The Beach Boys and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

There could be some artistic justification for defacing the Mona Lisa — drawing a Groucho Marx moustache and glasses on it, spraypainting a green Mohawk on, or whatever. You might not improve the painting, but it’s possible you could get people to look at it a different way, maybe get them to question what they think of art, make some kind of artistic statement. It would probably be a facile one, and it’s unlikely it would be one worth making, but it’s not outside the bounds of possibility.

However, if you were to take the Mona Lisa and make a couple of tiny, subtle, changes — increasing the amount of shadow around her mouth so that the smile was slightly less ambiguous, and adding an extra few millimeters to her dress, to cover up the tiny amount of cleavage she’s showing — in order to make it more palatable to audiences for whom even the tiniest hint of ambiguity or sexuality would be too much… well, there’d be no possible justification for that kind of desecration.

To change the subject completely…

In recent years, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra has had chart successes by taking the recordings of two of the greatest vocalists of the last century, Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison, removing their vocals from the context in which they were carefully placed by those peerless artists, and placing them in new contexts which perform a sort of cargo-cult imitation of the surface elements of 19th century Western art music, in the hope of convincing people who don’t like music, but who have a vague memory associating popular songs from their youth with happiness, and who believe that slapping an orchestra on something makes it classier than the same music without an orchestra, to buy it.

Sadly, this tactic has proved a commercial success, and has allowed the estates of those performers (estates that are losing money as their fanbase dies off and younger generations show little interest in their work) to “reinvigorate their IP” or some such argument.

I haven’t listened to those albums myself, as I have no desire to witness the corpses of men I admire being violated for commercial gain, no matter how “classy” the violation. However, the latest release in this series, with the Beach Boys, is slightly different in that two thirds of the Beach Boys (in the lineup that recorded most of these songs) are still alive, including Brian Wilson and Mike Love, who between them wrote or co-wrote and sang lead on almost all of them (Wilson also produced all but two of the original tracks). They have given their consent to the album being created, although they appear to have had no active participation, and so I have no ethical problem with this. Aesthetic problems are another matter.

(Just to be clear — I have no objection in principle to the use of works by dead artists as a source for remixing and creating new art. I have a *tremendous* ethical objection to that new art being presented under the name of that dead artist, as an improved version of their work. It’s disrespectful to both the audience and to the artist. You could probably make a fun film by editing together bits of Citizen Kane, the 1940s Batman serial, and stock footage to create a film about how Batman was secretly Charles Foster Kane. If, however, you put that out as “Orson Welles’ Batman!” with loads of sanctimonious press releases about how you were respecting Welles’ art and making it relevant for a new generation, and how it was the film that Welles would have made had he only had today’s technology, you’d be behaving reprehensibly.)

Now, I happen to think it’s very hard to improve on Brian Wilson’s original productions, but it would theoretically be possible to create something that was worth listening to using his work as raw materials. The Beatles’ Love album, for example, which repurposed bits of Beatles recordings in unusual new juxtapositions, was a surprisingly worthwhile record. It didn’t improve on the originals, but it made for genuinely interesting listening, and I’m glad I own a copy, and still listen to it every so often.

However, making a record like that would involve “worth listening to” being a criterion used in the creation of the album. After listening to this (though thankfully not buying it, as I’m not such a completist that I need to own a “new” Beach Boys album which contains not one note of new Beach Boys vocals), it’s very apparent that nobody involved actually gave any thought to whether anyone would ever actually listen to the thing.

To start with, there’s the song selection. As Tilt Araiza has pointed out on Twitter, there are several songs which could actually suit an orchestral treatment. The obvious example is “Surf’s Up”, a song with which most of the fanbase under fifty are familiar, which is one of the band’s greatest achievements, and which, crucially, was originally intended to have an orchestral arrangement for its second half — an arrangement which was never recorded, because Smile was scrapped. That would, simply, be the most obvious choice for anyone doing this who cared about creating something someone might want to listen to. But “Surf’s Up” is not on the album.

Instead, I can tell you right now what the algorithm for selecting these tracks was, without having to ask anyone — and it is an algorithm; a very simple one. Take the typical 40-song setlist that Mike Love’s touring Beach Boys play on tour, when they’re playing theatres so they do a few songs from Pet Sounds on top of their standard hits set. Scrap any songs for which it’s impossible to get an isolated vocal from the multitracks (so no surf or car songs, other than “Fun Fun Fun” and “Don’t Worry Baby”, because they were mostly recorded too early). Scrap the Love solo songs. Scrap anything which wasn’t written by a Beach Boy (so no “Do You Wanna Dance”, “Barbara Ann”, “Rock and Roll Music”, or “Then I Kissed Her”). You’re left with roughly sixteen songs — the sixteen songs which appear on this album.

Note that this process does not include anything like thinking which songs would benefit from orchestration.

Now, second, they’ve added a huge dollop of pretension, to allow the consumers (and this really is aimed at “consumers”, not an audience) to think that what they’re getting is high art. So, for example, the opening instrumental track is called “California Suite”. It’s a single ninety-second piece. Personally, I hold the old-fashioned view that words should be used to communicate meaning, rather than used at random to add a patina of pseudo-class, and so I would only use the word “suite” to describe a suite, rather than a single piece, but then I suppose that’s why nobody puts me in charge of “prestige” projects for major labels.

