The Beach Boys on CD: Still Cruisin’

[NB, no, I’m not missing out Brian Wilson’s eponymous solo debut. I want to check a couple of facts in a book I’ve had on order for a couple of weeks but which hasn’t arrived yet, so I’m skipping ahead, and I’ll go back to that album when the book arrives]

While Brian Wilson’s comeback was receiving critical acclaim but little commercial success, something rather strange was happening to the rest of the band…

The Beach Boys had spent much of the 1980s releasing odd one-off singles, often for film soundtracks or as collaborations with other artists. These were pretty much uniformly awful, and didn’t trouble the charts, and the band generally dropped them out of their live sets after a perfunctory few weeks or months at most.

But then came “Kokomo”, a song the band recorded for the Tom Cruise film Cocktail, which was itself a massive hit. But while the film was big, the song — written and recorded without the presence of Brian — became a massive phenomenon, selling over a million copies, and becoming the band’s first US number one in twenty-two years, making them the record holders for the longest gap between number one records.

As a result, the band got a one-off album deal with Capitol, to put out an album of songs that had featured in recent films. The resulting album was the result of much horse-trading between various interested parties, and ended up featuring a mix of recent minor hit singles, new songs, and three old hits (“Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “I Get Around”, and “California Girls”) that had recently appeared in successful films. It’s a strange mix of styles and sounds, which went gold mostly because it featured “Kokomo”, but which has been out of print for a long time, with very little demand for a reissue.

This review will only deal with the 1980s tracks on the album, as I dealt with the 60s ones on their respective albums (though note that the version of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” here is an alternative mix, included by mistake, which can now be found on the Pet Sounds Sessions box set).

Unless otherwise mentioned, all tracks were produced by Terry Melcher.


Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston (and Dennis Wilson on the three 1960s tracks)

Still Cruisin’
Terry Melcher and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love and Carl Wilson

The album opens surprisingly strongly, with Love’s “come on let’s cruise, you got nothin’ to lose” hook, on a song that John Phillips referred to as “Still Kokomoin’”. In truth, this is a better song than the one it’s patterned after — while both have a repetitive Love bass vocal hook and Carl Wilson singing a high chorus line, this one is far catchier, and has a better groove to it than the earlier single.

We do, though, here see the final end of Mike Love’s ability to write a lyric without referencing both the environment (“you got a greenhouse effect on me”) and the titles of earlier, better, Beach Boys songs (“hop in my hot rod and do it again”, “party all summer long”). This will get much, much worse on the next album.

But while the song itself is pleasant (and makes occasional returns to the Beach Boys’ live set to this day), and the vocal arrangement is strong (each of the four Beach Boys on the track — Brian Wilson is not present — is clearly audible and in strong voice), the problem is the production. Whether the blame lies with Terry Melcher, or with Keith Wechsler, who engineered and also provided the keyboards and drum programming, the result is a treble-heavy, thin, jangly mess. There are things that purport to be solos here, but they’re just lost in a trebly mush of reverb.

While the track made the top thirty in a few countries, it barely scraped into the Hot 100 in the US.

Somewhere Near Japan
Terry Melcher, John Phillips, Bruce Johnston and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love, Al Jardine and Carl Wilson

Another attempt to recapture lightning in a bottle, this time by rewriting another song by John Phillips, who had provided the basic idea for the song that became “Kokomo”. This time, Love, Johnston, and Melcher took a song, “Fairy Tale Girl”, which Phillips had originally written as a baroque pop song [footnote: Phillips’ version can be heard on the album Many Mamas, Many Papas. It’s not very good.], and ditched everything but the second verse, which became the first three lines of the new song, and the general subject matter.

The subject of Phillips’ song was the first honeymoon of his daughter, Mackenzie, who had married her drug dealer, and had called Phillips from Guam asking for help when the drugs and money ran out. Phillips’ original version saw the “fairy tale girl’s” drug addiction as not entirely negative — “sometimes you have to leave a place, and head on out into inner space”.

The Beach Boys make the girl’s plight far more obvious, while also increasing the drug references — “and now she’s trupping on some Chinese junk/Her world is spinning and all hope is sunk…strung out in no man’s land”. They also replace Phillips’ plinky baroque-pop-by-numbers with a generic eighties rock sound, overlaid with a little Hollywood orientalism.

The song is widely regarded by fans as the last truly great Beach Boys track, at least until 2012. I disagree myself, but that may well be because of my own distaste for thin layers of “exotic” faux-Japanese music overlaid on rock songs. It’s one of the few songs on this album or its successor that actually has any musical or lyrical coherence, or aims any higher than providing a not-too-unpleasant soundtrack for a beach party, and for that it should be applauded, but I still don’t think it’s actually all that good.

Island Girl
Al Jardine
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine, Mike Love and Carl Wilson

…and here’s where the album gets really bad. Al Jardine, possibly the world’s whitest man, trying to write tropical music — since “Kokomo”, the Beach Boys had clearly decided to go after some of the Jimmy Buffett money. The melody is derivative of both “The Tide Is High” by Blondie and “Every Day” by Buddy Holly, but the song is actually not too bad, and Jardine’s production has more depth to it than the two Melcher tracks that preceded. We also have our first bit of Brian Wilson on the album, as he appears with Carl and Al on the intro (though not on the rest of the song).

