The Beach Boys On CD: Keepin’ The Summer Alive

After the commercial and critical failure of LA (Light Album), CBS insisted that the next Beach Boys album have a reasonable amount of actual Brian Wilson involvement. Unfortunately, Brian Wilson wasn’t in any state to do anything much. The group went into the studio with Chuck Britz, the engineer who had worked with Brian on much of their best 60s output, but all they cut were four uninspiring covers of oldies — School Day (Ring Ring Goes The Bell), Little Girl, Jamaica Farewell and Stranded In The Jungle — before it became clear that he wasn’t going to be capable of producing an album.

Instead, the band turned again to Bruce Johnston as producer, and managed to get enough new Brian Wilson songs together to make the album look like a respectable effort — until you play it.

This is, by far, the worst Beach Boys album up to that point. While Dennis Wilson is pictured on the album cover (a cover which itself tells the whole story — a bad painting of the aging band performing in a sealed glass bubble full of sand and palm trees, in the middle of a polar winter, watched only by a penguin, two polar bears, and a woman in a bikini) he refused to be involved with what he thought was a substandard selection of songs (though he was also suspended from the band around this time after a fight with Mike Love), and can only be heard on one track.

The songs are uninspired, the vocals hoarse and off-key, the instrumental arrangements bludgeoning… the actual sound of the record is good, thanks to the temporary return of engineer Steve Desper, but good engineering can’t save terrible songs, performances and arrangements.

The first Beach Boys album of the 1980s would also be the last to be even nominally by the band’s classic line-up, and it’s a sad way for them to go out.

line-up
Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston

Keepin’ The Summer Alive
Songwriter:
Carl Wilson and Randy Bachman
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

The album doesn’t start too unpromisingly. The first twenty seconds of this are actually quite promising — Mike Love doing a wonderfully goofy reprise of his Louie Louie bass vocals — before the squealing rawk guitars come in.

This is one of two songs on the album written and co-produced by Carl Wilson with Randy Bachman (of The Guess Who and Bachman-Turner Overdrive), and it shows his new fascination with crunchy, guitar-driven AOR, a style that would unfortunately blight all the rest of his songs.

The song itself seems to have been written as a joke — the three-chord verse/chorus chord sequence is in fact the Louie Louie sequence played backwards — and the parts where it’s allowed to be a goofy, fun track are OK. But too much of it involves guitar sounds that wouldn’t be out of place on a Huey Lewis And The News album, played by Joe Walsh of the Eagles.

Oh Darlin’
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson and Mike Love

This terrible, plodding ballad started out as listenable, if not great — there’s a version of this on bootlegs that has a very stripped-down instrumental arrangement, and one of Brian’s very best late-period vocals, and it doesn’t sound half-bad. Had it been left like that, it would have been one of those little nice tracks that everyone forgets about but, when reminded of them, likes.

Instead, several big mistakes were made. Firstly, and least importantly, the lyrics were rewritten to make them even worse — and they weren’t good to start with. Secondly, the instrumental arrangement was overlaid with tons of unnecessary instruments, including a strange horn arrangement that sounds like something between an accordion and a swarm of angry bees. Brian’s pleasant, if hoarse, guide vocal was replaced by a lazy, almost contemptuous, vocal from Carl, a nasal middle eight from Mike, and a strange, unpleasant, backing vocal arrangement.

But worst of all, they made the same mistake they made on seemingly every track in this period — on the tag, Bruce starts singing “God only knows/how I love only you”, which just reminds the listener that they could be listening to a much, much better song.

Some Of Your Love
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love

Easily the best uptempo song on the album, this saxophone-driven uptempo riff-rocker was originally recorded during the MIU Album sessions under the title Mike Come Back To LA, and appears from the video footage of those sessions to have been a largely spur-of-the-moment exercise.

The energy from that session still shines through in the backing track, which is based around two very simple two-chord riffs (I-vi for the verses and V-IV for the choruses), and as long as the track is just a honking sax overdub, that backing track, and the band singing “some, some, some of your love” over and over, it’s a lot of fun.

The mood dissipates somewhat on the verses, where Mike takes a nasal lead, singing lines like “She’s got my vote for number one in the class/I couldn’t help but try to make a forward pass”, but the biggest misstep is in the bridge, where again they reference a much better old song, this time having Carl sing “kiss me baby, hold me tight tonight”.

But it’s fun enough, it’s lightweight and it knows it, but it would have made a perfectly acceptable follow-up single for Celebration after Almost Summer.

Livin’ With A Heartache
Songwriter:
Carl Wilson and Randy Bachman
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

The second Wilson/Bachman collaboration is much, much better than the first. A simple country song, it’s structured around a long, twenty-two-bar chorus (which itself breaks down into an eight-bar, two-chord pseudo-verse in an almost ska rhythm, an eight-bar, three-chord bridge, a two-bar breakdown, and a four-bar repeat of the pseudo-verse) and an eight-bar verse based around a variation of the bridge chords taken at a slower pace.

