The Beach Boys On CD: Sunflower

The band’s first album for Warner Brothers, and first of the 1970s, was the first – and in some ways the only – truly collaborative Beach Boys album. Originally put together as a contractual obligation album for Capitol under the working titles Reverberation and The Fading Rock Group Revival, before being submitted to Warners under the title Add Some Music, the album as released features near-equal contributions from all six band members – the only time when one member wouldn’t dominate either in number or quality of songs.

This was in fact something of a creative flowering for the band, who recorded the best part of another album’s worth of material during this time, much of which was released on later albums. But while the finished album is regarded as one of the band’s best – Johnston among others saying that while Pet Sounds was Brian Wilson’s masterpiece Sunflower was the Beach Boys’, to my mind there’s something a little insubstantial about the finished product, and listening to the whole album is a little like trying to eat one’s bodyweight in marshmallows. But for all that, it’s an album that sounds like an album, rather than a disconnected set of semi-solo tracks like 20/20.

Partly this is because, unlike the previous album, this is more the work of a band. By this point the Beach Boys were augmenting themselves live with several extra musicians, including the Dragon brothers (Daryl (keyboards), Dennis (drums) and Doug (keyboards)) plus guitarist/bassist Ed Carter. These musicians played on much of what became Sunflower, although the Beach Boys themselves didn’t play all that much and some session musicians play on some tracks, and it gives the whole affair a more coherent feel.

One point I should make about this and further albums – it is far easier to discuss the Beach Boys’ 60s work in terms of artistic progression, influences and so on than it is with their later work. Where the 60s work was the overall responsibility of one man, the 70s material is the work of up to eight different people, pulling in different directions. Sometimes it rises to a level of genius that is greater than the sum of its parts, but equally often it collapses into a lowest common denominator mush.

But for the early part of the 70s, at least, this worked surprisingly well, with Dennis (as a songwriter) and Carl (as producer and increasingly lead vocalist) achieving occasional peaks as high as their brother’s, while the rest of the band turned in competent work.

From this point on, the Beach Boys start becoming relevant again.


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

Slip On Through
Songwriter: Dennis Wilson
Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson

A Dennis Wilson solo composition, this is the first real sign for several years that the Beach Boys were aware of the wider zeitgeist. Rather than the nostalgia that was everywhere in 20/20, this sounds absolutely of its time. A funky rocker based around an incredibly simple set of chord changes, with just four chords in the whole thing, this has a huge drive and energy to it. Propelled by several layers of percussion (notably a bongo part low down in the mix) and Dennis’ strongest ever vocal, one can hear the influence of Tim Hardin in this, as in many of Dennis’ songs from this period, but there’s a lusty swagger to this that’s totally Dennis.

This was released as a single but didn’t chart.

This Whole World
Songwriter: Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

At 1:58, the B-side to Slip On Through is one of the band’s shorter songs, but this Brian Wilson solo composition packs more harmonic movement in than many bands get through in their entire careers.

Starting in C, the first four bars are fairly straightforward changes, before we suddenly get a return of the old Pet Sounds staple – a key-change down a minor third. On the second line (“lots of different people everywhere”) we get standard doo-wop I-vi-ii-V7 changes before a move to iii (C#m). This changes to C# and suddenly we’ve changed key up a major third, ending up a semitone above where we’ve started.

We then get a scalar descending bassline (the first of several of these to appear on the album), while the chords move upwards in a I-IV-V movement in the new new key of C#, so the bass and chord changes meet on the V7. The rise continues in both the chord changes and the bass for a moment, taking us to vi, then the bass starts a descent again and the two meet again on the V7 at the end of the verse. Note that all of this has happened in a single 32-second verse.

For the contrasting eight bar section, we have another Pet Sounds change down a minor third (for those who’ve lost track, this now puts us in B-flat, a semitone down from where we started). These eight bars stay relatively harmonically stable, staying in the same key for a whole sixteen seconds before rising back into C and throwing us into the whirlwind that is the verse again. We get another verse, a wordless alternate section, and then fade on an a capella verse.

The remarkable thing about this is that every individual change makes sense on its own terms – the song goes through four different keys in half a minute, and yet it doesn’t sound disorienting at all. In fact it sounds almost childishly simple, in part because of the lyrics, which rarely rise above the monosyllabic. Carl turns in one of his best performances, the rest of the band chant “oom-bop-didit” and the whole thing is a perfect pop record.

