Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
After reaching the pinnacle of their creativity with Pet Sounds and the recordings that were supposed to become SMiLE, The Beach Boys fell into a bit of a rut with their immediate follow-ups, all of which I discussed in my previous post. It was clear that Brian Wilson was no longer the sole driving force in the group, but it took some time before the other members’ creative contributions began to match their ambitions. The latest batch of albums (which I spent the last 5-6 days with) showed some much improved songwriting, although they didn’t come close to the consistency of their golden era (that would be a lot to expect, of course). Anyone looking for non-stop hits would be disappointed, but I enjoyed this portion of their catalog a lot more than the two previous albums, Smiley Smile and Wild Honey.
Friends (1968) begins with “Meant For You,” a 35-second song fragment with Mike Love singing over a droning organ and piano, which gives way to “Friends,” a lovely song with a great ¾ waltz rhythm. The lyrics about friendship, which could be a universal message or specifically about the group, are sweet if a bit corny. I love the melancholy harmonica melody, and it’s great to hear their soaring vocal harmonies again (with Carl Wilson in front). “Wake The World,” the first co-write between Brian and Al Jardine, might be my favorite song here. It’s certainly the one that’s been stuck in my head the most. It begins slow and moody until the chorus, which is a little bouncier with a midtempo shuffle featuring a cool tuba performance. I enjoyed the upbeat lyrics (“Wake the world with a brand new morning. Say hello to another fine morning”) and my only complaint is that it’s so brief (1:30). Brian recreates some of that Pet Sounds magic with “Be Here In The Morning” (co-written by all five original members). It’s another waltz, with Brian & Carl sharing lead vocals, and I was especially impressed by the lush harmony on “full” in the line, “Be here and make my life full.” They enter jazzy, Burt Bacharach territory on “Busy Doin’ Nothin’,” which features a sweet lead vocal by Brian. It has a nice, un-fussy feel that perfectly suits the simple, confessional lyrics (“I get a lot of thoughts in the morning, I write ‘em all down. If it wasn’t for that I’d forget ‘em in a while”; “Lately I’ve been thinking ‘bout a good friend I’d like to see more of”).
[The Beach Boys – “Wake The World”]
“When A Man Needs A Woman” is a nice ode to a young child from a new parent (“When a man needs a woman they make things like you, my son”), but it’s merely a pleasant jazzy ditty. “Passing By” is essentially an instrumental, with wordless vocals and a nice organ solo that sounds like a poppier, less funky Booker T. & The MG’s. “Anna Lee, The Healer” is a minor song, but the lush harmonies during the chorus (“Healer with the healing hands, makes you well as quick as she can”) won me over. Otherwise it’s a sparsely arranged tribute to a masseuse co-written by Mike and Brian, featuring a surprisingly tender lead vocal from Mike. Dennis Wilson contributes his first two original songs, both co-written with Steve Kalinich. The first, “Little Bird,” is midtempo and moody, with a subtle and effective arrangement, especially the strings in the middle section. The second, “Be Still,” is a brief meditative piece with only a droning keyboard backdrop highlighting some peaceful vocals (“Live in harmony and love will set you free”). His songwriting will get stronger, and his voice will grow more expressive, on future records, but these are by no means just filler; they show a true talent emerging.
The two tracks that close the album are probably the weakest. “Diamond Head” is an interesting but inconsequential instrumental filled with sound effects which aim to evoke the volcanic Hawaiian mountain of the title. I’ve climbed Diamond Head, and this music didn’t bring me back to that experience. “Transcendental Meditation,” which was all the rage back then (Mike was the resident TM-practicing Beach Boy), is the most rocking song here, with a swinging groove (especially Dennis’ ride cymbal) and vocals that are occasionally hypnotic but more often chaotic. This album is definitely a “grower,” and I liked it a little more each time I played it. As long as it’s not held up to the high standards of their best work, it’s easy to fall for its charms.
