The Beach Boys: Manchester Apollo 27/5/15 and Royal Albert Hall 31/5/15

NB, this review was meant to be a whole 1500 words longer. WordPress disabled autosaving revisions, and didn’t bother telling their customers. When I hit “post”, for some reason it lost everything I typed today, and posted only the part from yesterday, and I can’t recover those 1500 words. I can only apologise for the brevity of this.
(EDIT OK, so WP didn’t disable it. It’s just stopped working in Firefox with my set of extensions. It works fine in Chrome, which I wasn’t using :-/)

One of the many myths people think they “know” about the current touring Beach Boys is that they are a nostalgia act, who just perform the hits. This is certainly something one sees repeated on the more unpleasant fan message boards, with the implicit message being that there is something somehow shameful about having enough classic hit records to fill an entire show, and that there would be something better, something more legitimate, about going on stage and doing two hours of songs nobody knows.

What those critics don’t realise is that, given the chance to do a long set, the touring Beach Boys will do that *as well*.

On Sunday, at the Albert Hall, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston, David Marks and their excellent backing band (Scott Totten, Jeff Foskett, John Cowsill, Tim Bonhomme, and Brian Eichenberger) played from 8PM to 11:26, with only a very short interval in the middle (the Manchester show had to finish at “only” 11PM, because of a venue curfew, so was slightly shorter). They played sixty songs, ranging from early surf songs, through their glorious mid-60s perfect pop period, the artistic material of the late 60s and early 70s, right through to 2012’s reunion album That’s Why God Made The Radio. Other than their late 70s commercial and artistic nadir, every period and style of their music was represented.

And this was done without cutting out those hits — and with good reason. I’m a fan of the artistic side of the band, far more than I am of the hits, but those hits still include some of the greatest singles ever recorded — Don’t Worry Baby, Good Vibrations, I Get Around, God Only Knows… these are songs that stand up with the best music has to offer, and to *not* play them would be ridiculous.

Indeed, an audience member who didn’t know what to expect would think that they were just in for the hits at the start of the show. The auditorium is black, and over the PA plays Dion singing Runaround Sue, before the voice of DJ Wink Martindale is heard introducing the Beach Boys’ first single, Surfin’. The track starts to play, from the record, and then right at the end the lights go up and the band (and at the Albert Hall, but not at other shows, a seven-piece horn and percussion section) take over, before segueing into seven other fun-in-the-sun songs in a row without a break, all with Mike Love on lead vocal.

This section shows that this band are capable of reproducing the thrill of those early records (and the odd later attempt at recapturing their glory) impeccably — Jeff Foskett’s falsetto is beautiful, Love’s voice is somewhat huskier than it was fifty-four years ago, but still surprisingly preserved, and David Marks plays the guitar parts with a reverbed surf guitar tone that sounds if anything more appropriate than the rather subdued tones on the original records.

There are four massive runs of hits in the show, bookending the start and end of each half. The surf songs at the beginning of the first set are paired with the car songs at the end, while the second set opens (after the get-the-audience-back-in-their-seats song California Dreaming) with the more complex music from 1965 and 66, and the end is a gigantic run of crowd pleasers like Help Me Rhonda, Barbara Ann, and Fun Fun Fun. Most of the audience would have been more than happy with the twenty-eight or so songs that make up those gigantic blocks of hits, and you couldn’t blame the band if they’d just done them.

Instead, those songs made up less than half the set, and the lesser half at that. In between, we had Scott Totten (the band’s musical director, who is largely responsible for the touring band’s artistic renaissance in recent years) singing Let Him Run Wild, a song that is *obscenely* difficult to sing, and making it sound beautiful and easy. We had John Cowsill, possibly the greatest rock drummer I’ve ever seen, playing complex percussion parts while belting out the lead vocal of Heroes & Villains. We had Bruce Johnston singing Disney Girls in the best voice I’ve heard him in since I became a fan. We had Brian Eichenberger, the new member, only in the band a month, playing bass on sixty songs he must have rehearsed up while on tour and singing lead on songs like You Still Believe In Me, and we had Jeff Foskett’s lovely falsetto.