Certainly Brian appears to have been pleased with it, having returned to the song on a number of occasions – he produced a cover version by American Spring (his wife and sister-in-law) that included yet another section (a round based on the old “star light, star bright, first star I see tonight” rhyme) and recorded versions of the song on his solo albums I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times and Live At The Roxy.

Add Some Music To Your Day
Songwriters: Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Joe Knott
Lead vocalists: Mike Love, Bruce Johnston, Al Jardine, Brian Wilson and Carl Wilson

This is one of several songs on this album where my opinion is in sharp contrast with that of the mainstream of Beach Boys fandom. Most people consider this a highlight of the album, but I consider it an abject failure. Harmonically there’s nothing of interest here, there’s no air in the vocal arrangement, with everyone in more or less the same range (and too much thickening with multitracking), Carl sounds bored on his lines, and either Brian or Al is off-key at several points.

Lyrically, the song is not only banal in itself, it’s actually a celebration of the banal, praising music heard while ‘in a dentist’s chair’ or ‘faintly in the distance when you’re on the phone’.

Add Some Muzak would be a better title. This was released as a single with Jardine’s equally poor Susie Cincinnati on the B-side, and reached number 64 in the US.

Got To Know The Woman
Songwriter: Dennis Wilson
Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson

This is a ridiculously over-the-top, idiotically simple groove-based rocker. The lyrics sound almost improvised, and the whole thing works only because of Dennis Wilson’s huge personal charm on the vocals (and Mike Love’s wonderfully ridiculous bass vocal part, very similar to the one we’ll later hear in Cool, Cool Water). However, while this aims low, it manages to comfortably hit its target. The one criticism I’d make of the track is that the overly-thickened layers of backing vocals buried in the mix (something that happens on almost every song on the album) really don’t suit it.

Songwriters: Bruce Johnston and Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Bruce Johnston

At best, this can be described as inoffensive. Johnston would later go on to write I Write The Songs, and while this is not as bad as that, it’s definitely heading toward muzak territory, with its bland lyrics and fluttering flute part. In the context of the album, it’s not too dreadful, but there’s no real reason for this to exist. The song bears a slight resemblance to the then-unreleased We’re Together Again, but is smothered under layers of orchestration and backing vocals.

While Brian Wilson is credited as a co-writer of the track, this was apparently to give the impression that he made a greater contribution to the album than he had. According to Johnston, most of Wilson’s input was to suggest lyrics like “my friend Bob/he had a job” which never made the finished song. [FOOTNOTE: This seems entirely plausible, as that line sounds very like the lyrics to Wilson’s contemporaneous song Good Time, later released on The Beach Boys Love You].

It could have been much worse, though. Johnston recorded a disco version of this for his solo album Goin’ Public in 1977. It’s very, very, very bad.

It’s About Time
Songwriters: Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson, Bob Buchman and Al Jardine
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

Now this is more like it!

There’s basically no song here – it’s just an excuse for a riff by Dennis Wilson, and the lyrics are the worst kind of hippy nonsense (“And now I’m just a child who art erect in humility/Serving out of love for everyone I meet in truth who are really me”). But this is the funkiest the Beach Boys ever got, and easily the most exciting record they ever made. Earl Palmer’s drum and percussion part, in particular, is so outstandingly good that it’s been widely bootlegged on its own and makes a wonderful track even without the guitars, organ and vocals.

This is an astonishingly exciting, enjoyable track, and while there’s not much to say about it it’s clearly a highlight of the album. It was released as the B-side of Tears In The Morning, but didn’t chart.

Tears In The Morning
Songwriter: Bruce Johnston
Lead vocalist: Bruce Johnston

Side two begins with this horrible, horrible maudlin sappiness. Johnston does a great job on the vocal, but this pseudo-European waltz (with accordions and bad strings) is quite the most mawkish thing the band ever recorded, with lines like “Hope you love the baby I’m never gonna see”.

This belongs, of course, to the genre of divorce-rock that was so popular in the early 70s, but is a poor example even of that. Many of the lyrics are utterly meaningless, making neither literal nor metaphorical sense (“Well you know I lit a candle/It’s in my heart now where it glows/Day and night feel my light it’s gonna stand till/My heart believes in what you chose”) and there’s a surprising lack of craft for someone as practised as Johnston. The line “I won’t let nobody carry this load for me”, for example, requires Johnston to sing load as two syllables – “lo-oad”. Substituting in the word ‘burden’ would improve the scansion without affecting the meaning (it might even work slightly better given the generally overwrought nature of the lyrics). Meanwhile the music has no flow, instead lumbering and staggering along like a self-pitying drunk about to collapse.

