Dedicated to the obscure singles and lesser known bands of the rock era. Somebody's gotta do it.
Thursday, October 3, 2013
10 Reasons Why To Like The Beach Boys
By Jon Hunt
Many years ago, in the Before Time, I co-ran* a website and message board called The Smile Shop. This website — er, and message board — was dedicated to the Beach Boys, and particularly, to their “lost” psychedelic-era masterpiece Smile, which, if you’ve been following along at all, you’ll know finally came out in boxed set form a couple years ago. At the height of the Smile Shop’s popularity, we were the biggest Beach Boys site on the web, bigger even (though I can’t prove it, but I’m reasonably certain) than Brian Wilson’s own site.
I say all this not to brag, but just to point out how damn immersed in Beach Boys culture I was (and still am, sorta). So when I tell you that I am utterly astonished and flummoxed that the notion that the Beach Boys were awesome has not permeated to every single corner of God’s creation, you will not think I’m insane. If you’re one of these people who (still!) think they were just some goofy “sun and fun” type band, the kind your mom — shit, your grandma — used to like back when they were “bobby-soxers” or whatever** — well, I have something to tell you. The Beach Boys? They’regood. And I don’t just mean “good” as in “good for a fun little laugh once in a while” but, you know, life changing good
Hm. Don’t believe me? Don’t blame you. The Beach Boys have been, throughout their long and storied career, massively successful self-sabotagers. Every time their reputation starts to improve, they commit brutal seppuku, falling on the sword of stupidity over and over again. Example? Their 50th anniversary reunion tour and album last year is a good one. It was massively successful. The band were touring huge arenas, appearing in news broadcasts, selling albums, and generally spreading good will about the band around the world. Lead singer Mike Love was giving interesting interviews and not sounding like a complete asshole for the first time in his life. But what does he do? He essentially breaks up the band again, for the umpty-ump time, and goes back to touring little casinos and minor-league baseball parks as “The Beach Boys,” featuring himself.
This is literally the fiftieth time something like this has happened over the course of their career (maybe about once a year, twice a year starting in like ’68 to make up for lost time). So if you think they’re a bunch of dorks? Not your fault. But I’m here to tell you it’s not true. This is a band with a catalog full of astonishing songs. Not just good songs, mind, but astonishing songs, the kind of stuff you run across once in a lifetime and it blows your head off your neck and you wonder how you lived without it for so long. They had not one but two certified genius songwriters (Brian and his brother Dennis) and a couple other guys who wrote some pretty awesome stuff too (other brother Carl and Al Jardine). And they could sing drop-dead five part harmonies effortlessly, as easy as you brush your teeth or put on socks. And they had a great frontman in Mike Love — no, no, don’t argue, it’s absolutely true.
In fact, I’ll go on record as saying they’re the best band in the world, ever. They’re certainly my favorite. This will never change. Proof? Well — the worst breakup of my entire life was set to a Beach Boys soundtrack. This woman ripped my heart out Temple of Doom style (while I was still alive!), stomped on it, and then laughed like some kind of cartoon James Bond villain, all to the tune of “When I Grow Up To Be A Man,” and it didn’t kill the Beach Boys for me. That, my friends, is saying something.
So upon the advent of the release of Made In California, a massive, career-spanning six disc boxed set that you all should own if you like music even a little bit, here are ten songs (from the box!) that will totally change your mind about the Beach Boys. Sun and fun? Oh, sure, fine — but they were so much more besides.
1. “Surf’s Up.” The song sounds like it’s gonna be some kind of light, disposable “fun-in-the-sun” tune, but that’s the joke. In fact, it is the best, and deepest, and most stunningly gorgeous song ever written. The centerpiece of the lost Smile album, and never properly finished, the version we have here is a patchwork finished later by Carl, pieced together from Brian’s throwaways (an instrumental track here, a solo piano version there). It says something that even in this semi-finished bastard form, it is still a work of such stirring beauty that you will not even believe it exists. Lyrics are by the mercurial Van Dyke Parks, and if you don’t understand ‘em — “columned ruins domino” gave Mike Love pause, for sure — that’s part of the point. The phrase “surf’s up” does appear, but is followed by “come about hard and join the young and often spring you gave” — yeah. It’s hard to even describe a work of such stunning beauty — best that you just go and listen to it, and be well.