But the real highlight for me came on Wednesday, when for the first time in forty years the Beach Boys played Surf’s Up, a song that even Brian Wilson hasn’t played live in a decade, and that I never thought I’d hear live again. They did it both nights, and Sunday’s was technically better, but hearing Scott, Jeff, and John sing that song on Wednesday made my year.

(I should also make special mention of Tim Bonhomme, the keyboardist who is, other than Mike and Bruce, the longest-serving of the band members. His part is generally a supporting one, and he takes no lead vocals and few solos, so he’s easy to ignore, yet on many songs he has to bear the weight of making up for the complex instrumental arrangements on the records almost single-handedly).

There were flaws in both shows — in Manchester, the first show of the set, there was a certain first-night stiffness, while at the Albert Hall Mike Love sang the wrong section of Don’t Back Down at one point — but they were the kind of flaws that let you know you’re watching a live performance, rather than the kind that detract from it.

The Beach Boys are playing Cardiff tomorrow. If you get the chance, go to see them. They’re so much more than “just” the best set of hits you’ll ever hear.

Setlist (This is the Albert Hall setlist, but the two shows were similar. Songs marked * were only at the Albert Hall — there were no songs played in Manchester but not London)
Surfin’
Catch a Wave
Don’t Back Down
Little Honda
Do It Again
It’s OK
Goin’ to the Beach
Surfin’ Safari
Surfer Girl
Wendy
Farmer’s Daughter
In My Room
Isn’t It Time*
Please Let Me Wonder
Kiss Me, Baby
Dance, Dance, Dance
Let Him Run Wild
Sail On, Sailor
Keep an Eye on Summer*
You’re So Good to Me
Good to My Baby
Why Do Fools Fall in Love
When I Grow Up (to Be a Man)
Darlin’
Cotton Fields
You Still Believe in Me
Here Today*
Ballad of Ole’ Betsy*
Getcha Back
Don’t Worry Baby
Little Deuce Coupe
409
Shut Down
I Get Around
(intermission)
California Dreamin’
Sloop John B
Wouldn’t It Be Nice
Then I Kissed Her
California Girls
I Can Hear Music
All This Is That
Their Hearts Were Full of Spring
Disney Girls
Surf’s Up
Heroes and Villains
‘Til I Die
All I Wanna Do
God Only Knows
Pisces Brothers
Good Vibrations
Kokomo
Do You Wanna Dance?
All Summer Long
Help Me, Rhonda
Rock and Roll Music
Barbara Ann
Surfin’ U.S.A.
Encore:
Wild Honey*
Fun, Fun, Fun

California Dreaming: Do It Again

The Beach Boys were rather desperate for a hit.

By May 1968 it had been almost two years since Good Vibrations had gone to number one, and their singles since then had been at best moderate successes. Friends, the title track from their most recent album, hadn’t even reached the top forty.

So for the first time, they decided to take a look back at their past.

In August 1967, the band (with Brian Wilson, and without Bruce Johnston, who had temporarily left the band) had travelled to Hawaii to perform two sets for a planned live album, Lei’d in Hawaii. Those shows consisted of performances of many of the band’s biggest hits, but rearranged in the stripped-down style of their recent Smiley Smile album, with plenty of vocal harmonies but minimal instrumentation apart from Brian Wilson’s Baldwin organ.

The album was deemed unreleasable, even after extensive studio work, but one thing jumped out. For the first time in several years, the band had performed a version of their very first single, Surfin’, and during the track Brian Wilson had started singing the melody to Underwater by the Frogmen, a surf instrumental that had been released on the same label (Candix) and in the same year (1961) as Surfin’. This melody, sung in wordless “ba ba ba” falsetto by Brian Wilson, stuck in the band’s minds as an idea to return to.

A few months later, Mike Love, who had been generally unimpressed with the band’s turn away from what he considered more relatable lyrical themes, went surfing with an old friend, Bill Jackson, and came back inspired — the band were going to write their first new song about surfing in four years.

Love’s lyrics centred around the themes that had done so well for the band a few years previously — suntanned bodies, surfing, beaches, and a quick namecheck of the earlier song California Girls — but with a sense of nostalgia. Those things were in the past now, and we need to “get together and do it again”.

