Saturday, March 27, 2021

Beach Boys

Discovering The Beach Boys is like falling into a black hole, emerging in a convoluted alternate universe of surf hits, novelty albums, endless compilations, abandoned projects, recycled themes and the greatest LP ever made with a horrible cover. Broadly speaking, the band's output can be classified into three phases (not unlike The Beatles): the early hits (1962 to 1965, a period that saw the band produce 10 studio albums, including some of their most iconic songs); Pet Sounds (released in May 1966); and post-Pet Sounds (a period that started with the release of "Good Vibrations" in October 1966 taking in death, addiction and Charles Manson, not to mention critical and commercial failure along the way).

The accepted narrative is that this period saw Wilson  spectacularly fall from grace following the high watermark of Pet Sounds, abandoning SMiLE in favor of pale copies of what SMiLE would have been, as drugs, paranoia, stress and underlying mental health issues turned the Beach Boy genius into a recluse. The truth is that the post-Pet era saw The Beach Boys produce some of the oddest, tenderest, most delicate and even funkiest music of their reign; a period that beckons re-examination. In the ashes were flowers and indeed, brilliance.

The obvious place to start is with "Good Vibrations," a towering pop symphony that manages to be both wildly inventive — a mixture of sawing cellos, Hammond organ, jaw harp, theremin, tack piano and otherworldly harmonies — utterly ecstatic and consummately addictive. It is one of two completed SMiLE tracks that appeared on Smiley Smile, alongside the grandiloquent "Heroes and Villains." These two songs, one might think, would be enough in themselves to make Smiley Smile a welcome addition to the Beach Boys' catalogue. And yet it remains one of the least popular albums in the band's oeuvre, criticized largely for what it isn’t — SMiLE — than appreciated for what it is: a decent if somewhat limited example of late 60s pop that leans on the avant-garde without falling headlong into the experimental abyss. Alongside these two tracks Smiley Smile, which was recorded in six weeks at Brian's makeshift home studio after work on SMiLE was halted, includes basic, re-recorded versions of SMiLE songs "Fire," which appears on Smiley Smile as "Fall Breaks and Back to Winter (W. Woodpecker Symphony"), "Vegetables," "Wind Chimes" and "Wonderful," as well as a handful of new tracks, some of which — such as "She's Goin' Bald — had their roots in the SMiLE sessions, while others (including "Gettin' Hungry" and "Little Pad") were totally new. Of these, "With Me Tonight" is the pick of the bunch.

Wild Honey, the Beach Boys' thirteenth studio album, was released in December 1967, just three months after Smiley Smile, a remarkably quick turnaround for a band who had spent six months recording "Good Vibrations" alone. Carl Wilson apparently called Wild Honey "music for Brian to cool out by," while others have claimed the album was an attempt to regroup as a living, breathing rock and roll band.

Typical of this charm is the title track, a barnstorming soul number with an impassioned, beautifully flawed vocal from Carl Wilson, which could hardly be further away from his angelic perfection on "God Only Knows." Other notables on the album include "Darlin'"; "Here Comes The Night," and "Mama Says," a one-minute a Capella vocal originally intended as a bridge section on SMiLE's "Vega-Tables."

From Friends (1968), two notables are from Brian, and just Brian, in a return to Pet Sounds days. "Passing By," which floats by on a cloud of wordless harmonies, and "Busy Doin' Nothin," a bossa nova shuffle with elegant flashes of acoustic guitar in which Wilson relates his day-to-day business ("The afternoon was filled up with phone calls/ what a hot sticky day") and gives detailed step-by-step directions to his Bel-Air mansion. It sounds effortless, a song Wilson tossed off in an afternoon to avoid cleaning his sandpit, but impressively so, a lazy summer's sigh transposed to vinyl. At the same time there is an immense sadness at the song's core, the sound of Wilson fiddling around, alone, in his California manse while his musical career turns to pot and his motivation slides.

Despite the ever-dwindling grasp on reality, how do we so easily dismiss Sunflower, or indeed, Surf's Up, the last three songs of which have SMiLE written all over them. "A Day in the Life of a Tree" is a parodist masterpiece, deeply touching and insightful, while "'Til I Die,'" is a haunting, fatalistic piece of pop surrealism; and I have probably said enough about the title track to serve as tribute. It's always the influences of others that intrigue me. John Wetton of King Crimson, Roxy and Uriah Heap named Surf's Up his favorite prog album of all-time, stating that "Surf's Up was a revelation. This collection from the iconic California surf-pop band shifted my parameters, blurring all the boundaries of my musical vocabulary. I marveled at Van Dyke Parks' mind-expanding poetry of the title track, wallowing in the glorious harmonies. Both composition and production absolutely floored me. The whole experience was my nirvana. And the cover? Mega prog!"

One's true admiration of Wilson's genius hopes to justify even the most flawed or troubled moments, or attempts to find the brilliance in the most jaded, drug-addled tracks; alas, they’re often not there. Brian's symptoms were real and not the stuff of YA, but if Holland is only a glimmer of Pet Sounds, then Beatles For Sale is but a glimmer of Help! This one, from an influence standpoint is Elvis Costello's muse, and this writer discovered it only because I liked the cover. Holland, as so many others have noted, is the great pendulum in the Beach Boys' post-Pet Sounds trajectory, and this writer is guilty of simply forgetting about The Boys from there onward, always looking back. But for album No. 19, The Beach Boys decided a change of scenery would do the band good and traveled to the Netherlands (transporting an entire recording studio with them) hoping it might spark inspiration in Brian, who was almost entirely absent for the Carl and the Passions LP. The plan pretty much failed. Brian only cared about his Mount Vernon and Fairway (A Fairy Tale) EP, and the album they submitted to Reprise was rejected for not having a commercial single. It worked to everyone's advantage, though, in that the band finished "Sail On Sailor," one of the best 70s Beach Boys songs, and one of the most collaborative - it has input from both Brian and Van Dyke Parks, some lyrical rewrites from manager Jack Reiley, and a lead vocal from Blondie Chaplin. 

While "Steamboat" is a bit slow and overly contemplative, its production is endlessly fascinating: so many different pieces come together to make the whole. Somehow, defying all odds, even Mike Love manages to be a positive part of the LP. While his part of the "California Saga," "Big Sur," while a Neil Young ripoff, is as good a melody as anything Mike ever wrote. The rest of the "California Saga" is mostly Al Jardine's, the third segment top notch (the second has some ridiculous narration in the middle, but what can you do?).

Don’t get me wrong, if your Beach Boys collection contains their greatest hits, Pet Sounds and 45 versions of "Surf's Up" and "Heroes and Villains," you’re good to go, but given the time, like Burgess Meredith in The Twilight Zone, check out The Boys at least through Holland.