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.
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).
Very interesting posts about albums I don’t know, Rich. Thanks. One thing we can add about the single “Cottonfields”, though (here I’ll play my role again as a resident “international marketing”-interested fan) – it was an enormous hit outside of the U.S., one of their biggest to date. Wikipedia goes so far as to call it “their most widespread international success”…I can’t attest to that, but it does seem to have been a top-5 pop hit in Japan and many European countries, actually reaching the #1 spot in some, and was also a #1 hit in Australia. In the UK, where it was also a top-5 chart hit, it came in as the #10 best selling single of 1970! Go Al Jardine! (BTW, do you think he’s praying on the album cover because of “Our Prayer”? Or was he praying the album would be a hit?!) Also – I agree that “Breakway” kind of fizzles out at the end. Imagine if it had ended with a great, strong vocal harmony chord like the tracks “Friends”…
Alan, I’m surprised you don’t know these albums that well. As I mentioned in the post, neither of them are Pet Sounds, but they’re both very strong, and a marked improvement over Smiley Smile and Wild Honey. I had no idea that “Cotton Fields” was such a big hit throughout the world, even though as I re-read the liner notes, I see that it was #1 in The Netherlands, #2 in England and Top 5 in Australia, Japan and Spain. I wonder why it struck a chord with so many people. It’s certainly a very good version, and I love their harmonies, but there are much better songs on that album.
I like your theory on why Al seems to be praying on the album cover, and I wouldn’t be surprised if you’re right. Then again, they probably took dozens of shots at that photo session and this was just one random image.
I’m glad you feel the same way about “Breakaway,” and I agree that a great vocal harmony at the end could’ve done wonders for that song. The first couple of minutes, though, are excellent and I still have the song playing in my head (even as I’ve moved on to other albums).
I appreciate your input. Thanks.
Friends is my favorite of this particular group of albums. It’s somewhat minimalist but in a much more pleasing way than Smiley Smile is. This album and 20/20 are another pair that compliment each other on the 2-fer. As for Stack of Tracks, it does seem to lean too heavy on earlier material, but I think the sing-along crowd was exactly who they were aiming this at, not those who wanted to explore the many layers of, say, “Heroes and Villans.” I haven’t given London (or their other live album) a spin in ages but I need to do that soon.
Glenn, I couldn’t agree more with your choice of the word “minimalist” to describe Friends. At first it’s a little off-putting when you’re used to their more fully-produced records, but eventually those excellent tunes work their way into your head. The 2-fer of Friends and 20/20 is among the the best 2-fers I’ve revisited so far, although Sunflower and Surf’s Up, which I’ve been listening to the last few days (and will write about next week) might be the best one.
Good point about Stack-O-Tracks being geared more for the singalong crowd. I shouldn’t complain, since it’s nice to hear those instrumental versions, but if they put together a similar collection today the track listing would most likely be very different (and more impressive).
Thanks Rich. Lots of fun stuff here. Do It Again has always been a top BB song for me for sure. Something about the unique mix of that hard-charging opening verse, and then the smooth high harmonies kicking in, then the sweetness of the bridge… just beautiful. Always liked I Can Hear Music as well. Love the Wake the World clip, and the description of the other material sounds intriguing and appealing.
I had never heard Cotton Fields before, but it was an immediate standout in the BBs live show I attended this year (the 20/20 version is a bit softer and more laid-back). I had no idea it was such a monster international hit either. 1969 was probably a good time to be trying their hand at country rock (think The Band, The Byrds, Dylan etc from around this period)… makes me wonder what a whole BBs album in that direction might have brought forth.
I’ve just ordered the 2-fer. 🙂
Also, I hear echoes of The Beatles in Wake the World… specifically Sgt. Pepper’s, which would fit the timing. Anyone else?
Hi Jon. I’m surprised to hear that The Beach Boys performed “Cotton Fields” on the current tour, but of course I was also surprised to find out what a big hit it had been around the world, so I guess it makes sense that it went over so well. You makes a good point about the timing of that recording in relation to other country-rock artists. We have to give Al Jardine credit for bringing that song to the group at exactly the right time. I’m sure this won’t satisfy your curiosity about what a whole Beach Boys country rock album would sound like, but in the ’90s they released an album of their existing songs with modern country artists (which I’ve never heard). I’m very skeptical about it, but at least one reader suggested I check it out, so I’ll be borrowing a copy from a friend and will discuss it here when I get to that part of their career.
