The Beach Boys On CD: LA (Light Album)

By late 1978, the Beach Boys were in a bad way. They’d signed a new recording contract with CBS Records, but Brian Wilson was in no fit state to contribute anything of significance to the new album. The band had nearly broken up less than a year before, Carl and Dennis were struggling with both relationship and substance problems, MIU Album had been an artistic disaster, and to make matters worse CBS were not very happy. Having paid over eight million dollars for the band, Walter Yetnikoff, the head of CBS, said on hearing a tape of potential new material prepared for him to listen to, “Gentlemen, I think I’ve just been fucked”… what to do?

The obvious answer was to call in outside production help. They had Jim Guercio, who at this point was the band’s manager, occasional onstage bass player, and record company owner all in one, but they needed somebody who could fill in for Brian in the harmony stack, who could produce, who they were all comfortable with…

They called in Bruce Johnston. He originally came in as a co-producer of the album — the production credits for the album credit him separately, with the album being produced by “the Beach Boys, James William Guercio and Bruce Johnston” except for Here Comes The Night, credited to Johnston and Curt Becher [FOOTNOTE When tracks from this album have been released on compilations or singles, they have sometimes credited individual band members as producers.]. However, he quickly rejoined the band full-time, and has remained in every touring line-up of the Beach Boys ever since, the only consistent member over that thirty-five year period other than Mike Love.

The resulting album, titled LA (Light Album) should by rights have been a mess. A collection of rather weak material, strung together from outtakes from 1974, offcuts from Dennis’ unreleased second solo album, new recordings and a desperate attempt to jump on the disco bandwagon two years too late, it should sound like a horrible failure.

In fact, it’s the last truly good Beach Boys album, and the most cohesive group work since Sunflower. While Love You and Carl And The Passions were both stronger albums than this by far, this sounded like the Beach Boys again. Unfortunately, the reviews were lousy — far worse than the album deserved — and it only reached number 100 in the US charts, though it made the UK top forty and produced a couple of moderately successful singles.

line-up

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

Good Timin’
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Carl Wilson
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

The opening song is one where I have to disagree with fan consensus. Most fans, and many of the band members themselves, have considered this a truly great, classic song. Personally, I don’t consider it anything particularly special — the chord sequence is simplistic, and the lyric banal.

But I can see exactly why it’s so popular among the band’s fanbase — for the first time in years, the harmonies sound like the Beach Boys. Adding Bruce to the mix, focusing on Carl and Al, the strongest singers, and multitracking means there’s a thick, luxurious bed of harmonies here the like of which hadn’t been seen from the band in nearly a decade.

The song itself seems unfinished — and in fact it was, the track having been stitched together by Guercio cutting and pasting multiple copies of less than a minute of Brian on the keyboards, but the sound was strong enough to push this into the US Top 40 — the band’s first single to get there since It’s OK.

The song has remained a concert staple for the Beach Boys over the years, and at various times has had live lead vocals by Carl, Dennis, John Stamos and Christian Love (Mike’s son). On the 2012 reunion tour, Brian sang lead on the verses and Al on the choruses.

Lady Lynda
Songwriter:
Al Jardine and Ron Altbach (based on Jesu, Blebeit Meine Freunde by J.S. Bach)
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine

Jesu, Blebeit Meine Freunde (better known in English as Jesu, Joy Of Man’s Desiring) had already inspired one of the Beach Boys’ biggest hits when Brian Wilson had used it to inspire California Girls, so it’s not entirely surprising that Al Jardine would turn to that piece, one of the most sublime pieces of music ever written, for inspiration.

In fact this song came about more or less as a joke — Ron Altbach, the Beach Boys’ touring keyboard player, was playing the Bach piece, and got the idea to play it in the style of his own hit, Dancing In The Moonlight. Jardine got inspired, and wrote the lyrics as a tribute to his then-wife Lynda.

The result is possibly the most 70s record ever. Topped and tailed with straight harpsichord performances of sections of the Bach piece in its original waltz time, the main body of the song recasts it into a 4/4 soft-rock style with a vague disco influence and a syrupy, harp-dominated, string arrangement (to which Dennis Wilson apparently contributed, according to Jardine).

