The Beach Boys On CD: Pacific Ocean Blue

The Beach Boys Love You marked the end of the Beach Boys as a creative force. Brian Wilson’s spurt of creativity continued for a while, producing two albums which are (as of May 2013) still unreleased — New Album [CORRECTION: New Album came pre-Love You. I’ll fix this in the book] and Adult Child — but the tensions within the group led to the band actually breaking up on September 3, 1977, shortly before the recording of the lacklustre MIU Album. That album featured almost no contributions from Carl or Dennis Wilson, as the band had essentially split into two rival camps — on one side, the younger two Wilson brothers, both going through bad emotional times and turning to drugs and alcohol, but both committed at that time to trying to move the band’s music forward in new ways, while on the other side were the clean-living Mike Love and Al Jardine, who were more interested in meditating and in trying to appeal to the fanbase who had been attracted to the band by the nostalgia of the Endless Summer collection.

So while Dennis Wilson contributed almost nothing to the Beach Boys’ records from here on, he was productive in his own right. He had a contract as a solo artist from Caribou records (a label run by Jim Guercio, the manager of the band Chicago, who was also the Beach Boys’ sometime stage bass player), and turned in what is widely considered the best solo album by a member of the Beach Boys, Pacific Ocean Blue.

While it was an artistic triumph, the album wasn’t hugely commercially successful, and the attempted follow-up, Bambu, was never completed. Apart from a brief CD release in 1990, Pacific Ocean Blue remained out-of-print for the most part until 2008, when a ‘legacy edition’ double CD was released, featuring the full album, many bonus tracks, and much of the Bambu material.

While the bonus tracks are variable in quality, this level of attention was no less than the album deserved. It is, frankly, a masterpiece, but one about which it is difficult to write — it’s so coherent and unified a vision that there is little to say about one song that can’t be said about all.

In writing this essay, I have relied hugely on Craig Slowinski’s notes at . Normally, when writing these essays, I rely on a variety of sources, but in this case Slowinski’s notes, which detail recording dates and session players, and quote interviews with every important player, are all that is needed. Slowinski goes into far more detail than I can, devoting sixty-nine pages in PDF form to these tracks, and frankly my own essay is redundant when compared with his. Were it not that Pacific Ocean Blue is such an essential part of the Beach Boys’ story that it can’t be left out of my book, I wouldn’t have even bothered writing about it.

If you enjoy this essay at all, please go and read Craig’s much more detailed work. It deserves a wider audience.

River Song
Dennis Wilson and Carl Wilson

This song dates back to 1973, and was originally performed live by the Beach Boys with Blondie Chaplin on lead vocals. The track as released features the core of the Beach Boys’ touring band from that period — Carl Wilson and Billy Hinsche on guitar, Ed Carter on bass, Dennis on piano and Ricky Fataar on drums.

Technically, Dennis’ solo contract didn’t allow the appearance of other Beach Boys on his album. In fact, Carl Wilson appears on several tracks, most obviously here, where he’s very audible in the backing vocal stack.

The song starts with an arpeggiated piano introduction, the first of many piano arpeggios to feature in the album, followed by a sixteen-bar choral verse, over a simple two-chord backing.

This is followed by an eight bar bridge, with Dennis singing a solo lead vocal (“ooh, lonely river”), and a repeat of the sixteen-bar verse but with a different melody (“I was born into the city life”).

Then the “rolling, rolling, rolling on river” section, the most interesting part of the song, still based on the same Bflat7-Eflat7 change, which doesn’t seem to break down neatly into bars at all, but is on a twenty-one beat cycle. This section is incredibly intense, with the gospel ‘gotta get away’ vocals shrieking away.

The song then returns to the arpeggios for “breaks my heart”, then into a riffy ending (“do it do it, got to run away”). Almost all of this is still over the same two chords, and this song, which only contains five chords in total, is an example of how much variation it’s possible to get out of very limited harmonic material.

Lyrically, the song is less impressive, being about how Dennis Wilson wondered why anyone would live in the city when they could go and live in the countryside instead. Possibly because not everyone is a millionaire rock star?

What’s Wrong
Dennis Wilson, Gregg Jakobson and Michael Horn

A fun little shuffle, based for the most part on a two-chord riff , with simple lyrics like “can’t live with you so I think I’ll live without you and play my rock and roll”, this has the closest resemblance to Dennis’ brother Brian’s work of the time, just a simplistic rock and roll song showing the influence of doo-wop musicians like Dion, as well as referencing All Night Long by Johnny Otis [FOOTNOTE: Johnny Otis is one of the less well-remembered figures from 50s rock and roll, but he was hugely influential, playing on Hound Dog by Big Mama Thornton, having hits himself with his own band, and presenting the radio show which, in one of the more believable bits of Brian Wilson’s ‘autobiography’ Wouldn’t It Be Nice, was the programme on which Brian and Carl Wilson first heard R&B music], a song which was also referenced by Talking Heads and Frank Zappa.

This song was apparently inspired by a girlfriend Dennis had at the time who, by his account, was annoyed by him spending his time drinking and playing loud rock music, but who enjoyed spending his money.

Songwriters: Dennis Wilson and Gregg Jakobson
The piano-and-guitar intro to this pretty ballad again resembles Brian Wilson’s work, specifically the introduction to You Still Believe In Me, but it soon becomes quintessentially Dennis Wilson, with odd bars of 6/4 thrown in, and an intensity and density that is largely absent from the Beach Boys’ work. One of the more minor tracks on the album, but a nice one nonetheless.

Friday Night
Dennis Wilson and Gregg Jakobson

This song has no connection to the track of the same name recorded during the Smile sessions, being instead an intense slow rock song which, after 1:10 of dense string pads (a musical idea originally used in Dennis’ collaboration with Mike Love, 10,000 Years), becomes a heavy, thudding guitar-driven song. This was apparently Dennis’ response to punk, but other than a line about “white punks play tonight”, it has nothing to do with punk and is straightforward AOR.

The lyric can really be summed up in the line “I believe my Jesus is in my soul, come on brother let’s rock and roll” — for all that he wants to say something profound, Dennis is fundamentally a hedonist.

Dennis Wilson and Gregg Jakobson

Another slow riffy rocker, this one is mostly driven by a low bass harmonica growl, played by Wilson himself, with the track for the most part being just the bass harmonica, drums playing a slowed-down disco beat, and an electric piano playing chords very low in the mix, apart from the end of each verse, when from nowhere a squall of horns comes in for a couple of bars.

Then at two minutes in (“let the wind”), the whole feel of the track changes, with the instrumentation changing to acoustic piano and tuned percussion (chimes, played by Wilson himself) for forty-four seconds, before going back to the original arrangement, but this time with the horns playing throughout, and an electric guitar soloing through to the end.

Lyrically, meanwhile, this takes the lighthearted Jesus reference from the previous song and turns it around — “I know a carpenter who had a dream/Killed the man, but you couldn’t kill the dream”, before turning into a song about the necessity of keeping one’s dreams, though the dreams he sings about tend to be more worldly ones.

Thoughts of You
Dennis Wilson and Jim Dutch
And side one ends with another song based around an arpeggiated piano part. This starts out as a simple, gentle ballad, with lines like “the thoughts of you fill my heart with joy again”. But the first line, “The sunshine blinded me this morning”, sets the mood for what follows. This is a song about a passion as intense, and as blinding, as the sun’s rays, and so after Wilson sings about his heart filling with joy, we hear an ARP string synthesiser come in and he sings “I’m sorry…forgive me…”, before the instrumentation changes totally, with low bass notes on the piano, ARP and a massed choir of multitracked Dennis Wilsons singing backing vocals as he starts the middle section “All things that live one day must die…even love”, ending the section with “look what we’ve done!” howled in despair. The song ends with the woman he’s singing to touching his face, even though the rest of the verse is about loneliness and the inability to forget. Has she returned to him after his apology, or is she dead? The song doesn’t make clear [FOOTNOTE Though it was inspired by his temporary split from then-wife Karen Lamm, so we can presume the former.].

Dennis Wilson and Karen Lamm-Wilson

Side two starts with one of the weaker songs on the album, another slow, piano-based ballad, co-written with the wife who so many of his other songs were about, until at two minutes it turns into a repeated “Hold on, hold on, hold on”, reminiscent of the “rolling, rolling on” sections of River Song. There’s another subtle Dion reference here, too — when he sings “I’m the kind of guy who loves to mess around”, that’s a seeming call-back to The Wanderer, the Dion song that Dennis used to cover during Beach Boys shows in the mid-60s.

You and I
Dennis Wilson, Karen Lamm-Wilson and Gregg Jakobson

This is a lovely Latin-flavoured track, probably the strongest individual song on the album, and certainly the most immediate, with a fairly conventional structure compared to most of the others. It possibly edges a little close to the Muzak end of the spectrum during the guitar solo, but even there the arpeggios in the rhythm guitar call back to those that open River Song, and again we have references to Jesus opening up the singer’s heart (though the opening line of the song is “I’ve never seen the light that people talk about”). The song is fully integrated into the album, even as it works better than most as a stand-alone track. Unsurprisingly, it was released as the single from the album (in the US — in Europe River Song was chosen instead), but failed to chart.

Pacific Ocean Blues
Dennis Wilson and Mike Love

One of the rare collaborations between Dennis Wilson and Mike Love, this was originally intended for 15 Big Ones but perhaps unsurprisingly was dropped from that album, as lyrics like “The flagship of death is an old whaling trawler/The people are rising over whale killing crawlers“ don’t fit so well with Susie Cincinnati or Palisades Park.

Love’s lyrics have received some acclaim, but to be honest while they clearly have their heart in the right place (and are far better than almost anything he wrote from this point on), lines like “Warmed by the blood of the cold hearted slaughter of the otter” just don’t quite ring true.

While the song starts out in an interestingly shambolic, loping way, with the odd dropped beat giving an interesting tension to the instrumental introduction, it quickly settles into a fairly pedestrian twelve-bar blues in D (with the very slight twist that instead of the last four bars being V-IV-I-I they go V-V/VII-I-I). After two verses of this there’s a sixteen bar section going between G and D (“yeah I love you, Pacific ocean blue”) which introduces a reverbed Moog part that sounds watery yet metallic, and is by far the most interesting part of the track’s arrangement.

Farewell My Friend
Dennis Wilson

This is possibly the most direct expression of emotion on the album, and the only one to be written entirely by Dennis Wilson. The song was written in the aftermath of the death of Otto “Pops” Hinsche. Hinsche was the father of Billy Hinsche, the Beach Boys’ touring keyboard player, and was also Carl Wilson’s father-in-law. Dennis and he had been very close, with Hinsche essentially becoming a substitute father for him after Murry Wilson’s death, and Hinsche actually died in Dennis’ arms.

Fittingly, the only other musicians on this track are Carl Wilson and Billy Hinsche, both of whom provide backing vocals. Everything else, from the ARP strings to the seagull noises to the lap-steel guitar, is played by Dennis Wilson.

The song is simple — having only three chords, and for the majority of it only two — but powerful, and it was later played at Dennis’ own funeral.

Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson and Steve Kalinich

This collaboration with Dennis’ friend Steve Kalinich hearkens back to the sound of the Holland album, perhaps unsurprisingly given Carl Wilson’s co-writing credit. While it features the familiar rippling piano arpeggio parts that dominate the album, it has a very different feel to anything else, being dominated by mandolin, banjo and acoustic guitar, with a subtle string arrangement. In fact, the arrangement sounds very like REM’s music from a decade later, although Dennis’ distinct voice makes sure we know what album we’re listening to.

