In September 1977, the Beach Boys split up, briefly. There were many reasons, but the fundamental split in the band came down to Al Jardine and Mike Love wanting to live cleanly, coast on past glories, and practice transcendental meditation, while Carl and Dennis Wilson wanted to make artistically progressive music while abusing as many substances as possible (Carl later cleaned himself up).
The split was only temporary, but it’s obvious which side won control of the band from the title of this album — MIU is short for Maharishi International University, where the bulk of the album was recorded.
In fact, this was originally two albums. After the band had decided not to put out Brian’s Adult/Child follow-up to Love You, Love, Jardine, Brian Wilson and the backing band decamped to Iowa, to the titular university, to record two albums simultaneously, one to be called California Feeling, the other Merry Christmas From The Beach Boys. Given that they’d just signed to CBS Records, while still owing an album to Reprise, it seems plausible that they were trying to record a contractual obligation album while also recording the first album for their new contract.
In fact, a third album was being recorded along with these two — Mike Love’s side band Celebration, featuring many of the touring band members, was recording Almost Summer, the soundtrack album to the film of the same name, including a title track, co-written by Love, Jardine and Wilson, which made the top thirty in the US when released as a single.
Unfortunately, they spread themselves too thin. Some of the Christmas tracks had minimal lyrical rewrites, to take out the Christmas references, and a compilation of tracks from both California Feeling and Merry Christmas, plus a couple of outtakes from the New Album and Adult/Child projects, became this album [FOOTNOTE Several of the Christmas songs were released on the later compilation Ultimate Christmas, and will be reviewed in volume three.].
The result, which was released in October 1978, is, frankly, horrible. It features no active involvement from Dennis Wilson (who said of the album “I hope that the karma will fuck up Mike Love’s meditation forever. That album is an embarrassment to my life. It should self destruct ”) beyond the archive tracks, and Carl Wilson only contributes one lead vocal (Dennis didn’t turn up to Iowa at all, and Carl only attended briefly). Brian Wilson was there in body, but not in spirit, leaving production duties to Al Jardine (who looked after the vocals) and backing band keyboardist Ron Altbach (previously of one-hit wonders King Harvest, Altbach looked after the backing tracks).
Beach Boys albums had misfired before, but never because of a lack of artistic ambition. Unfortunately, MIU Album was to set the pattern for much of the next few decades.
Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love
She’s Got Rhythm
Songwriter: Brian Wilson, Mike Love and Ron Altbach
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson and Mike Love
At least the first track doesn’t give you any false hope. The album starts with Brian Wilson screeching, as if in agony, “Laaaaast night I went out disco dancing…”
This really does set the tone for the whole album. There’s an attempt to recreate past glories that falls laughably short — this tuneless screech is apparently someone’s idea of a Brian Wilson falsetto — combined with an equally laughable attempt to be up-to-date and trendy.
The song itself is a basic shuffle, based on an instrumental composed by Altbach for the Almost Summer soundtrack, with lyrics provided by Love and Wilson. It consists of a strict alternation between a sixteen-bar, three-chord, major key verse/chorus ‘sung’ by Wilson, and an eight-bar minor-key bridge sung nasally by Love.
This is one of the few songs to which Carl Wilson contributed during his two-day stay in Iowa, and he seems to be just barely audible in the backing vocal stack.
It boggles my mind that something this piss-poor could have been released by a major band, on a major record label.
Come Go With Me
Songwriter: Clarence Quick
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine
This is much better. The Beach Boys had tried this during the New Album sessions, but this appears to have been a completely new recording from 1978. It’s a cover version of a hit by the doo-wop group The Del-Vikings, a song that is probably otherwise best known as the song John Lennon was playing the first time Paul McCartney saw him.
The track seems to feature only Jardine on vocals, but at this point Jardine was probably the most proficient vocalist in the band, and he manages to make a better job of doing Beach Boys style harmonies by himself than the band were doing at this point. The production is ersatz-Spector, and the whole thing is pleasantly enjoyable. While it’s not earth-shattering, it’s cheerful and listenable.
This was released as a single three years later, on the back of a compilation of the band’s 70s work, and made number 18 in the US charts in January 1982. It has remained in the set of the various touring iterations of the Beach Boys to this day.
Hey Little Tomboy
Songwriter: Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Mike Love, Brian Wilson and Carl Wilson
Oh dear. The unreleased New Album and Adult/Child included some of Brian Wilson’s best songwriting, including wonders like Sherry She Needs Me and Still I Dream Of It. They also included this…
A song where five hoarse-voiced bearded men in their mid-thirties ask a ‘little tomboy’ to ‘sit here on my lap’ and tell her ‘I’m gonna teach you to kiss’ and ‘it’s time you turned into a girl’.
