Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
For the past 7-8 days, I’ve listened numerous times to the five albums released by The Beach Boys between 1976 and 1980. Had I written this post after the first listen, I wouldn’t have had many positive comments. Having worked my way through their classic ‘60s and underrated ‘70s albums since August, this batch of releases initially seemed to have nothing going for it. Even the “Brian’s Back” media campaign, which signaled the supposed return of their songwriting and production mastermind, Brian Wilson, appeared to be more about hype and less about substance. The production of these records seemed sterile, Brian’s voice (whenever it appeared) sounded raspy and lifeless, and the songs came across as lesser versions of previous triumphs and, in some cases, completely uninspired. But this is where my process…of listening to each album enough times to fully absorb it…really pays off, because even though none of these albums would rank amongst their best work, there are numerous noteworthy and occasionally brilliant songs sprinkled throughout this portion of their catalog. There’s still a lot of mediocre music here as well, but I’m going to focus on the standout tracks so I can give you an overview of what I loved about these albums without spending too much time on the lesser tracks.
When 15 Big Ones (1976) was released, the selling point was Brian’s return after many years in the musical wilderness. It was their first album of new recordings in three years, the longest such gap of their career up to that point, and also appeared after the success of the Endless Summer compilation, which found them enjoying a new level of popularity. I remember seeing this album in record stores during the U.S. Bicentennial year, and based on the title and cheap-looking artwork, I assumed it was a K-Tel compilation. Instead, the title referenced the number of songs and the years the group had been together. The only song I already knew was their version of Chuck Berry’s “Rock And Roll Music.” I’ve always enjoyed the tight harmonies along with the extra “rock” they add during the ending “If you wanna dance with me” section. “It’s OK” is bouncy, hand-clapping fun, with a classic lead vocal by Mike Love and a memorable refrain of “Gotta go to it, gotta go through it, gotta get with it.” I also enjoy Dennis Wilson’s vocals on “Find a ride…” “Had To Phone Ya” is probably my favorite song here, with several band members getting a lead vocal spot. It’s a throwback to the subtlety and interesting arrangements of Pet Sounds and Sunflower. I believe that’s Brian singing “Come on come on” during the outro, and his voice sounds a bit hoarse. My only complaint with this song is that I wish it were longer.
[The Beach Boys – “Had To Phone Ya”]
Chuck Barris (of The Gong Show fame) wrote “Palisades Park,” a hit for Freddie Cannon in 1962. It’s a heartfelt throwback to their early days, and features passionate rockin’ vocals from Carl Wilson. The circus melody during the organ solo is a nice touch. Their version of the Fats Domino classic “Blueberry Hill” grew on me with each listen. It starts with a 20-second horn intro, and Mike’s vocals are initially accompanied only by upright bass and light percussion. I like this slower version, which might be closer to some of the original recordings of this song from the ‘40s. “Back Home” is another new favorite. Although Brian, who co-wrote and sang lead, sounds ragged, the midtempo music and propulsive groove won me over, as did the memorable chorus (“Back home, I’ll spend my summer”). Brian’s raspier vocals are a perfect foil for Carl’s more angelic voice on their version of the Righteous Brothers’ “Just Once In My Life.” It has a dreamy quality and the production has hints of Pet Sounds, while capturing the original’s big Phil Spector arrangement. The remainder of the album includes some nice performances, but most of them are lightweight and don’t bear repeated listening. The only one worth noting is “That Same Song,” since the chorus is really catchy, but I think it would’ve been more fully formed when Brian was at the peak of his powers. Considering I was appalled the first time I listened to it, I’m pleasantly surprised that there are 7-8 songs that I really enjoy now. It’s far from a classic but definitely worth exploring for the patient and open-minded Beach Boys fan.
The “Brian’s Back” concept applies more to their next album, Love You (1977), since he wrote or co-wrote every song, and he seems more engaged with the musical and vocal arrangements. Album opener “Let Us Go On This Way” alternates between Carl in the verses and Mike in the bridge. It has an interesting organ & horn arrangement with a steady beat and synth backdrop, and nice harmonies during the one-line chorus (“God please let us go on this way”). “Johnny Carson” is weird, but in a good way, as it shows they’re trying out new sounds even though the lyrics are a bit simplistic (and make this seem like a lesser song). The cool electric piano and staggered vocals contain elements of art-rock (i.e. Roxy Music, early 10cc) and point toward the synth-pop craze that was still a few years away. “Solar System” is strangely intoxicating, even if the lyrics (“Solar system brings us wisdom”) are once again a bit too simplistic. Brian sings this waltz tune in a raspy, childlike voice, and the dry production forecasts his solo debut (which was more than a decade away). My favorite song on this album is “The Night Was So Young,” showcasing a wonderful arrangement with a bed of synths and some weeping guitar stabs. Brian’s & Carl’s voices blend beautifully, and the best part might be, “Is somebody gonna tell me, why she has to lie-ie-ie”). I would consider this among the best work they’ve ever done. I feel nearly as strongly about “I’ll Bet He’s Nice,” which has cool squiggly synths and a catchy melody, with Dennis, Brian and Carl sharing vocal duties. It’s a sparse track but unique and captivating, and I love the high harmonies.
