The Beach Boys On CD: Bruce Johnston — Going Public

I’m actually going slightly out of order here. There were two Beach Boys solo albums released in 1977. The first of these, Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue, is generally considered a masterpiece. It’s been issued on CD as a double “special edition”, including tons of bonus tracks and an entire second, previously-unreleased, album, Bambu, that was recorded as a follow-up. It’s going to take a huge amount of effort to deal with it in any kind of fair way, effort I can’t put in right now, as it’s an enormous artistic achievement.

Going Public, on the other hand, and with all possible respect to Bruce Johnston, simply isn’t.

Johnston will be re-entering the story proper in 1979, though since leaving the band in 1972 he’d remained on friendly terms with them and added backing vocals to several tracks. But he’d not been sitting around waiting for the call from his old band-mates. Johnston was always the best musician in the band, in the purely technical sense — he’s an excellent pianist, and able to turn his hand to any kind of music. So between 1972 and 1977 he’d done all sorts of work, from working with Curt Boettcher (by now shortening his name to Becher), Gary Usher and Terry Melcher on their odd disco-calypso-surf-pop California Music project, to singing backing vocals with Carl Wilson on Elton John’s Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me, to co-writing a top 30 hit for the Hudson Brothers, to writing a song for The Captain And Tennile.

That song, I Write The Songs, was re-recorded by David Cassidy on an album Johnston produced for him in 1975, and then covered again by Barry Manilow, in a version which became a massive worldwide hit, and won Johnston the Grammy award for Song Of The Year (still the only time a Beach Boys member has won this award).

As a result of this success, Johnston recorded this solo album, produced by Gary Usher (supposedly, though I’ve seen claims that Usher had little involvement) and with Curt Becher co-arranging. The intention was apparently more to showcase other songs of Johnston’s that might have hit potential, rather than to be a satisfying album in itself, and the result is, frankly, awful — a mixture of stripped-down demos that sound like every bad lounge singer in existence, and some of the least danceable disco in existence. Johnston himself, never one to hide his opinion, has repeatedly disowned the album, saying he doesn’t understand why anyone would want to listen to it.

I have to make a confession here — this is one of only two albums I’m writing about which I don’t feel fully familiar with. Both this, and Mike Love’s solo album Looking Back With Love, are so poor that I’ve listened to them precisely twice each before the start of this project — once to see if they were as bad as people say, and once to check that they were really that bad. Those two albums are being included for completeness’ sake, not because I can offer any great insights.

Unless noted, all songs are written by Bruce Johnston, who’s also the lead vocalist.

I Write The Songs

You almost certainly know this song in Barry Manilow’s hit version, but in case you have managed to avoid it, this is a song about music, part of a regrettable 70s subgenre that also included Music by John Miles. In this case Johnston sings that “I write the songs that make the whole world sing/I write the songs of joy and special things”. When Manilow sang this, people thought, naturally enough, that it was a rather egotistical song, with Manilow claiming “I am music and I write the songs”.

Johnston has since clarified that the song is meant to be from the voice of God, from whom all music comes in his opinion. And writing a song that claims to speak for God is apparently less egotistical than merely claiming to have written all music in human history. O hubris, thy name is Johnston.

In truth, the song is nowhere near as bad as its whipping-boy status would suggest, having a decent, if saccharine, melody, and some relatively interesting chord changes, at least until the horrible truck-driver’s key changes start to come in after the middle eight. That’s not to say it’s good, mind, just that it’s not as bad as its reputation. Johnston performs it in a fairly restrained way, with the recording being just him and a piano (plus a ton of reverb) for the most part, although the addition of a choir for the last few notes is a bit much, and of course his voice is as good as ever.

This song was part of the Beach Boys’ live repertoire for a couple of years after Johnston rejoined the band, but has now become part of a ‘comedy’ bit of the show, where Johnston plays a couple of bars and is then made to apologise for having written it.

