The Beach Boys On CD: Carl And The Passions (So Tough)
Carl & The Passions feels very much like the work of a totally different band from the one that recorded Surf’s Up, and that’s because to a great extent it is.
After Dennis Wilson damaged his hand and could no longer play drums, he moved to the front of the stage and became a co-frontman with Mike Love. This left an opening on the drum stool, and Carl Wilson suggested that two members of The Flame, a South African band who he had been producing for Brother Records, should join the touring band.
The addition of Blondie Chaplin (on guitar and bass) and Ricky Fataar (on drums) changed the sound of the band immensely, as one would expect from adding two black South African musicians to a band that was the quintessential whitebread American band. The band then changed even more with the departure of Bruce Johnston, part-way through recording this album. The circumstances around Johnston’s departure remain unclear, although it seems to have been due to a clash between Johnston and Jack Rieley. Rieley saw the band as two factions — the Wilson brothers, who were interested in making interesting, creative music, and Love, Johnston and Jardine, who weren’t.
Whether this was true or not, the addition of two proteges of Carl Wilson, and the departure of Johnston, definitely brought the band more in line with Rieley’s vision. The resulting album is much more R&B flavoured than anything the band had done since Wild Honey, but shows little group unity (the fact that the back cover photo has Brian Wilson crudely pasted into a shot of the rest of the group says much about the state of internal relations in the band at the time). Essentially, this is an album of four singles — two rockers by Brian, two Love/Jardine songs about meditation, two Flame tracks, and two Dennis Wilson ballads — that could be the work of four different bands. Carl Wilson is, largely, the common denominator, working with everyone to get their tracks into shape, and it’s because of his role as de facto leader at this point that the album is named Carl & The Passions, after a name under which an early high-school version of the band had performed.
Carl Wilson is, in fact, the only Beach Boy to appear on every track on the album, but to a large extent there’s a coherent band playing the backing tracks, with a core band of Carl Wilson, Chaplin, Fataar and Billy Hinsche (Carl Wilson’s brother-in-law, and keyboard and guitar player in the touring band). The production credit for the album reads “produced by the Beach Boys (especially Carl Wilson)”, although the two Dennis Wilson tracks were actually produced by Dennis Wilson and Daryll Dragon, for an earlier, abandoned project.
While the album never hits the heights of Surf’s Up or Til I Die, it’s actually the band’s most consistently good album since Friends, which makes it all the more annoying that the record was hamstrung by a bizarre marketing decision.
Part of the band’s contract with Warners had specified that they would complete the Smile album and release it, and it was originally intended that it be as a double-album set with this album. However, without Brian Wilson’s collaboration, Carl Wilson was unable to get the Smile tapes into a releasable state. Instead, it was decided to release Carl & The Passions as a two-disc set along with a reissued Pet Sounds, the rights to which had reverted to the band.
This meant that the music on the album had to stand direct comparison with what was generally regarded as their best ever work, as well as annoying long-time fans who had to buy a second copy of an album they already owned and putting off new listeners who didn’t want to listen to six-year-old music. The end result was that Carl & The Passions became the least critically successful work of their post-1967 career to date, despite its generally strong quality.
Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Blondie Chaplin, Ricky Fataar, Bruce Johnston (uncredited)
You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone
Songwriter: Brian Wilson and Jack Rieley
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson
A rewrite by Rieley of an unreleased Brian Wilson song called Beatrice From Baltimore, this isn’t much of a song in itself, consisting mostly of just I, IV and V chords, with a brief F-G7-A7 rise on the chorus line being the only break from the home key of G. The melody is trite, and the lyrics don’t say very much.
The performance and arrangement are another matter, though. Carl Wilson’s lead vocal here is just extraordinary, consisting of a near-perfect double-tracked ‘clean’ lead (one track in the centre channel and one panned slightly to the right), along with, in the left channel (and sometimes itself doubled), an incredibly gruff, barked version of the same part that must have been hell for his vocal cords, and which manages to keep the same exact pitch and phrasing throughout while singing in a completely different voice. (There is also, sometimes, right on the edge of hearing, another ‘gruff’ voice, which might be bleed-through from an early take or dummy vocal, and which I couldn’t swear isn’t Brian Wilson singing). He then uses yet another, sweeter, voice for the “she don’t know” sections of the song. It’s an astonishing, virtuosic, vocal performance, and one that is utterly unlike anything he’d ever done before. The Beach Boys have here turned from a pop band into a rock band, and amazingly they do it rather well.
The instrumental arrangement benefits enormously from the musical abilities of Chaplin and Fataar. The Flame had been a band whose music was halfway between soul (they started as a soul covers band) and Beatles pastiche (it’s no coincidence that Fataar was later chosen by Neil Innes as the drummer for his Beatles parody group The Rutles), and here we have the band playing with a groove they’ve never really played with before — the difference between this and the lumbering attempt at rock that is Student Demonstration Time is revelatory — while there is some gorgeous George Harrison-style slide guitar added on top of the more normal rock guitar.
