Brian Wilson and Friends DVD

Brian Wilson and Friends is the latest live DVD/Blu-Ray (both come in the same case) from Brian Wilson. Recorded late last year to promote his new album No Pier Pressure, it features the band he will be touring with for the next few months — his standard touring band (the best band I’ve ever seen live) plus Al and Matt Jardine and Blondie Chaplin — along with Brian “Ike” Eichenberger who was briefly in Brian’s band last year but is now a member of the touring “Beach Boys”.

A live DVD from this band is always welcome, of course, but there’s a credit which strikes fear into the hearts of many: “produced and directed by Joe Thomas”. But that fear is, surprisingly, misplaced. While I won’t say there’s no autotune on here for certain, what I will say is that at no point do we get the robo-voice effect that wrecks much of the last two studio albums and the Beach Boys fiftieth anniversary album.

The vocal mix is much wetter than I would prefer, and there’s clearly been some touching up done in the studio, but a *lot* of the vocals are definitely as live — with missed words, swallowed syllables, sloshed sibilants and all. Errors are hidden with strategic doubling and a lot of reverb, rather than by whacking so much autotune on that everyone sounds like a robot. Fundamentally, what this DVD sounds like is what you’d get if you saw this band when Brian was on a very good night but the sound engineer was a little too reverb-happy, rather than a clinical mess.

(At least that’s my opinion after a handful of viewings. I don’t have the world’s greatest ears for studio effects, though. But if the 50th Anniversary Tour CD is a ten in over-autotuning, and No Pier Pressure is about a six, this would be at most a two or three).

The show opens with a gorgeous version of Our Prayer, mixed with every individual voice audible, and sounding lovely, before going straight into Heroes & Villains with the cantina section in place. Whoever’s singing the high harmony on the “dance Margarita” section does a wonderful camp vibrato on it, and the whole thing sounds great, although Brian swallows a couple of syllables. It’s amazing how adding Al Jardine to the harmony stack makes the band sound like the Beach Boys.

That’s even more true of Sloop John B, where Al and Brian duet (although Sloop is the first of a few songs where the video cuts to a long shot of Brian in a couple of places precisely when the timbre of his vocal changes and becomes more reverby, which makes the punch-ins rather obvious). But when you hear Al and Brian together, with no other voices, on “hoist up the John B sails”, for all that Brian’s voice has changed dramatically in the last fifty years, it still sounds like the Beach Boys.

Dance Dance Dance has never been a favourite of mine, but it does give Eichenberger a chance to shine on the choruses, and Probyn Gregory the first of several guitar solos.

Good Vibrations seems to be filmed to show the people who’ve made fun of Al for his guitar not being in the mix that he can play — lots of shots of his fingers as he plays the guitar motif in the verses. This sounds to me like it may have been edited from two performances — there’s a sudden change in the sound halfway through the first chorus that may just be a bit of sloppy mixing, but which may have been an edit. In general this seems to be one of the least “live” tracks, unless there really were multiple Al Jardines on stage at the same time. There’s also a bass voice doubling Brian on the chorus which doesn’t sound like anyone in the band. This shows up a few times, actually — normally Mike’s parts in the harmony stack have been taken by Scott Bennett in the shows I’ve seen, but it doesn’t sound like Scott (and he’s seen singing different parts). I don’t know if maybe Eichenberger (whose voice I don’t really know) can sing bass as well as falsetto, or if it’s someone else — possibly it could just be that whoever’s singing this part is raised in the mix compared to the normal vocal mixes for Brian’s shows, and I’m not used to hearing them sing bass.

This Beautiful Day from the new album features trumpeter Mark Isham, but also clearly has the studio vocal take, with multi-tracked autotuned Brians, used rather than a live one (the song’s really out of Brian’s current vocal range, so this is unsurprising). It’s a nice little song though.

Runaway Dancer, also from the new album, sounds more or less identical to the studio version, and again seems to have had a lot of tweaking. It features Sebu on lead vocals, as the studio version does. Not a highlight.

Sebu also takes lead on Don’t Worry Baby and does a very creditable job, although his style is a little melismatic for my personal taste. The track has also been very slightly rearranged, with a little keyboard figure I don’t think suits it, but it’s always a great song, and I can’t help but warm to Sebu when he does Mike Love-esque driving movements on the line “she makes me want to drive”.

At this point, the show becomes the early-70s Beach Boys, with Al Jardine (who had been absent from the stage for Sebu’s songs) returning and introducing Beach Boys Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, and longtime Beach Boys touring keyboardist Billy Hinsche.

We get a very good version of Marcella, although Brian’s still a little too polite a vocalist for this one, which might have been better sung by Chaplin, but the cascading, overlapping, vocal lines from the band are fantastic. Probyn also proves here that an often-made criticism of this band is false — people sometimes say that they’re a little too staid and can’t do rock. Probyn’s solo at the end shows that they *can* do loud rock solos (which is generally far, far, easier than the other stuff they pull off), they just know when it’s not appropriate.

Wild Honey features Chaplin on lead, and he forgets huge chunks of the lyric, just yelling random bits that he remembers along with non-lyrical mouth noises, while pulling eye-popping faces and looking like the even-more-raddled love-child of Keith Richards and Lou Reed. This makes it possibly the best thing on the DVD, and I’m looking forward hugely to seeing him touring with this band in September.

Sail On Sailor also features Chaplin on vocals, this time giving a much more restrained, quite beautiful, vocal performance. And with Brian Wilson, Al Jardine, and Billy Hinsche in the backing vocal stack, this sounds like the Beach Boys. This might be the best live version of Sail On Sailor I’ve heard.

Even Chaplin and Jardine can’t save the overblown yacht-rock that is Sail Away, though. This seems to be everyone else’s favourite song from the new album, but it does nothing for me.

