Tuesday, 6 October 2020

The Beach Boys - A Blossom World (1966-1969)

Pet Sounds (1966)

Wouldn't It Be Nice/You Still Believe In Me/That's Not Me/Don't Talk (Put Your Head On My Shoulder)/I'm Waiting For The Day/Let's Go Away For A While/Sloop John B/God Only Knows/I Know There's An Answer/Here Today/I Just Wasn't Made For These Times/Pet Sounds/Caroline, No             

This was, of course the big one for The Beach Boys, coming only a few months after still putting out songs like Amusement Parks USA and Barbara Ann, the troubled but manically inspired Brian Wilson managed, somehow, to cobble together his Spectoresque idea of manifold musicians playing as many instruments as they could get their hands on and, multiple takes later, they came up with this, his meisterwerk. It is far more of a Wilson solo album than a Beach Boys one, although the rest of the lads' fantastic voices and harmonies are integral to the album. Also present, instrumentally, are layered strings, keyboards, saxophones, bells, whistles, harpsichords, flutes, Hawaiian instruments, the Theremin electronic synthesiser, car horns.... Wilson has them all in there, like a huge wall of sound even greater than Spector's. Just how he conceived of this seemingly out of nowhere is barely comprehensible. This was a year before Sgt. Pepper, remember. While this didn't directly inspire Pepper, what it did was push the boundaries of popular music right over the edge. Anything was possible in the studio now.

On to the songs. Wouldn't It Be Nice is actually a classic Beach Boys teen romance song that would have fitted quite nicely on previous albums. It has a superb keyboard intro though. It is simply a piece of pop perfection. I never, ever tire of it. The vocals, the harmonising, the refrain. Top quality. 

You Still Believe In Me was, I am sure, written by Wilson for his long-suffering wife, Marilyn, who saw him through what had been a difficult time for him, his fractured relationship with his father and, at times, bandmate Mike Love saw him close to a breakdown, along with his self-inflicted pressure trying to make what he wanted to be "the greatest album of all time". The song is classically-influenced in places and has a yearning vocal, and a honking car horn at the end, for some reason! 

That's Not Me has Wilson again looking into himself, talking about leaving "for the city" over some immaculate, melodic backing. This is a slow growing, catchy song that sticks with you after a while. 

Don't Talk is actually a Beatles-ish song, with Pepper-style drum backing in places, before The Beatles went there. George Martin must have been influenced by this, he really must.

I'm Waiting For The Day is another typical Beach Boys slow ballad but, as with the others, it is the massive orchestrated backing that makes it different to something like Surfer Girl, for example. On this album, Wilson takes the group's old, often barber-shop type vocals and backs them with the most experimental, inventive music, turning it into something really quite remarkable. It was almost symphonic in places. 

Let's Go Away For A While is a jazzy, cacophony of an instrumental. This really was ground-breaking stuff. Also notable is the shift from all songs being teenage love songs to many being earnest, philosophical, self-analytical numbers.

The uplifting, singalong Sloop John B was a last minute addition. No matter. Its great. Always has been. Some feel it sits incongruously. Not Me. I love it being there. 

Then comes Paul McCartney's favourite song of all time, the sublime God Only Knows. Is there a more perfect love song? I doubt it. I Know There's An Answer sees Wilson getting cynical and questioning about human behaviour over a lively backing that has hints of Then I Kissed Her about it. 

Here Today is another typical Beach Boys song given the big treatment, which lifts it from being an ordinary song into something more interesting. Some of the album's songs would just have been regular slow numbers on previous numbers. On here the inventive backing turns them into something altogether different.

I Just Wasn't Made For These Days is an intense, self-analysing piece from Wilson. The words are actually very sad and you realise what a miserable time he was going through, while creating this wonderful piece of work. Pet Sounds is actually an intriguing instrumental, saxophone-enhanced, but all sorts of other sounds in there. 

Caroline, No is a straight-up lovely song. No need for the kitchen sink in it, just a bit of addictive percussion and a few Ringo Starr drums before he started playing them like that.