Then on top of this we have some lightning-fast double-time picked banjo, played by legendary bluegrass musician Doug Dillard, in another example of how the band were starting to integrate folk and country instruments into their musical blend.
The whole thing works entirely because of the level of attention paid to details of arrangement and performance, for what is at root a rather lacklustre song. On the other hand, as a statement of intent, this works — it sounds absolutely nothing like “the Beach Boys” as they were in the mind of the public, and so it was chosen as the lead-off single for the album, though unsurprisingly it flopped.
Here She Comes
Songwriter: Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar
Lead vocalist: Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin
Unsurprisingly, the first Chaplin/Fataar song on a Beach Boys album sounds utterly unlike the Beach Boys, and rather a lot like The Flame. A simple, rather plodding country-rock track heavily influenced by The Band and George Harrison (it sounds like Old Brown Shoe was a distant influence), this is the kind of thing a thousand bands were doing at the time, with lyrics like “crazy woman can you see/that I’m giving to you can you dig me?”
That’s not to say it’s unpleasant, however — it’s a very, very competent example of its genre, and very enjoyable to listen to. It’s just unoriginal.
The most noticeable thing about this song is how well Chaplin and Fataar fit with the Beach Boys vocally. While Johnston’s voice never fit the band’s family blend, Chaplin especially has a voice that sounds spookily like Carl Wilson at times, and sometimes also has something of Jardine’s resonance. His singing style is more soul-influenced than theirs is, but he (and to a lesser extent Fataar), sounds like a Beach Boy, in a way that neither Johnston or David Marks ever really did.
He Come Down
Songwriter: Brian Wilson, Al Jardine and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love, Blondie Chaplin, Al Jardine and Carl Wilson
Another piano-based song based on I-IV and I-V changes, this is very much a musical cousin of You Need A Mess Of Help, but here the music is in a gospel style — a style which the band had never really explored before, but which they suit perfectly. Over a backing track of just piano, organ and handclaps, the band are allowed to shine with what is easily the most impressive vocal performance of the album, with each vocalist allowed to sing freewheeling gospel vocal lines over a unison chant of “dit dit, you know I believe it”, with a break for a mass choral “yes I believe it” which is just spellbinding.
The only flaw with the track is the lyrics, which seem to be trying to teach a syncretic Christian Hinduism, in which both Jesus and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi are avatars of Krishna, or something. However the lesson here is simply that one doesn’t turn to the Beach Boys for theology lessons. Musically, this is spectacular.
Songwriter: Brian Wilson, Jack Rieley and Tandyn Almer
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson
And side one of the album finishes with the third and last Brian Wilson contribution to the album (as well as the only song on which Johnston appears). Another simple, riffy, R&B-flavoured rock song, this one had a history going back almost nine years at the time it was recorded, having started life in the early 60s as All Dressed Up For School (a track that remained unreleased until 1990) before then becoming the Sunflower-era outtake I Just Got My Pay. This final version had lyrics about a favourite hem-hem masseuse of Brian’s acquaintance, before Rieley and Tandyn Almer (the writer of, among other songs, Along Comes Mary for The Association) got hold of it and added some vaguely hippyish lyrics to it.
This side of the album has proved, if nothing else, that the Beach Boys really could work as a rock band in the early-70s mode. While this song does not admit of much analysis, it’s a wonderful record, and the song stayed in the band’s setlist for several years. It’s also a mainstay of Brian Wilson’s solo shows, and was played regularly during the band’s fiftieth anniversary reunion tour in 2012.
Hold On Dear Brother
Songwriter: Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar
Lead vocalist: Blondie Chaplin
The second song by the Flame members on the album is cut from the same cloth as the first, but is, if anything even more obviously influenced by The Band — it’s hard not to imagine Levon Helm singing lead on this even while it’s playing.
Harmonically, this is extremely simple, being almost entirely based around a doo-wopish vi-IV-I-V progression, with the only real musical spot of interest being in the chorus, where the song changes from its slow waltz time into alternating bars of fives and sixes.
This is certainly not a bad track in any way, although it does rather outstay its welcome at nearly five minutes, but it has little to do with the Beach Boys other than Carl Wilson’s backing vocal part, and it could have been made by any of a thousand bands at the time. Pleasant enough, but inessential and inconsequential. Some nice slide guitar by Red Rhodes isn’t enough to let the track stand up to repeated listens.
