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The Beach Boys On CD: The Beach Boys Love You

Posted in music by Andrew Hickey on February 3, 2013

The follow-up to 15 Big Ones may well be the most controversial album the band ever did, with fans almost evenly divided between those who love it and those who hate it. In a recent (totally unscientific) poll on one fan forum, Love You made the top ten both of fans’ favourite and least favourite albums.

And there’s a good reason for this. Love You is, quite simply, unlike anything else ever recorded, not just by the Beach Boys but by anyone. It’s almost impossible to get across to people who haven’t heard it just how unlike anything else any major band has ever done this is. Possibly the best way to explain the album’s sound is by a hypothetical:

Imagine playing J.S. Bach a Phil Spector album, then telling him “you have an hour to write as many songs that sound like that as possible”, and locking him in a room with Jonathan Richman as a lyricist. Then take those songs and give them to Tom Waits to record, but with the only instruments allowed being a Moog with its settings stuck on “fart sound” and a single snare drum.

While the result wouldn’t exactly be The Beach Boys Love You, it would probably be close enough on a first approximation. It’s an album where the vast majority of the instrumentation is played by Brian, and is as rudimentary as that implies. Given its release in 1977, it would actually be the only sensible response by a major band to punk, were there any evidence that Brian Wilson had ever heard a punk record at this point — as it is, we have to see it as just convergent evolution. This seems to be the cause of the great split in Beach Boys fandom over this album. Very roughly, anyone who became a Beach Boys fan before punk despises this album, anyone who grew up listening to punk and post-punk music seems to get it instinctively.

This is one of only two Beach Boys albums to be made up entirely of previously-unreleased Brian Wilson songs (the other being Smiley Smile) and is as personal a statement as Pet Sounds, Smile or Smiley Smile. And I am absolutely in the camp for whom this is one of the pillars on which the Beach Boys’ artistic reputation rests. Certainly this is the last album by the group that anyone could possibly argue was great — and there are only two after this that one could reasonably argue are even listenable (though the band’s members would make plenty of good music solo).

It’s not an easy listen, though. It’s bare, minimalist, raspy and human. Apparently Carl Wilson did a lot to sweeten the album before its release (he’s credited as ‘mixdown producer’, with Brian Wilson credited as ‘producer’, but supposedly he did a lot more than that implies), which just makes one wonder what on Earth this could have sounded like before the sweetening.

One thing that must be addressed before we get to the album proper, though, is the claim by some that the people who like this album do so because they’re fetishising mental illness, and that the album itself is ‘a product of mental illness’. This is nonsense.

The album isn’t “a product of mental illness” — it’s a product of an artist who happened to be living with a mental illness. Yes, it wouldn’t be the same if Brian had been mentally better, but likewise none of his music would have been the same if he’d been able to hear in both ears, and we don’t call Pet Sounds “a product of physical disability”.

Just having a mental illness doesn’t make one magically able to make music of the quality of Love You — I worked for several years on a psychiatric ward, and several of the people on that ward fancied themselves musicians, so I can tell you that from personal experience. Conversely, having a mental illness doesn’t suddenly remove all talent, intelligence and humour from someone who has those things when they’re well.

The narrative that mental illness is in some way romantic or confers mystical talent upon those who have it is definitely a pernicious one that needs to be fought. But just as pernicious is the opposite myth — that because someone has bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, or whatever, they instantly become unable to do anything or make any rational decision. People with mental illnesses can be capable of creating great art — even great art that stems from their illness. Or should we dismiss Van Gogh and William Blake, too?

No, Love You wouldn’t be the same album if Brian Wilson hadn’t been suffering from a mental illness at the time — but that’s a good thing. Not a good thing that he was ill, but a good thing that while ill he was able to create great art. Personally, I think we need more art from people with mental illnesses — they’re marginalised, and their opinions and thoughts more or less ignored or mocked, in this society.

But this isn’t something that has to be treated as outsider music and listened to as one would listen to Wesley Willis. This is an album that had a rave review on its release from Patti Smith, that Peter Buck considers one of the greatest ever and that, most importantly, Brian Wilson himself often says is his favourite by the band. This is a strange, but beautiful, work by one of the greatest songwriters ever.

