The Beach Boys On CD: Carl Wilson

In 1981, the Beach Boys were a shambles. They’d just put out a terrible album, Dennis Wilson was spiraling down into the self-destructive spiral that would soon lead to his death, Brian Wilson was ballooning in weight, and the band were putting on poor shows, joylessly grinding out the hits yet again.

So it was unsurprising that when Carl Wilson’s eponymous solo album, recorded the previous December, was released, he announced that he wouldn’t be touring and recording with them, “until they decide 1981 means as much to them as 1961”, in a press release that also stated that there had “hardly been a full Beach Boys rehearsal in more than a year” and that he didn’t want to play “multi-night engagements in Lake Tahoe and Las Vegas and places like that”.

What was surprising, however, was the album. Where Dennis’ solo recordings had shown the untapped potential in an overlooked talent, Carl’s showed the opposite. While the vocal performances are never less than excellent, the music is dull, plodding AOR, the type of thing that might easily have been recorded by Bryan Adams or Huey Lewis.

Carl’s main collaborator on the album was Myrna Smith (later Myrna Smith-Schilling), the partner of the band’s manager Jerry Schilling. She was a great singer (she was a member of the Sweet Inspirations, who as well as their own hits also sang back-up for Aretha Franklin and Elvis Presley, and performed on Van Morrison’s Brown-Eyed Girl) and carried her weight as a backing vocalist, but seemed not to bring out the best in Carl.

The album was recorded by a very small core band — Wilson and Smith, along with John Daly on guitar, James Guercio on bass and guitar, James Stroud on drums, with additional musicians limited for the most part to the odd tambourine or saxophone overdub — and produced by James Guercio. It only charted in the US at number 175, for the very good reason that it wasn’t actually any good. It’s not as bad as MIU or Keepin’ The Summer Alive, but it’s not something that has any reason to exist, either.

(All songs are written by Carl Wilson and Myrna Smith, except where noted).

Hold Me

The album’s first single was this plodding rocker, a duet between Wilson and Smith. There is next to nothing interesting to say about it. The production is straightforwardly dull, with a clomping drum part dominated by hi-hat and cowbell, and a strangely swimmy guitar sound. And the song itself is as basic as it’s possible to get — a dull I-V riff for the verse (sung by Wilson), a brief bridge sung by Smith (chord sequence vi-I-vi-V), then a chorus sung by both, over the same dull riff as the verse. Repeat. That’s it.

There’s not even a middle eight or a solo to break the monotony, just a near-endless repetition of the chorus (actually lasting only eighty-five seconds, but feeling like much more). Tedious in the extreme.

Nice vocals though.

Bright Lights

With its semi-disco beat under standard doo-wop changes for the verse, this beats the previous track in that the chorus is made of different musical material than the verse is. In fact there’s even a key change between the verse and the chorus, though only a change to the subdominant, about as banal a change as it gets.

But we don’t need Carl Wilson singing in an over-reverbed voice over a synth bass “Take a number in my black book/And promise to call”.

And again there’s a stunning lack of craft here — the structure is just verse-chorus-verse-chorus-verse-verse-repeat chorus to fade. Nothing at all to disrupt the monotony.

Nice vocals though.

What You Gonna Do About Me?

This track seems to be recorded to the same click track as the last one. There does seem, however, to have been some actual thought put into the track. There’s a verse, a bridge, and a key change into the chorus (and it’s a key change down a tone, which is more interesting). There’s even a rudimentary instrumental break, some changes in the dynamics, and an overdub of what sounds like a jew’s harp on the chorus to make it stand out.

However, to make sure that nobody accidentally gets a feeling stronger than a mild sense of ennui from the album, the last two minutes and nine seconds of the track’s four minute twenty-nine running time are (apart from a quick drop down to just the drums) a repeat of the chorus musical material, over and over, with no new ideas. And the lyrics are the worst so far, being the whinging of a Nice Guy complaining he’s in the “friend zone” (“I’m the one you keep on running to after they’ve walked all over you/I’m the one who dries your lonely tears, so what you gonna do about me?”)

Nice vocals though.

The Right Lane

Another song at approximately the same tempo, but this one’s definitely the ‘rock’ one, because the guitars are crunchier and the drums are being hit harder.

This is another one with a straight A-B-A-B structure, this time alternating between a two-chord (charitably — the two chords are E7 and E7sus4) verse and a four-chord bridge. Once again we have the last two minutes and forty-four seconds of the song being an extended repetition of the two-chord riff.

This song’s distinguishing feature (all the songs so far seem to have precisely one) is that it has an actual solo, quite early in the track. There’s even an amusing little ‘pew’ noise repeated during the solo and fade.

What’s most ridiculous is that the lyrics to this song are all about breaking the mould, doing something different, breaking away, and yet this is the fourth song in a row to be, to all intents and purposes, interchangeable.

Nice vocals, though.

Hurry Love

Old habits die hard. In the 60s, the Beach Boys’ albums had, on occasion, been sequenced into an uptempo side A and a slower side B, a legacy of the early rock era when there would be a side ‘for the kids’ and a side ‘for the grown-ups’. Whether deliberately or not, Wilson emulates that on this album, so while side one had four rockers, three of the four tracks on this side are ballads.

Immediately the album starts feeling slightly better, because for a ballad you have to have an actual song, and just not having the same bludgeoning drums and crunchy guitars makes this song seem like a relief. This one even has a middle eight.

The track is, overall, quite pleasant. Nothing special, but Carl Wilson singing even a mediocre song, over a backing of acoustic guitars and hand percussion, is always going to be at least listenable. This is up to the standards of such Beach Boys filler tracks as Sweet Sunday Kind Of Love or Full Sail, and was the B-side to both singles from the album.