2. “(Wouldn’t It Be Nice) To Live Again.” If there’s something the Beach Boys were known for, besides crippling self-sabotage, it was not knowing a good song when it struck them on the head, and releasing garbage whilst leaving astonishing songs — like this one— to languish in the vault for decades. This one’s by brother Dennis, and is a perfect example of his way with a stone-cold heartbreaker. Dennis’ writing, not Brian’s, was an influence on an entire British wave of songwriters from the Super Furry Animals to the Charlatans UK — he was a gritty, soulful dude, and his gravely voice belied tremendous, heartfelt pain and anguish perfectly. This song was earmarked for theSurf’s Up album (also featuring my #1 choice!) but a dispute with the other band members led to Dennis pulling this song. And so it sat, in the vault, unreleased (and consideredunreleasablefor whatever reason) since 1972. Smart.
3. “Wild Honey.” After the (quite literal) insanity of the Smile era, Brian turned his attention to the selection of loose, soulful, super-cool songs that made up the massively-underrated Wild Honey album. Driven by Brian’s weirdly out-of-tune Chickering piano (he had it tuned that way purposely — who knows why), the rough-and-ready vocals of Carl Wilson singing just out of his range, and a niftily insistent theramin, this song is a perfect example of how the Beach Boys could rip into rock and roll as brilliantly as any of the “heavier” groups that became more well-known and well-loved in the late ’60s. And if you wanna know where the “lo-fi” vibe that you know and love from indie rock today came from? This album.*** These guys were some of the first dudes to mess with the living-room recording vibe and make it super cool.
4. “Catch A Wave.” Let’s not speak ill of the surf era of the Beach Boys, okay? Much like the whole “the later Beatles were better than the early Beatles” meme, the notion that surf music was somehow disposable has been an undying thing, and I don’t think it’s remotely true. This little gem has always been one of my favorite songs from the early era, at least partly because its seeming simplicity belies a super-complex chord structure that you barely notice because it’s so seamlessly rendered. That and the cool-as-hell organ break in the middle, and the awesome line “they’ll eat their words with a fork and spoon” — that’s punk rock, motherfuckers. Plus, if you wanna talk about capturing the vibe of summer, California, the passion and energy of surfing and the feeling of being a teenager all in one song? Well, this one’s got it.
5. “Slip On Through.” Another Dennis gem, this one a conga-driven soul-shaker from the Sunflower album, the band’s best non-Brian-led LP from 1970. My favorite one to play to people who think they know the Beach Boys — it pretty much is everything (soulful! funky! loose! rockin’! straight-up cool!) that people don’t associate with the group. Once again, Dennis’ gritty voice rips into this one, and it’s the perfect example of why every woman in the world wanted to shag that bastard from 1970 through his death in the early 80s despite the fact that he looked like a homeless dude — he just oozes pure, undiluted, slightly rough sex.
6. “You’re Still A Mystery.” In the mid-’90s, the Beach Boys attempted to reunite, under the aegis of producer Don Was, around a selection of excellent songs written by Brian Wilson and Andy Paley. The buzz was tremendous — Brian was writing stuff up to his ’60s par! This was going to be Pet Sounds vol. 2! And of course, as happens every other damn time, the entire thing was sabotaged by sheer stupidity from within. Somebody (Carl? Mike?) killed the project dead for whatever reason — didn’t like the songs, probably, though they are undeniably great, though completely out of time (as you’d hope they’d be). This little latter-era gem is Brian post-therapy writing and singing at his idiosyncratic best — only Brian could make a goofy melody like the verses here work, and the choruses are straight-up strange, and yet the whole thing gels together magnificently. One of about a billion “could-have-beens” with the band that never happened.
