A lot of music aficionados and connoisseurs, both musicians and non-musicians, go through a Beach Boys phase, which I suppose is not unlike going through a Beatles phase or a Band phase or a Kinks phase or something like that (I did both of those, of course, + a Barclay James Harvest phase…). It’s a time when the genius of a particular musical act just hits you like a ton of bricks, the music comes to be of great personal significance to you and you start obsessively collecting all their recordings, listening closely to each note of each track and reading everything you can get your hands on. At least, if you are like me, that’s what happens. I personally know several people who went through their “HOW CAN THIS BE SO GOOD??” and “THE BEACH BOYS ARE GODS” phase. It starts with an appreciation of the incredible vocal arrangements (duplicated by none, imitated by many) and with Pet Sounds, then the realization that Brian Wilson was but one of several band members whose cup overflowed with talent, then on to a discovery of their under-appreciated early seventies albums. After that, you hold your nose and try to find things to like about albums like M.I.U. Album and L.A. (Light Album). It’s not easy, but it can be done. Once your journey of discovery comes to an end, you feel somewhat empty. Wait — that’s it? I need more! Those Carl Wilson solo albums just aren’t going to cut it! (Though Dennis’s does)
However, there is no more. In my case, I over-listened to the Beach Boys so much that I had to take a break for many years, aside from listening to a favourite song here or there. But I’m back now and ready to bask in that sunny California wisdom once more.
In early days of rock ‘n roll, band becomes famous for its surf (and car) music but soon develops further because a certain member is a genius, same member gets mentally screwed up, group carries on, other band members produce works that range from middling to genius (with occasional contributions from the screwed-up genius), then band is hijacked by a less talented bald fellow and goes on to make “Kokomo”, thus delaying appreciation of the band’s legacy by some individual Gen X’ers like me by about 10-15 years on average.
Finding ten wonderful Beach Boys albums was not hard at all. In order from last to first:
To be honest, taken just as an isolated album and viewed from outside the Beach Boys mythos, Love You is a difficult album to take and maybe not as listenable as some hardcore fans think. But within that Beach Boys mythos, it’s something of a miracle, a last, if possibly Eugene Landy-inspired (one would hope not) stroke of effed-up childlike genius from Brian Wilson, with some help from other band members. OK, not exactly genius, but at least it’s a return to that unfettered creativity that characterized his best work, albeit filtered through the lens of a damaged psyche. So it’s at least fascinating, if not always fun per se. If you like Carl’s singing, though, it’s a good time. The groovy “Let Us Go On This Way” sounds like it could be on 20/20 or Wild Honey (aside from Brian’s new reliance on wheezy synths). Well, “Roller Skating Child” is horrible, but there are many melodic gems here, such as the Dennis-sung “Mona“, Brian-sung Smile-style light comedy of “Good Time” and “Johnny Carson”, and the truly bizarre waltz, “Solar System” (“solar system brings us wisdom”…). Not an album that should be among the first nine Beach Boys albums you pick up … but it could be the tenth!
Apparently this 1969 album was something of a contract filler since Capitol was jettisoning its former cash cow, but considering that the non-Brian Wilson band members were filling in the gaps caused by their creative leader’s erratic behaviour, it doesn’t feel that way at all, and in fact it contains some of the band’s most lavishly arranged material of the sixties — Bacharach had nothing on these guys. The music is very much pop but often with a highly spiritual edge. Combing the vaults produced a number of gems, from a return to the surf song sound on “Do It Again” to the glorious, sweeping Motown of “I Can Hear Music” and the epic psychedelic Americana of Smile castoff “Cabinessence“. Dennis Wilson had quite a few melodic and impressionistically arranged pop gems hidden away, such as “Be With Me” and “Never Learn Not to Love” (supposedly adapted from a song by pre-murder-spree Charlie Manson…). And then there’s “Our Prayer”, which is just thrown in there incongruously, but when you hear this polyphonic vocal piece influenced by Renaissance composers like Tallis, your jaw falls right off at the sheer beauty. CD releases tend to contain a number of equally appealing bonus tracks that make for a really appealing 15-track pop experience.