Mark Isham then returns (and the other guests leave) for Half Moon Bay, the exotica-style instrumental from the new album, which allows the band to demonstrate their ability to play delicate, expressive, music beautifully. Something like this, which is all about the empty spaces, is much more difficult to get right than a stompy rock track like Marcella, but the band pull it off perfectly.

An instrumental take on Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) follows, with Isham playing the vocal melody on the trumpet. This sounds utterly lovely — Don’t Talk may be Brian’s very best melody as pure melody — but the song does rather miss something without its lyrics.

Nate Reuss comes on for Saturday Night, which sounds just like it does on the record (forgettable), before bringing Blondie and Ricky back on for a version of Hold On Dear Brother, their song from the Carl & The Passions (So Tough) album, which shows that Reuss can *really* sing — his performance is quite astonishing, as is Probyn Gregory’s. Probyn manages to reproduce Red Rhodes’ slide guitar solo from the record on a normal guitar, and the whole song is a lovely addition to the set, and must have been jaw-dropping live.

Reuss also sings lead on Darlin’, where he’s merely competent rather than astonishing. Following this, the DVD cuts away to two studio tracks with She & Him (Zooey Deschanel and M Ward). On The Island is the track from the album but with a different lead vocal take, and with some but not all of the backing vocal parts stripped out, and works very well, but God Only Knows is a bit of a disaster — Deschanel sings it very nicely, and while Ward’s guitar is the only accompaniment it works well, but then a truly horrible clodhopping one-man-band style drum part comes in, and it wrecks it.

The DVD then returns to the live show for The Right Time. I still think the song itself is underwritten, but it works better as a live track than on the record, with the harmonies sounding lovely and Al Jardine sounding even better in his seventies than he did in his twenties, and the band sounding more organic than the sterile studio version.

Wouldn’t It Be Nice follows, with Al again on lead. He’s *either* double-tracked or being partially doubled by Matt Jardine (who sounds very similar to his dad) here, but sounds astonishing (Brian is *definitely* double-tracked on the middle eight). How Al Jardine can still sound so good at his age, I can’t imagine. And obviously the song itself is a masterpiece.

We then get a run-through of a few of the hits — Al singing lead again on Help Me Rhonda (performed in the studio arrangement, rather than the old touring band arrangement, which I think Brian’s band used to use, though maybe my memory’s playing tricks with me). Bob Lizik’s bass playing is particularly good here; very loose and springy-sounding, just right for this song.

All Summer Long follows, with Brian back on lead, and the show proper ends with an all-hands performance of Fun Fun Fun, with Brian sounding a little tired and missing a couple of words, but getting by on the energy of the track (and Al doubling him on the last couple of verses to keep him going). The studio version of Guess You Had To Be There plays over the credits, with an interview with Kacey Musgraves, and there are two bonus tracks (Pacific Coast Highway and Summer’s Gone) that really should have been included in the main feature.

Overall, this isn’t the best possible representation of this band — it’s a little too clean, a little too sterile, to get across just how good they really are — but it’s a lot better than we had any right to expect, both in choice of songs and in how (comparatively) little it’s been messed with in the studio. If you go and see this band live this summer, you’ll see something very like this (albeit without Reuss, Sebu, and Isham).

The band
Brian Wilson: Keyboards and vocals
Al Jardine: Guitar and vocals
Paul von Mertens: Saxophone, flute, harmonica, mandolin
Probyn Gregory: Guitar, tannerin, banjo, trumpet, and vocals
Scott Bennett: Guitar, keyboards, and vocals
Darian Sahanaja: Keyboards, percussion, and vocals
Nelson Bragg: Percussion and vocals
Bob Lizik: Bass
Mike D’Amico: Drums and vocals
Matt Jardine: Vocals
Nick Walusko: Guitar and vocals
Brian Eichenberger: Guitar and vocals

Brian Wilson: No Pier Pressure

No Pier Pressure is, in effect, the latest Beach Boys album. Much like Al Jardine’s 2010 “solo” album A Postcard From California, it features so many contributions from other Beach Boys, along with various guest stars, that thinking of it as a solo record makes no sense.

If anything, this sounds far more like the Beach Boys than the last Beach Boys album, 2012’s That’s Why God Made The Radio. That album had a harmony stack largely made up of multiple overdubbed Brian Wilsons and Jeff Fosketts, to which a thin additional layer of Beach Boys was applied. This time, Brian and Foskett (who dropped out of the very extended recording sessions half way through, but still appears on many tracks) are joined by Al Jardine, Jardine’s son Matt (who was the falsettist with the touring Beach Boys for much of the 90s, and who recently replaced Foskett in Wilson’s band), Blondie Chaplin, and Scott Bennett from Wilson’s band. While Chaplin and Al Jardine are only specifically credited on tracks where one of them takes a lead vocal, they’re in the vocal mix on several other tracks. (Two session singers are also credited, but without a track-by-track breakdown, it’s hard to know what their contributions were).

So while Mike Love and Bruce Johnston don’t appear (although David Marks, who is touring with them on their UK tour next month, adds some guitar on a couple of tracks), there are four actual Beach Boys on this album — as many as on, for example, Summer In Paradise. The fact that it says “Brian Wilson” on the front doesn’t really make a difference here. This is a Beach Boys album.

It feels very much like a sequel to That’s Why God Made The Radio, in large part because on both albums Brian Wilson collaborated with songwriter and producer Joe Thomas.

I’m getting into very sticky territory when I try to look at what, precisely, Thomas does and doesn’t add to the recordings. A lot of people seem to suggest that Brian Wilson’s well-known mental problems mean he’s no longer capable of creating music, and that he’s a puppet for his collaborators. This is horribly offensive, not only to Wilson himself (and to anyone else with those problems), but also to his collaborators, who in the case of his band members are uniformly decent, principled, people who are being accused of acting horribly unethically.