Nice vocals.

Heaven

Songwriters: Carl Wilson, Myrna Smith, Michael Sun

The second single from the album was this ballad, the only song to involve a songwriter other than Wilson and Smith. On this evidence they should have had Michael Sun work with them more.

That’s not to say this song is as good as its reputation — since Carl Wilson’s untimely death in 1998, this song has, at least among Beach Boys fans, taken on something like the status of Forever and God Only Knows, but it’s very inferior to those songs. But it is a good song — something that has been lacking up until this point.

In fact it seems far more like a Beach Boys track than a solo track, right down to the lyrics about “The gentle waves of love in motion, and the warmth of summer sun”, and this gives Carl the chance to show that he could be a whole Beach Boys by himself, performing some absolutely lovely multitracked harmony parts, and singing what may be the highest falsetto part he ever sang on the line “Heaven could be here on Earth” — so high he’s clearly straining for the notes.

As a single, this flopped, but it was performed off and on in Beach Boys shows for several years later, and Brian Wilson recorded a solo version in 2007.

Very nice vocals.

The Grammy

This is probably the best of the uptempo songs, mostly because of the dropped beats in the chorus, but also because it bothers to have a middle eight (and the high vocals on the middle eight are by far the most interesting thing on any of the rockers here, sounding almost like Queen or Sparks).

But it’s a petulant whine of a song. Apparently inspired by Billy Joel, it casts Wilson as a rock star snubbing the Grammy awards (“You invite me to pick up my award, after all the time I’ve been out here/My music is still the same, why is it just now getting there?”) and being more interested in art than awards, while the multitracked Greek chorus backing vocals sing “We thought you wanted to be a star?/Who the hell do you think you are?”

Of course, this principled renunciation of the Grammies and all that they stand for would have had nothing to do with the fact that the Beach Boys themselves had never actually won a Grammy award.

(For the record, when the Nobel committee come calling about giving me the prize for literature for this book, I shall definitely turn it down.)

Nice vocals, though.

Seems So Long Ago

And we get another ballad, and so another actual song. Unfortunately it’s a banal, plodding song, with a hugely overextended lounge sax solo (not that there’s such a thing as a lounge sax solo that doesn’t outstay its welcome, but if there was, this wouldn’t be it). The lyrics are doggerel that wouldn’t even measure up for a Hallmark card (“I can see Mom and Dad and the house we had/The trees in the yard and how Dad worked so hard/The good times we shared and how much they cared”) and once again a hugely overextended fade nearly doubles the length of the song.

So at the end of the album (while it only has eight songs, it’s actually a respectable length — it’s just all the songs are at least two minutes too long), the feeling one gets after listening is… “well, that was certainly a recording of some musicians playing some songs.” That’s about as much of a strong opinion as it’s possible to muster about this album.

Nice vocals, though.

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9 Responses to The Beach Boys On CD: Carl Wilson

  1. Richard says:

    Someone needs to take Spotify aside and explain to them that “finding stuff” is kind of important to this whole Internet thing, and that doing a half-assed job of that crucial function is really not good for anyone concerned. Which is to say, I don’t expect Spotify to have Carl Wilson’s solo album available…but when I go searching there for Carl Wilson solo tracks on the off chance, they should not show me his picture and bio alongside the albums of Carl T. Wilson, the kilt-wearing artist responsible for “50 Scottish Singalong Favourites.” (And James Cagney under “Related Artists”…?)

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yeah, their search function is not the best.
      Don’t worry, you’re not missing out on much, in this case…

  2. John Simpson says:

    cant really add to that Andrew. Spot on appraisal. Long Promised Rd, Steamboat, The Trader and Feel Flows showed so much songwriting promise didn’t they, but I’m afrai dbanal is the correct word to use of this bunch of songs. I know it’s jumping ahead but I think Youngblood was even worse. His voice deserved so much more. Personally I would have loved to have heard him sing the vocals for all of Brian’s solo stuff.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I think Youngblood is — very slightly — better, mostly because he uses some outside songwriters and adds some cover versions, but it’s still appallingly weak.
      As for him singing Brian’s solo stuff… I don’t know. One of the things about Carl is that if he cared he was the best singer you could imagine, but when he didn’t he could turn in appallingly lazy, sloppy performances, just coasting on his voice. Other than Soul Searching, Where I Belong, and the odd live performance, I don’t think he really did anything much worthwhile vocally after he rejoined the band.
      And the problem is, given the patchiness of Brian’s solo material — and also given Carl’s fairly poor musical judgement in his later years — would we have the Carl who sang God Only Knows or Good Vibrations, or the Carl who did a bad Boy George impression and effectively slept through Passing Friend? I’m guessing the latter.
      (Al, on the other hand, has never turned in a lazy studio performance in his life. Get Carl to sing the songs he really likes and get Al to sing the rest, and then you’ve got something…)

      • TAD says:

        I remember you once said that you doubted that Al can tell the difference between a great song and a piece of garbage. That it’s all the same to him.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Yeah. I’ve slightly revised that over the last year or so, since I found out that Al was pushing for last year’s tour to include Honkin’ Down The Highway, Our Prayer and Surf’s Up, but he certainly *sings* them all the same way.

  3. I tried really hard to like this one back in the day, much the same as I did with Dave Davies’ solo albums in the 80s. Sadly, such attempts were doomed to failure …

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Yeah, when I first got hold of Carl’s solo albums I listened to them over and over, trying to convince myself they had any worth whatsoever.

  4. TAD says:

    I listened to this album once or twice a long time ago, but it never did anything for me. It’s not bad, it’s just boring. Like you said, the album doesn’t really have a reason to exist.

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