The letter B is particularly ripe for recording artists. The Band, Black Sabbath, Blur, Bowie, father and son Buckley, Lindsey Buckingham, Bee Gees, Burt Bacharach, John Barry, James Brown, Black Keyes, Solomon Burke, Big Star, Harold Budd, Belle and Sebastian, Roy Buchanan, Be-Bop-Deluxe, The Byrds, Beck, The Beta Band, The Bloody Beatles. You can even have Bad Company but you can’t have Bjork, an artist who for me is about as welcome and pleasant as a livid ingrowing scrotum hair. Regardless, even Bjork has a tiny space in my music collection and every one of the others have released music of greatness at some point or other, but in my world the letter B will always be thoroughly owned by just one act, a place earned for making the most beautiful music that the modern age has to offer. Welcome, dear reader, to The Beach Boys.
It is surprising, I suppose, that I love The Beach Boys so much. For a start they have one of the worst band names ever – if a group of teenagers who lived on a beach and were good at singing formed a band now even they wouldn’t call themselves The Beach Boys. And I’m also not a fan per se of beaches. I don’t mind being on a beach but I would much prefer a pool – less mess, less fuss, less sand, no one trying to rent you an umbrella. Everything just seems so much harder on a beach holiday. I also have to concede that The Beach Boys were never really cool. They didn’t look particularly cool most of the time and they never had the swagger of a fully paid up rock and roll outfit (though Dennis Wilson came pretty close). Look at them in the late 70’s with their beards and pot bellies and singing songs about roller skating children and you’ll see my point. But on the bright side they were dark, a hell of a lot darker than the image they gave off, and that they could be so dark and twisted and fucked up while making music so heavenly means that they found cool by alternative pathways.
Regardless of the name everyone knows what The Beach Boys sound like and there can’t be many people about who haven’t heard Surfin’ USA, Fun, Fun, Fun, California Girls, I Get Around, Barbara Ann and, of course, that twinkling thing of magic that is Good Vibrations. Even if they heard them by accident. Music history will tell you that Pet Sounds is a fabulous album, possibly the best ever, and that after that their genius in residence Mr Brian Wilson went bonkers, the rest of the band went to shit and that was it; not so happily ever after. You shouldn’t believe everything you read in the history books. No other big band matured quite so well. For a while, anyway. There is of course much to recommend from the early days though. The purity and growing depth of the music combined with the complexity of those blood brother harmonies helped to stack up a big pile of tiny, perfect pop nuggets: Farmer’s Daughter, The Lonely Sea, Catch A Wave, Little Deuce Coupe, Don’t Worry Baby (probably the first real sign that Brian Wilson was something really, really special), Wendy, Kiss Me Baby, Please Let Me Wonder (the first 20 seconds of which are exquisite) and Let Him Run Wild (heading into another palace of music altogether) are all nothing short of exceptional. There are plenty more, but start with those if you want to start anywhere.
Then came Pet Sounds and Good Vibrations. The album Pet Sounds (the title and cover art did it no favours) is not quite as good as they say but if you want to hear the level of genius involved find the acapella version of Wouldn’t It Be Nice on YouTube and clock it at 35 seconds in – a huge, shiny mesh of vocal dexterity, powerful yet constructed with such delicacy and precision that even Mozart would surely have nodded his approval. Sure The Beatles could put their voices together well but they were never, ever this good at it. Don’t Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder) and Let’s Go Away For A While are great too, and of course you also have God Only Knows, which is pretty much untouchable and as fine a song of any genre that I could care to name. But the album as a whole doesn’t really ever come alight and that’s not helped by having Sloop John B slapped in the middle of it, like an out of date Dairylea cheese slice in a wagyu beef burger. Good Vibrations is a great single and marks a definite full stop for the band. Up until this point they had had everything and then, just like that, they seemed to have nothing. Nothing except the music. Where other bands would have vanished The Beach Boys quite miraculously just seemed to get even better, only no-one wanted to listen anymore.
Three things happened to mark their precipitous demise: they pulled out of the Monterey Pop Festival, Brian Wilson went doolally and they failed to release their next album, the (what would have been) awesome SMiLE. SMiLE was meant to be their Sgt Peppers, the jewel in the pop crown of 1967, but it never even left the gate. The brilliant, glowing torch they had held for the last few years was dunked into a bucket of chicken shit and suddenly everyone just listened to other people’s music. SMiLE wasn’t properly released until 2011 though bootlegs of material were always available. It is a monumental achievement, the work of Brian Wilson as his mind crescendoed and unravelled at the same time. He giddily threw out breath taking vocal and melodic arrangements all over the place in an attempt to create some concept piece about an America that could only ever really exist in his head. It swoops and swirls from (apparent) infant simplicity to complex maturity in spaces of seconds and I would say is probably one of the essential American (or any) recordings of all time. Give songs like Cabin Essence, Our Prayer, Wind Chimes and Do You Like Worms the time they deserve and you’ll hear stuff no other band was even close to making at the time. And then rest your weary legs on Surf’s Up, a rich and melancholic symphony with a stunning finale against which I will always judge every other ending of every other song ever written.