On the other hand, Wilson is, and always has been, a very collaboratively-minded artist, and his collaborators’ contributions can’t help but show up. When he works with Andy Paley, who produces retro-sounding powerpop heavily influenced by Phil Spector, you get work that sounds very retro, powerpoppy, and Spectoresque; while when he collaborates with his own band, who were put together for their ability to reproduce the records he made between 1965 and 67, you get work that sounds very like his work between 1965 and 67.

Joe Thomas is an “adult contemporary” producer and writer, and so when Brian Wilson collaborates with him, you get something “adult contemporary” — glossy, shiny, with too much processing on the vocals, smooth-sounding, and often veering into something that could be off the soundtrack of a bad 80s teen movie (Thomas often brings in Jim Peterik, writer of Eye Of The Tiger, as a collaborator).

Those faults are present in this album, but to a rather lesser extent than even on the last one. Here, for the most part, the arrangements seem to fit the songs well, and strike a decent balance between pastiching Wilson’s old style on the one side and generic AOR blandness on the other. I suspect, though we don’t have track-by-track credits available, that this is because Wilson’s band were used to provide a great deal of the instrumental backing, augmented by session players (notably on drums, where none of Wilson’s band play, and the parts are provided by people like Jim Keltner and Vinnie Colaiuta).

It’s obviously a fool’s errand to try to separate out who contributed what to the songs, especially as we know that some of the material dates back nearly twenty years while other parts were pulled together in the studio — but then, I am a fool. Wilson has said in interviews that Joe Thomas provided the chord sequences, Wilson wrote the melodies, and both provided lyrics, but this seems like the kind of oversimplification that he comes out with in interviews — we know a great deal about the writing process for the last album, and there, at least, it seemed very collaborative (for example Think About The Days was a piano instrumental by Thomas to which Wilson added vocal harmonies, while The Private Life Of Bill And Sue had a verse by Wilson and a chorus by Thomas).

My guess is that in the songwriting process Thomas provided most, but not all, of the lyrics, which are often in an 80s-AOR mode that’s completely alien from Wilson’s normal preoccupations; that he shaped and structured Wilson’s ideas — the songs tend to be far more verse/chorus and repetitive than most of Wilson’s work (oddly, for a man who’s come up with some of the great choruses of all time, Wilson tends mostly to avoid them); and that he supervised the recording of, at the very least, the drum parts — there is more hi-hat work on the average track here than in the whole of Wilson’s work from 1961 through 1988 inclusive (Wilson doesn’t like hi-hats, but they’re skittering all over this album). I would also blame him for the overuse of processing on the vocals, which is horribly unpleasant to my ears on some tracks — but at the same time, I suspect he probably should get at least some of the credit for getting good vocal takes out of Wilson, who is not the most consistent vocalist in the world, but sounds better here than he has in years.

But having said that, Brian Wilson’s name is on the album, and he has to take the final credit or blame. Too many fans either claim Brian is incapable of doing anything and is the puppet of other musicians on one hand, or on the other think that he would be producing another Pet Sounds every three minutes were it not for the terrible collaborators sullying his perfect genius. Neither is the case, as far as I’m aware.

So, in this review from this point on, I’ll be treating Wilson as the auteur — relating things to his other work and in the context of his career. That’s not meant to take credit away from Thomas, but I only know Thomas’ work with Wilson anyway, and have no idea about how this album fits into Thomas’ general body of work, which includes live albums by Kenny Chesney, Bon Jovi, and Stevie Nicks, and studio work with Peter Cetera and Toby Keith.

No Pier Pressure comes in three different versions — a 13-track standard edition, a 16-track “deluxe”, and an 18-track extra-deluxe one that has two bonus tracks (a 2005 recording of Love And Mercy and a 1975 recording of In The Back Of My Mind). Amazon have still not got round to shipping my pre-ordered copy of the 18-track version, so this review is based on the 16-track version, which they have supplied as MP3s.

(All songs are by Brian Wilson and Joe Thomas unless stated otherwise).

This Beautiful Day is a promising opener. A simple, repetitive, song fragment (less than ninety seconds long), it starts with forty seconds of Brian singing solo over piano chords, in about the most natural voice he’ll be in all album (his voice clearly cracks on the line “hold on to this feeling”), before turning into wordless vocals, while Paul Mertens’ string arrangement restates the melody of Summer’s Gone, the last song from the last album, while a trumpet plays answering phrases, before ending on a percolating synth.
There’s not much song there, but it sets up a lovely atmosphere. Most of the credit there must go to Mertens, who has been a secret weapon on all Wilson’s music for the last decade or so. He’s often (rightly) criticised for his sax playing being too loungey, but his string arrangements, with their vague hints of Bartok and vaguely Eastern European feel, and unflinching spareness, have been an element that was, really, missing from Wilson’s work for the first forty years. His arrangements throughout this album, as always, are exemplary.
Lyrically, meanwhile, this sets up one of the big themes of the album — trying to hold on to something slipping away, whether that be youth, life, love, or the Beach Boys’ temporary reunion.

Runaway Dancer is the polar opposite. Featuring someone called Sebu, who is apparently a member of Capital Cities (a young persons’ skiffle group of some notoriety), who also co-wrote with Wilson and Thomas, musically this poor attempt at mid-tempo disco sounds like a Scissor Sisters B-side, but with added lounge sax. Lyrically, meanwhile, it sets up the *other* kind of lyric we get on this album — the string of meaningless lines that sound vaguely like the kind of thing that 80s MOR acts thought was cool (“Yeah, she’s been the talk of the town/She’s walking round everywhere, looking for an answer/Someone caught her fooling around/Acting like she don’t care, runaway dancer”). It’s almost three times as long as the previous track, and has about a third of the musical interest, just hammering on its tedious chorus incessantly.

