The follow-up to 15 Big Ones may well be the most controversial album the band ever did, with fans almost evenly divided between those who love it and those who hate it. In a recent (totally unscientific) poll on one fan forum, Love You made the top ten both of fans’ favourite and least favourite albums.
And there’s a good reason for this. Love You is, quite simply, unlike anything else ever recorded, not just by the Beach Boys but by anyone. It’s almost impossible to get across to people who haven’t heard it just how unlike anything else any major band has ever done this is. Possibly the best way to explain the album’s sound is by a hypothetical:
Imagine playing J.S. Bach a Phil Spector album, then telling him “you have an hour to write as many songs that sound like that as possible”, and locking him in a room with Jonathan Richman as a lyricist. Then take those songs and give them to Tom Waits to record, but with the only instruments allowed being a Moog with its settings stuck on “fart sound” and a single snare drum.
While the result wouldn’t exactly be The Beach Boys Love You, it would probably be close enough on a first approximation. It’s an album where the vast majority of the instrumentation is played by Brian, and is as rudimentary as that implies. Given its release in 1977, it would actually be the only sensible response by a major band to punk, were there any evidence that Brian Wilson had ever heard a punk record at this point — as it is, we have to see it as just convergent evolution. This seems to be the cause of the great split in Beach Boys fandom over this album. Very roughly, anyone who became a Beach Boys fan before punk despises this album, anyone who grew up listening to punk and post-punk music seems to get it instinctively.
This is one of only two Beach Boys albums to be made up entirely of previously-unreleased Brian Wilson songs (the other being Smiley Smile) and is as personal a statement as Pet Sounds, Smile or Smiley Smile. And I am absolutely in the camp for whom this is one of the pillars on which the Beach Boys’ artistic reputation rests. Certainly this is the last album by the group that anyone could possibly argue was great — and there are only two after this that one could reasonably argue are even listenable (though the band’s members would make plenty of good music solo).
It’s not an easy listen, though. It’s bare, minimalist, raspy and human. Apparently Carl Wilson did a lot to sweeten the album before its release (he’s credited as ‘mixdown producer’, with Brian Wilson credited as ‘producer’, but supposedly he did a lot more than that implies), which just makes one wonder what on Earth this could have sounded like before the sweetening.
One thing that must be addressed before we get to the album proper, though, is the claim by some that the people who like this album do so because they’re fetishising mental illness, and that the album itself is ‘a product of mental illness’. This is nonsense.
The album isn’t “a product of mental illness” — it’s a product of an artist who happened to be living with a mental illness. Yes, it wouldn’t be the same if Brian had been mentally better, but likewise none of his music would have been the same if he’d been able to hear in both ears, and we don’t call Pet Sounds “a product of physical disability”.
Just having a mental illness doesn’t make one magically able to make music of the quality of Love You — I worked for several years on a psychiatric ward, and several of the people on that ward fancied themselves musicians, so I can tell you that from personal experience. Conversely, having a mental illness doesn’t suddenly remove all talent, intelligence and humour from someone who has those things when they’re well.
The narrative that mental illness is in some way romantic or confers mystical talent upon those who have it is definitely a pernicious one that needs to be fought. But just as pernicious is the opposite myth — that because someone has bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, or whatever, they instantly become unable to do anything or make any rational decision. People with mental illnesses can be capable of creating great art — even great art that stems from their illness. Or should we dismiss Van Gogh and William Blake, too?
No, Love You wouldn’t be the same album if Brian Wilson hadn’t been suffering from a mental illness at the time — but that’s a good thing. Not a good thing that he was ill, but a good thing that while ill he was able to create great art. Personally, I think we need more art from people with mental illnesses — they’re marginalised, and their opinions and thoughts more or less ignored or mocked, in this society.
But this isn’t something that has to be treated as outsider music and listened to as one would listen to Wesley Willis. This is an album that had a rave review on its release from Patti Smith, that Peter Buck considers one of the greatest ever and that, most importantly, Brian Wilson himself often says is his favourite by the band. This is a strange, but beautiful, work by one of the greatest songwriters ever.
To those who have ears, let them hear.
Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston (uncredited)
Let Us Go On This Way
Songwriter: Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson and Mike Love
And the album starts as it means to go on — with a riff almost identical to that of Gimme Some Lovin’ played on a cheap-sounding electric organ and a Moog bass, while a single snare drum thwacks on the off-beat and Carl Wilson grunts.
This is pop-R&B for the post-punk age, the Spencer Davis Group in a world where the drum-kit and the electric guitar had never been invented. Over a simple, grunting riff played on a farting Moog, stabbing chords on an organ, Jay Miglori’s baritone sax and a solitary snare drum, Carl Wilson soul-shouts “To get you babe I went through the wringer/Ain’t gonna let you slip through my fingers”. The verse is simplicity itself, but then for the chorus line we get something totally different — all the instruments drop out, replaced by a piano, and the two-chord riffs we’ve had so far are replaced by seven chords in three bars, as the ecstatic harmonies come in — “God, please let us go on this way”.
To those who’ve been following the band’s career, this can’t help but be a reminder of the last time the Beach Boys invoked the deity in this way — the similarly gospel-infused He Come Down — but while the harmonies here work in the same way, here they’re shattered voices. The Wilson brothers at this point had destroyed their voices with a combination of cocaine, alcohol and smoking, though Carl’s voice remained comparatively unravaged, and so here rather than the ethereal beauty of even a few years ago, we have what sounds like ancient, weary old men, their voices cracked and shattered, even though when this was recorded all the band were under thirty-five.
But the significant word here, as Patti Smith correctly noted in her review for Hit Parader [FOOTNOTE Which can currently be read at http://www.smileysmile.net/uncanny/index.php/the-beach-boys-love-you-october-1977-hit-parader-selection-by-patti-smith], isn’t “God” but “please”, which she called “the catchword of Love You” but which could equally be called the catchword of Brian Wilson’s entire career. This is a pleading album, and I can’t really put it better than Smith did:
they are pleading w/ the same urgency as the boy in the back seat to the girl in 1963. please it won’t hurt. please. come to me/give to me/tell me/listen to me…[orthography as in the original]
Then after another verse we get the middle eight, and Mike Love’s sole songwriting contribution to the album (apparently he wrote only these lyrics, not those for the rest of the track). And suddenly we’re back in the world of Holland, with Love’s obsessions with telepathy and levitation coming to the fore again. “Seems we have extra sensory perception…now we can fly”. It even sounds different from the rest of the track — the single snare drum thwack has been replaced with a single thump on a tom.
The track builds cleverly, from the single Moog bass under Carl’s vocal at the beginning, to a mass of Moog, organ, sax and chanting Beach Men by the end, but throughout it there is a propulsive energy that had been missing from everything the band had recorded, no matter how good, since about 1971.
A staggeringly good opener.
Roller Skating Child
Songwriter: Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Mike Love, Al Jardine and Carl Wilson
“And we’ll make sweet lovin’ when the sun goes down/We’ll even do more when her mama’s not around/Well, oh my, oh gosh, oh gee/She really sets chills inside of me”.
This is one of the comparatively weaker tracks on the album, sounding in fact like a rewrite of the previous track (the verse riff is essentially the same but a tone up), but less inspired, with handclaps and some rudimentary blues guitar attempting to liven it up. Even so, lyrics like the chorus lines quoted above, or “we do it holding hands, it’s so cold I go brrr”, are quintessentially Brian Wilson.
This is probably the most “Beach Boys” sounding track on the album, with Mike Love taking the lead in his nasal tenor, but still the greatest moment is the end, when out of nowhere comes a quick G-flat – A-flat – B-flat rise that’s reminiscent of the chorus to Sail On Sailor, and Brian sings, in his ravaged “low and manly” voice but with the innocence and enthusiasm of a five-year-old, “Roller…skating…CHI-ILD!”
It’s the real entry of the voice that will define much of the album.
Songwriter: Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson
The Beach Boys Love You, like many records where Brian Wilson has had control, is structured in a way that seems strange to modern ears but made sense at the time. When the Beach Boys were first starting out, in the very early 60s, the convention was that albums would have two sides that were different in style. Side one would be “for the kids” and be R&B or rock style tunes, while side two would be “good music” “for the grown-ups” — orchestrated, sweetened ballads. This was the convention to the point where I actually own a Ray Charles album from the early 1960s whose liner notes feel the need to explain that they’d chosen to mix the two styles up rather than do it the conventional way.
And this is how Brian Wilson structured many (though not all) of his albums. It’s most obvious on The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album, but it’s also there on The Beach Boys Today and (to a slightly lesser extent) Summer Days…And Summer Nights! — a side of mostly uptempo rockers, and a side of more sophisticated, more complex, ballads.
