The Beach Boys
Reviewed on this page:
Surfin' Safari - Surfin' USA - Surfer Girl - Little Deuce Coupe - Shut Down, Volume 2 - All Summer Long - Beach Boys Concert - Christmas Album - Today - Summer Days (And Summer Nights) - Party - Pet Sounds -
Smiley Smile -
Wild Honey - Friends - Stack-o-Tracks - Live In London - 20/20 - Sunflower - Surf's Up - Carl And The Passions/So Tough - Holland - The Beach Boys In Concert - 15 Big Ones - Pacific Ocean Blue - M.I.U. Album -
Endless Harmony Soundtrack - Brian Wilson - I Just Wasn't Made For These Times - Orange Crate Art - Imagination
The Beach Boys are unjustly forgotten. Their mid-60s hits have become a part of our collective unconscious, but the author of those magic A-sides - Brian Wilson - is an obscure figure, remembered more for his mental illness, drug abuse, and hermit-like existence than for his musical achievements. Meanwhile, Wilson's startling musical progression to the summit of Pet Sounds and "Good Vibrations" is largely ignored, while the parallel development of the Beatles has become the Rosetta stone of 60s music history.
Perhaps the Beach Boys themselves are mostly to blame - with Brian unable to continue writing, producing, and performing their music after about 1968, the other band members embarked on a pointless three-decade world tour that dragged the group's reputation down to the level of 50's novelty acts like Sha-Na-Na, and continued pumping out forgettable light rock albums long after they had anything new to say. My advice: grab a copy of Pet Sounds and force yourself to listen to it until its idiosyncratic brilliance sinks in. Then pick up a few other choice examples of Brian's work, as indicated below.
I have avoided wasting my money on a long string of 80s and 90s records that have little or nothing to do with Brian Wilson and hardly deserve the attribution "by the Beach Boys," not to mention obscure solo albums by Bruce, Carl, and Mike. However, I have listed them anyway and also reviewed fascinating solo albums by Brian and Dennis.
Brian Wilson has been touring live since 1998, and I've reviewed one of his concerts. At the same time, Al Jardine and Mike Love have continued to cheapen the Beach Boys' name by touring separately and simultaneously with two other "Beach Boys" lineups.
The Beach Boys have a long, sordid history that you can read about in any of several trash bios that are discussed on our book reviews page.
There are so many Beach Boys web sites I can hardly keep track of them.
The Beach Boys Britain home page is a tasteful starting point;
the Beach Boys Fan Club Home Page grovels woefully;
the Cabin Essence Brian Wilson site is overly flashy but informative;
and the heavily commercialized "unofficial fan site" at beachboys.com and official brianwilson.com site are definitely ones to avoid.
Important note for collectors: Capitol held off releasing the Beach Boys' catalogue on CD until 1990, at which point they produced a series of two-for-one packages that included excellent bonus tracks and liner notes.
In the mid-90s, however, Capitol crassly re-released the LPs on separate disks, junking the dozens of bonus tracks altogether.
The twofers have been reissued again, but the one-LP-per-CD versions are still floating around, so watch out.
Important note for fawning fans: my co-author David Wilson is NOT NOT NOT Brian Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Carl Wilson, or any other Wilson associated with the Beach Boys. THIS PAGE HAS NO OFFICIAL CONNECTION TO ANY OF THE BEACH BOYS. I had hoped this would put a stop to all the Brian Wilson love letters we've been getting, but we continue to get such letters on a regular basis. Go figure... (JA)
Lineup: Al Jardine (rhythm guitar, vocal); Mike Love (lead vocal); Brian Wilson (bass, keyboards, lead vocal); Carl Wilson (lead guitar, vocal); Dennis Wilson (drums, vocal). Jardine left, replaced by David Marks, 1962, then returned, 1963.
Brian Wilson replaced on tours by Bruce Johnston (vocals, bass, keyboards), who later appeared on studio records, 1965. Johnston left, Blondie Chaplin (guitar, vocals) and Ricky Fataar (drums) added, 1972.
Chaplin and Fataar left, 1974. Johnston returned, 1978. Dennis drowned, 1983; Carl died of brain cancer, 6 February 1998.
Most instrumental backing on classic Beach Boys records is by Los Angeles studio musicians, including Hal Blaine (drums), Glen Campbell (guitar), Ed Carter (guitar, bass), Jim Gordon (drums), Carol Kaye (bass), and many others.