Whatever Happened is a return to the sound of the first track, and a massive improvement. The chorus is a little too bombastic for my liking, but this is a very good attempt at making Pet Sounds-esque music. It also introduces a motif we’ll be seeing a lot — a plucked, reverbed, trebly, bass playing a descending melody. I’m sure Brian’s used this precise sound somewhere before, but the only example I can think of right now is that the melody is the same as the “doo doo” backing vocals at the end of the chorus to The Night Was So Young.
But what really makes this track worthwhile is the layering of vocal harmonies. Al Jardine doubles Brian at times and counters him at others, and the massed backing vocals sound like the Beach Boys, for the first time on a record since at least 1996’s Stars & Stripes album.
The track doesn’t break new ground, and is consciously looking back to Brian’s glory days, but within the confines of what it’s trying to do it does it well.

On The Island features She & Him, with the lead vocal being by Zooey Deschanel, and is absolutely lovely. It’s a Jobim pastiche, and a very good one, and Deschanel sounds wonderful, almost like Peggy Lee. Some of the lyrics seem to be very Brian in their unnecessary details — specifying that the TV they bought is a colour one, for example — and while there’s nothing very clever about the music, it’s catchy as hell and pretty. The only downside is that Brian’s “on the island” harmony line seems to have been cut and pasted over and over, rather than sung every time, which means that on the very last repetition, where he sings “’cause on the island”, there’s a jarring edit after “’cause”. Other than that I can’t find fault with this.

Half Moon Bay, featuring Mark Isham on trumpet, is a near-instrumental, just with wordless backing vocals, very much in the exotica/Jack Nitzsche style of previous instrumentals like Diamond Head or Let’s Go Away For A While. It’s long on mood, but short on actual melody, but it does set that mood very well. It also features a variant on that bass motif again. It’s about a minute too long for my tastes, but very pleasant.

Our Special Love is, frankly, horrible. Apparently this started as a Tommy James & The Shondells pastiche, until Wilson decided he hated the instrumental track, so instead the track was given to YouTube star Peter Hollens to turn into an a capella track. The opening and closing sections, featuring layers of Wilson, Foskett, Chaplin and the Jardines, are pleasant enough, if uninspired, but then Hollens comes in with his beatboxing and lead vocals, and it starts to sound like Title Of The Song, Davinci’s Notebook’s parody of bad boy band songs, but with more beatboxing. Beatboxing, for those who don’t know, is someone making stupid “tsst” noises over and over, so if you listen with headphones it’s like having someone spit down your ear.

The Right Time, on which Al Jardine sings lead, is essentially a rewrite of the earlier Wilson/Thomas song Lay Down Burden, with a little of Night Time thrown in. An underwritten verse leads to an over-repeated chorus, and we’re back to gibberish lyrics, but the track is inoffensive enough, and Jardine does a great vocal, although the autotune is a bit ham-handedly applied here (most noticeably on the word “never” in the first verse).

Guess You Had To Be There, featuring Kacey Musgraves on lead vocals, is a bouncy country-swing-sunshine-pop song in the vein of California Girls or California Saga, with some nice banjo, presumably by Probyn Gregory (the banjo isn’t credited on the album). Musgraves and someone called Andrew Saldago co-write with Wilson and Thomas. Apart from a dull rawk guitar solo and too much processing on Musgraves’ vocals, this is very pleasant — simple, but one of the catchier things on the record.

Don’t Worry, one of the songs that only appears on the deluxe version of the album, has been getting a huge amount of criticism, largely because of the use of synth horns. In fact, as a genre exercise in late-70s disco rock it’s much better than Runaway Dancer. The tiny nods to Don’t Worry Baby don’t spoil it, and Brian’s in very good voice. Inessential, but surprisingly fun.

Somewhere Quiet, another mid-album bonus track, is the 1965 Beach Boys instrumental Summer Means New Love, given new lyrics by Scott Bennett (one of the keyboard players and backing vocalists in Wilson’s band, and a frequent songwriting collaborator). Bennett’s a much better lyricist than either Wilson or Thomas, and while he’s hamstrung by having to write to a pre-existing melody not designed for vocals (thus leading to some odd scansion at points), he does an excellent job here, as does Al Jardine on the middle-eight vocal.
The original melody was already slightly old-fashioned fifty years ago, but with the addition of lyrics it becomes more classic than old-fashioned. While it’s patterned after 50s pop ballads, with its 6/8 time signature, you could imagine someone like Nat “King” Cole or Tony Bennett singing this, and it fitting right in with the great American songbook material.

I’m Feeling Sad is the last of the deluxe-only tracks, and is just lovely — an uptempo, bouncy, duet with Foskett, with slice-of-life lyrics that could have come off the Friends album, this is musically somewhere between Paul Williams or Burt Bacharach on one side and bands like the BMX Bandits on the other — a fragile, beautiful, piece of bouncy pop.

Tell Me Why is a return to the ersatz Pet Sounds of Whatever Happened, and again features a great vocal by Jardine on the middle eight, but is a blander song than that one — it’s the only song on the album that doesn’t have anything in it at all memorable. I’ve listened to the album a dozen or so times in the last week, and I couldn’t remember which one this was until it started playing, something I couldn’t say about any of the others. Too bludgeoning and heavy-handed for my tastes.

Sail Away, co-written by Wilson, Thomas, and AOR schlocksters Jim Peterik and Larry Millas (who co-wrote several titles on the last Beach Boys album), shares its title both with the title track of Wilson’s favourite Randy Newman album, and with a song Wilson performed on Van Dyke Parks’ Orange Crate Art album. However, this track has more in common with the similarly named track by Styx. This could be by any of those bands — Styx, Journey, Foreigner, Survivor, Toto — who only had one hit each in Britain but were apparently ubiquitous in the US thirty years ago. Personally, I loathe this style of music (and including the flute riff from Sloop John B just makes me think about how much better that record is), but a lot of other people seem to like this one.

One Kind Of Love, written by Wilson with Scott Bennett and without Thomas, is very much in the mould of their Southern California and Midnight’s Another Day. Like Somewhere Quiet, this has a melody that’s not very singable, but it’s one of the stronger songs on the album, and the breakdown where multiple Brians sing in counterpoint over just bass and a horn is lovely.