7. “All This Is That.” There’s something to be said about the early-’70s Beach Boys. Brian Wilson was in the throes of mental illness and participating only fitfully, and the band found itself led by brother Carl Wilson into the realm of loose, cool, smooth stuff that sounds today quite prescient (a little yachty, frankly!) and quite timeless. This song is off the ill-named Carl And The Passions: So Tough album (yes, it was a Beach Boys album — why they named it that is baffling as hell, and undoubtedly confusing to audiences at the time) and is a very cool Brian/Mike co-write about Transcendental Meditation that sounds effortlessly spiritual, slightly psychedelic, and utterly gorgeous at the same time. A propellant electric keyboard lick burbles under one of Mike’s best and sweetest vocals — if you need any reason to ditch your “Mike Love sucks” nonsense, here you go, folks. The very best song to use the phrase “jai guru deva om,” and if you look up what the other song is, that’s saying something.
8. “Let Us Go On This Way.” In 1976, Brian Wilson came back from intense therapy with demonized**** psychologist/master manipulator Eugene Landy with a head full of super-strange ideas and a desire to lead the Beach Boys into the future with this new thing he’d discovered, the synthesizer. Oh, but folks: he doesn’t use the thing like you’d think he would — this is not Brian Wilson Does Kraftwerk. Basically he set the thing up to be the buzziest, fartiest bass in the entire universe, and paired it up with weirdly stomping rockers like this one (yeah, that’s Brian himself on pounding drums) to make up the Love You album, the weirdest and most polarizing album in the entire Beach Boys catalog. It’s a strange album by any standards — lots of shouty rockers, weird (almost stupid) lyrics (an ode to “Johnny Carson!” an ode to the “Solar System”) and tons and tons of oddly-appealing moxie. I love it, of course. If you’re, say, a Daniel Johnston fan, you might too.
9. “Cabin Essence.” Another from the Smile album. If you wanna know why people are so obsessed with this damn album, here’s the perfect encapsulation. Almost (but not quite) finished by Brian during the era itself (with only a lead vocal added later by Carl), this is Smile to the max — oblique lyrics about Western Expansion and Olde-Timey America, arrangements so dense you can’t even see through ‘em, and Brian’s patented cut-and-paste editing style that started on “Good Vibrations” and continued throughout this era (and was one of the reasons he couldn’t finish this damn thing — the pieces just wouldn’t fit together, dammit!). It’s psychedelic as hell, but in a different way than you’re probably used to — this is drug trippin’ Old West style, using sounds and instruments and arrangements and onomotopaeic clanking to evoke mood and vibe and mental imagery. Plus: the lyric “over and over the crow cries, uncover the cornfield,” which led Mike Love to question the entire album, led Van Dyke Parks to storm off angrily and might have led to the entire thing’s dissolution, one way or t’other.
10. “Friends.” After the heady music of Smile was Brian’s undoing, and after a little time to relax with the cool and soulful Wild Honey, Brian came back with one of the best albums of his, and the band’s, career, the then-neglected-but-now-beloved Friends. It sold like zero copies in ’68, when everybody was in love with Cream and heavy guitar (man!), and sounds so wackily out of time it could have come from 1868 rather than 1968. But god damn, is it beautiful. It’s an album of low-key, candlelit beauty, Brian Wilson in love with the joys of home and family and simplicity, and featuring heart-warming arrangements and pretty songs and magnificent singing. The title track is one of the best of the best of the thing, an ode to friendship that contains the cool line “I talked your folks out of making you cut off your hair” — yeah, that kind of thing. The very definition of heartfelt, and more emo than a Bon Iver record, this thing could be released today and put Sufjan Stevens right out of a damn job.