So here we get the third uptempo track in a row, and the most fully fleshed-out. This has a full wall-of-sound style production, with massed backing vocals, multiple saxophones, and even drum fills (unusual for this album). Over a four-chord doo-wop progression, a badly double-tracked Dennis Wilson, his voice so damaged he can barely enunciates, shouts lyrics like “Come on, listen to Da Doo Ron Ron now, listen to Be My Baby, I know you’re gonna love Phil Spector” and “Will you, will you will you will you just kiss me/When you leave me won’t you just miss me?” (See what Smith meant about “please”?)
This is a man in his thirties singing a song about the concerns of a boy in his teens, in the voice of a man in his eighties, and if you can listen to it without a huge grin on your face I pity you.
Songwriter: Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Mike Love and Carl Wilson
Johnny Carson starts off with a verse that sounds almost like the kind of louche Weimar cabaret song that Scott Walker or someone of that ilk might cover, low piano chords and Moog in a minor key, with no other instrumentation, while the singer sings in a low baritone, being almost mocked by the answering chorus.
Except that that singer is Mike Love, and the words he’s singing are “He sits behind his microphone/(Joh-nny Car-son!)/He speaks in such a manly tone/(Joh-nny! Car-son!)”
This is the make-or-break song for this album — at this point either you just decide to go with it and accept that, yes, this is going to be a song about how great Johnny Carson is, and how “every night at eleven-thirty he’s so funny”, where the instrumental break consists of four bars of just a stabbed Cm chord, played on organ and piano, on the on-beat, followed by four more bars alternating between B-flat and E-flat, and where there is a single cymbal crash that is almost the only use of cymbal in the entire album, or you turn the album off and give up on it.
As the song ends with another doo-wop progression, over which the band chants “Who’s the man that we admire?/Johnny Carson is a real live wire”, only those who are willing to listen with an open mind are left, as the album starts to get really good.
Songwriter: Brian Wilson and Al Jardine
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson
This song is often considered to not fit on the rest of the album — it was originally recorded during the Sunflower sessions in 1970, apart from one “Hey!” at the end that Brian added in 1977, and features a much fuller arrangement than anything else on the album, including strings and horns, as well as having Brian’s very different 1970 voice in the lead.
It’s also the only song that had had any kind of release before this, having been released as a track by American Spring (a vocal group consisting of Brian Wilson’s wife Marilyn and sister-in-law Diane) with the same backing track but slightly revised lyrics (including a vocal part on the instrumental break — “Hey baby, turn up the radio/The DJ just said he’s playing our favourite song/talk to me”). That version is actually in many ways the better mix, having some instrumental parts missing from the Love You mix, and sounding overall much clearer.
Despite all the differences — the orchestration, the simpler structure, Brian’s voice — this does still fit on the album, simply because of the eccentric sense of joy in the track. There’s no other album in the world where a line like “My girlfriend Penny, she’s kinda skinny/And so she keeps her falsies on” would fit.
Honkin’ Down The Highway
Songwriter: Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine
The only single from the album was this utterly joyous country-rocker. One of the fuller productions on the album, this harks back to the band’s early days of singing about cars and girls, but with a mixture of sophistication and naivety that is utterly astonishing.
On the one hand, you’ve got Brian and Dennis bellowing “honk honk, honking down the highway”, and the fact that Al is singing about “honking down the gosh-darn highway”, but on the other you’ve got astonishing musical moments like the bridge, where a song that has been in E major throughout the verse diverts into a minor key, but only so the song can build up from Bm7 through Em7 and F#m7 before triumphantly going to G major and then to B major, the fifth of the original key — taking us from a minor version of the chord to a major one through a continuous lift that is just about the most joyous thing ever committed to record, especially when combined with Al singing over the top “I guess I got a way…WITH…GIRLS!” in his magnificent, rich voice.
And this is the thing that makes Brian Wilson so special as a songwriter — the combination of an utterly unmediated emotional expression with a peerless musical intelligence and craft. This is the music that an enthusiastic child would make, making up a song about the first thing that came into her head — if that child was at one and the same time someone with decades of songwriting craft.
No-one else can do this.
Al Jardine re-recorded this song on his 2010 album A Postcard From California, with Brian Wilson adding backing vocals, but this is still the superior version.
Songwriter: Brian Wilson and Roger McGuinn
Lead vocalist: Mike Love
A very silly song indeed, running slightly less than a minute long, all on one chord, with the band singing “Ding, dang, dang, Whoo!, ding and a ding dong” while Mike sings “I love a girl/I love her so madly/I treat her so fine/But she treats me so badly” over and over. This took two people to write.
This is Brian Wilson’s favourite song from the album.
Songwriter: Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson
Side two opens with a wonderful waltz-time ballad, layers of synths under Brian’s ‘low and manly’ voice as he sings a song about the planets that seems aimed at children.
Harmonically, this is the most interesting thing so far — the verse/chorus seems to start in G or D, but soon moves to A, before going to F for the chorus, but then ending on a D chord. It’s one of the most harmonically mobile things Brian had done in years, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. The middle eight, meanwhile, seems to stick mostly to the key of E minor, but with a Cm7 chord that doesn’t neatly fit into any of the other keys.
Lyrically, the song is a look at all the planets in the solar system (except Uranus) and the moon, from a childish point of view — “If Mars had life on it/I might find my wife on it”, along with mentions of various other celestial bodies (“Then there’s the Milky Way/That’s where the angels play”).
It’s absolutely lovely, and for all the criticism Brian’s gruff 1977 voice gets, I have to say that I find the vocals on this track fit perfectly — he was still a great singer, even if he didn’t have a ‘beautiful’ voice. The harmonies on the chorus, with Brian multi-tracked, straining for the high notes he would once have hit easily, are lovely.
The Night Was So Young
Songwriter: Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson
By common agreement, this is by far the best song on the album, and for once the consensus isn’t wrong. This is the most fully-produced track on the album — and it sounds like a lot of that production is the work of Carl Wilson, as there are probably more guitars on this one track than on the entire rest of the album, with at least three clearly audible parts (a barely-there rhythm part, a vaguely “Hawaiian” sounding two-note repeated phrase mixed high, and a double-tracked lead part played on the bass strings and mixed low). It also has the most conventional drum part, to the point of actually having a little hi-hat work (one of the little-remarked quirks of Brian Wilson’s production is that he rarely uses cymbals of any kind on his recordings, preferring to use hand percussion to play those parts).
Carl Wilson turns in the best vocal performance of the album, a quite extraordinary effort. Listening to “Why she has to hide/She’s passing it by, she won’t even try/To make this love go where it should” you could believe this was Brian’s old trick of passing vocal lines between different vocalists, but they’re all Carl. In fact, it sounds like the only vocals on this track at all are massed Brians in the harmony stack and Carl on lead.
The song itself is a lovely, simple one, with a vaguely Latin or Hawaiian feel thanks to all the major 7ths and 6ths, and with simplistic but effective lyrics that perfectly express the emotion of being awake at night thinking about a love you can’t have. Absolutely beautiful.
This is the only Love You song that Brian Wilson has included in his solo sets when performing live, playing it in 2002.
I’ll Bet He’s Nice
Songwriter: Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson, Brian Wilson and Carl Wilson
Another absolutely stunning song. The simplest way to describe how good this is is to say there’s a bootleg tape, quite widely available, of Brian demoing several Love You era songs for his bandmates. Their reactions to songs like Mona are…not hugely enthused. But when he plays this one, there are astonished noises and “woo-hoos” in the middle eight, Mike Love starts singing along with the choruses, and Love says at the end “Man, that knocked me out, that was a motherfucker.”
[Note to self -- check that this line was actually in that place before releasing the book version of this, as the tape has been edited quite a bit].
A lovely song built on layers of synths, with the only other instrument audible being a tambourine low in the mix in the left channel, this is an absolutely heartbreaking little song — “I’ll bet he’s twice/As nice as me and it makes me cry/Please don’t tell me if it’s true/Because I’m still in love with you”.
It would be an absolutely perfectly constructed song, in fact, were it not for the middle eight lyrics, which are sung from the point of view of a lover afraid his love will leave, rather than one who has already been left.
This track also features a prominent vocal cameo from former and future Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, who sings the multitracked “Well it’s you…” harmonies in the left channel on the fade.
Let’s Put Our Hearts Together
Songwriter: Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson and Marilyn Wilson
A simple duet, again built on layer upon layer of synth sounds, this is one of the less complex songs on the second side, rarely venturing far from its home key and staying for much of the song on two chords.
There’s an appealing sweetness to this, and it would take a heart of stone not to be affected at least a little by Brian earnestly singing lines like “maybe I’ll come up with some idea and you’d think that I was clever”, but Marilyn Wilson was never a particularly good singer, and giving her lines where she has to sing a melisma that stretches the single word “good” into six notes over four beats is, frankly, cruel.