Wilson added a rudimentary three-chord structure and the Frogmen’s melody to the verses, and a much more interesting, and quite beautiful, 22-bar middle section, which goes from an elegaic mention of the lonely sea (the title of another old Beach Boys song) in the relative fourth, into a triumphal guitar solo and chanted “hey now!” over the same changes as the verses, before leading back into a final verse.

The whole song was written around the piano by Love and Wilson in a matter of minutes, and a basic track recorded by the band at Wilson’s house — the band were once again playing their own backing tracks, rather than using outside musicians, and were recording in Wilson’s home studio due to a combination of laziness and a wish for spontaneity on Wilson’s part. Brian and Carl Wilson co-produced the track, but it only really came alive quite late in the day. After additional drum and saxophone overdubs by session players, engineer Steve Desper got to work on the intro. He came up with an effect for the snare drum sound, using two tape delay units (which had originally been bought to thicken the band’s live vocal sound by artificially double-tracking, live), but having the delay be in the region of ten milliseconds. The result was to effectively quadruple-track the snare on the intro, creating a buzzing, powerful, sound quite unlike anything else that had ever been heard.

While Do It Again was talked about as a return to the old sound at the time, in truth it sounds quite different, and it may be the Beach Boys’ first rock, as opposed to pop, track. It’s thicker, and heavier, sounding than anything they’d done before, and indeed than much of what they were to do subsequently. But while it definitely sounds more 1968 than 1963, the return to the old subject of surfing, and the references to older songs, were enough to gain the band some much-needed TV exposure, and what would turn out to be their last US top twenty hit for eight years, reaching number twenty.

In the rest of the world, Do It Again did even better, becoming their second (and last) UK number one, and their first in Australia.

By returning to their past, the Beach Boys had bought themselves a little bit of a future. But the band were running out of time — their contract with Capitol was nearly up, and looked unlikely to be renewed, and Brian Wilson was becoming less and less interested in making new music. The trick had worked once, but going back to old themes and namechecking old songs was no way to move forward. A few months earlier the band had been annoyed at Capitol promoting them as a surfing group, seeing it as condemning them to irrelevance in a time when there were more important things on people’s minds than fun in the sun, but now their one hope of getting people to listen to them was to sing about surfing once again.

The 60s were nearly over, and with them it seemed was the Beach Boys’ relevance. Could they reinvent themselves for the 1970s?

Do It Again

Composer: Brian Wilson and Mike Love

Line-up: Mike Love (vocals), Brian Wilson (vocals, keyboards), Carl Wilson (vocals, guitars), Al Jardine (vocals, bass), Dennis Wilson (vocals, drums), Bruce Johnston (vocals, keyboards), John Guerin (drums), Ernie Small (saxophone), John E Lowe (woodwind).

(NB this is somewhat speculative. We know the identities of the session players who provided overdubs, and that the Beach Boys performed on the basic track themselves, but it’s not clear whether Carl Wilson or Al Jardine provided the bass — I’ve assigned this to Jardine as he played bass in the studio more often than not — and whether Johnston provided any instrumental parts).

Original release: Do It Again/Wake The World, The Beach Boys, Capitol 2239

Currently available on: 50 Big Ones, Universal CD

Brian Wilson and Friends DVD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Brian Wilson: No Pier Pressure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Beach Boys: Keep An Eye On Summer and Live In Sacramento

The last few days I’ve had a pretty constant stress headache (hence the lack of post yesterday), but when I’m feeling stressed, there’s always the Beach Boys, and thankfully the new copyright extension releases came out a few days ago, and I’ve been listening to them pretty much constantly.

These copyright extension releases, as the name suggests, come from a fairly morally dodgy place — two years ago, Paul McCartney, Cliff Richard, and EMI records, terrified of the prospect that one day they may stop getting tens of millions of pounds a year in free money for work done before my parents were at primary school, got the term on sound recordings made after January 1, 1963 extended from fifty years to seventy years, because otherwise the Beatles in 1963 would have no incentive to record anything new…

But there was a “use it or lose it” provision in the new rules — any recording that had not been published would become public domain at the end of the calendar year fifty years after it was recorded. This meant that both last year and this, the few recording artists of the early 60s who still sell in big numbers today rushed out download-only compilations of unreleased recordings, last year from 1963, and now this year from 1964. This year, the Beach Boys’ have been the first to drop.