The problem is, surprisingly enough, Carl Wilson. Carl was always a great vocalist, but as the eighties drew to an end he didn’t seem any longer to have the ability to rise above mediocre material. Here he distorts his vowels in a way that suggests he is trying for a Caribbean accent.

This is the Beach Boys’ equivalent to “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, but for the 1980s, synthesised steel drums and all. Between this and the last track, one starts to wonder if this album should not have been called The Beach Boys Appropriate Other Cultures.

In My Car †
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson, Al Jardine and Carl Wilson

This track, produced by Brian Wilson and, allegedly, Eugene Landy, was apparently a late addition to the album, and is sonically completely different from everything else on the album. This makes sense, as it’s a Brian solo track, onto which Al and Carl have dubbed chorus lead vocals (Carl takes the first chorus, Al the second, and both the ending choruses). It shouldn’t be confused with “Let’s Go To Heaven In My Car”, which is a completely different, and better, song — and which actually would have fit the theme of the album, as it appeared in Police Academy IV. That said, Brian does make an attempt to fit in with the rest of the record, echoing the “still cruisin’ after all these years” line from the title track.

This could have been a fun track, had the band been more involved. Sadly, we have a wall of Brians — and while Brian sounds great on the second and third verses (or at least “great for Brian in 1989”), on the opening verse he’s practically incomprehensible, and the attempts to go into falsetto for the bridges are just painful.

The last Brian Wilson track released by the Beach Boys in their original incarnation should have been better than this.

John Phillips, Scott McKenzie, Terry Melcher and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love, Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnston

And this is the last time the Beach Boys made any significant cultural impact on the world with something new…

“Kokomo” started as a song written by John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, with his friend Scott McKenzie (for whom Phillips had earlier written the song “San Francisco”). Phillips’ song was a gentle lounge song about nostalgia and memories. In his song, he looks back on trips to Kokomo, “where we used to go to get away from it all”, with a lost love, and compares it to his present life. “At least we gave it a try” is the refrain, which ends the middle eight and which is repeated at the end of the song.

Love and Melcher took Phillips’ verse melody and about a third of his lyrics (the first two lines of the first verse, much of the last verse, and odd phrases from elsewhere), and changed it to a straightforward fantasy — whereas Phillips sang about “where we used to go”, Love sings about “where we wanna go”, and he wants to take you there with him.

While the verse lyric changes were sometimes minor (and oddly one of the lines Love always claims for himself, “by and by we’ll defy a little bit of gravity”, which he claims to be a reference to yogic flying, is clearly based on the line “Everybody’s tryin’ to break loose from gravity” from the original), they change the focus dramatically, from being about specific times with a specific, remembered, lost lover, to being about a fantasy of the future with a generic “pretty mama” to whom Love and Carl Wilson are singing.

But the verses aren’t what made the song — what made the song a hit is Love and Melcher’s major contribution, the two-part chorus. Love apparently came up with the “Aruba, Jamaica,” section — a list of places in the style of “Surfin’ USA” or “California Girls”, which opens the song as a bass vocal hook, sung by Love alone, and then becomes a mass chorus on subsequent repeats — while Melcher came up with Carl Wilson’s “Ooh I wanna take you down to Kokomo” section. This chorus, far more than Melcher and Phillips’ verses, is what made the song into the hit it became.

And it became a massive hit. When released as a single, backed not even with a Beach Boys track but with Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti”, it reached number one in the US, and went on to sell more copies than anything the band had done since “Good Vibrations”. While it didn’t have the long-term cultural or critical impact of the earlier song, and is now mostly remembered as a piece of 80s kitsch, it could easily be argued that it was as big a hit.

And it did deserve to be a hit; there’s no question of that. Personally, I find the song at best uninteresting, at worst actively unpleasant, depending on my own mood, but as a crafted piece of work it’s quite extraordinarily well done. As it was being made for a big-budget film, even the demo was far more crafted than most of the finished tracks on this album, with Melcher cutting an instrumental track with such big names (and long-term colleagues) as Ry Cooder, Van Dyke Parks, and Jim Keltner — although it says everything about 80s attitudes that Keltner was hired, not to play the drums, but to come up with the drum machine part. Over this Love, Johnston, Jeff Foskett (who also played acoustic guitar), and Melcher layered vocals, and the demo was used to get the song on the Cocktail soundtrack. Only once that had been agreed did Jardine and Carl Wilson drop in their own vocals.

And the vocals are quite remarkable — Love, in particular, is in far better voice than normal, singing in his more comfortable baritone rather than his increasingly-strained tenor voice, while Johnston doubles him on the “everybody knows…” section, and Carl’s vocal on his short section is possibly the most memorable part of the track.