I Wanna Pick You Up
Songwriter: Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson and Brian Wilson
A rather sweet, charming song sung to one of Brian’s children, who were at this point old enough to be going to school — “I love to pick you up, ’cause you’re still a baby to me”, this is an innocent little song about loving and caring for one’s children. There’s a subsection of Beach Boys fandom which likes to infer a sexual double-meaning to this song (mostly because of the line “pat her on her butt/she’s going to sleep, be quiet”), but while some of the other songs Brian was writing around this time have some disturbing aspects to it, this is as innocent a song as it gets.
The song is not one of the best on the album (Darian Sahanaja, later musical director of Brian Wilson’s backing band, released a solo version of the song with Pet Sounds style orchestration in the mid-90s, and it doesn’t really hold up under the weight), but like the whole album it manages to communicate an honest emotion, in a direct way, and it’s an emotion that is very rarely dealt with in rock or pop music. And the harmonies at the end are exquisite, with Love’s held bass note about as deep as he’s ever sung, while Dennis sings “little baby go to sleep”.
A minor piece, but a nice one.
Songwriter: Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Mike Love, Carl Wilson and Brian Wilson
One of the very best things on the album, here lyric and music work perfectly together, as the tiny drifts in chord in the verses, from Gmaj7 to G7 to Cmaj7 to Am7 to D7, always keeping several notes in place from one chord to the next, perfectly capture the feeling of floating along above the clouds, thinking about arriving home.
It’s a hard song to analyse, because it’s just so direct and affecting. Love turns in a remarkably good vocal for him in this range (it’s right at the top of his tenor range, where he’s normally most nasal). But it’s a great one. After the two verses, we get a new section — “Airplane, airplane”, bringing in a hint of Gm to go with the G major key established in the rest of the song, but only so that on the “carry me back to her side” line we can have the rising Sail On Sailor Eflat-F-G sequence. This repeats and then we get Brian singing, almost a descending scale, “down down, on the ground, can’t wait to see her face”, again evoking perfectly in sound the feeling of a slow descent.
And then there’s the tag, where over a two-chord R&B vamp, Brian and Carl engage in a joyous call and response — “I can’t wait (can’t wait) to see (her face)”. This makes up nearly a quarter of the song, and frankly I’d have been just as happy if it had gone on for another five minutes, just hearing the two brothers playing off each other vocally, Carl growling and Brian singing “I can’t wa-hay-hait”. There’s nothing musically clever going on here, just two people singing with such infectious joy that the listener can’t help but smile.
Love Is A Woman
Songwriter: Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine
And then finally we get to the song that most people use to dismiss the album. This is, frankly, a bit of a failure — a doo-wop song with lines like “Love is a woman/so tell her she smells good tonight” and “One two three/She’s fallen in love with me/Four five six/She fell for all my tricks”, this has the same childish eccentricity as most of the rest of the album, but doesn’t have the imagination to go along with it, and to make matters worse there’s just enough sweetening added to the mix (multiple saxophones and what sounds like a flute) to make it sound cluttered, while still sounding amateurish.
You can’t expect every song to be a classic, and this is the only one on the album that is less than wonderful, but it seems strange that it was sequenced as the last song on the album. The band — or at least Brian — seemed to like it though, and it was kept in their live set for a while, while Brian chose to perform it on a rare solo TV appearance around this time.
I am entirely prepared to accept that I’m missing something with this song, and that in two or three years something will click, and I’ll realise it’s a great work of genius, because the rest of this album is so unbelievably good that I’m willing to see any failure in it as a failure in me. But for now, I have to say that this is an imperfect ending to an otherwise perfect album.
Holland is, in many ways, the last gasp for the Beach Boys as an artistic group. They would produce good work again, both as a band or as individuals, but in future their work would be driven by one or two members of the band at a time rather than being a true group effort.
For the recording of the bulk of the album, the band decamped to Baambrugge in the Netherlands, and had their recording studio shipped over as well (which caused a huge amount of delay). This was at the instigation of Jack Rieley, and many reasons have been given over the years for the move, including tax issues, the idea that a change of scenery would inspire Brian Wilson, and even the laughable claim that it would be harder for those band members with drug problems (especially Brian Wilson) to obtain drugs in Holland than the USA. The fact that Rieley opted to remain in the Netherlands (and, for a while, attempted to continue managing the band’s career from a distance) may say more about the reasons than anything else.
The trip abroad did inspire Brian Wilson, but not in the way that the band had hoped or expected. Instead of coming up with any new conventional songs, his main piece of work during the trip to the Netherlands was a short story with musical accompaniment, Mount Vernon And Fairway (A Fairy Tale), that was initially included with the album as a bonus 45 and is now included at the end of the CD release.
The resulting album was considered too weak to release by Warner/Reprise, until Van Dyke Parks suggested that the song Sail On Sailor, initially not part of the album’s line-up, would make a good single. This replaced the Chaplin/Fataar/Love track We Got Love (which was accidentally included on some early German pressings of the album) and the resulting album got some of the best reviews of the band’s career, though it was less commercially successful, scraping into the top forty in the US, but doing slightly better in the UK where it made the top twenty.
The album is actually one of the most cohesive the band had done, with an ongoing theme of travel, especially by sea, and of a homesick longing for America. It’s also the most collaborative of the Beach Boys’ albums, with many different combinations of band members writing together in ways they otherwise never did.
This cohesion helps overcome what is actually a fairly weak set of material — there’s nothing here on the level of an All This Is That or Make It Good, let alone Til I Die or Surf’s Up, but the album is nonetheless one of the more worthwhile listening experiences of the band’s later years.
Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Blondie Chaplin, Ricky Fataar
Sail On Sailor
Songwriter: Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks, Ray Kennedy, Tandyn Almer and Jack Rieley
Lead vocalist: Blondie Chaplin
The opening song has a history which has been the subject of much recent debate. The generally-accepted story until recently was as follows: the Beach Boys turned in the Holland album but it had no obvious single on it. At this point Van Dyke Parks remembered a cassette he had in his possession of a song being written by himself and Brian Wilson, which had single potential. Various hands brushed up the song, at which point Carl Wilson took various backing band members into the studio and cut a backing track, with Brian supervising over the telephone. Dennis Wilson attempted a lead vocal, but gave up after a couple of takes, and Blondie Chaplin took over.
However, Steve Desper, who had been the band’s engineer for much of the late 60s and early 70s, but had stopped working for the band just before the trip to Holland, claims that the backing track dates back much earlier, and is a track that Brian Wilson had been working on for a long time. He also claims that the song originally had Carl Wilson on lead vocals, and that Chaplin is imitating Wilson’s phrasing exactly (a reasonable claim — Chaplin sounds spookily like Wilson here).
Whatever the truth of this (and I am inclined to believe Desper here), there is also the question of who exactly wrote what. A press release at the time claimed it was “a Brian Wilson-Jack Rieley song with writer credits suggesting informal assistance from a wide range of characters, among them Van Dyke Parks”. Steve Desper, on the other hand, has claimed that the lyrics are entirely Parks’ work, and Parks has claimed in the past that not only did he write all the lyrics but also the chord changes in the chorus and the start of the middle section. If this is the case, then Brian Wilson’s contribution to the song is reduced to coming up with the verse riff (a 12/8 shuffle between I and IV, actually quite similar to a gospel take on Imagine) and possibly the melody.
One might possibly get an idea of what actually happened by listening to a version of the song recorded by KGB, a band featuring Ray Kennedy. This version is credited only to Wilson/Kennedy, and has fairly incoherent lyrics about cocaine and trying to get out of the ghetto. One suspects that Wilson brought his initial idea to several different collaborators, at different times, without necessarily thinking to mention to them that he was working with other people. My own guess (given the reliability of the various parties involved) is that Parks’ account is largely correct — not only is Parks the most scrupulously honest person involved, with an excellent memory, but the song just sounds like a Van Dyke Parks song rather than a Brian Wilson song.
Whatever the process involved though, the end result is the most convincing attempt at R&B that the Beach Boys ever did, with a strong lead vocal from Chaplin, excellent group backing vocals (apparently only featuring Carl Wilson, Chaplin and Fataar from the Beach Boys, along with backing band member Billy Hinsche, session steel guitar player Tony Martin, and Gerry Beckley from the band America, though some have claimed that the other Beach Boys later overdubbed additional vocals), and in its VIb-VIIb-I chorus changes a hook so powerful that the band reused it (a tone up and in 4/4 time) for their 1985 hit Getcha Back.
The song was released twice as a single, hitting number 79 on the charts in 1973, and number 49 in 1975. Despite this relative lack of chart success, it was popular on the radio at the time and has remained a fixture in the setlists of the Beach Boys and their various solo shows.