Saturday Night, written by Wilson and Thomas with Nate Reuss of the annoyingly-uncapitalised band fun, who sings lead, is another song straight out of 80s US radio — this time sounding like the kind of thing Kenny Loggins or Huey Lewis would write for a teen film starring Michael J Fox, right down to a line about “playing our music too loud”. There are some good arrangement touches — the banjo part (again presumably played by Probyn) is very pleasant — but this is uninspired, dull, hackwork.

The Last Song serves much the same purpose as Summer’s Gone did on the last album — a calculated attempt to tug at the heartstrings, with the Spector kitchen sink turned up to twelve (to mix several metaphors horribly) in an attempt to disguise the lack of song.

Overall, the album feels like the result of several different, conflicting, ambitions — to make something “adult contemporary”, to make something vaguely arty that sounds a bit like Pet Sounds, to make something that sounds like contemporary pop radio, and to just make another Brian Wilson album of nice songs. One could pull together an eight- to ten-track short album from this that would rank with anything Brian’s done in the last thirty years — but given that the bonus tracks are among the best things on the album, it’s unlikely that whoever made the final sequencing decisions would have made the right choices when putting one together.

As it is, we’ve got an album few people will love from beginning to end, but in this age of playlists I doubt it’ll be listened to that way all that often. Instead people will rip it to their MP3 collections and only listen to the good tracks (whichever they think those are) — and on that basis, rather than as a unified, whole, work, this is an album worth buying.

Thoughts on the No Pier Pressure Previews

Now that about half Brian’s new album has become available to listen to in one form or another, my very preliminary thoughts on what we’ve heard.
Note that my opinions on Brian Wilson tracks change a LOT in the first year or so after I hear them, and also that this is based on lossy streams of one kind or another. This is after only hearing these songs once or twice, and I’ll be posting a proper review when I get a CD copy in a week and am able to properly listen to the whole album, in order, on headphones, a few times. This is just my initial opinion.
The Right Time has some nice harmonies, but a dull AOR instrumental arrangement. A gorgeous lead vocal from Al is marred a little by the autotune, and there’s no real song there as such, but it’s a bit of a grower.
Saturday Night on Hollywood Boulevard sounds like it comes from the soundtrack of a bad 80s family adventure film starring Michael J Fox or someone. If you’d told me this was Huey Lewis & The News’ new single I’d believe you. Given that Brian’s not on it vocally very much, I’d honestly not have guessed it was a Brian song.
Runaway Dancer sounds like a Scissor Sisters B-side. Which is brave, coming from Brian, but not really something I’m interested in listening to a lot.
Our Special Love has some lovely harmonies, but the song’s unmemorable — I’ve heard it half a dozen times and couldn’t remember it to write this (I had to put it on again just to check what it sounded like). I don’t like Hollens’ voice at all on his lead sections, and Brian’s voice on the “Our special love” section is autotuned to death. I’m also not a fan of beatboxing.
The Last Song This one’s very nice, and sounds much more “Brian” and less “Joe Thomas” in its production than some of the others. It reminds me of Pacific Coast Highway from That’s Why God Made The Radio or Midnight’s Another Day from That Lucky Old Sun, both of which were very much growers. The strings also sound like Paul Mertens’ arranging, which has been a feature I’ve liked a lot on Brian’s solo work over the last decade or so (he has a fairly unique style of string arrangement which reminds me of Bartok by way of Van Dyke Parks). I’m not sure if the song is as strong as the production, but this is by *far* the best arrangement, and the one that sounds best to my ears.
On The Island is another favourite. A perfect Jobim pastiche, with Zooey Deschanel sounding quite a bit like Peggy Lee. A trifle, but a fun one, and the most natural sounding vocals on anything we’ve heard so far.
Sail Away isn’t the song that Brian did with Van Dyke Parks in 1995, and nor is it a cover version of the Randy Newman song from one of Brian’s favourite albums. Which is a shame, as both those Sail Aways are better than this one. Which isn’t to say it’s bad as such, and it’s always good to hear Blondie Chaplin and Al Jardine back with Brian, but this has the sort of slightly overblown feel of the Beaks Of Eagles section of California Saga, or the Monterey bit of Al’s Looking Down The Coast, and the musical quotes from Sloop John B just highlight how much better that song was than this one.
I’m Feeling Sad is a nice track. A nice, bouncy, piece of sunshine pop, very Paul Williams or Burt Bacharach.
Guess You Had To Be There is a pleasant, if insubstantial, track. Kacey Musgraves’ vocals are processed to death, unfortunately, but the song is very catchy.

So after having heard about half the tracks, about half of what we’ve heard is at least pretty good. Given that the stuff that was let out first is far worse (to my ears) than the stuff we’ve heard more recently, I’m guessing the ratio of good to rubbish will only improve on the actual album itself. I’m cautiously optimistic about this one.

California Dreaming: Dead Man’s Curve

Dead Man’s Curve was possibly Jan and Dean’s most prescient song.

Jan and Dean were always ones to follow the trends, especially trends that the Beach Boys started, so when the Beach Boys put out the album Little Deuce Coupe, which was a near-concept album themed around car songs, with the single exception of the song Be True To Your School (which got in because it had a couple of lines about cruisin’ round with a decal in back), Jan and Dean immediately started recording Drag City. This album was based around their hit single of the same name, a Surf City soundalike written by Jan Berry, Brian Wilson, and Roger Christian, and consisted entirely of car songs, with the single exception of the song Popsicle Truck, which was about popsicles but got in because it briefly mentioned the truck after which it was titled.

And the Beach Boys had included A Young Man Is Gone, a dreadful maudlin song (a cover of a Four Freshmen song with new lyrics by Mike Love) about the death of James Dean in a car crash. Coincidentally, perhaps, Jan and Dean also included a song about a car crash on their album.