Make It Good
Songwriter: Dennis Wilson and Daryl Dragon
Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson
This, on the other hand, is half the length of the previous song but an absolute revelation. For some time, Dennis Wilson had been working with Daryl Dragon, the band’s touring keyboardist (who would later find fame as The Captain in The Captain And Tennille), but other than one Tim Hardin-influenced single (released under the name Dennis Wilson And Rumbo) nothing from their collaborations had been released, thanks to the disagreements over the tracklisting for Surf’s Up. This track and Cuddle Up were both originally intended for a Dennis Wilson solo album, but later completed for this project.
Here, for the first time, Dennis Wilson has found his own voice. His previous work, while often approaching greatness, had always been in his brother’s style — Forever, for example, could as easily have been Brian’s work as Dennis’.
This, on the other hand, sounds like nothing the band had ever done before. Dennis’ song (and it is mostly Dennis’ song, Dragon mostly assisting with the arrangement) owes as much to Wagner as to Brian Wilson, and has simple, impressionistic lyrics, with only a few words per line, over a huge, sweeping, string arrangement, with the vocals croaked in a broken voice that would be Dennis’ trademark from here on in.
It should, frankly, be awful — on paper it sounds like the worst kind of overblown 70s pretentious nonsense. But it works, and it works absolutely. This is Dennis Wilson finally showing the same kind of musical honesty as his brother, and just like Brian Wilson he manages to convince absolutely. The difference in styles is the difference in the two men’s personalities — while Brian’s music, like the man himself, is quiet, diffident, and slightly off-kilter, Dennis’ music has his own characteristics — extreme, passionate, completely over-the-top. By all accounts Dennis Wilson was a man with little control of his emotions, who had higher highs and lower lows than any of his bandmates, and those large emotions need a large musical canvas to paint on.
All This Is That
Songwriter: Mike Love, Al Jardine and Carl Wilson
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson, Al Jardine and Mike Love
This, meanwhile, is a rare attempt at genuine artistic growth from Love and Jardine (Carl Wilson apparently came up with the vocal arrangement, for which he got his portion of the songwriting credit — he also produced the backing track, which features only him, Chaplin and Fataar).
Harmonically extremely simple (a chorus based on Imaj7-IVmaj7, with a verse going Imaj7-ii7-V7, about as simple as it can get), the beauty of this song is entirely in the sound and feel of the track, with some of the best vocals the band have ever done.
The song was originally written by Jardine, based on Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken , but Love and Jardine later combined this influence (in the chorus line “two ways have I/both traveled by/and that makes all the difference to me”) with inspiration from the Upanishads (the core religious texts of Hinduism) as interpreted by the Maharishi.
Love, in particular, clearly thought this was an important message for the band to convey, and turns in possibly the best vocal performance of his life on the verses (subtly shadowed by Jardine on the first verse), but the real highlight of the track — and of the album, comes with the tag, as Carl Wilson goes higher into his falsetto than he ever did before or since (it may be the only time he actually goes into true falsetto on a studio recording) singing “Jai guru dev” [FOOTNOTE Roughly, this translates to “victory to the great teacher”, where “the great teacher” can mean both a higher, more spiritual level of one’s own mind, and can also (for those who, like Love, follow the principles of Transcendental Meditation) mean the specific person who trained the Maharishi.], while Mike sings it in the bass register like a mantra. It may be the single finest vocal moment on any Beach Boys record.
This song clearly means a lot to Love, who regularly includes it in sets by his touring version of the Beach Boys, and it was also a highlight of the 2012 reunion tour.
Songwriter: Dennis Wilson and Darryl Dragon
Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson
And the final song is another one that was originally intended for Dennis’ solo album (where it was originally going to be titled Old Movie), and one of the best things he ever wrote. Based roughly around a melodic idea from Brahms’ Lullaby, this actually has a lot of harmonic similarities with Forever — both start their verses with the simple pastiche-baroque idea of having a descending scalar bassline, while keeping as many notes in the rest of the chord as possible the same — but unlike Forever this then goes into a B section (“Your love, your love…”) which reverses this. A pedal note of C is kept while a triad progresses upwards through a scale (C-Dm7/C-Cmaj7-F) but then the inevitable progression upwards takes us up and out of the home key altogether, as we keep progressing up by tones to the climax (“honey…I’m in love”), which drops us briefly back to the C chord for a second but which ends up with us in the new key of B-flat , a full tone down from where we started.
It’s a progression which absolutely works, and makes sense, but is completely counterintuitive, and has the song building to an almost orgasmic peak before collapsing down into a post-coital doze.
While it has more Beach Boys involvement than the previous Dennis track (both Carl and Blondie can be heard with very prominent backing vocal lines), this is still a Dennis Wilson solo track in all but name, and points the way forward to the style he would use for his solo work in the latter part of the decade. While the Wagnerian pomp of Dragon’s string arrangements is less appropriate here than on Make It Good, it still works, and this track manages to be the perfect close to an album which, despite all its inconsistencies, is one of the best the band ever produced.