Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
In December 1983, drummer/vocalist Dennis Wilson drowned after diving off his yacht into a marina, and although his participation in the group had been sporadic on their previous couple of studio albums, The Beach Boys would never be quite the same without him. Even before I was familiar with their history and the extent of his musical contributions, I knew he was a crucial member of the group for his enthusiastic drumming, raw yet heartfelt vocal performances, and the fact that he was the only surfer among the Boys. I saw them in concert twice, once with Dennis (1983) and once without (1984), and the difference was startling. Both shows were a lot of fun, mostly featuring their classic hits with a few newer songs thrown in, but without Dennis (and his rendition of “You Are So Beautiful”) they seemed like even more of a nostalgia act as opposed to a vital rock & roll band. At that point most fans probably doubted that they had any more hits in them, but during the next decade The Beach Boys proved them wrong.
Their first album without Dennis, simply titled The Beach Boys (1985), was preceded by the super catchy hit single, “Getcha Back,” which I liked so much that I bought the single (note: I’ve always been more of an “album” listener, so I’ve rarely purchased individual songs). It features a classic Mike Love lead vocal with Brian’s strong falsetto backing vocals. The lyrics, about a man trying to lure back his old flame, could also be a plea from the group to its fans…and it worked. It may not have been a chart-topper, but it kept them in the public eye, and in my opinion it stands proudly among their most enjoyable songs. The main problem with the album was the light, airy, ‘80s production sound (by Culture Club producer Steve Levine) with lots of drum programming and digital synthesizers, so sonically it hasn’t held up very well. I’m more interested in the songs and performances, so even though it’s not a great album by any stretch of the imagination, after several listens I uncovered a handful of pretty decent tracks. “Maybe I Don’t Know” reminds me of the band Toto from this same era, with a more rock & roll edge than usual (especially in the lead guitar by Gary Moore, one of my favorite guitarists) and a typically strong lead vocal by Carl Wilson. His great voice is sadly undermined by songs like “It’s Getting’ Late,” a generic ‘80s tune with a slightly funky feel.
Bruce Johnston wrote “She Believes In Love Again,” which he sings with Carl. It’s a by-the-numbers ballad that could’ve been a hit for a singer like John Waite or Corey Hart, as the catchy verses and choruses make it somewhat worthwhile. Ringo Starr played drums on “California Calling,” a catchy but derivative song with lyrical, vocal and musical references to older hits like “Surfin’ U.S.A.” “Passing Friend” was written by Boy George and Roy Hay of Culture Club, with a cool Caribbean feel programmed and mostly performed by Hay. Once again Carl sounds great here, but the song is lightweight and goes on way too long. Brian Wilson wrote and sang “I’m So Lonely,” which features a slightly propulsive midtempo groove, and Brian’s voice sounds at least as good as it did in the mid- to late-‘70s (and is a clear precursor to his 1988 solo debut). Fantastic group vocals elevate “It’s Just A Matter Of Time” from minor song into a solid one. As a Stevie Wonder fan, I couldn’t help but love “I Do Love You,” a great romantic song which was written and mostly performed by Stevie (he plays drums, bass, organ and harmonica). I absolutely love Carl’s soulful lead vocal. I don’t think I’ll be playing this album too often in the future, but a couple of the songs are keepers and there’s nothing terrible here (which wouldn’t always be the case going forward).
When the song “Kokomo” was released in the summer of 1988, my interest in The Beach Boys had waned, and its inclusion in the Tom Cruise movie Cocktail (with a subsequent video featuring clips from the film) didn’t pique my interest. I was definitely in the minority, though, as the song became a #1 hit in the U.S. and many other countries. I never hated it but rarely paid much attention to it either, although in recent years I’ve developed a soft spot for it based solely on Carl’s delivery of the lines, “Ooh, I wanna take you down to Kokomo, we’ll get there fast and then we’ll take it slow. That’s where we wanna go…way down in Kokomo.” If you’re a fan of his voice but never enjoyed this song, I urge you to give it a listen without the accompanying video. You may find yourself, like me, singing along.