Songwriter: Dennis Wilson and Jack Rieley
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson
The second track on the album continues the sailing theme, here with a typically-inscrutable Rieley lyric about steamboat travel. The lyrics are pretty and evocative, but make very little sense on any kind of literal level — lines like “The stream is a timepiece of children bridged with crystal haze” defy any normal interpretation. On the other hand, the lyric is slightly more comprehensible in the USA than elsewhere, as the “Mr Fulton” referred to, Robert Fulton, is considered a major historical figure in the US for his development of the first successful steamboat. He doesn’t, however, have the same “as every schoolchild knows…” status elsewhere.
Musically, the song is built around simple I-V7 changes for the most part (with a V7-VI7-II7 change at the end of the verse which is actually similar in its effect to the more outrageous chorus progression in Sail On Sailor), until the tag when the V7 changes into a VIb7, with mechanical-sounding drums perfectly evoking the feel of a paddle-wheel turning in the water and the hiss of steam.
The effect is possibly a little too dragged out — the combination of Carl Wilson’s lazy-sounding vocals, however, lovely, and the slow, mechanical pace of the song, tends to drag long before the four minutes and thirty-six seconds of the song is up — but it’s a worthwhile track, and a sign of the stylistic evolution that was bringing Dennis Wilson to the more confident style of his later work on Pacific Ocean Blue.
California Saga: Big Sur
Songwriter: Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love
The centrepiece of Holland, covering the bulk of side two, was a thematically-linked suite of songs by Love and Jardine called California Saga. Possibly the most artistically-ambitious thing either man ever did, this was in part inspired by their homesickness for California while living in Holland, but also tied into the themes of the environment and of travel that suffuse the band’s music at this point.
California Saga is unusual in the Beach Boys’ work in that rather than celebrating Southern California, and in particular Los Angeles, as most of their California-centred work did, it instead focuses on Central and Northern California, especially the less-populated areas.
The first of the three songs is this, the first song released by the band to have Love as the sole credited writer, and a surprisingly pleasant song. Starting with the ascending/descending Cm arpeggios that make up the bulk of the next song, we then go into a pleasant country-folk waltz, mostly based on a single C major chord with a scalar bassline that goes up and down much as the arpeggios at the beginning.
The song only really contains four chords, and is the kind of thing that could be written by someone with rudimentary or non-existent instrumental skills, but it has a catchy enough melody, and shows that Love was at least a competent songwriter in his own right. The instrumentation is equally primitive, mostly acoustic guitar and harmonica, evoking a campfire singalong, along with piano, drums and steel guitar.
The whole track is surprisingly pleasant, for a first solo songwriting attempt, but it could have been better — the song was first recorded three years earlier, and that version (unreleased but widely bootlegged) is in 4/4 rather than waltz time. Once one has heard this earlier version, the version on Holland sounds slightly ungainly in comparison, with the stresses falling less gracefully than on the original.
California Saga: The Beaks Of Eagles
Songwriter: Al Jardine, Lynda Jardine and Robinson Jeffers
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine and Mike Love
The second part of the California Saga is unique in the Beach Boys’ catalogue, though it points the way stylistically towards some of Jardine’s later work.
It’s almost two separate songs in itself, in fact. In what, for want of a better term, we can call the verses, we have the ascending/descending C-minor piano arpeggios (with a descending bass) that started Big Sur, along with some Morricone-esque flute from Charles Lloyd. Over this, Love recites, in three sections, The Beaks Of Eagles, a poem by far-right-wing environmentalist poet Robinson Jeffers, about how in the lifetime of one eagle human civilisation could change utterly, and how yet ultimately humans are constrained by their natures just as much as the eagles are.
The choruses, meanwhile, are in C major, built around yet another ascending/descending bassline, and feature Jardine, singing new lyrics to a conventional melody, over a guitar/bass/piano/drums/flute backing.
The thing that most people listening to this will notice now is that it is the first time Jardine uses a style which he uses consistently in his later songs, of having someone speak or recite poetry over part or all of a song (see especially the Tidepool Interlude on his solo album A Postcard From California , but also California Energy Blues and Santa Ana Winds), and it’s interesting to see this as a step towards that style from Jardine, probably inspired by the artistic success he’d had using The Road Not Taken for All This Is That (Robert Frost, the author of The Road Not Taken, was a contemporary of Jeffers and wrote on similar themes).
But what’s more interesting is to compare the poem that inspired this piece, and which Love recites verbatim, with the interpolated material by the Jardines. Jeffers referred to himself as an ‘inhumanist’, and claimed that humanity was fundamentally unimportant to him, that he preferred nature to humanity. His poem, therefore, like much of his work, is an attempt to see things on an inhuman scale, to apply a perspective that one might call either realistic or misanthropic depending on one’s own sympathies.
The chorus material, though, is all on the human scale — about death, and rebirth coming from it. The lyricist here (either Al or Mary Ann Jardine) is also writing about natural cycles, as Jeffers is, but on a human scale, and based in human needs and concerns. And despite the rather hippyish conclusion, there’s a real sense here of how the need to acquire mineral wealth can destroy people’s lives (the image of the dead mariners, shipwrecked while transporting limestone ore, ties in nicely both with the first two songs, but also with The Trader).
Fundamentally, while Jardine may have been inspired by Jeffers’ poetry, their worldviews are incompatible. The writer of those chorus sections cares about human beings in a way that Jeffers doesn’t, and while one may argue that in the grand scheme of things Jeffers’ worldview is more correct, the worldview of the choruses is much more caring and decent.
California Saga: California
Songwriter: Al Jardine
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine
The second single off Holland was this song, the last part of California Saga, and with good reason. Easily the most commercial thing Jardine has ever written on his own, this is an updating of California Girls for the 1970s country-rock era, keeping Love’s nasal voice and the Tumbling Tumbleweeds bass-line (here played on Moog), but using acoustic guitar, harmonica (apparently played by Brian Wilson) and banjo rather than a Wall Of Sound orchestra.
Musically, it’s a simple song, just using the chords C, F and G, but it communicates a feeling of relaxed joy in nature that really does seem like a more mature version of the youthful ecstasy of California Girls. Out of the larger context of the California Saga, this is an unpretentious and unambitious song, but all the better for it.
Despite its relative lack of commercial success (barely scraping the top 100 in the US, though reaching the lower reaches of the top forty in the UK), this has remained a fan favourite, and was the only solo Jardine composition (and, other than All This Is That, the only one for which he was primary songwriter) to appear on the career-spanning Good Vibrations: Thirty Years Of The Beach Boys box set. Jardine returned to the song on his 2010 solo album A Postcard From California, remaking it with David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Neil Young providing harmony vocals, and the song also became a regular in the setlists of the Beach Boys’ 2012 reunion tour.
Songwriter: Carl Wilson and Jack Rieley
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson (with Justyn Wilson saying “Hi”)
The Trader is Carl Wilson’s primary songwriting contribution to the Holland album, and the last new song he would bring to the band until LA (Light Album) in 1979, so it’s a good job that it’s a good one.
The song breaks into two halves, with little connection between them, either musically or lyrically. The first half is possibly the most overtly political thing the Beach Boys ever recorded (albeit it is a condemnation of acts carried out by people who were long-dead). Over a piano-led rock background, Wilson sings about the colonisation of the Americas, the genocide of their native population, and the way the land had been ‘civilised’. It’s Rieley’s most straightforward lyric, and also his best. It also manages to tie in with the themes of sea travel, America, and nature in opposition to industrial civilisation that permeate the whole of the album.
But then, almost exactly half-way through the song, the key changes from G to C, the prominent piano drops out to be replaced by sighing backing vocals and tinkling Moog, and the lyric goes from concrete to utterly abstract, as the song turns into something closer to Carl Wilson’s songs from Surf’s Up. Instead of “Trader found the jeweled land was occupied before he came/By humans of a second look who couldn’t even write their names”, the lyrics suddenly become “Embracing together, like the merging streams, crying dreams”.
Frankly, it shouldn’t work — this song sounds exactly like something that’s been bolted together from two different ideas, with no real thought as to how the two sections actually interact. Yet it does work, mostly through sheer chutzpah, but also through an absolutely remarkable vocal performance from Carl Wilson, who goes from a strained, pained vocal near the top of his range in the rock section to a softer, gentler, reassuring vocal for the second, mellow section. Somehow, the result is actually better than the sum of the parts, though there’s no earthly reason why it should be. It works because Wilson and Rieley say it works, and because they both had enough talent at this point to do something as ambitious as this.
The song became a regular in the band’s setlist for much of the rest of the 1970s, even as the rest of the set became increasingly dominated by hits, and was a favourite with crowds, again thanks largely to Carl Wilson’s vocal performance.
Leaving This Town
Songwriter: Carl Wilson, Blondie Chaplin, Ricky Fataar and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Blondie Chaplin
A tedious song that unfortunately merges the worst aspects of both Carl Wilson’s and the Flame team’s writing, this plods along based on slow, steady piano chords in much the same style as Feel Flows, and has a simple chord sequence (alternating between I, V, i and v in two keys a tone apart) with little of interest about it. Then the melody over the top stays, like all the Chaplin/Fataar material, in a narrow range, and consists mostly of long, held notes.