While last year’s compilation, The Big Beat 1963, was fairly inessential (though completist that I am, of course I have it), this year’s releases are far more interesting, as 1964 was the year that the Beach Boys went from a band with a couple of decent singles to being arguably the best band in the world.

This year has seen two releases, so far only on iTunes (though other sites are likely to follow). The first, Live In Sacramento, will probably be of more interest to the casual listener. The Beach Boys’ first live album, Beach Boys Concert was made up of recordings from three shows, one in 1963 and two in 1964, along with doctored studio versions of Fun Fun Fun and I Get Around. The two 1964 shows have been available on bootlegs for years, as just raw dumps of the multitracks, but now they get a properly mixed and mastered release, and allow people to see just what a good live band the Beach Boys were.

Instrumentally, they’re relatively tight, but nothing special — they played on more of their records than many people believed even a couple of years ago, but they were still never going to win awards for their playing — but vocally, they’re astonishing. On these early shows, Brian is obviously the standout, and hearing him sing Don’t Worry Baby live, falsetto intact, is worth the price of the downloads itself. But Mike Love, who takes most of the leads, is also far more impressive than you would expect — his perfect Igor voice on The Monster Mash is absolutely hilarious (and comparing this version and the original by Bobby “Boris” Pickett, it sounds like the version on Beach Boys Concert is the version the Bonzo Dog Band learned from, as the Beach Boys’ backing vocal phrasing is far closer to what the Bonzos would later do).

But the whole band sound vocally gorgeous, in a way that is all the more impressive when you remember that they were harmonising in a time without foldback speakers or in-ear monitors, and with thousands of screaming girls making it almost impossible to hear themselves. The shows are good enough that the casual fan could listen and enjoy them — and certainly could put together an exceptional live album by playlisting just their favourite version of each song (the two shows had the same setlists), and all the early hits are here.

It’s raw, of course — there are mistakes, and asides, and reactions to the crowd — but it’s the only extended live document of the five original Beach Boys performing together, without anyone to augment them, and with Brian Wilson still in good voice.

Beach Boys fanatics, on the other hand, will be more interested in Keep An Eye On Summer, a collection of outtakes, vocal-only mixes, and BBC live recordings, covering the sessions for Shut Down vol 2, All Summer Long, The Beach Boys’ Christmas Album and the first sessions for The Beach Boys Today!.

Much of this has, of course, been bootlegged — but here Alan Boyd and Mark Linnet, the archivist and engineer responsible for the project, have culled the session tapes to what is listenable. While the bootlegs have things like All Summer Long (takes 20-42) or Girls On The Beach (vocal overdub takes 1b-8b), here there’s just enough studio chat to get a flavour for what it was like in the studio, and only the musically interesting stuff has been kept.

And some of it has never been bootlegged before, notably the Shut Down vol 2 material and the BBC recordings, the tapes for which were lost for many years.

The result contains some genuinely sublime moments. The a capella (more or less — the instrumental track is mixed down to *almost* inaudibility) mix of She Knows Me Too Well is spellbindingly beautiful, the instrumental Let’s Live Before We Die could have been a classic Beach Boys ballad if vocals had ever been recorded for it, and the a capella In The Parking Lot is revelatory — never a favourite of mine before, but the harmonies in the massed vocal sections jump out in this new mix.

There’s also stuff that’s of more academic interest. We’ve known for a while that the Beach Boys played on more of their tracks than they’re usually credited for, but I didn’t realise that Denny’s Drums was actually played by Dennis Wilson — like almost everyone, I’d assumed that Hal Blaine had played that track. And Pom Pom Play Girl, another song I’ve never had much time for, seems in its remix to reveal that either Mike Love is a far better vocal impersonator than I’d credit him for or Jan Berry of Jan & Dean is doubling him, uncredited.

I’m not at all persuaded that these releases are ethical, and I abhor the change in the law that has brought them about. But given that they exist, thanks to Boyd and Linnet they at least are worthy of existing, and are worth obtaining (whether you want to pay for them, given the circumstances of their release, is up to you, though I did). Together they’re a record of a band that was as good as any band in the world. The music the Beach Boys produced in 1964 — songs like Fun Fun Fun, I Get Around, Don’t Worry Baby, and All Summer Long — is still the basis of their commercial, if not their artistic, reputation. These sets show why.

