Revisiting my extensive music collection, one artist at a time
I love CD box sets. I don’t remember which was my first one, but over the years I’ve acquired close to 200 of them. They come in many shapes, sizes and purposes: extended “greatest hits” collections, rare recordings designed for hardcore fans, collections of singles by various artists on a single record label, complete recordings of a particular artist, etc. When Capitol Records finally released a Beach Boys box set, Good Vibrations: Thirty Years Of The Beach Boys (1993), they combined hits and rarities on a very satisfying 5-CD collection. The sticker on the package boasted “141 songs – over 6 hours of music; Every Beach Boys Top 40 hit; Includes 40 previously unreleased tracks” and more. At the time I only owned the Capitol 2-fer CDs that included their recordings through 1969, so nearly 2 CDs consisted of songs I wouldn’t own until their later albums were reissued in 2000. Listening to this box set now is very enjoyable if a bit redundant, but it’s hard to complain about hearing so many amazing songs again. Disc 1 has 7 previously unreleased tracks, including two Brian Wilson solo demos: “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and “Little Surfer Girl” (a 30-second snippet that’s not the same as “Surfer Girl”). Other notable tracks on this disc are “Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring” (a 1962 demo version of the Four Freshman hit), “Punchline” (a percussive instrumental from 1963 that’s straight ahead rock & roll with hints of “Fun, Fun, Fun” to come), “Things We Did Last Summer” (a 1940’s standard done by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and many others) and “Hushabye (Live)” (a late-50s doo-wop song by Doc Pomus & Mort Shuman left off the 1964 Beach Boys Concert album). The previously unreleased songs on Disc 2 are mostly SMiLE songs that are now available on the SMiLE Sessions CD. The only other song here that made an impression on me is their version of Lieber & Stoller’s “Ruby Baby,” made famous by The Drifters (but which I first came to know via Donald Fagen’s version on his solo debut, The Nightfly). It’s an outtake from the Beach Boys’ Party! album and it sounds like they were having a blast (especially the “oink oink” backing vocals).
Disc 3 includes the 45 version of “Cotton Fields (The Cotton Song),” which was a worldwide hit and is drastically different (and better) than the 20/20 album version. Although Al Jardine’s lead vocals are particularly strong and I like the inclusion of steel guitar, I’m still surprised that this single was so successful. Dennis Wilson co-wrote and produced “San Miguel” in 1969, and the strong lead vocals sound like Carl Wilson. The percussion has a galloping feel, and there are the usual Phil Spector-influenced production sounds as well as an excellent fuzz guitar solo. “H.E.L.P. Is On The Way” has a sparse arrangement with barroom piano, and Mike singing Brian’s lyrics about healthy eating. Lyrically it’s nothing special but the music is enjoyable. “4th Of July” is another Dennis song featuring Carl on vocals, and as with most of Dennis’ contributions, the melody is very pretty. Disc 4 consists mostly of album tracks, but 3 are previously unreleased. These include two from the aborted Adult/Child album: “It’s Over Now” and “Still I Dream Of It.” The former is a Brian song with Carl singing very soulfully, and it features nice, subtle horns & strings. It blends typical smooth mid-‘70s production with some classic ‘60s touches. The latter has Brian singing in an achy but passionate voice. The woodwinds, strings and horns blend together in a mellow stew, like a ‘70s soundtrack song. “Our Team” is a calculated upbeat “rah rah” song, probably designed for sports arenas, but it’s a little too generic to have been successful. Still, it’s catchy and fun, and I did enjoy the “gang” vocals.
Disc 5 was created for hardcore fans and collectors, featuring demos, radio spots, live performances, vocal tracks, instrumental versions, studio sessions and more. As much as I enjoy hearing this type of collection from time to time, it’s not something I consider essential and wouldn’t revisit it very often. Of the instrumental tracks, it’s fun to hear the exquisite musical arrangements of songs like “Heroes And Villains,” “Cabinessence” and, most impressively, “Surf’s Up” without them being obscured by vocals. Conversely, the vocal-only tracks are a little misleading, with “All Summer Long,” “Wendy,” “Hushabye,” “When I Grow (To Be A Man)” and “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” splitting the vocals & instruments into separate speakers. “California Girls,” however, features just the vocals and it’s stunning. I wish they had done that with the other songs. There are five previously unreleased live recordings: three from 1964 (“Surfin’ U.S.A.,” “Surfer Girl” & “Be True To Your School,” which are all youthful energy and screaming girls), one from 1966 (“Good Vibrations” performed prior to the single’s release) and one from 1967 (a hymn-like “Surfer Girl” from a concert rehearsal in Hawaii that’s one of my favorite rare performances on this box set).