A sad album in a way, and not so smiley, considering it contains content from the legendary aborted Brian Wilson-Van Dyke Parks Smile project, and yes, when Wilson and his young team reconstructed and re-recorded the original ideas in 2004, it resulted in a far superior album to this. But this album does have a lot to offer, even though it’s a hodge-podge of bizarre Smile ideas and light contributions from other band members. So from the Smile material we have things like the stunning “Heroes and Villains“, a complex suite that should have changed the way music was made but fell on somewhat deaf ears at the time, the genuinely cute and funny “Vegetables” (tay-bal veggle-veggles!) and of course what may be the most famous pop song of all time, “Good Vibrations”. No point in discussing that one; suffice it to say that Mike Love somehow managed not to spoil the chorus by trying to drain the mysticism from the tune. The rest of the material is uneven and weird, though “Wind Chimes” (which is about wind chimes) is fun. Not so sure about stuff like “Little Pad”, “Whistle In” and “She’s Goin’ Bald”. It’s all just a little … fractured and lacking cohesiveness, like a bunch of stuff finished earlier, augmented by unfinished ideas.
This album was made with very little input from Brian Wilson; the addition of South Africans Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar from a power-pop band called The Flame that Carl had seen playing had certainly added a little early seventies rock ‘n roll pep to the proceedings. There’s some fairly typical uptempo Beach Boys fare in the soul-influenced “Marcella” and “You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone”, but as always it’s the left-field stuff that really hits home. That would be an odd waltz-time country ballad, “Hold On Dear Brother”, a strangely mixed ode to transcendental meditation (“All This Is That”) and a bombastic but sensitive orchestrated ballad from Dennis, the unfortunately titled “Cuddle Up“. “All This is That“, which I desperately try to imagine is about a non-cult-related form of meditation (but it was…), features some incredible mixing of Carl and Mike’s intimate vocals and indeed features one of Carl’s sweetest performances; maybe even his finest. “Cuddle Up” starts as a sparse piano ballad, sung with almost heartbreaking sensitivity by Dennis, before building up into a celestial symphonic crescendo, swooping heavenward on a truly angelic chorale of assorted Beach Boys. Music doesn’t get any better than that; it just don’t. Worth having for those three tracks alone.
This transitional album found the band trying to update to a more contemporary, harder early seventies sound, with some rock and roots in there. Many of the lyrics were provided by some guy they met named Jack Rieley, who was managing them as well and trying to make them hipper. Like most of the seventies albums, there’s a mixture of incredible genius and truly horrible misfires, like Love’s absolutely terrible “Student Demonstration Time” or “Take a Load Off Your Feet”, a really unfunny funny song. But several songs more than make up for those, and I’m not just talking about the Smile sessions orphan, that justly famous title track with Van Dyke Parks’ surreal poetry and Brian’s plaintive falsetto closing vocal. There’s also the band’s most sorrowful but spiritual song ever, “Til I Die” (nothing is more beautiful than those vocals), which actually goes so far as to contemplate mortality, and a couple of interesting proggy songs by Carl, “Feel Flows” (almost space-rock!) and “Long Promised Road”. Bruce Johnston’s “Disney Girls” is a kitschy but fun supplement, and “Don’t Go Near the Water”, while unimportant musically, is a nice example of early environmentalism in song form.
After the Smile/Smiley Smile debacles, the band regrouped around the solid leadership of young Carl and put out a simple, enthusiastic and unassuming album but one packed with melodic treasures. Carl basically dominates things with tunes his passionate gospel-style vocals on “Wild Honey” and Stevie Wonder’s “I Was Made to Love Her”, but there are some quite lovely little jewels from Brian too, such as the gently bucolic “Country Air” and the spectral “Let the Wind Blow“, which points the way toward moodier, darker future material like “Til I Die”. There’s a bona fide up-tempo hit in “Darlin'”, some odd humour as always (“Mama Says” and “I’d Love Just Once to See You”) and even a faint whiff of eroticism (“Here Comes the Night”, later turned into a horrible but compelling piece of disco on the L.A. album). Wild Honey is notable for just being a solid slice of soulful late sixties pop, mostly untainted by madness or uneven presentation, and for being the album on which Carl Wilson stepped out of the shadows to become an impressive musical force in his own right.
The band’s recovery continued with this total charmer. A fragile, delicate innocence pervades the proceedings, stemming both from Brian’s domestic isolation and from the hippie-dippie philosophies espoused by his fellow band members — the fanciful psychedelic cover art perfectly captures the mood. The waltz-time title track seems pretty unobtrusive at first, but the rising choral vocals on the tag are truly mind-blowing. The rest of the LP is packed with short, ultra-melodic and exquisitely arranged pop nuggets like “Wake the World”, Dennis’s groovy “Little Bird“, “I Went to Sleep” and “When a Man Needs a Woman”, as well as Dennis’s short hymn “Be Still”. Al Jardine almost recaptures the magic of “Sloop John B” with “Cotton Fields”. The childlike air does get a touch uncomfortably Peter Pan-like at times, and “Busy Doin’ Nothin”, Brian’s song about his daily life, which involved exactly that, is pretty self-indulgent. And “Transcendental Meditation”, while being unusually and pleasantly dissonant, is kind of creepy (anything to do with TM is creepy, said the Zen Buddhist). Still, Friends is fun, lighthearted but also fulfilling and a little dreamy.