[The Beach Boys – “Kokomo”]
A year later they capitalized on the success of “Kokomo” by releasing Still Cruisin’ (1989), which included that hit along with 6 other newly recorded songs and 3 early classics (the inclusion of which makes very little sense, other than the fact that they had been used on movie soundtracks, which was the original concept of this album). The new songs were recorded mostly by the touring version of the group, with Brian only making one appearance. I had nothing good to say about this album the first few times I listened to it, but a few songs eventually grew on me. “Still Cruisin’” is a finger-snapping tune with classic Beach Boys harmonies (at this point consisting of Mike, Bruce, Carl and Al Jardine), and an obvious attempt at recreating the hit formula of “Kokomo.” The digital production undermines the song, but it’s hard not to love when Carl sings, “When we go crui-si-i-i-in.” During “Somewhere In Japan,” I like how each voice weaves in and out of the others, and that everyone is featured in a verse or even a single line. Although it’s upbeat and poppy, it also has a hypnotic feel and some tasty guitar that’s reminiscent of Dire Straits’ Mark Knopfler. “Island Girl (I’m Gonna Make Her Mine)” is kitschy and a bit silly, with the fake steel drum sound, but Carl’s affected vocals (“I found her”) kill me every time. I’ve never been a rap fan, so their duet with The Fat Boys on “Wipe Out” was not up my alley, but I suppose it’s good for what it is. “Make It Big,” the final new song, is a huge, glossy, overproduced ‘80s soundtrack song with upbeat, inspirational lyrics. Naturally, it’s Carl’s singing (at “Up on the bright lights”) that made the song listenable for me. Considering how little I thought of this album just last week, I’m surprised to say that I don’t hate it, and even look forward to hearing a handful of these songs again. Still, it’s a minor album only for completists, or fans of their most commercial recordings.
And now it’s time for the nadir of The Beach Boys’ catalog, Summer In Paradise (1992). Until last week I had never heard this album, and now it’s clear that I wasn’t missing much. Perhaps I’m being a bit too harsh, as the words that came to mind most often were “pleasant,” “inoffensive” and “harmless,” but the combination of completely programmed drums, all digital production and one-dimensional songwriting make this a record that quickly goes in one ear and out the other. In many ways it could be considered a Mike Love solo project since he co-wrote seven songs (eight, if you count the completely unnecessary modern update of their first hit, “Surfin’”) with outside writers as well as producer Terry Melcher. Brian didn’t appear at all, and it’s only Carl’s voice that salvages a handful of tracks. My three favorites, if you could call them that, are “Slow Summer Dancin’ (One Summer Night)” (Bruce Johnston’s only contribution; a pretty ballad with strong vocals that’s undone by a huge echo-y snare drum), “Lahaina Aloha” (a straightforward Mike composition that sounds like many of his other songs, which is notable mostly for Carl singing “Out on the water where the full moon shines, you and Lahaina always on my mind”) and “Under The Boardwalk” (a slow arrangement of The Drifters’ 1964 hit, with Carl’s beautiful rendering of the word “under” in the choruses; it’s possibly their most clever re-working of someone else’s song).
The rest of the album is filled with retreads of ideas previously done better (“Island Fever” tries to catch “Kokomo” fever; “Summer Of Love” has Mike talking/rapping and includes “I Get Around”-style backing vocals), and most of them overstay their welcome beyond the 3-minute mark. Possibly the worst inclusion is the re-recording of Dennis’ excellent “Forever” with vocals by actor (and occasional Beach Boys percussionist) John Stamos. The whole album sounds like they’re trying to perpetuate The Beach Boys as a “brand” (surf, summer, islands, sand, etc) instead of being a band. After listening to it a handful of times this past week, I’m pretty sure I won’t be playing it again.
Based on a friend’s recommendation, I decided to spend some time with another album I hadn’t previously heard, Stars And Stripes Vol. 1 (1996). Although it’s billed as a Beach Boys album, it’s really a tribute album featuring different singers (mostly in the Contemporary Country genre) with some of The Beach Boys providing backing vocals. I’m not a huge fan of modern country music, as my taste in that genre tends to skew to classic artists like Hank Williams Sr., Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, George Jones, etc. (although I do have an affinity for some artists who arrived on the scene in the ‘80s like Dwight Yoakam, Randy Travis and Lyle Lovett, none of whom appear here). It’s nice to see that Brian was in the picture, co-producing with Joe Thomas, and it’s also noteworthy as the last album to feature Carl. There’s nothing terribly revelatory here, but I did enjoy the blues feel added to “Little Deuce Coupe” (James House) and “409” (Junior Brown), and Lorrie Morgan starts the album off with a nice straightforward take on “Don’t Worry Baby.” The second half has some very good performances: a fun, upbeat, rockin’ version of “Help Me, Rhonda” (T. Graham Brown); a slow, melancholy, harmonica-drenched version of “The Warmth Of The Sun” (Willie Nelson, whose jazz phrasing adds an offbeat element but occasionally sounds jarring against the exquisitely smooth backing vocals); a Phil Spector “girl group” spin on “I Can Hear Music” (Contemporary Christian singer Kathy Troccoli) and a simply gorgeous version of “Caroline, No” (Timothy B. Schmit, best known from Poco and The Eagles) that’s a worthy successor to the original. The best country version of a Beach Boys song I’ve heard was Vince Gill’s rendition of “The Warmth Of The Sun” from a Brian Wilson tribute concert in 2001. It’s too bad he wasn’t asked to participate here. I still think this album is more of a curiosity than a true Beach Boys album, but it’s enjoyable and brief so I’m glad I got to know it.