Released shortly after Friends, Stack-O-Tracks (1968) is an interesting album, and probably a one-of-a-kind release for its time. It’s a collection of the instrumental backing tracks to 15 of their existing songs, and it mostly works as a showcase for Brian’s arranging skills. It’s also a musical oxymoron: a vocal group’s instrumentals. The song choice is a bit puzzling, as many of them are early, simply-arranged tunes like “Catch A Wave,” “Surfer Girl,” “Little Honda” and “Little Saint Nick,” which grow repetitive even in the span of 2 minutes or less. It’s fun to hear them without vocals once or twice, but the novelty quickly wears off. Even some later songs like “Darlin’,” “Wild Honey,” “Here Today” and “You’re So Good To Me” don’t hold up to repeated listening. There are, however, some interesting and even revelatory tracks. “Sloop John B” displays a slow build in intensity and instrumentation, which isn’t as obvious on the vocal version. “In My Room” is subtle, melancholy and haunting even without Brian’s gorgeous vocals. During “Do It Again,” which was released as a single after Friends but not included on an album until the following year (see below), it’s nice to hear the light instrumentation during the bridge, as well as the short but biting guitar solo that’s usually buried under the vocals. “God Only Knows” continues to amaze, even without Carl’s pleading vocals. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of hearing this song, no matter what the format. I was pleasantly surprised by how dense and dynamic “Let Him Run Wild” sounded. Of the three bonus tracks included on the 2-fer CD (with Beach Boys Party!), only the circus feel of “California Girls” made any real impression. I don’t think I’ll be playing this album very often in the future, but it would be fun to play with some friends who can sing, as it could be viewed as the first pop music karaoke album. Sadly, the lyrics weren’t included in the CD packaging, but they’re easy enough to find online.
I’m not sure if 20/20 (1969) is a better album than Friends, but it feels a lot stronger due to the inclusion of a couple of hit singles and two SMiLE songs. The first of those hits is “Do It Again,” which has become a Beach Boys standard. Based on the drum sound, as well as lyrics that find them looking back to their past, I always assumed this was from the mid-70s, so I was surprised to find it on this album. It’s insanely catchy and the classic Beach Boys harmonies are in full force. I can’t tell if that’s Brian or Carl during the breakdown: “With a girl the lonely sea looks good in the moonlight.” Can anyone shed light on this? Carl proved that he could take the reins on the cover of The Ronettes song “I Can Hear Music,” written by Brill Building legends Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich. He co-opted the Phil Spector production sound and added super lush harmonies, as well as his own impressive lead vocals. I also love the street corner doo-wop vocals during the a capella section. Bruce Johnston produced their cover of the ‘50s Ersel Hickey song, “Bluebirds Over The Mountain.” At first it didn’t make much of an impression, but eventually I came to enjoy the interesting vibe: rock ‘n’ roll with a Caribbean flair. There’s also some stinging lead guitar by Ed Carter. Bruce wrote, produced and performed everything on the very pleasant instrumental, “The Nearest Faraway Place,” except for the string arrangement, which was by Van McCoy (best known in the ‘70s for “The Hustle”). Al Jardine brought in the old Leadbelly folk/work song “Cotton Fields” for the group to record. It’s a nice performance, but I’m still partial to the Creedence Clearwater Revival version, which was my first exposure to the song.
[The Beach Boys – “I Can Hear Music”]
Dennis contributed three songs this time, continuing to show his versatility as a songwriter and singer (although Mike sings lead on one of them). “Be With Me” has a dark vibe, especially the strings, but the jingling bells show Brian’s production touch, and things open up in the chorus with louder drums and horns. It’s not the catchiest Dennis song, or even his most evocative vocal, but I still like it. “All I Want To Do,” which Mike delivers with his most full-throated rock vocals, is a driving rocker without much personality, but is infamous for the 3-4 seconds of lovemaking sounds during the fade-out. “Never Learn Not To Love” is a bit controversial, as it’s based on a song by Dennis’ then-buddy Charles Manson (yep, the notorious serial killer). The lead vocals are a bit hazy, although the harmonies are strong and “I’m your kind, I’m your kind, and I see” is the catchiest section. I really like his cracked vocals at “Come in now closer, closer.” Despite its origins, it’s a song that sticks with you once you’ve heard it.