What was a shame was that after this creative hit, we had the absolute nadir of the appalling, puerile and idiotic indulgence that was Smiley Smile. From the sublime to the ridiculous indeed. It would never get this good again for Brian Wilson, ever.


Smiley Smile (1967)

Heroes And Villains/Vegetables/Fall Breaks And Back To Winter (Woody Woodpecker Symphony)/She's Goin' Bald/Little Pad/Good Vibrations/With Me Tonight/Wind Chimes/Gettin' Hungry/Wonderful/Whistle In     

I have listened to this album over and over again, albeit periodically, over a period of 50 years, trying in vain to get its "genius". Each time I feel compelled to give it another go, and I do, listening to it in full, so this is not a simple rant from someone who doesn't like The Beach Boys. It is genuine criticism from someone who loves 85% of The Beach Boys' output.
The two clear quality tracks aside, I believe this to be the drug-addled, close to cracking doodles of one man and his nonplussed bandmates who just took some more drugs, drank a little more and went along with it for the ride. I simply refuse to accept that this is a work of genius, as so many people do. Let's look at the album's many offenders - Heroes And Villains and Good Vibrations apart, (unsurprisingly), the rest of it sounds like The Goons have joined the band in the studio...

Vegetables - Instrumentally quite appealing, but otherwise two minutes' of inane, puerile lyrics about vegetables, accompanied by crunching vegetables as a replacement for percussion. Oh yes, very clever. I could have done that at primary school.

Fall Breaks And Back To Winter (Woody Woodpecker Symphony) - Supposedly reminiscent of Tchaikovsky. Oh yeah? Two minutes of classically influenced music and a slight air of the Woody Woodpecker theme every now and again. Lord give me strength.

She's Going Bald - The album's nadir. Utter tripe. Bizarre lyrics abut a woman's hair falling out, and then some maniacal laughter followed by Goon-style noises. "Ying-Tong Tiddle-eye Po" indeed. Amongst all the penchant for influence and counter-influence in 1965-67 has nobody acknowledged The Goons' undoubted influence on this meisterwerk? - that was my little "joke" to go along with all the hilarity this album is supposedly chock-full of...

Little Pad - A shocker of a song about getting a flat/apartment. Noisy and goofy. Makes the worst of those surf/car songs sound like A Day In The Life.

With Me Tonight - At last a bit of potential, somewhere. Just. Irritatingly "barbershop" though, but a song in there. Just when it becomes moderately enjoyable - it ends. Sums up this "non-album" in so many ways…

Wind Chimes - Nonsense about wind chimes tingling outside his window. Honestly, I could have written that.

Gettin' Hungry - The best of the dross. An actual song at least. It would still be the worst cut on a decent album.

Wonderful - Similar feelings about this one to With Me Tonight. A reasonable song foundation fades out into a passage of bizarre nonsense. Then the song returns but by then he has totally lost me.

Whistle In - Not even worth bothering about really. A minute or so of musical doodling.Consider that the man who conceived this half-baked dross gave us Don't Worry Baby, God Only KnowsWouldn't It Be Nice, Caroline, No and Good Vibrations and one is in the realms of the totally incomprehensible.

The albums that followed are vast improvements. Wild Honey is nowhere near as bad as many would have us believe. Ditto FriendsSunflower, Surf's Up and Holland. As I write I am listening to tracks from Smiley Smile interspersed with ones from Sunflower. The difference is night and day - not even worthy of comparison.

Sorry everyone - It's not you. It's me. Must be. Everyone seems to rate this tosh. The Smile Sessions are even worse. What was it about 1966-68 - everyone seemed to think they had to release some "experimental" or "minimalist" tosh. If it was not stuff like George Harrison's Piggies, The Beatles' Revolution 9, Dylan's Rainy Day Women, The Rolling Stones' On With The Show, The Beatles' Why Don't We Do It In The Road and Wild Honey Pie it was throwaway songs like Rocky Racoon, Yellow Submarine and Gomper. They were all at it. However, nothing tops The Beach Boys for this miserable offering.

