The Beach Boys On CD: Bruce Johnston — Going Public

I’m actually going slightly out of order here. There were two Beach Boys solo albums released in 1977. The first of these, Dennis Wilson’s Pacific Ocean Blue, is generally considered a masterpiece. It’s been issued on CD as a double “special edition”, including tons of bonus tracks and an entire second, previously-unreleased, album, Bambu, that was recorded as a follow-up. It’s going to take a huge amount of effort to deal with it in any kind of fair way, effort I can’t put in right now, as it’s an enormous artistic achievement.

Going Public, on the other hand, and with all possible respect to Bruce Johnston, simply isn’t.

Johnston will be re-entering the story proper in 1979, though since leaving the band in 1972 he’d remained on friendly terms with them and added backing vocals to several tracks. But he’d not been sitting around waiting for the call from his old band-mates. Johnston was always the best musician in the band, in the purely technical sense — he’s an excellent pianist, and able to turn his hand to any kind of music. So between 1972 and 1977 he’d done all sorts of work, from working with Curt Boettcher (by now shortening his name to Becher), Gary Usher and Terry Melcher on their odd disco-calypso-surf-pop California Music project, to singing backing vocals with Carl Wilson on Elton John’s Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Me, to co-writing a top 30 hit for the Hudson Brothers, to writing a song for The Captain And Tennile.

That song, I Write The Songs, was re-recorded by David Cassidy on an album Johnston produced for him in 1975, and then covered again by Barry Manilow, in a version which became a massive worldwide hit, and won Johnston the Grammy award for Song Of The Year (still the only time a Beach Boys member has won this award).

As a result of this success, Johnston recorded this solo album, produced by Gary Usher (supposedly, though I’ve seen claims that Usher had little involvement) and with Curt Becher co-arranging. The intention was apparently more to showcase other songs of Johnston’s that might have hit potential, rather than to be a satisfying album in itself, and the result is, frankly, awful — a mixture of stripped-down demos that sound like every bad lounge singer in existence, and some of the least danceable disco in existence. Johnston himself, never one to hide his opinion, has repeatedly disowned the album, saying he doesn’t understand why anyone would want to listen to it.

I have to make a confession here — this is one of only two albums I’m writing about which I don’t feel fully familiar with. Both this, and Mike Love’s solo album Looking Back With Love, are so poor that I’ve listened to them precisely twice each before the start of this project — once to see if they were as bad as people say, and once to check that they were really that bad. Those two albums are being included for completeness’ sake, not because I can offer any great insights.

Unless noted, all songs are written by Bruce Johnston, who’s also the lead vocalist.

I Write The Songs

You almost certainly know this song in Barry Manilow’s hit version, but in case you have managed to avoid it, this is a song about music, part of a regrettable 70s subgenre that also included Music by John Miles. In this case Johnston sings that “I write the songs that make the whole world sing/I write the songs of joy and special things”. When Manilow sang this, people thought, naturally enough, that it was a rather egotistical song, with Manilow claiming “I am music and I write the songs”.

Johnston has since clarified that the song is meant to be from the voice of God, from whom all music comes in his opinion. And writing a song that claims to speak for God is apparently less egotistical than merely claiming to have written all music in human history. O hubris, thy name is Johnston.

In truth, the song is nowhere near as bad as its whipping-boy status would suggest, having a decent, if saccharine, melody, and some relatively interesting chord changes, at least until the horrible truck-driver’s key changes start to come in after the middle eight. That’s not to say it’s good, mind, just that it’s not as bad as its reputation. Johnston performs it in a fairly restrained way, with the recording being just him and a piano (plus a ton of reverb) for the most part, although the addition of a choir for the last few notes is a bit much, and of course his voice is as good as ever.

This song was part of the Beach Boys’ live repertoire for a couple of years after Johnston rejoined the band, but has now become part of a ‘comedy’ bit of the show, where Johnston plays a couple of bars and is then made to apologise for having written it.

And while it shouldn’t need saying, for completeness’ sake I’ll say it. This song isn’t about Brian Wilson.

Bruce Johnston and Brian Wilson

The first truly inexplicable move on the album is this rerecording of the Sunflower song, with slightly-rewritten lyrics. The original had been, if not great, then perfectly inoffensive and with a mild light charm. Here the light swing of the original is replaced with an utterly generic disco-lite sub-Bee Gees backing — thudding four-on-the-floor drums with quavers on the hi-hat, backing vocals appearing and disappearing at random places in the stereo spectrum, an unimaginative horn arrangement and so forth.

The lyrical rewrite is clumsy, the disco arrangement galumphs clumsily when it should be encouraging us to dance, and then just in case anyone was starting to get some accidental pleasure from the song, it breaks down into a slow tempo for a few bars for a lounge sax solo. Utterly joyless.

