The Beach Boys On CD: Looking Back With Love

OK, I suppose I have to get it over with…

I have tried, in these essays, to be as objective as I can. Yes, some of the reviews have been harsh, but I have tried wherever possible to find something positive to say. The Beach Boys put out some material that was subpar, but never usually less than interesting.

But Mike Love’s only released solo album (he recorded two in 1978 and one in 2004 that remain unreleased) is terrible. Despite the involvement of Curt Becher as producer, and of Brian Wilson on one track, this is easily the worst album ever to involve any of the Beach Boys, if not the worst album ever released.

And the problem is, by saying this I know it will encourage people to listen to it. Don’t.

There is a whole field of study designed to creating warnings to stop future archaeologists from investigating nuclear waste dumps. The problem is to come up with something that warns them off without inviting curiosity, and the more you protect something and warn people off, the more they want to see it. The message they attempt to communicate is [FOOTNOTE According to ]in part:

This place is not a place of honor…no highly esteemed deed is commemorated here… nothing valued is here.

What is here is dangerous and repulsive to us. This message is a warning about danger.

The idea is to warn off the curious. Some things are best left undisturbed.

The album was produced by Curt Becher, and the band backing most of the album was Scott Blair on drums, Michael Brady on bass, Jim Studer on keyboards and George Doering on guitar.

Looking Back With Love
Jim Studer, Craig Thomas, Dan Parker

Because his surname is Love, do you see?

The thesis of this song is that the 1960s were an age of contradictions, thus “It was the best of times, the worst of times/An age of reason with a rage for rhymes”. Unfortunately, that line is the best in the song, seriously, and it hits a low in the second verse with the line “Good vibrations/Assassinations”

As an exercise in nostalgia it fails horribly, partly because Dan Parker, the lyricist, has the same writing style as Love himself, cramming in as many lyrics to older, better songs as he can (“Soulful sounds from the motor city, California girls now are sure looking pretty/Two girls for every boy”), succeeding only in reminding you of the better records you could be listening to; but also because it seems to epitomise the saying “If you can remember the 60s, you weren’t there”. Lines like “mod rockers dancing in a Liverpool street” suggest that Parker definitely doesn’t remember the 60s.

Combine this with a synth-pop arrangement, faux-Beach Boys harmonies (featuring a guest vocal from Bruce Johnston) and Love at his most nasal, and what you have is unpleasant.

The album goes downhill from here.

On And On And On
Benny Andersson and Björn Ulvaeus

It makes a sort of sense for Mike to cover this track, since the original, by ABBA, had a backing vocal arrangement clearly influenced by that on Do It Again. That backing vocal is made the intro here, but the problem is the song itself.

While Andersson and Ulvaeus are not the pop geniuses their reputation these days suggests, they were capable of coming up with good songs. This isn’t one of them. The song sounds like an ELO cast-off, and not in a good way, and is hamstrung further by terrible lyrics like “He said, ‘I’m a minister, a big shot in the States’/I said, ‘I just can’t believe it, but I think it’s great/Brother can you tell me what is right and what is wrong?’/He said, ‘Keep on rocking baby, ’til the night is gone’”

Of course, Andersson and Ulvaeus can be forgiven for these lyrics, because they’re not native English speakers. Mike Love has no excuse for singing them.

The backing track is actually a relatively competent example of disco-influenced synth-pop, making the most of the song’s three-chord simplicity, but the combination of the terrible song, Mike’s nasal delivery, and the addition of a vocoder makes it an embarrassment.

Running Around The World
James Haymer and Blair Aaronson

Possibly the least unpleasant track on the album, this features co-composer Blair Aaronson on synthesiser, and other than the poor 80s production and nasal vocals would be an inoffensive enough track. For the most part it’s just based on a I-vi verse and a ii-V chorus, and the only point of interest is a backing vocal quote from This Whole World.

