Normally, when I do my spotify playlists, I put in a mix of tracks by different artists in different styles. Today’s playlist, on the other hand, is a little different, in that it’s entirely made up of the music of the Beach Boys.
The Beach Boys are one of my very favourite bands – possibly my very favourite, though there are several bands that could compete with them – but I’ve had great difficulty explaining the appeal to people. Individual Beach Boys albums are often patchy, some of the music I love by them is quite quirky, and people also associate them with their early hits.
So I’ve put together a playlist of music by them that I think would appeal to any music lover, that’s not too difficult to get into, but also isn’t Barbara Ann. If you’re a music-lover at all, and have never really checked out the Beach Boys, then please listen to this – it will open your eyes.
Meant For You from Friends is a gorgeous little thirty-second song by Brian Wilson and Mike Love that I think should open every compilation ever.
Surf”s Up from Surf’s Up is a song I’ve written about several times before, and which I consider possibly the greatest song ever written. Written in 1967 by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, and cobbled together in 1971 by Carl Wilson from fragments of Smile sessions and a 1967 solo Brian Wilson piano demo, with a new vocal by Carl over the first half of the track, this somehow managed to work superbly. If you can hear Brian singing “a choke of grief, heart hardened I, beyond belief a broken man too tough to cry” without choking up then you’ve a tougher heart than I.
It’s About Time from Sunflower is a fantastic 70s rocker, primarily written by Dennis Wilson, with band members Al Jardine and Carl WIlson and someone called Bob Burchmann. The lyrics are, as often with the Beach Boys in the 70s, pseudo-spiritual drivel, but the lead vocals (by Carl Wilson) and backing track are astounding – there’s a bootleg track that just isolates the percussion for this (played, I think, by the great Earl Palmer) and that’s great on its own.
Til I Die from Surf’s Up is possibly the saddest song ever written. Written by Brian Wilson, one of his few solo songwriting credits, the lyrics are almost haiku-like, but what gets me every time is the cheerfully-resigned way Brian sings “I’ve lost my way, hey hey hey” in a song that’s about crippling depression.
Busy Doin’ Nothin’ from Friends is another Brian Wilson solo song, but while it shares the childishly simple lyrics and fiendishly complex chords of the previous song, it’s the polar opposite in terms of mood – an uptempo, cheerful bossa nova with lyrics which include directions to his house.
Heroes & Villains from Smiley Smile is another song originally written for Smile – this, Surf’s Up, Cabinessence and Wonderful were supposedly written in one night, the first night Wilson and Parks ever wrote together – if this is true, then that must have been the most productive night’s work in songwriting history.
Please Let Me Wonder from The Beach Boys Today! is one of the earliest songs in this bunch, from late 1964, and is the first time in this playlist you’ll hear the theme that Brian Wilson keeps coming back to over and over, of being a weak man, aware of his own limitations, in love with someone unattainable and perfect but who somehow loves him anyway – many of these songs border on goddess-worship. Brian Wilson was originally credited as sole writer of this, but Mike Love won co-writer credit in a lawsuit in the 1990s.
Marcella from Carl & The Passions (So Tough) is a rewrite by then-manager Jack Rieley and songwriter Tandyn Almer of one of Brian Wilson’s songs, about a ‘masseuse’ of his acquaintance. Nicer than the original version, from ten years earlier, which had the chorus “All dressed up for school/ooh what a turn-on”…
Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) from Pet Sounds may be the best love song ever written – it’s customary at this point to point out that the bass part under ‘listen to my heart beat’ sounds like a heartbeat, but I’d rather point out the little string section straight after that. Brian wrote the music and Tony Asher the lyrics.
This Whole World from Sunflower is another Brian Wilson solo composition, sung fantastically by Carl. This goes through more key changes in its under two minutes than many whole albums do…
All This Is That from Carl & The Passions (So Tough) is a gorgeous song written by the three least-talented songwriters from the original lineup of the band – Carl, Al and Mike. The lyrics are the usual early-70s meditative drivel – Mike writing about Transcendental Meditation – but the sound of the track is gorgeous, especially Carl’s soaring falsetto singing ‘jai guru dev’ over Mike’s low bass mumbling of the same words.
Don’t Worry Baby from Shut Down Vol 2 is another example of the goddess-worship (with lyrics by Roger Christian), and also an example of how you can tell the truly great bands because everyone knows their B-sides (this was the B-side to I Get Around). It’s also, even though it’s a guitar-based recording, a song that could only have been written by a piano player. Listen to the arrangement of the vocals on the choruses – the independently moving falsetto and bass lines, with the three-part block harmony in the middle. That’s what you’d do if you’re playing the piano – play the bass vocal part with the left hand (Wilson’s always played piano in a left-handed manner, with most of the interesting stuff going on in the bass parts), block out the chords with the right hand, and sing the falsetto part over the top. An example of how form can follow function even when you move away from the original tools.
Break Away, a non-album single now on the Friends/20/20 twofer CD, is at first listen just a cheery little pop song. When you listen more closely, it’s clearly the song of someone trying to overcome mental illness (“When I lay down on my bed/I hear voices in my head… And here’s the answer I found instead/found out it was in my head”). What makes it more disturbing is that ‘Reggie Dunbar’, Brian Wilson’s co-writer on this, was actually Murry Wilson, the father whose abuse contributed to Wilson’s illness.
Sail On, Sailor from Holland is a song with many writers, based around a demo by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks. As close to soul as the Beach Boys ever get, Blondie Chaplin (a South African musician who was with the band for three albums) does a wonderful job on the vocals.
God Only Knows from Pet Sounds is a song you may well have heard before. Listen to it again anyway. This was another B-side incidentally. Lead vocals Carl Wilson, lyrics Tony Asher, music Brian Wilson.
Time To Get Alone from 20/20 is another Brian Wilson song, originally written for Redwood, the band that became Three Dog Night – the longing to get ‘away from the people’ is another recurring subject in Brian’s songwriting.
Guess I’m Dumb isn’t actually a Beach Boys song at all, but a song Brian Wilson wrote (with Russ Titelman) and produced for Glenn Campbell, who had toured with the Beach Boys for a few months in Brian’s place after Brian became too mentally unwell to tour, and who was a session musician on many of the band’s records (this was before he had his own huge hits). Wilson’s wife’s band The Honeys sing backing vocals, and the same backing musicians who played on most of Pet Sounds play on this.
And finally Wonderful from Smiley Smile is another song written for Smile. This is a gentle, organ-based remake with a rather bizarre middle section, and a stunning vocal from Carl Wilson. Written by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks.
Please take a listen and let me know what you think…