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The Beach Boys On CD: Youngblood

Posted in Uncategorized by Andrew Hickey on June 18, 2013

And here we come to the last album that will be dealt with in this volume. The story that’s played out over the thirteen years covered in this book is of the battle between two factions of the Beach Boys — on the one hand Carl and Dennis Wilson, pushing for greater artistic progress, and on the other Mike Love and Al Jardine, allied more by their dislike of the Wilsons’ drug- and alcohol-fuelled lifestyles than anything else. Each faction was trying to gain influence over Brian Wilson, and each had allies, but the two factions had been balanced for most of that time, though by this point things were shifting as Carl Wilson had cleaned up the worst excesses of his lifestyle.

Youngblood, Carl Wilson’s second solo album, came out in February 1983, and was the last album to be released before that balance shifted, horribly, with the death by drowning of Dennis Wilson in December that year.

From that point on, the Beach Boys would be following, pretty much exclusively, the vision of Mike Love. Some interesting things have resulted, as we will see in volume three, but the tension between the two factions of the band was over, for good.

So Youngblood is the last album to have been created when the Beach Boys were still the band dealt with in this volume, and it’s a strange one. It’s almost as mediocre as Carl Wilson, but not quite — if nothing else, it’s better sequenced, and the addition of a handful of cover versions gives the album some much-needed energy.

But also, the album benefits from the production of Jeff “Skunk” Baxter, and the combination of Wilson’s live band (who had toured with him during his solo tour in 1981, though he was now back with the Beach Boys) with the session musicians, like Nicky Hopkins and Vinnie Colaiuta, who Baxter was used to working with.

The result is an album that is far more listenable than its predecessor, but is still lacking in ambition — a bunch of very talented people making music that is, ultimately, pointless.

All songs by Carl Wilson and Myrna Smith-Schilling except where noted.

What More Can I Say?

And the album starts as it means to go on, with a song that is essentially as unimaginative as any of those on Carl Wilson, but performed with far more energy and enthusiasm than any of the tracks on that album. The track speeds through as fast as possible, distracting the listener with the rush of the tempo and Baxter’s twiddly, ultra-fast guitar playing, but the production — which is much, much better than anything on the previous album — doesn’t cover up the dullness of the underlying material.

She’s Mine

This is, frankly, the most unpleasant thing ever recorded by a member of the Beach Boys. The lyrics are misogynist as hell — “Don’t ask her she’s mine/She’ll tell you different but she ain’t free”, while the backing track is horrible 80s AOR that could be Survivor, Journey or a million other terrible bands.

The lowpoint — not just of the song, but of Carl Wilson’s entire career — is the second chorus, where he sings — of someone who is supposed to be his girlfriend, mark you, and of whom he’s said earlier “let me supply all the love she needs” — “that bitch can’t help it if she can’t be true”.

“That bitch”.

No more need be said really. This is a song from the point-of-view of a controlling, dominating man who thinks his partner is a “bitch”. Not sung with any Randy Newman style ironic unreliable narration, but with a cock-rocking swagger.

Abysmal.

Givin’ You Up
Songwriters:
Carl Wilson, Myrna Smith-Schilling and Jerry Schilling

Jerry Schilling gets a co-writing credit for this, according to Billy Hinsche’s liner notes for the 2010 CD reissue, because he suggested to Carl the idea of “a love affair unselfishly ending and nobody is to blame”. Myrna Smith-Schilling wrote the lyrics, and was apparently unaware that she was writing about the end of her own marriage with Schilling.

In fact, while Schilling’s original idea was to have the affair end “unselfishly”, it’s hard to imagine a more revoltingly egocentric, self-serving song than this — “I gotta admit you were there when I needed, still there’s something I gotta find”, “I’ve outgrown your love”, “In order to find me I’m givin’ you up”. Possibly it’s just the context, coming after the last song, but this sounds almost psychopathically narcissistic.

That said, Wilson sings the song as well as ever.

This was released in a slightly different edit as the B-side to What You Do To Me, and the single edit is a bonus track on the CD reissue.

One More Night Alone
Songwriter:
Billy Hinsche

Easily the best track on the album, this was written by Carl’s ex-brother-in-law Billy Hinsche, the Beach Boys’ touring keyboardist.

A slow “big ballad”, it’s based around Hinsche’s electric piano part, and like many piano composers he uses a much richer harmonic vocabulary than guitarists, so the first line of the song has the progression C-Fmaj7-Dm7-Bm7/E-E7/G# — a descending pattern where each chord removes the highest note from the one before while adding notes on the bottom — and then the second line (Am-Am7/G-Fmaj7-F6) does more or less the same in the relative minor. This isn’t particularly clever or original, but it is more interesting than the bulk of the album.