Then there’s the general incompetence of the mixing. If you or I, or someone else with a sense of musicality, were going to do a project such as this, we’d probably think that the appeal of the album was hearing the Beach Boys’ vocals in an orchestral setting, so you’d want to have the vocals sitting in the mix in such a way that it sounded like the Beach Boys were, you know, singing with the orchestra. You’d spread the vocals out through the stereo mix in the same way you spread the orchestra out, and you’d have them with the same sort of sonic ambience as the instruments. You’d mix the vocals up, and have them prominent, but create a stereo picture that rewarded close listening.

However, if you’re the producers of this album, what you do instead is put a mono dump of the isolated vocals dead centre of the stereo spectrum, then pan half the orchestra hard left, and the other half of the orchestra hard right, slathering the orchestra with digital reverb, so it sounds like there are three isolated groups of musicians, all in different acoustic spaces, which happen coincidentally to be playing the same song. But not in a good way.

(Not *all* of the songs have the vocals in mono — “Disney Girls”, for example, has them with a fairly wide spread — but almost all have them either actually in mono or far more tightly centred than they should be).

And then, finally, there’s the orchestrations themselves. For the most part, these tend to reproduce the original arrangements as closely as possible, but then add some strings running up and down a chromatic scale or playing a pad or something equally unimaginative. Often there’ll be some horns doubling some of the vocal lines in the same range, mixed louder than the vocal part so it’s drowned out. There is not one example here of anything even slightly interesting.

To take the two worst tracks as examples… “Disney Girls” actually does attempt to rearrange the original quite a bit. Unfortunately, while “Disney Girls” is a great record, it’s largely great because Bruce Johnston’s natural schmaltz is restrained and tempered by the mandolin-and-Moog oddness of the arrangement. Replace that with syrupy strings, and the whole thing becomes like drowning in candyfloss.

At the other extreme is “Fun Fun Fun”, where the orchestra attempts to reproduce the original arrangement near-exactly (and indeed it sounds like it uses large parts of the original instrumentation), so you have what sounds like the original record, but with the instruments spread out over the stereo spectrum while the vocals still all sit in the middle in mono, and with a load of strings playing the Chuck Berry riffs as well, because nothing says driving celebration of teenage freedom and rebellion like twenty violinists playing in unison. And while they reproduce *almost* all of the original arrangement, what they don’t reproduce is the repeated drum fill at the end, which is one of those exciting moments in Brian Wilson productions where a new element is introduced in the fade which kicks it up a notch — because God forbid you include anything exciting in the arrangement.

I *would* say you should only buy this album if you’ve ever said to yourself “you know, what I want to hear more than anything else in the world is ‘Kokomo’, but with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra playing the synthesiser parts”… except even then, there’s a better option. In 1998, Bruce Johnston put together a project called “Symphonic Sounds: The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Plays The Music Of The Beach Boys”, in which members of the Beach Boys and guest singers re-recorded Beach Boys tracks (many of them the same ones that appear here) with the RPO, who also recorded a couple of longer pieces combining themes from various other Beach Boys songs.

That album is often regarded as one of the nadirs of the Beach Boys’ career, and I certainly don’t recommend anyone actually listen to it, but at least that was someone’s passion project, made with care, because it was something somebody wanted to have exist in the world. It was not, in any way, a good album by most standards, but it had a reason to exist outside of pure commercial gain, and there are moments of interest in it (albeit fleeting).

So in one sense, at least, this album has done what all great art should do — it’s made me reassess my opinions, and challenge my previously-held belief. Suddenly, Symphonic Sounds isn’t seeming nearly as bad as it was.

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6 Responses to The Beach Boys and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

  1. Andrew Gaines says:

    I have not even heard this album and hope I never will.
    This is more than just putting a mustache on the Mona Lisa. Its just slapping whitewash all over it.
    Why? (oh okay money) and they really can’t justify the 50th Best of again
    Who will buy this?
    What will they do next? send a virtual reality band in their prime on tour to promote the album?. . .oh, hold on that has been done hasn’t it?
    I am looking forward to the “Friends” re-release later in the year – unless this has now taken its place.

  2. TAD says:

    I listened to a few tracks online (Heroes & Villains, Disney Girls, Kokomo, Warmth of the Sun, etc.). The whole thing just feels unnecessary, to me.

  3. Susan says:

    Thank you for saving me from having to listen to this.

  4. David Lewis says:

    Pull quote ‘great art. It made me reevaluate…’ Andrew hickey.

  5. Ian Alexander-Barnes says:

    I’ve only heard a couple of the tracks but it seems that my (low) opinion won’t be improved by listening to more!

    With regard to ‘Now, I happen to think it’s very hard to improve on Brian Wilson’s original productions, but it would theoretically be possible to create something that was worth listening to using his work as raw materials’ I think Atticus Ross’s work for the Love & Mercy film score might qualify.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Absolutely, yes, that score was absolutely fascinating. Don’t know why it didn’t occur to me.

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