It’s easy enough to see why Brian Wilson wrote this — most of his material around this time was from a youthful perspective, and he wasn’t especially mentally well at the time. It’s even possible, just about, to see why the band would record it, to encourage Brian in his work. What it’s not possible to understand is why, when they had at a conservative estimate at least three albums’ worth of material in the can from which to pick for MIU, even not counting Dennis’ solo work, they would choose to put this on the album, especially since it’s not even musically interesting.
We can thank heaven for small mercies, though — the reason the instrumental section sounds so bare is because there was originally a spoken section, with the band members leering “Now shave your legs for the first time”, “let’s put on a little lipstick and see what it looks like”, while making oinking noises like pigs…
Songwriter: Al Jardine and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love, Al Jardine and Brian Wilson
And after that, a return to solid mediocrity is a welcome relief. This track was originally recorded for the Christmas sessions as Kona Christmas or Melekalikimaka, and had a lyric about how “I wanna spend Christmas where I dig it the most, in Hawaii”. One quick rewrite later and it became “I wanna go surfin’ where I dig it the most, in Hawaii”, making this the first Beach Boys track to mention surfing in a decade.
Add in an out-of-tune falsetto screech from Brian Wilson, failing to replicate the vocal line from Hawaii from the Surfer Girl album, and some mild ethnic stereotyping (“I’ll learn to talk-a like a local, I betcha”) and you have a crass, boorish track that is nonetheless better than half of what came before, thanks largely to a single mildly interesting chord change (the iim7-III7 change that also heralds Al Jardine’s vocal part, which is much stronger than Love or Wilson’s).
Songwriter: Buddy Holly, Jerry Allison and Norman Petty
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine
This track was originally recorded for the 15 Big Ones sessions, before being resurrected in the Iowa sessions, initially as a Christmas song with new lyrics (“Christmas time is here again”), before Al polished it up for MIU Album.
The result is a mess. While it does at least feature actual Beach Boys harmonies, it’s a clodhopping, joyless, stifling wall of sound, taken too slow and without any of the joy and inventiveness of Buddy Holly’s classic original. Al Jardine turns in a typically excellent lead vocal, but when this was released as the single from the album it got no higher in the US charts than number 59, which is about right.
Wontcha Come Out Tonight
Songwriter: Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love and Brian Wilson
It comes to something when a track like this is an improvement. There’s no actual song here, in any real sense — the song alternates between a trite chorus and a not-much-less-trite verse, with lyrics so forgettable you forget them while actually listening, while the chord sequence is a hackneyed doo-wop progression in the choruses and a ii-I progression in the verses, two of the biggest cliches in rock and roll.
But the intro and outro vocal parts show some real inventiveness — a multi-tracked Brian singing in a variety of different voices, with more enthusiasm than he does anywhere else on the album, while Mike Love puts in an excellent bass vocal.
And Brian’s vocals on the choruses (which sound like they might be the same vocal take pasted in multiple places) are just gorgeous. He’s singing in his ‘low and manly’ voice, but gently, rather than in the gruff bellow of the last two albums. The singing style he uses here, on Match Point Of Our Love, and on Winter Symphony from the Christmas sessions, is one he never used before or since, but it makes one wish there were whole albums of him singing like this.
Unfortunately, it’s spoiled by Love’s over-nasal verse vocals, and the song itself is a nothing, but as the closer to side one it at least ends the side on a moderately positive note.
Sweet Sunday Kinda Love
Songwriter: Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson
Side two opens with one of the two songs that comes closest to being actually good on the album. It’s not a masterpiece, but it’s a solid song, and a return to Brian’s old obsession Be My Baby, with which it shares a rhythmic feel and the chord sequence of the first eight bars of the verse.
There’s not much in the way of major harmonic innovation in the song, but it feels thought about in a way that much of the rest of the album doesn’t — the change to v for the middle eight, and then having the descending bassline drag the chord from the minor fifth to the major fifth by descending by semitones, isn’t harmonically outrageous, but it is interesting.
Carl Wilson doesn’t turn in one of his best leads — he sounds a little bored with the material — but he sings on-key and in his beautiful voice, and on an album dominated by nasal sneering from Love and off-key shrieking from Brian Wilson, that’s a huge improvement.
