Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
The Beach Boys ended their association with Capitol Records after the release of the 20/20 album and “Breakaway” single in 1969, and signed a deal with Warner Brothers’ Reprise label to distribute subsequent releases via their Brother Records imprint (which had previously been used on a couple of earlier records with Capitol). I had always believed that Brian Wilson’s input was minimal or non-existent during this new era, but as I learned from revisiting the records I’ll be discussing here, Brian was still a creative force even though his overall contribution was significantly diminished. Fortunately, the other members of the group (Mike Love, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston) stepped up in a big way with their songwriting, arranging, producing and vocal skills. Their first album of the new decade, Sunflower (1970), was a commercial failure that doesn’t include many well-known songs and was bereft of any hit singles, but now has a much better reputation. I knew it was a pretty good album from listening to it a couple of times when it was reissued on CD in 2000, but I wasn’t prepared for how much (and how quickly) I would grow to love it. In its own subtle way it’s as good as Pet Sounds, if not quite as groundbreaking. Whereas that earlier classic showcased one man’s singular vision, Sunflower’s greatness comes from the creative minds of everyone in the group, and I could imagine many fans rating it as their best album (I might be one of them now).
Things get off to a great start with Dennis’ “Slip On Through,” which has an offbeat syncopated rhythm and one of his most rockin’ vocals. I really like how it shifts to a 4/4 rhythm in the chorus (“Come on won’t you let me be…”) and the “my love is growin’” section right before the outro. “This Whole World,” written by Brian and sung by Carl, delivers a number of stylistic shifts in less than 2 minutes, but they somehow fit together. It’s among Brian’s best songs and should be more popular. The a capella section at the end is super cool. “Add Some Music To Your Day” begins with a nice lilting fingerpicked guitar, and turns into a classic Beach Boys tune with Mike on lead and amazing group harmonies. Lyrically it’s a bit corny, but I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment of listening to music wherever you are. There’s a spiritual feel to this song (which really applies to a lot of their music during this time), and each member gets a spotlight.
[The Beach Boys – “Add Some Music To Your Day”]
Bruce sings the slow and bouncy “Deirdre.” There’s a sweetness in his voice that sets him apart from the rest of the Boys. At first this seems like a throwaway track, but eventually I really got into the summery feel and the music hall quality of the melody and production, which reminded me of Harry Nilsson. Bruce also wrote and sang “Tears In The Morning,” a slow waltz with a great vocal arrangement and nice accordion melody. I like the pretty orchestration in the middle (“well you know I lit a candle”), but the 45-second faraway piano at the end would’ve worked better as an intro. “It’s About Time” is one of the hardest rocking songs they’ve done, with Carl belting out the chorus (“I’m singing in my heart…”). It features Latin percussion and excellent dynamics as it descends to the “it’s about time now” section before building back to a great guitar solo.
“Forever” is a gorgeous ballad with one of Dennis’ most heartfelt vocals atop a bed of harmonies, and great group vocals when they sing the title. “Our Sweet Love” was co-written by Brian, Carl and Al, and the melody is up there with the Pet Sounds era. There’s a happy, uplifting quality and Carl’s vocals are typically astounding. It would make an excellent wedding song. The album closes with one of its best songs, “Cool, Cool Water,” which is an older composition by Brian based on a melody from SMiLE that was fleshed out here by Mike. It’s simple yet fully arranged, and repetitive in a good way. There are some weird partially chanted vocals in one section with rumbling sound effects, but in the end this arrangement is as impressive as “Heroes And Villains.” The other songs are very good but don’t stand out like the ones I’ve already mentioned. “Got To Know The Woman” is a relatively dumb straight-ahead rocker that sounds like a Grand Funk Railroad b-side. The background vocals are the best thing about it. “All I Wanna Do” has a dreamlike, hypnotic production, and there’s a sleepy quality to Mike’s vocals. It doesn’t stand well on its own but works as an album track. “At My Window” is light, airy and pleasant but relatively minor. Even with these three lesser tracks, it’s hard to argue that the other nine constitute one of their best albums.
Surf’s Up (1971), which was paired with Sunflower on the 2000 2-fer CD, is nearly as good as its predecessor, with high points as good as anything on that album but a few songs that didn’t do much for me. It starts with “Don’t Go Near The Water,” co-written and sung by Mike and Al (with Brian). The lyrics are really a call to action about protecting our environment, set to a peppy melody and steady midtempo groove. It’s not a major statement, but a very pleasant start to the album. Carl co-wrote “Long Promised Road” with their new manager, Jack Rieley (who would feature prominently on the next few albums). I like how the subdued verses build to powerful choruses (“I hit hard at the battle that’s confronting me…”). The title actually shows up in the spiritual bridge with swirling keyboards (“Long promised road flows to the source, gentle force, never ending”). Bruce comes up with another sweet and mellow ballad, “Disney Girls (1957).” There’s a nostalgic vibe that doesn’t feel cloying, and I love the way he sings “Dis-a-ney.” The final two songs on the album, which I’ll get to shortly, are usually regarded as the lynchpins of this record, but for my money the highlight has to be “Feel Flows,” written by Carl with Jack Rieley. There’s a cool reverse-echo effect on the vocals, a fantastic melody and a shredding lead guitar section that meshes with jazzy flute. I found myself entranced by this song each time it came on, and it’s one of my favorite discoveries in their entire catalog so far. “Take A Load Off Your Feet” is a slightly silly but catchy song that sounds like some of their more experimental post-SMiLE material, while “Student Demonstration Time” is possibly the nadir of their career up to this point. Based on Lieber & Stoller’s “Riot In Cell Block #9” (which I first heard via The Blues Brothers 1980 version), Mike barks his protest lyrics seemingly through a megaphone, and they grate very quickly. I do like the guitar sound, though, which recalls The Beatles’ “Revolution.”