Unfortunately, less effort seems to have gone into the lyrics, so this country-ska, strange-number-of-bars song is lumbered with lyrics that must have taken literally seconds to write, lines like “after all this time, I still wish you were mine, I miss you every day, come back to me and stay”.

Those lyrics should sink the track altogether, but luckily Carl gives his best vocal performance of the album here. According to Steve Desper, when recording the lead vocal Carl was so drunk that he had to lean against a barn wall while singing. It worked, and his vocal holds the track together and carries real conviction.

This track apparently features no Beach Boys other than Carl Wilson, with the backing vocals provided by Curt Becher, Terry Melcher and Jon Joyce. I say apparently because while Becher in particular is clearly audible in the vocal stack, one of the vocalists sounds very like Bruce Johnston.

This was released as the second single from the album, and didn’t chart.

Four songs in and we’ve finally had one that doesn’t rely on references to older, better songs. Possibly the album is going to get better from here on in?

School Day (Ring Ring Goes The Bell)
Songwriter:
Chuck Berry
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine

Chuck Berry covers had been good to the band before, so why not try it again?

And this is, if nothing else, far better than the cover of Rock & Roll Music that had been the band’s biggest hit of the 70s. While the a capella intro does the band no favours, by exposing just how weak their voices now were, Al gives a typically strong, exuberant performance on lead vocals, although the 50s style reverb added to them doesn’t work all that well.

The arrangement is perfunctory, and it fades out early rather than coming to a proper climax, but this is a good enough song that just by playing it straight and not messing anything up too much, it becomes one of the better tracks on the album.

Goin’ On
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love and Carl Wilson

The lead single from the album, and the first track of side two, is this plodding doo-wop flavoured track. The track was originally titled Why Didn’t I Tell You and featured an incongruous drum solo, before being edited together into its present form.

It just…doesn’t quite work. Nothing on the track is irredeemable (well, maybe the lounge sax solo), there are a lot of interesting musical ideas (the opening, with the band’s harmonies spreading out wider and wider, is something they’d first tried with the unreleased All Dressed Up For School ), and it’s easily Love’s best lyric of the album, but the general feeling is of a poor man’s Good Timin’ (and that track is itself nowhere near as good as its reputation). And again, the track just fades without coming to any resolution.

Sunshine
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: group/Mike

This track started out as a Brian-produced cover version of the Crystals’ Little Boy, retitled Little Girl, before someone had the bright idea that they could take the backing track, edit it a bit, put new lyrics on it, and call it a new original from Brian and Mike.

The result is a mess, consisting of the Little Girl track, reworked as a bad calypso track in the style of some of Curt Becher’s California Music singles, with a backing vocal line taken from the old doo-wop song Smokey Places by the Corsairs, and with the caterwauling excuses for harmonies that ruin much of the album.

This is not only joyless itself, it points the way to the band’s future attempts at Carribean-style music, none of which ended well at all.

When Girls Get Together
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love and Brian Wilson

Even when digging into their back catalogue, the band can’t seem to get it right with this album. This track was originally recorded during the sessions for Sunflower, and has that album’s sound all over it, from the marxophone (a type of zither) in the top of the arrangement to the banjo and horns underneath.

But the vocal melody doesn’t fit the scansion of the lyrics at all, and the lyrics themselves have more of the stamp of Brian in eccentric mode than of Mike — “When girls get together, they don’t waste time on things like weather and stuff/They all just play around and never seem to discuss it enough”. The vocal arrangement is also odd, just Brian and Mike singing in near-unison, and the whole thing feels like an interesting experiment that doesn’t quite come off.

It’s better than much of the dreck on the album, but given the vast quantities of wonderful music the band had recorded and not yet released, how this got chosen to be pulled from the vaults is a mystery.

Santa Ana Winds
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson and Al Jardine
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine with the group

This is another track that has a curious gestation, having started out in a very different arrangement during the LA (Light Album) sessions, with totally different lyrics (“On my porch/thinkin’ about the torch/I been carrying for you so long).

All of that track was stripped away except for Brian’s chorus vocals and harmonica part, and it was rebuilt as a rather lovely, folky little track carried by acoustic guitars, banjo, strings and Al’s multitracked vocals.

This has a lot of the flavour of California Saga about it, from the spoken intro to the acoustic guitars and the slightly mystical lyrics about California. In fact it was planned originally as part of another themed trilogy, along with Looking Down The Coast and Monterey. The latter two songs were eventually resurrected, under just the first name, on Al’s 2010 solo album A Postcard From California.

While the rest of the album ranges from horribly poor to merely competent, this is the only track which is an actual pleasure to listen to.

Endless Harmony
Songwriter:
Bruce Johnston
Lead vocalist: Bruce Johnston and Carl Wilson

This, on the other hand, is just horrible. Bruce’s first songwriting contribution to the band since Disney Girls actually dates back to 1972, when it was titled Ten Years’ Harmony. It’s the first, and one of the worst, example of the band self-mythologising, as Bruce sings about just how great the Beach Boys are.