And given decent material, Carl Wilson really shines, turning in his best vocal on the album, starting with an almost-whispered first verse, singing the second in full voice, and straining at the emotional peak on the middle eight.

The song’s far from perfect — the lyrics show signs of rhyming dictionary abuse, the middle eight’s not very well thought out, and there’s a lounge sax solo — but compared to everything before it on the album, this is revelatory. This is what should have been the minimum standard for a Carl Wilson solo album, and it’s pretty shameful it took until the fourth song to reach that standard, but we’re there now.

Billy Hinsche later released a solo version of this on his live CD Bay Of Plenty.

Rockin’ All Over The World
Songwriter:
John Fogerty

A straight cover of the Creedence Clearwater Revival original, this adds nothing to what was never an especially original song. If you like three-chord rock songs about rockin’, that rock, then you’ll like this. I don’t, although Nicky Hopkins’ piano solo lifts the track slightly.

What You Do To Me
Songwriters:
John and Johanna Hall

This track was the only single from the album, and is a note-for-note cover version of a vaguely Latin-flavoured track from the John Hall Band (led by John Hall, a former member of rock band Orleans, and a Democratic Congressman from 2006 to 2011). The backing track is so similar, in fact, that it sounds closer to a different mix of the same track than to a new recording, though it isn’t.

While there’s nothing of substance to the song, which is just three chords and lyrics like “What you do to me/Feels so heavenly”, the track has an energy to it, though it’s not wonderfully suited to Wilson’s voice.

The single reached number 72 on the US charts, and number 20 in the Adult Contemporary Billboard charts, and stayed in the Beach Boys’ live set for a short while.

Young Blood
Songwriters:
Doc Pomus, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller

One of the most interesting tracks on the album, this is a cover version of an old R&B hit by the Coasters, which had also been recorded by, among others, the Beatles and Leon Russel.

However, while the Coasters’ original plays the song for laughs, here Wilson teases out the creepy, stalkerish undertone of the lyrics — something that isn’t hard to do with lines like “I tried to follow her all the way home/Then things were bad, I met her dad/He said ‘You’d better leave my daughter alone’”. But slowing down the track and emphasising the horns gives it a sinister edge, and then adding in the voice of Barbara Reilly, treated to sound like she’s on the telephone, saying “Who is this?” and getting no response, gives the song a whole different feeling.

Easily the best actual song on the album, this is also the one that has had the most thought given it by far.

Of The Times

This is just nasty. A galumphing AOR track that wouldn’t have been out of place as an album track by Survivor or Foreigner, this is an utterly mediocre song with a straight quiet verse/loud bombastic chorus, along with a screeching solo by Jeff “Skunk” Baxter instead of a middle eight, but what kills it are the lyrics.

This is an attempt at non-specific social comment, and as with all non-specific social comment by big 80s rock stars, its message is ultimately inhuman. The verses talk to someone who is concerned about “the state that the world is in” and that “the dollar won’t buy all the things you need”, but then the choruses say “But who else can you blame for the state of your mentality/If you’re just a part of the times?”

The last couple of verses offer newage (not a typo, rhymes with sewage) platitudes about how positive thinking will allow you to change the future, but fundamentally this is a vile bit of victim-blaming. If someone’s struggling with poverty, then being told by a multi-millionaire that it’s their own fault and that it’d get better if they just think positive thoughts really doesn’t help.

Too Early To Tell
Songwriters:
Carl Wilson, Myrna Smith-Schilling and John Daly

More utterly generic rawk, this time a track written as the show opener for Wilson’s solo shows. A duet with Smith-Schilling, there is literally nothing notable about this track, which has lyrics like “It’s time to rock and roll and let it all come out, that’s what it’s all about”. Lots of twiddly fast guitar attempts to cover up a lack of an interesting song.

Even though I’ve only written three sentences about this track, I’ve probably still spent more time writing about it than its composers did writing it.

If I Could Talk To Love

Easily the best of the originals on the album, this is a gentle ballad which unfortunately turns into a power ballad half-way through, but it has more harmonic imagination than any of the other originals on the album, with some nice playing around with major and minor versions of the same chords giving the song a harmonic ambiguity lacking in any of the other originals on either of Wilson’s two solo albums.

The song shows off his voice to better effect than anything else on the album, has a relatively restrained arrangement (at least until the drums kick in at 2:18, bringing 80s ‘sonic power’ along with them), and a very nice, understated, flugelhorn solo by Lee Thomberg that’s far more effective than any of the squealy, twiddly, Skunk Baxter solos on previous tracks.