California Dreaming: Heroes & Villains

Van Dyke Parks was already a major figure in the LA music scene before he started working with Brian Wilson, being involved in one way or another with Tim Buckley, the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and the Mothers of Invention, but he was unknown outside the music scene — a genius looking for the right vehicle for his abilities. He needed a collaborator who would let him shine.

Brian Wilson, on the other hand, was looking for a different kind of collaborator. He’d been making music that was steadily growing more complex, but he wasn’t a great lyrical thinker. All his songs had been about four subjects — cars, girls, fun at the beach, and existential angst, mixed in varying amounts — and whenever he’d worked with outside lyricists they’d stuck to those topics too. But now he had his sights set on a bigger goal. He was going to make an album greater than anything he’d ever done — even greater than Pet Sounds, an album recorded in the same way as Good Vibrations. It was going to be a teenage symphony to God, and no matter how good Mike Love or Roger Christian or Jan Berry had been at writing lyrics about hot rods and girls in bikinis, none of them were right for this new project, and so, acting mostly on instinct, Wilson turned to the man Terry Melcher had introduced him to, who seemed to have the verbal skills he lacked.

The two started work on an ambitious project, at first called Dumb Angel and later to be called Smile. So many myths have grown up around this album in the intervening decades that separating truth from fiction is almost impossible, but one thing we definitely know is that from the start, a highlight of the album was going to be Heroes & Villains.

The song was apparently written together by Wilson and Parks on the first night they collaborated — and already here the myths already start to creep in, because that night they are also supposed to have written Surf’s Up, Cabinessence and Wonderful, which would make it possibly the most artistically productive night’s work of all time, given that at least two of those songs have as good a claim as any to the title of best song ever written. But what we do know is that Wilson had a title, Heroes & Villains, which was quite possibly just a working title in his head, much as California Girls had been called You’re the Lawn and I Am the Mower, and he played a simple vamp on the piano while playing a descending scalar melody which reminded Van Dyke Parks of El Paso by Marty Robbins, and Parks immediately responded with the line “I’ve been in this town so long that back in the city I’ve been taken for lost and gone and unknown for a long, long time…”

What eventually emerged from that writing session was a deceptively simple song, at least musically — a three-chord verse with a stepwise melody, and a chorus that was based around a musical idea that was obsessing Wilson at the time and would recur throughout the Smile sessions — a two-chord riff (similar intervals to the Good Vibrations chorus, but a tone lower, and with the first chord in the riff being minor rather than major) repeated, which then moves up a whole tone (as in both Good Vibrations and California Girls).

But that musical simplicity gave the song an infinite mutability, allowing Van Dyke Parks’ wonderful lyrics to tell their psychedelic cowboy story while Brian Wilson threw every musical idea possible into the arrangement.

Listening to the session recordings, we hear attempts at Western film soundtrack music, baroque pastiche, lounge music, barbershop, doo-wop and more, as Wilson pulled together ideas. The eventual result, released as a single more than a year after Wilson started working on the track in the studio, included a verse backing track taken almost note for note from Phil Spector’s production of Save The Last Dance For Me for Tina Turner, a dazzling contrapuntal vocal section that Wilson had been teaching the band members since 1961, and whole sections where almost all the “instrumentation” is actually the Beach Boys’ voices. It was a masterpiece, even though it only got to number 12 in the US charts, and essentially marked the end of their career as a commercial force.

Because Heroes & Villains was, for a long time, the only publicly-available evidence that Smile even existed. Wilson and Parks had written a set of songs as good as any ever written to that time, and Wilson had recorded exquisite backing tracks for many of them. Vocals had been recorded for about half the tracks. But the album was left unfinished.