While I’ve been somewhat critical of Steve Kalinich’s lyrics in other essays (and will be more so in later ones), here his sunny-eyed optimism works perfectly with the bright, tinkling, major key music.

This is very different from the usual intense, moody music on the album, and all the better for it. Coming between two of the darkest, most downbeat songs on the album, it works well as a palate cleanser, and it’s one of the nicest things on the record.

End of the Show
Dennis Wilson and Gregg Jakobson

The perfect closer to the album, this is a slow piano ballad in Gm, based mostly around major chords with added ninths, giving a strange, melancholy, tense feel to the track. Consisting of two verses, an extended middle section (the “thank you very much” section), and a wordless final verse, this is one of the most “Beach Boys” sounding tracks on the album thanks to Bruce Johnston’s layered background vocal arrangement. The sounds at the end, of an audience cheering and Carl Wilson thanking them, come from a live Beach Boys show.

Dennis wrote this about the approaching end of his relationship with his third wife Karen Lamm, who he divorced five months after recording this. They remarried again eight months after that, but Dennis filed for a second divorce two weeks later.

bonus tracks

Tug of Love
Dennis Wilson and Gregg Jakobson

A simple song that sounds like it was written about Brian Wilson, this has two simple verses telling someone who is lonely that “the world loves you, yes they do”, an extended soulful middle eight , and a coda, and was included on early line-ups of the album. While many have praised it, to my ears it was rightfully dropped — it’s pleasant enough, but there’s little real substance here.

Only With You
Dennis Wilson and Mike Love

A remake of the song Dennis had contributed to Holland, this keeps much of the feel and arrangement of the original, being based around a simple piano, bass and drum track (with a little accordion), but where this improves massively on the original is in the vocal. Where Carl Wilson’s original vocal had sounded sleepy and lazy, here a mass of multitracked Dennises plead huskily. Carl Wilson and Dean Torrence assist in the backing vocal stack, but Dennis’ voice dominates, and the result is absolutely stunning.

While it was presumably dropped from the album because a version of the song had already been released, this is much, much better than the original, and better than half the tracks that made it to the finished album. Just gorgeous.

Holy Man
Dennis Wilson and Gregg Jakobson (and Taylor Hawkins on vocal version)

A rather plodding piano-based instrumental, with a nice Moog line, this was originally intended to have a vocal recorded, but Gregg Jakobson couldn’t finish the lyrics in the 1970s. When the album was reissued in 2008, Jakobson completed the lyrics and Taylor Hawkins, the drummer from the Foo Fighters, overdubbed a new lead vocal in a style relatively similar to Dennis’. The CD reissue also includes the untampered original instrumental track, but alas not the rough mix that apparently survives with Carl Wilson singing a guide (lyricless) vocal.

Apparently another version was recorded in 2008, with Brian May and Roger Taylor of Queen adding overdubs along with Hawkins, but that version has, perhaps wisely, been kept in the vaults.

Dennis Wilson

This was intended as part of a “Mexico trilogy” along with San Miguel (a Beach Boys track from the Sunflower era that had at that point not yet been released) and Time For Bed (which appears on disc two of this release).

This is about thirty seconds of very nice music, with some very nice horn Morricone-esque horn playing from John Foss (on flugelhorn, French horn and trumpet). Unfortunately the track lasts for five and a half minutes, and no new musical ideas come in during that time, until the jokey barrelhouse piano right before the end. At a much shorter length this could have been very nice, but it becomes incredibly tedious.

Disc Two: Bambu (The Caribou Sessions)

Even before Dennis’ first solo album was released, he had started work on a second album, to be called Bambu, for which his principal collaborator was Beach Boys touring keyboard player Carli Muñoz. Unfortunately, a combination of factors conspired to keep the album from being finished — his relationship with Karen Lamm was collapsing, Brother Studios (which Dennis had co-owned with Carl) had to be sold, leaving Dennis with nowhere to go if the creative urge suddenly struck him, and two of the best tracks, Baby Blue and Love Surrounds Me, were taken from the album and used for the Beach Boys album LA (Light Album).

As a result, nothing from these sessions was released for thirty years, save for the two songs on LA and one track (All Alone) included on the Beach Boys rarities compilation Endless Harmony in 1999, but something like a finished Bambu album was compiled for the second disc of 2008’s Pacific Ocean Blue rerelease.

It’s a mixed bag. It’s clearly better than any post-Love You Beach Boys album, but it’s also clearly the work of someone losing focus. Muñoz’ work is inferior to Wilson’s own songs, and the whole thing has a sloppy air. It’s possible that had Wilson’s personal life been more stable, he could have pulled this together into a very good album, but as it is it’s just one in the endless series of missed opportunities in the Beach Boys’ career.

Under The Moonlight
Carli Muñoz

The first song on the album is this workmanlike blues-rock sludge, based around a Jimmy Reed style shuffle, but beefed up into mid-70s heaviness. The lyrics are similarly uninspiring, just being a list of things that are great about being a rock star. The only real point of interest in the track is Dennis’ vocal — while his voice had deteriorated considerably by this point, and he was having difficulty even enunciating syllables, he sings with an energy that pushes the track just past mediocrity.

It’s Not Too Late
Carli Muñoz

The most fully-produced of the Bambu tracks, this is also the song of Muñoz’ that fits best with Dennis Wilson’s style, so much so that it’s hard to believe he didn’t write it. A slow ballad based around electric piano, but with a full (though rudimentary) orchestral arrangement (which frankly sounds exactly like the kind of thing that Dennis did on the previous album with ARP string synthesisers, but is apparently a sixteen-piece string section), this is one of the nicest things on the album.

It’s also a duet with Carl Wilson, who sings the choruses and tags (apparently doubled at points by Karen Lamm). Carl was going through similar personal problems at the time, and this is one of several vocals around this time where he sounds mildly intoxicated (though I have no knowledge of whether he was or not). Carl’s vocals became steadily more mannered as the next couple of decades went on, and this is an early example of his mature (and to my mind much less interesting) performances — someone coasting on a great voice, rather than putting in a great performance.

The track is possibly too dense for its own good — when the Double Rock Baptist Church Choir are on a track but almost inaudible because of all the other stuff going on, that’s possibly a sign that the kitchen sink needs removing — but as one of the last examples of Dennis’ intense, dense productions in the style he’d used going back to Carl And The Passions, it’s definitely worth listening to.

It’s also a track that has been improved by being left unreleased. The bootlegs of this material that circulated for decades had a mix of this with a horrible over-reverbed snare sound to the forefront. Thankfully, taste has prevailed in the mix used on this CD.

School Girl
Dennis Wilson and Gregg Jakobson

The first Dennis Wilson original on the CD is, frankly, a mess in every way. The lyrics, about wanting sex with a schoolgirl, are…charitably, let’s use the phrase ‘of their time’… while Wilson’s vocal is bellowed and almost incomprehensible. There’s also a weird effect on the vocal, which may be deliberate, or may be an artefact of the extraction process (the lead vocal was missing from the multitracks and had to be digitally extracted from a rough mix). Oddly, much of the vocal take that appears on the bootlegged versions of the track is missing, leading to the instrumental tag sounding curiously empty.

The track isn’t without points of interest — the fast, bubbly Moog bass, for example, is very nice — but it should have stayed unreleased. To make matters worse, the track was of course originally planned to be on the same album as Baby Blue, with which it shares the lyric “late at night when the whole world’s sleeping, I think about you”. Without that connection, what little power the track had dissipates.

Love Remember Me
Dennis Wilson, Steve Kalinich and Gregg Jakobson

One of the better songs on the album, this is very much a track of two halves. The first one minute and forty-three seconds is a very simple ballad, starting with a verse (unfortunately never repeated, as it’s by far the most interesting musical material on the album) which sounds for all the world like the work of Harry Nilsson, albeit with the usual Wagnerian excessive Dennis Wilson production, and followed by a rather repetitive section with lyrics about how “people live, people die, people laugh, people cry” (typical Kalinich lyrics).

Then for the last two minutes and twenty-three seconds it becomes a huge gospel epic, with Dennis bellowing over the Double Rock choir singing “Love comes gently down on you/Love comes tumbling down on you”, while squealing rock guitar competes with flugelhorns and french horns.

The only thing that spoils the track is Dennis’ lead vocal, which shows just how far, and how quickly, he had deteriorated. He sounds, frankly, like someone with alcohol-induced brain damage, unable to form basic phonemes.

Love Surrounds Me
Dennis Wilson and Geoffrey Cushing-Murray

This is largely the same track as used on LA (Light Album), minus a few overdubs, and will be discussed there, since that is the version that was finished and released in Dennis’ lifetime.

Wild Situation
Dennis Wilson and Gregg Jakobson

This is a Beach Boys track by any other name, featuring Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnston prominently in the harmony stack, and with Carl contributing much of the guitar on the track.

One of the simpler tracks on the album, this just celebrates the first sexual encounter with a new girlfriend, and has one of the clearer lead vocals on the Bambu sessions. While it’s nothing special, Dennis’ bass harmonica bassline gives the track a real energy that’s missing from several of the other tracks.

Perhaps wisely, the last line that is included on bootlegged versions of this song — “she got it hard and now it’s a big erection” — was removed, apparently by Dennis himself.

Dennis Wilson

This is an instrumental which seems to have been Dennis trying a few different musical ideas which he’d been working on in other forms. It’s in three sections, and the first section is similar (but not identical) to the feel of Love Surrounds Me, with a similar drum part and squelchy Moog bass. The second, longer, part is the arpeggiated section of Morning Christmas, a song Dennis had been working on for an aborted Beach Boys Christmas album (see the entries for MIU Album and Ultimate Christmas for more on this), extended to inordinate length, and then in the last thirty seconds there’s a brief, faint, church organ fragment.

Clearly unfinished, and clearly never intended to be finished, this is still one of the better things on the album.

Are You Real
Dennis Wilson and Gregg Jakobson

A rather half-thought-out ballad, this plods along pleasantly enough, but is very Dennis-Wilson-by-numbers. Again, this seems made up of recycled ideas, this time including musical material from 10,000 Years, a still-unreleased collaboration with Mike Love, but the last two minutes is frankly uninspired, fast Moog arpeggios over a dull stadium rock backing, sounding for all the world like an Argent outtake.

He’s a Bum
Dennis Wilson and Gregg Jakobson

Another song which seems to show the influence of Harry Nilsson, this is yet another song which consists of about a minute of actual song followed by an overlong extended coda with little musical connection to the first part, with Dennis singing “it’s all right, it’s all right, it’s all right”.

While on Pacific Ocean Blue itself, Dennis’ idiosyncratic structures work, here they seem more the product of someone unable to focus long enough to provide any structure at all.

In this case, though, the track itself is short enough not to outstay its welcome, and the ‘actual song’ part is a rather charming portrait of its composer as “a dog without a bone” about whom “people say he lost his way” but “that’s all right, it’s all right”, over a semi-calypso rhythm on piano and ukulele. The backing vocals (mixed very low) are by a group of rock journalists covering the session, who Dennis Wilson unsuccessfully attempted to get to rewrite the lyrics to the song.

Dennis Wilson, John Hanlon and Gregg Jakobson

A pleasant slow ballad, this seems to have evolved in the studio — John Hanlon, credited as a co-writer, was the principal engineer for the Bambu sessions, and provides the acoustic guitar here, the only instrument on the track not played by Dennis Wilson himself.

It’s pleasant enough, though clearly unfinished, but at this point Bambu, unlike Pacific Ocean Blue, has become wearying. The tracks consist of nice ideas, played with for a while and then dropped, rather than being developed into coherent songs, and they’re for the most part very similar in tempo, feel and instrumentation. Any one or two of them would have greatly enhanced any Beach Boys album around this time, but these constant, heavy, emotive ballads have the same effect as trying to eat Christmas dinner every meal for a week would — after a while, you just want a cheese sandwich.