Once the song gets to the two minute long Moog solo, it takes a great deal of effort for the listener to keep awake, and the lyrics are enough of a formless mess (a case of too many cooks, one suspects) that there is no emotional hook there to encourage one to listen for much longer. Easily the least interesting thing that Chaplin and Fataar had a hand in during their time with the Beach Boys, and the most pointless thing on the album (Beaks Of Eagles is worse, but it’s an ambitious failure, while this seems to have been made with no greater ambition than filling six minutes of vinyl).
Only With You
Songwriter: Dennis Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson
In an unfortunate piece of sequencing, Leaving This Town is followed by another sedate, mellow song at a near-identical tempo, and the momentum of the album is killed stone dead. It’s a shame because, unlike the previous song, this one really is worthwhile.
While Love and Dennis Wilson had a legendarily fractious relationship, their few songwriting collaborations (of which this is the only one to end up on a Beach Boys album rather than a solo release) show a deeper mutual sympathy, and Love’s lyrics and Wilson’s music here complement each other perfectly.
Musically, this is one of the simplest things Dennis Wilson had composed to this point, possibly because it wasn’t written in collaboration with the more musically-sophisticated Daryl Dragon, and the only really interesting change is the one from Em/G to E7/G# (in a section that feels like it’s in G, but which is in fact in the same key of D as the rest of the song) under the phrase “love had always had its ups and downs”. However, the song’s simplicity is its key — a direct lyric combined with simple changes gives this song a formal grace that is very different from the primal howl of many of Dennis’ songs.
While Carl Wilson’s vocal on this track has been almost universally praised, it doesn’t quite work as well for me as for many others — while his vocal on the quieter verses is exemplary, he is a little mannered on the middle eight and tag (something that would become increasingly true of his vocals over later years). It’s a very good performance, yes, but one is left wishing that Dennis had sung his own song, with his less technically perfect but more expressive voice.A version of the song with Dennis Wilson on vocals was released in 2008, on the Pacific Ocean Blue CD reissue, and will be discussed in the chapter on that album.
While it’s not as perfect a song as Forever or God Only Knows, two songs it is clearly an attempt to emulate, it’s still extremely good, and one of the best things on the album, and it makes one wish that Love and Dennis Wilson had been able to work together more often.
Songwriter: Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Jack Rieley
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, Blondie Chaplin. Ricky Fataar and Mike Love
The only song, other than Sail On Sailor, contributed by Brian Wilson to the Holland project proper was this track on which he contributed nearly all the instruments (Carl Wilson added some guitar, and Fataar some percussion, but Brian played the drums as well as probably playing all the keyboard parts).
Musically, the song is not all that interesting as a song, but is fascinating as a pointer to Brian Wilson’s musical direction at the time and for the next few years. The entire track is based around Moog, with Moog parts in three ranges (a squelchy, fuzzy bass part, a mid-range part in the same range as the piano, and a high counter-melody), with only the most rudimentary drum part and no real connection to conventional rock music at all.
While the song’s title sums up the feel very well (the vocals have a great, soulful feel, while there’s an ethereal beauty to the Moog parts), the lyrics as a whole are fairly pointless, combining the worst of both Rieley (pointless prettiness without any sense) and Love (an obsession with astrology, a long list of place names, and a slightly lecherous tone). The vocals, though, are extraordinary. For those playing along at home, Carl Wilson takes the verses (and the verse backing vocals), Jardine takes over on “where’s my spark in the dark?”, Fataar “Glow glow glow come on glow”, Chaplin on “the funky pretty flame in my heart” and Love “me and my Pisces lady are apart.”
On the second chorus, Chaplin sings “Cos it’s a silent night in the sea”, Jardine “and if you’re cosmically conscious you’ll see”, Fataar “why she’s a princess imparted to me” and Love “daughter of Neptune, the ruler of the sea”. Carl Wilson takes the middle section with the listing of place names, and Chaplin takes the fade. The fade-out would be the perfect end for the album, but then we have…
Mt Vernon And Fairway (A Fairy Tale)
Songwriter: Brian Wilson (with Carl Wilson and Jack Rieley)
Lead vocalist: Jack Rieley (with Brian and Carl Wilson)
Possibly the most controversial thing the Beach Boys ever released, this is, depending on who you talk to, either one of Brian Wilson’s greatest masterpieces or a sad record of a once-great talent’s decline.
When the Holland album was being recorded, Brian Wilson was at a low ebb, mentally and creatively, and wanted little or nothing to do with the recording process. Instead, he found himself listening over and over to Sail Away by Randy Newman [FOOTNOTE:An absolutely wonderful album, which anyone who likes good songwriting should check out.].
He discovered that while he was listening to this, he was able to get into a creative mood, and wrote a fairytale, about a young prince who lived at Mount Vernon And Fairway (the address where Mike Love had grown up) and who, while alone in his bedroom, discovered a magic transistor radio, which normally played the music of Bach, but sometimes was possessed by “the Pied Piper from the faraway land of night”, whose music was unlike anything the prince had ever heard.
Unsurprisingly, when he presented this fairytale to the other band members and suggested it go on the album, their reaction was not hugely enthusiastic, and Brian was apparently so discouraged that he didn’t finish the story (Jack Rieley apparently supplied the rather abrupt ending, as a result). Nonetheless it was agreed to package the result as a 7 inch single with the album (it appears as a bonus track on CD releases), and the finished piece is one of the most interesting, ambitious, and beautiful things Wilson has ever created.
Rieley narrates the story, which is clearly the work of someone who is not especially articulate, but which makes up for in emotional honesty what it lacks in craft, while under it we have electronic sound effects, piano music, and snatches of vocal music, mostly repeated lines (“Pied Piper, I’d better get back in bed,” “I’m the Pied Piper in the radio”, “Dom dom King dom”). The effect is somewhere between Peter And The Wolf and Nilsson’s The Point, with tiny moments of beauty that are never developed into full songs, but drift away like someone tuning the radio to another station.
The music itself has had more appreciation since it was released, without the spoken narration and sound effects, as Fairy Tale Music on the Good Vibrations: Thirty Years Of The Beach Boys box set, but while the story is not the work of someone with any great skill in language, it’s still joyful and perfectly conveys the wonder of a lonely teenager, sat in his room listening to the radio, hit from out of the blue with music only he can hear, more wonderful and exciting even than Bach.
There is a certain kind of Beach Boys fan who, when presented with a pint glass containing half a pint of beer, will say not “that glass is half full”, nor “that glass is half empty”, but will rather start up an internet petition to have Mike Love arrested for stealing half of Brian Wilson’s beer.
While I am no great fan of Love, this does make it difficult for those of us in the reality-based community to write about anything the band has done, because before even starting to talk about the actual truth, first we have to dispel myths.
In the case of this DVD, long before it was released it was getting one-star reviews on Amazon from disgruntled idiots who were complaining that it ‘only’ featured twenty-one songs, and that this was some sort of conspiracy on Love’s part to stop people realising how good the show had actually been. Or something. These were not the clearest of thinkers.
So before I get to the actual review, a quick word on how music licensing works for a DVD. When one is releasing a CD, the licensing costs for a song are a few pence per copy made. This means that you never have to pay more than you can afford to include a song — if you sell five hundred copies, you only pay a tenth of what you would have paid if you sell five thousand.
For a DVD, though, the rules are different. Here, the publishing companies can charge what they like, and you have to pay them in advance, and a normal charge for a single song of the popularity of most of the Beach Boys’ songs would be in the region of ten thousand dollars, upfront.
Assuming this DVD sells as well as the best-selling Beach Boys DVD of all time (Live At Knebworth), that would mean that if the DVD company featured all fifty-plus songs from the show, they might, in six years, be able to just about pay the licensing fees if they had no other expenses. A fifty-song live DVD by a band like the Beach Boys, who have an incredibly popular repertoire but are of only middling popularity as a band now, is simply never going to be economically possible, at least as a release to the general public.
So, with that in mind, rather than complaining about what we don’t have, let’s have a look at what we do have.
The Beach Boys’ ‘reunion’ tour last year (an odd one in that while all five principals were members of the Beach Boys in the 60s, they’d never all played together before) was an absolute musical triumph. While the early shows (as documented in the Doin’ It Again TV special) weren’t great (they had too much of a focus on the big hits, and live autotune was applied to some of the vocals, with fairly horrific results), by the middle of the tour they were spectacular, and the last show (which I saw and reviewed here) was one of the greatest musical experiences of my life.
This DVD, recorded in Arizona around the midpoint of the tour, captures the band at the point where the show had come together properly, and manages to successfully capture the feel of being at one of those shows.