Surfin' Safari (1962)
A pathetic attempt to dress up a couple of A-sides (title track; "Surfin'") with a string of novelty songs, all recorded quickly and without studio musicians - the band couldn't afford them yet, but they couldn't play their instruments either, so the result is paper-thin, hokey, and now so dated that it seems like one big put-on.
Note, however, that most of the tracks are Brian Wilson originals even at this early date, with his teenage friend Gary Usher frequently co-credited. Unfortunately, the lyrics are downright childish ("Heads You Win - Tails I Lose"). The covers include a couple of terrible teen exploitation tunes like "Moon Dawg," and a distractingly insincere and amateurish version of Eddie Cochran's "Summertime Blues." (JA)
Surfin' USA (1963)
A major improvement on its predecessor, but that's not saying much. Includes Brian's first great car song ("Shut Down," Brian's first collaboration with DJ/drag racing enthusiast/would-be poet Roger Christian), the Beach Boys' famous Chuck Berry rewrite (title track), a couple of pleasant 50's-style ballads ("Lonely Sea"), and nothing else worth remembering: a few second-rate surf songs ("Noble Surfer"), three instrumentals (including a Carl Wilson original and a take on Dick Dale's "Let's Go Trippin'"), and a couple of novelty tunes in the style of the preceding record ("Farmer's Daughter"). (JA)
Surfer Girl (1963)
Brian had gotten his act together by this point, and it shows. There are plenty of great ballads (the title track, a brilliant, deceptively topical love song; "In My Room," Brian's wrenching ode to childhood), surfing songs (the exciting "Catch A Wave"; "Hawaii," a virtual radio ad for the tourist industry), and another great doo-wopping Roger Christian car song ("Little Deuce Coupe"). But the rest is once again mostly filler, including a couple of primitive surf-rock instrumentals and a couple more odes to surfing that are marred by terrible lyrics. (JA)
Little Deuce Coupe (1963)
Crass - clearly concocted to cash in on the then-current car craze. Several tracks from earlier records are repeated (title track, which had just come out on Surfin' Safari; "409," which already seems like an antique compared to Brian's more serious current efforts). And most of the hastily recorded new ones, written quickly around Roger Christian drag race lyrics, are weak. The only strong material is the melodramatic "Ballad Of Ole' Betsy"; the corny, but hummable single "Be True To Your School"; and "A Young Man Is Gone," Brian's car song rewrite of Bobby Troup's brilliant a capella piece "Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring." (JA)
Shut Down, Volume 2 (1964)
An improvement, leading off with a truly memorable rocker: "Fun, Fun, Fun," one of Brian's last car songs and the only American A-side in this era to match wits with the Beatles. Carefully produced ballads are starting to dominate, like Christian's last hurrah on the unforgettable "Don't Worry Baby," which only obliquely refers to drag-racing, and Brian's corny but crafted 6/8-time "Keep An Eye On Summer" and bittersweet "The Warmth Of The Sun"; and Brian also tosses off a impressive, highly crafted cover of Frankie Lymon's hit "Why Do Fools Fall In Love?" that points to the orchestrated, Phil Spector-inspired approach he was about to embrace.
As you might expect, though, the album is dragged down by the usual filler - a few teen epic drag and surf songs, a couple of instrumentals, and a carefully enunciated cover of "Louie, Louie" that's just as bad as you might guess. (JA)
All Summer Long (1964)
A classic, full of great rockers and more sophisticated than earlier efforts. Brian is still doing some car songs, including well-deserved hits like "I Get Around," with its famous a capella intro, and the slightly more primitive, but equally exciting "Little Honda." There's also the occasional churning surf rocker, like the haunting, angst-ridden "Don't Back Down" - but even that stuff is really solid.
He's also moving in a more sophisticated, introspective direction, with increasingly complex arrangements and incredibly rich harmonies: the title track; "Hushabye"; the fantastic, up-tempo love song "Wendy"; Brian's sincere falsetto lead on the silly teen drama "We'll Run Away"; and "Girls On The Beach," whose modulations and harmony are so intricate it's literally confusing.
