The Beach Boys on CD: That Lucky Old Sun

(This essay, for reasons I explain in the first few paragraphs, is one I’ve started and stopped writing at least half a dozen times over a period of months. One of the reasons the third Beach Boys book wasn’t out months ago is that I didn’t know how to deal with this. I probably still haven’t got it right, but I couldn’t put this off forever…)

And this is one that I’ve been reluctant to write about…

That Lucky Old Sun is Brian Wilson’s greatest new work since at least The Beach Boys Love You. It is a latter-period masterpiece that almost matches Smile in its ambition and scope, and is to this date the last truly great work from Wilson.

It is also, though, largely co-written with Scott Bennett, a member of Wilson’s band who was, a few months ago as I write this, convicted of rape.

How one deals with that kind of situation when it comes to appreciation of art is a difficult question, and will vary from person to person and from subject to subject. Trying to get to a point where I could sort my own feelings about this out enough to write about the album delayed this whole project a good six months. I’ve written about that sort of thing before, but generally where both art and offence are distanced in time. In this case, given that I committed to write this book before the events in question, my options were limited. To be very clear, though, I do not think rape is ever excusable, and nor do I think one should separate the art and the artist in cases like this.

But on the other hand, Bennett is not the principal artist, and I want to deal fairly with the work of Wilson and his other collaborators.

The best solution I’ve come up with is to try, in so far as I can, to write only about the music on tracks Bennett co-wrote, on the assumption that his contribution was primarily (though not by any means solely) lyrical. I’m not at all sure that an objective assessment of his lyrics is either possible or desirable this close to his conviction, though I’m aware that a lack of that is a flaw in this essay.

So be it.

Anyway, about the album itself…

The album’s gestation began with What I Really Want For Christmas, and with Wilson thinking about classic arrangers who’d worked on other versions of the Christmas songs on the album. He got the version of “That Lucky Old Sun” which Gordon Jenkins had arranged for Louis Armstrong stuck in his head, bought a CD with it on, and decided to work out his own version.

Wilson had also been obsessed for years with “Proud Mary”, and specifically with a version of the song recorded by Ike and Tina Turner, which he wrongly thought Phil Spector had produced. From at least the early 90s he had been trying to record a version of the song, usually with a “rock, roll, rockin’ and a rollin’” vocal part added.

That vocal part combined with the line in “That Lucky Old Sun” about “rolling round heaven all day”, and those two songs between them seemed to become the two poles to which all Wilson’s new songs were drawn.

Wilson was in his most productive period since the late nineties (and to date his last truly prolific period for new material) and he recorded many songs with his band members in Bennett’s home studio. When the Southbank Centre in London asked him to come up with a new song cycle for the reopening of the Royal Festival Hall, where he had performed his first UK solo shows in 2002 and had premiered Smile in 2004, he took the best of the songs and got Van Dyke Parks to write linking narratives, which Wilson recited over music repeating themes from the songs (Darian Sahanaja came up with the music for these sections based on Wilson’s musical themes, and edited many of the songs to fit the structure, while Paul von Mertens orchestrated them).

The result, when it premiered in live performance in 2007, was an absolutely glorious half hour or so of music. By careful selection and linking, Wilson and his collaborators had managed to draw together what could have been a very disparate group of songs, emphasising themes they have in common, and creating a suite that is simultaneously a set of songs about memory and nostalgia, a story of a single day that starts with sunrise and ends at midnight, and a travelogue of California. The whole is greater than the parts, and some of the parts are pretty great.

While That Lucky Old Sun worked best as a live performance piece, the album is still the best new work Wilson has done since 1977, and is in the handful of albums (along with Pet Sounds, Smile, Smiley Smile, and Love You) I’d point anyone to as an example of why people say he’s a genius.

(All songs have lead vocals by Brian Wilson, except where noted)

That Lucky Old Sun
Songwriters: Haven Gillespie and Beasley Smith

The album’s opener is also its only cover version. “That Lucky Old Sun” was written in 1949 by Haven Gillespie and Beasley Smith, who also wrote “The Old Master Painter”, which Wilson had recorded for Smile. The original song is a rather heartbreaking ballad about the myriad tiny ways that work and life can grind one down, and the hope for eventual release from that condition, which has become a standard performed by (to take a few of my favourite versions) Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Ray Charles, among many others.