One might also wonder if, given that this album was written and recorded around the time that Carl Wilson resigned himself to the Beach Boys grinding out the hits and being a nostalgia band, there might be a not-especially-well-hidden subtext in lines like “I put myself into your hands/From this moment on, I make no demands/And if one could talk to love, I’d say/Have it your way, love, have it your way”…

Time

Not the same song as Dennis’ solo song of the same name, this is a three-chord chugging boogie that Billy Hinsche compares, in the liner notes to the CD reissue, to Status Quo. It’s an accurate comparison, but he sees it as a good thing whereas I don’t. After the slow intro, It’s all fast quaver chords on the piano in a rough approximation of Jerry Lee Lewis, but without any of the excitement or danger that one would find in Lewis’ music. A mediocre, forgettable end to a mediocre, forgettable album.

The Beach Boys On CD: Carl Wilson

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on June 4, 2013

In 1981, the Beach Boys were a shambles. They’d just put out a terrible album, Dennis Wilson was spiraling down into the self-destructive spiral that would soon lead to his death, Brian Wilson was ballooning in weight, and the band were putting on poor shows, joylessly grinding out the hits yet again.

So it was unsurprising that when Carl Wilson’s eponymous solo album, recorded the previous December, was released, he announced that he wouldn’t be touring and recording with them, “until they decide 1981 means as much to them as 1961”, in a press release that also stated that there had “hardly been a full Beach Boys rehearsal in more than a year” and that he didn’t want to play “multi-night engagements in Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas and places like that”.

What was surprising, however, was the album. Where Dennis’ solo recordings had shown the untapped potential in an overlooked talent, Carl’s showed the opposite. While the vocal performances are never less than excellent, the music is dull, plodding AOR, the type of thing that might easily have been recorded by Bryan Adams or Huey Lewis.

Carl’s main collaborator on the album was Myrna Smith (later Myrna Smith-Schilling), the partner of the band’s manager Jerry Schilling. She was a great singer (she was a member of the Sweet Inspirations, who as well as their own hits also sang back-up for Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley, and performed on Van Morrison’s Brown-Eyed Girl) and carried her weight as a backing vocalist, but seemed not to bring out the best in Carl.

The album was recorded by a very small core band — Wilson and Smith, along with John Daly on guitar, James Guercio on bass and guitar, James Stroud on drums, with additional musicians limited for the most part to the odd tambourine or saxophone overdub — and produced by James Guercio. It only charted in the US at number 175, for the very good reason that it wasn’t actually any good. It’s not as bad as MIU or Keepin’ The Summer Alive, but it’s not something that has any reason to exist, either.

(All songs are written by Carl Wilson and Myrna Smith, except where noted).

Hold Me

The album’s first single was this plodding rocker, a duet between Wilson and Smith. There is next to nothing interesting to say about it. The production is straightforwardly dull, with a clomping drum part dominated by hi-hat and cowbell, and a strangely swimmy guitar sound. And the song itself is as basic as it’s possible to get — a dull I-V riff for the verse (sung by Wilson), a brief bridge sung by Smith (chord sequence vi-I-vi-V), then a chorus sung by both, over the same dull riff as the verse. Repeat. That’s it.

There’s not even a middle eight or a solo to break the monotony, just a near-endless repetition of the chorus (actually lasting only eighty-five seconds, but feeling like much more). Tedious in the extreme.

Nice vocals though.

Bright Lights

With its semi-disco beat under standard doo-wop changes for the verse, this beats the previous track in that the chorus is made of different musical material than the verse is. In fact there’s even a key change between the verse and the chorus, though only a change to the subdominant, about as banal a change as it gets.

But we don’t need Carl Wilson singing in an over-reverbed voice over a synth bass “Take a number in my black book/And promise to call”.

And again there’s a stunning lack of craft here — the structure is just verse-chorus-verse-chorus-verse-verse-repeat chorus to fade. Nothing at all to disrupt the monotony.

Nice vocals though.

What You Gonna Do About Me?

This track seems to be recorded to the same click track as the last one. There does seem, however, to have been some actual thought put into the track. There’s a verse, a bridge, and a key change into the chorus (and it’s a key change down a tone, which is more interesting). There’s even a rudimentary instrumental break, some changes in the dynamics, and an overdub of what sounds like a jew’s harp on the chorus to make it stand out.

However, to make sure that nobody accidentally gets a feeling stronger than a mild sense of ennui from the album, the last two minutes and nine seconds of the track’s four minute twenty-nine running time are (apart from a quick drop down to just the drums) a repeat of the chorus musical material, over and over, with no new ideas. And the lyrics are the worst so far, being the whinging of a Nice Guy complaining he’s in the “friend zone” (“I’m the one you keep on running to after they’ve walked all over you/I’m the one who dries your lonely tears, so what you gonna do about me?”)