Unfortunately, the few low points are truly low, with unlistenable lyrics that Mike Love recently convinced a jury were all his fault (topical 50's throwbacks like "Drive-In" and the pathetic high school nostalgia piece "Do You Remember"). There's also a bogus "bonus" track consisting of aimless, spliced-together studio chatter ("Our Favorite Recording Sessions"). (JA)
Beach Boys Concert (1964)
As if two studio LP's and a Christmas disc weren't enough for one year, Capitol decided to rush out this brief recording of the Beach Boys running through a few their major, then-current hits, like "I Get Around" and "Fun, Fun, Fun," as well as a pile of second-rate covers. There's hardly anything here that isn't either done better in the studio (despite some overdubbed vocals), or trivial to start with, like the juvenile "Monster Mash," the dimwitted cowboy sendup "Long Tall Texan," and a rehash of "Let's Go Trippin'."
The only exceptions are perfunctory versions of Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode" and the Four Freshmen's a capella masterpiece "Graduation Day." And for die-hards, there's also Dennis croaking an off-key, but touching version of Dion's "The Wanderer."
Despite the fact that it remains the only documentation of the live Beach Boys in their early days, you should avoid this record unless you can find the twofer CD version, where it's paired with Live In London - but the much later, confusingly titled The Beach Boys In Concert is better than either of them. (JA)
Christmas Album (1964)
Yet another cash-in. More than half the record consists of the Beach Boys' singing well-known Christmas standards, backed by mail-order orchestration that Brian had nothing to do with. Low points include cornball numbers like "Frosty The Snowman," and Dennis' hugely embarassing Merry Christmas message voice-over on "Auld Lang Syne." Admittedly, though, the harmonies on some of the covers are sweet ("We Three Kings Of Orient Are"; "White Christmas"). The Brian Wilson numbers that make up the rest are hastily knocked-off, gimmicky, and in the Beach Boys' most primitive surf-rock style, like the left-over 1963 single "Little Saint Nick" - plus they suffer from abysmal lyrics that presumably are due to Mike Love, despite his not being credited. (JA)
Yet another classic - this marks Brian's breakthrough attempt at fully orchestrated rock. The first side runs through standard, albeit extraordinarily competent mid-60s Beach Boys rock 'n' roll ("Dance, Dance, Dance"; "When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)"). But on the second side Brian goes wild with a string of romantic ballads that are graced by complex backing tracks and breathtaking harmony arrangements ("Please Let Me Wonder"; "Kiss Me Baby"). Even Dennis' aching, barely on-key lead vocal on "In The Back Of My Mind" somehow manages to fly. You'll want to skip the disappointing "album" version of "Help Me Ronda" - the title change wasn't the only thing that improved the later single version - and the album's last track is just a dull interview segment, punctuated by some goofing around. Other than that, though, you'll enjoy the record, easily one of the band's most important, from start to finish. (JA)
Summer Days (And Summer Nights) (1965)
Neither a classic nor exactly a cash-in, Summer Days is just a peculiar step backwards. There are two fantastic A-sides that rank among the group's very best ("California Girls"; "Help Me Rhonda" - the vastly superior single version), and several other highlights like the thrilling and riff-ridden "Let Him Run Wild," the gorgeous a capella album closer "And Your Dreams Come True," and Carl's heartfelt lead vocal on the jangly, wonderfully Beatle-esque "Girl Don't Tell Me."
"You're So Good To Me" is also workmanlike.
But apart from that, the record does include some second-rate efforts like an overblown but still enjoyable cover of Phil Spector's "Then I Kissed Her"; the ridiculous "Amusement Parks U.S.A.," with its annoying mock-circus barker voiceover; and the obnoxious "Salt Lake City" (what's this supposed to be, a musical advertisement for Mormonism?) - not to mention Brian's funny but embarassingly confessional, Elvis-esque boogie-woogie solo performance of "I'm Bugged At My Ol' Man." (JA)
Still another cash-in, this one also rushed out for the Christmas market. Recorded over a couple days with minimal instrumentation (for once by the Beach Boys themselves), it features overdubbed, improvised dialogue that gives the record a convincing, but in fact entirely artificial party-like atmosphere. The high point is the surprise hit cover of the Regents' "Barbara Ann," which features a harmonizing Dean Torrence (of Jan & Dean).
All the other tracks are covers as well - the Beach Boys victimized not only the Beatles ("I Should Have Known Better" [indeed!]) and Dylan, with Al struggling to remain sincere ("The Times They Are A-Changin'"), but some of their own, earlier hits (a parody of "I Get Around"). In the end they're so strapped for ideas that they pull out a bunch of oldies, ranging from ludicrous ("Alley Oop") to ragged ("Mountain Of Love"). It doesn't add up to much, but at least it's a daring experiment. (JA)
Pet Sounds (1966)
A startling jump forwards, and one of the greatest records in rock history - the Beatles and many others were spurred on to greater heights by it. Every track is a masterpiece, including the two bizarre, richly crafted orchestral instrumentals. Much of it features Brian singing solo ("Don't Talk"; "Caroline No"), but the harmonies are as brilliant as ever ("You Still Believe In Me"; "Sloop John B"), and one of the best tracks showcases Carl ("God Only Knows"). There are amazing touches everywhere, ranging from inventive instrumentation to startling a capella harmony breaks to astoundingly complex orchestration.
