The Beach Boys on CD: Gettin’ In Over My Head

2004 was a big year for Brian Wilson. On February 24, he performed live, for the first time, a completed version of Smile, the unfinished album that had hung over his head and dominated all discussions about him for nearly forty years. In September, he released a studio version of that completed Smile which became his most successful solo album.

The completion of Smile, though, overshadowed another album he released that year. Gettin’ In Over My Head was the first studio album he had recorded in six years, and the first with his touring band.

The album was widely disliked by fans, and it’s easy to see why. The performances by the backing band are exemplary, but Wilson himself sounds tired, and is frequently off-key (not helped by the decision, thankfully never made again, to have him sing nearly all the harmony parts himself). There were rumours at the time that Wilson was unhappy to be working on the album at all, and that he was largely unresponsive in the studio, and whatever the truth of those rumours, the vocals on much of the album certainly give one that impression.

But what the fans were ignoring was everything else about the record. This is understandable in many respects – most of the songs on the album dated back many years, to the Andy Paley sessions of the mid-nineties, to the unreleased Sweet Insanity album, or in some cases as far back as the early 1980s. Bootlegs of those versions had been available for years, often with more engaged vocals on Brian Wilson’s part. So it’s easy to see why this was seen as a set of inferior remakes. And it certainly didn’t help that the cover, by Peter Blake, looked cheap and nasty, more like a collage made by a five-year-old than the work of one of the most acclaimed artists of the last sixty years.

In many ways the album seems to be trying to present a crafted image of a Brian Wilson album, aimed at a target market, but falling between two stools – the arrangements, for the most part, are Pet-Sounds-esque, full of vibraphone and bass harmonica, but the special guests appearing on the album are the kind of “classic rock” that simply doesn’t mix well with that – Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, Elton John.

But if you come to this not listening to it as a collection of remakes of songs you’ve already heard, and especially if you’re not listening to it as something to wait for while counting the hours til Smile finally comes out, there’s a lot to like about this album. Wilson’s backing band are all superb musicians, the instrumental arrangements have a lot of interesting touches, and in particular we hear for the first time something that will become very much the secret weapon of Wilson’s later solo work, the string arrangements of Paul von Mertens. Mertens’ orchestrations here are, on the handful of tracks in which he gets to demonstrate them, spectacular, with violin lines almost reminiscent of Bartók or Eastern European folk music, but also rooted in the same kind of Americana that Van Dyke Parks (who wrote new lyrics for a Wilson song here for the first time in thirty years) has mined so productively in his solo work.

And the songs themselves are, taken on their own merits, occasionally superb. The quality here is very variable, but even the least enthusiastic listener will admit that “Soul Searchin’”, the title track, “Rainbow Eyes”, and “Don’t Let Her Know She’s An Angel” are among the best work Wilson has produced since the early 1970s.

So something of a curate’s egg, then. But one that genuinely is good in parts – and one that has more good parts than not. And it’s probably the most honest, unfiltered, Brian Wilson album of all his solo albums. It’s an album that’s long been overdue a reevaluation.

(All lead vocals Brian Wilson except where noted)

How Could We Still Be Dancin’?
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Joe Thomas
Lead vocals: Elton John and Brian Wilson

The opening track is a song (and apparently, at least in part, a backing track) left over from Imagination, and rather better than much of that album, though little more than disposable fluff.

The verses could, in fact, easily have been a minor hit for Elton John, who sings lead on them (and plays piano – reportedly Wilson told him to “play it like Billy Joel”). John has the unenviable task of trying to sing “how could” at the start of almost every line in a single syllable, and so at times sounds almost like Vic Reeves’ “club singer” character, singing “HA! we still be…”, but the verses are a lot of silly, goofy, fun, with some great honking saxophone.

Unfortunately, the bridges and intro, which feature a stack of off-key Wilsons singing far too high for his range, are almost unlistenable. Notably, when Wilson performed this song live, he took lead on the verses but gave those sections to his band to sing.

Soul Searchin’
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Andy Paley
Lead vocals: Carl Wilson and Brian Wilson

This song – and track – dates back to the mid-90s Beach Boys sessions for an album of Wilson/Paley songs that never happened. Only this song and “You’re Still A Mystery” were ever completed, and the album had been shelved.

For this album, Brian Wilson took Carl Wilson’s lead vocal from a session co-produced by Don Was and synched it to an earlier backing track largely cut by Andy Paley, largely replicating a mix that had been circulating on bootlegs for several years. He replaced the other Beach Boys’ backing vocals with his own (and replaced Carl Wilson’s lead vocal on the middle eight) and got Paul von Mertens to add a saxophone solo over the original organ one, but otherwise it’s largely identical to that bootlegged version.

(A mix of the full Beach Boys version was later released on the Made in California box set).

The song itself is a 60s soul ballad pastiche, largely the work of Paley, it’s the kind of thing that would have made a very serviceable single for James Carr, but is elevated to greatness by Carl Wilson’s vocal – the last lead he would ever record for a Beach Boys song, and one of his best.