Nice vocals though.

The Right Lane

Another song at approximately the same tempo, but this one’s definitely the ‘rock’ one, because the guitars are crunchier and the drums are being hit harder.

This is another one with a straight A-B-A-B structure, this time alternating between a two-chord (charitably — the two chords are E7 and E7sus4) verse and a four-chord bridge. Once again we have the last two minutes and forty-four seconds of the song being an extended repetition of the two-chord riff.

This song’s distinguishing feature (all the songs so far seem to have precisely one) is that it has an actual solo, quite early in the track. There’s even an amusing little ‘pew’ noise repeated during the solo and fade.

What’s most ridiculous is that the lyrics to this song are all about breaking the mould, doing something different, breaking away, and yet this is the fourth song in a row to be, to all intents and purposes, interchangeable.

Nice vocals, though.

Hurry Love

Old habits die hard. In the 60s, the Beach Boys’ albums had, on occasion, been sequenced into an uptempo side A and a slower side B, a legacy of the early rock era when there would be a side ‘for the kids’ and a side ‘for the grown-ups’. Whether deliberately or not, Wilson emulates that on this album, so while side one had four rockers, three of the four tracks on this side are ballads.

Immediately the album starts feeling slightly better, because for a ballad you have to have an actual song, and just not having the same bludgeoning drums and crunchy guitars makes this song seem like a relief. This one even has a middle eight.

The track is, overall, quite pleasant. Nothing special, but Carl Wilson singing even a mediocre song, over a backing of acoustic guitars and hand percussion, is always going to be at least listenable. This is up to the standards of such Beach Boys filler tracks as Sweet Sunday Kind Of Love or Full Sail, and was the B-side to both singles from the album.

Nice vocals.

Heaven

Songwriters: Carl Wilson, Myrna Smith, Michael Sun

The second single from the album was this ballad, the only song to involve a songwriter other than Wilson and Smith. On this evidence they should have had Michael Sun work with them more.

That’s not to say this song is as good as its reputation — since Carl Wilson’s untimely death in 1998, this song has, at least among Beach Boys fans, taken on something like the status of Forever and God Only Knows, but it’s very inferior to those songs. But it is a good song — something that has been lacking up until this point.

In fact it seems far more like a Beach Boys track than a solo track, right down to the lyrics about “The gentle waves of love in motion, and the warmth of summer sun”, and this gives Carl the chance to show that he could be a whole Beach Boys by himself, performing some absolutely lovely multitracked harmony parts, and singing what may be the highest falsetto part he ever sang on the line “Heaven could be here on Earth” — so high he’s clearly straining for the notes.

As a single, this flopped, but it was performed off and on in Beach Boys shows for several years later, and Brian Wilson recorded a solo version in 2007.

Very nice vocals.

The Grammy

This is probably the best of the uptempo songs, mostly because of the dropped beats in the chorus, but also because it bothers to have a middle eight (and the high vocals on the middle eight are by far the most interesting thing on any of the rockers here, sounding almost like Queen or Sparks).

But it’s a petulant whine of a song. Apparently inspired by Billy Joel, it casts Wilson as a rock star snubbing the Grammy awards (“You invite me to pick up my award, after all the time I’ve been out here/My music is still the same, why is it just now getting there?”) and being more interested in art than awards, while the multitracked Greek chorus backing vocals sing “We thought you wanted to be a star?/Who the hell do you think you are?”

Of course, this principled renunciation of the Grammies and all that they stand for would have had nothing to do with the fact that the Beach Boys themselves had never actually won a Grammy award.

(For the record, when the Nobel committee come calling about giving me the prize for literature for this book, I shall definitely turn it down.)

Nice vocals, though.

Seems So Long Ago

And we get another ballad, and so another actual song. Unfortunately it’s a banal, plodding song, with a hugely overextended lounge sax solo (not that there’s such a thing as a lounge sax solo that doesn’t outstay its welcome, but if there was, this wouldn’t be it). The lyrics are doggerel that wouldn’t even measure up for a Hallmark card (“I can see Mom and Dad and the house we had/The trees in the yard and how Dad worked so hard/The good times we shared and how much they cared”) and once again a hugely overextended fade nearly doubles the length of the song.

So at the end of the album (while it only has eight songs, it’s actually a respectable length — it’s just all the songs are at least two minutes too long), the feeling one gets after listening is… “well, that was certainly a recording of some musicians playing some songs.” That’s about as much of a strong opinion as it’s possible to muster about this album.

Nice vocals, though.