The team that wrote the song was Berry, Wilson, Artie Kornfeld (a record executive who co-wrote a huge number of hits), and Roger Christian. Christian was a DJ who Wilson had started working with after he criticised the lyrics to 409 on the radio, because he thought the car wasn’t good enough for a song like that, and who ended up writing the lyrics to almost every car hit not only for the Beach Boys, but for Jan and Dean, as well as collaborating with Gary Usher on innumerable studio band knockoffs and beach party film soundtracks.

The song is structured, musically, very similarly to their previous two hits — a verse based around simple I, IV and V chords, followed by a chorus with a chanted vocal (“dead man’s curve, it’s no place to play”) a low bass vocal stating the song title, and wordless falsetto vocal rising over it, leading to a hook at the end of the chorus. Those vocals, though, were thicker than before — Jan and Dean had often used extra backing vocalists, and here they were joined by P.F. Sloan and Steve Barri (who had their own hits as The Fantastic Baggies, and wrote several songs for Jan and Dean), as well as Brian Wilson and Gary Usher, singing “Slippin’ and a-slidin’, driftin’ and broadslidin’” under the second verse. In fact, so many vocalists are on the track that Dean Torrence is inaudible, if he’s even present.

But the influence of Be My Baby on Brian Wilson’s songwriting was already starting to show. The tempo and feel are very close, and the chord sequence for the chorus is identical up to the hook line (allowing for the difference in keys). This might be a car song, but it was a car song with more of Phil Spector than Chuck Berry about it. And as befitted the subject matter, the song was far more of an epic than most of Jan and Dean’s records to that point, featuring a portentous horn section playing a three-note riff, and an extended spoken section (“Well, the last thing I remember, doc, I started to swerve…”) that led into the repeated message “won’t come back from Dead Man’s Curve!” — even though, of course, the protagonist of the song did come back from his car crash, since he’s in hospital telling the doctor what had happened, although it’s implied that the driver of the inferior British car he was racing was not so lucky.

The song as recorded is very much a throwback to hits of a few years earlier, particularly the 1960 hit single Tell Laura I Love Her, with its tale of a car crash victim’s last words. But by late 1963 that style of song had gone out of fashion, and so when Dead Man’s Curve was released as a single (in a slightly revised version, with more horns, car crash effects, and a rerecorded lead vocal) in February 1964, it was like nothing else on the radio — especially since between the time it was recorded and the time it was released, a minor British band called the Beatles had released a couple of singles. When Dead Man’s Curve entered the US top twenty, the rest of the top twenty included six Beatles songs (including numbers one and two on the charts), three songs by other British bands (two by the Dave Clark Five and one by The Searchers), and the Kingsmen’s cover version of Barret Strong’s Money, charting off the exposure the song had got from the Beatles’ version. The music scene was completely different from that of December 1963, when the track had been recorded.

Astonishingly, then, this already-dated throwback managed to see Jan and Dean slightly ahead of the curve, as they started a small wave of car-crash songs — the two defining songs of the genre, Leader of the Pack by the Shangri-Las and Terry by Twinkle, both came out in its wake. Somehow, against all reason, Jan and Dean had managed for the first time to start a bandwagon, rather than jump on one that was already rolling.

The song made a very respectable number eight in the US charts, and showed that the British Invasion hadn’t completely killed off the surf and hot rod pop stars of 1963. But would any of them be able to survive much longer?

Dead Man’s Curve

Composers: Brian Wilson, Artie Kornfeld, Roger Christian, and Jan Berry

Line-up: Jan Berry (vocals), Dean Torrence (vocals?), Brian Wilson (vocals, possible piano), Gary Usher (vocals), P.F. Sloan (vocals), Steve Barri (vocals). I don’t have a copy of the AFM session sheets to say for sure, though I intend to track them down before the release of the book version of this (they’re in the public domain), but almost certainly the instrumentalists included Billy Strange (guitar), Ray Pohlman (guitar), Glen Campbell (guitar), Bill Pitman (bass), Hal Blaine (drums), Earl Palmer (drums), plus horns probably including Steve Douglas.

Original release: Dead Man’s Curve/The New Girl In School, Jan & Dean, Liberty Records single #55672 (the earlier album version, a different mix with different lead vocals, was first released on the Drag City album, Liberty Records LRP-3339 (mono)/LST-7339 (stereo))

Currently available on: Surf City/Dead Man’s Curve / New Girl in School BGO Records CD, plus innumerable budget compilations. Note, however, that there are many inferior re-recordings by either Jan & Dean or Dean Torrence working under the duo name, from the last few decades.

California Dreaming: Surf City

“Two girls for every boy…”

The Beach Boys came along at the perfect time for Jan and Dean.

In August 1962, the Beach Boys were the exciting new kids on the scene. They’d just had their first top twenty hit, and had only just signed to Capitol Records. Meanwhile, Jan and Dean had some claim to being elder statesmen. Their latest album, in fact, was called Jan and Dean’s Golden Hits. Never mind that most of the hits weren’t theirs.

But, as the title might suggest, Jan and Dean’s career was looking like it might be over. Since their big hit with Heart and Soul, fifteen months earlier, they’d released five singles, and none had charted higher than number 69.

But they were still big enough that they could be the headline act at the Reseda Jubilee, with the Beach Boys as their support act and backing band. The young band played their own limited set, then backed Jan and Dean on a run-through of their own hits, before (in an act of desperation due to a lack of material) performing Surfin’ and Surfin’ Safari again, with Jan and Dean joining in.

The experience was an invigorating one for Berry and Torrence, partly because the two enjoyed hearing fuller harmonies behind themselves — while they’d thickened their sound with overdubs in the studio, they really wanted to be in a vocal group, and they had their wish that night.