Brian Wilson, on the other hand, was not involved. Sources differ as to why that was — either the band deliberately excluded him because they considered him unreliable or, more likely, Landy kept him away from the session and didn’t inform him of it. Either way, this meant that when the track got to number one, Love had irrefutable proof that he could make a hit record without Brian Wilson…

Wipe Out (with the Fat Boys)
Bob Berryhil, Pat Connolly, Jim Fuller and Ron Wilson
Lead vocalist: Prince Markie Dee, Kool Rock-Ski, Buff Love a.k.a. The Human Beatbox, and Brian Wilson

Oh dear…

The story goes that this track, from 1987, was originally going to be a collaboration with Run DMC, who approached the Beach Boys after the hip-hop act’s earlier success working with Aerosmith on “Walk This Way”. One can only imagine what such a collaboration would have been like — certainly, there was every chance it could have been dreadful, but it also could have revitalised the Beach Boys’ career in the same way that “Walk This Way” had for Aerosmith.

Instead, allegedly because Mike Love thought it would be more commercial, though reliable information about this track is hard to find, it was decided that the Beach Boys should guest on a track by novelty rappers The Fat Boys, whose main claim to fame was that they were, indeed, fat.

The chosen track for the collaboration was a remake of the Surfaris’ classic instrumental “Wipe Out”, whose most distinctive aspect was its frenzied, bacchanalian, drumming — so naturally it was decided to take the track at a slower speed and use a dull drum machine part instead. While the Fat Boys rapped about going for a ride to the beach and meeting “the real Beach Boys”, a stack of overly-processed Brians sing the words “wipe out” and “wah wah wah” over and over, all feeling drained from the vocal by the production in a desperate attempt to make him sound something like in tune.

While Love, Jardine, and Johnston all appear in the video (there were apparently some lows to which Carl Wilson wouldn’t stoop), Jardine and Johnston are not audible on the track. While Gary Usher, who assisted in the production (credits: “Produced by Albert Cabrera and Tony Moran (Little Rascals) in association with the Beach Boys, co-produced by Darren Robinson and Damon Wimbley”), claimed that all the Beach Boys were present for at least one session, all that can be heard is multi-tracked Brian and what may be Love on the bass part.

Rather surprisingly, the track reached number twelve on the Billboard chart (and number ten on their R&B chart), and actually made number two in the UK, becoming their biggest hit other than “Do It Again” and “Good Vibrations”. This meant that the song stayed in the band’s live repertoire for far longer than was decent, with Billy Hinsche rapping.


Make It Big
Terry Melcher, Bob House and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson and Mike Love

And the final new song on the album is a track that was recorded for the film Troop Beverly Hills. The song is built around a synth riff that sounds like…well, like every other bad rock song built around a synth riff for a poor eighties film. It could be Huey Lewis, or Kenny Loggins, or Survivor, or any of a thousand other identical awful excuses for music.

Over this riff is…not a song, exactly, because “song” implies something more structured than this. There are several things that seem to be trying to be hooks, joined together into a twelve-and-a-half-bar pseudo-chorus sung with more gusto than it deserves by Carl Wilson, there’s a sixteen-bar verseish sung by Mike (with a bit of Al), and there are some repetitions of the main “make it big” line. But at no point does this cohere into anything like a workable song, rather than a few half-arsed ideas glued together by synth riffs and sax solos. The lyrics, meanwhile, are motivational-poster pabulum.

I really don’t like talking about what, despite appearances, are my favourite band like this. But the fact is, Still Cruisin’ as a whole, and this song in particular, are lazy, half-thought-out, and bland, the epitome of “will this do?” MTV-era mediocrity. And sadly, this was not the worst they would do. There was still a further depth to which they would sink…

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The Beach Boys On CD: The Beach Boys (’85)

1985 saw the Beach Boys making their first album in five years, but the band making it was very different from the one that had recorded Keepin’ the Summer Alive. In the intervening years, both Brian and Dennis Wilson had hit lower points in their mental and physical health than either had hit before. Brian’s life had been saved by the band getting psychiatrist Dr Eugene Landy back in to get him off street drugs and start him on a programme of exercise and healthy eating that saw him become physically healthier than he had been in decades.

Sadly, however, by 1985 Landy had already started his well-documented abuses of Wilson, which would within a few years lead to Landy having his license to practice removed, and he was insisting on getting songwriting credit for Wilson’s new songs. Landy’s credits, along with credits for his girlfriend Alexandra Morgan, have apparently since been removed from the songs (though they were still credited for some on the most recent CD issue), and in these essays songs for which Landy was originally credited will be marked with an asterisk, while songs for which both Landy and Morgan were credited will be marked with a †, but the assumption throughout will be that neither made any substantial contribution.

Dennis Wilson was not even as lucky as Brian. Reeling from a succession of personal problems, including the break-up of his sixth marriage (to Shawn Love, a teenager who claimed to be Mike’s illegitimate daughter — a claim which he denies), Dennis turned increasingly to alcohol, and on December 28, 1983, he went diving after drinking a large amount of vodka, and never came back up. He was thirty-nine.

The tragic loss of Dennis seems to have spurred the rest of the band into one of their increasingly rare acknowledgements that the world had moved on since 1965 (though they had already been making plans for a new album before his death), and by June 1984 they were in the studio again, this time to record an album with the first outside producer to take sole charge of a Beach Boys album in more than twenty years.