To those who have ears, let them hear.

line-up

Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston (uncredited)

Let Us Go On This Way
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist:
Carl Wilson and Mike Love

And the album starts as it means to go on — with a riff almost identical to that of Gimme Some Lovin’ played on a cheap-sounding electric organ and a Moog bass, while a single snare drum thwacks on the off-beat and Carl Wilson grunts.

This is pop-R&B for the post-punk age, the Spencer Davis Group in a world where the drum-kit and the electric guitar had never been invented. Over a simple, grunting riff played on a farting Moog, stabbing chords on an organ, Jay Miglori’s baritone sax and a solitary snare drum, Carl Wilson soul-shouts “To get you babe I went through the wringer/Ain’t gonna let you slip through my fingers”. The verse is simplicity itself, but then for the chorus line we get something totally different — all the instruments drop out, replaced by a piano, and the two-chord riffs we’ve had so far are replaced by seven chords in three bars, as the ecstatic harmonies come in — “God, please let us go on this way”.

To those who’ve been following the band’s career, this can’t help but be a reminder of the last time the Beach Boys invoked the deity in this way — the similarly gospel-infused He Come Down — but while the harmonies here work in the same way, here they’re shattered voices. The Wilson brothers at this point had destroyed their voices with a combination of cocaine, alcohol and smoking, though Carl’s voice remained comparatively unravaged, and so here rather than the ethereal beauty of even a few years ago, we have what sounds like ancient, weary old men, their voices cracked and shattered, even though when this was recorded all the band were under thirty-five.

But the significant word here, as Patti Smith correctly noted in her review for Hit Parader [FOOTNOTE Which can currently be read at http://www.smileysmile.net/uncanny/index.php/the-beach-boys-love-you-october-1977-hit-parader-selection-by-patti-smith], isn’t “God” but “please”, which she called “the catchword of Love You” but which could equally be called the catchword of Brian Wilson’s entire career. This is a pleading album, and I can’t really put it better than Smith did:

they are pleading w/ the same urgency as the boy in the back seat to the girl in 1963. please it won’t hurt. please. come to me/give to me/tell me/listen to me…[orthography as in the original]

Then after another verse we get the middle eight, and Mike Love’s sole songwriting contribution to the album (apparently he wrote only these lyrics, not those for the rest of the track). And suddenly we’re back in the world of Holland, with Love’s obsessions with telepathy and levitation coming to the fore again. “Seems we have extra sensory perception…now we can fly”. It even sounds different from the rest of the track — the single snare drum thwack has been replaced with a single thump on a tom.

The track builds cleverly, from the single Moog bass under Carl’s vocal at the beginning, to a mass of Moog, organ, sax and chanting Beach Men by the end, but throughout it there is a propulsive energy that had been missing from everything the band had recorded, no matter how good, since about 1971.

A staggeringly good opener.

Roller Skating Child
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Mike Love, Al Jardine and Carl Wilson

“And we’ll make sweet lovin’ when the sun goes down/We’ll even do more when her mama’s not around/Well, oh my, oh gosh, oh gee/She really sets chills inside of me”.

This is one of the comparatively weaker tracks on the album, sounding in fact like a rewrite of the previous track (the verse riff is essentially the same but a tone up), but less inspired, with handclaps and some rudimentary blues guitar attempting to liven it up. Even so, lyrics like the chorus lines quoted above, or “we do it holding hands, it’s so cold I go brrr”, are quintessentially Brian Wilson.

This is probably the most “Beach Boys” sounding track on the album, with Mike Love taking the lead in his nasal tenor, but still the greatest moment is the end, when out of nowhere comes a quick G-flat – A-flat – B-flat rise that’s reminiscent of the chorus to Sail On Sailor, and Brian sings, in his ravaged “low and manly” voice but with the innocence and enthusiasm of a five-year-old, “Roller…skating…CHI-ILD!”

It’s the real entry of the voice that will define much of the album.

Mona
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson

The Beach Boys Love You, like many records where Brian Wilson has had control, is structured in a way that seems strange to modern ears but made sense at the time. When the Beach Boys were first starting out, in the very early 60s, the convention was that albums would have two sides that were different in style. Side one would be “for the kids” and be R&B or rock style tunes, while side two would be “good music” “for the grown-ups” — orchestrated, sweetened ballads. This was the convention to the point where I actually own a Ray Charles album from the early 1960s whose liner notes feel the need to explain that they’d chosen to mix the two styles up rather than do it the conventional way.

