not cool, Mr. Morgan.

Also, not particularly visionary. For whatever his academic training, Mr. Morgan failed to recognize, in “Surfin’,” the very template for a sound that would soon captivate American youth.

Fortunately, that crummy grade was hardly the end of the line for Wilson’s homework assignment. In the late summer of 1961, Brian and company turned up at the Melrose Avenue offices of small-time producers Hite and Dorinda Morgan (no relation to Fred). The boys planned to demo their cover of an old sea shanty called “Sloop John B.” But Hite and Dorinda insisted that, these days, you had to have something original. They hadn’t prepared anything original, so they volunteered the only alternative they had: Brian’s failing class project.

Dorinda Morgan heard what Fred Morgan couldn’t, the sound of youth, freedom, and fun, the sound of California, and the sound young listeners would gravitate toward en masse. In September 1961, the Boys rushed to the recording studio and pressed what would become their first charting hit. Reaching No. 75 in the U.S., “Surfin’” was the first of a staggering 80-plus charting songs.

Even Fred Morgan had to admit, “Brian wrote a composition for me and it turned out to be “Surfin’”. That composition got an ‘F’, but it made a million dollars.”

Well, as if 100 million records sold, a plaque in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and — perhaps most importantly — inclusion in our 100 Best Rock Bands list aren’t enough vindication, Hawthorne High finally saw the error of its ways … nearly 60 years later, but whatever, it’s cool. Brian Wilson was even on hand in January to receive official documentation verifying that his “F” had been ceremonially transformed into an “A.” It is a credit to his character that, in spite of everything, Wilson remained true to his school.

There are a few takeaways here. First and foremost, don’t be discouraged by the occasional bad grade. These things can be arbitrary. Learning is more than grades.

Second, if you do get a bad grade and you wish to appeal it, one good strategy is to spend the subsequent half-century building your reputation as a living legend and national treasure.

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