Wilson creates a new group a capella vocal intro before singing the first and last verses only, solo, over a backing of woodwinds, strings, and piano. The effect is to evoke the dawn, with the “up in the morning” opening being reflected in many of the later songs, and to provide a gentle introduction to the album much like “Our Prayer” provided for Smile.

Morning Beat
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Scott Bennett

And the opening track goes straight into a vocal chant – “Maumamayama Glory Hallelujah” – which Wilson had first mentioned as a musical idea in an interview in the early 1970s. (On a personal note, hearing the voices come in singing that line at the live premiere of this was the first moment I was sure that this piece would be something special. It was a breathtaking moment.)

This leads into a couple of verses based on a more rock and roll version of the same basic musical idea – a two-chord riff leading into a rising bridge, which is recycled from an unreleased song, “Walkin’”, from the late 60s. This is one of those ideas Wilson often returns to – a very similar musical phrase is also used in his section of the song “Bells of Madness” which he recorded with his daughter Carnie in the 90s. This is all accompanied by crunchy guitars, garage-pop organ, and “rock rock rock” backing vocals, to create some of the most uplifiting uptempo music Wilson had done since Love You.

After three repetitions of this basic musical material (with the melody varied slightly the second time through, making it sound more like a chorus) and a repeat of the “Maumamayama glory hallelujah” vocal part, a totally different section (“hear those guitars gently strumming”) comes in – very strongly reminiscent of some of the “Cherokee trail” parts of “Rio Grande”, before going back into the “Walkin’” riff.

Brian Wilson has often, in recent years, talked about wanting to make a rock and roll album. This track is the best evidence in his solo career that he would be able to make such an album interesting.

Narrative: A Room With A View
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks

And here we have the first of several narrative sections. In these, Van Dyke Parks provides rhyming couplets recited by Wilson over music (in this case a simple variant on the “Morning Beat” verse material). Parks’ words are, as one would expect from him, witty, intelligent, and articulate. This one describes a dawn view in LA, the city waking up and human activity starting, as the sounds of nature, coyotes and owls, die away for the day.

Good Kind of Love
Songwriter: Brian Wilson
Lead vocals: Brian Wilson with Taylor Mills and Scott Bennett

The only solo Brian Wilson composition on the album is also one of the best. It has some of Wilson’s best solo lyrics ever (“he loves her when she’s sleeping/And all the dreams she’s keeping/She keeps them in a jar but not too far from her heart”), and a completely unorthodox structure.

There’s a typical verse (“he loves her when she’s sleeping…”), which is slightly reminiscent of “Our Team”, a 1970s outtake, and a standard chorus (“they have the good kind of love…”), but then the track goes into a long bridge section (“just him and her…” through “They have the good kind of love”) which somehow makes perfect musical sense even though it goes all over the place. There’s then a whole new section (“the sun keeps on shining/it rolls round heaven above”), an instrumental repeat of the bridge, a repeat of the last bridge line, and an ascending piano part which leads into the next song.

It’s absolutely beautiful, somewhat reminiscent of the Zombies’ “Friends of Mine” in the way it celebrates the love of two other people, but with a triplet swing that is quintessentially Brian Wilson.

Forever She’ll Be My Surfer Girl
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Scott Bennett

This, on the other hand, is one of the weaker songs on the album. One of an increasing number of mid-tempo ballads looking back at high points of Wilson’s career that pepper his later albums, this song is supposedly about Judy Bowles, who was also supposedly the subject of the original “Surfer Girl”.

But really, this is just about “remember this song I wrote when I was younger?”, and has little more merit than Mike Love’s similar attempts. It’s only saved because of the album structure, where it links a song about love and a narrative about the beach, and where that California nostalgia is part of the aim of the album. Musically mediocre, it does its job in the context of the album, but it’s not one that really stands up outside that context.

Narrative: Venice Beach
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks

“Venice Beach is popping like live shrimp dropped on a hot wok”

Another narrative with Parks lyrics, another picture of an area in LA, this one Venice Beach, with its artists, hucksters, and homeless people all painted exquisitely in a few words.