The Song Ends… But The Beauty Of It Must Never Fade

Posted in comics, music by Andrew Hickey on February 6, 2013

(Thanks to Andrew Rilstone for reminding me of the Jack Kirby quote that’s titled this).

February 6 is the anniversary of the deaths of two of my favourite creative artists. The first, Jack Kirby, lived a relatively long life, but not long enough — he revolutionised an art-form several times over, and created or co-created more great comic characters than any five other people. Darkseid, Captain America, Kamandi, The Incredible Hulk, Etrigan the Demon, The Fantastic Four, The Challengers Of The Unknown, The New Gods, The X-Men, Mister Miracle, OMAC, Iron Man, Kamandi, The Silver Surfer, The Eternals, Thor… to create even *one* of these would have been enough to make Kirby one of the greats. To come up with all of them is truly spectacular.

And that’s not even counting the fact that he, along with Joe Simon, made sure there was a comics industry at all in the 1950s by inventing the romance comics genre, without which the industry would have collapsed.

But all that pales next to two things — firstly, that all his work, throughout his life, from Captain America punching Hitler in the jaw through to the fight to stop Darkseid from having the anti-life equation, is about the fight between freedom and fascism, and he always comes down on the side of liberty. I’ve written more about that here, and here, and here, and in great chunks of a couple of my books.

The second, and possibly most important, is that he was just *such a bloody good artist*. Just look at this:

Kirby

or this:
Kirby2

Exactly.

And four years to the day after Kirby died, so did Carl Wilson.

Carl Wilson wasn’t the creative giant that Kirby was — he wrote a handful of very good songs, and was a far better record producer than people give him credit for, but he didn’t have that fizzing energy, the outpouring of ideas, that Kirby did.

What he was, though, was one of the great interpreters of popular song of all time, with an almost Sinatra-esque ability to sell a song, along with a voice that I would kill for.

He was only 17 when he played the lead guitar on Fun Fun Fun, only 19 when he sang lead on God Only Knows and Good Vibrations. His vocals on Surf’s Up, or the entire Wild Honey album, or All This Is That, are as good as any vocal ever recorded. He was also by all accounts the most stable person in the Beach Boys, the mediating presence that managed to hold the band together for thirty-six years. They split up very shortly after his death at the ridiculously young age of fifty-one.

At times during the last fifteen or so of those years he could get lazy, as he was asked to sing material that was utterly beneath his vast talent, and he couldn’t quite hide his contempt for some of it. But when he had something worth singing, he was as good as ever.

Below is an MP3 from what I think is the last recording of him — a partial audience recording of a concert from August 2, 1997. Three weeks after this show, he had to give up touring, and six months later he was dead. At the time of this show he was so ill from the lung and brain cancer that killed him that he had to remain seated throughout the show, and take oxygen between songs. But when he sang this song, he always managed to stand up, to give the song the respect it deserved. Just listen to this…

God Only Knows

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The Beach Boys On CD: The Beach Boys Love You

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on February 3, 2013

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.

line-up

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.

Mona
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.

Johnny Carson
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.

Good Time
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.

Ding Dang
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.

Solar System
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.

Airplane
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.

The Beach Boys On CD: The Beach Boys In Concert

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on January 18, 2013

Ask ten different Beach Boys fans their favourite period for the band as a live act, and you’ll get ten different answers. Over the years, the band’s stage show changed radically, and each period showcased a different aspect of the band. So some may prefer the band’s shows from the late 60s and early 70s, centred around the gentle material from Wild Honey, Friends and Sunflower. Others prefer the “Brian’s back” era of the late 70s, when the now-husky genius returned to the stage to add the quirky Love You material to otherwise nostalgia-driven shows. Yet others will argue for the 1993 box set tour, with its unplugged sets, positioning the band squarely in the ‘classic rock’ field, or the 2008 UK tour, or the 2012 reunion tour, both of which managed the difficult feat of balancing the artistic and nostalgia aspects of the band.

But more than any other period, people mention the 1972-74 period as a highlight for the Beach Boys’ live shows. In some ways, this is entirely for good reasons — this was the period when they had the most adventurous live sets, and had some of the best backing musicians they would ever have.

In other respects, though, it betrays a certain insecurity among Beach Boys fans. The 1972-74 live band were wonderful, but this was also the period where the band was the most acceptable to the kind of people who talk about ‘real music’. Yes, the band had none of the tacky accoutrements that damaged their later shows — no cheerleaders, Hawaiian shirts, cheap synthesisers or attempts at rapping — but on the downside there was a certain obviousness to the arrangements, with delicacy being ignored in favour of a riffy, heavy, guitar-based sound.

