The Beach Boys On CD: The Beach Boys (’85)

1985 saw the Beach Boys making their first album in five years, but the band making it was very different from the one that had recorded Keepin’ the Summer Alive. In the intervening years, both Brian and Dennis Wilson had hit lower points in their mental and physical health than either had hit before. Brian’s life had been saved by the band getting psychiatrist Dr Eugene Landy back in to get him off street drugs and start him on a programme of exercise and healthy eating that saw him become physically healthier than he had been in decades.

Sadly, however, by 1985 Landy had already started his well-documented abuses of Wilson, which would within a few years lead to Landy having his license to practice removed, and he was insisting on getting songwriting credit for Wilson’s new songs. Landy’s credits, along with credits for his girlfriend Alexandra Morgan, have apparently since been removed from the songs (though they were still credited for some on the most recent CD issue), and in these essays songs for which Landy was originally credited will be marked with an asterisk, while songs for which both Landy and Morgan were credited will be marked with a †, but the assumption throughout will be that neither made any substantial contribution.

Dennis Wilson was not even as lucky as Brian. Reeling from a succession of personal problems, including the break-up of his sixth marriage (to Shawn Love, a teenager who claimed to be Mike’s illegitimate daughter — a claim which he denies), Dennis turned increasingly to alcohol, and on December 28, 1983, he went diving after drinking a large amount of vodka, and never came back up. He was thirty-nine.

The tragic loss of Dennis seems to have spurred the rest of the band into one of their increasingly rare acknowledgements that the world had moved on since 1965 (though they had already been making plans for a new album before his death), and by June 1984 they were in the studio again, this time to record an album with the first outside producer to take sole charge of a Beach Boys album in more than twenty years.

Steve Levine had been a protégé of Bruce Johnston in the late 70s, and considered that he largely owed his career to Johnston’s encouragement, but by 1984 he was briefly one of the hottest producers in the world, thanks to his production of Culture Club’s massively successful albums Kissing to be Clever and Colour by Numbers. He, along with arranger Julian Lindsay, helped the band create a truly up-to-the-moment sounding album, with the bulk of the instruments (and, according to some, a fair chunk of the backing vocals) created using Fairlight sequencers.

The results sound incredibly dated now, as precisely of their moment as the back-cover photo (in which the band look like five Republican Senators heading for a casual team-building exercise at the golf course), and much of the material seemed sub-par even at the time — Brian Wilson was writing again, but nothing he came up with here would threaten the claims of “God Only Knows” or “Good Vibrations” to be his most important work — but the album gave the band their biggest hit with new original material since “Do It Again”, with Love and Terry Melcher’s “Getcha Back”, and proved that even without Dennis, the Beach Boys could continue making music in the 1980s.

line-up

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

Getcha Back
Songwriters: Mike Love and Terry Melcher
Lead vocalist: Mike Love with Brian Wilson

The album starts with this Frankenstein’s monster of a track, which sounds like it has been bolted together in the most cynical manner possible to produce a perfect facsimile of what people in the 1980s thought a “Beach Boys record” should sound like.

Thus we start with an 80s “sonic power” update of the drum sound from “Do It Again”, and then get a backing track reminiscent of “Don’t Worry Baby”, before Love’s vocal comes in. The basic shape of the melody line is taken from Bruce Springsteen’s “Hungry Heart”, his own hit attempt to replicate the Beach Boys’ formula, while the chorus hook is taken from Billy Joel’s contemporary Four Seasons pastiche “Uptown Girl”, but over the rising progression that made up the chorus to “Sail On Sailor”. Then add in lyrics about trying to recapture the lost glories of a bygone adolescence, and you’ve got the perfect focus-group-approved Beach Boys track.

Everything is processed to hell — they’ve managed to get one half-decent take of Brian Wilson singing a few bars of wordless falsetto and used that same recording over and over — but somehow it works.

Partly this is because of Love’s vocal, which is nasal to the point of self-parody, but precisely because of that works in a way that most of his recent vocals at that point hadn’t. (Love himself dislikes his vocal on this, and on recent tours has often had either David Marks or Love’s son Christian take the lead). There’s also the joy of hearing the last gasp of Brian’s husky late-70s voice on the tag, before his late-80s slurring-robot voice comes to the fore.

But mostly it’s because of Levine’s production. This is an odd thing to say, as the production on the album hasn’t dated well. But it’s only dated precisely as badly as anything else from the time period, and no worse, and there’s an aesthetic sense here that’s missing from a lot of their contemporaries’ recordings of the time. Levine has noticed things about Brian Wilson’s production sound that get missed by a lot of the less competent pasticheurs — the way he uses almost no cymbal on his recordings, for example, and the way that a lot of his bass-lines are played on instruments other than guitar — and adapted them for an 80s audience, so this has a wonderfully simple drum machine part and a great honking sax bassline.