Wind chimes tingling, vegetables, women going bald, getting a little pad. Give us a break guys. I'll just about accept Gettin' Hungry in a "possibly something about it demo" sort of way. Just about, and that's pushing it. Come on, it is no work of genius. It's drivel. No more. No less. Time to put Blonde On Blonde on…..


Wild Honey (1967)

Wild Honey/Aren't You Glad/I Was Made To Love Her/Country Air/A Thing Or Two/Darlin'/I'd Love Just Once To See You/Here Comes The Night/Let The Wind Blow/How She Boogalooed It 
This review concentrates specifically on the STEREO remasters of the tracks from the often maligned and overlooked Wild Honey album.

The STEREO remastering is superb and transforms the album. Up there with the best ever remasterings of sixties music.

Coming after the abomination that was Smiley Smile and its half baked, often disturbing puerility, it comes as a blessed relief to hear a PROPER track kick off the album in Wild Honey. The track is admittedly unusual, innovative an experimental, but at least it is a full creation, unlike the tosh served up on Smiley Smile.

Aren't You Glad continues the album in its organ, bass and brass 60s fashion which led many to say this was The Beach Boys' soul album, an impression continued with a belting cover of Stevie Wonder's 1967 hit I Was Made To Love Her. The new thing of "country rock" is experienced in the pleasing Country Air as they go all Byrds. 

A Thing Or Two is pure late 60s pop/rock, with some jazzy parts for good measure, using the riff later to be used on Do It Again. These five opening tracks show clearly that the drug-fuelled, irritating excess and lack of finished product on Smiley Smile was put firmly in the past. Just listen to Aren't You Glad and you realise The Beach Boys are back on solid ground again. It is a much-underrated track in their canon.


Darlin' is classic Beach Boys and deservedly is on every "Greatest Hits" package. I'd Love Just Once To See You is as beautiful as anything on Pet Sounds

Here Comes The Night with its beautiful bass line and Let The Wind Blow continue in the same vein. The former would have made a great single, in my opinion. The latter is an example of how many of the "semi songs" from the Smile sessions should have ended up.

How She Boogalooed It could be from 1962-65 in its "surfy" rocking feel. Beautifully upbeat. Things are fine again. Maybe.

Give me this over Smiley Smile any day. No comparison. They are light and day apart. One is an unlistenable disgrace. The other is a welcome relief and most enjoyable. Proper songs. Thankfully.

Friends (1968)

Meant For You/Friends/Wake The World/Be Here In The Mornin'/When A Man Needs A Woman/Passing By/Anna Lee, The Healer/Little Bird/Be Still/Busy Doin' Nothin'/Diamond Head/Transcendental Meditation 

After a reasonably calm album in Wild Honey after a turbulent year prior to that, The Beach Boys seemed to have managed to get together again, in a reasonable state of mind.

In contrast to 1968's surfeit of psychedelic rock albums from the likes of Cream, The Doors and Jimi Hendrix, the bluesy Beggars' Banquet from The Rolling Stones and student rebellions taking place and so on, The Beach Boys recorded this incredibly peaceful, airy, light and relaxing album round at Brian Wilson's house. All the nonsense from Smiley Smile seemed to have dissipated and the result was a very short, commercially very unsuccessful album. It seemed a complete cultural irrelevance. It is, however, an entirely pleasant listening experience. It must be noted, also, that Crosby, Stills and Nash and The Byrds released laid-back country-influenced at the same time. The problem with the album is that it was neither joyful, lively surf music nor inventive Good Vibrations-style works of genius. It was just peaceful and, to be blunt, just a bit ordinary. It is all tranquil and harmonious enough, however, with excellent sound quality, and is a gentle half hour's listen. A group other than The Beach Boys would probably not have got away with it. Actually, they didn't, particularly, either. It sold poorly and their stock fell considerably.
Wake The World is beautiful and tender, with some lovely background brass backing, but it ends far too soon. Be Here In The Mornin' is a fetchingly hippy-ish number, as indeed is the relaxing, melodic Friends.