This is not to say that these performances were bad, by any means — they do deserve their reputation — but they were good in a very particular way, and represent a vision of the band, as long-haired, bearded, guitar-toting rockers, that practically oozes testosterone. If that’s not the version of the band you’re interested in — if you have less interest in rock music than in pop — then adjust your expectations accordingly.

While this album is compiled from many shows, over two separate tours (an early single-album version, with only material from the winter 1972 tour, was rejected by the record label, so they recorded summer 1973 tours and turned the result into a double album), it is an authentic record of what the band sounded like live at this time, as those who have heard the many audience recordings from this period can attest.

I will have less to talk about with this album on a track-by-track basis than for other albums, as I have already spoken about most of these songs in the context of their original albums. There are some general notes which are applicable to all the songs, though.

Firstly, as stated above, this is a rock album, not a pop one. In general, the songs are sped up and more dominated by guitar than the studio versions. There are also two drummers on most tracks, and at least one of the drummers uses far more cymbal than was ever used on a record produced by Brian Wilson.

Secondly, the harmonies are very different from what one might expect. With Brian Wilson absent from the touring band and Bruce Johnston having quit, the low and middle ends of the harmony stack are far more prominent than the high end. In later years, of course, the band would hire outside falsetto singers to take those parts, as they became more concerned with reproducing the sound of the hit records than with playing their new music, but at this point their set was dominated by songs which had little or no falsetto anyway. On the other hand, Dennis Wilson’s voice is far more audible in the harmony stack than it was most of the time — at this point, he was still unable to play the drums because of his hand injury, and so he was singing a lot more (he very rarely sang while drumming).

What’s perhaps most noticeable is the repertoire. This was the Beach Boys’ third live album in ten years, and yet of its twenty songs, only six had appeared on either of the previous two (and none had appeared on both). This was a band that was still growing, still changing up its setlist regularly, and mixing hits, obscurities and new songs with more concern for putting on a good show than for fitting someone’s preconceived idea of what a Beach Boys show ‘should’ be.

With those points in mind, on to the songs themselves.

line-up

Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Blondie Chaplin, Ricky Fataar
with backing band members Billy Hinsche, Ed Carter, Robert Kenyatta, Mike Kowalski, Carli Muñoz

Sail On Sailor
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks, Ray Kennedy, Tandyn Almer and Jack Rieley
Lead vocalist: Blondie Chaplin

Unsurprisingly, the opening track, from the band’s then-new album, sounds very similar to the studio version. The main differences are a more prominent bassline, a slight increase in tempo, and the loss of the ‘morse code’ guitar part, but otherwise this is much like the record.

Sloop John B
Songwriter:
trad arr Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson and Mike Love

The second in a miniature set of songs about sailing that starts the album, this is, like much of the album, a stripped-down, simplified, but relatively faithful arrangement of the hit. The orchestration is obviously not there (though the flute intro remains), but there are some nice instrumental touches, like the twelve-string guitar being doubled by an analogue synth.

The most notable differences from the record are Carl, rather than Brian, Wilson taking the lead vocal on the verses, the lack of the a capella break (in general the harmonies suffer more than the instrumental parts on this album), and the frenetic pace at which it’s taken (I actually felt my heart racing when listening to this with headphones, it goes at such a pace).

It’s not the best live version of the song (that would be the version on the Live In London album), but it’s a perfectly decent performance.

The Trader
Songwriter:
Carl Wilson and Jack Rieley
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson and Mike Love

Much as with Sail On Sailor, this was recorded close enough to the release of the studio version that it’s, if not indistinguishable, then still very, very similar. The most notable difference is a prominent bongo track in the left channel, and the inescapable fact that when performed live the transition between the two sections of the song is less abrupt.

You Still Believe In Me
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Tony Asher
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine with Carl Wilson

A very creditable attempt at what is possibly the most difficult song from Pet Sounds to perform live. Obviously, there was no possibility at this point of them reproducing the complexities of the record on stage, but the solutions here (replacing the plucked piano strings and falsetto on the intro with guitar and Moog, for example) work very well at giving the same feel.

This is also the best example of the band’s vocal work on the album. While Jardine can’t reproduce the delicacy of Brian Wilson’s original falsetto vocal part, his stronger, richer tone gives the vocal a pleading note which works just as well, and the transition between his vocal and Carl Wilson on the line “I wanna cry” (which goes out of Jardine’s range) is handled extraordinarily well. The harmonies on this show that while the band were hampered at this point by having their vocal ranges concentrated in the mid range, they could still pull off some beautiful vocals when required.