And this is how Brian Wilson structured many (though not all) of his albums. It’s most obvious on The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album, but it’s also there on The Beach Boys Today and (to a slightly lesser extent) Summer Days…And Summer Nights! — a side of mostly uptempo rockers, and a side of more sophisticated, more complex, ballads.

So here we get the third uptempo track in a row, and the most fully fleshed-out. This has a full wall-of-sound style production, with massed backing vocals, multiple saxophones, and even drum fills (unusual for this album). Over a four-chord doo-wop progression, a badly double-tracked Dennis Wilson, his voice so damaged he can barely enunciates, shouts lyrics like “Come on, listen to Da Doo Ron Ron now, listen to Be My Baby, I know you’re gonna love Phil Spector” and “Will you, will you will you will you just kiss me/When you leave me won’t you just miss me?” (See what Smith meant about “please”?)

This is a man in his thirties singing a song about the concerns of a boy in his teens, in the voice of a man in his eighties, and if you can listen to it without a huge grin on your face I pity you.

Johnny Carson
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Mike Love and Carl Wilson

Johnny Carson starts off with a verse that sounds almost like the kind of louche Weimar cabaret song that Scott Walker or someone of that ilk might cover, low piano chords and Moog in a minor key, with no other instrumentation, while the singer sings in a low baritone, being almost mocked by the answering chorus.

Except that that singer is Mike Love, and the words he’s singing are “He sits behind his microphone/(Joh-nny Car-son!)/He speaks in such a manly tone/(Joh-nny! Car-son!)”

This is the make-or-break song for this album — at this point either you just decide to go with it and accept that, yes, this is going to be a song about how great Johnny Carson is, and how “every night at eleven-thirty he’s so funny”, where the instrumental break consists of four bars of just a stabbed Cm chord, played on organ and piano, on the on-beat, followed by four more bars alternating between B-flat and E-flat, and where there is a single cymbal crash that is almost the only use of cymbal in the entire album, or you turn the album off and give up on it.

As the song ends with another doo-wop progression, over which the band chants “Who’s the man that we admire?/Johnny Carson is a real live wire”, only those who are willing to listen with an open mind are left, as the album starts to get really good.

Good Time
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Al Jardine
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson

This song is often considered to not fit on the rest of the album — it was originally recorded during the Sunflower sessions in 1970, apart from one “Hey!” at the end that Brian added in 1977, and features a much fuller arrangement than anything else on the album, including strings and horns, as well as having Brian’s very different 1970 voice in the lead.

It’s also the only song that had had any kind of release before this, having been released as a track by American Spring (a vocal group consisting of Brian Wilson’s wife Marilyn and sister-in-law Diane) with the same backing track but slightly revised lyrics (including a vocal part on the instrumental break — “Hey baby, turn up the radio/The DJ just said he’s playing our favourite song/talk to me”). That version is actually in many ways the better mix, having some instrumental parts missing from the Love You mix, and sounding overall much clearer.

Despite all the differences — the orchestration, the simpler structure, Brian’s voice — this does still fit on the album, simply because of the eccentric sense of joy in the track. There’s no other album in the world where a line like “My girlfriend Penny, she’s kinda skinny/And so she keeps her falsies on” would fit.

Honkin’ Down The Highway
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist:
Al Jardine

The only single from the album was this utterly joyous country-rocker. One of the fuller productions on the album, this harks back to the band’s early days of singing about cars and girls, but with a mixture of sophistication and naivety that is utterly astonishing.

On the one hand, you’ve got Brian and Dennis bellowing “honk honk, honking down the highway”, and the fact that Al is singing about “honking down the gosh-darn highway”, but on the other you’ve got astonishing musical moments like the bridge, where a song that has been in E major throughout the verse diverts into a minor key, but only so the song can build up from Bm7 through Em7 and F#m7 before triumphantly going to G major and then to B major, the fifth of the original key — taking us from a minor version of the chord to a major one through a continuous lift that is just about the most joyous thing ever committed to record, especially when combined with Al singing over the top “I guess I got a way…WITH…GIRLS!” in his magnificent, rich voice.