I Love You
Dennis Wilson and Gregg Jakobson

Another track that’s made up of two very different halves, this is one of the most effective things on the album. A short, plodding, single verse, about Dennis’ new relationship with Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac (destined to be, like most of his relationships, passionate, intense, and short-lived), gives way to a quite lovely coda featuring just piano arpeggios and the Double Rock Baptist Choir, singing wordlessly, and recorded both forwards and backwards. It sounds almost like Brian Eno, with the backwards and forwards vocals intertwining with each other, coated in reverb, and is quite, quite lovely. This is also one of the shortest tracks on the CD, coming in at only two minutes and two seconds.

Constant Companion
Carli Muñoz and Rags Baker

This song is a huge relief after the ponderous ballads that make up much of Bambu. While I’m not a huge fan of Muñoz’ songwriting, this Latin track, driven by a funky wah-wahed clavinet and a full horn section, brings a tremondous release of tension, and is also by far the most coherent piece of songwriting we’ve heard in half an hour or so.

Time for Bed
Dennis Wilson and Gregg Jakobson

This track was (along with San Miguel and Mexico) intended for a “Mexico trilogy”, but was for many years bootlegged as an instrumental under the name “New Orleans”. And in truth that name fits — this sounds like nothing so much as Randy Newman’s more R&B-influenced work, like You Can Leave Your Hat On or Have You Seen My Baby, instrumentally at least, although the squalling horn section is quintessentially Dennis Wilson.

The lyrics, meanwhile, are, one hopes, an attempt at a Newman-esque unreliable narrator, as otherwise lines like “I think I’d love to steal a car and cruise around/Run over one fat, ugly, just for kicks” leave a very, very nasty taste in the mouth.

Album Tag Song
Dennis Wilson

This is a piece that was actually put together by engineer John Hanlon in 2008, from two separate Dennis compositions. The beginning and end are from one piece, a 7/8 funky piece with a wordless falsetto vocal, while the middle section, a slow 4/4 piano ballad typical of much of the rest of the album, is from a demo from a completely different session.

This works astonishingly well, and manages to create a far more coherent, interesting composition than either piece would have made separately, although the coda is still a little extended for my tastes. One has to wish that someone like Hanlon had imposed a similar structure on the aimless pieces that make up a lot of this CD.

All Alone
Carli Muñoz

This big ballad by Muñoz was regarded by many as a highlight of the Endless Harmony rarities collection, when it was first released in 1999. In truth, much of the song’s power comes from hearing the line “If I could live my life again” sung by someone whose life was so famously cut short. On its own merits, this is a soft-rock ballad that comes dangerously close to Muzak, particularly once the lounge sax solo starts.

As with all Muñoz’ work on the album, this is a much more coherently thought-out, structured song than most of Dennis’ work, but lacks the spark and originality that is evident even in Wilson’s lesser pieces.

Piano Variations on “Thoughts of You”
Dennis Wilson

This is what its title would suggest — a solo, instrumental, piano performance of a radically reworked version of Thoughts Of You. This has some wonderful new melodic ideas, and is almost unrecognisable as the same piece. It makes a beautiful ending to a patchy, infuriating, but interesting collection.

(Note that on the CD this is followed by a bonus track, the vocal version of Holy Man discussed above.)

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.

The Beach Boys On CD: The Beach Boys In Concert

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.


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
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
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
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
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
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.

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.

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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.

The Beach Boys On CD: Holland

Holland is, in many ways, the last gasp for the Beach Boys as an artistic group. They would produce good work again, both as a band or as individuals, but in future their work would be driven by one or two members of the band at a time rather than being a true group effort.

For the recording of the bulk of the album, the band decamped to Baambrugge in the Netherlands, and had their recording studio shipped over as well (which caused a huge amount of delay). This was at the instigation of Jack Rieley, and many reasons have been given over the years for the move, including tax issues, the idea that a change of scenery would inspire Brian Wilson, and even the laughable claim that it would be harder for those band members with drug problems (especially Brian Wilson) to obtain drugs in Holland than the USA. The fact that Rieley opted to remain in the Netherlands (and, for a while, attempted to continue managing the band’s career from a distance) may say more about the reasons than anything else.

The trip abroad did inspire Brian Wilson, but not in the way that the band had hoped or expected. Instead of coming up with any new conventional songs, his main piece of work during the trip to the Netherlands was a short story with musical accompaniment, Mount Vernon And Fairway (A Fairy Tale), that was initially included with the album as a bonus 45 and is now included at the end of the CD release.

The resulting album was considered too weak to release by Warner/Reprise, until Van Dyke Parks suggested that the song Sail On Sailor, initially not part of the album’s line-up, would make a good single. This replaced the Chaplin/Fataar/Love track We Got Love (which was accidentally included on some early German pressings of the album) and the resulting album got some of the best reviews of the band’s career, though it was less commercially successful, scraping into the top forty in the US, but doing slightly better in the UK where it made the top twenty.

The album is actually one of the most cohesive the band had done, with an ongoing theme of travel, especially by sea, and of a homesick longing for America. It’s also the most collaborative of the Beach Boys’ albums, with many different combinations of band members writing together in ways they otherwise never did.

This cohesion helps overcome what is actually a fairly weak set of material — there’s nothing here on the level of an All This Is That or Make It Good, let alone Til I Die or Surf’s Up, but the album is nonetheless one of the more worthwhile listening experiences of the band’s later years.


Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Blondie Chaplin, Ricky Fataar

Sail On Sailor

Songwriter: Brian Wilson, Van Dyke Parks, Ray Kennedy, Tandyn Almer and Jack Rieley

Lead vocalist: Blondie Chaplin

The opening song has a history which has been the subject of much recent debate. The generally-accepted story until recently was as follows: the Beach Boys turned in the Holland album but it had no obvious single on it. At this point Van Dyke Parks remembered a cassette he had in his possession of a song being written by himself and Brian Wilson, which had single potential. Various hands brushed up the song, at which point Carl Wilson took various backing band members into the studio and cut a backing track, with Brian supervising over the telephone. Dennis Wilson attempted a lead vocal, but gave up after a couple of takes, and Blondie Chaplin took over.

However, Steve Desper, who had been the band’s engineer for much of the late 60s and early 70s, but had stopped working for the band just before the trip to Holland, claims that the backing track dates back much earlier, and is a track that Brian Wilson had been working on for a long time. He also claims that the song originally had Carl Wilson on lead vocals, and that Chaplin is imitating Wilson’s phrasing exactly (a reasonable claim — Chaplin sounds spookily like Wilson here).

Whatever the truth of this (and I am inclined to believe Desper here), there is also the question of who exactly wrote what. A press release at the time claimed it was “a Brian Wilson-Jack Rieley song with writer credits suggesting informal assistance from a wide range of characters, among them Van Dyke Parks”. Steve Desper, on the other hand, has claimed that the lyrics are entirely Parks’ work, and Parks has claimed in the past that not only did he write all the lyrics but also the chord changes in the chorus and the start of the middle section. If this is the case, then Brian Wilson’s contribution to the song is reduced to coming up with the verse riff (a 12/8 shuffle between I and IV, actually quite similar to a gospel take on Imagine) and possibly the melody.

One might possibly get an idea of what actually happened by listening to a version of the song recorded by KGB, a band featuring Ray Kennedy. This version is credited only to Wilson/Kennedy, and has fairly incoherent lyrics about cocaine and trying to get out of the ghetto. One suspects that Wilson brought his initial idea to several different collaborators, at different times, without necessarily thinking to mention to them that he was working with other people. My own guess (given the reliability of the various parties involved) is that Parks’ account is largely correct — not only is Parks the most scrupulously honest person involved, with an excellent memory, but the song just sounds like a Van Dyke Parks song rather than a Brian Wilson song.

Whatever the process involved though, the end result is the most convincing attempt at R&B that the Beach Boys ever did, with a strong lead vocal from Chaplin, excellent group backing vocals (apparently only featuring Carl Wilson, Chaplin and Fataar from the Beach Boys, along with backing band member Billy Hinsche, session steel guitar player Tony Martin, and Gerry Beckley from the band America, though some have claimed that the other Beach Boys later overdubbed additional vocals), and in its VIb-VIIb-I chorus changes a hook so powerful that the band reused it (a tone up and in 4/4 time) for their 1985 hit Getcha Back.

The song was released twice as a single, hitting number 79 on the charts in 1973, and number 49 in 1975. Despite this relative lack of chart success, it was popular on the radio at the time and has remained a fixture in the setlists of the Beach Boys and their various solo shows.


Songwriter: Dennis Wilson and Jack Rieley

Lead vocalist:
Carl Wilson

The second track on the album continues the sailing theme, here with a typically-inscrutable Rieley lyric about steamboat travel. The lyrics are pretty and evocative, but make very little sense on any kind of literal level — lines like “The stream is a timepiece of children bridged with crystal haze” defy any normal interpretation. On the other hand, the lyric is slightly more comprehensible in the USA than elsewhere, as the “Mr Fulton” referred to, Robert Fulton, is considered a major historical figure in the US for his development of the first successful steamboat. He doesn’t, however, have the same “as every schoolchild knows…” status elsewhere.

Musically, the song is built around simple I-V7 changes for the most part (with a V7-VI7-II7 change at the end of the verse which is actually similar in its effect to the more outrageous chorus progression in Sail On Sailor), until the tag when the V7 changes into a VIb7, with mechanical-sounding drums perfectly evoking the feel of a paddle-wheel turning in the water and the hiss of steam.

The effect is possibly a little too dragged out — the combination of Carl Wilson’s lazy-sounding vocals, however, lovely, and the slow, mechanical pace of the song, tends to drag long before the four minutes and thirty-six seconds of the song is up — but it’s a worthwhile track, and a sign of the stylistic evolution that was bringing Dennis Wilson to the more confident style of his later work on Pacific Ocean Blue.

California Saga: Big Sur

Songwriter: Mike Love

Lead vocalist: Mike Love

The centrepiece of Holland, covering the bulk of side two, was a thematically-linked suite of songs by Love and Jardine called California Saga. Possibly the most artistically-ambitious thing either man ever did, this was in part inspired by their homesickness for California while living in Holland, but also tied into the themes of the environment and of travel that suffuse the band’s music at this point.

California Saga is unusual in the Beach Boys’ work in that rather than celebrating Southern California, and in particular Los Angeles, as most of their California-centred work did, it instead focuses on Central and Northern California, especially the less-populated areas.

The first of the three songs is this, the first song released by the band to have Love as the sole credited writer, and a surprisingly pleasant song. Starting with the ascending/descending Cm arpeggios that make up the bulk of the next song, we then go into a pleasant country-folk waltz, mostly based on a single C major chord with a scalar bassline that goes up and down much as the arpeggios at the beginning.

The song only really contains four chords, and is the kind of thing that could be written by someone with rudimentary or non-existent instrumental skills, but it has a catchy enough melody, and shows that Love was at least a competent songwriter in his own right. The instrumentation is equally primitive, mostly acoustic guitar and harmonica, evoking a campfire singalong, along with piano, drums and steel guitar.

The whole track is surprisingly pleasant, for a first solo songwriting attempt, but it could have been better — the song was first recorded three years earlier, and that version (unreleased but widely bootlegged) is in 4/4 rather than waltz time. Once one has heard this earlier version, the version on Holland sounds slightly ungainly in comparison, with the stresses falling less gracefully than on the original.