This album is actually slightly maligned in some quarters, but Holland (recorded in The Netherlands, naturally) was nothing short of an indication of just how great and creative a democratically constructed Beach Boys could be. Sure, Brian’s genius is well-represented on the rollicking earworm hit “Sail on Sailor” (lyrics by Parks), but each band member (including Fataar and Chaplin) turns in some of the best work of his career, the highlight being the dreamy, hypnotic “The Trader“, sung ever so sweetly by Carl but with those trademark stunning choral background vocals providing texture — and the lyrics are actually quite poetic, touching on the damage wrought by colonialism, believe it or not. Then there’s the “California Saga” trilogy of songs by Love and Jardine. Love’s recitation of a poem about Big Sur by Robinson Jeffers is actually very touching and solemn (not everyone agrees), and his country ballad “Big Sur” has a gloriously bucolic and tranquil mood — it’s the leafy dream of the late sixties and seventies summarized in song. Love has never felt better! The honkin’ rocker “California” that concludes the set contains the only hint of that old surfy sound to be found on this album, but for some reason it doesn’t sound like pastiche or nostalgia. There are a number of other great songs on the album, the delicate love ballad “Only With You”, the super-spacey Chaplin/Fataar contribution “Leaving this Town” and the surprisingly funky and weird “Funky Pretty”. This is one of my favourite albums and is not to be missed by any serious music lover. (Note that early pressings as well as the later CD reissues contain a supplemental bizarre spoken word narration/musical fantasy, “Mount Vernon and Fairway”, by Brian … it is not good but you gotta hear it.)
Yes, this should be number one, according to conventional wisdom, one of the most famous albums of all time, and justly so. It changed the way people considered the LP, which would no longer be just a hit or two and some filler — it was serious business from now on. This is a lovingly constructed thematic suite, mostly dealing with the issues of growing up and of love. It inspired The Beatles and spurred them to glory. It changed the way rock music was arranged, and even the way lyrics were written, no longer just an unimportant part of the music but a confessional window into the singer’s soul. It contains some of the loveliest songs ever written: “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder“, “You Still Believe in Me“, “Caroline, No” and “God Only Knows” (which is too beautiful for this horrible world and was the first dance at my wedding, d’awwww). Special kudos to lyricist Tony Asher for capturing the sweet suffering of growing up. And yet to me this is not the full realization of the Beach Boys’ potential; this and Today! were very much part of a transition from the fun days of vacuous surf and car songs to a realization of the serious potential of rock ‘n roll to actually change lives and influence culture — this was actually a stupendous first step rather than the end of the road. It’s quite unfortunate that Brian Wilson’s mental issues kept him from achieving this level of focus again, for we can only imagine the works the world has been denied by that. Which makes it all the more inspirational that he continues to tour and make fine new music today during his second spring.
An album would have to be perfect to beat Pet Sounds; it would have to be a majestic work of towering, transcendental beauty. I give you Sunflower! With a new record contract and a new decade beginning, the newly democratized Beach Boys went all out and turned in an album that contains their most beautiful music but also their most rousing and some that is just plain fun. For starters, if you like the ethereal potential of those heavenly vocals, try “All I Wanna Do“, both Mike and Brian’s finest hour … so spectral, a mystical tribute to the power of the purest love (“My love is burnin’ brightly/My moon and stars shine nightly”). There’s Dennis’s earnest romanticism coming to the fore with the lovely and stately ballad “Forever“. There’s the incredible Motown-influenced arrangement and inspirational humanistic sentiments of the mini-suite “This Whole World“, which contains about four songs seamlessly rolled in one. There’s the kooky hippie grooviness of “Cool, Cool Water”, the moving love of nature expressed in “At My Window” and some pretty aggressive rock ‘n roll in “Slip on Through” and “It’s About Time”. Even the usually maudlin Bruce Johnston kicks in a charming slice of sunshine pop in “Deirdre”. Sunflower is the sort of album that enriches the soul and makes you a better person. It’s the perfect expression of what The Beach Boys were all about. If you don’t believe me, try it!