It's sometimes said to be the first "concept album," but that has mostly to do with the record's consistent high quality, unified tone, and serious, introspective lyrics, all of which were highly unusual for a pop record at this time - Tony Asher was brought in strictly for this album to translate Brian's feelings into words, and he succeeded despite occasionally veering towards melodrama. Just one warning: Pet Sounds may sound annoyingly dated on first listen because of Brian's unique, but Hollywood-influenced orchestral arrangements. (JA)
Smile (rec. 1966 - 1967)
In late 1966 and early 1967, Brian Wilson recorded nearly all the tracks for what would have been a classic album to be called Smile, co-written with lyrical genius/goofball Van Dyke Parks. But with the Beach Boys and Capitol Records being mixed up in a lawsuit, the Beatles having just blown away the rock industry with their new album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, Parks losing interest, and Brian essentially having suffered a nervous breakdown, the project was never completed. (JA)
Smiley Smile (1967)
A fascinating misfire.
After realizing that Brian simply could not complete the Smile project, the Beach Boys set up a studio in Brian's mansion, re-recorded several Smile tracks, ditched others in favor of slight, hastily written replacements ("Little Pad"), and slapped it all together for this release.
The included version of the multi-part lead-off single ("Heroes And Villains") is inferior to others that Brian had worked out, although its brilliance does shine through.
And other complex compositions are rendered sketchily: the upbeat, but loony "Vegetables," with Paul McCartney on, well, vegetables; and the creepy, introspective "Wonderful" and "Wind Chimes."
The recordings sound rushed, but putting such a spotlight on the vocals gives these tracks a uniquely meditative sound.
And the album does include Brian's greatest individual work - the unsurpassed A-side "Good Vibrations," left over from the fall of 1966. Carefully constructed from a series of unrelated segments, full of inventive gimmicks like its wailing electro-theremin line, and graced with outstanding vocals, it practically justifies the record's price all on its own.
A strange hodgepodge of a record, but Brian's songwriting was so otherworldly at this point that it's still one of the group's best efforts. (JA)
Wild Honey (1968)
This is the last record dominated by Brian Wilson compositions, with Mike taking over completely on lyrics. Like Smiley Smile it was rapidly recorded at Brian's home studio, but this time he relied mostly on the Beach Boys themselves for the simplistic instrumental tracks. Surprisingly, the characteristic harmonies are toned down, and the emphasis is instead on a whitebread R & B sound (title track; the fragmentary cover of Stevie Wonder's "I Was Made To Love Her"). While the record rarely rises to a high level - exceptions include the more heavily produced single "Darlin'," and the beautiful vocal experiment "Let The Wind Blow" - it's full of charmingly simple-sounding tunes like the chugging "Here Comes The Night" and the creepy "I'd Love Just Once To See Her." (JA)
An improvement in some ways, but Brian had lost control of the band, and the other Beach Boys had little of his musical sense. Brian does contribute several ingenious, moderately to very sophisticated productions (the mid-60s style A-side title track; the beautiful instrumental "Passing By"; the wonderful, bossa nova-influenced, slightly cracked "Busy Doin' Nothing"; the sound-effect laden Hawaiian instrumental "Diamond Head"), in addition to some gentle hymns a la Wild Honey ("Be Here In the Morning").
And Dennis comes up with a couple of simple, touching, and deeply sorrowful ballads ("Little Bird"; "Be Still"); his first released compositions, they point the way to his more mature work over the coming decade. But the album is weighed down by some light-weight, feel-good nonsense like "Anna Lee, The Healer" and the Eastern-melodies-meet-braying-horns fiasco "Transcendental Meditation," with bone-headedly spiritual 60s lyrics courtesy of Mike. (JA)
This bizarre release, prompted by recent bombs like Friends, barely qualifies as a Beach Boys record: it consists entirely of instrumental backing tracks lifted from some of the bands' biggest hits and denuded of vocals. The record company's odd commercial strategy here was to provide the ultimate singalong record, with a lyric sheet thrown in to aid the befuddled listener. It's a total waste of time, of course, as the end result is to make you desperate to hear the real mixes.