Live Let Live
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks

And this, the only song with Parks’ lyrics, is far and away the best thing on the album. I still remember being in the audience for the first performance of this suite, and my breath being literally taken away by the opening line of this one: “I’ve got a notion we come from the ocean and God almighty”.

Originally written for the film Arctic Tale, where it had different, inferior, lyrics (also by Parks), the song owes more than a little to “Sail on Sailor” – in particular the “live let live not die” chorus is almost identical to the earlier song’s “sail on, sail on, sailor”. But where that earlier song was a heavy, distraught, rock song, this is a gentle, life-affirming, waltz. The impressionistic lyrics about whales, the Pacific ocean, the love of a benevolent God, and the smallness of humanity compared to the vastness of the world, fit perfectly with the simple but catchy melody, to create something that perfectly fits with the album’s recurring themes and motifs (heartbeats, the water, rebirth, California) but transcends them. A beautiful little song.

Mexican Girl
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Scott Bennett
Lead vocals: Brian Wilson with Scott Bennett

This, on the other hand, is generally considered the weakest song on the album by most fans. I can see the argument for it being weak – lyrics like “hey bonita muchacha/let me know that I gotcha” are not the strongest, and the song itself is fairly simple. But there’s a catchiness and joy to this simple exercise in pseudo-Mexican pop that gives it a freshness that’s welcome. Not everything can be a masterpiece, and this doesn’t attempt to be anything more than a frivolous, light, interlude. On those terms, it works.

(Note: I’ve credited the lead vocals here to Wilson and Bennett, but there’s no credit in the album liner notes. Someone other than Wilson clearly takes lead on the “hey bonita muchacha” section, and to my ears it sounds like Bennett – on the live DVD, and in live performances, Wilson sang lead on that section, with Foskett harmonising, but it’s clearly different on the recording.)

Narrative: Cinco de Mayo
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks

Another short narrative section, this time about Mexican-Americans in LA, but connecting up to the themes of the next song, about the cinema.

California Role/That Lucky Old Sun (reprise)
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Scott Bennett/Haven Gillespie and Beasley Smith
Lead vocals: Brian Wilson with Scott Bennett

This was apparently originally written in the 1980s, under the title “Wondering What You’re Up to Now”. A ukulele-and-clarinet-driven vaudeville song reminiscent of 1920s pop (with a musical quote in the second verse from “Rhapsody in Blue”), this is another song about the California of the past, and of today. Its catchy swinginess (for the most part just shuffling between two chords) belies a rather downbeat lyric, about settling for something other than one’s dreams. (Bennett sings the lead on the first two verses, with his voice distorted as if through a megaphone, a la Al Bowlly or Rudy Vallee).

This segues into a vocal round, almost gospel-style, based around the phrase “roll around heaven all day”, with only tenuous connection to the song it’s ostensibly reprising (it sounds more like parts of Wilson’s own “Rio Grande”).

Narrative: Between Pictures
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks

Another short narrative section. “People fill their tanks with flights of fancy/Actors waiting tables with a method they can’t share”.

Oxygen to the Brain
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Scott Bennett

Another song which hits many of the late-Brian-Wilson-lyric cliches – Brian had a bad life, but now it’s good, and exercise is a good thing – but one that works very, very well, partly because of the contrast between the opening verse (sung almost as a nursery rhyme, “open up, open up, open your eyes/time, it’s time, it’s time to rise”) and the upbeat chorus. This is very similar to “Happy Days” from Imagination, but has little of that song’s discordant, jarring, nature. Here the dark past is very firmly past, something to be looked at from a distance, not something still affecting the singer, while the upbeat chorus is immediately catchy. A lovely little minor work.

Can’t Wait Too Long
Songwriter: Brian Wilson

A fragment of the 1967 song, lasting under a minute, played almost exactly as it was originally recorded. In live performance, this was one of the most moving parts of the suite, as footage of Wilson with his dead brothers was projected as the band sang “been…too…long”. It’s still impossible for me to hear this without thinking of that and being deeply moved. How well it works without that context, I couldn’t judge.