And this is the thing that makes Brian Wilson so special as a songwriter — the combination of an utterly unmediated emotional expression with a peerless musical intelligence and craft. This is the music that an enthusiastic child would make, making up a song about the first thing that came into her head — if that child was at one and the same time someone with decades of songwriting craft.

No-one else can do this.

Al Jardine re-recorded this song on his 2010 album A Postcard From California, with Brian Wilson adding backing vocals, but this is still the superior version.

Ding Dang
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Roger McGuinn
Lead vocalist: Mike Love

A very silly song indeed, running slightly less than a minute long, all on one chord, with the band singing “Ding, dang, dang, Whoo!, ding and a ding dong” while Mike sings “I love a girl/I love her so madly/I treat her so fine/But she treats me so badly” over and over. This took two people to write.

This is Brian Wilson’s favourite song from the album.

Solar System
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson

Side two opens with a wonderful waltz-time ballad, layers of synths under Brian’s ‘low and manly’ voice as he sings a song about the planets that seems aimed at children.

Harmonically, this is the most interesting thing so far — the verse/chorus seems to start in G or D, but soon moves to A, before going to F for the chorus, but then ending on a D chord. It’s one of the most harmonically mobile things Brian had done in years, and it’s absolutely gorgeous. The middle eight, meanwhile, seems to stick mostly to the key of E minor, but with a Cm7 chord that doesn’t neatly fit into any of the other keys.

Lyrically, the song is a look at all the planets in the solar system (except Uranus) and the moon, from a childish point of view — “If Mars had life on it/I might find my wife on it”, along with mentions of various other celestial bodies (“Then there’s the Milky Way/That’s where the angels play”).

It’s absolutely lovely, and for all the criticism Brian’s gruff 1977 voice gets, I have to say that I find the vocals on this track fit perfectly — he was still a great singer, even if he didn’t have a ‘beautiful’ voice. The harmonies on the chorus, with Brian multi-tracked, straining for the high notes he would once have hit easily, are lovely.

The Night Was So Young
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

By common agreement, this is by far the best song on the album, and for once the consensus isn’t wrong. This is the most fully-produced track on the album — and it sounds like a lot of that production is the work of Carl Wilson, as there are probably more guitars on this one track than on the entire rest of the album, with at least three clearly audible parts (a barely-there rhythm part, a vaguely “Hawaiian” sounding two-note repeated phrase mixed high, and a double-tracked lead part played on the bass strings and mixed low). It also has the most conventional drum part, to the point of actually having a little hi-hat work (one of the little-remarked quirks of Brian Wilson’s production is that he rarely uses cymbals of any kind on his recordings, preferring to use hand percussion to play those parts).

Carl Wilson turns in the best vocal performance of the album, a quite extraordinary effort. Listening to “Why she has to hide/She’s passing it by, she won’t even try/To make this love go where it should” you could believe this was Brian’s old trick of passing vocal lines between different vocalists, but they’re all Carl. In fact, it sounds like the only vocals on this track at all are massed Brians in the harmony stack and Carl on lead.

The song itself is a lovely, simple one, with a vaguely Latin or Hawaiian feel thanks to all the major 7ths and 6ths, and with simplistic but effective lyrics that perfectly express the emotion of being awake at night thinking about a love you can’t have. Absolutely beautiful.

This is the only Love You song that Brian Wilson has included in his solo sets when performing live, playing it in 2002.

I’ll Bet He’s Nice
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson, Brian Wilson and Carl Wilson

Another absolutely stunning song. The simplest way to describe how good this is is to say there’s a bootleg tape, quite widely available, of Brian demoing several Love You era songs for his bandmates. Their reactions to songs like Mona are…not hugely enthused. But when he plays this one, there are astonished noises and “woo-hoos” in the middle eight, Mike Love starts singing along with the choruses, and Love says at the end “Man, that knocked me out, that was a motherfucker.”

[Note to self -- check that this line was actually in that place before releasing the book version of this, as the tape has been edited quite a bit].

A lovely song built on layers of synths, with the only other instrument audible being a tambourine low in the mix in the left channel, this is an absolutely heartbreaking little song — “I’ll bet he’s twice/As nice as me and it makes me cry/Please don’t tell me if it’s true/Because I’m still in love with you”.

It would be an absolutely perfectly constructed song, in fact, were it not for the middle eight lyrics, which are sung from the point of view of a lover afraid his love will leave, rather than one who has already been left.