Many reasons have been put forward for this. Van Dyke Parks (probably the only person involved in all the sessions who has both an undamaged memory and a reputation for honesty) puts the blame squarely on Mike Love, who disliked many of Parks’ lyrics, thinking the band should be doing more relatable material. Others have blamed Brian Wilson’s drug intake and mental problems, personal difficulties between Wilson and Parks, Wilson second-guessing himself to the point he didn’t know how to make the record work, legal problems between the band and Capitol records, the music industry moving on so Smile felt outdated before it was even released, and other far more unlikely scenarios. Wilson himself simply says “it was inappropriate music for us to be making”.

Instead, the band released Smiley Smile, an utterly lovely, gentle, album of stoned fragments, Smile material reworked into hippy nursery rhymes, and novelty songs, with Heroes & Villains and Good Vibrations thrown in for good measure. It was beautiful, but it wasn’t Smile, and it was utterly, completely, uncommercial — it was outsider music, not the work of a band who the year before had been beating the Beatles as best band in the NME’s polls.

The Beach Boys had committed career suicide, and while the next few years would be their most artistically fulfilling, they would, at least in the US, be has-beens from this moment on.

Heroes & Villains

Composer: Brian Wilson & Van Dyke Parks

Line-up: (NB, this lineup contains everyone who played on any of the sessions that were used for the final master. Some of them may not appear on the sections used.)

Brian Wilson (vocals, keyboards,percussion), Carl Wilson (vocals), Dennis Wilson (vocals), Bruce Johnston (vocals), Al Jardine (vocals), Mike Love (vocals), Billy Hinsche (backing vocals) Carol Kaye (guitar), Bill Pitman (bass), Lyle Ritz (bass), Van Dyke Parks (keyboards), Jim Gordon (drums), Gene Estes (percussion, whistle), George Hyde (French horn)

Original release: Heroes & Villains/You’re Welcome, The Beach Boys, Brother 1001

Currently available on:
Smiley Smile/Wild Honey, Capitol/EMI CD

California Dreaming: Good Vibrations

Ever since he was a child, Brian Wilson had been fascinated by the concept of ESP. David Marks’ mother had claimed psychic powers, and impressed many of the people in their community, including the Wilsons, when Brian was growing up. But when he came to write a song about it, he didn’t think of Marks’ mother, but of his own. He had asked her, when he was a child, why dogs seemed to like some people and be angry at others, seemingly with no reason, and she had told him that dogs picked up “vibrations” from people — some good, some bad.

So when in February 1966, Brian went into the studio to record a song about ESP, the obvious title was Good, Good, Good Vibrations, especially since he was currently recording an album that would end with dogs barking and that was titled Pet Sounds — because sounds are, of course, a type of vibration too.

But the track he cut wasn’t quite right — it had the basic structure of a decent pop song, somewhere in between God Only Knows and Here Today from the album he was working on, and with the electro-theremin he’d used on I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times, but slightly funkier than any of those. But that’s all it was, a decent pop song.

What Brian Wilson had in his head was something more complex than that — not just a pop song, but a “pocket symphony”, a piece of music that would be at least as complex and interesting as Rhapsody In Blue, with distinct movements and changes, but in a three minute span.

He worked at it intermittently over the next few months, going into the studio every few weeks to cut a new version of his track, with different permutations of instruments — maybe a Hammond organ instead of the harpsichord? Maybe a bass harmonica? — but never getting the sound he wanted.

He put it aside for a while, eventually convinced that he just couldn’t get the record out of his head and onto vinyl, and considered offering it to an R&B artist like Wilson Pickett, whom he thought the song might suit — presumably thinking that the two-chord shuffle of the chorus as it was originally conceived (although even in the earlier versions, the song goes up a tone halfway through the chorus, a trick Wilson reused from California Girls), which was clearly inspired by Marvin Gaye’s Can I Get A Witness?, would better suit Pickett’s stye than the Beach Boys’. However, a few months later Wilson’s friend David Anderle asked if he could have the song for Danny Hutton, a new singer with whom he had been working. Persuaded of the song’s commercial possibilities, Wilson returned to it.

But there was a problem. He needed a set of lyrics for the song. Tony Asher, the lyricist for much of Pet Sounds, had come up with a set of lyrics for him to sing to get a feel for the track, but those lyrics (“she’s already working on my brain/I only look in her eyes, but I pick up something I just can’t explain”) were only scratch lyrics, far too on the nose, and Asher had never got round to finishing them before going back to his advertising job.