Steve Levine had been a protégé of Bruce Johnston in the late 70s, and considered that he largely owed his career to Johnston’s encouragement, but by 1984 he was briefly one of the hottest producers in the world, thanks to his production of Culture Club’s massively successful albums Kissing to be Clever and Colour by Numbers. He, along with arranger Julian Lindsay, helped the band create a truly up-to-the-moment sounding album, with the bulk of the instruments (and, according to some, a fair chunk of the backing vocals) created using Fairlight sequencers.

The results sound incredibly dated now, as precisely of their moment as the back-cover photo (in which the band look like five Republican Senators heading for a casual team-building exercise at the golf course), and much of the material seemed sub-par even at the time — Brian Wilson was writing again, but nothing he came up with here would threaten the claims of “God Only Knows” or “Good Vibrations” to be his most important work — but the album gave the band their biggest hit with new original material since “Do It Again”, with Love and Terry Melcher’s “Getcha Back”, and proved that even without Dennis, the Beach Boys could continue making music in the 1980s.


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

Getcha Back
Songwriters: Mike Love and Terry Melcher
Lead vocalist: Mike Love with Brian Wilson

The album starts with this Frankenstein’s monster of a track, which sounds like it has been bolted together in the most cynical manner possible to produce a perfect facsimile of what people in the 1980s thought a “Beach Boys record” should sound like.

Thus we start with an 80s “sonic power” update of the drum sound from “Do It Again”, and then get a backing track reminiscent of “Don’t Worry Baby”, before Love’s vocal comes in. The basic shape of the melody line is taken from Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart”, his own hit attempt to replicate the Beach Boys’ formula, while the chorus hook is taken from Billy Joel’s contemporary Four Seasons pastiche “Uptown Girl”, but over the rising progression that made up the chorus to “Sail On Sailor”. Then add in lyrics about trying to recapture the lost glories of a bygone adolescence, and you’ve got the perfect focus-group-approved Beach Boys track.

Everything is processed to hell — they’ve managed to get one half-decent take of Brian Wilson singing a few bars of wordless falsetto and used that same recording over and over — but somehow it works.

Partly this is because of Love’s vocal, which is nasal to the point of self-parody, but precisely because of that works in a way that most of his recent vocals at that point hadn’t. (Love himself dislikes his vocal on this, and on recent tours has often had either David Marks or Love’s son Christian take the lead). There’s also the joy of hearing the last gasp of Brian’s husky late-70s voice on the tag, before his late-80s slurring-robot voice comes to the fore.

But mostly it’s because of Levine’s production. This is an odd thing to say, as the production on the album hasn’t dated well. But it’s only dated precisely as badly as anything else from the time period, and no worse, and there’s an aesthetic sense here that’s missing from a lot of their contemporaries’ recordings of the time. Levine has noticed things about Brian Wilson’s production sound that get missed by a lot of the less competent pasticheurs — the way he uses almost no cymbal on his recordings, for example, and the way that a lot of his bass-lines are played on instruments other than guitar — and adapted them for an 80s audience, so this has a wonderfully simple drum machine part and a great honking sax bassline.

The song itself may be a cynical one, but there’s a lot of joy in the recording, and taken as a single it’s probably the best they’d put out since “It’s OK”, if not earlier. It reached number 26 in the US, and number two on the Adult Contemporary chart.

It’s Gettin’ Late
Songwriters: Carl Wilson, Myrna Smith-Schilling and Robert White Johnson
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

The second song is a dull affair, based around a three-chord minor-key chorus and a two chord major-key verse. It plods so much it actually sounds at times like the drum machine is slipping out of time. The horns on here sound like synths, despite being live, and the vocals sound sequenced, especially the opening stack of Brians, where you can almost hear the keys being pressed and released on the synth triggering them.

It’s not a terrible song — it would have fit onto either of Carl Wilson’s solo albums and been better than much of the material on them — but it’s tired and dull. Released as a single, it didn’t chart.

Crack At Your Love
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Al Jardine *
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine and Brian Wilson

A minor piece, but a fun one, this track more than most sounds like Levine’s work with Culture Club, having a generic upbeat synth-pop backing.

But while the lyrics to this track are simplistic (“I’m goin’ crazy/Would you be my baby?”), the vocals, by Jardine, are the best on the album to this point — until Brian Wilson comes in for the middle eight, again singing plaintively in the husky voice that would soon be gone for good, “Lonely nights, lonely days…”

It’s one of those little moments that lift an adequate song for a moment or two into greatness, and while this is never going to be anyone’s favourite Beach Boys song, it’s far, far better than anything on Keepin’ The Summer Alive or much of MIU Album.

It may also be the first recording to feature the band’s touring falsetto vocalist Jeffrey Foskett, who had joined the band when Carl had temporarily quit a few years earlier, and who would be a major part of the band’s story throughout the 80s, and again from 1998 on. While no full vocal credits for this album have ever been made available, Foskett has often claimed to have provided backing vocals on several tracks, and the falsetto on the intro sounds more like him than any of the actual Beach Boys, though everything’s so processed it’s hard to be sure.