The song is cheesy as hell, but thanks to Jardine’s utterly sincere lead vocal and some glorious harmonies, it falls just on the right side of the line to be the good kind of cheesy, and it became one of the band’s biggest international hits, reaching number six in the UK (though the best it did in the US was number thirty-nine on the Adult Contemporary chart).

After Jardine and his wife divorced, he was less keen on performing the song, for fairly obvious reasons. A horrible remake with new lyrics, done as a tribute to the Statue Of Liberty, Lady Liberty, was recorded in the 1980s, and when the Beach Boys played the UK, Jardine would change the lyrics to “little lady” instead of “lady Lynda”.

Full Sail
Songwriter:
Carl Wilson and Geoffrey Cushing-Murray
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

Carl Wilson’s first songwriting contribution since Holland would have fit perfectly on that earlier album, with its nautical theme, stately, plodding pace, and vaguely mystical feel. In fact lyrics like “Does the silence of the sea sound warning of a storm ahead”, with their multiple alliteration, feel very like Jack Rieley’s work, and with the clanging bell sound effects this could easily be a cousin of Steamboat, albeit one recorded, like the rest of this album, with a hazy late-70s AOR tinge to it.

This isn’t a song that gets a lot of love from Beach Boys fans, but to my mind it’s the best song on the album to this point, its placid gentleness perfectly summing up the feeling of floating out to sea.

Angel Come Home
Songwriter:
Carl Wilson and Geoffrey Cushing-Murray
Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson

Carl Wilson’s second songwriting contribution to the album is easily the best thing on the record up to this point. It’s harmonically simplistic — only I, IV and V chords — but that’s appropriate for a song which seems, under the AOR strings and electric piano, to be a country rocker. The layers of keyboards and broken drum pattern here almost sound like Love You, but given a thicker arrangement and sounding almost disturbing.

Had this been done more straightforwardly, like Carl’s later solo albums, it would have sounded horrific, but the layers of synths, the slightly off-key backing vocals (Brian Wilson’s only vocal contribution to the album), the strings, and Dennis’ gruff, slurred vocals, all combine to accentuate the slightly unusual parts of the song (like the chord changes that come partway through a bar) and turn it into a classic longing song of lost love.

(Note: Andrew Doe’s book states that this track dates back to 1976, but his website, updated more recently, places the sessions in 1978).

Love Surrounds Me
Songwriter:
Dennis Wilson and Geoffrey Cushing-Murray
Lead vocalist: Dennis Wilson

This track was originally recorded for Dennis’ abortive Bambu album, with various working titles as Dennis had not yet come up with a lyric for it. Once the band decided to pull together for LA (Light Album), a cassette of the backing track was given to Carl’s writing partner Cushing-Murray, who came up with the lyric and vocal melody, neither of which Dennis was reportedly very happy with.

Dennis continued to record overdubs for the track for a long time, discarding woodwind and banjo parts, before finally coming up with the released version, which is driven by Dennis’ electric piano and Mini-Moog and the bass playing of Joe Chemay (who played on a couple of tracks on this album and would be the Beach Boys’ touring bass player in 1980).

Despite the tortuous process by which it came about, Love Surrounds Me is one of the finest tracks on the album, as well as one of Dennis’ most conventionally structured. It starts out with a slow intro establishing the basic harmonic material (extended Am, Em and Dm chords), before going into two verses, each made up of three repetitions of the same basic eight-bar sequence. After the first verse, there is a brief bridge dominated by electric piano and wordless vocals, and at the end of the song there’s a repeated tag, but for once at this stage of his life Dennis was able to pull together a song into a proper structure.

Dennis also puts in one of his best vocal performances of his latter career here, really selling the song, but the real star of the track is Christine McVie of Fleetwood Mac, Dennis’ then-girlfriend, who provides the wordless high vocal right at the top of her range, in possibly her best ever performance as a vocalist.

The other Beach Boys make minimal backing vocal contributions, and a version without their vocals was released on the Pacific Ocean Blue Legacy Edition double CD.