California Girls
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love

Pretty much exactly what you’d expect a live version of California Girls to sound like. The harmonies on this are a bit ragged, and we hear Dennis at the beginning exhorting the crowd to sing along, but you already know what this sounds like. Love’s joking “ooh, we mean it so much!” at the end seems to confirm that at this point, the band still saw their biggest hits as something of a joke and a distraction from their more artistic work, though that attitude would soon change.

Darlin’
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

This kind of material is where the band at this time excelled — songs that depend on a driving rhythm and a lead vocal performance. While the horns from the original are sadly missed, the addition of Hammond organ, along with the best drum and percussion track on the album (some great cowbell work and bongos) makes this the first song on the album that it’s safe to say is a definite improvement over the original.

Marcella
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson, Jack Rieley and Tandyn Almer
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

This track mostly differs from the studio version in that the guitar parts have been beefed up substantially — unsurprisingly given that the original’s glossy sonic sheen is pretty much unreproducible in a live setting. The vocals here again shine — this version of the band was not wonderful at the close harmonies that normally defined the band, but were as good as any vocal group ever at singing interweaving, independent solo lines in counterpoint with each other, and this track gives a great opportunity to show that off. The one flaw in this track is the percussion part in the left channel, which goes slightly out of time on occasion.

This arrangement of the song, as opposed to the studio version, is the basis for the version played live by Brian Wilson’s touring band in recent years, and is also the arrangement used on the Beach Boys’ fiftieth anniversary reunion tour.

Caroline, No
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Tony Asher
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

This, again, has a simplified arrangement (no percussive intro, just straight into the first verse), but this was never a song that needed much in the way of orchestration, and the simple electric piano part (presumably Dennis Wilson) and flute embellishments work perfectly (though the solo gets a little too close to lounge jazz for my own tastes). If you have a singer as good as Carl Wilson and a song as good as this, it’s impossible for it not to sound great.

Leaving This Town
Songwriter:
Carl Wilson, Blondie Chaplin, Ricky Fataar and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Blondie Chaplin

The upside: the organ solo on this (played by Billy Hinsche) has some real feeling and invention to it.

The downside: this is thirty seconds longer than the already-ridiculously-overlong version on Holland.

Probably sounds really good if you’re stoned.

Heroes & Villains
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine and Carl Wilson

The early-70s band’s version of this track is spectacular. Al Jardine, on the verses, sounds much more comfortable than Brian Wilson does on the single. Carl Wilson sings the Bicycle Rider lyrics on the choruses (and Mike Love adds in the “heroes, a-heroes, a-heroes and a villains” chant), and again the band are given the chance to shine vocally, including on the only a capella sections on the entire album (for the scat section and the last “I’ve been in this town” section), again singing wonderful cascading, overlapping vocal lines like no other band could do. Easily the highlight of the album.

Funky Pretty
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Jack Rieley
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, Blondie Chaplin, Ricky Fataar and Mike Love

The consensus among Beach Boys fans is that this is a massive improvement on the studio version, and that this is ‘how the song should always have sounded.’

Like most Beach Boys fan consensus, this is bunkum. On Holland, Funky Pretty is a mediocre song brought up to near-greatness by a spartan, Moog-dominated production that makes it sound almost like a piece of experimental electronica. Adding guitar riffs, honky tonk piano and a ‘proper’ rock drum track, and cutting out most of the Moog parts, turns it into something that sounds like a Rolling Stones album track. (It’s no surprise that the band regularly covered Jumpin’ Jack Flash in shows at this point, or that Blondie Chaplin spent most of the 1990s and 2000s as a sideman in the Stones’ touring band).

Let The Wind Blow
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

Of all the more radical reworkings on this album, this is the one that works the best. While the original track, on Wild Honey, has a gorgeous delicacy to it, this turns it into a gospel ballad that wouldn’t be out of place on a Ray Charles or Al Green record, with the original’s shared lead vocal turned into a solo for Carl Wilson. The wordless backing vocal lines from the original are dropped until the last verse, and other than the answering lines and some occasional touches from Jardine, the only vocals we pay attention to here are from Carl Wilson — the whole track is built around his vocal performance. Luckily, it’s an absolutely stellar performance, so while when hearing this one still misses the ethereal beauty of the studio version, this has its own strengths.

Help Me, Rhonda
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine

The oddest rearrangement on the album is this, with all the arrangement details blurred out into a nondescript guitar boogie with little charm and less grace, an excuse for jamming on mediocre solos. Bizarrely, the band stuck with this arrangement as late as the mid-90s (and Brian Wilson still uses it for his solo tours), though Mike Love’s touring “Beach Boys” (and the reunion tour of 2012) thankfully reverted to the original arrangement. Al Jardine does his usual spectacular job, and the audience sound enthused, but it just seems rather cruel to do this to a song that never did anything to harm the band.

