The Beach Boys on CD: Still Cruisin’

[NB, no, I’m not missing out Brian Wilson’s eponymous solo debut. I want to check a couple of facts in a book I’ve had on order for a couple of weeks but which hasn’t arrived yet, so I’m skipping ahead, and I’ll go back to that album when the book arrives]

While Brian Wilson’s comeback was receiving critical acclaim but little commercial success, something rather strange was happening to the rest of the band…

The Beach Boys had spent much of the 1980s releasing odd one-off singles, often for film soundtracks or as collaborations with other artists. These were pretty much uniformly awful, and didn’t trouble the charts, and the band generally dropped them out of their live sets after a perfunctory few weeks or months at most.

But then came “Kokomo”, a song the band recorded for the Tom Cruise film Cocktail, which was itself a massive hit. But while the film was big, the song — written and recorded without the presence of Brian — became a massive phenomenon, selling over a million copies, and becoming the band’s first US number one in twenty-two years, making them the record holders for the longest gap between number one records.

As a result, the band got a one-off album deal with Capitol, to put out an album of songs that had featured in recent films. The resulting album was the result of much horse-trading between various interested parties, and ended up featuring a mix of recent minor hit singles, new songs, and three old hits (“Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, “I Get Around”, and “California Girls”) that had recently appeared in successful films. It’s a strange mix of styles and sounds, which went gold mostly because it featured “Kokomo”, but which has been out of print for a long time, with very little demand for a reissue.

This review will only deal with the 1980s tracks on the album, as I dealt with the 60s ones on their respective albums (though note that the version of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” here is an alternative mix, included by mistake, which can now be found on the Pet Sounds Sessions box set).

Unless otherwise mentioned, all tracks were produced by Terry Melcher.

line-up

Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love, Bruce Johnston (and Dennis Wilson on the three 1960s tracks)

Still Cruisin’
Songwriter:
Terry Melcher and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love and Carl Wilson

The album opens surprisingly strongly, with Love’s “come on let’s cruise, you got nothin’ to lose” hook, on a song that John Phillips referred to as “Still Kokomoin’”. In truth, this is a better song than the one it’s patterned after — while both have a repetitive Love bass vocal hook and Carl Wilson singing a high chorus line, this one is far catchier, and has a better groove to it than the earlier single.

We do, though, here see the final end of Mike Love’s ability to write a lyric without referencing both the environment (“you got a greenhouse effect on me”) and the titles of earlier, better, Beach Boys songs (“hop in my hot rod and do it again”, “party all summer long”). This will get much, much worse on the next album.

But while the song itself is pleasant (and makes occasional returns to the Beach Boys’ live set to this day), and the vocal arrangement is strong (each of the four Beach Boys on the track — Brian Wilson is not present — is clearly audible and in strong voice), the problem is the production. Whether the blame lies with Terry Melcher, or with Keith Wechsler, who engineered and also provided the keyboards and drum programming, the result is a treble-heavy, thin, jangly mess. There are things that purport to be solos here, but they’re just lost in a trebly mush of reverb.

While the track made the top thirty in a few countries, it barely scraped into the Hot 100 in the US.

Somewhere Near Japan
Songwriters:
Terry Melcher, John Phillips, Bruce Johnston and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love, Al Jardine and Carl Wilson

Another attempt to recapture lightning in a bottle, this time by rewriting another song by John Phillips, who had provided the basic idea for the song that became “Kokomo”. This time, Love, Johnston, and Melcher took a song, “Fairy Tale Girl”, which Phillips had originally written as a baroque pop song [footnote: Phillips’ version can be heard on the album Many Mamas, Many Papas. It’s not very good.], and ditched everything but the second verse, which became the first three lines of the new song, and the general subject matter.

The subject of Phillips’ song was the first honeymoon of his daughter, Mackenzie, who had married her drug dealer, and had called Phillips from Guam asking for help when the drugs and money ran out. Phillips’ original version saw the “fairy tale girl’s” drug addiction as not entirely negative — “sometimes you have to leave a place, and head on out into inner space”.