Maybe I Don’t Know
Songwriters: Carl Wilson, Myrna Smith-Schilling, Steve Levine and Julian Stewart Lindsay
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

Possibly the blandest thing on the album, this has the dull, loping, swing of much 80s jazz/soul influenced AOR, an unimaginative descending chord sequence, and meaningless lyrics. While Gary Moore was capable of greatness as a guitarist, his cursory squealing here adds little, and the whole thing isn’t even saved from banality by Carl Wilson’s lead vocal.

She Believes In Love Again
Songwriter: Bruce Johnston
Lead vocalist: Bruce Johnston and Carl Wilson

Johnston’s only song on the album is also the second-best thing he’s ever contributed to the Beach Boys. A simple ballad, based around a keyboard part that sounds like Johnston’s own playing (he’s one of three keyboard players credited on the track, along with Lindsay and Levine), this is the most craftsmanlike song on the album. There’s nothing here that’s massively innovative, but it’s put together beautifully, with the only crack in the facade coming with the “God I’m sorry” in the middle eight — an interjection that throws the melody out, and provides just enough of a sense of real emotion that it gives the whole carefully-constructed song a sense of conviction it would otherwise be missing.

Johnston’s voice helps in this, too. Between Keepin’ the Summer Alive and the recording of this album, his voice had grown notably huskier, and here he sounds almost like Rod Stewart at times — but this is a good thing, as especially given the death of Dennis and Brian’s usual absence on tour, Johnston’s voice now provided a little of the grit that the harmonies needed.

Both he and Carl Wilson are in fine form here, subtly multitracked in ways that only become apparent when listening with headphones but which give the vocals a real richness, and while sonically this has the same 80s sheen as the rest of the album, the arrangement (with a slow build from single keyboard through to guitars, strings, and trombone) is much better thought-out, and more organic, than much of the album.

California Calling
Songwriter: Brian Wilson and Al Jardine
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine and Mike Love

Another strong track, featuring Ringo Starr on drums, this is yet another rewrite of “California Girls” and “California Saga” (and also lyrically references “Surfin’ USA”), with nothing particularly interesting about it musically, but it’s done with such enthusiasm that it’s hard not to be swept along. Al Jardine’s voice is stunningly good, and while Love’s tenor lead sections are weak, his “callin’ me, ring ring ring” bass vocal in the chorus is wonderfully goofy

Passing Friend
Songwriter: George O’Dowd and Roy Hay
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

This, on the other hand, is utterly worthless. Written by Boy George and Roy Hay of Culture Club, who were at that time very briefly one of the biggest bands in the world, this is a fairly typical example of Boy George’s songwriting, one of the many interminable songs he wrote at the time about how everyone else was a phony, with what sound like several digs against George’s boyfriend, Culture Club drummer Jon Moss.

The track is, at five minutes, at least double the length that the musical material demands, and Carl Wilson sounds embarrassed singing lines like “through the child’s eyes there were feelings touching my violet skin”.

In fact here, as we’ll see again later, we have Carl Wilson on autopilot. The track was originally recorded by George and Hay (who provides almost all the instrumentation), and George’s guide vocal was replaced by Wilson. It sounds like Wilson didn’t bother thinking about the song at all, and just imitated the guide vocal as closely as possible — the phrasing, and even many of the vowel sounds, are far closer to George’s than to any other vocal he ever did. It’s a lazy performance, but no worse than this profoundly tedious song deserves.

I’m So Lonely
Songwriter: Brian Wilson *
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson and Carl Wilson

Starting with a sax solo that sounds suspiciously like the one from Sade’s then-recent hit “Your Love Is King”, this song is about the most perfunctory thing imaginable, with a verse shuffling between I, IV, and V, a chorus that just goes through standard doo-wop changes, and lyrics along the lines of “I’m so lonely, really, really so lonely” and “I wish/since you went away/that you’d soon be back to stay”. And while Brian’s vocal on the verses is quite good for his shouty, husky, early/mid-80s voice, his attempts at falsetto in the chorus are painful.

This sounds like an exercise to get Brian writing again, and while there’s nothing horrible about the song itself, it’s clearly not the work of someone who’s actually trying.

Where I Belong
Songwriter: Carl Wilson and Robert White Johnson
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson and Al Jardine

Carl Wilson’s final songwriting contribution to the Beach Boys is also arguably his best. Certainly the other band members seem to have warmed to it — this is the only track on the album to feature an instrumental contribution by a Beach Boy who didn’t write the track, with Brian adding keyboards, and it’s also one of the few on which every band member’s voice can be heard.

In fact every band member shines vocally here — it’s Carl’s best lead on the album, but Al’s countervocals on the later choruses lift the track immensely, and the two-chord section after the second chorus, where Brian and Bruce sing wordlessly over Mike’s doo-wop bass might be the last appearance of Brian’s young voice, in all its nasal whining glory.