The twenty-one songs chosen for the DVD sum up the feel of the setlist in miniature. The shows were structured by Mike Love with the same structure he’s been using for his own touring ‘Beach Boys’ on their longer theatre shows for years, and that structure is largely kept to here. There are three big chunks of hits to anchor the show — medley of surf songs (“medley” here just meaning that there is no break between songs, not that they’re cut up or bastardised) at the start, a medley of car songs before the intermission, and a run of the classic mid-60s art-pop hits at the end, with Kokomo and Fun Fun Fun as the encore. With these setpieces in place, peaks to ensure that everyone goes away remembering the show as being full of hits, the rest of the show can then have some of the more obscure material, along with a few more hits scattered through it to keep the audience’s energy level high. It’s a very, very strong structure for a show, as one would expect from someone who’s been touring for fifty years playing a hundred and fifty shows a year.
The rough shape of that structure is still in place here, although it’s distorted by the lack of an interval, and by the quieter songs that opened up the second half of the show being dropped from the DVD, so it goes straight from I Get Around into Heroes & Villains, but luckily some attention has still been paid to the flow of the show and to having a good mix of less well-known songs. So while the DVD still, understandably, has a lot of the hits on it, it drops songs like Surfer Girl, Surfin’ USA and Barbara Ann, all of which have far too many live versions available already, in favour of songs like All This Is That, Marcella, Sail On Sailor and the two singles from the new album. (And if you’d told me a year ago that the Beach Boys would put out a live release with two songs from Carl & The Passions and no Barbara Ann, I would have thought you were mad).
The performances are exceptional. Beach Boys fans looking at the opening credits may well be worried when they see Joe Thomas’ name there that they’ll get some slick, autotuned nonsense, but while there’s clearly been some post-production work done on the vocals (Brian sometimes goes out of synch, and you can occasionally hear two Als or Bruces), it’s mostly handled fairly reasonably. The main reason for the overdubbing appears to have been that Brian had a tendency to bite the ends off his words a little on this show.
But for the most part, this is pretty much exactly like what you’d have heard at one of these shows. The band are all on top form, and the backing band given plenty of screen time, although the focus is naturally on the principals (which is a shame, as one of the highlights of the shows for me was watching the backing band, whether it be Probyn Gregory switching between half a dozen different instruments and playing them all beautifully, or the interaction between John Cowsill and Nelson Bragg). The backing band for this tour (consisting of the core of Brian Wilson’s touring band — Nelson Bragg, Darian Sahanaja, Scott Bennett, Probyn Gregory, Paul Mertens, Jeff Foskett and Mike D’Amico — plus the two best members of Mike Love’s band, John Cowsill and Scott Totten) may well be the best rock/pop band ever assembled, able to reproduce the delicate, subtle textures of material from Pet Sounds while also being able to give a song like Fun Fun Fun the energy it needs.
Unsurprisingly, given the backing band members, the arrangements are kept largely the same as the ones that Brian Wilson has used in his solo tours, so Fun Fun Fun, for example, ends with a snatch of Rhapsody In Blue. In fact, at times this sounds more like a Brian Wilson solo show with guest lead vocals from the other Beach Boys, as the backing band members also fill out a lot of the harmony parts. But that is, of course, no bad thing.
The one actual complaint I have about this DVD is that Al Jardine is criminally underused. While the other Beach Boys’ voices are, unsurprisingly, not up to the same standard as they were in the 60s (though they’ve aged better than you might imagine), Jardine actually sounds better now than he ever did before, and he was a highlight of the three shows I saw. The man is one of the best live vocalists I’ve ever seen, but as the main compromises for the tour had to be between Love and Brian Wilson, he was very much the third vocalist on the tour. This is so even more on this DVD, where he only gets two proper lead vocals (Wouldn’t It Be Nice and Help Me Rhonda), plus portions of Isn’t It Time and All This Is That. While many songs from the set had to be dropped for the DVD release (including a number of my very favourite songs), it’s a shame that the band’s tedious, clunking cover of Rock And Roll Music was left in (although even that had its moments, with Jardine shouting “more cowbell!” and Nelson Bragg obliging forcefully) when Then I Kissed Her or California Saga could have been included to show off just how good Jardine can be.
So, like any official live DVD will be as long as these songs remain in copyright, this is a glass half-full, but that’s much better than no glass at all. The performances here, even of the songs I’m not a fan of, are excellent, and when a song like All This Is That comes along, they’re simply jaw-dropping, with Love, Jardine, Sahanaja, Wilson and Foskett all turning in wonderful vocals.
Of course we’d all like to see a full-length show, with no touching up of the vocals, given an official, pristine DVD release. But this will definitely do, and for those who want a full show for historical reasons, it’s not as if there’s a lack of bootleg recordings from this tour.
One final point — the US release of this DVD (which I was given for Christmas) and the British release differ, in that the British release is a two-DVD set, packaged with the Doin’ It Again PBS documentary produced by Joe Thomas. That documentary, which revolves around the recording of That’s Why God Made The Radio and the earlier, less-good, shows on the tour, is far from essential (and is regularly shown on TV), but it’s worth having if you have a choice as to which version to get.
Songs on the DVD are:
Shut Down (instrumental snippet played over the menu)
1 Do It Again
2 Catch A Wave
5 Isn’t It Time
6 Little Deuce Coupe
8 Shut Down
9 I Get Around
10 Heroes & Villains
11 Sloop John B
12 Wouldn’t It Be Nice
13 All This Is That
14 That’s Why God Made The Radio
15 Sail On Sailor
16 Good Vibrations
17 California Girls
18 Help Me Rhonda
19 Rock And Roll Music
21 Fun Fun Fun
Summer’s Gone (backing track played over credits)
Incidentally, the people who put out this DVD are also crowd-funding a longer, documentary DVD about the whole tour, at PledgeMusic. I’ve pre-ordered.
That was either the best or the second best gig I’ve ever been to (the other contender was Brian Wilson at the Manchester Apollo in 2002).
The show on Friday seems likely to have been the last ever proper Beach Boys show (although despite press reports, Mike Love has not ‘fired’ the other members — the reunion tour was a specifically bounded thing that always had an end date), but there was no funereal atmosphere. Rather it was, as all the tour so far has been, a celebration of the band’s whole career.
The night before at the Albert Hall, they’d performed sixty-one songs, and when I spoke with Nelson Bragg, the band’s percussionist, before the show, he said that was the plan for this show as well. Unfortunately, there was a curfew at Wembley, which meant they ‘only’ did fifty-six songs — Scott Totten, the co-musical director, was actually apologetic about this.
Truth be told, for most of the audience that was probably slightly too much. In the last half hour of the show there was a steady stream of people leaving as it got too late for them — many had clearly waited to hear their favourite song before leaving. The band are in their 70s now, and their audience aren’t much younger.
Everyone was on top form. I’d been a bit worried about Mike Love’s voice after some fairly poor radio and TV performances at the start of the week, but he’d clearly just been a bit rusty after a couple of weeks off — this show he was in great voice. Al Jardine is *always* in great voice — the only difference between his vocals now and in 1965 is that now his voice sounds stronger and richer. And Brian Wilson was the happiest I’ve ever seen him, clearly loving playing this music with these people. The only one who wasn’t singing perfectly was Bruce, who was even huskier than normal, but as he only had two leads that was OK.
The backing band, as always, were spectacular, from Probyn Gregory (who as well as being a wonderful musician is also a lovely man, and who got me a backstage pass for the show, which let me embarass myself by being a gushing fanboy towards several band members) playing every instrument under the sun to John Cowsill still being the best drummer I’ve ever seen — the interplay between Cowsill’s power on the drum kit and Nelson Bragg’s skill on percussion is a joy to watch and listen to. I’d go and see this band without the Beach Boys — they’re good enough to carry the show by themselves.
It’s hard to overstate how good this show was. Even the cornier aspects of Mike Love’s stage presence were toned down, because the sheer number of songs performed meant he had to cut out some of his more rehearsed bits. But the whole reunion has been far better than we could expect — while I don’t care all that much for That’s Why God Made The Radio, it’s still the band’s best album since at least LA (Light Album), and the tour has, with a couple of hitches, been carried off with great dignity. And who’d have thought *that* would be a word that could be applied to this band any more? It’s certainly not been applicable since before I was born.
If you’d told me five years ago that I’d see a Beach Boys tour with all five surviving members, where they actually appeared to get on with each other, and where they did a set that included three songs from Sunflower, two from Holland, five from Pet Sounds, and three from a new album that was their biggest hit since 1965, I’d have said you were utterly mad. But that’s what we’ve seen on this tour.