California Saga: The Beaks Of Eagles

Songwriter: Al Jardine, Lynda Jardine and Robinson Jeffers

Lead vocalist: Al Jardine and Mike Love

The second part of the California Saga is unique in the Beach Boys’ catalogue, though it points the way stylistically towards some of Jardine’s later work.

It’s almost two separate songs in itself, in fact. In what, for want of a better term, we can call the verses, we have the ascending/descending C-minor piano arpeggios (with a descending bass) that started Big Sur, along with some Morricone-esque flute from Charles Lloyd. Over this, Love recites, in three sections, The Beaks Of Eagles, a poem by far-right-wing environmentalist poet Robinson Jeffers, about how in the lifetime of one eagle human civilisation could change utterly, and how yet ultimately humans are constrained by their natures just as much as the eagles are.

The choruses, meanwhile, are in C major, built around yet another ascending/descending bassline, and feature Jardine, singing new lyrics to a conventional melody, over a guitar/bass/piano/drums/flute backing.

The thing that most people listening to this will notice now is that it is the first time Jardine uses a style which he uses consistently in his later songs, of having someone speak or recite poetry over part or all of a song (see especially the Tidepool Interlude on his solo album A Postcard From California , but also California Energy Blues and Santa Ana Winds), and it’s interesting to see this as a step towards that style from Jardine, probably inspired by the artistic success he’d had using The Road Not Taken for All This Is That (Robert Frost, the author of The Road Not Taken, was a contemporary of Jeffers and wrote on similar themes).

But what’s more interesting is to compare the poem that inspired this piece, and which Love recites verbatim, with the interpolated material by the Jardines. Jeffers referred to himself as an ‘inhumanist’, and claimed that humanity was fundamentally unimportant to him, that he preferred nature to humanity. His poem, therefore, like much of his work, is an attempt to see things on an inhuman scale, to apply a perspective that one might call either realistic or misanthropic depending on one’s own sympathies.

The chorus material, though, is all on the human scale — about death, and rebirth coming from it. The lyricist here (either Al or Mary Ann Jardine) is also writing about natural cycles, as Jeffers is, but on a human scale, and based in human needs and concerns. And despite the rather hippyish conclusion, there’s a real sense here of how the need to acquire mineral wealth can destroy people’s lives (the image of the dead mariners, shipwrecked while transporting limestone ore, ties in nicely both with the first two songs, but also with The Trader).

Fundamentally, while Jardine may have been inspired by Jeffers’ poetry, their worldviews are incompatible. The writer of those chorus sections cares about human beings in a way that Jeffers doesn’t, and while one may argue that in the grand scheme of things Jeffers’ worldview is more correct, the worldview of the choruses is much more caring and decent.

California Saga: California

Songwriter: Al Jardine

Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine

The second single off Holland was this song, the last part of California Saga, and with good reason. Easily the most commercial thing Jardine has ever written on his own, this is an updating of California Girls for the 1970s country-rock era, keeping Love’s nasal voice and the Tumbling Tumbleweeds bass-line (here played on Moog), but using acoustic guitar, harmonica (apparently played by Brian Wilson) and banjo rather than a Wall Of Sound orchestra.

Musically, it’s a simple song, just using the chords C, F and G, but it communicates a feeling of relaxed joy in nature that really does seem like a more mature version of the youthful ecstasy of California Girls. Out of the larger context of the California Saga, this is an unpretentious and unambitious song, but all the better for it.

Despite its relative lack of commercial success (barely scraping the top 100 in the US, though reaching the lower reaches of the top forty in the UK), this has remained a fan favourite, and was the only solo Jardine composition (and, other than All This Is That, the only one for which he was primary songwriter) to appear on the career-spanning Good Vibrations: Thirty Years Of The Beach Boys box set. Jardine returned to the song on his 2010 solo album A Postcard From California, remaking it with David Crosby, Stephen Stills and Neil Young providing harmony vocals, and the song also became a regular in the setlists of the Beach Boys’ 2012 reunion tour.

The Trader

Songwriter: Carl Wilson and Jack Rieley

Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson (with Justyn Wilson saying “Hi”)

The Trader is Carl Wilson’s primary songwriting contribution to the Holland album, and the last new song he would bring to the band until LA (Light Album) in 1979, so it’s a good job that it’s a good one.

The song breaks into two halves, with little connection between them, either musically or lyrically. The first half is possibly the most overtly political thing the Beach Boys ever recorded (albeit it is a condemnation of acts carried out by people who were long-dead). Over a piano-led rock background, Wilson sings about the colonisation of the Americas, the genocide of their native population, and the way the land had been ‘civilised’. It’s Rieley’s most straightforward lyric, and also his best. It also manages to tie in with the themes of sea travel, America, and nature in opposition to industrial civilisation that permeate the whole of the album.

But then, almost exactly half-way through the song, the key changes from G to C, the prominent piano drops out to be replaced by sighing backing vocals and tinkling Moog, and the lyric goes from concrete to utterly abstract, as the song turns into something closer to Carl Wilson’s songs from Surf’s Up. Instead of “Trader found the jeweled land was occupied before he came/By humans of a second look who couldn’t even write their names”, the lyrics suddenly become “Embracing together, like the merging streams, crying dreams”.

Frankly, it shouldn’t work — this song sounds exactly like something that’s been bolted together from two different ideas, with no real thought as to how the two sections actually interact. Yet it does work, mostly through sheer chutzpah, but also through an absolutely remarkable vocal performance from Carl Wilson, who goes from a strained, pained vocal near the top of his range in the rock section to a softer, gentler, reassuring vocal for the second, mellow section. Somehow, the result is actually better than the sum of the parts, though there’s no earthly reason why it should be. It works because Wilson and Rieley say it works, and because they both had enough talent at this point to do something as ambitious as this.

The song became a regular in the band’s setlist for much of the rest of the 1970s, even as the rest of the set became increasingly dominated by hits, and was a favourite with crowds, again thanks largely to Carl Wilson’s vocal performance.

Leaving This Town

Songwriter: Carl Wilson, Blondie Chaplin, Ricky Fataar and Mike Love

Lead vocalist:
Blondie Chaplin

A tedious song that unfortunately merges the worst aspects of both Carl Wilson’s and the Flame team’s writing, this plods along based on slow, steady piano chords in much the same style as Feel Flows, and has a simple chord sequence (alternating between I, V, i and v in two keys a tone apart) with little of interest about it. Then the melody over the top stays, like all the Chaplin/Fataar material, in a narrow range, and consists mostly of long, held notes.

Once the song gets to the two minute long Moog solo, it takes a great deal of effort for the listener to keep awake, and the lyrics are enough of a formless mess (a case of too many cooks, one suspects) that there is no emotional hook there to encourage one to listen for much longer. Easily the least interesting thing that Chaplin and Fataar had a hand in during their time with the Beach Boys, and the most pointless thing on the album (Beaks Of Eagles is worse, but it’s an ambitious failure, while this seems to have been made with no greater ambition than filling six minutes of vinyl).

Only With You

Songwriter: Dennis Wilson and Mike Love

Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

In an unfortunate piece of sequencing, Leaving This Town is followed by another sedate, mellow song at a near-identical tempo, and the momentum of the album is killed stone dead. It’s a shame because, unlike the previous song, this one really is worthwhile.

While Love and Dennis Wilson had a legendarily fractious relationship, their few songwriting collaborations (of which this is the only one to end up on a Beach Boys album rather than a solo release) show a deeper mutual sympathy, and Love’s lyrics and Wilson’s music here complement each other perfectly.

Musically, this is one of the simplest things Dennis Wilson had composed to this point, possibly because it wasn’t written in collaboration with the more musically-sophisticated Daryl Dragon, and the only really interesting change is the one from Em/G to E7/G# (in a section that feels like it’s in G, but which is in fact in the same key of D as the rest of the song) under the phrase “love had always had its ups and downs”. However, the song’s simplicity is its key — a direct lyric combined with simple changes gives this song a formal grace that is very different from the primal howl of many of Dennis’ songs.

While Carl Wilson’s vocal on this track has been almost universally praised, it doesn’t quite work as well for me as for many others — while his vocal on the quieter verses is exemplary, he is a little mannered on the middle eight and tag (something that would become increasingly true of his vocals over later years). It’s a very good performance, yes, but one is left wishing that Dennis had sung his own song, with his less technically perfect but more expressive voice.A version of the song with Dennis Wilson on vocals was released in 2008, on the Pacific Ocean Blue CD reissue, and will be discussed in the chapter on that album.

While it’s not as perfect a song as Forever or God Only Knows, two songs it is clearly an attempt to emulate, it’s still extremely good, and one of the best things on the album, and it makes one wish that Love and Dennis Wilson had been able to work together more often.

Funky Pretty

Songwriter: Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Jack Rieley

Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, Blondie Chaplin. Ricky Fataar and Mike Love

The only song, other than Sail On Sailor, contributed by Brian Wilson to the Holland project proper was this track on which he contributed nearly all the instruments (Carl Wilson added some guitar, and Fataar some percussion, but Brian played the drums as well as probably playing all the keyboard parts).

Musically, the song is not all that interesting as a song, but is fascinating as a pointer to Brian Wilson’s musical direction at the time and for the next few years. The entire track is based around Moog, with Moog parts in three ranges (a squelchy, fuzzy bass part, a mid-range part in the same range as the piano, and a high counter-melody), with only the most rudimentary drum part and no real connection to conventional rock music at all.

While the song’s title sums up the feel very well (the vocals have a great, soulful feel, while there’s an ethereal beauty to the Moog parts), the lyrics as a whole are fairly pointless, combining the worst of both Rieley (pointless prettiness without any sense) and Love (an obsession with astrology, a long list of place names, and a slightly lecherous tone). The vocals, though, are extraordinary. For those playing along at home, Carl Wilson takes the verses (and the verse backing vocals), Jardine takes over on “where’s my spark in the dark?”, Fataar “Glow glow glow come on glow”, Chaplin on “the funky pretty flame in my heart” and Love “me and my Pisces lady are apart.”

On the second chorus, Chaplin sings “Cos it’s a silent night in the sea”, Jardine “and if you’re cosmically conscious you’ll see”, Fataar “why she’s a princess imparted to me” and Love “daughter of Neptune, the ruler of the sea”. Carl Wilson takes the middle section with the listing of place names, and Chaplin takes the fade. The fade-out would be the perfect end for the album, but then we have…

Mt Vernon And Fairway (A Fairy Tale)

Songwriter: Brian Wilson (with Carl Wilson and Jack Rieley)

Lead vocalist: Jack Rieley (with Brian and Carl Wilson)

Possibly the most controversial thing the Beach Boys ever released, this is, depending on who you talk to, either one of Brian Wilson’s greatest masterpieces or a sad record of a once-great talent’s decline.

When the Holland album was being recorded, Brian Wilson was at a low ebb, mentally and creatively, and wanted little or nothing to do with the recording process. Instead, he found himself listening over and over to Sail Away by Randy Newman [FOOTNOTE:An absolutely wonderful album, which anyone who likes good songwriting should check out.].

He discovered that while he was listening to this, he was able to get into a creative mood, and wrote a fairytale, about a young prince who lived at Mount Vernon And Fairway (the address where Mike Love had grown up) and who, while alone in his bedroom, discovered a magic transistor radio, which normally played the music of Bach, but sometimes was possessed by “the Pied Piper from the faraway land of night”, whose music was unlike anything the prince had ever heard.