Midnight’s Another Day
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Scott Bennett

And this one is a song that is definitely improved by the context. A download of the demo was made available on Wilson’s website, and I thought it was a dull dirge with little to recommend it. Coming where it does in the album, though – and with slightly fuller production – this is heart-stoppingly beautiful.

Surprisingly, given that this is such a slow, emotional, ballad, it started life as an uptempo song called “Beatle Man”, in which Wilson asked how Paul McCartney and Elton John were doing these days and what they were up to (sadly, if a demo of that exists, it hasn’t made its way to me…)

However, Bennett felt that the suite as it stood was too lightweight – Wilson was happy, and writing happy music, and the album needed some more tonal variation. He took Wilson’s song, slowed down the tempo, and added new lyrics going over the old ground of Wilson having overcome his mental trouble, as well as adding the piano intro.

As a song, there’s really very little here, and it trades mostly on the emotional resonance of Wilson’s past. What power it has is mostly down to von Mertens’ orchestration and the sparse but effective backing vocals. But as the climax of the album, hearing Wilson singing “all these people make me feel so alone” is glorious. Context is all, here.

That Lucky Old Sun (reprise)
Songwriters: Haven Gillespie and Beasley Smith

Not really a reprise of the song, this is forty seconds of the tag to “Midnight’s Another Day”, with various band members singing “lucky old sun” over it, before Wilson finishes it with “he rolls around heaven all day”.

Going Home
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Scott Bennett

And the album comes to what should be its close with this great uptempo rocker, based on a similar riff to “Morning Beat”, and with some glorious honking bass harmonica provided by Tommy Morgan, the Wrecking Crew harmonica player who also provides the harmonica solo.

Another variation of the “rock, rollin’” riff, this had started life as a slow cowboy song in Wilson’s mid-90s sessions with Andy Paley. Little survives of that here, though, apart from the line “I’m going home” and the general melodic shape of the verse. This is much, much stronger, and probably the best uptempo track Wilson has done in the last thirty years. Fuzz bass, organ, layers of backing vocals, horns, all contribute to a great riff, which occasionally breaks off to provide a change of pace with a near-a capella section (“at twenty-five I turned out the lights…”).

This would have been the perfect closer for the album.

Southern California
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Scott Bennett

Unfortunately, the album actually ends with one of the dullest ballads Wilson has ever written – if he did write it at all, as several fans have suggested this is entirely the work of Bennett, who sings lead on the demo (Wilson sings lead on all the others except “California Role”), and who we know wanted there to be some more emotionally-heavy ballads on the album.

I don’t think it is all Bennett’s work – certainly the chord sequence for the verses is similar enough to “Love and Mercy”, “Your Imagination”, and half a dozen other Wilson songs that one can imagine this being something Wilson wrote on autopilot. And melodically, the verses are very, very similar to “Christmassy”, which Wilson had written around the same time.

So I think this is just a case of Wilson being less than inspired and knocking out a mediocre ballad which, as the end of the album, has to bear more weight than it can.

But I want to emphasise, this is dull, but isn’t bad. In fact, there’s not a single truly bad song on the entire album. The level of inspiration varies, but even at its worst (this song and “Forever She’ll Be My Surfer Girl”) the album is more than listenable. And even on this song, the very end (where the band go into another “Maumamayama Glory Hallelujah”) sends shivers down the spine.

And after the song ends, there’s a hidden track – a few seconds of a round based on the lines “roll around heaven all day” and “work, work, workin’ in the sun all day”.

That Lucky Old Sun is, to date, the last truly great work Brian Wilson has put out. And it is a great Brian Wilson album. Yes, Bennett, Parks, Sahanaja, and von Mertens all contributed, and yes their contributions were invaluable, but Wilson has always been a great collaborator, rather than a great solo artist per se. I’ve pointed out flaws with individual songs here, but far more often than not they work as songs, and it certainly works as an album. And what doesn’t come across in discussing individual tracks is how exuberant an album this is. This is the work of a man in his late sixties, but one who has fallen in love with making music again and is as excited by it as he was in his early twenties. It’s an absolute joy to listen to.