Al co-wrote and sang the moody “Lookin’ At Tomorrow (A Welfare Song),” which is fine but more of an interlude. “A Day In The Life Of A Tree” was a new Brian song (co-written with Rieley), a sweet, innocent, childlike tune with vocals by Rieley, Al Jardine and Van Dyke Parks. It’s pleasant but merely whets the appetite for the final two songs. “’Til I Die” is an instant classic by Brian, and my jaw hits the floor each time I hear it. It has a sad quality but isn’t depressing, with confessional lyrics about feeling lost and vulnerable in the world (“I’m a cork on the ocean”; “I’m a rock in a landslide”; “I’m a leaf on a windy day”). The vocals are truly outstanding. Then there’s “Surf’s Up,” a SMiLE era song (which I discussed in my post about SMiLE Sessions) that’s given a slightly different arrangement here. On top of the original recording, Carl sings a new lead vocal in the first section, followed by Brian and then Al. Carl’s falsetto is wonderful, with a slight rasp that Brian never had. I’m not sure which version of this song I prefer, but I’d rather not choose since they’re both incredible. I wonder if those na-na-na’s in the fade-out are a nod to The Beatles’ “Hey Jude.” As I mentioned above, this is an excellent album that only pales slightly when compared to Sunflower. If you haven’t heard either of these albums, the 2-fer is a great collection with at least 15 of its 22 songs worthy of multiple listens.
Change was in the air for the next album, Carl And The Passions – “So Tough” (1972). Bruce Johnston was out and two new guys stepped in to inject some fresh energy into the group: guitarist Blondie Chaplin and drummer Ricky Fataar, both of South African group The Flame (whose first album was produced by Carl). They immediately made their presence known on two tracks, neither of which sounds like what we’ve come to expect from The Beach Boys. “Here She Comes” is funky & jazzy, and wouldn’t be out of place on an early Steely Dan album. It’s very catchy, especially “Am I living, crazy woman can’t you see…” It’s hard to tell if any of the other Boys are even on this track. “Hold On Dear Brother” is slower and more soulful, and has an interesting syncopated waltz beat. Blondie’s voice is extremely expressive, and the backing vocals are loose and a bit mournful. I also love the tasty slide guitar solo. Going back to the start of the album, “You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone” is a peppy, stomping rocker co-written by Brian and featuring Carl on vocals. It’s under-produced but still features lots of instrumentation. “He Come Down” begins with piano and a gospel-y organ, and eventually gives way to a catchy, finger-snapping call-and-response chorus (“I believe it…”). Unfortunately it meanders a bit in the middle. “Marcella” is the best-known song here, and the only one I remembered before revisiting the album. Co-written by Brian with two other writers and featuring Carl on lead vocals, it’s a catchy midtempo rocker with several sections, some more memorable than others (the “one arm over my shoulder” section is probably my least favorite).
Dennis collaborated on two songs with Daryl Dragon, better known as The Captain (of The Captain & Tennille), who provided orchestrations for his melodies. “Make It Good” is aptly described as a “tone poem” in the liner notes. Dennis’ vocals are cracked and vulnerable as he wears his heart on his sleeve. “Cuddle Up,” which closes the album, is a great “nightcap” song, and is cut from the same cloth as The Beatles’ “Good Night” (from The White Album). Once again his fragile vocals take center stage, never more powerfully than when he sings, “Your love, your love…for me is so warm and good to me…” The highlight of the album for me is “All This Is That,” written and sung by Carl, Mike and Al. The music is a perfect hybrid of Pet Sounds and SMiLE, and the smooth harmonies fit in with the soft rock of that era. Carl singing “To waves and I both travel by…and that makes all the difference to me” turns an excellent song into an extraordinary one. I can’t believe this song never made an impact on me before, but I would now consider it among their all-time best. The album as a whole is very good, and I like the addition of Blondie and Ricky, who make the band sound more contemporary.