But they’re all rising to the occasion because of the song. The song is allegedly about John-Roger, the cult leader who was Carl’s “spiritual adviser” for much of the later period of his life, but the lyric shows little sign of that, being instead a generic love lyric, albeit one about having drifted through life until finding the right person.

Musically, though, this sounds like an expansion on, and progression from, the musical ideas on Carl’s first solo album. There’s a strong similarity to both “Heaven” and “Hurry Love”, but this is more musically sophisticated, with a bassline rising almost independently of the chords in the first part of the verse, where the singer is confused. The bass note then stays on the tonic while the chords change, on the line “you just could be my anchor”, before it descends under simple IV, V, and I chords to get to the simpler, more broad-strokes emotions of the chorus.

The sparse instrumentation, allowing the gorgeous vocals to do the work, makes this the least dated sounding track on the album, and this is the one thing on the album that can legitimately stand up with the band’s very best work.

I Do Love You
Songwriter: Stevie Wonder
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson and Al Jardine

And then the album slumps into this. Stevie Wonder, who wrote this and played almost every instrument (and it also sounds like he provided uncredited backing vocals on the tag), is one of the great geniuses of popular music of the last fifty years, and even though this sounds like something he tossed off in about as long as it takes to listen to it, it’s still one of the catchiest things on the album. Mediocre Stevie Wonder is still Stevie Wonder, after all.

The problem is that Stevie Wonder isn’t the Beach Boys, and the style just doesn’t fit. Both Carl Wilson (who takes the bulk of the lead vocals) and Al Jardine (who sings the “I do love you” sections) seem to be imitating a guide vocal by Wonder — much as with “Passing Friend”, the vocals sound far more like the songwriter than like the singers normally sound.

The result is not a combination of Stevie Wonder and the Beach Boys — rather, it’s two of the greatest voices in popular music turning themselves into a Stevie Wonder tribute act. There’s nothing of the Beach Boys in here, and why would I want to listen to a Stevie Wonder impersonator, when I have Innervisions, Songs in the Key of Life, or Talking Book that I could be listening to instead?

It’s Just A Matter Of Time
Songwriter: Brian Wilson *
Lead vocalist: Mike Love with Brian Wilson

A generic doo-wop track, this passes two minutes and twenty-two seconds perfectly acceptably, and that’s about all that can be said about it.

Male Ego
Songwriter: Brian Wilson and Mike Love *
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson and Mike Love

This song was only included on the CD version of the album, not on the vinyl or cassette releases, and was originally the B-side to “Getcha Back”.

Musically, this is utterly fantastic, with more energy than almost anything on the album, some great analogue-sounding squelchy synth bass, a baritone sax honking away in the lower register, tuned percussion, and the most enthused vocal from Brian we’ve heard on anything since Love You — which this sounds very like. It’s almost impossible to believe that this is from the same producer — or indeed the same band — as the album proper. If the rest of the album sounded like this, it would have been one of their all-time classics.

Sadly, the lyrics are about how great it is to sexually harass women in the street. Oh well.

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How To Buy: The Beach Boys

Several years ago, now, Mike Taylor asked in the comments to this blog where someone who wanted to get into the Beach Boys should start. I never gave a proper answer.
In part, that’s because he was asking about albums, and the Beach Boys have very few albums one can recommend utterly unreservedly. Their earliest albums are hit singles plus filler tracks. Their later ones are democratic affairs with contributions by less-talented members given equal or even greater prominence. And oddly, given how distinctive a sound they had, many of their albums sound absolutely nothing like one another. The Spectoresque pop of Today! sounds nothing like the lo-fi blue-eyed soul of Wild Honey, which has nothing to do with the raspy Moog-driven outsider art that is The Beach Boys Love You, which is nothing like the Carpenters-style soft pop of Sunflower. This means that even the albums one *can* recommend aren’t great starting places — someone who hates Love You might love Sunflower, and vice versa.

So here, I’m going to talk about a few of the albums, but my first recommendation is that you get a hits collection. In particular, I recommend The Platinum Collection: Sounds of Summer Edition (not to be confused with The Platinum Collection or Sounds of Summer, two different Beach Boys hits collections. There have been a lot of Beach Boys hits collections…)

This collection currently goes for the *stupidly* low price of £13.70, and contains sixty tracks, of which around forty, by my reckoning, are classics. It covers the band’s whole career up to 1996’s remake of Fun Fun Fun with Status Quo, and in approximately chronological order. One could make the argument that this is all the Beach Boys anyone *really* needs — and while I’d disagree, it’s notable that, for example, when Mike Love’s touring Beach Boys played a sixty-song set at the Albert Hall a few months ago, there was something like a fifty-song overlap with this set.

But once you’ve bought that, where do you go from there?

The next stop, obviously, is Pet Sounds. Widely regarded the greatest album ever, my own view is that it is slightly overrated — but still a truly great album. Five songs from it (Wouldn’t It Be Nice, You Still Believe In Me, God Only Knows, Sloop John B, and Caroline, No) appear on the hits collection, but it works far better as a whole than the sum of its parts. It’s a strange album — musically, it takes the Spector formula but makes it more mature, more sophisticated, borrowing from Bacharach and exotica, but lyrically it is, if anything, even more adolescent in its concerns than Spector. But anyone who’s ever been a teenager who doesn’t quite fit in with the people around them will relate to it.