Sumahama
Songwriter:
Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love

Oddly, while the Beach Boys were having difficulty pulling together their first album for CBS, Mike Love recorded two solo albums simultaneously — First Love and Country Love, both thankfully unreleased.

This song was originally recorded for First Love, before being rerecorded less than a month later as Mike’s sole creative contribution to the new album.

The song itself isn’t at all bad — it has the same play-in-a-day style and mellow melodic feel as Mike’s other solo compositions for the band — and Mike sounds excellent on the verses. Unfortunately, the decision to add in a third chord, effectively changing the key up a fourth, for the choruses, means that he sounds nasal and whiny on those. This, combined with the faux-Oriental Hollywood japonaiserie of the string arrangement, and the bizarre decision to sing the last verse in an approximation of Japanese, dooms the track to failure. But while it’s easily the worst track on side one, it’s not terrible, and is better than all but the best tracks on MIU.

Here Comes The Night
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

There is no excuse for this at all. Showing their usual flair for timing, the Beach Boys decided to make a cash-in disco track right at the time the “Disco Sucks” campaign was about to take off.

This, in itself, wouldn’t necessarily have been a bad thing, but they chose to work with Curt Becher, an old friend of Bruce’s. In the 1960s, Becher (then working as Curt Boettcher) had been one of the most outstanding and original sunshine pop producers around, but by the late 70s he was making terrible disco records, often of old calypso songs and often featuring Johnston, under the name California Music.

Anyone who’s heard those records can tell that this isn’t a Beach Boys record, but a California Music record with Carl Wilson on lead vocals. Apparently the bulk of the backing vocals were completed by non-Beach Boys, although Mike, Carl, Al and Bruce added a final layer (Dennis refused to have anything to do with this).

The seven inch version of the track, a remake of the Wild Honey song, wasn’t actually too bad, and had quite a few nice moments. It wasn’t good, but it was competent. Unfortunately the twelve-inch mix surrounded that competent four minutes thirty with an extra six minutes of “night, oh oh” sung through vocoders, “ooh”s, and tedium. Even more unfortunately, they decided to put an even longer mix than that on the album — this version lasts an astonishing ten minutes and fifty-one seconds.

This was released as a single and bombed horribly, and was soon dropped from the band’s set as the audience booed it regularly. Had they included the 7” version on the album it might now be something that was up for a revisionist, positive critical appraisal. As it is, it’s eleven minutes at the start of side two that kill all the momentum of the album stone dead.

Baby Blue
Songwriter:
Dennis Wilson, Gregg Jakobson and Karen Lamm
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson and Dennis Wilson

This, on the other hand, is spellbindingly beautiful. A love song to Dennis’ then-wife Karen, it was originally intended for Bambu, but fits perfectly on here.

The verse, on which Carl takes the lead, has a wonderfully clever little chord sequence — starting on the tonic (F#), the chord moves up to the third, but leaving the I note in the bass (making a ninth chord). But then the key changes down a tone, and this time the tonic of the new key has the third in the bass (creating a very unsettling effect), before the move up a third again, while leaving the bass where it is, resolves the tension.

That four-bar sequence is repeated three times, with Carl singing right at the top of his register, giving what may be his last truly magnificent vocal, aching with a beautiful longing over a harmony stack that sounds like just Carl and Dennis.

We then get a middle section, sung by Dennis at his huskiest, over a chord sequence that repeats the trick he used in Forever of keeping the chord steady while having the bass-line descend in tones. Not only is this good in itself, but the slightly baroque feel it gives this section helps tie the album together, unintentionally echoing back to the Bach references in Lady Lynda.

And then finally, we get a repeat of the verse material to fade, but this time with the addition of, out of nowhere, a dissonant squawk of horns (a wonderfully Dennis touch).

Much of LA is a triumph of style over substance — relatively weak material polished to perfection and wonderfully performed. Here we see the same sound applied to a genuinely great song, one that is both musically clever and emotionally heartfelt, and the results are staggering.