The Beach Boys make the girl’s plight far more obvious, while also increasing the drug references — “and now she’s trupping on some Chinese junk/Her world is spinning and all hope is sunk…strung out in no man’s land”. They also replace Phillips’ plinky baroque-pop-by-numbers with a generic eighties rock sound, overlaid with a little Hollywood orientalism.

The song is widely regarded by fans as the last truly great Beach Boys track, at least until 2012. I disagree myself, but that may well be because of my own distaste for thin layers of “exotic” faux-Japanese music overlaid on rock songs. It’s one of the few songs on this album or its successor that actually has any musical or lyrical coherence, or aims any higher than providing a not-too-unpleasant soundtrack for a beach party, and for that it should be applauded, but I still don’t think it’s actually all that good.

Island Girl
Songwriter:
Al Jardine
Lead vocalist: Al Jardine, Mike Love and Carl Wilson

…and here’s where the album gets really bad. Al Jardine, possibly the world’s whitest man, trying to write tropical music — since “Kokomo”, the Beach Boys had clearly decided to go after some of the Jimmy Buffett money. The melody is derivative of both “The Tide Is High” by Blondie and “Every Day” by Buddy Holly, but the song is actually not too bad, and Jardine’s production has more depth to it than the two Melcher tracks that preceded. We also have our first bit of Brian Wilson on the album, as he appears with Carl and Al on the intro (though not on the rest of the song).

The problem is, surprisingly enough, Carl Wilson. Carl was always a great vocalist, but as the eighties drew to an end he didn’t seem any longer to have the ability to rise above mediocre material. Here he distorts his vowels in a way that suggests he is trying for a Caribbean accent.

This is the Beach Boys’ equivalent to “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, but for the 1980s, synthesised steel drums and all. Between this and the last track, one starts to wonder if this album should not have been called The Beach Boys Appropriate Other Cultures.

In My Car †
Songwriter:
Brian Wilson
Lead vocalist: Brian Wilson, Al Jardine and Carl Wilson

This track, produced by Brian Wilson and, allegedly, Eugene Landy, was apparently a late addition to the album, and is sonically completely different from everything else on the album. This makes sense, as it’s a Brian solo track, onto which Al and Carl have dubbed chorus lead vocals (Carl takes the first chorus, Al the second, and both the ending choruses). It shouldn’t be confused with “Let’s Go To Heaven In My Car”, which is a completely different, and better, song — and which actually would have fit the theme of the album, as it appeared in Police Academy IV. That said, Brian does make an attempt to fit in with the rest of the record, echoing the “still cruisin’ after all these years” line from the title track.

This could have been a fun track, had the band been more involved. Sadly, we have a wall of Brians — and while Brian sounds great on the second and third verses (or at least “great for Brian in 1989”), on the opening verse he’s practically incomprehensible, and the attempts to go into falsetto for the bridges are just painful.

The last Brian Wilson track released by the Beach Boys in their original incarnation should have been better than this.

Kokomo
Songwriters:
John Phillips, Scott McKenzie, Terry Melcher and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Mike Love, Carl Wilson and Bruce Johnston

And this is the last time the Beach Boys made any significant cultural impact on the world with something new…

“Kokomo” started as a song written by John Phillips of the Mamas and the Papas, with his friend Scott McKenzie (for whom Phillips had earlier written the song “San Francisco”). Phillips’ song was a gentle lounge song about nostalgia and memories. In his song, he looks back on trips to Kokomo, “where we used to go to get away from it all”, with a lost love, and compares it to his present life. “At least we gave it a try” is the refrain, which ends the middle eight and which is repeated at the end of the song.

Love and Melcher took Phillips’ verse melody and about a third of his lyrics (the first two lines of the first verse, much of the last verse, and odd phrases from elsewhere), and changed it to a straightforward fantasy — whereas Phillips sang about “where we used to go”, Love sings about “where we wanna go”, and he wants to take you there with him.

While the verse lyric changes were sometimes minor (and oddly one of the lines Love always claims for himself, “by and by we’ll defy a little bit of gravity”, which he claims to be a reference to yogic flying, is clearly based on the line “Everybody’s tryin’ to break loose from gravity” from the original), they change the focus dramatically, from being about specific times with a specific, remembered, lost lover, to being about a fantasy of the future with a generic “pretty mama” to whom Love and Carl Wilson are singing.