Unsurprisingly, when he presented this fairytale to the other band members and suggested it go on the album, their reaction was not hugely enthusiastic, and Brian was apparently so discouraged that he didn’t finish the story (Jack Rieley apparently supplied the rather abrupt ending, as a result). Nonetheless it was agreed to package the result as a 7 inch single with the album (it appears as a bonus track on CD releases), and the finished piece is one of the most interesting, ambitious, and beautiful things Wilson has ever created.

Rieley narrates the story, which is clearly the work of someone who is not especially articulate, but which makes up for in emotional honesty what it lacks in craft, while under it we have electronic sound effects, piano music, and snatches of vocal music, mostly repeated lines (“Pied Piper, I’d better get back in bed,” “I’m the Pied Piper in the radio”, “Dom dom King dom”). The effect is somewhere between Peter And The Wolf and Nilsson’s The Point, with tiny moments of beauty that are never developed into full songs, but drift away like someone tuning the radio to another station.

The music itself has had more appreciation since it was released, without the spoken narration and sound effects, as Fairy Tale Music on the Good Vibrations: Thirty Years Of The Beach Boys box set, but while the story is not the work of someone with any great skill in language, it’s still joyful and perfectly conveys the wonder of a lonely teenager, sat in his room listening to the radio, hit from out of the blue with music only he can hear, more wonderful and exciting even than Bach.

The Beach Boys On CD: Carl And The Passions (So Tough)

Carl & The Passions feels very much like the work of a totally different band from the one that recorded Surf’s Up, and that’s because to a great extent it is.

After Dennis Wilson damaged his hand and could no longer play drums, he moved to the front of the stage and became a co-frontman with Mike Love. This left an opening on the drum stool, and Carl Wilson suggested that two members of The Flame, a South African band who he had been producing for Brother Records, should join the touring band.

The addition of Blondie Chaplin (on guitar and bass) and Ricky Fataar (on drums) changed the sound of the band immensely, as one would expect from adding two black South African musicians to a band that was the quintessential whitebread American band. The band then changed even more with the departure of Bruce Johnston, part-way through recording this album. The circumstances around Johnston’s departure remain unclear, although it seems to have been due to a clash between Johnston and Jack Rieley. Rieley saw the band as two factions — the Wilson brothers, who were interested in making interesting, creative music, and Love, Johnston and Jardine, who weren’t.

Whether this was true or not, the addition of two proteges of Carl Wilson, and the departure of Johnston, definitely brought the band more in line with Rieley’s vision. The resulting album is much more R&B flavoured than anything the band had done since Wild Honey, but shows little group unity (the fact that the back cover photo has Brian Wilson crudely pasted into a shot of the rest of the group says much about the state of internal relations in the band at the time). Essentially, this is an album of four singles — two rockers by Brian, two Love/Jardine songs about meditation, two Flame tracks, and two Dennis Wilson ballads — that could be the work of four different bands. Carl Wilson is, largely, the common denominator, working with everyone to get their tracks into shape, and it’s because of his role as de facto leader at this point that the album is named Carl & The Passions, after a name under which an early high-school version of the band had performed.

Carl Wilson is, in fact, the only Beach Boy to appear on every track on the album, but to a large extent there’s a coherent band playing the backing tracks, with a core band of Carl Wilson, Chaplin, Fataar and Billy Hinsche (Carl Wilson’s brother-in-law, and keyboard and guitar player in the touring band). The production credit for the album reads “produced by the Beach Boys (especially Carl Wilson)”, although the two Dennis Wilson tracks were actually produced by Dennis Wilson and Daryll Dragon, for an earlier, abandoned project.

While the album never hits the heights of Surf’s Up or Til I Die, it’s actually the band’s most consistently good album since Friends, which makes it all the more annoying that the record was hamstrung by a bizarre marketing decision.

Part of the band’s contract with Warners had specified that they would complete the Smile album and release it, and it was originally intended that it be as a double-album set with this album. However, without Brian Wilson’s collaboration, Carl Wilson was unable to get the Smile tapes into a releasable state. Instead, it was decided to release Carl & The Passions as a two-disc set along with a reissued Pet Sounds, the rights to which had reverted to the band.

This meant that the music on the album had to stand direct comparison with what was generally regarded as their best ever work, as well as annoying long-time fans who had to buy a second copy of an album they already owned and putting off new listeners who didn’t want to listen to six-year-old music. The end result was that Carl & The Passions became the least critically successful work of their post-1967 career to date, despite its generally strong quality.


Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Blondie Chaplin, Ricky Fataar, Bruce Johnston (uncredited)

You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone

Songwriter: Brian Wilson and Jack Rieley

Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

A rewrite by Rieley of an unreleased Brian Wilson song called Beatrice From Baltimore, this isn’t much of a song in itself, consisting mostly of just I, IV and V chords, with a brief F-G7-A7 rise on the chorus line being the only break from the home key of G. The melody is trite, and the lyrics don’t say very much.

The performance and arrangement are another matter, though. Carl Wilson’s lead vocal here is just extraordinary, consisting of a near-perfect double-tracked ‘clean’ lead (one track in the centre channel and one panned slightly to the right), along with, in the left channel (and sometimes itself doubled), an incredibly gruff, barked version of the same part that must have been hell for his vocal cords, and which manages to keep the same exact pitch and phrasing throughout while singing in a completely different voice. (There is also, sometimes, right on the edge of hearing, another ‘gruff’ voice, which might be bleed-through from an early take or dummy vocal, and which I couldn’t swear isn’t Brian Wilson singing). He then uses yet another, sweeter, voice for the “she don’t know” sections of the song. It’s an astonishing, virtuosic, vocal performance, and one that is utterly unlike anything he’d ever done before. The Beach Boys have here turned from a pop band into a rock band, and amazingly they do it rather well.

The instrumental arrangement benefits enormously from the musical abilities of Chaplin and Fataar. The Flame had been a band whose music was halfway between soul (they started as a soul covers band) and Beatles pastiche (it’s no coincidence that Fataar was later chosen by Neil Innes as the drummer for his Beatles parody group The Rutles), and here we have the band playing with a groove they’ve never really played with before — the difference between this and the lumbering attempt at rock that is Student Demonstration Time is revelatory — while there is some gorgeous George Harrison-style slide guitar added on top of the more normal rock guitar.

Then on top of this we have some lightning-fast double-time picked banjo, played by legendary bluegrass musician Doug Dillard, in another example of how the band were starting to integrate folk and country instruments into their musical blend.

The whole thing works entirely because of the level of attention paid to details of arrangement and performance, for what is at root a rather lacklustre song. On the other hand, as a statement of intent, this works — it sounds absolutely nothing like “the Beach Boys” as they were in the mind of the public, and so it was chosen as the lead-off single for the album, though unsurprisingly it flopped.

Here She Comes

Songwriter: Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar

Lead vocalist: Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin

Unsurprisingly, the first Chaplin/Fataar song on a Beach Boys album sounds utterly unlike the Beach Boys, and rather a lot like The Flame. A simple, rather plodding country-rock track heavily influenced by The Band and George Harrison (it sounds like Old Brown Shoe was a distant influence), this is the kind of thing a thousand bands were doing at the time, with lyrics like “crazy woman can you see/that I’m giving to you can you dig me?”

That’s not to say it’s unpleasant, however — it’s a very, very competent example of its genre, and very enjoyable to listen to. It’s just unoriginal.

The most noticeable thing about this song is how well Chaplin and Fataar fit with the Beach Boys vocally. While Johnston’s voice never fit the band’s family blend, Chaplin especially has a voice that sounds spookily like Carl Wilson at times, and sometimes also has something of Jardine’s resonance. His singing style is more soul-influenced than theirs is, but he (and to a lesser extent Fataar), sounds like a Beach Boy, in a way that neither Johnston or David Marks ever really did.

He Come Down

Songwriter: Brian Wilson, Al Jardine and Mike Love

Lead vocalist: Mike Love, Blondie Chaplin, Al Jardine and Carl Wilson

Another piano-based song based on I-IV and I-V changes, this is very much a musical cousin of You Need A Mess Of Help, but here the music is in a gospel style — a style which the band had never really explored before, but which they suit perfectly. Over a backing track of just piano, organ and handclaps, the band are allowed to shine with what is easily the most impressive vocal performance of the album, with each vocalist allowed to sing freewheeling gospel vocal lines over a unison chant of “dit dit, you know I believe it”, with a break for a mass choral “yes I believe it” which is just spellbinding.

The only flaw with the track is the lyrics, which seem to be trying to teach a syncretic Christian Hinduism, in which both Jesus and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi are avatars of Krishna, or something. However the lesson here is simply that one doesn’t turn to the Beach Boys for theology lessons. Musically, this is spectacular.


Songwriter: Brian Wilson, Jack Rieley and Tandyn Almer

Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

And side one of the album finishes with the third and last Brian Wilson contribution to the album (as well as the only song on which Johnston appears). Another simple, riffy, R&B-flavoured rock song, this one had a history going back almost nine years at the time it was recorded, having started life in the early 60s as All Dressed Up For School (a track that remained unreleased until 1990) before then becoming the Sunflower-era outtake I Just Got My Pay. This final version had lyrics about a favourite hem-hem masseuse of Brian’s acquaintance, before Rieley and Tandyn Almer (the writer of, among other songs, Along Comes Mary for The Association) got hold of it and added some vaguely hippyish lyrics to it.

This side of the album has proved, if nothing else, that the Beach Boys really could work as a rock band in the early-70s mode. While this song does not admit of much analysis, it’s a wonderful record, and the song stayed in the band’s setlist for several years. It’s also a mainstay of Brian Wilson’s solo shows, and was played regularly during the band’s fiftieth anniversary reunion tour in 2012.

Hold On Dear Brother

Songwriter: Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar

Lead vocalist: Blondie Chaplin

The second song by the Flame members on the album is cut from the same cloth as the first, but is, if anything even more obviously influenced by The Band — it’s hard not to imagine Levon Helm singing lead on this even while it’s playing.

Harmonically, this is extremely simple, being almost entirely based around a doo-wopish vi-IV-I-V progression, with the only real musical spot of interest being in the chorus, where the song changes from its slow waltz time into alternating bars of fives and sixes.

This is certainly not a bad track in any way, although it does rather outstay its welcome at nearly five minutes, but it has little to do with the Beach Boys other than Carl Wilson’s backing vocal part, and it could have been made by any of a thousand bands at the time. Pleasant enough, but inessential and inconsequential. Some nice slide guitar by Red Rhodes isn’t enough to let the track stand up to repeated listens.

Make It Good

Songwriter: Dennis Wilson and Daryl Dragon

Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson

This, on the other hand, is half the length of the previous song but an absolute revelation. For some time, Dennis Wilson had been working with Daryl Dragon, the band’s touring keyboardist (who would later find fame as The Captain in The Captain And Tennille), but other than one Tim Hardin-influenced single (released under the name Dennis Wilson And Rumbo) nothing from their collaborations had been released, thanks to the disagreements over the tracklisting for Surf’s Up. This track and Cuddle Up were both originally intended for a Dennis Wilson solo album, but later completed for this project.

Here, for the first time, Dennis Wilson has found his own voice. His previous work, while often approaching greatness, had always been in his brother’s style — Forever, for example, could as easily have been Brian’s work as Dennis’.

This, on the other hand, sounds like nothing the band had ever done before. Dennis’ song (and it is mostly Dennis’ song, Dragon mostly assisting with the arrangement) owes as much to Wagner as to Brian Wilson, and has simple, impressionistic lyrics, with only a few words per line, over a huge, sweeping, string arrangement, with the vocals croaked in a broken voice that would be Dennis’ trademark from here on in.