And while it shouldn’t need saying, for completeness’ sake I’ll say it. This song isn’t about Brian Wilson.

Bruce Johnston and Brian Wilson

The first truly inexplicable move on the album is this rerecording of the Sunflower song, with slightly-rewritten lyrics. The original had been, if not great, then perfectly inoffensive and with a mild light charm. Here the light swing of the original is replaced with an utterly generic disco-lite sub-Bee Gees backing — thudding four-on-the-floor drums with quavers on the hi-hat, backing vocals appearing and disappearing at random places in the stereo spectrum, an unimaginative horn arrangement and so forth.

The lyrical rewrite is clumsy, the disco arrangement galumphs clumsily when it should be encouraging us to dance, and then just in case anyone was starting to get some accidental pleasure from the song, it breaks down into a slow tempo for a few bars for a lounge sax solo. Utterly joyless.

Thank You Baby

This is a remake of a song Johnston originally recorded in the 1960s, with Terry Melcher, as their duo Bruce & Terry. In that form it was a fairly passable piece of Jan And Dean-esque harmony pop, sounding vaguely influenced by late period Buddy Holly, but with some baroque pop harpsichord. (Bruce and Terry also recorded covers of two Holly songs around the same time).

Here it’s slowed down and performed by Johnston over solo electric piano, and while it’s a pretty melody, the song itself doesn’t stand up to this treatment, with all its jolly internal rhyming — “And the way/every day/when you’d say/I love to see you smile” or “thoughts/can’t be bought/but they ought/to be shared with someone close”. That sort of thing works fine in an uptempo pop song, but just sounds ridiculous in a sensitive singer-songwriter ballad.

The middle section, where Johnston does multi-tracked “Mister Sandman” barbershop vocals works quite well though.

(For those who might think that because I dislike this album I’m dismissing Johnston as a writer or performer, incidentally, I cannot recommend the Sundazed Best Of Bruce & Terry highly enough. Twenty tracks of perfect pop, including the utterly magnificent Girl It’s Alright Now, and the Love/Johnston collaboration Don’t Run Away. One poor album shouldn’t distract from the man’s talent.)

Bruce Johnston, Bill Hudson, Brett Hudson, Mark Hudson

This track was written with and for the Hudson brothers, a pop band who were the stars of the children’s TV show The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show. Their version, done in a vaguely imitation-Chinnichap style, made number 26 as a single in 1975, becoming their second-biggest hit.

Johnston’s version sounds closer to Neil Sedaka, with its ridiculous but catchy “Rendezvous/Rendezvous/Ronday-ronday-ronday rendezvous” chorus. It’s silly pop fluff, but enjoyable for what it is.

(It’s still impossible, though, to get over Johnston singing the first line “Your mom and dad/Think I’m bad”. No, they think you’re a multi-millionaire who puts a photo of himself in full morning suit and top hat sat on the bumper of a Rolls-Royce on his album cover.)

Won’t Somebody Dance With Me?
Lynsey De Paul

One of two cover versions on the album, this is a remake of a sickeningly sweet Lynsey De Paul hit, that actually manages to be even more saccharine than the original. While De Paul’s original was all sung from the perspective of the “wallflower” who wants someone to dance with her, here Johnston switches the lyrics round to be from the point of view of her father, watching her, before saying “and she says”, at which point a female vocalist (I don’t know who, as it’s not noted as a duet in the album’s liner notes, but the credited female backing vocalists are Cindy Bullens and Diana Lee, and Toni Tennille is given ‘special thanks’ in the credits for the album) sings the “won’t somebody dance with me?” chorus, in a ludicrously high voice which can’t quite reach the notes.

The low point — not just of the album, but perhaps of all musical history up to this point — comes in the second chorus, when after each line Johnston gives a spoken response. “Won’t somebody dance with me? (Be patient, sweetheart)/Start up a romance with me/(There’ll be time for that)”

If anyone ever tries to tell you punk was unnecessary, play them this track.