Astonishingly, this was released as a single.

All I Wanna Do
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love

This is a really strange, and quite innovative, track. Primarily written by Love, this track, with its prominent bass, mechanical-sounding drums and heavily-reverbed and delayed nasal vocals, sounds like nothing so much as New Order, the 1980s post-punk/electropop band. The bridges, in particular, have a very New Order melodic shape, but everything about the melody, its conversational phrasing broken into very short phrases, sounds exactly like them. This is spookily premonitory of music more than a decade in the future.

Not to be confused with All I Want To Do from the album before this, 20/20.

Songwriters: Dennis Wilson and Gregg Jakobson
Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson

A lovely, gentle, simple ballad, this is based on the same basic pattern as A Whiter Shade Of Pale, with which it shares its stately rhythm and vague Bach influence. In both cases the chord sequence of the main section of the song is one that can be found quite simply by anyone on a keyboard instrument.

Starting with a simple triad, (in D in this case), just play a descending scale with one finger in the bass while holding the main triad down, and you have the verse sequence for this (except that when the bass reaches G and E the chord switches to G and Em7 to avoid dischords). You get a sense of movement with the minimum of actual changes, and the cycle can repeat indefinitely, and that’s what Wilson does for the most part here. The simplicity of the changes works perfectly with the heartfelt lyrics (“If every word I said could make you laugh, I’d talk forever”).

Brian Wilson apparently loved the song, and contributed the gospel-tinged vocal arrangement (which includes possibly the last example of him singing in a strong falsetto – although he sounds thinner here than in earlier years, he hits higher notes than on any other recording).

The song remained a favourite of the band, being rerecorded by Brian Wilson for American Spring, and by the Beach Boys with John Stamos on their terrible 1990s album Summer In Paradise. Both Brian Wilson and the touring Beach Boys also included it in their live sets in the 2000s, as a tribute to Dennis.

Forever was released as a B-side to Cool, Cool Water.

Our Sweet Love
Songwriter: Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson and Al Jardine
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

This is another song where I am afraid I disagree with majority opinion. This is generally considered a highlight of the album, and is often compared to God Only Knows, with which it does share a few features (the rhythm, the use of minor sixth chords, Carl Wilson’s gorgeous vocals), but I have very little time for it.

The song is actually rather similar to Forever in the way it’s constructed, as well. This time the bass descends as a chromatic, rather than a major, scale in the verse (until getting to a fourth below the starting point, when it briefly becomes more mobile before the chorus) and in a diminished scale in the chorus. Again, the chords themselves change as little as possible while still accommodating these changes. Both Brian and Dennis were, for different reasons, fundamentally lazy songwriters at this point, and this kind of trick is a good way to get effective, interesting changes without even bothering to move your hands very much (John Lennon did the same kind of thing a lot).

But interesting as the chord sequence is, the lyrics, melody and arrangement are all more of the bland mush that dominates too much of this album.

At My Window
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Al Jardine
Lead vocalist: Bruce Johnston

A rather lovely little slice-of-life ballad, much in the manner of some of the material on Friends, this features Brian Wilson attempting to speak French, with possibly the worst accent ever heard. For those who are wondering, he’s attempting to say “le moineau se poser sur ma fenetre”, French for “the sparrow landed on my window”.

This was mostly by Jardine, and as with many of Jardine’s songs the melody is based on a folk song, in this case the Kingston Trio song Raspberries, Strawberries.

Cool Cool Water
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalists: Mike Love, Brian Wilson and Carl Wilson

The final track on the album, and easily its highlight, is a bit of a Frankenstein creation. This song was originally recorded, without lead vocals, as I Love To Say DaDa during the Smile sessions. It was then rerecorded with the lyrics “add some cool cool water” chanted over and over, as a roughly two-minute track, during the Wild Honey sessions. This has led to suggestions that the track was originally intended as the ‘water’ part of The Elements (a section of Smile about which all we know for sure is that one track was “Fire”).

The Wild Honey era track was then pulled out of the vaults during the Sunflower sessions, and crossfaded into the ‘water chant’ (an a capella chant consisting of the word ‘water’ repeated over and over, recorded during the Smile sessions) which then crossfaded into a new, Moog-driven, recording of the basic DaDa musical material, this time with new lyrics by Love, and lead vocals traded off between Brian Wilson in falsetto and Love in his bass range.

