And so we come to what seemed, for sixteen years, as if it would be the last ever new Beach Boys album.
Brian Wilson had spent much of the mid-1990s working with Andy Paley on several dozen new songs, intended for a Beach Boys record, recording what were, depending on who you ask, either very fully-fleshed-out demos or stripped-down completed records that just needed the Boys’ vocals added. Two of these songs saw release at the time — the Paley instrumental “In My Moondreams”, which appeared on a compilation titled Pulp Surfin’, and a rather lovely song called “This Song Wants To Sleep With You Tonight” which, in a Don Was-produced version, became the B-side of the “Do It Again” single from I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times.
And Brian was slowly being integrated back into the group. Tentative plans for a thirtieth-anniversary Pet Sounds tour, performing the whole album, were abandoned because Carl Wilson didn’t believe his brother was in a fit state to tour at the time, but Brian performed with the band on a collaboration with Status Quo — a remake of “Fun, Fun, Fun” with a new verse written by Love — and, importantly, on a remake of “The Warmth of the Sun” with Willie Nelson on lead vocals.
But the plan was still to do an album based on the Paley material, probably with a then-hot producer collaborating on it. Johnston brought in Sean O’Hagan of the High Llamas (a lounge-revival band whose albums Gideon Gaye and Hawaii had both been critically acclaimed, and who were very influenced by Pet Sounds, Smile, and Friends), but personality clashes meant that that collaboration went no further, and it was eventually decided to have Don Was produce the backing tracks, and Brian to produce the vocals. Love and Wilson collaborated on reworking at least some of the Paley material, and everything was looking good for what would be the best new Beach Boys album in twenty years.
Right up until they went into the studio.
The sessions, in November 1995, were intended to produced five songs — “Must Be A Miracle”, “Turn on Your Love Light”, “Soul Searchin’”, “It’s Not Easy Being Me”, and “You’re Still A Mystery”. The Beach Boys, plus Matt Jardine (Alan Jardine’s son, who was the band’s touring falsettist at the time, and had a voice that was spookily similar to a young Brian), managed to get vocals for two tracks done — the two best tracks they had recorded since 1977 — before Carl Wilson walked out of the studio, saying the new material was no good and he refused to work on it any further.
Carl had been unwell for some time, and would, within months, be diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually kill him, and one can only suppose that this was part of his decision. Either way, that decision meant the end of the Beach Boys as a creative force in the studio, apart from the brief 2012 reunion.
But the band still wanted to record with Brian, and so there was a quick change of plans. The Willie Nelson collaboration, originally intended as a one-off single, now became the start of a new album, the optimistically-named Stars & Stripes vol. 1, titled in the expectation of future volumes, on which the Beach Boys would collaborate with country singers on remakes of their earlier classics.
This could have been a good idea, if the band had been paired with a sympathetic producer and the true greats of country music. One can imagine Johnny Cash singing “Til I Die”, perhaps, or Steve Earle and Emmylou Harris duetting on “God Only Knows”.
Sadly, the producer they worked with was Joe Thomas (a figure who will return several times in our narrative), a mulletted ex-wrestler who gave almost all the songs a terrible, unimaginative, 80s-rock backing suitable for a Kenny Loggins B-side, all crunchy guitar and “sonic-power” drums. And the choices of vocalist were similarly uninspired — Toby Keith, Collin Raye, Ricky van Shelton, and a bunch of other interchangeable “hat acts”.
To make matters worse, two of the best collaborations — Rodney Crowell singing “Sail on Sailor” and Tammy Wynette singing “In My Room” — were left off the album for volume two. Both those can be seen on the documentary Nashville Sounds, which is the best way to experience this album, if for some reason you have to, if only so you can see Mike Love trying to teach Willie Nelson how to sing, or Al Jardine bravely attempting to defend the album as being in some way creative by talking about how they used to sing “Ooh rah rah rah” on “Be True To Your School” but were now only singing “Ooh rah rah”.
But apart from unintentional comedy on the video, is there anything at all about this album that is actually worth hearing?
Surprisingly, there is. While James House singing “Little Deuce Coupe” or Doug Supernaw on “Long Tall Texan” are as wince-inducingly awful as one would imagine, there are three tracks on the album with the involvement of actual talented people other than the Beach Boys, and those three are really quite good.
The first, obviously, is “The Warmth of the Sun” with Willie Nelson on vocals. Not only is Nelson head and shoulders above everyone else involved, but the arrangement is far more subtle than anything else on the record, with a rather lovely harmonica part, and Nelson’s aged vocals give the song a very different feel from the youthful innocence of the original, which makes it an actually worthwhile performance.
Junior Brown’s “409” is the polar opposite of Nelson’s poignant subtlety, but in a good way. Brown rips out rockabilly solos on his guit-steel (an instrument of his own invention, combining electric and pedal steel guitars in one), and sings in a deep voice full of vibrato. It’s hilarious, ridiculous, fun, and an absolute joy to listen to.
And the band must have realised those two were the best things on the album, because in the documentary those are the two tracks Jimmy Webb mentions listening to before his contribution. Webb didn’t sing on the album, but did provide the glorious orchestral arrangement for “Caroline, No”, sung by Timothy Schmit of the Eagles, which closes the record, and which for the first time features the other Beach Boys’ vocals on what had originally been a solo Brian track.
While there are many, many, faults with this album, its closing isn’t one of them, as for the last time ever we hear those family vocals, with Brian, Carl, and Mike singing “Caroline, no” in a round like the end of “God Only Knows”, with Schmit over the top, and the album fades out not to a train or dogs, but just to the voices of two brothers and their cousin.
They did tell us it wouldn’t last forever. But still…it’s kinda sad.
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Fascinating stuff Andrew, thanks for making sense of what has always seemed to me a puzzling project. I bought the album about ten years ago when I was filling gaps in my collection and loved the Willie Nelson performance and Caroline No but the rest left me pretty underwhelmed at best. Lovely to read a knowledgeable, considered review that puts it into context.
I love the High Llamas but I find it hard to get my head around the idea of O’Hagan being a realistic choice of collaborator on a Beach Boys album given the personalities involved at the time. A good idea in theory though.
Yep, from reading interviews with O’Hagan at the time, he wanted to push Brian into an avant-garde style along the lines of Smile, which is definitely not what any of the Beach Boys — even Brian — wanted to do at the time…
This is a fun album, but I can’t enjoy the final track (I Can Hear Music) as it seems to me that Kathy Troccoli is very slightly under the note in some parts of the song. “The way that it is” after about 16 seconds is really quite flat.