Disney Girls
There’s little to say about this that I didn’t say in the write-up in the Surf’s Up album. It’s an inferior performance to that one, and just on the other side of the line that separates pop perfection from schmaltz, and this performance — solo vocal and piano apart from the “church, bingo chances” line (and an electric piano coming in on the coda), and taken a little slower than the original — shows how much the other Beach Boys added to that track. It’s utterly unnecessary if you’ve heard the original, but it’s still the best thing on the album by a long, long way.

Rock And Roll Survivor
A pleasant enough country-pop song, of a kind that Glenn Campbell might have recorded, about how the singer is through with his rock and roll days and all grown up, and is going to sing music that’s more appropriate for someone who’s in his mid-thirties and extremely rich, like country music.

The bragging about his wealth in the first verse is a little off-putting, but in a way this seems like the most emotionally honest song on the entire album, and it’s admirable in a way — he’s bored of rock and roll music, he wants to grow and play something “pleasing to my ear”. Given the way rock music has self-mythologised almost from its inception, and it’s quite nice to hear someone say “no, actually, there’s more to life, and to music, than this.”

After the nadir of Won’t Somebody Dance With Me we’re actually into a little stretch where the album is managing to achieve mediocrity, which is definitely an improvement.

Don’t Be Scared
This is actually the second song Johnston wrote titled Don’t Be Scared. The earlier one, by Bruce & Terry but released under the name The Rip Chords, is a wonderful piece of hot-rod pop with Chuck Berry guitar licks and pretty much every Beach Boys or Jan & Dean hook ever, all stuffed into two minutes and forty seconds along with a strange Joe Meek style guitar line.

This isn’t. This is Bruce, with two electric pianos and a string section, singing about how he’s a nice guy and while you only think of him as a friend he’s much better than that boyfriend you have now who’s upset you, and you shouldn’t be scared.

And the thing is…it’s not that terrible, and that’s what makes it that terrible. This is perfectly competently done, by someone who understands music very, very well. But we’re onto the penultimate track now, and the closest we’ve got to a human emotion is ‘sensitivity’. I’m not one who thinks that music should ‘rock’ necessarily — I’ve often advocated, only half-jokingly, that the electric guitar and drum kit should be banned for a decade to force people to either do something new and different or not make music at all — but…

But great music, good music, anything that deserves the name “music” at all, of any type, has a life and an energy to it, has some guts. Whether it’s Bach or Benny Goodman or Hank Williams or Ray Charles or Billie Holiday or Peggy Lee or Stravinsky or Charles Ives or Kate Bush or Elvis Presley or Captain Beefheart. Even music that a lot of people would dismiss as muzak, like the Swingle singers. Hell, even the old Rediffusion station ID… you listen to those, and you get some sense of life, of humanity, of someone attempting to communicate something, to bridge a gap between the artist and another human being.

Even advertising jingles. “A finger of fudge is just enough to give your kids a treat” was, after all, trying to communicate something to other people, so there’s some life to it.

This, though…this is absolutely competent, put together according to every rule you could come up with on how to write a mid-70s sensitive ballad, but… nothing. There’s nothing there. It’s an empty shell, as the entire album is.

I can define a category wide enough to include the Cadbury’s Fudge jingle, Edgard Varese, James Last, Tuvan throat singers, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Public Enemy, The Beatles and Tiny Tim, and find elements all those things have in common to justify their inclusion. But I can’t with any honesty put this track, or this album, into that group.

This isn’t music.

Brian Carman, Bob Spickard

This is a disco remake of the old surf instrumental, originally by the Chantays, with the melody being alternately played by strings, horns, and sung by Johnston and Becher in wordless vocals.

It’s not so terrible, I suppose, once you get over the cognitive dissonance, but by this point I’ve lost the will to live.

This was released as a single and somehow managed to make the top forty in the UK. I hear people did a lot of cocaine in the 1970s.

Please don’t make me listen to this album again, I’ll be good, I promise.