The Beach Boys on CD: Symphonic Sounds Music of the Beach Boys

With the split between Mike Love and Alan Jardine in 1998, the Beach Boys effectively ended their existence as a creative band producing new music. “The Beach Boys” became a trademark, licensed by Mike Love’s company MELECO, and applied to a band that initially consisted of Love, David Marks, Bruce Johnston, Adrian Baker, and a handful of backing musicians.The band as it tours today, featuring Love, Johnston, and very occasionally Marks, but with only keyboardist Tim Bonhomme remaining from this backing band, is extremely good, and any negative comments I make about the late-90s touring band should not be taken to refer to the current line-up.

Brian Wilson and Alan Jardine both started touring with their own bands, both of whom released live albums we will deal with shortly, so combining those with Love’s NASCAR CD we have an idea of what three of the four living principal band members felt were the Beach Boys’ strengths in the very late 90s.

But what of Bruce Johnston? Well, he was touring with Love, of course, as he does to this day, but he also put out his own album reinterpreting the Beach Boys’ music. Symphonic Sounds: Music of the Beach Boys by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra would normally not be covered in this book, as it’s neither a Beach Boys album nor a solo album by a Beach Boy, but an outside project, but given that it features both Johnston and Love, along with Matt Jardine. Adrian Baker, and various longtime touring band members, and that it forms a useful parallel with the recordings by the other three members, it’s worth looking at.

It’s not, however, worth listening to. This is Muzak pure and simple, as one might guess from the press release put out at the time, which compared it to the same label’s other “classical crossover” album, Orinoco Flow: The Music of Enya, as though such a comparison was something to be proud of, rather than something to hide like an embarrassing disease.

The album consists of nine tracks. There are fairly close recreations of the studio versions of “Kokomo” (with lead vocals by Love and Terry Melcher), “Disney Girls (1957)” (Johnston), and a version of “Darlin’” (lead vocals by Matt Jardine, and featuring a totally unnecessary lounge sax solo), all with a symphony orchestra providing unnecessary embellishments in the style of arrangement George Bernard Shaw memorably described as “big guitar” orchestration (and in the case of “Darlin’” totally replacing the rhythm section, removing any groove the song ever had).

Then there’s a version of “God Only Knows”, sung by “contemporary Christian” artist Tammy Trent, who gasps every word, and a version of “Wouldn’t It Be Nice” with the melody line played on an electric guitar. In all these cases (except “Darlin’”) the orchestra is essentially providing a pad behind a rock band, doing a job that could have been done as well by someone with a Casio keyboard set on “string pad” playing along with the chord sequence.

The same goes for “Just For Fun…All Surf!”, a four-minute medley of various of the surf-based hits, introduced by a horrendous stack of Adrian Bakers, which has vocal harmonies (with Love, Johnston, and Baker all prominent) singing all the backing vocals, while the melodies are stated by various brass and woodwind instruments, playing over a standard rock rhythm section.

The nadir of the album is a version of “Warmth of the Sun”, which while it has a nice orchestral introduction and tag (playing with the melody of the chorus line and also the middle eight of “Keep An Eye On Summer”), is performed in a totally a capella arrangement with multiple Adrian Bakers caterwauling their way through the song in a piercing shriek.

But the real reason for the album is apparently the two actual orchestral tracks, arranged by Bob Alcivar, who had arranged several actual good records, so presumably knew better. The “Overture” (a four-minute medley of melodic themes from eleven different songs) is just a mess — “here’s a melodic theme from one song. Here’s a melodic theme from a different song. You want some kind of development or connection between them? You’ll have to pay extra for that…”

But the last track, the twenty-three-minute “Water Planet Suite”, actually starts off kind of promisingly — the opening few minutes, with “Heroes & Villains” going into “Help Me, Rhonda”, have a Hollywood Western grandeur, sounding like Aaron Copland by way of Alfred Newman. Had this been sustained through the rest of the track — or better yet, the whole rest of the album — this could have been a really interesting take on the Beach Boys’ music (it actually sounds very like the suite based around Brian Wilson’s music that Van Dyke Parks wrote for the start of Wilson’s own orchestral concerts a couple of years later, with a similar Americana feel to it). But at almost exactly the three minute mark, one can feel Alcivar giving up, and the next twenty minutes and twenty-two seconds are back to “play the record, but with strings going rum-tum and a trumpet playing the vocal line” adequacy.

The whole thing is a fascinating example of what happens when a rock musician has a desire for false legitimacy as a “serious” musician. It’s clearly a labour of love — Johnston had been one of the big proponents of a plan for the Beach Boys to tour with a symphony orchestra in 1998, playing some of their more serious music, a plan which had been cancelled when Carl Wilson’s illness became obviously terminal, and Johnston recorded this album to make up for that cancellation. And Johnston is clearly a very good, knowledgeable, musician.

Yet this feels like the work of someone who thinks that the only reason people think of orchestral music as superior to rock is because of the instruments used, and that if you just get a massive orchestra to play “Surf City” that somehow makes it more sophisticated than having Jan and Dean sing it.

No doubt somebody, somewhere, enjoys this album, but I can’t imagine who or why. No lover of orchestral music is going to choose to listen to this instead of Messiaen, Bach, or Stravinsky, because it has none of the sophisticated development of themes and understanding of the nuances of the orchestra for which one listens to art music. But no Beach Boys fan is going to choose to listen to this over Pet Sounds or even the Surfin’ USA album, because it has neither the intelligence and imagination of the former nor the energy of the latter.

A curious combination of hubris and lack of ambition.

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