Over And Over
Robert James Byrd

This is just strange. Over And Over was originally recorded by the R&B singer Bobby Day (who wrote it under his real name), the writer of Little Bitty Pretty One, but was a number one hit in the US for the Dave Clark Five (whose version is roughly patterned on the old Little Richard song Money Honey) and is quite a catchy example of late-50s R&B.

For Mike to have done a straight cover of either version of the song would have made some kind of sense, especially given that the album seems very loosely themed around nostalgia for the late 50s and early 60s. It wouldn’t have made a lot of sense, because Day’s version, especially, has a very strong vocal performance and Love was at his most nasal at this time, but it could have been a competent, fun cover version.

Instead, it’s done as an ersatz-Carribean track– actually quite similar in production style to Blondie’s version of Tide Is High, which is presumably the influence here (although Becher had been producing similar-sounding records with California Music for years), which fits neither the song nor Love’s voice, and to make matters worse they introduce a totally unnecessary truck-driver’s key change up a semitone before the last verse.

Rockin’ The Man In The Boat
Jim Studer, Jim Arnold, Michael Brady

If you have ever, in your life, wanted to hear Mike Love singing in his most nasal voice, over a Status Quo style chugging boogie (but with a bridge in the style of Chicago) about watching through a telescope while a female friend masturbates (and close analysis of the lyrics suggests that she has forewarned him of this), then this is the song for you.

If, on the other hand, you are someone whose tastes have not been totally corrupted beyond all human decency, you will stop the track as quickly as possible, and spend the rest of the week showering in the hope that you can someday feel clean again.

The lowpoint (in a track that is already the lowest point in an album made up of lowpoints) comes when Mike once again feels the compulsion to reference an old song lyric — “You know I’d love to lend a helping hand, you’re such a good singer let me join in your band…She don’t need it, got a good vibration”.

This is quite possibly the most monumentally misjudged recording of all time.

Calendar Girl
Neil Sedaka and Howard Greenfield

The worst’s over now. Mike Love has punished us, has shown us what horrors he is capable of committing, and now we can relax slightly.

Not that this is good — Calendar Girl is a terrible song — but this is actually better than the version of the song the Beach Boys had recorded (and left unreleased) during the LA sessions. The track’s got some energy to it, it suits Love’s voice, and the sax solo is quite nice.

It’s possible Stockholm Syndrome is sinking in, but this sounds like a relief after the last track. But then, anything would.

Be My Baby
Jeff Barry, Ellie Greenwich and Phil Spector

This track dates from earlier sessions, and features Brian Wilson on keyboards and inaudible backing vocals. Were it not for the layers of 80s synth overdubs, this could have fit on 15 Big Ones, but would have been one of the less successful covers on there. It has none of the dynamics, passion, or majesty of the original, just Mike Love singing lines like “you know I will adore you til eternity”, which should be a howl of emotion wrenched from the gut, with about as much passion as the shipping forecast.

One Good Reason
Jim Studer and Michael Brady

This is merely tedious, a vaguely doo-wop flavoured 6/8 ballad that doesn’t even rise to the level of truly bad. The second half of the album is definitely better than the first (if better is the right word…less awful, certainly), but it still only rises to the level of “bad”, and the cumulative effect of the album is much, much worse than any individual song.

Teach Me Tonight
Sammy Cahn and Gene DePaul

Teach Me Tonight is a standard, recorded by, amongst many others, Nat King Cole, Count Basie, Earl Grant, and some performers who didn’t have any noble titles in their name at all. It’s one of the songs that people talk about when they talk about the “great American songbook”, though it also fits one of the recurring themes of this album in that it has a metaphor overextended to the point of absurdity.

The track here is in the same late-70s soft-pop style as LA (Light Album) , but with the addition of a Stevie Wonder style harmonica part (played by Tommy Morgan, who played on many of the Beach Boys’ 60s recordings).

Love’s singing is much better here, but the production style still handicaps the track and… it’s only a personal reaction, and others may differ, but for me Mike Love attempting to be coquettishly seductive starts me shuddering and sends me back to that shower again.