The two groups struck up a friendship, and played a couple more gigs together in the next few months, during which time Jan & Dean also managed to score another top thirty hit with Linda, a song originally written in 1946, about the then one-year-old Linda Eastman (later better known as Linda McCartney).

Jan Berry noticed Brian Wilson’s songwriting talent and asked him to play some of the songs he was working on. The first thing Wilson played for them, a rewrite of Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen with lyrics about what it would be like “if everybody had an ocean across the USA”, he insisted on keeping for his own band, but he had another song, with the working title Goody Connie Won’t You Please Come Home?, which he was very glad to offer to the duo to work on.

Various people — Dean Torrence, Don Altfeld, and Roger Christian among them — have been named at times as having contributed to the finished song, which turned into a paean to bisexual polyamory [FOOTNOTE: Well, maybe that’s stretching it slightly. But after all, “two girls for every boy” is just another way of saying “a boy and a girl for every girl”…], but the eventual writing credit went to Jan Berry and Brian Wilson.

On March 7, the Beach Boys went into the studio to back Jan and Dean, vocally and instrumentally, on the duo’s cover versions of Surfin’ and Surfin’ Safari. A few weeks later, Brian Wilson was back in the studio with them to record the newly titled Surf City and another song on which they had collaborated, Gonna Hustle You (later issued under the name The New Girl In School).

Surf City, in its finished version, is clearly the product of the same songwriter who wrote those first two Beach Boys singles. The structure is identical to them — start with a vocal hook, then go into a verse sung by a nasal tenor lead, before a chorus where that lead drops down and sings a boogie bassline while block harmonies sing the title, have the chorus end with the intro hook, and repeat a couple of times.

But this is a far more sophisticated take on the idea than any of the earlier versions Wilson had created. The opening “two girls for every boy” at first sounds simple enough — it sounds like we’re hearing a I-IV-V song in B…at least until we hit the word “boy”, which is on a chord, E-flat, which makes no sense at all in that context — it’s the V of vi, about as far tonally from what’s been set up as one can get.

But the next chord, the start of the verse, makes it make sense — it resolves nicely into A-flat for “I got a thirty Ford wagon”, and we’ve got a nice, safe, tonal centre. We’re in A-flat, not B, and for the first two lines of the verse it’s straightforward shuffling between I and vi.

For the bridge into the chorus (“it ain’t got a back seat”) we move up to the IV, and have a brief stab at doo-wop changes in that key (we hear D-flat – B-flat minor – G-flat, which is either a I-vi-IV in D-flat or IV-ii-VII in A-flat, depending on how you want to look at it), but then rather than go to the A-flat that would resolve that we jump up to the E-flat that we last heard leading into the verse.

This is very clever, because it means that while we’ve had a fairly stable tonal centre for the whole verse, and the chorus is in the same key of A-flat, it feels like a key change.

The chorus then starts off a fairly standard twelve-bar blues progression — and here we see the final building blocks of Brian Wilson’s early style fall into place, because here for the first time, along with the boogie bass vocal and the chanted song title in block harmonies, we have a third moving part, a wordless falsetto, sung by Torrence (and apparently doubled by Wilson, though everything’s double-tracked and drenched in reverb so it’s hard to tell who’s singing what), singing a different melody from anything going on below. This is, finally, the Beach Boys’ classic sound, albeit not on a Beach Boys record.

And while the chorus starts out sounding like a twelve-bar blues, for the last four bars we have, instead of the expected V-IV-I-I change, the utterly bizarre (in context) repetition of the “two girls for every boy” intro in B, making the chorus tag in context be III-flat – VI-flat – VII-flat – V, and again giving us the sense of a key change going into the next verse, even though we’re once again going back into the home key.

This is, of course, not exactly Stockhausen — most of the changes make sense on their own terms — but when put together it gives a quite bewildering sense of constant movement in unexpected directions, even though most of the time it ends up back where it started. And just to make sure you don’t ever quite get sure of what key the song’s in, after two more repetitions of this verse-chorus structure, we end with a repetition of the final “two girls for every boy” a tone up, placing us in C, and end on a repeated C chord to fade.

That technique on its own is a cliche — the “truck-driver’s gear change” — but when combined with the tonal ambiguity of the rest of the song it makes the whole thing seem quite bewildering when compared to other music on the US pop charts in 1963.

But the performance hangs together, and has an incredible sense of excitement, thanks in large part to the contributions of several of the musicians who would later be known as the Wrecking Crew. There are many myths around the Wrecking Crew, but the term is just used to describe the couple of dozen session players who were most frequently chosen to work on rock records in LA, and so ended up playing on many hits (though nowhere near as many as some of them claim). We will be hearing much more from them later, not least on productions by Brian Wilson.

Unfortunately, production techniques in the early 1960s relied on “bouncing down” — taking two or three tracks from a multitrack tape and recording the sound from them onto a single track — in order to do the multiple overdubs that Jan Berry loved, and the build up of tape hiss from this means that the details of the track are not as audible as one might like. Even so, it’s clear that arranger Billy Strange took the sound the Beach Boys had created and tightened it up — parts like the Dick Dale style semiquaver runs on the bass strings of the guitar during the chorus show both more thought and more skill than anything that had been on a Beach Boys record to that point.

The result was an astonishing, exciting, record that, when released as a single coupled with She’s My Summer Girl (a Berry/Wilson/Altfeld collaboration) became the first number one single for either Wilson or Jan & Dean. Murry Wilson, Brian’s father, was apparently apoplectic that the song had been “given away” rather than kept in the family, and referred to Berry as a pirate — prompting Berry, allegedly, to turn up to a Beach Boys recording session in full pirate outfit.

But Brian Wilson was learning production from Berry, just as Berry was finally getting to collaborate on writing hit songs. Together, they’d found the new sound, and both men were going to make as much of it as they could, while they could.