Thank You Baby

This is a remake of a song Johnston originally recorded in the 1960s, with Terry Melcher, as their duo Bruce & Terry. In that form it was a fairly passable piece of Jan And Dean-esque harmony pop, sounding vaguely influenced by late period Buddy Holly, but with some baroque pop harpsichord. (Bruce and Terry also recorded covers of two Holly songs around the same time).

Here it’s slowed down and performed by Johnston over solo electric piano, and while it’s a pretty melody, the song itself doesn’t stand up to this treatment, with all its jolly internal rhyming — “And the way/every day/when you’d say/I love to see you smile” or “thoughts/can’t be bought/but they ought/to be shared with someone close”. That sort of thing works fine in an uptempo pop song, but just sounds ridiculous in a sensitive singer-songwriter ballad.

The middle section, where Johnston does multi-tracked “Mister Sandman” barbershop vocals works quite well though.

(For those who might think that because I dislike this album I’m dismissing Johnston as a writer or performer, incidentally, I cannot recommend the Sundazed Best Of Bruce & Terry highly enough. Twenty tracks of perfect pop, including the utterly magnificent Girl It’s Alright Now, and the Love/Johnston collaboration Don’t Run Away. One poor album shouldn’t distract from the man’s talent.)

Bruce Johnston, Bill Hudson, Brett Hudson, Mark Hudson

This track was written with and for the Hudson brothers, a pop band who were the stars of the children’s TV show The Hudson Brothers Razzle Dazzle Show. Their version, done in a vaguely imitation-Chinnichap style, made number 26 as a single in 1975, becoming their second-biggest hit.

Johnston’s version sounds closer to Neil Sedaka, with its ridiculous but catchy “Rendezvous/Rendezvous/Ronday-ronday-ronday rendezvous” chorus. It’s silly pop fluff, but enjoyable for what it is.

(It’s still impossible, though, to get over Johnston singing the first line “Your mom and dad/Think I’m bad”. No, they think you’re a multi-millionaire who puts a photo of himself in full morning suit and top hat sat on the bumper of a Rolls-Royce on his album cover.)

Won’t Somebody Dance With Me?
Lynsey De Paul

One of two cover versions on the album, this is a remake of a sickeningly sweet Lynsey De Paul hit, that actually manages to be even more saccharine than the original. While De Paul’s original was all sung from the perspective of the “wallflower” who wants someone to dance with her, here Johnston switches the lyrics round to be from the point of view of her father, watching her, before saying “and she says”, at which point a female vocalist (I don’t know who, as it’s not noted as a duet in the album’s liner notes, but the credited female backing vocalists are Cindy Bullens and Diana Lee, and Toni Tennille is given ‘special thanks’ in the credits for the album) sings the “won’t somebody dance with me?” chorus, in a ludicrously high voice which can’t quite reach the notes.

The low point — not just of the album, but perhaps of all musical history up to this point — comes in the second chorus, when after each line Johnston gives a spoken response. “Won’t somebody dance with me? (Be patient, sweetheart)/Start up a romance with me/(There’ll be time for that)”

If anyone ever tries to tell you punk was unnecessary, play them this track.

Disney Girls
There’s little to say about this that I didn’t say in the write-up in the Surf’s Up album. It’s an inferior performance to that one, and just on the other side of the line that separates pop perfection from schmaltz, and this performance — solo vocal and piano apart from the “church, bingo chances” line (and an electric piano coming in on the coda), and taken a little slower than the original — shows how much the other Beach Boys added to that track. It’s utterly unnecessary if you’ve heard the original, but it’s still the best thing on the album by a long, long way.

Rock And Roll Survivor
A pleasant enough country-pop song, of a kind that Glenn Campbell might have recorded, about how the singer is through with his rock and roll days and all grown up, and is going to sing music that’s more appropriate for someone who’s in his mid-thirties and extremely rich, like country music.

The bragging about his wealth in the first verse is a little off-putting, but in a way this seems like the most emotionally honest song on the entire album, and it’s admirable in a way — he’s bored of rock and roll music, he wants to grow and play something “pleasing to my ear”. Given the way rock music has self-mythologised almost from its inception, and it’s quite nice to hear someone say “no, actually, there’s more to life, and to music, than this.”

After the nadir of Won’t Somebody Dance With Me we’re actually into a little stretch where the album is managing to achieve mediocrity, which is definitely an improvement.

Don’t Be Scared
This is actually the second song Johnston wrote titled Don’t Be Scared. The earlier one, by Bruce & Terry but released under the name The Rip Chords, is a wonderful piece of hot-rod pop with Chuck Berry guitar licks and pretty much every Beach Boys or Jan & Dean hook ever, all stuffed into two minutes and forty seconds along with a strange Joe Meek style guitar line.