I’ll post a tracklisting and thoughts on individual songs below, but someone very kindly filmed the whole show from the audience and uploaded it to YouTube, so I’ll embed that here and you can listen along:
Brian Wilson — vocals, keyboard, bass
Mike Love — vocals
Al Jardine — vocals, guitar
Bruce Johnston — vocals, keyboard
David Marks — vocals, guitar
Jeff Foskett — vocals, guitar, mandolin
Scott Totten — vocals, guitar, ukulele, musical direction
Probyn Gregory — vocals, guitar, bass, tannerin, French horn, trumpet
Mike D’Amico — vocals, bass, percussion, drums
Nelson Bragg — vocals, percussion
John Cowsill — vocals, drums, percussion
Scott Bennett — vocals, keyboards, percussion
Darian Sahanaja — vocals, keyboards, percussion
Paul Mertens — sax, flute, harmonica, musical director
The show started with the usual set of surf songs with Mike Love on lead, the same songs in the same order that Mike always uses in his own shows:
Do it again
Catch a wave
Don’t back down
Surfer girl — Brian took the middle eight, and the entire audience went wild. He sounded glorious.
Please let me wonder
This whole world — I could have gone home happy after hearing those two songs sung by Brian back to back. Two of the best songs they’ve ever done.
Wendy — Bruce on lead, a little weak
Getcha back — David Marks’ only lead vocal — and only audible vocal — of the show
Then I kissed her — Al sang the second line twice rather than sing the first line (he did the same in Milan), but then made up for it by singing the first line a capella at the end of the song.
You’re so good to me — The crowd *loved* this, obviously all knowing the song from hits collections even though it was never a hit.
Kiss me baby — this was just astonishing. I had to let out a gasp at this. Brian took the lead, even though Mike sang it on the record.
Isn’t it time — it’s a silly piece of nothing, but it’s an enjoyable piece of nothing, and works better now they’ve got rid of Foskett’s part in the middle eight (it was just out of his range) and replaced it with a descending part from Mike. Catchy and fun.
Come go with me
Why do fools fall in love
When I grow up to be a man
Dance dance dance — all as you’d expect
Darlin — Darian on lead. Wonderful.
Disney girls — Jeff played the mandolin part on the intro. When the massed backing vocals came in on the word “love” it was one of the best moments of the show.
It’s ok — Brian really loved singing the “find a ride” parts here.
Cotton fields — Al pointed at Mike on the line “a nice old man, he had a hat on”.
Be true to your school
Ballad Of Ol’ Betsy Scott Totten sang lead on this, very well
Don’t worry baby — Foskett on lead, just gorgeous.
And the first half finished with the normal car song medley:
Little deuce coupe
I get around
After the intermission, there was a brief snatch of the James Bond theme, going into
Pet sounds — Dave Marks’ big solo spot
Add some music — all the Beach Boys clustered round the piano, passing hand-held mics around. Funny to hear when Bruce passed the mic to Al, and the vocals went from whispery to dominating the whole stadium.
Sail on sailor — Brian really got into this, growling “DAMN the thunder!”
Heroes and villains — as good as music gets
I just wasn’t made for these times — spectacular. Al took the answering phrase on the chorus, and sang “HE just wasn’t made…” at the end.
California dreamin It shows how much Brian was getting into the show that he decided to sing the answering phrases on the first verse, even though the Beach Boys’ arrangement doesn’t normally have them. And he was great on his lead on the second verse.
In my room
All this is that — Jeff Foskett sounded eerily like Carl on this one at the end. Lovely.
That’s why god made the radio — never been a huge fan of this one, but it definitely gets the crowd going.
Summer’s gone — only the second time they ever played this live. Works far better live than on record, though it’ll never be a favourite of mine.
God only knows — these two used videos of Dennis and Carl Wilson, with their recorded lead vocals, while the band backed them.
Sloop john b
Wouldn’t it be nice
All summer long
Help me Rhonda
Rock and roll music
Do you wanna dance
Surfin USA — all as you’d expect. Some great performances, especially Wouldn’t It Be Nice, but no surprises. Scott Bennett surfed on Brian’s grand piano during Surfin’ USA.
Kokomo — the only real misstep of the show, this saps all the energy when played at this point of the show in the UK, because no-one here knows it except the big fans, and they don’t generally like it. It worked better on the Mike/Bruce/David 2008 tour, when they played it coming out of the obscure tracks and into the last run of hits.
Fun fun fun
And with Bruce Johnston’s falsetto “away”s, the Beach Boys’ career as a touring entity may have ended. Mike & Bruce’s band (Love, Johnston, Totten, Cowsill and Tim Bonhomme, Randell Kirsch and Christian Love) are already back on the road — they played a charity show in Mexico last night, and apparenly raised a million dollars for a children’s hospital — but it’s unknown whether the five surviving Beach Boys will ever perform together again.
If they don’t, I can’t really imagine a better way to end their career. The band have suffered a lot of self-inflicted wounds over the years, but other than Johnston’s unwise comments about ‘socialist assholes’, and the storm-in-a-teacup whipped up by the media about the end of the tour, they haven’t put a foot wrong this year. I feel privileged to have been at that show, and to have met up with a few of the band members before and after it, and I look forward to whatever the people on that stage do next, together or separately.
Before I start this, a brief note — my opinions on Beach Boys records often change *drastically* in the year or so after I first hear them. This is not my definitive word on this album, and I’ll revisit this when I write volume three of my Beach Boys book. This is just what I think now.
Next week, the Beach Boys release That’s Why God Made The Radio, their first album in twenty years (other than 1996′s Stars And Stripes Vol 1, a collection of remakes of their old hits with country singers on lead vocals). The signs for the new album have been very mixed — the ‘reunited’ band is a line-up that has never actually played together before, and is a sort of Frankenstein concoction of surviving members from different line-ups, consisting of Brian Wilson (who led the band throughout their most commercially and critically successful period, but has had little involvement with the band since the early 80s and none since 1996), Mike Love (the nasal-voiced lead singer, lyricist on many of the hits and only continuous member for the band’s whole fifty year career), Al Jardine (who was on the band’s first single in 1961, quit, rejoined in 1963 and remained until 1998), Bruce Johnston (who joined in 1965, quit in 1971, and rejoined and remained in the band from 1979), and David Marks (who was in the band from 1961-63, rejoined from 1997-99, and briefly rejoined again in 2008). Jeff Foskett (a falsetto vocalist with the Beach Boys in the 80s and with Brian Wilson’s touring band from 1998 on) is a de facto sixth member, covering the high vocal parts that were covered in the past by either Brian Wilson (who’s lost a lot of his voice) or his brother Carl (who died in 1998).
The problem with this line-up, of course, is that other than Brian Wilson the two most talented members of the band were Brian’s brothers, Dennis and Carl Wilson, both of whom are now dead. This means that what we have here is the combination of a visionary genius with three collaborators he knows well but who are musically very conservative, along with Marks who is a genuinely great guitar player but has no real track record as a singer or songwriter.
Luckily, then, this album was made the way that the best Beach Boys albums always were — Brian Wilson and his chosen collaborator wrote the songs, with Mike Love adding extra lyrics to three, and produced the tracks without the involvement of any of the band, and the band then sang parts that Brian told them to, with little or no creative input. Thankfully, the reports of new songs by Jardine, Johnston and Marks being added to the album proved false. Jardine and Johnston have both written the occasional decent song, but both are at best occasionally semi-inspired journeymen. Mike Love gets to add a few lyrics, but in general is also kept on the sidelines.
The instrumental tracks were cut first, then Wilson would sing the vocal arrangements to Foskett, who would record every vocal line, and then Wilson, Love, Jardine and Johnston would drop in replacements, line by line, for their parts. Essentially, this is a Brian Wilson solo album by any other name, with the Beach Boys acting as his hired vocalists in a way they haven’t since at least Pet Sounds.
Unfortunately, though, Wilson’s chosen collaborator for the album was Joe Thomas. Joe Thomas had previously produced the last Beach Boys album (the country music collaboration) and had also produced Brian’s 1998 solo album Imagination. While he was chosen largely because everyone involved knew and liked him, he is not the most artistically sympathetic of collaborators. The best way to describe him is to list the other collaborators he brought in to work with Wilson and himself on the songwriting — Jim Peterik, who wrote Eye Of The Tiger for Survivor, Larry Millas, who played in a band with Peterik in the 60s, and Jon Bon Jovi.
The result is a curate’s egg. It’s definitely the best Beach Boys album since at least 1979, but that’s the very definition of ‘damning with faint praise’. The garage band I was in when I was sixteen with a bass player who couldn’t play bass at all sounded better than most of what the Beach Boys have released in my lifetime. Vocally, this is superb — modern recording technology allows Brian Wilson to create vocal arrangements he couldn’t have done in his prime, with many, perhaps most, of the ‘solo’ vocal lines actually being unison vocals by two or three band members but with one more prominent — but which one is more prominent can change on a syllable-by-syllable basis, creating a perfect “Beach Boy” lead vocalist with elements of several of the band. And the instrumental arrangements, by Wilson and his longtime collaborator Paul Von Mertens, are often as good as anything the band have done.