Surf City

Composers: Brian Wilson and Jan Berry

Line-up: Jan Berry (vocals), Dean Torrence (vocals), Brian Wilson (vocals), Billy Strange (guitar), Ray Pohlman (guitar), Glen Campbell (guitar), Bill Pitman (bass), Hal Blaine (drums), Earl Palmer (drums), uncredited piano (probably Berry and/or Wilson), uncredited horns

Original release: Surf City/She’s My Summer Girl, Jan & Dean, Liberty Records single #55580

Currently available on:
Surf City/Dead Man’s Curve / New Girl in School BGO Records CD, plus innumerable budget compilations. Note, however, that there are many inferior re-recordings by either Jan & Dean or Dean Torrence working under the duo name, from the last few decades.

California Dreaming: 409

The Beach Boys didn’t really capitalise on their initial success. Surfin’ was released in November, and they did two shows in December (one of them a two-song set in the intermission of a Dick Dale show which apparently went badly) before going into a studio in January to record a few more songs about surfing, in their newer electric style.

But then Alan Jardine left the band, deciding he’d rather concentrate on his studies and his folk group than on a pop group. His departure was perfectly amicable — he would record a single under the name Kenny & The Cadets that March with Brian and Audree Wilson (Brian’s mother) — but it left a gap in the band’s line-up.

The gap was quickly filled by David Marks, a thirteen-year-old neighbour of the Wilson family who had been learning guitar along with Carl. Marks was not the singer Jardine was, but he was an accomplished guitarist for his age, and knew the family well.

But one further big change had taken place — one which would have big results for the band over the next few years. Brian Wilson had found his first outside collaborator.

Gary Usher was three years older than Brian Wilson, and had released a single himself a couple of years earlier, an unsuccessful track called Driven Insane, a startlingly odd combination of reverbed Fender guitar, a sobbing Gene Pitney-esque vocal, and a high, almost theremin-sounding, female backing vocal. He and Wilson quickly hit it off and began collaborating on songs, both for the Beach Boys and for other side projects.

One song they came up with was a variant on the formula Brian and Mike had hit upon with Surfin’. Brian and Mike had already written another song, Surfin’ Safari, that was a virtual clone of their original hit, but which had tightened the formula. That song opened with almost unadorned vocal harmonies singing the hook, before going into a repeated twelve-bar blues pattern, over which Love sang the verse in his tenor range, and using the same pattern for a chorus, but with Love singing a bass melody while the rest of the band chanted the title before they all came together for the last line.

It’s the same basic structure as Surfin’, but tighter, and with twin electric Fender guitars providing much more drive than the single acoustic guitar of the earlier song, and with a prominent Chuck Berry influence on the guitar style.

Usher and Wilson took that same structure, and instead of writing about surfing, decided to write about the cars Usher loved so much, and in particular the Chevrolet Impala SS car Usher was desperate to buy, which had Chevrolet’s latest top-of-the-range engine, one with a 409 cubic inch capacity.

Mike Love, who has since gained a co-writing credit for this song following a lawsuit in the early 1990s, apparently added the opening “She’s real fine, my 409” hook and the “giddy-up” backing vocal idea. Love has often claimed that the reason for writing car songs along with the surf songs the band had been doing was a commercial one — that while the people on the coasts enjoyed surfing, the landlocked middle states all had cars as well — but it’s notable that while Love was Wilson’s principal collaborator, he worked on relatively few of the car songs. Usher (and Roger Christian, who later collaborated with both Wilson and Usher) clearly knew and loved cars.

This led to a rather odd situation — the song itself manages to clearly communicate its lyricist’s passion for the subject, precisely because its relatively short lyric contains the almost incomprehensible phrase “my four-speed, dual-quad, positraction 409”. Only someone who really loved cars would talk about them in such detail, and the enthusiasm is infectious even for those of us who barely know one end of a car from another.

Usher was also encouraging Wilson to stretch himself as a producer. When the band went into Western Studios with engineer Chuck Britz to record this song as a demo, along with a new version of Surfin’ Safari, Wilson and Usher’s ballad The Lonely Sea and the old Four Freshmen song Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring, they took with them a tape recording, made on a reel-to-reel recorder, of the engine of Usher’s car revving up. The addition of this sound effect at crucial points in the track turned it from just a Surfin’ Safari rewrite into something more.

Brian Wilson’s father Murry was credited as the producer of the session, but Brian was calling the shots in the studio from the beginning, and the results are wildly more exciting than the rather tentative Surfin’.

Nik Venet agreed. Venet had recently moved from World Pacific Records to become Capitol Records’ head of A&R*. Venet had been in at the birth of surf music with Moon Dawg, and decided that the Beach Boys were going to be big. He bought the demos of Surfin’ Safari and 409 and released them as a single in June 1962, and Surfin’ Safari quickly rose to number 14 in the charts. 409 did less well, but still made the Hot 100 on its own merits, and by September the band were in the studio, recording five more Wilson/Usher songs and one more Wilson/Love one, along with a couple of covers of popular hits and a remake of Moon Dawg (credited to Venet rather than its composer Derry Weaver), for a quick album release to capitalise on the single’s success.

The Beach Boys were no longer one-hit wonders, and they’d already expanded from just singing about surf to cars as well. Where could they go from here?

Brian Wilson, Gary Usher, and Mike Love
Line-up: Brian Wilson (vocals, bass), Mike Love (vocals), Dennis Wilson (vocals, drums), Carl Wilson (vocals, guitar), David Marks (guitar), Gary Usher (sound effects, uncredited)
Original release: Capitol single 4777, as the B-side to Surfin’ Safari
Currently available on: Surfin’ Safari, plus many public domain compilations

*Artists and repertoire. An A&R man was at the time the main contact between the record company and the performer, and would sign artists, choose material for them, and produce their recordings.

The Beach Boys On CD: The Beach Boys Love You

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
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], 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
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.

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.

Johnny Carson
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.

Good Time
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
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.

Ding Dang
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.

Solar System
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
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
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
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
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.

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
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.