Surprisingly, the track works extremely well, and despite the simplicity of the song itself, with its almost mantra-like chanting, it closes the album quite beautifully. Released as a single, though, it didn’t chart.

Overall, Sunflower is half a very good album, coupled with a lot of drivel. It’s nowhere near as good as its reputation suggests, but it’s a sign that the band were able to work together as a coherent unit, and a step in the right direction. The next album would be better…

This will eventually appear in The Beach Boys On CD vol 2. If you like this, why not consider buying volume 1? Hardback Paperback PDF Kindle (US) Kindle (UK) Kindle (DE) All other ebook formats

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9 Responses to The Beach Boys On CD: Sunflower

  1. S. Barrios says:

    fine *innovative* commentary, A. Aitch. some strong opinions about this one, certainly (i think it’s Susan Lang’s favorite). will give it a fresh listen this evening !

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Thanks. It’s a lot of people’s favourite, and I can sort of see why – it’s very lush, and it never really falls below a certain basic level of quality, and it’s got some really good high points. But it’s just…missing something. It’s too professional, and doesn’t have the oddness of the band’s best work. Too much Bruce, not enough Brian.

  2. Rachel Kate says:

    Oh wow! I had never heard this album before, but I’m listening to it on Spotify now and some of the best stuff on it is wonderful — particularly “The Whole World,” “It’s About Time,”and “Cool Cool Water.” I did think “Our Sweet Love” is better than the sum of its parts, but I agree that “Add Some Music To Your Day” really is quite awful — it’s like if Sesame Street decided to do a skit about waiting room music, except Sesame Street would not actually do that because that’s a terrible idea.

    Anyway, thank you! I might never have bothered to check this album out if you hadn’t posted this.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Thanks – glad it inspired you to listen, because the good stuff *is* that good (and the bad stuff *is* that bad). The whole run of albums from 1967 through 1977 (except the awful 15 Big Ones) is worth listening to. And I’ll be going through all the rest of them over the next few weeks/months…

  3. TAD says:

    Bruce Johnston doesn’t sing lead on “At My Window.” :P

    I agree that songs such as “Deirdre” and “Our Sweet Love” are a bit bland, but I do like them despite that. Maybe it’s the vocals….the vocals are so good, that they trump the middling songwriting.

    Have you heard much about the “in-progress” Beach Boys reunion recordings? How much is Joe Thomas contributing to it all? I’m uneasy about his involvement, but if he’s just assisting Brian (and not calling the shots), then that might be okay. Might. Geoff thinks that Joe Thomas is involved because someone is needed to play Carl’s old role of keeping the band glued together, and Joe Thomas is someone everyone is comfortable with.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      He does!
      Not much info’s got out. But yeah, the consensus seems to be that Joe Thomas is there because the Beach Boys all enjoyed working with him on S&S vol 1. Other than that, and Foskett’s heavy involvement, I know very little, except that the re-recording of Do It again featured members of both Mike and Brian’s bands. I *think* it was Darian, Jeff, Scott Totten and Cowsill but I can’t be sure.
      I’d be very surprised if Matt Jardine and Christian Love weren’t contributing vocals too.

      • TAD says:

        I always thought it was Al on “At My Window,” but listening again, I stand corrected. It is Bruce on the verses, clearly.

        I hope the Beach Boys themselves do most of the singing on the new stuff. I can understand Foskett’s involvement on the high end, but the Beach Boys themselves should be able to sing all the other parts, I’d think.

  4. Joel Goldenberg says:

    I view Bruce’s Tears in the Morning rather differently — the lyrics seem to me to be angry and sarcastic, albeit with a lush backing.

  5. Beach Boys fan for half a century (gulp!) and I love reading your essays. I’m afraid I can’t fall in with the adulation afforded to Dennis. It’s like he can do no wrong at times. It would be just as easy to savage his lyrics on ‘Forever’ as any other: ‘If every word I said could make you laugh I’d talk forever’ – how horrid. Please shut up. There’s only so much laughter a human can take. :) ‘All I Wanna Do’ – more Flaming Lips than New Order. Check ’em out. You really don’t like Bruce do you. To be fair, even ‘bad’ Beach Boys of this period is better than a lot of the best in later years. Thanks for your great work. :)

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