Brian duets with his then-wife Marilyn on “Let’s Put Our Hearts Together.” His raspy vocals convey the pleading nature of the lyrics as he pursues his woman, and her strong voice is a nice counterpoint. I’m not sure about those fake steel drums, though. Like 15 Big Ones before it, the rest of the album is a bit hit-and-miss, with some songs coming across as nothing more than glorified demos. “Good Time” was apparently recorded in 1972, which explains why Brian’s voice sounds a lot stronger. I like the clip-clop percussion, the way the song goes from sparse to full to galloping, and how the choruses come to a stop after “My baby and I just want a good time.” I suppose children might like the sing-song quality of “I Wanna Pick You Up,” especially the “pat pat pat her on the butt butt butt” refrain, but to me it’s a little too silly. I would probably rank this on the same level as its predecessor, and both albums work well together on the 2-fer CD released in 2000. I now enjoy about half of the 29 songs included on that CD, which may not be as high a success rate as their earlier 2-fers but it’s still a pleasant surprise considering how little I thought of them only a week ago.
Only a year later they sounded drastically different with M.I.U. Album (1978). Although Brian is listed as Executive Producer, Al Jardine co-produced the album with Ron Altbach, and he and Mike seem to be in charge. Most of the record was recorded at the Maharishi International University (hence the album title) in Iowa, mainly because Mike was a devoted follower of transcendental meditation via the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. It’s a short album (under 33 minutes) and barely includes Carl & Dennis. It leans toward soft-rock (not a criticism) and at first seemed pretty lightweight, but as with the two previous albums, there are several standout tracks. Previously I was only familiar with one song: their version of The Dell-Vikings’ 1957 hit, “Come Go With Me.” Al does a great job with the lead vocals, and I like the combination of retro feel with updated production touches (especially the drum sound). Al & Mike co-wrote “Kona Coast,” their tribute to the Hawaiian Islands that includes musical references to their earlier song, “Hawaii.” There’s nothing groundbreaking about this song, but it could be a lost Beach Boys recording from 1964 and that works to its advantage. Carl makes an appearance on the super smooth “Sweet Sunday Kinda Love.” It has hints of several earlier Beach Boys ballads as well as the recognizable Phil Spector influence. “My Diane” is a haunting ballad written by Brian about his divorce, sung with perfect sadness by Dennis (“Everything is old and nothing is new; All I ever do is think of you”). “Match Point Of Our Love,” with its silly tennis metaphors and super smooth arrangement, initially came across as a minor song, but now it’s my favorite performance from this album. Perhaps it’s because Brian finally sounds fully engaged in every aspect of the recording.
[The Beach Boys – “Match Point Of Our Love”]
“She’s Got Rhythm” is a bit of a throwaway, but the catchy and bright sound (like a Bay City Rollers song, to my ears) as well as Brian’s strong, Frankie Valli-esque falsetto, won me over. The lyrics to “Hey Little Tomboy” are a little sophomoric and slightly creepy, but it’s worth hearing just for Brian’s falsetto on “They’re doing it all over the world.” “Pitter Patter” is stomping, hand clapping fun with silly lyrics about staying inside with the one you love when it’s raining. It’s another minor song that’s undeniably catchy and well played/sung. Al & Mike sing the Barry Manilow-esque orchestral piano ballad, “Winds Of Change,” to close things out. M.I.U. Album is far from an essential Beach Boys record, and the absence of Carl & Dennis from most of the songs is unfortunate (and probably kept a lot of fans from checking it out). I doubt I’ll be playing it very often in the future, but there are definitely a handful of songs I would include on a career-spanning anthology and there’s nothing terrible here. That’s actually not a bad accomplishment for a group with more than 20 albums under its belt.
The only Beach Boys non-compilation album I owned during my adolescence was L.A. (Light Album) (1979), which was produced by Bruce Johnston with long-time Chicago producer Jim Guercio. I probably bought it because it was their latest release and I liked the cover (with illustrations by different artists representing each song). Only a couple of songs ever made much of an impression on me, but one of them (“Good Timin’”) has continued to be among my all-time favorites. It’s super lush and sunny, and Carl’s voice is so smooth. Al sings “Lady Lynda,” with music that’s based on a J.S. Bach composition. I really like the sweeping orchestration coupled with a driving beat, and there are sections that recall Elton John & Kiki Dee’s “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” “Love Surrounds Me” has a cool, slow groove with mournful lyrics about lost love. It’s not a great or important song, but it works as a solo Dennis Wilson performance, and I really like the light synth accents. “Sumahama,” with Mike singing in both English and Japanese, is a bit gimmicky but still enjoyable. I think it’s one of his most heartfelt vocal performances.