The song itself may be a cynical one, but there’s a lot of joy in the recording, and taken as a single it’s probably the best they’d put out since “It’s OK”, if not earlier. It reached number 26 in the US, and number two on the Adult Contemporary chart.

It’s Gettin’ Late
Songwriters: Carl Wilson, Myrna Smith-Schilling and Robert White Johnson
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

The second song is a dull affair, based around a three-chord minor-key chorus and a two chord major-key verse. It plods so much it actually sounds at times like the drum machine is slipping out of time. The horns on here sound like synths, despite being live, and the vocals sound sequenced, especially the opening stack of Brians, where you can almost hear the keys being pressed and released on the synth triggering them.

It’s not a terrible song — it would have fit onto either of Carl Wilson’s solo albums and been better than much of the material on them — but it’s tired and dull. Released as a single, it didn’t chart.

Crack At Your Love
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Al Jardine *
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine and Brian Wilson

A minor piece, but a fun one, this track more than most sounds like Levine’s work with Culture Club, having a generic upbeat synth-pop backing.

But while the lyrics to this track are simplistic (“I’m goin’ crazy/Would you be my baby?”), the vocals, by Jardine, are the best on the album to this point — until Brian Wilson comes in for the middle eight, again singing plaintively in the husky voice that would soon be gone for good, “Lonely nights, lonely days…”

It’s one of those little moments that lift an adequate song for a moment or two into greatness, and while this is never going to be anyone’s favourite Beach Boys song, it’s far, far better than anything on Keepin’ The Summer Alive or much of MIU Album.

It may also be the first recording to feature the band’s touring falsetto vocalist Jeffrey Foskett, who had joined the band when Carl had temporarily quit a few years earlier, and who would be a major part of the band’s story throughout the 80s, and again from 1998 on. While no full vocal credits for this album have ever been made available, Foskett has often claimed to have provided backing vocals on several tracks, and the falsetto on the intro sounds more like him than any of the actual Beach Boys, though everything’s so processed it’s hard to be sure.

Maybe I Don’t Know
Songwriters: Carl Wilson, Myrna Smith-Schilling, Steve Levine and Julian Stewart Lindsay
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

Possibly the blandest thing on the album, this has the dull, loping, swing of much 80s jazz/soul influenced AOR, an unimaginative descending chord sequence, and meaningless lyrics. While Gary Moore was capable of greatness as a guitarist, his cursory squealing here adds little, and the whole thing isn’t even saved from banality by Carl Wilson’s lead vocal.

She Believes In Love Again
Songwriter: Bruce Johnston
Lead vocalist: Bruce Johnston and Carl Wilson

Johnston’s only song on the album is also the second-best thing he’s ever contributed to the Beach Boys. A simple ballad, based around a keyboard part that sounds like Johnston’s own playing (he’s one of three keyboard players credited on the track, along with Lindsay and Levine), this is the most craftsmanlike song on the album. There’s nothing here that’s massively innovative, but it’s put together beautifully, with the only crack in the facade coming with the “God I’m sorry” in the middle eight — an interjection that throws the melody out, and provides just enough of a sense of real emotion that it gives the whole carefully-constructed song a sense of conviction it would otherwise be missing.

Johnston’s voice helps in this, too. Between Keepin’ the Summer Alive and the recording of this album, his voice had grown notably huskier, and here he sounds almost like Rod Stewart at times — but this is a good thing, as especially given the death of Dennis and Brian’s usual absence on tour, Johnston’s voice now provided a little of the grit that the harmonies needed.

Both he and Carl Wilson are in fine form here, subtly multitracked in ways that only become apparent when listening with headphones but which give the vocals a real richness, and while sonically this has the same 80s sheen as the rest of the album, the arrangement (with a slow build from single keyboard through to guitars, strings, and trombone) is much better thought-out, and more organic, than much of the album.

California Calling
Songwriter: Brian Wilson and Al Jardine
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine and Mike Love

Another strong track, featuring Ringo Starr on drums, this is yet another rewrite of “California Girls” and “California Saga” (and also lyrically references “Surfin’ USA”), with nothing particularly interesting about it musically, but it’s done with such enthusiasm that it’s hard not to be swept along. Al Jardine’s voice is stunningly good, and while Love’s tenor lead sections are weak, his “callin’ me, ring ring ring” bass vocal in the chorus is wonderfully goofy

Passing Friend
Songwriter: George O’Dowd and Roy Hay
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson

This, on the other hand, is utterly worthless. Written by Boy George and Roy Hay of Culture Club, who were at that time very briefly one of the biggest bands in the world, this is a fairly typical example of Boy George’s songwriting, one of the many interminable songs he wrote at the time about how everyone else was a phony, with what sound like several digs against George’s boyfriend, Culture Club drummer Jon Moss.

The track is, at five minutes, at least double the length that the musical material demands, and Carl Wilson sounds embarrassed singing lines like “through the child’s eyes there were feelings touching my violet skin”.