This track also features a prominent vocal cameo from former and future Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, who sings the multitracked “Well it’s you…” harmonies in the left channel on the fade.

Let’s Put Our Hearts Together
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson and Marilyn Wilson

A simple duet, again built on layer upon layer of synth sounds, this is one of the less complex songs on the second side, rarely venturing far from its home key and staying for much of the song on two chords.

There’s an appealing sweetness to this, and it would take a heart of stone not to be affected at least a little by Brian earnestly singing lines like “maybe I’ll come up with some idea and you’d think that I was clever”, but Marilyn Wilson was never a particularly good singer, and giving her lines where she has to sing a melisma that stretches the single word “good” into six notes over four beats is, frankly, cruel.

I Wanna Pick You Up
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson and Brian Wilson

A rather sweet, charming song sung to one of Brian’s children, who were at this point old enough to be going to school — “I love to pick you up, ’cause you’re still a baby to me”, this is an innocent little song about loving and caring for one’s children. There’s a subsection of Beach Boys fandom which likes to infer a sexual double-meaning to this song (mostly because of the line “pat her on her butt/she’s going to sleep, be quiet”), but while some of the other songs Brian was writing around this time have some disturbing aspects to it, this is as innocent a song as it gets.

The song is not one of the best on the album (Darian Sahanaja, later musical director of Brian Wilson’s backing band, released a solo version of the song with Pet Sounds style orchestration in the mid-90s, and it doesn’t really hold up under the weight), but like the whole album it manages to communicate an honest emotion, in a direct way, and it’s an emotion that is very rarely dealt with in rock or pop music. And the harmonies at the end are exquisite, with Love’s held bass note about as deep as he’s ever sung, while Dennis sings “little baby go to sleep”.

A minor piece, but a nice one.

Airplane
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Mike Love, Carl Wilson and Brian Wilson

One of the very best things on the album, here lyric and music work perfectly together, as the tiny drifts in chord in the verses, from Gmaj7 to G7 to Cmaj7 to Am7 to D7, always keeping several notes in place from one chord to the next, perfectly capture the feeling of floating along above the clouds, thinking about arriving home.

It’s a hard song to analyse, because it’s just so direct and affecting. Love turns in a remarkably good vocal for him in this range (it’s right at the top of his tenor range, where he’s normally most nasal). But it’s a great one. After the two verses, we get a new section — “Airplane, airplane”, bringing in a hint of Gm to go with the G major key established in the rest of the song, but only so that on the “carry me back to her side” line we can have the rising Sail On Sailor Eflat-F-G sequence. This repeats and then we get Brian singing, almost a descending scale, “down down, on the ground, can’t wait to see her face”, again evoking perfectly in sound the feeling of a slow descent.

And then there’s the tag, where over a two-chord R&B vamp, Brian and Carl engage in a joyous call and response — “I can’t wait (can’t wait) to see (her face)”. This makes up nearly a quarter of the song, and frankly I’d have been just as happy if it had gone on for another five minutes, just hearing the two brothers playing off each other vocally, Carl growling and Brian singing “I can’t wa-hay-hait”. There’s nothing musically clever going on here, just two people singing with such infectious joy that the listener can’t help but smile.

Love Is A Woman
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Al Jardine

And then finally we get to the song that most people use to dismiss the album. This is, frankly, a bit of a failure — a doo-wop song with lines like “Love is a woman/so tell her she smells good tonight” and “One two three/She’s fallen in love with me/Four five six/She fell for all my tricks”, this has the same childish eccentricity as most of the rest of the album, but doesn’t have the imagination to go along with it, and to make matters worse there’s just enough sweetening added to the mix (multiple saxophones and what sounds like a flute) to make it sound cluttered, while still sounding amateurish.

You can’t expect every song to be a classic, and this is the only one on the album that is less than wonderful, but it seems strange that it was sequenced as the last song on the album. The band — or at least Brian — seemed to like it though, and it was kept in their live set for a while, while Brian chose to perform it on a rare solo TV appearance around this time.

I am entirely prepared to accept that I’m missing something with this song, and that in two or three years something will click, and I’ll realise it’s a great work of genius, because the rest of this album is so unbelievably good that I’m willing to see any failure in it as a failure in me. But for now, I have to say that this is an imperfect ending to an otherwise perfect album.

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