But sonically, this is stuck in mid-90s AOR, but with the occasional intrusion of processing horrors, like autotune-as-effect, that will date this album as badly to precisely this moment as a Phil Collins drum sound would date it to 1983. Lyrically, the songs are inept, ranging from banal at best to unbelievably bad at worst. And the compositions vary in quality, but never rise to the heights of Wilson’s recent best work.
The songs apparently date from two different bursts of composition — one from 1998, during the writing of Wilson’s mediocre solo album Imagination, and one from 2010 and 2011 — and the later material is in general (with one or two exceptions either way) far superior, suggesting they may have been better just scrapping the old material and starting fresh. Capitol apparently signed the band to a three-album deal, so if albums two and three are fresh material, they may be significantly better.
Beach Boys fans will buy this and cherish it for what it is — a half-decent record by a band that haven’t even managed a half-decent record since the Carter administration — but there’s absolutely no need for anyone who doesn’t know and love everything the band’s previously done to buy this.
Track by track:
Think About The Days, the opener, is based on a piano instrumental by Thomas, with Brian adding the wordless vocal melodies. Jardine takes lead (I’m told by Someone Who Should Know that Someone Else Who Should Know says it’s Brian Wilson, but if it is then there’s a new ProTools plugin, the Jardineifier, which makes people’s voices sound exactly like Al Jardine) and Johnston is prominent in the harmonies. Had I listened to this without the songwriting credits I would have *sworn* this was written by Johnston on one of his better days. Nice french horn at the end by Probyn Gregory, but this is a little too Enya for my liking.
That’s Why God Made The Radio This is remixed from the single version — much less compressed, with a better vocal balance and what sounds like an extra keyboard line, though I’ve not A-B’d the two versions. It sounds *much* better, but it’s still fundamentally unoriginal, being pieced together from bits of the old Beach Boys songs Your Summer Dream and Keep An Eye On Summer and the John Barry themes You Only Live Twice and Midnight Cowboy, along with a rather jarring 80s AOR bridge (which I am informed sounds more like Journey than Survivor). This one was written by Wilson, Thomas, Peterik and Millas, and is mostly sung by Wilson and Foskett in unison, with Foskett taking several of the more prominent vocal lines and Johnston and Jardine taking the occasional line. It’s grown on me, and is actually quite pleasant now, but is nowhere near the masterpiece people were claiming prior to its release.
The genesis of the song also seems rather convoluted. It was written in 1998, and Millas has claimed it was written by him, Thomas and Peterik. Wilson, when asked in an interview who wrote it, said “Joe Thomas”, while Thomas, in this very interesting interview, said the title and chord sequence came from Wilson.
Isn’t It Time This is the best thing on the album by miles, and the second single. I could believe that this dated from Wilson’s collaborations with Andy Paley, but in fact it was written last year by Wilson, Thomas, Peterik, Millas and Love. The arrangement is almost like something from the Smiley Smile era — just a ukulele played by Peterik, two basses and some percussion, with everything else done vocally. Lyrically it’s drivel, but it’s a fun pop song, so lyrical drivel is acceptable. Wilson, Love and Jardine take the lead vocals, though as with all the songs on this album it’s hard to claim there’s a specific ‘lead vocalist’ in any traditional sense.
Spring Vacation, on the other hand, is horrible. This dates from 1998, and was originally a ‘gospel’ song called Lay Down Burden, written for Carl Wilson to sing. When Carl Wilson died, Brian Wilson and Thomas reused that title for a song on Imagination, and so this has new lyrics by Mike Love.
Joe Thomas has talked about being amazed at how quickly Love wrote the lyrics, and people have laughed at this because the lyrics are doggerel — “Spring vacation/Good vibrations/Summer weather/We’re back together”, but truthfully the lyrics fit the terrible music just fine. This song sounds like it was written for the title sequence of a bad mid-90s US sitcom, and conjures up images of Greg Evigan and Joey Lawrence hanging out with their wacky neighbour in an unfeasibly large apartment, with a credit at the end saying “Executive producer Linwood Boomer”. Just pitifully poor.
The Private Life Of Bill And Sue is another one from the new writing sessions, and is much better. This is a vaguely tropical song (sounding exactly like a Boney M record, I can’t remember which one, apart from the first few bars which sound just like a song by Carolyn Edwards, a friend of Brian’s band) about a couple of reality TV stars who fake their own disappearance to boost their ratings, starting with the perfectly Brian couplet “The private life of Bill and Sue/Can you dig what I’m telling you?”. Joe Thomas apparently wrote the chorus, a Mike Love style listing of place names (“California to Mexico/Everybody’s just gotta know/Dallas Texas to Monterey/Wasting time on a summer day”) which doesn’t really fit the song lyrically but meshes perfectly musically. This is cheese, but it’s prime-quality cheese, a good strong stilton or gorgonzola.
Wilson and Foskett sing lead.
Shelter is another new Wilson/Thomas song, with Wilson singing lead on the verses and Foskett and a heavily-processed Love on the chorus. This has a very retro-fifties feel, with a lovely chorus, and a verse which is just a straight lift from Save The Last Dance For Me, but the bridge, while pleasant, doesn’t really connect all that well with either verse or chorus — you can see the joins on this one. It’s the most obviously Beach Boys sounding song on the album, and one of the better ones, but it sounds like it needed some more songwriting work.
Daybreak Over The Ocean is the only non-Brian-Wilson song on the album. This is one that Mike Love wrote in the late 70s, and this recording is the one that Love made for his unreleased 2005 solo album Mike Love Not War, with a thin layer of Beach Boys backing vocals added to the pre-recorded track, featuring poor falsetto vocals by Adrian Baker (who was the falsetto singer in Mike Love’s touring Beach Boys band at the time) and some rather nice vocals by Love’s son Christian, who sounds spookily like the late Carl Wilson (his father’s cousin). The song itself is drivel, though, and it has an even worse drum sound than the rest of the album.
Beaches In Mind, by Wilson, Thomas and Love, is shit. “We’ll find a place in the sun, where everyone can have fun fun fun”, apparently. Love sings lead (like you couldn’t have guessed), and this is essentially where he disappears from the album to all intents and purposes, having no particularly prominent vocal lines for the rest of the record.
Strange World, by Wilson and Thomas is one of the more interesting songs, and I’m not yet sure if I like it. It’s a weird combination of different types of bombast — bits of Beethoven in the string arrangement, Phil Spector dynamics and a general 80s AOR feel — with lyrics that sound very like Brian and reference the It’s A Small World song from Disneyland. It’s either awful or a masterpiece, and I’m honestly not sure which. Wilson sings lead, and takes about three separate vocal parts — the other Beach Boys are barely there. This one was started in 1998 and finished last year.
From There To Back Again is another new song by Wilson and Thomas, and is one of the most interesting things on the record. Al Jardine sings a great lead (though sometimes it’s a little robotified by the autotune effects), but the song sounds more like Paul Williams than like Brian Wilson. That’s not necessarily a bad thing — Paul Williams is a great songwriter — but it’s odd. This is very much in that early-70s soft-pop feel, with a lovely orchestration by Mertens, but it’ll take a few more listens to decide if the song (which has multiple different sections) is great or all flash and no substance.
Pacific Coast Highway by Wilson and Thomas is essentially just a link track between the two songs either side of it, which make up part of a suite Wilson’s been working on. “My life, I’m better off alone/My life, I’m better on my own”, he sings.
Summer’s Gone by Wilson, Thomas and Bon Jovi, was originally a single verse by Wilson written in 1998, intended as ‘the last song on the last Beach Boys album’, and was apparently expanded by Bon Jovi to its near-five-minute length. To be honest, it probably would have worked much better as a single verse, as its nursery-rhyme simplicity and the plodding backing track pall halfway through. Literally everyone else I’ve seen talking about this song describes it as the best thing Brian’s done since Surf’s Up in 1967, but on the first couple of listens it doesn’t have a thousandth of the imagination and interest of that song, though it’s still in the better half of the songs on this album. Maybe it’ll grow on me — Midnight’s Another Day, the highlight of Wilson’s last album of original material, took a few months before I realised how good it was, even though everyone else was raving about it straight away.
If you like the Beach Boys’ material from the 1980s and early 90s, this is the same sort of thing but done much better, but the pre-release quotes from Jardine and Johnston saying this sounded ‘like Pet Sounds‘ or ‘like Sunflower‘ are sadly off. If it turns out to be the band’s last album — which given that they’re all in their late sixties or early seventies seems sadly likely — it’s a much better way to go out than Summer In Paradise was, but if they release any more albums it’ll quickly be thought of as ‘one of those later, less good, Beach Boys albums’ and only listened to by the hardest of the hard-core fans.