But the verses aren’t what made the song — what made the song a hit is Love and Melcher’s major contribution, the two-part chorus. Love apparently came up with the “Aruba, Jamaica,” section — a list of places in the style of “Surfin’ USA” or “California Girls”, which opens the song as a bass vocal hook, sung by Love alone, and then becomes a mass chorus on subsequent repeats — while Melcher came up with Carl Wilson’s “Ooh I wanna take you down to Kokomo” section. This chorus, far more than Melcher and Phillips’ verses, is what made the song into the hit it became.

And it became a massive hit. When released as a single, backed not even with a Beach Boys track but with Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti”, it reached number one in the US, and went on to sell more copies than anything the band had done since “Good Vibrations”. While it didn’t have the long-term cultural or critical impact of the earlier song, and is now mostly remembered as a piece of 80s kitsch, it could easily be argued that it was as big a hit.

And it did deserve to be a hit; there’s no question of that. Personally, I find the song at best uninteresting, at worst actively unpleasant, depending on my own mood, but as a crafted piece of work it’s quite extraordinarily well done. As it was being made for a big-budget film, even the demo was far more crafted than most of the finished tracks on this album, with Melcher cutting an instrumental track with such big names (and long-term colleagues) as Ry Cooder, Van Dyke Parks, and Jim Keltner — although it says everything about 80s attitudes that Keltner was hired, not to play the drums, but to come up with the drum machine part. Over this Love, Johnston, Jeff Foskett (who also played acoustic guitar), and Melcher layered vocals, and the demo was used to get the song on the Cocktail soundtrack. Only once that had been agreed did Jardine and Carl Wilson drop in their own vocals.

And the vocals are quite remarkable — Love, in particular, is in far better voice than normal, singing in his more comfortable baritone rather than his increasingly-strained tenor voice, while Johnston doubles him on the “everybody knows…” section, and Carl’s vocal on his short section is possibly the most memorable part of the track.

Brian Wilson, on the other hand, was not involved. Sources differ as to why that was — either the band deliberately excluded him because they considered him unreliable or, more likely, Landy kept him away from the session and didn’t inform him of it. Either way, this meant that when the track got to number one, Love had irrefutable proof that he could make a hit record without Brian Wilson…

Wipe Out (with the Fat Boys)
Songwriter:
Bob Berryhil, Pat Connolly, Jim Fuller and Ron Wilson
Lead vocalist: Prince Markie Dee, Kool Rock-Ski, Buff Love a.k.a. The Human Beatbox, and Brian Wilson

Oh dear…

The story goes that this track, from 1987, was originally going to be a collaboration with Run DMC, who approached the Beach Boys after the hip-hop act’s earlier success working with Aerosmith on “Walk This Way”. One can only imagine what such a collaboration would have been like — certainly, there was every chance it could have been dreadful, but it also could have revitalised the Beach Boys’ career in the same way that “Walk This Way” had for Aerosmith.

Instead, allegedly because Mike Love thought it would be more commercial, though reliable information about this track is hard to find, it was decided that the Beach Boys should guest on a track by novelty rappers The Fat Boys, whose main claim to fame was that they were, indeed, fat.

The chosen track for the collaboration was a remake of the Surfaris’ classic instrumental “Wipe Out”, whose most distinctive aspect was its frenzied, bacchanalian, drumming — so naturally it was decided to take the track at a slower speed and use a dull drum machine part instead. While the Fat Boys rapped about going for a ride to the beach and meeting “the real Beach Boys”, a stack of overly-processed Brians sing the words “wipe out” and “wah wah wah” over and over, all feeling drained from the vocal by the production in a desperate attempt to make him sound something like in tune.

While Love, Jardine, and Johnston all appear in the video (there were apparently some lows to which Carl Wilson wouldn’t stoop), Jardine and Johnston are not audible on the track. While Gary Usher, who assisted in the production (credits: “Produced by Albert Cabrera and Tony Moran (Little Rascals) in association with the Beach Boys, co-produced by Darren Robinson and Damon Wimbley”), claimed that all the Beach Boys were present for at least one session, all that can be heard is multi-tracked Brian and what may be Love on the bass part.

