Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
Back in the ‘70s and early ‘80s I used to listen to The Beach Boys all the time, and I considered myself a pretty big fan. However, I only owned two albums: 1979’s L.A. (Light Album) (which I will discuss in a later post) and the incredibly successful…and appropriately titled…compilation, Endless Summer (1974). I probably borrowed my brother’s 8-track tape for years before finally buying my own copy on cassette, and I never got tired of hearing songs like “Surfin’ Safari,” “Catch A Wave,” “Surfer Girl,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “In My Room,” “Don’t Worry Baby” & “The Warmth Of The Sun.” I could listen to this music all year long, but it took on special significance during those long, hot summers. This collection included 20 songs, all of them great, and I figured that was the extent of what I needed to hear. Then a few years later when I was in college, I bought the first newly released Beach Boys compilation of the CD era, Made In U.S.A. (1986), which included 9 songs from Endless Summer (one of these, “Be True To Your School,” appeared in an alternate version) and another 16 songs that were new to me (with the possible exception of “Good Vibrations,” which I probably knew better from a Sunkist soda commercial). Songs like “Heroes And Villains,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “Sloop John B.,” “God Only Knows” and “Caroline, No” really opened my eyes to a previously undiscovered world of Beach Boys music. I knew I would eventually dig deeper into their catalog, but for the next few years these few albums were the extent of my Beach Boys knowledge. Of the two new recordings included on Made In U.S.A., “Rock ‘N’ Roll To The Rescue” is pretty forgettable, but I have an affinity for their version of The Mamas & The Papas’ “California Dreamin’,” which proved that their harmonies remained intact after all those years.
I had always assumed that Mike Love was the leader of the group, since he sang lead vocals on so many of their most recognizable songs, and was always front and center in any performance footage I came across. Of course, now it’s well known that Brian Wilson was the creative genius behind The Beach Boys, writing the songs, producing the records, providing those brilliant falsetto vocals and basically conducting symphonies with the human voice, but I wouldn’t discover any of this until 1990 (which I will explain below). He was fortunate to have some great singers to work with, including his cousin Mike Love, his brother Carl Wilson and school friend Al Jardine. His other brother, Dennis Wilson, played drums (at least in concert…most recordings featured studio musicians), but was integral to their early success in that he was the only member of the group who surfed, providing them with subject matter for so many hit singles. He would also prove to be a gifted songwriter and emotive vocalist later in their career. Other notable members were guitarist/vocalist David Marks (who appeared on several early albums when Al Jardine temporarily left he group) and Bruce Johnston (who’s been with the group since the mid-‘60s).
In 1990 their first 16 albums were released as 2-fers (2 LPs on 1 CD) on 8 separate CDs, along with the long-awaited CD release of the legendary Pet Sounds. Naturally I bought them all, and at 24 years old I finally started learning more about the albums, the songs, the group and their history (thanks to some very informative liner notes by Beach Boys historian David Leaf). Songs like “Farmer’s Daughter,” “The Surfer Moon,” “She Knows Me Too Well” and “I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times” joined their more well-known songs to become new favorites, and after listening to these albums numerous times throughout the early-‘90s I felt like I really knew their music. During this time I discovered that they were primarily a singles band, and most of their albums were hit-and-miss affairs, combining instantly memorable classics with obvious filler. There are a couple of exceptions to this rule, but unlike most successful bands from this era, The Beach Boys don’t have a series of must-hear, start-to-finish albums. At least, that’s been my opinion for many years, and I’m hoping to find a few surprises over the next couple of months as I spend time with their catalog.
As if owning all of their ‘60s albums wasn’t enough, in 2000 ten albums released between 1970 & 1985 were reissued in a new set of 2-fers (along with one live album). I probably only listened to each CD a few times back then, so now I can finally give them the attention they deserve. This was not a particularly noteworthy era of their career, at least commercially speaking, as Brian Wilson struggled with substance abuse & mental issues that created an on/off commitment to the group. This led not only to several lineup changes, but also shone a light on the talents of other band members (especially Carl). Other than the aforementioned L.A. (Light Album), which included a minor hit (and personal favorite) in “Good Timin’,” I had never heard any of this music, so naturally I bought them all. That’s what completists like me do, although I still don’t own later releases Still Cruisin’, Summer In Paradise or Stars And Stripes Vol. 1. If anyone out there thinks these are in any way essential, please let me know. Otherwise I won’t be discussing them. I will, however, revisit and discuss the Good Vibrations box set, the Endless Harmony soundtrack, the Hawthorne, CA rarities collection and a live album recorded in 1980, so I should have a pretty complete picture of the Beach Boys’ output by the time I’m done. Although I own most of their albums as part of those 2-fer CDs, I will be listening to…and discussing…each album individually.
Earlier this year, the surviving band members reunited for a tour and a new album (That’s Why God Made The Radio), which I really enjoyed after several listens, although I’m curious to see how it holds up against the rest of their catalog. I also recently bought a copy of the SMiLE Sessions 2-CD set, the most fully realized version of the most famous “lost album” of all time, SMiLE. I haven’t been in a Beach Boys frame of mind in several years, so I’m excited about revisiting this music for a couple of reasons: (a) to spend some time with so many songs I know by heart but haven’t heard in years and (b) to finally get to know the deeper cuts and lesser-known albums. I probably know a larger percentage of their music than any of the artists I’ve previously covered here, so there may not be as much of a learning curve for me as there was for, say, Joni Mitchell or David Bowie. I still expect to uncover some great music that I might have previously dismissed, and I hope during this series some of you (especially those who think of them as merely a nostalgia act singing about surfing, cars and California girls) will gain a new appreciation for their artistry. I also hope to hear from the obsessive fans who already know every note the band recorded, as your insight can be very helpful. Whoever you are, though, I hope you enjoy reading my comments and checking out the song samples I’ll provide with each post.
My first question for you is: Which version of “Be True To Your School” do you prefer, the album version (which also appeared on Endless Summer) or the single version (which includes actual cheerleaders, and has appeared on numerous compilations)? I’ve always been partial to the album version. Here are samples of each to help you make up your mind.