When A Man Needs A Woman is a jaunty, pleasant little song about impending fatherhood. All very chilled-out, at one with the world. 

Passing By contains only backing vocals over an appealing, fairground-ish organ backing. Anna Lee, The Healer is obviously influenced by Mike Love's meditative experiences in Rishikesh, complete with some Eastern-sounding percussion. It also has an addictive bass sound and a rock'n'roll instrumental refrain (possibly from The RascalsGood Lovin'). Little Bird has a sort of Beatles-style strings backing in places.

To be honest, the rest of the album is like that which has gone before - all very inoffensive, unthreatening, mature and quiet. The instrumental, Diamond Head, notably, features the sounds of waves gently lapping against the shore. It acts as a symbol of the album. It gently washes over you.


20/20 (1969)

Do It Again/I Can Hear Music/Bluebirds Over The Mountain/Be With Me/All I Want To Do/The Nearest Faraway Place/Cotton Fields (The Cotton Song)/I Went To Sleep/Time To Get Alone/Never Learn Not To Love/Our Prayer/Cabinessence              

The late sixties/early seventies were a strange time for The Beach Boys. Brian Wilson's implosion and subsequent declining sales/cultural relevance were taking its toll. As everyone knows, the group was slowly and painfully half splitting up and half staying together in the midst of all sorts of turmoil. Post the Smile sessions, tracks from it were turning up on all the albums from 1967 to 1971, which sort of prevented the offerings from having too much cohesion as "new product". Echoes from the past were always there. This album actually was not an official one. It was a compilation of previously unreleased tracks to meet contractual obligations to Capitol Records. That said, I really like it. Whisper it quietly, I prefer it to the quirky Surf's Up. Actually, maybe not, but it certainly starts well. It struggles to retain the quality throughout though.
The first two tracks are absolute corkers - the nostalgic, insistent shuffle of Do It Again, and the Spectoresque majesty of I Can Hear Music. The latter is one of my favourite Beach Boys songs. It was a cover of a Ronettes song from 1966 and Ronnie Spector does a great live version of it, incidentally.

Bluebirds Over The Mountain is a lively, singalong non-group composition, (written by one Ersel Hickey, a late fifties rockabilly singer). 

Dennis Wilson’s grandiose, melodic Be With Me is impressive as is his pumping, guitar and drum-driven frenetic rocker All I Want To Do. Both really good cuts. Bruce Johnston’s strings-dominated, peaceful instrumental The Nearest Faraway Place is both atmospheric and pleasant. I have always loved the uplifting cover of Huddie Leadbetter's Cotton Fields. This is the first version The Beach Boys did, with a harmonious Sloop John B. feel to it. It was re-recorded later in 1969. This original has always had a vibrant appeal.

I Went To Sleep is a short, melodious and harmonious number (only a minute and a half in length) as indeed is the beautiful Time To Get Alone. It is a Brian Wilson song written in the "baroque pop" style that he employed a lot around 1967. 

Dennis Wilson's Never Learn Not To Love was rumoured to have been written by Charles Manson during Dennis's ill-fated liaison with the mass murderer. Dennis supposedly improved considerably on Manson's original song. Let's hope Dennis did just that, because it has an appealing Beatles-esque sound that makes is most likeable. 

Our Prayer is a pretty pointless short piece of vocal harmony (the album is beginning to fade away a little by now). Cabinessence is the album's final track, dating from the 1966 Smile sessions. It is revered by many fans as some sort of work of genius. Me, I find it a bit of a frustrating mess with periodic invigorating parts that ultimately lead nowhere. Sort of the best bits of Good Vibrations going up a blind alley.

So, what starts as a really good album fizzles out somewhat, but, as a somewhat under-discussed offering it certainly stands up well against the others before and after it from the same turbulent four-five year period.


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