Bonus tracks

The album had bonus tracks on iTunes (“Oh Mi Amor” and “Message Man”) and on a Best Buy-exclusive CD issue (“Good Kind of Love”, “I’m Into Something Good”, and “Just Like Me and You”).

These songs don’t have songwriting credits in the album liners, and the credits here are as cited by Andrew G. Doe at http://www.esquarterly.com/bellagio/albumarchive5.html

Oh Mi Amor
Songwriter: Brian Wilson

Another exercise in Mexican-flavoured music, this is a rather ponderous ballad that sounds, in both production and melody, like it came from the Imagination sessions (it sounds like a second cousin of both “She Says That She Needs Me” and “Where Has Love Been”), though in fact it dates from 2006 and the same writing sessions that produced the album proper.

It has a slight flavour of “Besame Mucho” to it, and some nice trumpet playing, but it’s overlong and outstays its welcome.

Message Man
Songwriter: Brian Wilson

While “Oh Mi Amor” has a thick, layered, production, this track sounds very like Wilson’s 80s demos – other than some sweetening, there’s little here other than piano chords and some rudimentary drums, and some of the lead vocals are very sloppy. It’s a catchy little thing, and will appeal to those who, like myself, prefer Wilson’s more idiosyncratic songs, but like “Oh Mi Amor” it goes on too long – there’s about one minute’s worth of musical material here, and if it had stayed at just two verses, bridge, and fade, it would be nice. But it repeats over and over, and at nearly four minutes long it needed more ideas than it has.

Good Kind of Love
Songwriter: Brian Wilson
Lead vocals: Brian Wilson with Carole King and Scott Bennett

During the demo recording process, Wilson invited Carole King, one of his idols, to record with him. This version of “Good Kind of Love” was one of the two results. The basic track is the same as the one used for the album, and the only real notable difference is that King, rather than Taylor Mills, sings the harmony line on the chorus, and the song comes to a hard end rather than segueing into the next track.

I’m Into Something Good
Songwriters: Gerry Goffin and Carole King
Lead vocals: Brian Wilson and Carole King

The other product of the sessions was this take on the 60s classic, written by King with her then-husband Gerry Goffin. This sounds precisely like one would expect a late-period Brian Wilson home recording of this song to sound – bass harmonica, saxes, a sparse production, a shuffle beat, and some minor inventive changes to the song around the edges (an a capella “I’m in – I’m into something” break, and a repetition and key change at the end of the second middle eight). King’s vocal contribution consists of taking the odd line here and there (mostly the title line) and the first middle eight.

A nice, fun, but inessential, track.

Just Like Me And You
Songwriters: Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks

This song is not especially interesting as a piece of music, but is interesting as a reflection of Brian Wilson’s state of mind in 2006. Because there’s a writer not credited above – Murry Wilson, Brian’s father.

Wilson Sr. had been a songwriter himself, and an unsuccessful one. But Brian had always loved his music, and his favourite song by his father was one that had never even been registered with the copyright office, let alone recorded – a song called “His Little Darling and You”.

That song had started “When a bee loses his queen bee, his days are numbered, it’s true…”. Wilson reworked his father’s song, starting it instead with “when a man loses his woman, his days are numbered, it’s true”. As it is likely that no-one living other than Wilson has ever heard Murry Wilson’s song, it’s impossible to tell how much of it comes from “His Little Darling and You”, but a snatch of that song that Wilson once played on a TV documentary shows the melodic similarity. In his autobiography, I am Brian Wilson, Wilson describes the process of incorporating his father’s song as “one of the ways I was proving that I wasn’t afraid of making new things that were also old things. I wasn’t afraid of the past.”

And that’s as good a way as any of summing up the entire album.

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2 Responses to The Beach Boys on CD: That Lucky Old Sun

  1. Andrew Hickey says:

    I don’t normally do comments like this here, but I am aware that Bennett’s conviction, and what actually happened, have been the subject of some controversy in Beach Boys fandom. Here is *NOT* the place to debate that — I am not currently physically or mentally well enough to moderate such a discussion. Keep it to the message boards.

  2. TAD says:

    I’ve always seen the Lucky Old Sun album and the Gershwin album as companions. They were recorded back-to-back, for starters, but I think they’re also both albums that Brian was strongly committed to making.

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