As for “Wake The World” and the “Sgt. Pepper’s” influence, I’m sure that’s a possibility, but the more subdued nature of the arrangement makes me think The Beatles’ “White Album” could’ve been just as influential. I didn’t hear a particular reference point, though, throughout the numerous times I listened to it…although I was listening to some early Bee Gees last week and wouldn’t be surprised if some of that seeped into The Beach Boys’ music.
Cotton Fields. I think this is the missing piece of the puzzle, from wiki: “Dissatisfied with Brian Wilson’s arrangement of the song [from 20/20], Al Jardine later led the group to record a more country-rock style version; this version recorded on August 15, 1969 featured Orville “Red” Rhodes on pedal steel guitar.” This second version was released as a single and became the big hit overseas… you can compare on YouTube. While not a radical reinvention of the 20/20 arrangement, it does sound more raw, rock-y and twangy, with a bit more snap to it…I can see why Al fought for it. A late 60s BBs album in this direction would have been interesting indeed. The 90s country album sounds like more of a curiosity, especially if it’s redoing the hits, but I’ll look forward to your review in any case.
Wake the World. OK, perhaps it’s just me. 🙂 I just hear something distinctly Beatle-y in the chorus arrangement. Maybe the Penny Lane chorus is a closer match than the Pepper theme… try “Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes [burst of horns]” up against “Wake the world with a brand new morning [tuba]”. Not a direct lift by any means; just a vocal mix with no high harmonies and a use of horns that sounds unlike the more typical Beach Boys choruses. Which in this instance, works great!
I think that’s what I’ve been enjoying so much about discovering this late-60s/early-70s period of the Beach Boys’ music. Seems like (by necessity if for no other reason) they were willing to experiment with a lot of different sounds, and were casting around for ideas without really knowing what was going to stick or what their overall direction was going to be. That’s pretty far removed from what I’d guess is the general perception of them, as a band that found their signature sound very early on and stuck with it.
Thanks for that info on “Cotton Fields,” Jon. At least that confirms my puzzlement over why the version from 20/20 became such a hit around the world: it didn’t. I have to check the rarities compilations I have to see if I’ve got the single version, or maybe it’s on the Good Vibrations box set. I will most likely cover those compilations in a later post before wrapping up their catalog. If I don’t have the single version, I’ll check it out on YouTube.
Excellent point about them “casting around for ideas…” in the late-60s & early-70s. I think that describes a lot of artists, but The Beach Boys were in the unique position of having to live up to all of their early success, which probably made their more experimental work difficult for fans (and radio programmers) to grasp. I wonder if they would’ve had more immediate success during that era had they recorded under a different band name.
I can definitely hear the similarity you’re referencing between “Wake The World” and “Penny Lane,” although it’s certainly not one of those instances where you think, “wow, that comparison is so obvious.” I know Brian was always trying to one-up The Beatles (especially McCartney), and vice versa, but I’d be curious to find out if/when The Beatles realized they had won that race. Was there one Beach Boys album where McCartney thought, “they’ve really lost the plot…I’m no longer influenced by this music?”
By the way, I’m glad you were inspired to buy the 2-fer of Friends and 20/20 after our discussion here. It’s nice that we’ve been able to suggest music for each other, as you’ve already done that for me with Bobby Charles (via The Band) and John Hammond (via Tom Waits).
This is very interesting… I’m ashamed of admit this, but I never got seriously into The Beach Boys and this makes me want to check them out, so thank you for this marvelous essay, and I’m looking forward to the next one!
Hope is all well with you, pal!
Hi Jacopo. Great to hear from you. Much of The Beach Boys’ catalog is not for everyone, but I think their music covered a lot of ground throughout their various eras and lineups and I’m sure you would really enjoy some of it at the very least.
By the way, did you get the recently released Roxy Music “Complete Studio Albums” box set? I know there was some disappointment among fans when they didn’t include the hi-resolution (and possibly surround sound) DVDs that were originally planned, but I got it…at a reasonable price…and I’m very happy with it. My only complaint is that they didn’t reproduce the original inner sleeves, so some of the lyrics are missing. But the quality of the box and the replica LP sleeves made it a great purchase for me, and from what I’ve listened to so far I’m very pleased with the sound quality (much better than my original CDs from the ’80s and early ’90s). As far as I know, all of the bonus tracks included on the “Thrill Of It All” box set were included, so I should now have just about everything they officially released.