Paradise Found
Mike Love and Jim Studer

Mike Love’s only songwriting contribution on the album is to this, the (thankfully) last song, a duet with Joannie Sommers. Another track that sounds very like Chicago, this one once again falls victim to Love’s compulsion to cram the titles of Beach Boys songs into everything, meaning the main chorus line is “let’s go away for a while”, once again reminding us of something we could be listening to instead of this.

Overall, when listening to any individual track on this album (except Rockin’ The Man In The Boat), it can feel like my introduction was too harsh — one can find tracks throughout the Beach Boys’ career that are worse than any individual song here (except Rockin’ The Man In The Boat). It’s the cumulative effect of the album — the sheer deadening joylessness, the crassness, and, perhaps worst of all, the impression that at least some of those involved actually thought they were doing something of artistic value.

There are moments here that, in isolation, could almost qualify as competent. But they’re few and far between, and overall one is left feeling slightly soiled for having listened to this. But I feel even worse for having written this review — it’s like kicking a puppy. The makers of this album were clearly trying to do something worthwhile, something that would make people happy, and to do it to the best of their ability. To attack them for that seems cruel, but so would letting anyone listen to this album without adequate warning.

In a way, this is one of the most successful works of art that I’ve ever come across, in that it helps me understand myself better — my first instinct, when writing this piece, is to go all-out with vicious, hyperbolic, mockery. Believe it or not, I toned a lot of that down before publication. But I revelled in the cruelty — this album had hurt me with its awfulness, now I was going to hurt its creators. This album showed me a side of myself I’d rather not have seen, and in that way it might be a much more effective work of art than many better albums.

But that doesn’t mean it’s actually any good.

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10 Responses to The Beach Boys On CD: Looking Back With Love

  1. Andrew Hickey says:

    And I’ve just been reminded that this one actually never came out on CD… I could have sworn there was a Japan-only CD release, but apparently not…

  2. Larry says:

    Brilliant, Andrew, brilliant!! You rose to the occasion, and resisted the urge to slap Mike around (verbally). I have to think now, if I’ve ever had a similar experience. Well…the MIU Album…

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Thanks — but Looking Back With Love is to MIU as MIU is to Pet Sounds…

  3. Holly says:

    In a way, this is one of the most successful works of art that I’ve ever come across, in that it helps me understand myself better

    I still love this bit. I’m glad you wrote it.

  4. Days of Broken Arrows says:

    Judging from your review and the track I’ve linked below, it was apparently a legal requirement for Mike Love to reference old Beach Boys tracks when performing any new song beyond around 1977. I remember reading a review of the Ramones’ “Pleasant Dreams” that said the band’s self-references were a sign of artistic stagnation and the desire to reach back to past glories. That might or might not have been true for them, but it is for Love.

    Here is Mike’s side band, Celebration doing “Almost Summer,” which mentions… “Little Deuce Coupe.” I loved the song as a kid, but really. He somehow convinced Brian to accompany him on bass here:

    I bought the soundtrack LP with this song for a dollar many years back. I just played it the other day. It hasn’t gotten much better.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      To be fair to Love, he didn’t so much ‘convince Brian’ to accompany him, as the song was Brian’s idea in the first place. The demos floating around suggest that Brian came up with the first verse and the chorus, and Mike and Al wrote the rest of the lyrics.

  5. TAD says:

    Did this version of Be My Baby start life as a Beach Boys recording?

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      It was from a set of sessions Brian and Mike did together in July 1980, at Mike’s home studio. They recorded a handful of songs, mostly Spector covers. I don’t know what the intention was for them, but no other Beach Boys were involved.

      • TAD says:

        Brian’s keys definitely give it a 15 Big Ones feel (as you said).

        • TAD says:

          I’ve listened to a few tracks on YouTube as I’ve read this review. The songs are well-produced I suppose…..way better-sounding than Summer in Paradise, for example. But it’s weird that a Beach Boy would record a solo album that sounds like Beach Boys pastiche. It’s like he’s pretending to be himself, which is just weird.

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