The Beach Boys’ latest two-CD rarities release, 1967: Sunshine Tomorrow, covers a period of time that is one of their most ignored, but also one of their most artistically interesting.
The conventional wisdom about the Beach Boys is that after Pet Sounds, the band’s only really good album, Brian Wilson tried to make a follow-up, Smile. When he couldn’t finish that, in early 1967, he withdrew and the band became artistically worthless.
In actual fact, though, Smile was only one of four albums the Beach Boys worked on in 1967, and while two of them went unreleased at the time, all four are artistically far beyond what most of their contemporaries were doing. And this release shows that, by focusing on the other albums. This “what-Brian-did-next” compilation shows that the conventional wisdom is long overdue a rewrite.
Something *did* change in early 1967 for the Beach Boys, but it wasn’t a lack of artistic ambition. Rather it was a new direction which, unlike Smile, didn’t fit the context of what everyone else was doing at the time.
When Brian scrapped Smile, he rerecorded great chunks of the material for Smiley Smile, an album which I still think is Smile‘s artistic equal — which is to say as good as any music ever recorded. That album took a handful of Smile songs and a lot of its musical motifs, and retooled them in a completely new direction. The lyrics for the newer songs weren’t Van Dyke Parks’ allusive, metaphorical, brilliance, but were instead direct, silly, often joking. But the music was truly astonishing.
Where the Smile music is dense baroque-psychedelia, Smiley Smile is lo-fi ethereal garage-psych. For much of the album the instrumentation consists only of a specially-detuned piano and a Baldwin organ, but the vocal arrangements are complex and otherworldly. Quite simply, Smiley Smile sounds utterly unlike any other album ever made. It’s an album which, twenty-two years after I first heard it, still staggers me. I find it utterly impossible to comprehend how a human mind could conceive of music like that. It’s as if the Venn-diagram intersection of Zappa’s Absolutely Free and Ruben and the Jets, the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour, and an album of Gregorian chant was drenched with lysergic-fuelled love for humanity.
And listeners have missed the point of that album for decades, because so many people are convinced it was an attempt at self-sabotage, since it’s not what they expected from the band. But listening to the band’s work after that shows that this is a very clear, deliberate, stylistic move. Because the stripped-down-instrumentation, Baldwin-organ-and-vocals, approach is one that Brian decided to apply to more than just the Smile material.
First up came Lei’d In Hawaii, an attempt at a live album, in which the band applied that sound to their own past material. Two live shows were recorded in Hawaii, and when the tapes proved unusable the band performed a live-in-the-studio set, which was compiled into an album with the intention of adding audience noise. Songs like “Help Me Rhonda” and “California Girls” were reinvented as sparse, gentle, slow-paced ballads with an empty-but-organic sound a million miles away from the Spectoresque density of the originals, as were covers of current hits such as “The Letter” and “With A Little Help From My Friends”. Lei’d In Hawaii was left unreleased, but it’s a startling piece of work — an almost amateurish-sounding record that has a gentle beauty to it despite its shoddiness.
And the reason it was left unreleased was because the Beach Boys decided instead to turn that same aesthetic towards yet another genre. Wild Honey, the fourth album they recorded in 1967, and the second they released, was an attempt to take the style of Smiley Smile and apply it to R&B-flavoured garage rock. The songwriting takes a back-to-basics turn, with lyrics like “I’m gonna love you every single night/because I think that you’re doggone outasight”, but the album is surprisingly strong, thanks mostly to the discovery that Carl Wilson could easily vie with a young Stevie Wonder when it came to soulful vocals.
All three of those albums show a clear, consistent, artistic direction being applied to pretty much every genre in current popular music in 1967 — a certain instrumental sloppiness and sparseness combined with an astonishing precision and density in the vocals. And 1967: Sunshine Tomorrow pulls much of this material into a double-CD package that makes the case that this was a completely valid stylistic approach.
The first CD opens with the Wild Honey album, in full, remixed into stereo for the first time (apart from the last track, “Mama Says”, which was recorded in mono and can’t be remixed). The remix into stereo reveals just what a dissonant, odd, album this actually is — the stereo separation and clearer sound allow you to hear the buzzing, aggressive, almost garage-punk sound of the individual instruments, even as the album itself is still a light, floaty, gentle thing. Hearing the album with fresh ears, “Aren’t You Glad” and “Country Air” in particular stand out as two of the best things the Beach Boys ever did. The only unfortunate thing here is that the organ is missing from “How She Boogalooed It” (Noel Gallagher’s favourite Beach Boys record, fact fans) when that’s the most interesting instrumental element of the track (it’s present on the solo, where they just paste in the mono mix, but absent elsewhere).
After this we get a series of previously-unheard versions of songs recorded during the Wild Honey album but left off the album — an extended mix of “Lonely Days” (which doesn’t add much to the short version we already had), a glorious new mix of the 1967 “Cool Cool Water”, a much funkier, more “Wild Honey sounding” version of “Can’t Wait Too Long”, and a version of “Time To Get Alone” with the 1967 instrumental track and just Carl and Brian’s vocals. These are then followed by various outtakes and instrumental versions of Wild Honey material, and live versions of five of the album’s tracks.
Disc two opens with alternate versions of much of Smiley Smile. Unlike Wild Honey, Smiley Smile has already had a stereo remix (in 2012), and so there’s no presentation of the full album here — and the overlap between Smiley Smile and Smile means that session material for some songs was covered thoroughly on the 2011 Smile Sessions box set. But we still get some glorious music here — a lovely instrumental stereo mix of “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter”, a faster take on “With Me Tonight”, an alternate version of the lovely vocal tag to “Wind Chimes”, and more.
After this, and a brief instrumental outtake (which sounds like a bit of an early version of “Time to Get Alone”, we get the full Lei’d in Hawaii album, in its original 1967 mono version. Much of this has been released piecemeal on other rarities collections, but hearing the proper mixes all in one place, there’s a cohesion to it that makes it a clear artistic whole. There are particular highlights — “God Only Knows” and “Good Vibrations” show off Carl Wilson’s vocals beautifully — but the whole thing is worth listening to as an album.
After that, we have a cover of Wayne Fontana’s “Game of Love”, with Brian and Mike singing lead doubled at the octave, recorded for Lei’d in Hawaii but left off the album master, and a couple of alternate versions of Lei’d material (including a new mix of “With a Little Help From My Friends” that corrects the speed of Bruce’s slowed-down vocals).
There are then three live tracks from the actual Hawaii concerts — a previously unreleased (and not very good) surf instrumental, “Hawthorne Boulevard”, a version of the band’s first single, “Surfin'”, with Brian adding an organ part which would eventually become the basis of “Do It Again”, and a performance of “Gettin’ Hungry” (a Smiley Smile track otherwise unrepresented on the set). There are also two recordings from the rehearsal for the concerts — a partial run-through of “Hawaii”, and a rather wonderful performance of “Heroes & Villains”, which shows that the Beach Boys *could* perform Smile material live if they wanted.
To finish off, there are a few live recordings from the band’s winter 1967 tour, Brian’s 1967 solo performance of “Surf’s Up” in a longer edit with several false starts, and an a capella mix of the Lei’d in Hawaii version of “Surfer Girl”.
This set is never going to have massive commercial appeal — this is strange, sloppy, “unprofessional”-sounding music. It won’t win many new fans. but for those of us who love this strange but beautiful phase of the Beach Boys’ career it makes a perfect belated companion to the stereo Smiley Smile and the first disc of The Smile Sessions. It’s music like no other, and in a just world *this* would be the music whose fiftieth anniversary was accompanied by broadsheet thinkpieces.
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