This isn’t. This is Bruce, with two electric pianos and a string section, singing about how he’s a nice guy and while you only think of him as a friend he’s much better than that boyfriend you have now who’s upset you, and you shouldn’t be scared.

And the thing is…it’s not that terrible, and that’s what makes it that terrible. This is perfectly competently done, by someone who understands music very, very well. But we’re onto the penultimate track now, and the closest we’ve got to a human emotion is ‘sensitivity’. I’m not one who thinks that music should ‘rock’ necessarily — I’ve often advocated, only half-jokingly, that the electric guitar and drum kit should be banned for a decade to force people to either do something new and different or not make music at all — but…

But great music, good music, anything that deserves the name “music” at all, of any type, has a life and an energy to it, has some guts. Whether it’s Bach or Benny Goodman or Hank Williams or Ray Charles or Billie Holiday or Peggy Lee or Stravinsky or Charles Ives or Kate Bush or Elvis Presley or Captain Beefheart. Even music that a lot of people would dismiss as muzak, like the Swingle singers. Hell, even the old Rediffusion station ID… you listen to those, and you get some sense of life, of humanity, of someone attempting to communicate something, to bridge a gap between the artist and another human being.

Even advertising jingles. “A finger of fudge is just enough to give your kids a treat” was, after all, trying to communicate something to other people, so there’s some life to it.

This, though…this is absolutely competent, put together according to every rule you could come up with on how to write a mid-70s sensitive ballad, but… nothing. There’s nothing there. It’s an empty shell, as the entire album is.

I can define a category wide enough to include the Cadbury’s Fudge jingle, Edgard Varese, James Last, Tuvan throat singers, Lee “Scratch” Perry, Public Enemy, The Beatles and Tiny Tim, and find elements all those things have in common to justify their inclusion. But I can’t with any honesty put this track, or this album, into that group.

This isn’t music.

Brian Carman, Bob Spickard

This is a disco remake of the old surf instrumental, originally by the Chantays, with the melody being alternately played by strings, horns, and sung by Johnston and Becher in wordless vocals.

It’s not so terrible, I suppose, once you get over the cognitive dissonance, but by this point I’ve lost the will to live.

This was released as a single and somehow managed to make the top forty in the UK. I hear people did a lot of cocaine in the 1970s.

Please don’t make me listen to this album again, I’ll be good, I promise.

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7 Responses to The Beach Boys On CD: Bruce Johnston — Going Public

  1. Tilt Araiza says:

    I take it you mean the Johnny Dankworth Rediffusion ID.

    Got my priorities right, me.

  2. TAD says:

    I like “I Write the Songs.” I wouldn’t apologize for having written that song, I’d be proud of it. I like Bruce’s under-stated version of it here, too.

  3. Penny says:

    Who’s this kevinkray of the pirate bay who likes your work on Amazon Mr Hickey?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I’m not sure what you’re talking about, but I assume you’re referring to Kevin Ray who commented on a few of my Beatles posts and who gave me a nice review on Lulu for my Beatles In Mono book — he used kevinkray there to sign his review. I don’t recall him ever commenting on any of my other books, and nor do I know anything about anything he does or doesn’t do on Amazon.

      Why do you ask?

      Incidentally, I would ask that in future if you comment here you use a real email address and a non-anonymised IP. I have this comments section set up to automoderate people posting for the first time, but then to let the email and IP addresses of people who’ve been allowed before through. I’ll have to set up a separate rule again now, blocking that made-up email address, so no-one can spam using it. (I never actually email people who comment here, and you can always get a throwaway Gmail address or something — only I see the email address).

  4. F. Sorgente says:

    Whether or not one likes the style, production and beat of the Going Public Album is out of the question. Having been in the music business for decades, I can honestly say that, the author of this article only relies on lyrics (and apparent things) to judge a whole album, which means he shouldn’t quit his day job at Mc Donald’s. I’m not apart of the 98% of the common people (judging on lyrics and lead vocals), but rather the 2 % of the population who goes way beyond technique and conception of a song, if not, a whole album. In other words, the baking of a cake, not the icing.