[The Beach Boys – “All This Is That”]
The new guys stuck around for one more studio album, Holland (1973), although they only contributed one new song: “Leaving This Town.” Although at nearly 6 minutes it goes on a bit too long, I like it a lot. It reminds me of a slow Todd Rundgren ballad or even the early Steely Dan song “Dirty Work,” and Blondie’s vocals are extremely soulful and expressive. The minute-and-a-half synthesizer solo was a pleasant surprise, and not something I ever expected on a Beach Boys album. The best-known song here is “Sail On Sailor,” originally written by Brian with Van Dyke Parks, and now featuring contributions from a couple of other writers. Because Blondie sings lead, many people probably don’t even know this is The Beach Boys, but it’s a real gem in their catalog and should’ve been a bigger hit (it only cracked the Top 50). My favorite part is the pre-chorus (“Seldom stumble, never crumble…”). “California Saga” is a 10-minute piece linking three separate songs: “Big Sur” (a rootsy Americana waltz with Mike singing in a low register), “The Beaks Of Eagles” (Al reciting a Robinson Jeffers poem over a pretty flute melody) and “California” (my favorite of the three, sounding like a pre-Pet Sounds song with a similar shuffle feel to “California Girls”). During “The Beaks Of Eagles,” there’s a fantastic melody in the section with “In a broken shack an old man take his time about dyin’.” In “California,” I love the harmony vocals at “Water, water, get yourself in the cool clear water.”
“The Trader” is another special song, and one that took me numerous listens to really start appreciating it. It’s a midtempo 4/4 song with Carl on lead vocals featuring an excellent melody, especially the last four lines of each verse (i.e. “Nourishment fills the prairies…”). I love the shift at 2:20 to a more measured but still propulsive groove, and how Carl’s voice takes on a softer tone in the second half. “Funky Pretty” reminded me of 10cc, with its varying instruments and vocals in each section. Carl, Al, Mike, Blondie and Ricky all get a chance in the spotlight. It didn’t grab me immediately, but it keeps getting better with each listen. Dennis wrote a couple of songs, with Carl singing on both. Neither is among his best work, but the nearly 1-minute stinging lead guitar section in “Steamboat” made the song for me. Brian wanted to include a six-part spoken-word fairytale called “Mount Vernon And Fairway” on the album, but the record company decided to include it as a bonus 7” instead. Named after the intersection where Mike Love’s family’s house was located, its story about a “magic transistor radio” was narrated by Jack Rieley. While it’s interesting to hear once or twice, it’s also a little pretentious and silly. I’m sure some people enjoy its naïve charms, but I doubt I’ll play this again too often. I would rate Holland about the same as the previous album, and it will most likely continue to grow in stature over the years, but it doesn’t have a brilliant track on the level of “All This Is That.”
Recorded during their tours in winter ’72 and summer ’73, In Concert (1973) is the best of the three live albums I’ve revisited so far. Originally issued as a 2-LP set, its 20 songs now fit neatly on a single CD, and it’s a fantastic listen. During this period they were still a vital rock band and not the nostalgic oldies act they would become in later years, and it’s nice to hear American audiences react to these songs with such enthusiasm (which is especially surprising considering nearly half the songs are from post-Pet Sounds albums). I’m not going to discuss every performance, since many of them are merely solid reproductions of the original studio versions, but there are some standout tracks worth mentioning. They opened with “Sail On Sailor,” and even though it’s similar to its studio counterpart, Ricky delivers a great drum groove and there’s a palpable energy here. Note that Dennis wasn’t playing drums at that time after his hand had a run-in with a glass door. He was now in the front line, singing and occasionally playing keyboards. The version of “Sloop John B” is noticeably faster than the original, and Carl handles Brian’s vocal part extremely well. The subtlety of “The Trader,” especially the second half, comes across beautifully when it could’ve become unnecessarily heavy. Al does an admirable job filling in for Brian on “You Still Believe In Me,” which was not an easy task. He doesn’t fare quite as well on “Don’t Worry Baby,” where you can really hear him struggling with the high notes, but that leads into great renditions of three oldies to end the album: “Surfin’ USA,” “Good Vibrations” and “Fun, Fun, Fun.” They turn “Heroes And Villains” into a driving rock song, but the original’s arrangement and vocal performance are still perfectly executed.
The funky groove in “Funky Pretty” is worthy of The Isley Brothers. I love the emotional vocal performance Carl brings to “Let The Wind Blow” (from Wild Honey), which gave me a new appreciation for the song. They played “Help Me, Rhonda” with a bit of a country-rock feel, which was a surprising (and enjoyable) twist. “We Got Love,” which was written by Ricky, Blondie and Mike, was originally intended for Holland but didn’t make the cut, so this is its only appearance on a Beach Boys album. Ricky sings this nice uptempo, country-tinged rock song that reminds me of Eric Clapton’s first few solo albums from the early-‘70s. It’s a very good song but its 5-minute running time should’ve been edited down. I didn’t think I would ever love a Beach Boys live album that didn’t include Brian’s voice, but In Concert is a winner, and a nice way to close out this era of their career. Blondie and Ricky would soon be out and Brian would attempt a comeback in the second half of the decade. I’ll be spending lots of time with the albums they released during that era, and will let you know my thoughts when I’ve adequately digested all of that music. In the meantime, if you’re familiar with the albums covered in this post, please let me know what you think of them. Thanks.