You’ve Touched Me
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Steve Kalinich

And this song sums up everything that is frustrating about this album. It’s another reworking of old musical material, this time a ballad Wilson had written in the 80s with Gary Usher, “Turning Point”, turned into an uptempo, bouncy piece with some lovely bass harmonica playing and string arrangements. (The reworking is more thorough than on many of the other songs, but compare the descending chords on “I’m on top of the world/I’m just floating on clouds” to “So hard waiting for you/So hard working it through” on the earlier track) Wilson also does a far better job on the lead here than on many of the other songs.

But the lyrics…ouch. Steve Kalinich is someone with whom I share many mutual friends, so I don’t want to say anything too harsh about his lyrics, but lines like “You are a part of me/You make my spirit whole” would be banal at best, but when fitted to a melody for which their stress patterns are completely inappropriate they make the whole track sound amateur.

Gettin’ in Over My Head
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Andy Paley

This, on the other hand, is heavenly. Another song dating from the Paley sessions of the mid-90s, this recording is actually a remake co-produced by Joe Thomas around the time of the sessions for Imagination (though presumably sweetened somewhat in 2004, as it sounds very like the rest of this album). With a vibraphone part that hints at the similar part of “Til I Die”, and a far better lead vocal than many of the rest on the album, this just sounds like Brian Wilson on top form (though as with many of the Paley songs it’s hard to tell what’s Wilson’s own contribution and what’s Paley imitating Wilson. My guess is that the verse melody is Wilson, the middle eight Paley – the descending “I just might not ever come back from this” is very, very Paley to my ears, and the chorus could be either).

A gorgeous ballad that, other than the older lead vocals, could have fit easily on The Beach Boys Today!, this is one of the best things Wilson’s solo career has produced.

City Blues
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Scott Bennett

And this is one of the worst. This song dates back originally to 1981, and frankly it sounds it. This is something that should have been on a soundtrack to the type of film that starred Michael J. Fox, perhaps performed by Kenny Loggins or Survivor – though in truth what this sounds most like is the musical stylings of David Hasselhoff. Eric Clapton guests on guitar but squeals all over it rather than playing anything interesting, and the whole thing is a noisy, unpleasant, mess.

The song is mainly interesting in retrospect from a purely historical perspective, as it’s the first song to credit Scott Bennett as a co-writer (he added additional lyrics to finish off the song). Bennett would be a frequent collaborator with Wilson over the next decade, and we will discuss his contributions more on future albums.

Desert Drive
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Andy Paley

Another song originally from the Paley sessions in the mid-90s, this is the only track on the album to feature vocals from Wilson’s band – Paley (who was at the time of recording still playing percussion in Wilson’s band), Jeffrey Foskett, Darian Sahanaja and Scott Bennett all add vocals, and the difference is immediately obvious. This is how the vocals on the whole album should have sounded.

The song itself is a fun bit of fluff – a car song, mostly the work of Paley, based loosely around the riff from “Salt Lake City”, about taking a drive into Las Vegas, wearing “shades in case the rays get mean” and watching Wayne Newton’s show.

A Friend Like You
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Steve Kalinich
Lead vocals: Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney

This is, while not the worst song in Brian Wilson’s solo career, certainly the biggest missed opportunity. Given the opportunity to duet with Paul McCartney (who also plays guitar on the track), he has McCartney sing literally one solo line – the line “a friend like you, a friend like you”. Wilson takes all the verses himself, and drowns McCartney’s vocals on the other lines of the chorus in a stack of his own voice.

Which wouldn’t be too bad were this in any way a good song, but it’s not. The one song on the album that (as far as I’m aware) doesn’t date back to much earlier, it’s also the weakest song, as a song, on the album, with music that has no points of interest and lyrics that barely rise to the level of Hallmark cards.

Dreadfully, dreadfully, disappointing.

Make A Wish
Songwriter: Brian Wilson

A song dating back to the Sweet Insanity sessions, and apparently inspired by the Make A Wish Foundation, this is a perfect example of the generic feelgood protest-generally-bad-things songs that were inexplicably popular for a few minutes in the late 80s. Apparently racial peace, equality, cures for all diseases, enough food for everyone, and love replacing hate would all be good.

Fair enough, one doesn’t look to Brian Wilson to provide coherent analysis of the structural inequalities that prevent those things happening, any more than one looks to Noam Chomsky to write catchy pop songs. But frankly Chomsky could probably come up with a better melody than this one.

Rainbow Eyes
Songwriter: Brian Wilson

And now we’re back to loveliness again. This song is another Sweet Insanity leftover, and one of the best things recorded for that album, with its gorgeous nursery-rhyme melody.

This isn’t one of the better-produced tracks on the album – there’s some heavy-handed drumming which feels out of place, Wilson’s slurring the words, and the mix seems badly balanced – but if you can get past that, this is a wonderful, wonderful, little song, with some gorgeously bizarre chord changes under the simplistic melody.