Goin’ South
Songwriter:
Carl Wilson and Geoffrey Cushing-Murray
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

Carl’s last song on the album is a less successful attempt to get the same kind of feel as Full Sail. There are some nice moments — “Snowdrifts blowing up against my door” is lovely — but the lounge sax and soporific tempo make this one of the less interesting tracks on the album.

Shortenin’ Bread
Songwriter:
trad. arr. Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson and Dennis Wilson

And the album finishes off with the only real rocker on the record, and it’s wonderful. Shortenin’ Bread has always been an obsession to Brian Wilson — he’s based several songs (mostly unreleased) around the riff — and he’d recorded two versions of the track earlier, one with American Spring and one for Adult/Child.

This rerecording of an arrangement very like the Adult/Child one is absolutely, ridiculously, wonderful. The song is beefed up into a rock arrangement with squealing guitars, Carl doing a throat-tearing intense lead, and Dennis singing the choruses as a doo-wop bass part, so low it sounds almost exactly like Mike Love.

It’s goofy, silly, and everything that the Beach Boys are about, and makes you glad to be alive.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Beach Boys On CD: LA (Light Album)

  1. Alan says:

    Thanks for another excellent Beach Boys post.I’ve always had a soft spot for this album which always tends to get overlooked in the band’s illustrious canon. One of my favourite BB stories is of Alice Cooper visiting Brian in this period+being made to sing ‘shortnin’ bread’for 3 hours before storming out in full rockstar makeup declaring ‘this guy’s too nuts for me!’ Looking forward to hearing your views on ‘Keepin’ the summer alive!’ Thanks again!

  2. TAD says:

    I hadn’t really thought about it before, but you’re right……LA Light is pasted together with various tracks from all kinds of different sessions. It’s amazing that the album turned out so well.

    Agreed about “Good Timin’.” It’s a case of a turd being polished really well. The backing vocals sound wonderful, but there’s really no song there. I think anybody could sing the lead vocal on that song too….there’s no melody to it or passion in it. But it sounds great.

    Also agreed about “Here Comes the Night.” I know Geoff likes the song, but I fall into your camp……the track just *kills* the album, which is pretty good up to that point, and pretty good afterward too.

    Have you seen the live clip of Dennis singing “Angel Come Home?” It’s cool seeing Dennis and Carl onstage next to each other. There’s a great moment around 1:50 when Dennis flashes a big smile at Carl. You’ve probably seen this before: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M_Ka4BpLzgk

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      “I think anybody could sing the lead vocal on that song too” — see the list in the post ;)
      Yeah, I’ve seen that clip. The really interesting one is Dennis singing Good Timin’ from the same show (because Carl was “too chickenshit”…)

      • TAD says:

        But when I say “anybody,” I mean anybody. All you have to do is sing in a medium/low voice on one note. You could pull literally anyone off the street and they could sing that lead.

  3. TAD says:

    Listening to “Baby Blue” right now…..I think you’re right about it being just Carl and Dennis in the backgrounds, except that I can hear Bruce very clearly on 1 or 2 lines in the backgrounds right at the very end.

  4. Days of Broken Arrows says:

    “Good Timing” would not have seemed a bad track had it played “We’ll Run Away” to another song’s “I Get Around.” But when a secondary ballad is the centerpiece of your album, you have problems with material. This LP, as suggested here, is very much a hit-or-miss affair.

    When it comes to interpolating that Bach piece, I look to Roy Wood and “Cherry Blossom Clinic Revisited,” not Al Jardine.

    But “Sumahama” surprised me in the sensitivity it showed to its subject matter. Mike’s story about a fatherless child attempting to play Cupid to a lonely (embittered?) parent was prescient — a lot of kids from broken homes would find themselves in this exact situation in the coming decades. Shame he didn’t have Al or Carl sing the chorus, where he definitely does sound nasal. But I think the melancholy Japanese motifs work for the song, despite sounding a bit pandering. A few years later, the Vapors would use a similar concept to lend emotional weight to one of their best numbers, “Letter From Hiro,” although it’s doubtful they were taking notes from Mike Love.

  5. Pingback: Rocknerd » Blog Archive » Links: The lows and highs of the history of disco.

Comments are closed.