Brian & Carl co-wrote “I Went To Sleep,” a brief waltz tune, and another of Brian’s “what I did today” songs. The dreamy feel fits the lyrics perfectly, and it wouldn’t have been out of place on Friends. “Time To Get Alone” is also in ¾ but has less of a waltz feel. Carl’s understated vocals are engaging and the group harmonies are classic. In David Leaf’s liner notes he describes the “deep and wide” moment as “one of the most magnificent moments in the Beach Boys’ musical history,” but I found it a bit distracting…even though it didn’t affect my overall enjoyment of the song. The album closes with two SMiLE tracks, “Our Prayer” (still hymn-like and breathtaking) and “Cabinessence.” I’m not sure if the latter includes overdubbed vocals on the original recording, like “Our Prayer,” but it doesn’t really matter when the song is so close to perfect. I’m still amazed at how all the disparate sections fit together so seamlessly. Notice that, for the first time, Brian isn’t pictured on the album cover, even though he was still involved in the recording process. It’s fitting, though, as this album proved that the group had a life beyond just being Brian Wilson’s band.
After the release of 20/20, they still owed Capitol a single, so they released “Breakaway” in the summer of 1969. Unfortunately it bombed, not even reaching the Top 50, which is a shame because it’s insanely catchy. Perhaps the smooth production, which points to ‘70s soft rock, was a few years ahead of its time, but it’s really just an update on their classic sound. According to the liner notes, Al Jardine felt that Brian had “underproduced and undersold the ending of the record,” and it’s hard to dispute that, but the rest of the record is so good. It should certainly appear on any worthwhile Beach Boys compilation.
Live In London (1970) has an interesting history. It was recorded during their tour of England in December 1968, but subsequently reissued as Beach Boys ’69, and didn’t come out in any form in the U.S. until 1976, after their commercial fortunes had finally turned here. Brian wasn’t part of this tour and sometimes his vocals are sorely missed, even when they’re replicated by one of the other ‘Boys, or by the horn section. The arrangements may lack the nuance of their studio counterparts, but that’s usually the case with most bands, and considering it was just the five of them (Mike, Carl, Dennis, Al & Bruce) with a few other backing musicians, they reproduce most of the songs exceptionally well. “Darlin’” is a really solid opener with Carl in strong voice. Al acquits himself nicely handling Brian’s vocals on “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” and the band sounds incredibly tight. The horn section attempts to replace Brian’s high notes on “Do It Again,” and although it adds a different flavor, it doesn’t have the same kick as the original. Still, it’s an enthusiastic performance and I’m sure the audience loved it. “Bluebirds Over The Mountain” and “Wake The World” are as strong as the original versions, with a nice jazzy horn section in the middle of the latter. It’s nice to hear them performing new songs to such an appreciative audience. That probably wouldn’t have been the case in the U.S. The version of “Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring” here doesn’t live up to the previously recorded versions (Brian’s voice is really missed), but then they close out the concert with three showstoppers: “Good Vibrations” (with Mike playing the Theremin…nice!), “God Only Knows” and “Barbara Ann.” I don’t usually consider live albums to be terribly essential, and this one is no exception, but it’s always fun to get a snapshot of an artist at various times in their career and I’m glad I’ve gotten to know this album. Now it can go back on the shelf for a while.
That closes out The Beach Boys’ recording career with Capitol Records in the ‘60s. They may not have ended on a commercial high note, but artistically they were on an upswing. I’ve already begun listening to the first few albums they released on their own label, Brother Records, in the early ‘70s, and I can tell that there’s going to be lots of great music to learn, as well as re-discover. I’m looking forward to the next few weeks, since I get to spend lots of time with these records and I can share my thoughts on them with other fans (and hopefully you’ll share your thoughts here as well).