[The Beach Boys – “Surfer Girl (Live Rehearsal in Hawaii, 1967)”]
Although there are many Beach Boys compilations on the market, I can’t imagine any of them appealing to numerous types of fans as well as this one. I probably won’t be revisiting it often in the future since I have the majority of the songs on other CDs, but it functions nicely as a one-stop shop for most of The Beach Boys’ greatest recordings, and the rarities wouldn’t scare away casual fans.
For diehard fans and rarity enthusiasts, the collection to get (in addition to Endless Harmony Soundtrack, which I discussed in my previous post), is Hawthorne, CA (2001), a 2-CD set with 57 tracks including spoken word snippets from the band members and their recording engineer, demos, alternate versions, a cappella mixes, stereo remixes, backing tracks and more. Brian’s impressive home recording of “Happy Birthday Four Freshmen,” which was previously included as a hidden track on the Good Vibrations box set, gets its own track here. Recorded in 1960, it’s clear that Brian had an incredible knack for vocal harmonies even in his teens. “Surfin’ U.S.A. (demo)” begins with just Brian on piano & vocals, and then the group joins in during the second half of the song. “Kiss Me Baby (a cappella mix),” which showcases their gorgeous group harmonies, is probably my favorite track here. I’m glad the producers chose to include a couple of Beach Boys Party! songs without the “party” overdubs: “Barbara Ann” and their exquisite version of The Everly Brothers’ “Devoted To You.” “Good Vibrations (concert rehearsal)” is a bare-bones arrangement from 1967, with organ being the main musical accompaniment. “Heroes And Villains (stereo single version)” may be the same as the one that appears on SMiLE Sessions (I didn’t do an A/B comparison), but I can never hear this too often. “Lonely Days” is a lovely melancholy tune which is unfortunately only available as a brief 49-second song snippet. “I Went To Sleep (a cappella mix)” proves once again how amazing their harmonies are, and makes me long for an all a cappella Beach Boys album. It’s nice to hear Brian’s voice in the choruses of “Time To Get Alone (alternate version).” It’s still a great song, although I don’t like this as much as the 20/20 original, mostly because of the instrumental whistle/horn section. “A Time To Live In Dreams” is another pretty, tender Dennis Wilson piano ballad, embellished with church-y organ and some dissonant effects. “Breakaway (alternate version)” features Brian on vocals in the first section, and additional voices in the extended outro. It’s just as good as the single version but still feels somewhat incomplete by the end. The a cappella versions of “Add Some Music To Your Day” and “Forever” near the end of Disc 2 are additional highlights. It’s also nice that they scattered those spoken word clips throughout the CDs, especially since they often refer to the specific tracks that follow them. I can’t imagine anyone but a devoted fan playing this more than once or twice. Whenever I come back to it, I’ll most likely be focusing on those a cappella versions.
Had I revisited The Beach Boys catalog last year, this is where it would’ve ended. However, the surviving band members (Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and even David Marks, who was part of the band in 1962-63) put aside their differences after many years of lawsuits and multiple touring versions of the group to not only book a 50th anniversary tour but also record an album of new material. In the preceding years, Brian had spent more than a decade reclaiming his songwriting legacy by touring the world, performing Pet Sounds and SMiLE (which was re-recorded as Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE), recording several albums that ranged from decent to excellent, and generally becoming healthy & happy and sounding as good as he had since the mid-‘70s. So the timing was perfect for him to lead his group again like he had back in their heyday with the release of That’s Why God Made The Radio (2012). My initial reaction when I got the CD this past summer was generally positive. Without Carl & Dennis Wilson it’s hard to think of them as The Beach Boys, but the album had some very solid material and nothing embarrassing. Of course I was hearing it in a vacuum, not having listened to their back catalog for a number of years, so although it sounded good it worked more as an inspiration for me to go back and get reacquainted with their music. During the first month or so of revisiting their catalog and writing about it here, I had a feeling that by the time I got to this album it wouldn’t hold up against the rest of their discography. I’m happy to report that this wasn’t the case, and even though it won’t make anyone forget their classics it’s as good as any fan could’ve reasonable expected or hoped for. Brian not only co-wrote 11 of the 12 songs, but he also produced the album and his voice and unique arranging skills are on full display.