[The Beach Boys – “Good Timin'”]
The dark horse on this album is surely “Here Comes The Night,” a nearly 11-minute disco version of a song originally included on Wild Honey in 1967. I’m sure I hated it at the time, as I was in full “disco sucks” mode (I was 13 when this album came out), but now I really like it. It’s slick and hypnotic, and the robotic vocal effects give it a synth-pop vibe at times. Carl’s vocals remind me of Supertramp’s Rick Davies. The album ends with “Shortenin’ Bread,” a rockin’ version of the old traditional song which I previously knew via an Allan Sherman parody (“Mama’s little baby loves matzah, matzah. Mama’s little baby love’s matzah balls”), so I immediately loved hearing this version of the original tune. The rest of the album is very slow and ballad heavy, and none of the songs made much of an impact. Although it’s probably among their weakest efforts, it’s by no means a bad album, and any record that starts off with “Good Timin’” is worth checking out.
Produced solely by Bruce this time, Keepin’ The Summer Alive (1980) seemed very weak the first couple of times I played it, but eventually about half the songs worked their way into my brain. They kick things off with “Keepin’ The Summer Alive,” a relatively minor but still enjoyable percussive rock song with a production sound that worked for that era. “Oh Darlin’” was co-written by Brian & Mike, and it’s somehow slow & sparse yet upbeat. I especially enjoyed Carl’s Peter Cetera-esque vocals in the chorus (“Oh, oh Darlin’, now that I’ve found you, it’s like a missing piece of puzzle has appeared”). He once again taps into Cetera territory, this time with an acoustic country feel, on “Livin’ With A Heartache,” which was co-written with Randy Bachman (of The Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive). “Goin’ On” was released as a single but was not commercially successful. Mike and Carl sound particularly strong here. The interesting arrangement and ‘50s vocal group vibe make me wonder why it wasn’t a hit.
I like the high-pitched descending guitar figure in “When Girls Get Together,” which gives it a Mediterranean flair. The song itself is more “interesting” than “great,” but I still like the tight lead harmonies and the cute, thought-provoking lyrics. “Santa Ana Winds” is folky pop with a great little melody featuring strings & harmonica. The album ends with an older song, “Endless Harmony,” a rumination on the history of the group which was apparently recorded in 1972. It’s a light & pretty organ-led ballad with strong vocals from Bruce & Carl. The other songs are mostly album filler, with only “Some Of Your Love” being notable for the backing vocal reference to “Be True To Your School.” For a latter-day album it’s not bad, and probably a step up from L.A. (Light Album), but it’s far down the list of essential Beach Boys albums. I do, however, love the cover painting.
During the tour in support of Keepin’ The Summer Alive, they performed for thousands of British fans at the Knebworth Festival. Years later that concert was released as Good Timin: Live At Knebworth England 1980 (2002), and it’s notable for being the only live recording to feature all six longtime members: Brian, Carl, Dennis, Mike, Al & Bruce. It’s mostly a crowd-pleasing set with a few surprises thrown in. I like that they opened with “California Girls,” since such a huge hit would more predictably be saved for the end of the concert. Carl sounds great, as always, on “Darlin’” and “God Only Knows.” They also threw in a couple of more recent songs (“Keepin’ The Summer Alive” and “Lady Lynda”), which went over extremely well. Of course, they filled out most of the show with classics like “Little Deuce Coupe,” “Do It Again,” “Surfer Girl,” “Help Me Rhonda,” “I Get Around” and “Fun, Fun, Fun,” and all of these performances were strong. When I saw The Beach Boys for the first time in 1983, one of the highlights was Dennis coming to the front of the stage to sing “You Are So Beautiful,” a song he co-wrote with Billy Preston that became a big hit for Joe Cocker. The version included here is just as memorable, and makes this CD an essential part of my collection. The group sounds enthusiastic throughout the show; they never seem to be going through the motions. It may not be the most important live recording of their career, but it’s a whole lot of fun (fun fun).
Over the following three decades there would only be sporadic Beach Boys releases, although they still managed a few more hits and a surprising reunion that most people never thought would happen. Unfortunately, they lost a couple of key members along the way. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be spending time with their remaining studio albums, as well as a career-spanning box set, a soundtrack and a rarities collection, all of which I’ll discuss in my final two posts. Until then, let me know what you think of the albums discussed above. Hopefully I’m not the only one who was pleasantly surprised by them.