Surfer Girl
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine and Mike Love

Mike Love’s introduction to this, emphasising how old the song is, is another pointer to how mildly embarassed the band were at this time to be doing this material.

Despite this, though, they do a lovely job on this. The harmonies are huskier and more fragile than on the record — these are definitely Beach Men, not Boys — but they still sound good.

Wouldn’t It Be Nice
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson, Tony Asher and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine and Mike Love

It shows the way the band had improved as musicians over a relatively short time that while on Live In London they cut out a huge chunk of this song (the part where the tempo changes in “you know it seems…”), here they not only perform that section but it gets what sounds like the biggest cheer of the disc.

Jardine once again does a splendid job on the lead vocals, although some of the backing vocals are rather perfunctory.

We Got Love
Songwriter:
Blondie Chaplin, Ricky Fataar and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Ricky Fataar

The one new song of the album was this, a song which had been originally intended for Holland before it was dropped at the last minute. It’s another very pleasant, but unspectacular, track from Chaplin and Fataar, this one possibly influenced by Allen Toussaint’s song Riverboat, which had been recorded by Van Dyke Parks on his Discover America album around the same time, and which has the line “We got love” emphasised several times, and a generally similar feel. (Toussaint’s song would actually have fit well on Holland, and may have also inspired Steamboat).

The lyrics, which sound like Love’s work primarily, are a generic call to treat other people nicely along with some new age stuff equating evolution and karma.

This is the last Chaplin/Fataar collaboration to feature on a Beach Boys album — Chaplin departed from the band, acrimoniously, before the end of 1973 after disagreements with Rieley. Fataar would remain with them until the end of 1974, and leave on mildly better terms, but by the time the next Beach Boys album came out, both would be long gone.

Don’t Worry Baby
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Roger Christian
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine and Carl Wilson

Given that they have a bigger band to play with here than they did when recording the single, the band decide to stop pretending and just play this as Be My Baby, right down to the drum intro, and until the lead vocal comes in this bears far more resemblance to the Spector classic than to the Beach Boys’ track (prompting two waves of recognition-applause from the audience — one at the beginning when the track starts, and another when the lead vocal starts and they realise what song it actually is).

Jardine and Carl Wilson split Brian Wilson’s lead part between them the same way they did on Heroes & Villains, with Wilson taking the higher part in the choruses and Jardine taking the slightly lower verses, and both do a very good job, though neither quite has the fragility of Brian Wilson’s original. Jardine messes up some of the lyrics, but in a recoverable way (and oddly is mixed far to one side), but the harmonies are spot on, and this is as good a version of this song as one could hope for given the absence of a 22-year-old Brian Wilson.

Surfin’ USA
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Chuck Berry
Lead vocalist: Mike Love with Al Jardine

This is about what you’d expect — a little faster than the original, the guitars a little more distorted, and with Al Jardine attempting Brian Wilson’s falsetto part. A rockier, more muscular live version of the song, but basically what you’d expect to hear from a 1970s Beach Boys show.

Good Vibrations
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson and Mike Love

This is about as accurate a rendition of an impossible-to-perform song as one could imagine (understandably, as the song is too big a hit, and too much of a masterpiece, to dare mess with). The big change made to the arrangement, and one the band kept through to the late 90s, was to extend the ‘gotta keep those lovin’ good’ section to several times its original length (and change the lyrics on that line to ‘happenin’ with you’ instead of ‘with her’), to allow for an audience sing-along section and a scatted show of vocal dexterity. Other than that, the only notable differences from the record are those made to make the song performable at all live (the ‘theremin’ part being played on a ribbon synthesiser, rather lower in the mix than on the record, no odd instruments like the jew’s harp, the triplets in the chorus being played on guitar rather than ‘cello).

Fun Fun Fun
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love

And the album ends with a rather chugging, graceless, performance of this song, which trades the original’s pop energy for a 70s heaviness. Hearing this version, it becomes much clearer why this song was a natural choice for a duet between the Beach Boys and Status Quo in 1996.

Overall, this is probably the best Beach Boys live album one could hope for, and at times it matches or even surpasses the studio recordings. If it lacks the subtlety and gentleness of the best of the band’s studio work, that’s more a reflection of just how special that studio work is, rather than a negative about the band themselves. With current technology, and on current budgets, it’s possible to reproduce the textures of Brian Wilson’s production on stage, but in the early 70s this was as good as it would be reasonable to expect it to get. It will never be my favourite Beach Boys album, but it’s a good one, and one that can be useful for dispelling some of the myths about the group. But there’s a definite sense from this that you had to be there.

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