Carl Wilson, who had been battling lung cancer for a year, died in February 1998. Shortly thereafter, a documentary of the band’s history was assembled, along with a companion soundtrack album, Endless Harmony Soundtrack (1998), but instead of being a career-spanning collection of hits, this album consisted of 24 previously unreleased tracks, along with “Endless Harmony” from 1980’s Keepin’ The Summer Alive. A collection of rarities was an interesting choice, but considering how many Beach Boys compilations were already on the market for casual fans, this one was obviously designed for their more dedicated followers. Nearly a third of the album consists of demos, radio promos and alternate mixes/versions, and another third are live performances, but there are several songs that appear here for the first time as well. The collection opens with an excerpt from a Brian writing session before giving way to the fully-formed recording of “Soulful Old Man Sunshine.” This song was recorded in 1969 and sounds like nothing else they ever recorded. It’s jazzy and swinging, with various sections, shifting tempos and huge group harmonies. I hear elements of doo wop, big band (via Herb Alpert & The Tijuana Brass), sunshine pop and a hint of psychedelia, and without a doubt it’s my favorite discovery here. “Sail Plane Song” and “Loop De Loop (Flip Flyin’ In An Aeroplane)” are essentially the same song presented in completely different settings. The former sounds like a rough full band demo that’s slightly psychedelic (like Pink Floyd’s Syd Barrett without the manic quality) while the latter was rearranged by Al Jardine using Brian’s Phil Spector-worshipping wall-of-sound production, and wouldn’t have been out of place during and immediately after SMiLE. Al added new lead vocals to the verses in 1998, but they don’t sound out of place here. “Barbara” is a sweet and simplistic piano ballad dedicated to Dennis’ wife. “All Alone” was originally intended for Dennis’ aborted second solo album. It’s a strong ballad with a big, heartfelt vocal performance, but doesn’t appear to include any other Beach Boys. “Brian’s Back” was going to be included on a Mike Love solo album that was never completed. Recorded in 1978, it’s a catchy, acoustic guitar-led song dedicated to Brian, with nostalgic & sometimes silly lyrics but it’s enjoyable nonetheless.
“Surfer Girl (Binarual Mix)” gave me the opportunity to hear the instruments in one speaker and vocals in the other, which was quite a treat (but not recommended for headphone listening). Most of the live versions are songs that weren’t included on their live albums. “Wonderful/Don’t Worry, Bill” was recorded at Carnegie Hall in 1972 with the Blondie Chaplin/Ricky Fataar lineup; the former (a gorgeous SMiLE/Smiley Smile track) bookends the latter (a song by Blondie & Ricky’s previous band, The Flame). “Long Promised Road” is a song that I enjoy more and more with each listen, and the version here (also from the 1972 Carnegie Hall show) is a great performance. It’s nice to hear such an enthusiastic crowd response to this lesser-known track. “God Only Knows,” recorded live in a studio with all 6 members, features a typically tender lead vocal by Carl, very subtle instrumentation, and Brian mimicking the french horn melody in the intro. Of the remaining songs, it’s nice to hear Brian’s demo of “Do It Again (Early Version),” which is basically the same track used for the single release, with Brian singing everything, and “’Til I Die (Alternate Mix)” has a stark extended instrumental intro before the stunning vocals enter past the 2-minute mark. It doesn’t have the same impact as the Surf’s Up version, but it’s an interesting alternative. Typically with this type of release, it’s a bit of a hodge-podge, but an excellent one that I’ll happily revisit in the future.
I’ll be wrapping up my exploration of The Beach Boys’ catalog in the next week by revisiting their 1993 career-spanning box set, another collection of rarities, and the completely unexpected reunion album released earlier this year. I’ll share my thoughts on those as soon as I’ve given them the attention they deserve. For now, though, I’d love to know what you think of the mostly underwhelming albums discussed in this post. Looking forward to hearing from you. Thanks.