    Johnston cut 9 tracks in which the most essential parts are the harmonies, whether vocal or instrumental. and they are cleverly placed throughout the album itself. We’re not talking about just simple 3-pattern chords, we’re talking about inserting minor 6ths’, diminished and augmented chords, something that cannot be found on the Dennis Wilson original LP. Just listen to the barbershop moving vocal parts in “Thank you Baby” right in the middle of the song, using human voices as if they were strings. In “I write the songs”, the overall production as well as the chord pattern build up was cleverly thought of… breaking away from the simple 3-chord pattern and adding more sounds towards the end of the song. Unlike the Beach boys version of Disney Girls which is quite unpolished, Johnston’s version is more than outstanding, adding missing harmonies that should’ve been on the surf’s up album, but clearly was not. The 1977 remake is produced in a relaxed, symphonic-like masterpiece (especially in the “church-bingo-chances section) where harmonies are more distinct (clearly going from minor 6ths’ to diminished back and forth). Deirdre, although an unsuccessful attempt to join in the disco sound, does however blend in this West Coast-ish sound which was, a few years later, popularized by Christopher Cross, the Carpenters, Elton John and Billy Joel, to name a few (just listen to the Sax solo in the part where the song slows down). Vocals in the middle and towards the end of the song are obviously made with a Vocorder (then a vocal sound module in which one would plug a microphone then reproduce up to 4 times one’s voices simultaneously) and adding minors and 6ths chords to the vocal riffs. Quite well imagined.

    On the other hand, Rock and Survivor and Pipeline do not have their place on Going Public. Probably due to the fact that these songs are built up on 3-chord patterns and that’s why they were overlooked). But then again an uptempo song is needed every now and then to “liven up” the mood during the listening of such a “heavy” (opposite of light 3-chord pattern album) collection of songs. “Don’t Be Scared”, to my amazement, is a somewhat copy of the Beach Boys’ “Don’t Talk Put Your Head on my Shoulder” (from the Pet Sounds album). Just listen to the string arrangements and you’ll get the idea. Johnston never denied being a huge Brian Wilson fan and was around throughout most of the Pet Sounds sessions (and YES Johnston wrote about Brian in “I write the Songs” and YES he wrote about the Beach Boys in “Endless Harmony”… and YES, he’s grateful to Brian for having given him a career, for your information).

    Don’t get me wrong here, although I respect the musical talent of Bruce Johnston (yet I despise his low-class attitude – an asshole to say the least – after having met him a few times), I think this album has not been analyzed from the right perspective. I’m not saying it is a work of art either. Simply-produced albums will be listened to (and almost liked) by the first and, if not, the second time around — that’s for the 98% of the population (if one relies “solely” on lead vocals and lyrics). More complex produced albums require in-depth analysis (which is the case for Going Public) and may require to be listened to more than twice — that’s where people like me, who are apart of the 2%, go in-depth (think of Pet Sounds as an album one needs to listen to many times in order to appreciate it, although the chord patterns are also complex on the album itself). One should really take the time to listen to the whole Going Public according to chord patterns, harmonies and also the way the pieces are built (obviously while doing something else as the album is being listened to). You’d be amazed the amount of hidden information that can be found, chord by chord, part by part. Take away the lyrics and one still has the essence of the music. However, take away the music and one is left with crummy lyrics and lead vocals, upon which the article was based.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      You see, here’s the thing:
      If you’re going to make a great big deal about how much better than 98% of the population you are, you should learn the difference between “a part” and “apart”, just for starters.
      Using minor chords or 6ths does not make a song good. And no, I’m not judging on the lyrics, which are for the most part inoffensive, but on the terrible, terrible music — something which Bruce agrees with me on, incidentally, as he’s *frequently* said how terrible he thinks the album is.
      No, Bruce *didn’t* write about Brian in I Write The Songs — again, he’s said on many occasions that the song is NOT about Brian, but about God.
      I also don’t think you’re anyone at all to be calling *anyone* an “asshole”. Having met Bruce on a semi-regular basis (five or six times in the last thirteen years) and interacted with him online, my own view is that he’s someone who has a fairly highly-tuned bullshit detector. He can be the loveliest person in the world when people are behaving reasonably, and can be extremely rude when people interrupt him and generally act as if their time and opinions are more important than his (as I have, on occasion, when younger).
      Given that you’re the kind of person whose very first interaction with a total stranger is to insult him — and who thinks that working in McDonald’s would be an insult (I actually have a very highly paid job, but I also have respect for people who work in the service industries) — I have no doubt at all as to why you’ve come away thinking of him as you do.
      You go on and on about how you’re not like 98% of people. No, you’re not. 98% of people aren’t barely-literate musical imbeciles who think that a comparison with Christopher Cross or Billy Joel is in some way a recommendation rather than a sign that one should run away screaming. More importantly, 98% of people don’t go around commenting on random strangers’ blogs about their own membership of the ubermenschen. That’s because 98% of people are better than you in every conceivable way.
      You’ve been added to the spam filter on here, so any further comments will be deleted unread. Keep masturbating over your own brilliance while marvelling at the musical sophistication of yacht-rock if you want, but don’t get it all over my blog.

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