In fact here, as we’ll see again later, we have Carl Wilson on autopilot. The track was originally recorded by George and Hay (who provides almost all the instrumentation), and George’s guide vocal was replaced by Wilson. It sounds like Wilson didn’t bother thinking about the song at all, and just imitated the guide vocal as closely as possible — the phrasing, and even many of the vowel sounds, are far closer to George’s than to any other vocal he ever did. It’s a lazy performance, but no worse than this profoundly tedious song deserves.

I’m So Lonely
Songwriter: Brian Wilson *
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson and Carl Wilson

Starting with a sax solo that sounds suspiciously like the one from Sade’s then-recent hit “Your Love Is King”, this song is about the most perfunctory thing imaginable, with a verse shuffling between I, IV, and V, a chorus that just goes through standard doo-wop changes, and lyrics along the lines of “I’m so lonely, really, really so lonely” and “I wish/since you went away/that you’d soon be back to stay”. And while Brian’s vocal on the verses is quite good for his shouty, husky, early/mid-80s voice, his attempts at falsetto in the chorus are painful.

This sounds like an exercise to get Brian writing again, and while there’s nothing horrible about the song itself, it’s clearly not the work of someone who’s actually trying.

Where I Belong
Songwriter: Carl Wilson and Robert White Johnson
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson and Al Jardine

Carl Wilson’s final songwriting contribution to the Beach Boys is also arguably his best. Certainly the other band members seem to have warmed to it — this is the only track on the album to feature an instrumental contribution by a Beach Boy who didn’t write the track, with Brian adding keyboards, and it’s also one of the few on which every band member’s voice can be heard.

In fact every band member shines vocally here — it’s Carl’s best lead on the album, but Al’s countervocals on the later choruses lift the track immensely, and the two-chord section after the second chorus, where Brian and Bruce sing wordlessly over Mike’s doo-wop bass might be the last appearance of Brian’s young voice, in all its nasal whining glory.

But they’re all rising to the occasion because of the song. The song is allegedly about John-Roger, the cult leader who was Carl’s “spiritual adviser” for much of the later period of his life, but the lyric shows little sign of that, being instead a generic love lyric, albeit one about having drifted through life until finding the right person.

Musically, though, this sounds like an expansion on, and progression from, the musical ideas on Carl’s first solo album. There’s a strong similarity to both “Heaven” and “Hurry Love”, but this is more musically sophisticated, with a bassline rising almost independently of the chords in the first part of the verse, where the singer is confused. The bass note then stays on the tonic while the chords change, on the line “you just could be my anchor”, before it descends under simple IV, V, and I chords to get to the simpler, more broad-strokes emotions of the chorus.

The sparse instrumentation, allowing the gorgeous vocals to do the work, makes this the least dated sounding track on the album, and this is the one thing on the album that can legitimately stand up with the band’s very best work.

I Do Love You
Songwriter: Stevie Wonder
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson and Al Jardine

And then the album slumps into this. Stevie Wonder, who wrote this and played almost every instrument (and it also sounds like he provided uncredited backing vocals on the tag), is one of the great geniuses of popular music of the last fifty years, and even though this sounds like something he tossed off in about as long as it takes to listen to it, it’s still one of the catchiest things on the album. Mediocre Stevie Wonder is still Stevie Wonder, after all.

The problem is that Stevie Wonder isn’t the Beach Boys, and the style just doesn’t fit. Both Carl Wilson (who takes the bulk of the lead vocals) and Al Jardine (who sings the “I do love you” sections) seem to be imitating a guide vocal by Wonder — much as with “Passing Friend”, the vocals sound far more like the songwriter than like the singers normally sound.

The result is not a combination of Stevie Wonder and the Beach Boys — rather, it’s two of the greatest voices in popular music turning themselves into a Stevie Wonder tribute act. There’s nothing of the Beach Boys in here, and why would I want to listen to a Stevie Wonder impersonator, when I have Innervisions, Songs in the Key of Life, or Talking Book that I could be listening to instead?

It’s Just A Matter Of Time
Songwriter: Brian Wilson *
Lead vocalist: Mike Love with Brian Wilson

A generic doo-wop track, this passes two minutes and twenty-two seconds perfectly acceptably, and that’s about all that can be said about it.

Male Ego
Songwriter: Brian Wilson and Mike Love *
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson and Mike Love

This song was only included on the CD version of the album, not on the vinyl or cassette releases, and was originally the B-side to “Getcha Back”.

Musically, this is utterly fantastic, with more energy than almost anything on the album, some great analogue-sounding squelchy synth bass, a baritone sax honking away in the lower register, tuned percussion, and the most enthused vocal from Brian we’ve heard on anything since Love You — which this sounds very like. It’s almost impossible to believe that this is from the same producer — or indeed the same band — as the album proper. If the rest of the album sounded like this, it would have been one of their all-time classics.

Sadly, the lyrics are about how great it is to sexually harass women in the street. Oh well.

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