Belles Of Paris
Songwriter: Brian Wilson, Ron Altbach and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love
And then they go and spoil it, again showing the lack of thought that went into this album. Quite simply, if you have two songs that rip off Be My Baby, you don’t sequence them back to back!
This, too, is based around the I-ii-V7 progression that powers Be My Baby (very slightly modified — here it goes I-Imaj7-ii7-V7, and the changes don’t come in precisely the same places, but the resemblance is clearly there), and has the same rhythm to it.
Love actually does a very good job of the vocal here, singing in his lower, more mellow register, but the song is a less inventive version of the previous track, the harmonies are off, and the lyrics (describing a trip round Paris “watching belles jeunes filles and the handsome gendarmes”) are pap.
This was originally recorded during the Christmas sessions as Bells Of Christmas, and oddly, when that was released, Brian Wilson wasn’t credited as a writer and Alan Jardine was, suggesting Wilson’s contribution was purely lyrical. Even more oddly, Wilson released a near-identical track, with different lyrics, On Christmas Day, on his 2005 Christmas album, and he was credited as sole composer.
Songwriter: Brian Wilson, Al Jardine and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love and Al Jardine
This is one of the more listenable tracks on the album, a mid-tempo rocker dominated by Jardine’s very strong vocals, with a decent performance from Love, with his nasality working to the song’s advantage.
There’s absolutely nothing of interest to say about it, but it’s not bad either. Had the whole album been like this, it would have been mildly disappointing rather than an utter travesty.
Songwriter: Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson
And suddenly, I’m in tears listening to this album. Even though I’ve listened to this track more than all the others on the record put together, it still has the power to move me to tears.
This song is a leftover from the 1976 New Album sessions, and the difference between this and even the best of the rest of MIU is… to say it’s night and day would not only be too cliched, but wouldn’t go far enough. It’s the difference between music and Muzak. The difference between a work of art and a cola commercial.
The song itself is simple enough, alternating between a minor-key verse that progresses through related chords, and a chorus that’s just the I, IV and V of the relative major, along with a very brief bridge, but it’s a song written entirely from the heart.
Brian Wilson wrote this about his wife’s sister, with whom he’d had an on-and-off affair for a long time, and it’s a cry of loss like that of a child, who doesn’t understand what loss even means — “Now that I have lost my Diane, there’s no plan as to where to go/It was hard to lose my Diane, now I just miss her so”. It’s simple — simplistic, even — but because it’s an absolutely direct emotional expression.
Dennis Wilson rises to the occasion, bellowing the lyrics like a wounded animal, and the result is one of the most emotionally devastating things the Beach Boys ever did. Powerful enough out of context, when it blindsides you in the middle of the pabulum that surrounds it, it’s almost too much to bear.
Match Point Of Our Love
Songwriter: Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson
And then we have Brian Wilson singing over the kind of disco-lite background that the Captain And Tennille might have thought was a little too uninspired for them, and the lyrics he’s singing are an extended metaphor treating the end of a love affair as a tennis match. (“So we volleyed a while with small talk and a smile and as push comes to shove/I’d say this must be the matchpoint of our love”). If that’s the sort of thing you like, then you’ll certainly like this track. Well, possibly.
Brian’s vocals are excellent, but there’s nothing here to suggest this is the same band who even recorded 15 Big Ones, let alone any of the Beach Boys’ good albums.
Winds Of Change
Songwriter: Ron Altbach and Ed Tuleja
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine and Mike Love
And this is…not terrible, compared to the rest of the album. Incredibly, the Beach Boys only turned to outside songwriters for new songs three times in their career (as opposed to collaborating with outsiders, or performing cover versions). On their self-titled 1985 album they recorded songs by Stevie Wonder and Culture Club (who were then one of the biggest bands in the world). Here…two ex-members of King Harvest who were in their backing band.
The song itself is perfectly adequate if you like wistful 70s piano ballads with ‘spiritual’ lyrics like “Worlds in motion endlessly/Cosmic ocean flows into my heart” (I bet Bruce Johnston loved it), and it’s just about made listenable by an astonishingly good vocal performance from Al Jardine and a decent one by Mike Love, before being killed by syrupy orchestration, and then buried by the coda, in which Brian sings “won’t last forever” in his screechy falsetto, referencing When I Grow Up (To Be A Man), and reminds us just how good the Beach Boys used to be, and how little this has to do with what made them so great.
The next album would be better, but after listening to MIU Album you can tell that everything that had made the Beach Boys great was gone, perhaps forever.
It’s kinda sad.