What music are you currently grooving to? Last time I checked your blog you hadn’t posted anything new in a while. Now that I can translate what you write into English, I always look forward to your posts. Thanks for stopping by. I hope you’re doing well.
I liked what I heard so far… I may be obvious here, but their vocal harmonies send me shivers. “In My Room” is a great song, have you ever heard Denny Gatton’s version? Great one!
I did not buy the boxset as I have all the 1999 remasters in original CDs, but thanks to a friend, I have a copy of the 2 CDs containing the bonuses (btw, I’ve been told that the albums will also come separately… I hope it’s the case of the 2-CD as well, because I want it original, as it’s the only official item missing on my discography!), and I can say that they did things quite well: the transfers are nice, “The Numberer” is in stereo, “For Your Pleasure (live)” finally made its first appearence on CD (it was the only B-side unavailable) and “South Downs” runs forward! Also, I see that they put back the original (and better, imho) “Dance Away” in “Manifesto”, moving the single version on the bonus CDs. Most of the single versions are just edits, but “More than This”. “Avalon” and the first “Take a Chance With Me” are definitely different mixes (inferor, imho, but still very very interesting to hear) and I had never heard those before! The only minor quibbles I have is that the single version of “More Than This” comes from vinyl as I hear surface noise (well, there was probably no master tape available and it’s a good transfer, so no big deal) and I hear some tape damage on “Trash 2” (check Bryan’s “ooh yeaah” before the last verse… I hear what sounds like sticky-shed syndrome, which was not present on the version on “The Thrill of It All”, but besides that I think they did an excellent job! And, yes, now you have everything you need from Roxy Music (studio-wise, at least). Oh, wikipedia says that the songs on “The High Road” (the EP) contained on “Heart Still Beating” are different versions, but I have an LP-rip of it and I can confirm that they are the exact same versions: same performance and also same mix. The location is just miscredited on “Heart Still Beating”!
I’m currently listening to some Electric Light Orchestra and Family’s first two albums, and I really dig both of them, though I’m not preparing an article on either of those. I am, however, writing a lot of stuff that will be eventually (and very calmly ;-)) published on the blog. Check it out for nice surprises!
Hi Jacopo. I am a Danny Gatton fan but had never heard his version of “In My Room.” I just checked it out on YouTube and it’s gorgeous. Thanks for letting me know about it. The song itself is so beautiful that it’s hard to imagine a bad version, but it’s nice that Gatton put his own brilliant stamp on it. I’m glad you’re enjoying the Beach Boys songs you’ve been hearing (have you been listening to the song samples I’ve posted here?), and I totally understand what you mean by their voices “sending shivers.” There’s no doubt that their harmonies are something truly special.
Thanks for confirming all that information about the Roxy Music box set. It’s nice to know that I now have every studio recording I could possibly want. I do hope they release the 2-disc bonus CD separately so you can get a copy. I also hope they do a career-spanning live collection one of these days, or even an expanded version of “Viva!”
I’m a big fan of ELO, and I got into Family a few years ago. Roger Chapman’s voice takes some getting used to, but once you do their music is so enjoyable. I look forward to your upcoming blog posts, whatever they may be.
I’m curious to know your opinion about Roxy Music’s b-sides. Bryan Ferry solo also had some nice ones. I am trying to write an article about them, but there’s one I can’t find anywhere. It has only been rereleased once and the CD version is rarer than the vinyl…
I need to listen to the bonus discs a few more times before I can give an informed opinion, but I did enjoy both discs the one time I played them. I have all of Ferry’s CDs through “Bete Noire,” but haven’t listened to them in years. I’ll have to give them a spin soon, although I don’t think I’ll write about them here. There are too many other artists on my list that I’ll be revisiting in the coming months. Good luck finding that rare Ferry b-side.
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Despite its clinkers, Friends is one of my favorite BB albums, and I read somewhere that it was Brian Wilson’s favorite. The Don Was documentary “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times” recreates several songs from this great period, including “Do It Again” backed by Brian Wilson’s daughters.
I saw I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times shortly after it came out but wasn’t as well-versed on their more obscure material then as I am now. I do recall at least one performance of Brian with his daughters & it was really nice. Brian wasn’t in the best shape at the time but at least he was emerging from his lowest points in the previous decade. His resurgence over the last 10-15 years continues to surprise & amaze me. I saw him on his first solo tour and he looked (and sounded) like a deer in headlights. Now he’s so much more comfortable, and it’s a joy to witness.
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