By the end of 1967 it was as if The Beach Boys had never existed. At least not in America, who seemed to abandon them almost without a second thought. The SMiLE abortion was replaced with Smiley Smile, a very stoned and quite silly record but worth rummaging around in, even just for vocals in excelsis on Heroes And Villains and a very winsome version of Wind Chimes which ends on a whisper quiet, beautiful little coda that sounds like a gentle breeze could blow it away; it is a few seconds of music heaven. They delivered an album of some sort of white boy R&B on Wild Honey then went super cute with Friends, which is such a gentle, sweet, short little album you cannot help but be charmed into submission. Then came 20/20, which is a guilty favourite and where they finally released a few fragments from the SMiLE project. To beef those up they threw in their ‘back to the beach’ super single Do It Again, a fucking brilliant cover of I Can Here Music (where in the verses Carl Wilson pushes his voice into some level of glee that very few others have since been), Time To Get Alone and a strange yet also mightily good number called Never Learn Not To Love which was co-written by Dennis Wilson and, wait for it……..Charles Manson. Yes, that Charles Manson. Only this band could make a song by a properly deranged, murderous lunatic sound appealing. Going back to Time To Get Alone – there is an outtake floating around where you can hear the band take a deep gulp of air before delivering the final volley. There’s something very exciting about it, as if to appreciate The Beach Boys exhaling you must also recognise something astounding about them inhaling as well.
At this stage Carl Wilson had sort of become the leader. He was a podgy, soft faced kind of bloke and was clearly fond of all the love (as opposed to sex) that came wrapped around the band. His voice was always beautiful: creamy and clear and perfectly balanced. Mike Love may have come across as a sleaze but his bass lead perfectly underpinned the choir (provided he wasn’t being too nasal) while Al Jardine just skipped along pollinating and leading as required. Brian was still around and still had most of his angelic voice intact but his song writing contributions were becoming increasingly occasional and so the rest were obliged to fill in the gaps. They had formed Brother Records to release their music but as it was essentially a vanity label they still had to kneel before the big bosses if they wanted food on the table. America still weren’t very keen on them and that didn’t help, but they had managed to maintain some kind of a positive vibe in Europe and it was here that their records sold enough to justify releasing them at all. Thank heaven they did, though really heaven should be thanking them for lending it a soundtrack.
The next album, Sunflower, was a proper group effort, with everyone chipping in and gracing the whole thing with a peaceful, unified aura and a ‘this is who we are’ type of feel. Brian Wilson, despite all his problems was still capable of tossing out glorious mini masterpieces like This Whole World, which runs through countless chord and key changes in not much more than two minutes before finishing with a big fluffy pillow of harmony and a single doo-wop voice shooting up into space. Diedre is almost too sugary but is pretty enough to take anyway and Dennis Wilson really kicks into gear with the critic proof Forever, a song which would do well at any wedding of taste. The song Surf’s Up finally made an appearance on their next album along with a couple of crackers from Carl Wilson plus the bizarre-in-a-great-way A Day In The Life Of A Tree and the mournful, gracious ‘Til I Die, further proof that brother Brian wasn’t quite done yet. Surf’s Up, the album that homes them, also boasts a terrific cover image, a dark depiction of a bowed and seemingly broken American Indian brave, and is very well worth seeking out on vinyl.
(There are all sorts of lovely little obscure gems that can be mined from the 67 – 72 era so a quick shout out to a personal favourite: a jolly stab at Beach Boys Mexicana on the track San Miguel. It wins through sheer good nature and is topped by an ecstatic na-na-na-na chorus overlaying the outro which I could run on a loop for many hours. It’s also worth trying the official SMiLE Backing Vocal Montage for a bag of larynx tricks like no other. Oh, and Soulful Old Man Sunshine. And Meant For You. And Can’t Wait Too Long and…………………
Onwards – The Beach Boys recruited a couple of black South Africans (which for the time was a pretty ballsy thing to do) to bolster their sound and bring some fresh ideas. Along then came the very poorly named album Carl And The Passions – So Tough, which ended up selling about twelve copies but should not be dismissed as it is home to the exuberant white gospel of He Come Down (with a shit kickin’ “Yes I Believe It!!”), group vocal show-off Marcella and the impossibly lovely All This Is That. Becoming ever so slightly disorientated and worse, badly managed, the whole band shipped out to Holland to record their next set of songs, which they dredged deeply through their collective imaginations to end up calling, er, Holland. Holland is a great album, not just a great Beach Boys album. Sail On, Sailor is a touch over rated so instead you can try California Saga: California for a rousing display of pure cut harmony on the choruses, Carl Wilson’s never bettered Trader (a song of two halves; first pulsing and climbing and then hushed and ambient, neither half better than the other, both halves sublime) and Only With You, which is possible an even better wedding song than Forever.