Rather surprisingly, the track reached number twelve on the Billboard chart (and number ten on their R&B chart), and actually made number two in the UK, becoming their biggest hit other than “Do It Again” and “Good Vibrations”. This meant that the song stayed in the band’s live repertoire for far longer than was decent, with Billy Hinsche rapping.

Diabolical.

Make It Big
Songwriter:
Terry Melcher, Bob House and Mike Love
Lead vocalist: Carl Wilson and Mike Love

And the final new song on the album is a track that was recorded for the film Troop Beverly Hills. The song is built around a synth riff that sounds like…well, like every other bad rock song built around a synth riff for a poor eighties film. It could be Huey Lewis, or Kenny Loggins, or Survivor, or any of a thousand other identical awful excuses for music.

Over this riff is…not a song, exactly, because “song” implies something more structured than this. There are several things that seem to be trying to be hooks, joined together into a twelve-and-a-half-bar pseudo-chorus sung with more gusto than it deserves by Carl Wilson, there’s a sixteen-bar verseish sung by Mike (with a bit of Al), and there are some repetitions of the main “make it big” line. But at no point does this cohere into anything like a workable song, rather than a few half-arsed ideas glued together by synth riffs and sax solos. The lyrics, meanwhile, are motivational-poster pabulum.

I really don’t like talking about what, despite appearances, are my favourite band like this. But the fact is, Still Cruisin’ as a whole, and this song in particular, are lazy, half-thought-out, and bland, the epitome of “will this do?” MTV-era mediocrity. And sadly, this was not the worst they would do. There was still a further depth to which they would sink…

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8 Responses to The Beach Boys on CD: Still Cruisin’

  1. Larry S. says:

    Ah, yes…that depth being “Summer in Paradise”….and I almost bought it when I saw it in the CD bin at the late, much lamented J&R Music World in New York City (the cover illustration is quite fetching). But then I looked at the songwriting credits….

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      A narrow escape — though it sold so few copies (I’ve read unofficial claims of under a thousand) that you’d probably have been able to sell it on for significantly more than you bought it for…

      • Larry S. says:

        Andrew, I’m sure you are quite correct that I could have made a profit if I’d bought and then sold it. As you British might say, “bloody hell.”

        Also, I just wanted to say that as soon as I can find a halfway decent job, I will contribute some dosh to your projects via Patreon. I have now been unemployed/sporadically employed for the longest period in my life – it is truly horrible, in every way you can think of. I have recently begun to look into local vinyl record fairs, to sell some of my LPs; that’s how bad things are at the moment…argh.

        I always enjoy your writing – especially the music and politics pieces; I must start delving more into your fiction writing, but I’m a de facto house husband with 13 year old twin boys, so time is not always plentiful….anyway, take care.

        • Andrew Hickey says:

          Thank you, but *please* don’t worry about it. I’m quite comfortable financially and would *never* want someone who’s unemployed to be sending me money (I’ve been there myself, in the past, and know how awful it can be — and I didn’t have children). The Patreon is there in the hope that *possibly*, in the distant future, I can do this as a full-time thing, but there is no pressure *at all* intended on anyone to contribute. Leaving encouraging comments is at least as valuable.

          • Larry S. says:

            You are a gentleman, many thanks for your very kind reply. Am now preparing myself for your review of the Beach Boy’s career nadir…

  2. Gavin R says:

    Pedantic point: “The Tide Is High” was originally by The Paragons, but I wouldn’t be surprised if Al Jardine didn’t know that. The Blondie version didn’t change the melody or rhythm very much, and even the violin was on the original. Rocksteady: the genre most white people forgot.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      You’re completely correct, of course, and I did know that, but for some reason didn’t think of it. I’ll fix that in the book.

  3. TAD says:

    I always liked the dreamy verses on “Kokomo,” and thought the chorus was dull and clunky. I like Mike’s voice on the verses….he sounds good in that range. Most of what I like about the song came from John Phillips’ pen, I suspect.

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