Smile, the album that was meant to come after Pet Sounds, was never quite finished in the 1960s, but can now be bought in two versions. Brian Wilson’s 2004 solo rerecording features Brian’s (much deteriorated) older voice, but is a completed, finished work. The Smile Sessions, available in single-CD, double-CD, and five-CD versions, is an attempt to reconstruct the album from what was recorded in the 1960s. The 2004 version has the edge as an album, but in any form songs like Heroes & Villains, Surf’s Up, Wonderful, and Good Vibrations are musical perfection. The album, in either form, is a beautiful, complex, piece of baroque-pop psychedelia, one that almost resists description.

Sunflower is not an album I particularly like, but it’s the fan choice (and the choice of some of the band members) for the best album the band did that wasn’t called Pet Sounds. It’s pretty, feather-soft pop — it shouldn’t surprise anyone who hears it to discover that the band’s touring keyboardist would go on to be the Captain in The Captain & Tenneile. But there are some real songwriting gems in there — This Whole World may be the best sub-two-minute pop song ever, and Forever has justly become regarded as a classic.

The Beach Boys Love You is about as far from Sunflower as it’s possible to get. It was made when Brian Wilson was coming out of one of his worst periods of mental illness, and both he and his brother Dennis had destroyed their voices. I’ve said this before, but the album sounds like what would happen if you got Jonathan Richman and Bach to collaborate on a set of songs, but then got Tom Waits to perform them with the only instrumentation being a Moog set on “fart noise” and a single snare drum. It was released in 1977, and other than Neil Young’s work at the time is the only intelligent response anyone from the 60s generation had to punk — despite the fact that the band were almost certainly completely unaware of punk’s existence.

And the final recommendation for beginners is Dennis Wilson’s solo album Pacific Ocean Blue, also from 1977, and with similar Tom Waits-style gruff vocals, but here performing songs that owe more to Bruce Springsteen — muscular, gospel-inflected, 70s rock with a tinge of the Spector wall of sound.

Those five albums, along with the hits collection, will give you some understanding of the sheer stylistic breadth of the band. No two of those albums sound anything alike, and it is entirely possible that you’ll fall in love with one of them while disliking, or even detesting, the others. So the advice for where to go from there depends very much on which albums you liked.

If you liked Pet Sounds: The Beach Boys Today!, which came out the previous year, is very much a dry run for Pet Sounds, with the same adolescent themes, complex chord sequences, and Spectoresque instrumentation. Summer Days… And Summer Nights! is also sonically similar, though weaker in terms of songwriting.

If you liked Smile: Smiley Smile, the album which came out in its place in 1967, takes the same musical ideas in a completely different, much stranger, but equally interesting direction. And Brian Wilson’s 2008 solo album That Lucky Old Sun is a similarly ambitious work, and a minor masterpiece.

If you liked Sunflower: Surf’s Up, the album that followed it, has a lot of the same sound to it. It’s a patchier album, and to my mind the high spots are higher, but the worst tracks are very rough. 1979’s LA (Light Album) is a very similar collection, which had a terrible reputation for a long time, but which is now being reevaluated.

If you liked Love You: Smiley Smile is similarly strange. Friends, from 1968, is a far lusher, more produced record, but with a similar childlike eccentricity.

And if you liked Pacific Ocean Blue, Carl & The Passions (So Tough) has a similar 70s rock feel, as does The Beach Boys In Concert (not to be confused with Beach Boys Concert — the one you want starts with the song Sail On Sailor).

And finally, what NOT to buy:
Anything recorded after 1980, other than some of Brian’s solo albums (and Al’s surprisingly listenable solo album from 2010), is at best patchy. Summer In Paradise may be the worst album ever put out by a major act, and the other 80s and 90s albums are pretty bad.
15 Big Ones and MIU Album are for fans only. Really not very good, but with a few tracks on each that make them worth owning for the devoted fan.
And the first five albums the band released — Surfin’ Safari, Surfin’ USA, Surfer Girl, Little Deuce Coupe, and Shut Down vol 2 — are all far better than the 80s material, but usually consist of a couple of great singles, one or two really good album tracks, and a bunch of filler surf instrumentals, bad comedy tracks, and failed experiments. Given that they were recorded in an eighteen-month period, by a band who were mostly teenagers, they’re impressive, but don’t buy them unless and until you’ve become a completist.

California Dreaming: Never Learn Not To Love

(Content note — murder)

Fear is nothing but awareness. I was only frightened as a child because I did not understand fear – the dark, being lost, what was under the bed! It came from within. Sometimes the Wizard frightens me. The Wizard is Charlie Manson, who is another friend of mine who says he is God and the Devil! He sings, plays and writes poetry, and may be another artist for Brother Records.

Dennis Wilson and hitchhiking were a bad combination.

Ella Jo Bailey and Patricia Krenwinkel were hitching a lift, and Dennis saw the possibility of a threesome, so instead of taking them back to their communal home, he offered to take them to his own place. They agreed, and afterwards he left them there while he went off to record.