Around this time, Wilson encountered Van Dyke Parks, a young session musician and arranger. Parks was younger than Wilson, but he had already had a rather extraordinary life — among other things, he had played music with Albert Einstein as a child, had appeared as Tommy Manicotti in The Honeymooners [FOOTNOTE: He was one of multiple actors to play the role, and isn’t the actor in the surviving episodes, but definitely appeared in at least one episode, and probably more.], and had been the arranger on The Bare Necessities for the Disney film The Jungle Book.

Parks was a hyper-intelligent, astonishingly talented man, and he and Wilson quickly hit it off and began writing new, experimental, songs that were wildly different from anything the Beach Boys had done before, with allusive stream-of-consciousness lyrics. Parks refused to write new lyrics for Good Vibrations — he didn’t want to get involved in a song that had already had seven months’ studio time, off and on, and thought it best that it be completed without him — but he did suggest the final missing element for the song. Carl Wilson had already suggested a cello be used in the choruses, but Parks’ suggestion that the cello be playing fast triplets gave the chorus the rhythmic impetus it needed.

Wilson eventually edited together an instrumental track using bits of five different sessions — the verses from the very first session in February, the quiet organ bridge from a session in September, and so on — and rather amazingly, it all came together perfectly. The result was a perfect mixture of psychedelia, R&B, and sunshine pop, a glorious, euphoric rush, but evoking almost religious feelings in the extended bridge section, and with a strange, haunting, eeriness in the chorus. It’s a perfectly-structured song, and a lesson in dynamics that puts Phil Spector to shame.

It still needed lyrics, however, and Mike Love eventually came to the rescue, writing the lyrics in the cab on the way to the studio for the final vocal session. Love’s lyrics are far, far cleverer than they’re normally given credit for, grounding the listener in the real, sensory world in the first verse, talking about how the woman in the song looks (“the colourful clothes she wears and the way the sunlight plays upon her hair”), sounds (“the sound of a gentle word”) and smells (“the wind that lifts her perfume through the air”), before the chorus and its extra-sensory concerns, and the altogether stranger second verse. It’s still a boy/girl love song, but it’s infinitely more well-crafted than the original, clunky, lyrics. Love is not always the most original lyricist, but when given really good material he can rise to the challenge, and this is his finest moment, and every bit the triumph for him as it is for Wilson.

Carl Wilson took the lead beautifully (with Brian dropping in the phrases “I hear the sound of a” and “when I look”, which go out of Carl’s comfortable range — luckily at this point the two brothers were practically indistinguishable vocally, and most people can’t hear the edit until it’s pointed out to them), and Love’s doo-wop bass vocal part instantly became one of the most memorable hooks of the Beach Boys’ career.

The song became their third US number one, and their biggest hit to date. To this day it often tops critics’ lists of the best singles of all time. The Beach Boys were on top of the world, and with these new songs Brian and Van Dyke had been writing, things could only get better…

Good Vibrations

Composer: Brian Wilson and Mike Love

Line-up: (NB, this lineup contains everyone who played on any of the sessions that were used for the final master. Some of them may have, for example, only played on the choruses on a take where only the verses were used) Brian Wilson (vocals, tack piano, Carl Wilson (vocals, Fender bass, rhythm guitar, percussion), Dennis Wilson (vocals, organ), Al Jardine (vocals), Mike Love (vocals), Bruce Johnston (vocals), Ray Pohlman, Lyle Ritz, Bill Pitman, Jimmy Bond, and Arthur Wright (bass), Larry Knechtel, Don Randi, Al de Lory, and Mike Melvoin (keyboards), Hal Blaine and Jim Gordon (drums, percussion), Frank Capp, Tony Asher, Terry Melcher, and Gary Coleman (percussion), Paul Tanner (electro-theremin), Plas Johnson, Jay Migliori, Steve Douglas, Jim Horn, and Bill Green (woodwinds), Tommy Morgan (harmonica, bass, harmonica, jew’s harp), Jesse Erlich (cello), Emil Richards (vibraphone)

Original release: Good Vibrations/Let’s Go Away For A While, The Beach Boys, Capitol 5676

Currently available on: Smiley Smile UMG CD, plus innumerable compilations.