It starts out bad, with Bruce on electric piano singing solo, much like his Going Public album, and all the augmented, ninth and minor sixth chords just make this sound like the worst kind of lounge singer nonsense. And the lyrics are just terrible — “Ocean lovers, who like to harmonise/they’re all brothers, friends and cousins, and they make their mamas cry…”

Then at 2:15 the drums kick in (Dennis’ only appearance on the album) and Carl starts to sing, and the lyrics get even worse — “and we sang God Bless America/It’s the land where we tour/She takes great care of us/And people love the way we sing…”

This kind of self-congratulatory nonsense would be bad enough were it on an album that showed any sign at all of being the work of people who deserved congratulation, but after thirty-five minutes of lazy, incompetent, badly-sung dreck that leaves one with no goodwill towards the band at all, it’s frankly nauseating.

And then it ends with twenty seconds of utterly gorgeous harmony, topped with a pure, lovely falsetto from Bruce. It’s lovely, but if anything it adds insult to injury. In the context of just this song, it’s “look what we can do!”

In the context of the album, however, it’s “look what we could have done if we’d tried.” The singing on this album as a whole is inexcusably bad, and to be shown twenty seconds before the end that they could have done better if they’d tried just makes it all the worse.

This song was used as the theme tune for the 1999 TV documentary of the same name about the band.

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8 Responses to The Beach Boys On CD: Keepin’ The Summer Alive

  1. Larry Sojka says:

    Andrew, you are a damned brave soul to listen to these later Beach Boys albums (again, I reckon) in order to provide your wonderful, professional reviews. God, this is a bad album – can’t wait to read about “Summer in Paradise”…you’d better have a glass of sherry at hand…

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Heh. Sadly, I don’t drink.
      Summer In Paradise will wait a while — I’m finishing book two over the next few days, with Carl and Mike’s solo albums (and if you think SIP is bad, Looking Back With Love is much, much worse), then I’m going to take a few months’ break from the Beach Boys posts before book three, which will cover 85, Still Cruisin’, Summer In Paradise, Brian and Al’s solo albums, the important compilations, and the albums from last year and this year. That’s going to be the really hard book to write, although Brian’s albums will be bright spots.

      • Larry Sojka says:

        Jesus – a truly brave soul you are. It’s better that you don’t drink anyway. I saw SIP in the bins when it was released – the beautiful front cover caught my eye, “new Beach Boys music” thought I, but when I turned over the CD and saw the songwriting credits…I held on to my money. I still harbor a wish that you will overturn your stated intention not to write a book reviewing the works of George Harrison, as there is almost nothing of consequence currently in print that comprises a serious analysis of his solo albums and post-Beatles collaborations. Then again, it’s not like you have gaps in your schedule. THANK YOU for all of your wonderful writing – I look forward to the Carl and Mike reviews, no matter how sad they may turn out to be.

  2. TAD says:

    “Some of Your Love” sounds to me like Mike wrote it himself. He’s always dragging in references to old songs on the stuff he writes himself.

    I’ve never owned this album, although I’ve heard all the songs on it. Agreed about “When Girls Get Together”…….it’s an interesting experiment in terms of the vocals and arrangement. It’s not great by any means, but it’s worth listening to. Which sets it apart from most of the rest of the album. “Endless Harmony” might be my least favorite Beach Boys song. I hate it. Rather than sound like a heartfelt tribute, it manages to creep me out.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Brian definitely came up with the basic track for Some Of Your Love — there’s video of him putting it together during the MIU sessions.

      Endless Harmony is just horrible, but I wouldn’t say it’s my least favourite. Not when stuff like Summer Of Love exists.

      • TAD says:

        “Summer of Love” is awful in a different kind of way. It’s supposed to be fun (and funny), but it’s neither, and ends up being irritating. “Endless Harmony” makes me want to throw up though, and I feel sorry for Carl that he had to sing on it. I’m sure he hated singing the song, but he was too nice of a guy to say otherwise. Both songs are awful in their own ways though, I agree.

  3. Days of Broken Arrows says:

    This record sounds like a different album on vinyl. The CD, or at least the one I have, sounds like they sanded off all the high and lows and punched the midrange to the max.

    Back in the vinyl days I hated side one, but liked side two. I still play side two. It’s not brilliant, but “Goin’ On” has some excellent vocal interplay and one of Brian’s better late-Beach Boys melodies once you get past the gloss of the production. As for “When Girls Get Together,” I remember once when it came up on a cassette in my car stereo my then-girlfriend saying she thought it was the worst piece of music she’d ever heard anyone make ever. Golden teenage memories!

    Speaking of being a teenager, back when I bought this LP I found the opening line of “Some of You Love” so incredibly idiotic I vowed never to listen to the song again and thus stopped playing that side. I still think the Randy Bachmann collaborations sound forced. But I now consider “Oh Darling” an overlooked Wilson gem that got destroyed because they apparently invited the local high school marching band to play on the intro. Carl’s voice is always welcome in these parts, no matter if it’s surrounded by out-of-tune French horns.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Interesting. I’ve never heard the album on vinyl, only on cassette, CD and MP3, so it’s certainly possible that something in the mastering is different enough to pick a couple of the tracks up a notch or two…

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