At this point The Beach Boys may have been struggling to sell records but at least they were no longer worried about selling seats. They were gradually winning back the hearts of America live and filling bigger venues every year. Eventually this would leave them wallowing a touch as a straight forward nostalgia act, but in the mid seventies they were still trying their new material and it is a shame that they ended up giving in to Mike Love’s insistence that the only way forward was to go backwards. Poor Brian was in terrible shape both physically and emotionally. As a member of the group he wasn’t much more than a fat ghost, popping up here and there, once in a while, his once perfect voice shot through with all the cigarettes and booze and drugs he was shovelling down him. Those two South Africans didn’t last much longer either and so the band was split down the middle – the Wilson brothers with their endless self pollution made up only by the brilliance of their musical touch versus Mike Love and Al Jardine, who may have preached purity but in fact weren’t much better and besides, they had embraced Transcendental Meditation and so were officially full of shit.
Still, the music kept coming. 15 Big Ones was actually pretty successful as they had sold the public the myth that Brian was back to his best when if fact nothing could be further from the truth. Of those 15 big ones only about three are worth listening to more than once and of those three It’s OK is about the best of them and even that is only because it sounds so joyous and just so, well, Beach Boys. But Brian then tricked everyone by actually coming back and pretty much recording a solo album with the band as backing group. The Beach Boys Love You (which is about as Beach Boys an album title as you’ll ever get) is musical Marmite, and I am deeply grateful to say that I love Marmite. The album is full of squelchy synthesisers and Moogs and weird yet wonderful songs like Johnny Carson, Solar System and the brilliantly daft Honkin’ Down The Highway along with the heart wrenching I’ll Bet He’s Nice. I would say it is one of the handful of truly essential Beach Boys albums but you may say it is a stupid, puerile slab of immature dribble. I would also say it is just as sonically adventurous and ground breaking as any other album released in the year of punk and at the dawn of new-wave. Does that pique your interest? Thought not.
Things, inevitably, could only get worse. And so they did. The M.I.U Album has bad stuff all over it and it was clear that the Wilson’s weren’t getting their own way. However such is the way that they were able to scrape together a few great moments with the momentum and bounce of Pitter Patter and the sheer anguish of Dennis Wilson’s rasping voice crying out on My Diane, written by brother Brian and to be honest by now Dennis was easily in as bad shape with a self destructive drink and drug habit that would just about get him into the 80’s and then promptly leave his bloated corpse behind for the fish. L.A (Light Album) was slightly better but an eleven minute disco remake of their song Here Comes The Night was never going to be a good sign (though there is a strange perverse fascination in listening to it all the way through and grasping at the tiny moments of light that are buried within. Better do your ears a favour and head straight to Good Timin’, Lady Lynda and Baby Blue, the latter of which is supremely moving and wonderfully sung and very likely the last true moment of genius on a Beach Boys album.
Into the next decade and they dirtied us all with Keepin’ The Summer Alive which has little to recommend it. The next album (called simply The Beach Boys, presumably to avoid another awful title in a row) at least offered Where I Belong which may sound quite dated but has a vocal lead to die for from Carl and some energetic block vocals. From there it was Kokomo for the film Cocktail (both equally cheesy, both very successful) and then ‘collaborations’ with The Fat Boys and then Status Quo, which were about as artistically beneficial for the soul as they sound. Dennis had already died and then followed Carl and after that Brian wasn’t remotely bothered about hanging around with the rest of them who had dragged him out of bed all these years to play for his dinner. A brief 50 year reunion in 2012 was well received, but it was never going to go much beyond that.
The stories of The Beach Boys and their frequently appalling bad luck can sometimes seem almost funny if there wasn’t usually some lurid story cowered in the corner to go with them. What is pretty certain is that for all their flaws the majority of the group really did think that their music was a way of spreading love and joy; and to be honest they were right. It might seem corny and the last thing you’d expect from me but there is so much love in what they did and listening to their best stuff (and they did a lot of very, very good stuff) never fails to make me happier and often in awe at the same time. Their gift for creating moments of undiluted sonic beauty soared far higher than any other musical act of their or anyone else’s day. Their most beautiful music is literally the most beautiful of all the music that you can find and that is something to remember. I doubt we’ll see, or more importantly hear, another act quite like them. No wonder it was such a heavy burden to bear. I love The Beach Boys. And I think they love me back.
G N Hewitt. 07.05.2020