It should, frankly, be awful — on paper it sounds like the worst kind of overblown 70s pretentious nonsense. But it works, and it works absolutely. This is Dennis Wilson finally showing the same kind of musical honesty as his brother, and just like Brian Wilson he manages to convince absolutely. The difference in styles is the difference in the two men’s personalities — while Brian’s music, like the man himself, is quiet, diffident, and slightly off-kilter, Dennis’ music has his own characteristics — extreme, passionate, completely over-the-top. By all accounts Dennis Wilson was a man with little control of his emotions, who had higher highs and lower lows than any of his bandmates, and those large emotions need a large musical canvas to paint on.

Simply gorgeous.

All This Is That

Songwriter: Mike Love, Al Jardine and Carl Wilson

Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson, Al Jardine and Mike Love

This, meanwhile, is a rare attempt at genuine artistic growth from Love and Jardine (Carl Wilson apparently came up with the vocal arrangement, for which he got his portion of the songwriting credit — he also produced the backing track, which features only him, Chaplin and Fataar).

Harmonically extremely simple (a chorus based on Imaj7-IVmaj7, with a verse going Imaj7-ii7-V7, about as simple as it can get), the beauty of this song is entirely in the sound and feel of the track, with some of the best vocals the band have ever done.

The song was originally written by Jardine, based on Robert Frost’s poem The Road Not Taken , but Love and Jardine later combined this influence (in the chorus line “two ways have I/both traveled by/and that makes all the difference to me”) with inspiration from the Upanishads (the core religious texts of Hinduism) as interpreted by the Maharishi.

Love, in particular, clearly thought this was an important message for the band to convey, and turns in possibly the best vocal performance of his life on the verses (subtly shadowed by Jardine on the first verse), but the real highlight of the track — and of the album, comes with the tag, as Carl Wilson goes higher into his falsetto than he ever did before or since (it may be the only time he actually goes into true falsetto on a studio recording) singing “Jai guru dev” [FOOTNOTE Roughly, this translates to “victory to the great teacher”, where “the great teacher” can mean both a higher, more spiritual level of one’s own mind, and can also (for those who, like Love, follow the principles of Transcendental Meditation) mean the specific person who trained the Maharishi.], while Mike sings it in the bass register like a mantra. It may be the single finest vocal moment on any Beach Boys record.

This song clearly means a lot to Love, who regularly includes it in sets by his touring version of the Beach Boys, and it was also a highlight of the 2012 reunion tour.

Cuddle Up

Songwriter: Dennis Wilson and Darryl Dragon

Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson

And the final song is another one that was originally intended for Dennis’ solo album (where it was originally going to be titled Old Movie), and one of the best things he ever wrote. Based roughly around a melodic idea from Brahms’ Lullaby, this actually has a lot of harmonic similarities with Forever — both start their verses with the simple pastiche-baroque idea of having a descending scalar bassline, while keeping as many notes in the rest of the chord as possible the same — but unlike Forever this then goes into a B section (“Your love, your love…”) which reverses this. A pedal note of C is kept while a triad progresses upwards through a scale (C-Dm7/C-Cmaj7-F) but then the inevitable progression upwards takes us up and out of the home key altogether, as we keep progressing up by tones to the climax (“honey…I’m in love”), which drops us briefly back to the C chord for a second but which ends up with us in the new key of B-flat , a full tone down from where we started.

It’s a progression which absolutely works, and makes sense, but is completely counterintuitive, and has the song building to an almost orgasmic peak before collapsing down into a post-coital doze.

While it has more Beach Boys involvement than the previous Dennis track (both Carl and Blondie can be heard with very prominent backing vocal lines), this is still a Dennis Wilson solo track in all but name, and points the way forward to the style he would use for his solo work in the latter part of the decade. While the Wagnerian pomp of Dragon’s string arrangements is less appropriate here than on Make It Good, it still works, and this track manages to be the perfect close to an album which, despite all its inconsistencies, is one of the best the band ever produced.

The Beach Boys On CD: Surf’s Up

Shortly after the release of Sunflower, the Beach Boys hired former journalist and DJ Jack Rieley as their manager. Outside of the band members themselves, Rieley rapidly became the most important figure in the band’s story for the next few years.

Rieley was not just a manager in the traditional sense, he was also an advisor on how to relate to the counterculture that had been ignoring the band for the previous few years, as well as being a collaborator in their songwriting. Rieley encouraged the band to focus on more political subjects, particularly the environment and the treatment of Native Americans, at the expense of the love songs that had dominated Sunflower. He also tried to recapture the mystique of the unreleased Smile album, encouraging the band to finish Surf’s Up, the masterpiece that had been intended as the centre of that album, as well as writing his own lyrics in a style pastiching that of Van Dyke Parks (Rieley’s lyrics are far closer to the ‘acid alliteration’ tag Mike Love applies to Parks’ work than the Smile lyrics are).

The difference is apparent even from comparing the cover of this album to that of its precursor. While Sunflower‘s cover features the Beach Boys and their children sat around near some blossoming trees, the cover of Surf’s Up is a murky painting, in dark blues, based on the sculpture End Of The Trail, showing a Native American, head bowed in defeat.

Rieley’s tactics were successful — within a short time the band would be hugely popular with college audiences and magazines like Rolling Stone, paving the way for their commercial resurgence in the mid-70s — but they divided the band. Rieley claims that Love, Johnston and Jardine were more-or-less hostile to his aims for the band, while the Wilson brothers were more enthusiastic.

Inter-band disagreements made this album less than it could be — arguments about sequencing led to two tracks by Dennis Wilson being pulled from the album, in favour of lesser works by Love and Jardine (Dennis Wilson also contributed little to the album instrumentally, having injured his hand part-way through recording and being unable to play drums for a while). Nonetheless, this is still a significant artistic improvement over Sunflower, with the differences of opinion within the band leading to a real stylistic diversity, rather than the bland softness of much of the earlier album.

Unfortunately, it’s difficult to listen to the album as it was intended to be heard at the time. Steve Desper, the band’s principal engineer in the late 60s and early 70s, mixed the album in a stereo-compatible quadrophonic system, which allowed it to be played on a normal turntable but ‘decoded’ by a special piece of equipment called a Stereo-4 decoder, sort of the audio equivalent of wearing 3D glasses. These decoders are, of course, long-obsolete, and while apparently there are technological ways of extracting the extra pseudo-channels from the stereo sound, it is unlikely that these will be used by even one percent of those who listen to the album.

Even so, and even given its patchy nature, this is still in the very top tier of Beach Boys albums.


Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston

Don’t Go Near The Water
Mike Love and Al Jardine
Lead vocalist: Mike Love and Al Jardine

The opening track is one of the most radical, brilliant things the Beach Boys ever did, production-wise.

No, seriously. I’m not joking.

This track is (rightly) regarded as a bit of a joke among Beach Boys fans, because the serious intent of the song — a plea to end pollution of the world’s water, a reasonable enough environmental message in itself — is completely undermined by the ludicrous nature of the lyrics, culminating in a strong contender for the most risible line in a released Beach Boys song. After Al Jardine sings “toothpaste and soap will make our water a bubble-bath/so let’s avoid an ecological aftermath”, any hope of taking the song at all seriously evaporates.

But under those lyrics, the arrangement is finally pulling together all the different pieces of ideas that the band had been using for some time, and making something totally different from anything anyone’s done before or since, but which would be the dominant mode of the band’s studio output for the next few years.

This track has almost no electric guitars or drums on it. Instead, there are multiple layers of Moog sounds, but coupled with acoustic, folk instrumentation — acoustic guitars, banjo and harmonica. This seems to have been a sound arrived at by compromising different people’s artistic visions — Brian and Carl Wilson, especially, seemed in love with the Moog for much of the 70s, while Jardine has always been a folkie at heart (and his 2010 solo album A Postcard From California sounds much like these early-70s albums would if you stripped the Moogs off). This combination of progression and futurism with tradition is in spirit (if not in execution — the song itself is still relatively poor) very much a return to the ideas the band had abandoned with Smile.

Long Promised Road
Carl Wilson and Jack Rieley
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

The first actual song Carl Wilson ever wrote (as opposed to contributing ideas to other people’s songs, or ‘writing’ generic surf instrumentals), this is based around a simple but effective chord sequence, playing with the chords of Cmaj7 and F. The slow, meditative verses cycle through Cmaj7, Em (the same chord without the root note) and F (with a brief stop at Dm at one point, the relative minor of the F chord), while the choruses are a straight uptempo C – F rock chorus, ending with an ecstatic climbing bass scale which turns the penultimate F into a Dm. Meanwhile the Moog-dominated middle eight plays with inversions of these chords, adding in an Am7 (whose notes overlap those of F and C) and a Dm6.

This harmonic unity helps hold together a song whose different sections otherwise have very different moods. The verses are straightforward piano-based ballad sections, featuring just piano, bass and some light percussion, while the choruses feature a full drum kit, answering backing vocals, Moog, and horns, and the solo (over the chorus changes) also features rock guitar. All this instrumentation is played by Carl Wilson on what is essentially a solo track.

It doesn’t entirely work, partly because Rieley’s lyrics are new age platitudes about fighting back against adversity, but couched in overly-complex words for such banal thoughts. But as a first effort at songwriting, this is superb.

Take A Load Off Your Feet
Al Jardine, Brian Wilson and Gary Winfrey
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson and Al Jardine

This, on the other hand, is practically the definition of filler. Written primarily by Jardine, the lyrics to this are a self-consciously ‘quirky’ guide to good foot hygiene. While this sort of thing has sometimes worked for the band, normally there has been something interesting in the arrangement or chord sequences to latch on to. But this song is, for the most part, just cycling between two common chords, and the arrangement seems perfunctory — like a sketchy half-improvisation rather than something more thought out. Various production tricks don’t seem to hide the less-than-stellar nature of the composition.

Disney Girls (1957)
Bruce Johnston
Lead vocalist: Bruce Johnston

Johnston’s sole songwriting contribution to the album, and his last until 1980, may well be his masterpiece.

One of the most complex pieces of composition on the album, the verses to this song of wistful longing start out in G flat before descending a tone into E, returning to the home key on the words “I’m coming back” at the end of each verse — a wonderful unity of lyric and music.

Lyrically, the song seems completely out of step with the concerns of the rest of the album. While the other band members are singing about the environment, civil unrest and political upheaval, Johnston is singing the praises of Patti Page, and saying of a girl “she’s really swell, ‘cos she likes church, bingo chances and old-time dances”.

This is, of course, the point though — the song works precisely because it’s a song of nostalgia in a time of unrest. Taken out of the context of the rest of the album, it can sound slightly cloying, and even here it teeters precariously right on the point of descent into Hallmark card territory (an area where Johnston would spend much of the rest of his songwriting career, in some cases very lucratively — he would go on to write I Write The Songs during his hiatus from the band).

But here, surrounded by songs about death, depression and environmental destruction, one can more than sympathise with the desire to go back to what was (at least for a rich white man like Johnston) a happier, simpler time, even if it’s a desire most of us won’t share.

This song remains a staple of the Beach Boys’ live performances to this day, one of the only songs from this period that has remained regularly in their repertoire. Johnston’s songwriting contributions to the band were patchy, but when, as here, he hit on something good, he could deliver.

Student Demonstration Time
Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller (new lyrics Mike Love)
Lead vocalist: Mike Love

This, meanwhile, has no redeeming features whatsoever. Love’s attempt to be ‘relevant’ involves singing about student demonstrations to the tune of a 1950s hit, Riot In Cell Block Number Nine. This, however, has none of the earlier song’s subtlety or humour, and is not helped by the fact that Love, a right-winger, is trying desperately to sit on the fence here, attempting to appeal to the demonstrating students who made up the audience they were trying to court, but without ever actually saying anything to endorse their cause.