The album begins with “Think About The Days,” basically a wordless vocal overture with simple instrumentation (piano, French horn and vibes). It sounds like a throwback to the Sunflower era, and is the perfect opening track. The first single, “That’s Why God Made The Radio,” is insanely catchy (possibly aided by co-writer Jim Peterik of the band Survivor, whose mid-80s hit “High On You” I often use as an example of how to jam-pack a song with non-stop melodic hooks). Even though the lyrics are nostalgic and a little corny, they work when you consider that most of the guys are nearing or over 70 years old (I’ll even forgive the line, “It’s paradise when I, lift up my antennae”). Brian and Mike co-wrote “Isn’t It Time” with three other writers (the same three who co-wrote the previous song with Brian). It has an old rock & roll, doo-wop, handclapping feel and a monstrously catchy chorus, as well as nostalgic lyrics (“the good times they aren’t only in the past”). I believe long-time Beach Boys/Brian Wilson associate Jeffrey Foskett handles the falsetto vocals here, since Brian doesn’t have the range he did in his younger days. “Spring Vacation” has the feel of a mid-‘80s Huey Lewis & The News song (I consider that a compliment). The chorus is predictable but catchy (“Summer weather, we’re back together”), but I really like the pre-chorus: “We used to get around, get up and hit up all the hot spots in town.” “Shelter” is a bit generic but has a killer chorus (Brian singing “Shelter from the sunlight, shelter from the cold night”) that made me enjoy the song a little more each time. Sounds like Mr. Foskett on falsetto again.
The middle of the album has a few mediocre songs. “The Private Life of Bill And Sue” is Brian’s commentary on reality TV and tabloid culture, with a faux Caribbean feel which makes it sound like a “Kokomo” retread. “Daybreak Over The Ocean” is Mike’s main contribution. Like most of his songs, it’s lightweight, straightforward and instantly catchy, but I feel like I’ve heard it before. The vocals during the “bring back” section, however, are wonderful. “Beaches In Mind” is a snappy pop song with ‘80s-sounding drums & simplistic lyrics, and wouldn’t have been out of place on Still Cruisin’. “Strange World” is a schmaltzy ballad, with music that sounds like a modern take on Phil Spector’s wall-of-sound mixed with over-produced ’80s radio friendly instrumentation. These relative missteps are easily overlooked once you get to the three songs that close out the album, which work separately but also form a superb suite that’s as hauntingly beautiful as anything they’ve ever recorded. “From There To Back Again” is a gorgeous ballad with out-of-this-world harmonies, a classic Brian arrangement (especially the drum pattern) and one of Al Jardine’s strongest vocal performances. Brian sings the final section before giving way to a whistling outro that’s pure Burt Bacharach.
[The Beach Boys – “From There To Back Again”]
“Pacific Coast Highway” has yet another classic Brian vocal arrangement which gives way to a verse melody that reminds me of Carole King’s “(You Make Me Feel Like A) Natural Woman.” The lyrics are a little downbeat (“my life, I’m better off alone…I’m better on my own”), especially considering how much better Brian’s state of mind has seemed after being out-of-touch for so many years, so I’m guessing he was just tapping into some old emotions. The final song, “Summer’s Gone,” is simply breathtaking and deserves to be up there in the pantheon of great Brian Wilson melodies and vocal performances. The harmonies are super lush and the lyrics are melancholy but heartwarming. If this ends up being the final studio recording by The Beach Boys, they will go out on a high note (and will thankfully erase Summer In Paradise as their swan song).
Whew! That concludes my trek through The Beach Boys’ long and winding musical road. In the past couple of months I’ve revisited over 40 titles, including compilations and live albums, and I did exactly what I set out to do: get reacquainted with the songs I already loved (but hadn’t listened to in years) and get to know the rest of their recorded output just as well. Back in the ‘90s I made a 100-minute Beach Boys cassette compilation, which only included songs from their ‘60s recordings. I don’t think I would change the track listing on that collection, although I could easily add another 30 minutes of amazing songs from that era. Now that I’ve gotten to know their post-‘60s music, there are enough great songs from the ‘70s & even the ‘80s (as well as 2012) that would form an equally enjoyable compilation. It’s quite a catalog, as rich as any other recording artists, and I’m hoping there’s still more to come from them.
I hope you enjoyed this series of posts. Come back soon for a poll where you can help me choose my next artist. Thanks for reading.