When he got back that night, his two new acquaintances had brought a lot more women round, and with them one man, Charles Manson.

Manson was an aspiring songwriter, who had been in and out of prison most of his life, and who had come up with his own mystical system, based around the idea that there was a coming race war. His mystical teachings, and access to a large amount of drugs, managed to get him a lot of willing female followers. And Dennis Wilson, who had been spiritually seeking for a while (he had recently been the first of the Beach Boys to meet the Maharishi, although the other members were more impressed with the guru in the long run), almost immediately became a follower — the combination of spiritual enlightenment, willing women, and drugs, was a potent one for him.

And while Manson could offer Wilson a lot, there was also a lot in it for Manson. Manson and his family got to move in, rent-free, to Wilson’s mansion, and got introduced to Wilson’s friends. And most importantly for Manson, his music career looked like it was going to take off.

Manson’s songs were strange, freeform things, with lyrics like “if you see the children with ‘x’s on their head/If you dare to look at them you will soon be dead”, but he had an unformed musical talent. Dennis Wilson tried to get him signed to the Beach Boys’ new record label, Brother Records, but a session recorded by the band’s regular engineer Steve Desper proved unusable. And both Dennis Wilson and his friend Neil Young (who met Manson and was impressed by his songwriting, saying Manson was “kind of like Dylan, but different because it was hard to glimpse a true message in them, but the songs were fascinating”) tried separately to persuade Terry Melcher, who was at the time working for Reprise records, to sign Manson.

In the end, the only musical fruit of the Dennis Wilson/Charles Manson partnership [FOOTNOTE That we know of — there are persistent rumours that some of Wilson’s other songs around this time had Manson contributions] was a song originally titled Cease to Exist. Wilson took Manson’s song, changed the title line to “cease to resist” (which if anything made the song far creepier), and renamed it Never Learn Not To Love. Manson didn’t want credit for the song, insisting on Wilson buying it off him outright, but later became outraged at Wilson’s lyrical changes. The track, with lyrics like “submission is a gift, give it to your lover”, “I’m your kind, I’m your kind, and I see”, and “give up your world, come on and be with me” is creepy enough even without the knowledge of who wrote it.

Wilson and Manson soon fell out — according to Van Dyke Parks, Manson once showed up with a bullet and told Wilson “Every time you look at it, I want you to think how nice it is your kids are still safe”, at which Wilson beat him up — but before that happened, Wilson had introduced Manson to someone else. Wilson had been hitchhiking himself, as the Manson “family” had destroyed his car, and had been picked up by someone called “Tex” Watson, who he thought would get on well with Manson.

Manson and Wilson had more or less parted ways by the end of summer 1968, but Never Learn Not To Love was still considered worth releasing, and it was put out on the B-side of the band’s latest single, a cover of the old Ersel Hickey song Bluebirds Over The Mountain (which only reached number 61 in the US, the band’s career having gone downhill that quickly there, but which made the top forty in the UK and the top ten in the Netherlands). They even performed the song on TV, on the Mike Douglas show, and it was included on their 1969 album 20/20, their last for Capitol records, a contractual-obligation mix of recent singles and unreleased tracks.

20/20 was released in February 1969. By March, Charles Manson had become obsessed with the house where Terry Melcher had lived when he turned Manson down (now occupied by the actor Sharon Tate and her husband Roman Polanski), entering it uninvited repeatedly, and claiming when challenged to be looking for Melcher. Even though as late as May 1969 Melcher was showing a small amount of interest in recording Manson, Manson saw Melcher’s old house as a reminder of his lack of success in the music industry.

At the end of July, Manson instructed Bobby Beausoleil, a “family” member, to kill Gary Hinman, an acquaintance. Beausoleil was arrested in the first week of August, and a few days later, Manson instructed Tex Watson to “go to that house where Melcher used to live…take a couple of the girls I’ll send with you and go down there . . . and totally destroy everyone in that house, as gruesome as you can. Make it a real nice murder, just as bad as you’ve ever seen.”

Watson, accompanied by Susan Atkins, Linda Kasabian and Patricia Krenwinkel, did just that.

Never Learn Not To Love

Composer: Dennis Wilson (Charles Manson uncredited)

Line-up: Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston (no session data is available yet about this track other than band membership)

Original release: Bluebirds Over The Mountain/Never Learn Not To Love The Beach Boys, Capitol 2360

Currently available on: Friends/2020 Capitol CD

(Podcast version will be up tomorrow — this took a lot longer than usual to write as my RSI is killing me).

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)
Catch a Wave
Don’t Back Down
Little Honda
Do It Again
It’s OK
Goin’ to the Beach
Surfin’ Safari
Surfer Girl
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)
Cotton Fields
You Still Believe in Me
Here Today*
Ballad of Ole’ Betsy*
Getcha Back
Don’t Worry Baby
Little Deuce Coupe
Shut Down
I Get Around
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
Do You Wanna Dance?
All Summer Long
Help Me, Rhonda
Rock and Roll Music
Barbara Ann
Surfin’ U.S.A.
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