Saturday Morning In The City
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Andy Paley

This is, with the exception of a few small overdubs, a recording from the mid-nineties Paley sessions (and thus featuring Paley on backing vocals) of a song that had been started in the 1980s. And it’s utterly wonderful, and utterly different from anything else on the album. A glorious little slice-of-life song, it sounds like something written for a Muppet or Disney film setting the scene – describing the people washing their cars (and one minor change from the Paley version that always disappoints me – in the original recording the people washing their cars are “new wavers”, while in the version here they’re just “young people” – I suppose Wilson must have noticed between 1996 and 2004 that the New Wave was no longer a thing), the garage sale next door, and the dog barking at the person delivering the post.

Musically, it’s like all the most upbeat, cheerful, parts of Smile without even a hint of the darker side – a cascade of different variations on the same basic ideas, with Swanee whistles, popping sound effects and car horns. Astonishingly, this is the shortest song on the album by a good half a minute, but it has more musical ideas than many other tracks on the record have in nearly twice its length. It’s good-natured, fun, and quite, quite beautiful.

Fairy Tale
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and David Foster

Another song dating from the 1980s, this was originally a collaboration between Wilson and (allegedly) Eugene Landy, a fatuous song called “Save The Day” about how everyone in the 60s was wonderfully enlightened and marched for peace.

At some point David Foster (a record producer who has worked with Chicago and Celine Dion, among others) was called in to work on the music with Wilson, and recorded the song under the new title “Is There A Chance?”, with new lyrics by Foster’s wife Linda Thompson (the ex-wife of Caitlyn Jenner, not the singer formerly married to Richard Thompson). While none of Foster’s changes remain in “Fairy Tale”, he retains a credit.

The song as finally released by Wilson is…a fairy tale. The original lyrics are completely replaced by new ones about fighting a dragon and saving a princess.

An 80s-style power ballad, about fighting dragons, which quotes the Ronettes at the end, might not be your kind of thing – it certainly isn’t mine – but the fact that this seems natural coming after “Saturday Morning In The City” shows what an odd, eclectic, and exciting album this actually is.

Don’t Let Her Know She’s an Angel
Songwriter: Brian Wilson

Another Sweet Insanity leftover, though I’ve seen stories that this was written as early as 1981. Which would mean that this song, the best single song of Brian Wilson’s solo career, was ignored for two Beach Boys albums , the Usher sessions, and Wilson’s first solo album before finally being recorded for Sweet Insanity. And then left for more than another decade.

In truth, none of the recordings of this song are perfect – this one has something of Imagination‘s production values about it, but after listening to this, and to the three bootlegged versions from the Sweet Insanity sessions, a platonic ideal version of the song is now in my head.

Even this version, though, marred as it is by being a real recording made by human beings rather than an unachievable ideal, is quite startlingly lovely. Wilson once again returns to the regular theme of the woman who’s so far above the man she’s with that he can’t begin to imagine why she’d be with him (“don’t let her know she’s an angel…I’m scared that she’ll want to go free” – one of the things I prefer about some of the earlier versions is that that line is instead the less controlling “I’m scared that she’ll want to leave me”).

It’s a touching, lovely, song, and one that really deserves a wider audience.

The Waltz
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks

And the final track on the album is, as the title suggests, a waltz – and about waltzing, at a high school dance. The song is, yes, another Sweet Insanity leftover, when it was originally titled “Let’s Stick Together” and featured Weird Al Yankovic on accordion. This version is in every way superior to that, with Mertens’ skittish fiddle arrangements working perfectly with Van Dyke Parks’ new lyrics to conjure up a bygone age.

Oh yes…those lyrics. More than anything on this album, they caught flak from fans, and this song became the whipping boy for the whole album. Certainly lines like “She had a body you’d kill for/You hoped that she’d take the pill for/She up and said ‘I’m a dancer/Don’t tell me, you are a Cancer’” are not what Brian Wilson’s fans were, in general, hoping for. But there’s a sweet, witty, erudition to these lyrics that is perfectly Parks – the syllables fall in such a way that no other writer could have come up with them, and express Parks’ own personality perfectly. If, as it does for some, Parks’ Southern gentility and loquaciousness rubs you up the wrong way, then I can see why you’d dislike this. But for me, as a fan of Parks almost as much as I am of Wilson, this is just sublime, and easily one of the best things on the album.

Gettin’ In Over My Head
is nobody’s favourite Brian Wilson record, but it’s far more of an expression of Wilson as an artist than many would like to give it credit for. In his entire career, Wilson has only released four albums that consist entirely of songs he wrote or co-wrote and which he hadn’t put on a previous album – Smiley Smile, The Beach Boys Love You, Brian Wilson, and Gettin’ In Over My Head (2015’s No Pier Pressure would count in the “standard” edition, but not in the expanded version which is what most people who purchased it actually have). Of those, this is definitely the worst, but it’s very much of a piece with those earlier albums, and like them I think many people have found the flaws rather easier to see than the very real strengths.

This blog post was brought to you by the generosity of my backers on Patreon. Why not join them?

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.