Musically, it’s an embarrassing attempt to ‘rock out’, featuring a clodhopping, lumbering drum beat, squealing distorted guitar, and a processed vocal from Love which is intended to sound like he’s singing through a bullhorn. The whole thing is a mess, best forgotten.

Feel Flows
Carl Wilson and Jack Rieley
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

Carl Wilson’s second song for the album has, in recent years, become one of the most popular songs that the band has done without Brian Wilson, thanks largely to its inclusion in the soundtrack of the film Almost Famous.

In feel, this is very similar to the verses of Long Promised Road, and is based around a simple four-chord sequence (opened up a little by a descending scalar bassline on the alliterative words-starting-with-w sections), with a brief key change on the chorus lines.

The recording is in large part a solo performance by Carl Wilson, who played the piano (doubled but recorded slightly out of phase), organ (which was added to the track both clean and put through a Moog), bass, guitar and Moog, as well as adding some of the percussion. The only other instrumental contributions are by percussionist Woody Thews and flautist Charles Lloyd (a semi-regular collaborator with the band in the 70s, and a well-known jazz musician in his own right).

Some have claimed that Carl Wilson provided all the backing vocals as well, but while all the original Beach Boys could sound very like each other, Johnston’s distinctive voice is in the mix, and I believe I can hear the other band members (Johnston and Jardine are credited on the AFM papers for the session, but the logs for this period are unreliable). Much of the track (but most notably Wilson’s lead vocal) is slathered in reversed echo.

Lyrically, this has variously been described as about either ejaculation or being on cocaine (the backing vocal line “white puff glistening shadowy flows”), but frankly the lyrics don’t make any kind of sense on a literal level, and they’re not meant to. They’re pretty mouth-noises, and they do a good job of being that.

A much more successful song than Long Promised Road, and a declaration that now there was a third Wilson brother capable of producing great work.

Lookin’ At Tomorrow (A Welfare Song)
Al Jardine and Gary Winfrey
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine

Jardine’s main solo song for the album was this acoustic folk song. Accompanied by only multiple acoustic guitars and a cymbal (until the very last line, when a keyboard also enters), a heavily-processed Jardine sings about being unable to find a good job, but still having hope for the future.

Jardine has never been the most talented or original of songwriters, but this works very well, in part because Jardine takes inspiration from the folk tradition. The melody of this is largely taken from The Wanderer, a hit for the Kingston Trio (a favourite band of Jardine’s). That song, in turn, is based on the American folk song 900 Miles, which in turn is based on the bluegrass song Reuben’s Train. Jardine makes up for his lack of songwriting inspiration by making himself a link in a longer chain, and the result is a nice, if slight, melody.

Lyrically, this is perhaps a little naive — it’s the work of a man who had never himself been out of work, or had to hold down the kind of menial job he sings about here, and it shows — but it’s well-intentioned enough. Unlike the cynicism of Student Demonstration Time, this song has its heart in the right place.

This song was briefly added to the band’s live set around this time, where rather astonishingly it was rearranged to have an almost proto-trip-hop feel, quite unlike anything else the band ever did, and decades ahead of its time.

A Day In The Life Of A Tree
Brian Wilson and Jack Rieley
Lead vocalist: Jack Rieley

The most controversial song of the band’s career up to this point, to this day people still ask whether this was intended as a joke, or whether it’s entirely serious. The answer, of course, is “yes”.

Over a pump-organ backing, with a pedal note held throughout the verses, Jack Rieley sings in a broken, off-key, quavering voice that sounds spookily like Brian Wilson’s voice would a few years later, singing from the point of view of a tree that has been damaged by pollution and wants nothing more than to die.

While this sounds a ridiculous premise for a song, the actual sound of it is heartbreaking, if nothing else because the central idea of the tree, once tall, brought down into depression, is a pretty good metaphor for the state of Brian Wilson’s own life at the time.

And then we get to the tag, where over cascading barbershop ‘bom bom’ vocals by the group, spread all over the stereo spectrum, Van Dyke Parks starts singing “trees like me weren’t meant to live, if all this world can give is pollution” while Al Jardine responds “Oh Lord I lay me down, my branches to the ground, there’s nothing left for me.”

The whole thing is heartbreaking, if not exactly easy on the ears, and is an absolutely beautiful piece of work. Unfortunately, the effect is slightly undercut by the sequencing of the album, which places all three Brian Wilson songs at the end. All three songs have a similar tempo, and all end with vocal rounds, and the two songs that immediately follow this are two of the best songs ever written, so this one, which is merely very good, suffers in comparison. It’s probably the worst piece of sequencing on any Beach Boys album.

‘Til I Die
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson

And so, after eight songs which have rarely risen above the level of quite nice, we get to an absolute masterpiece, and what may be the finest song Brian Wilson has ever written on his own.

Wilson has said to Don Was that the original inspiration for this song came from sitting at the piano, playing a chord, then trying to make the most interesting-looking chords he could with his fingers, while keeping the top and bottom notes the same.

If this is the case, this didn’t survive until the final version of the song, but the chord sequence here is cramped and obsessive, using the smallest possible finger movements to make the biggest possible changes.

These changes, which swell up and sink down like waves but sink inexorably down from a key of A flat at the start of the verse to the key of G at the end, are reinforced by the vibraphone arpeggios going up and down over the organ, bass, and mechanical drums, as the band sing the haiku-like lyrics in block harmony:

I’m a cork on the ocean
Floating over the raging sea
How deep is the ocean?
How deep is the ocean?

And then Brian takes a solo line, and your heart breaks:

I’ve lost my way, hey hey hey

It’s the “hey hey hey” that does it. The sense of almost cheerful resignation to fate. Brian is being buffeted by forces that he can’t understand, that he has no hope of controlling, and which will eventually destroy him. And he’s fully aware of that, but that’s just how things are. So it goes.

And then, if your heart hasn’t been shattered enough, he does it again at the end of the next verse — “It kills my soul, hey hey hey!”

There is no possible combination of words that can express the feelings that this evokes, and it’s when dealing with songs like this that one realises most the powerlessness of music criticism. How to describe the empathy that these words, sung like this, evoke? Words of the deepest despair, tossed off lightly, almost childishly, in the voice of an ancient child. See? It just turns one to pretension. There is no language that can cope with this.

If Brian Wilson had only ever written this song he would still be regarded as one of the great songwriters of all time. The Beach Boys’ reputation could rest on this track alone.

But they also recorded the next track…

Surf’s Up
Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson, Brian Wilson and Al Jardine

Surf’s Up was to have been the centrepiece of the aborted Smile album (FOOTNOTE For more on Smile see volume 3, out later this year, where I will discuss the Smile Sessions box set and Brian Wilson’s 2004 completed solo version of the album), and had become legendary among pop music fans after the 1967 TV broadcast Inside Pop: The Rock Revolution showed Brian Wilson playing a solo version of the song. However, when the Smile project was scrapped, the song had not yet been completely recorded.

During the recording of this album, Van Dyke Parks, the song’s lyricist, who was at that point an executive for Warner Brothers (their record label), suggested they rerecord the song, as it was felt that they didn’t have enough new strong material. Brian Wilson vehemently opposed this, as he had bad memories of the Smile period, and it has been argued by many that the disagreement over this song’s inclusion was one of the principal reasons for Brian Wilson’s decreased participation over the next few years.

While the band attempted to record a totally new version of the song, they eventually ended up piecing together something that contained both 1967 and 1971 components. The backing track for the first half is the original Smile era backing track, but all the vocals are new, including a new lead vocal by Carl Wilson, and there are a couple of overdubs. Then the second half (for which a backing track was never recorded in 1971) is a piano/vocal demo by Brian Wilson dating from 1966, with some subtle synthesiser overdubs, and the tag is the ending of Brian’s demo, looped, with the band singing and some hand percussion added.

It shouldn’t work. But in fact it’s one of the most magnificent recordings of all time.

The song, of course, is the key thing. One of the first things written for Smile, it’s as good — and ambitious — as any song of the 60s.

The verses are, musically, almost the opposite of those for Til I Die. They start very simply, alternating between Gm7/D and Dm7/G, before rising from the Gm starting key through the key of F to land in D, a major fifth above the original key, before the verse ends and it starts again.

This is then varied for the second, piano, section, and as it starts with Fm7/A flat alternating with E flat/B flat, the opening chords to Caroline, No, we realise that the whole thing is an elaboration of, and expansion of, the musical ideas of that song.

But where Caroline, No was about the loss of a single woman’s youth, Surf’s Up is about the loss of far more — the loss of an entire civilisation. In Van Dyke Parks’ elliptical, pun-filled lyrics, we see a concert-goer falling asleep to the sound of the rattling jewellery of the rich people in the other seats and the classical music being played, and dreaming of the collapse of an entire civilisation — “columnated ruins domino”, buildings and structures falling down, climaxing with the piano going silent as Brian sings “a broken man too tough to cry”.

But then there is the realisation — “Surf’s up aboard a tidal wave”. The wave that destroys is also a renewer, and for new things to be built, old ones must be swept away. “I heard the word, wonderful thing, a children’s song”. And over the chorus of “Child is father of the man” the song fades as Al Jardine sings “A children’s song, have you listened as they played?/Their song is love, and the children know the way”.

In the context of Smile there’s much, much more to say about this, how it ties together the musical and lyrical themes of that album, but I shall leave that for the discussions of that album in volume three. For now I’ll just say that this track is the crowning moment of the Beach Boys’ artistic career. It’s all downhill from here, though to start with the slope is pretty gentle.

The Beach Boys On CD: Sunflower

The band’s first album for Warner Brothers, and first of the 1970s, was the first – and in some ways the only – truly collaborative Beach Boys album. Originally put together as a contractual obligation album for Capitol under the working titles Reverberation and The Fading Rock Group Revival, before being submitted to Warners under the title Add Some Music, the album as released features near-equal contributions from all six band members – the only time when one member wouldn’t dominate either in number or quality of songs.

This was in fact something of a creative flowering for the band, who recorded the best part of another album’s worth of material during this time, much of which was released on later albums. But while the finished album is regarded as one of the band’s best – Johnston among others saying that while Pet Sounds was Brian Wilson’s masterpiece Sunflower was the Beach Boys’, to my mind there’s something a little insubstantial about the finished product, and listening to the whole album is a little like trying to eat one’s bodyweight in marshmallows. But for all that, it’s an album that sounds like an album, rather than a disconnected set of semi-solo tracks like 20/20.

Partly this is because, unlike the previous album, this is more the work of a band. By this point the Beach Boys were augmenting themselves live with several extra musicians, including the Dragon brothers (Daryl (keyboards), Dennis (drums) and Doug (keyboards)) plus guitarist/bassist Ed Carter. These musicians played on much of what became Sunflower, although the Beach Boys themselves didn’t play all that much and some session musicians play on some tracks, and it gives the whole affair a more coherent feel.

One point I should make about this and further albums – it is far easier to discuss the Beach Boys’ 60s work in terms of artistic progression, influences and so on than it is with their later work. Where the 60s work was the overall responsibility of one man, the 70s material is the work of up to eight different people, pulling in different directions. Sometimes it rises to a level of genius that is greater than the sum of its parts, but equally often it collapses into a lowest common denominator mush.

But for the early part of the 70s, at least, this worked surprisingly well, with Dennis (as a songwriter) and Carl (as producer and increasingly lead vocalist) achieving occasional peaks as high as their brother’s, while the rest of the band turned in competent work.

From this point on, the Beach Boys start becoming relevant again.


Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston

Slip On Through
Songwriter: Dennis Wilson
Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson

A Dennis Wilson solo composition, this is the first real sign for several years that the Beach Boys were aware of the wider zeitgeist. Rather than the nostalgia that was everywhere in 20/20, this sounds absolutely of its time. A funky rocker based around an incredibly simple set of chord changes, with just four chords in the whole thing, this has a huge drive and energy to it. Propelled by several layers of percussion (notably a bongo part low down in the mix) and Dennis’ strongest ever vocal, one can hear the influence of Tim Hardin in this, as in many of Dennis’ songs from this period, but there’s a lusty swagger to this that’s totally Dennis.

This was released as a single but didn’t chart.

This Whole World
Songwriter: Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

At 1:58, the B-side to Slip On Through is one of the band’s shorter songs, but this Brian Wilson solo composition packs more harmonic movement in than many bands get through in their entire careers.

Starting in C, the first four bars are fairly straightforward changes, before we suddenly get a return of the old Pet Sounds staple – a key-change down a minor third. On the second line (“lots of different people everywhere”) we get standard doo-wop I-vi-ii-V7 changes before a move to iii (C#m). This changes to C# and suddenly we’ve changed key up a major third, ending up a semitone above where we’ve started.

We then get a scalar descending bassline (the first of several of these to appear on the album), while the chords move upwards in a I-IV-V movement in the new new key of C#, so the bass and chord changes meet on the V7. The rise continues in both the chord changes and the bass for a moment, taking us to vi, then the bass starts a descent again and the two meet again on the V7 at the end of the verse. Note that all of this has happened in a single 32-second verse.

For the contrasting eight bar section, we have another Pet Sounds change down a minor third (for those who’ve lost track, this now puts us in B-flat, a semitone down from where we started). These eight bars stay relatively harmonically stable, staying in the same key for a whole sixteen seconds before rising back into C and throwing us into the whirlwind that is the verse again. We get another verse, a wordless alternate section, and then fade on an a capella verse.

The remarkable thing about this is that every individual change makes sense on its own terms – the song goes through four different keys in half a minute, and yet it doesn’t sound disorienting at all. In fact it sounds almost childishly simple, in part because of the lyrics, which rarely rise above the monosyllabic. Carl turns in one of his best performances, the rest of the band chant “oom-bop-didit” and the whole thing is a perfect pop record.

Certainly Brian appears to have been pleased with it, having returned to the song on a number of occasions – he produced a cover version by American Spring (his wife and sister-in-law) that included yet another section (a round based on the old “star light, star bright, first star I see tonight” rhyme) and recorded versions of the song on his solo albums I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times and Live At The Roxy.

Add Some Music To Your Day
Songwriters: Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Joe Knott
Lead vocalists: Mike Love, Bruce Johnston, Al Jardine, Brian Wilson and Carl Wilson

This is one of several songs on this album where my opinion is in sharp contrast with that of the mainstream of Beach Boys fandom. Most people consider this a highlight of the album, but I consider it an abject failure. Harmonically there’s nothing of interest here, there’s no air in the vocal arrangement, with everyone in more or less the same range (and too much thickening with multitracking), Carl sounds bored on his lines, and either Brian or Al is off-key at several points.

Lyrically, the song is not only banal in itself, it’s actually a celebration of the banal, praising music heard while ‘in a dentist’s chair’ or ‘faintly in the distance when you’re on the phone’.

Add Some Muzak would be a better title. This was released as a single with Jardine’s equally poor Susie Cincinnati on the B-side, and reached number 64 in the US.

Got To Know The Woman
Songwriter: Dennis Wilson
Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson

This is a ridiculously over-the-top, idiotically simple groove-based rocker. The lyrics sound almost improvised, and the whole thing works only because of Dennis Wilson’s huge personal charm on the vocals (and Mike Love’s wonderfully ridiculous bass vocal part, very similar to the one we’ll later hear in Cool, Cool Water). However, while this aims low, it manages to comfortably hit its target. The one criticism I’d make of the track is that the overly-thickened layers of backing vocals buried in the mix (something that happens on almost every song on the album) really don’t suit it.

Songwriters: Bruce Johnston and Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Bruce Johnston

At best, this can be described as inoffensive. Johnston would later go on to write I Write The Songs, and while this is not as bad as that, it’s definitely heading toward muzak territory, with its bland lyrics and fluttering flute part. In the context of the album, it’s not too dreadful, but there’s no real reason for this to exist. The song bears a slight resemblance to the then-unreleased We’re Together Again, but is smothered under layers of orchestration and backing vocals.

While Brian Wilson is credited as a co-writer of the track, this was apparently to give the impression that he made a greater contribution to the album than he had. According to Johnston, most of Wilson’s input was to suggest lyrics like “my friend Bob/he had a job” which never made the finished song. [FOOTNOTE: This seems entirely plausible, as that line sounds very like the lyrics to Wilson’s contemporaneous song Good Time, later released on The Beach Boys Love You].

It could have been much worse, though. Johnston recorded a disco version of this for his solo album Goin’ Public in 1977. It’s very, very, very bad.

It’s About Time
Songwriters: Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson, Bob Buchman and Al Jardine
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

Now this is more like it!

There’s basically no song here – it’s just an excuse for a riff by Dennis Wilson, and the lyrics are the worst kind of hippy nonsense (“And now I’m just a child who art erect in humility/Serving out of love for everyone I meet in truth who are really me”). But this is the funkiest the Beach Boys ever got, and easily the most exciting record they ever made. Earl Palmer’s drum and percussion part, in particular, is so outstandingly good that it’s been widely bootlegged on its own and makes a wonderful track even without the guitars, organ and vocals.

This is an astonishingly exciting, enjoyable track, and while there’s not much to say about it it’s clearly a highlight of the album. It was released as the B-side of Tears In The Morning, but didn’t chart.

Tears In The Morning
Songwriter: Bruce Johnston
Lead vocalist: Bruce Johnston

Side two begins with this horrible, horrible maudlin sappiness. Johnston does a great job on the vocal, but this pseudo-European waltz (with accordions and bad strings) is quite the most mawkish thing the band ever recorded, with lines like “Hope you love the baby I’m never gonna see”.

This belongs, of course, to the genre of divorce-rock that was so popular in the early 70s, but is a poor example even of that. Many of the lyrics are utterly meaningless, making neither literal nor metaphorical sense (“Well you know I lit a candle/It’s in my heart now where it glows/Day and night feel my light it’s gonna stand till/My heart believes in what you chose”) and there’s a surprising lack of craft for someone as practised as Johnston. The line “I won’t let nobody carry this load for me”, for example, requires Johnston to sing load as two syllables – “lo-oad”. Substituting in the word ‘burden’ would improve the scansion without affecting the meaning (it might even work slightly better given the generally overwrought nature of the lyrics). Meanwhile the music has no flow, instead lumbering and staggering along like a self-pitying drunk about to collapse.

Astonishingly, this was released as a single.

All I Wanna Do
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love

This is a really strange, and quite innovative, track. Primarily written by Love, this track, with its prominent bass, mechanical-sounding drums and heavily-reverbed and delayed nasal vocals, sounds like nothing so much as New Order, the 1980s post-punk/electropop band. The bridges, in particular, have a very New Order melodic shape, but everything about the melody, its conversational phrasing broken into very short phrases, sounds exactly like them. This is spookily premonitory of music more than a decade in the future.

Not to be confused with All I Want To Do from the album before this, 20/20.

Songwriters: Dennis Wilson and Gregg Jakobson
Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson

A lovely, gentle, simple ballad, this is based on the same basic pattern as A Whiter Shade Of Pale, with which it shares its stately rhythm and vague Bach influence. In both cases the chord sequence of the main section of the song is one that can be found quite simply by anyone on a keyboard instrument.

Starting with a simple triad, (in D in this case), just play a descending scale with one finger in the bass while holding the main triad down, and you have the verse sequence for this (except that when the bass reaches G and E the chord switches to G and Em7 to avoid dischords). You get a sense of movement with the minimum of actual changes, and the cycle can repeat indefinitely, and that’s what Wilson does for the most part here. The simplicity of the changes works perfectly with the heartfelt lyrics (“If every word I said could make you laugh, I’d talk forever”).

Brian Wilson apparently loved the song, and contributed the gospel-tinged vocal arrangement (which includes possibly the last example of him singing in a strong falsetto – although he sounds thinner here than in earlier years, he hits higher notes than on any other recording).

The song remained a favourite of the band, being rerecorded by Brian Wilson for American Spring, and by the Beach Boys with John Stamos on their terrible 1990s album Summer In Paradise. Both Brian Wilson and the touring Beach Boys also included it in their live sets in the 2000s, as a tribute to Dennis.

Forever was released as a B-side to Cool, Cool Water.

Our Sweet Love
Songwriter: Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson and Al Jardine
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

This is another song where I am afraid I disagree with majority opinion. This is generally considered a highlight of the album, and is often compared to God Only Knows, with which it does share a few features (the rhythm, the use of minor sixth chords, Carl Wilson’s gorgeous vocals), but I have very little time for it.

The song is actually rather similar to Forever in the way it’s constructed, as well. This time the bass descends as a chromatic, rather than a major, scale in the verse (until getting to a fourth below the starting point, when it briefly becomes more mobile before the chorus) and in a diminished scale in the chorus. Again, the chords themselves change as little as possible while still accommodating these changes. Both Brian and Dennis were, for different reasons, fundamentally lazy songwriters at this point, and this kind of trick is a good way to get effective, interesting changes without even bothering to move your hands very much (John Lennon did the same kind of thing a lot).

But interesting as the chord sequence is, the lyrics, melody and arrangement are all more of the bland mush that dominates too much of this album.

At My Window
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Al Jardine
Lead vocalist: Bruce Johnston

A rather lovely little slice-of-life ballad, much in the manner of some of the material on Friends, this features Brian Wilson attempting to speak French, with possibly the worst accent ever heard. For those who are wondering, he’s attempting to say “le moineau se poser sur ma fenetre”, French for “the sparrow landed on my window”.

This was mostly by Jardine, and as with many of Jardine’s songs the melody is based on a folk song, in this case the Kingston Trio song Raspberries, Strawberries.

Cool Cool Water
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalists: Mike Love, Brian Wilson and Carl Wilson

The final track on the album, and easily its highlight, is a bit of a Frankenstein creation. This song was originally recorded, without lead vocals, as I Love To Say DaDa during the Smile sessions. It was then rerecorded with the lyrics “add some cool cool water” chanted over and over, as a roughly two-minute track, during the Wild Honey sessions. This has led to suggestions that the track was originally intended as the ‘water’ part of The Elements (a section of Smile about which all we know for sure is that one track was “Fire”).

The Wild Honey era track was then pulled out of the vaults during the Sunflower sessions, and crossfaded into the ‘water chant’ (an a capella chant consisting of the word ‘water’ repeated over and over, recorded during the Smile sessions) which then crossfaded into a new, Moog-driven, recording of the basic DaDa musical material, this time with new lyrics by Love, and lead vocals traded off between Brian Wilson in falsetto and Love in his bass range.

Surprisingly, the track works extremely well, and despite the simplicity of the song itself, with its almost mantra-like chanting, it closes the album quite beautifully. Released as a single, though, it didn’t chart.

Overall, Sunflower is half a very good album, coupled with a lot of drivel. It’s nowhere near as good as its reputation suggests, but it’s a sign that the band were able to work together as a coherent unit, and a step in the right direction. The next album would be better…

This will eventually appear in The Beach Boys On CD vol 2. If you like this, why not consider buying volume 1? Hardback Paperback PDF Kindle (US) Kindle (UK) Kindle (DE) All other ebook formats