And they didn't even wipe the vocals properly, leaving audible traces on more primitively recorded tunes like "Little Saint Nick" (most of the track selection does dwell on Pet Sounds and the more complex productions from recent records, like "Darlin'"). Capitol paired this with Party on a 1990 twofer release, which therefore ended up being practically the only one not worth owning. (JA)
Live In London (rec. 1968, rel. 1970)
This album originally was released to satisfy the European market, since the Beach Boys had continued to have major success there despite having disappeared from the radar screen in the States. During the band's big commercial comeback in 1976, the record was finally released in the U.S. under the misleading title Beach Boys '69 (it was recorded in 1968 and released in 1970!). It's really not too bad, despite Brian of course not participating; the track selection leans heavily on Pet Sounds ("God Only Knows"), with a few other mid-60s hits like an intricately recreated "Good Vibrations," and then a dollop of contemporary numbers like "Do It Again" and "Darlin'."
The emphasis is put on delivering tight, professional, and somewhat lifeless performances of Brian's most complexly harmonic masterworks, with the only real oddities being the a capella 50's doo wop number "Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring," and an up-tempo take on "Barbara Ann." Harmless stuff, but not the best live Beach Boys record (see In Concert). (JA)
The Beach Boys' last album with Capitol records. It was pasted together from an incoherent array of sources, including some cheesy covers (the up-tempo lounge lizard Phil Spector number "I Can Hear Music"; the ridiculous "Cotton Fields"); new tracks by both Dennis (the eerie "Be With Me"; the lustful rocker "All I Want To Do") and the hyper-tacky Bruce Johnston ("The Nearest Faraway Place"); a couple of Brian's absolutely brilliant out-takes from Smile (the richly woven, wordless, a capella "Our Prayer"; the suite "Cabinessence," along the lines of "Good Vibrations"); and several good, but not very substantial new Brian tunes (the A-side "Do It Again," the last real attempt at capturing the Beach Boys' classic sound; the hymn "I Went To Sleep"; "Time To Get Alone," which points at the harmony-laden pop the band went for on the next record). It's worth a few listens, but be prepared to hit the fast-forward button. (JA)
The third version of an album Warners initially had refused to release (the second was titled Add Some Music).
Ironically, all the reworking was a good idea.
A couple tracks are awful (Al's nightmarishly innocent "At My Window," with an embarassing French voiceover), the coefficient of cheese is nearly maximal ("Deirdre"; Bruce's made-for-Vegas "Tears In The Morning"), and the sound is thoroughly retro (the doo-wopping "This Whole World"; Dennis' wonderfully amusing Elvis imitation on "Got To Know The Woman").
But if you can wade through all the corniness, you'll discover a fine, tuneful effort, with plenty of gems like "Add Some Music To Your Day," "It's About Time," and Dennis' "Forever" - he'd reached his peak as a vocalist. Best of all, there's a brilliant 1968 Brian Wilson leftover, the uplifting, nearly a capella suite "Cool, Cool Water."
Most of the unreleased Add Some Music tracks surfaced eventually, with "Take A Load Off Your Feet" making it to the next album; Dennis' fine "Lady" (a.k.a. "Fallin' In Love") was a noticeable exception. (JA)
Surf's Up (1971)
As Dennis followed his elder brother into a drug-induced wasteland, Carl, Mike and Al stepped up and took control. The result is disastrous, especially lyrically. Pseudo-political rubbish is the order of the day (eco-pap like "Don't Go Near The Water"; the musically retro, politically trendy "Student Demonstration Time"). Carl, working with con artist/producer Jack Rieley, contributes overproduced, sappy pop songs that overwhelm their tuneful underpinnings ("Long Promised Road"; "Feel Flows").
Bruce goes completely over the top with nostalgic cornball on "Disney Girls (1957)." And, once again, the high points are by Brian: a baroque Smile leftover (title track, pasted together with the uncredited "Child Is Father Of The Man") and his haunting Big Statement "'Til I Die," probably his most significant composition of the decade.
These few high points are so high that late-period Brian fans will want to track down the album anyway.
As with the last album, Surf's Up had a very different early version, this one titled Landlocked and featuring just two tunes on the released album.
It included some still-unreleased Add Some Music tracks ("Good Time"; "Susie Cincinnati"), some childish stuff by Brian ("H.E.L.P. Is On The Way"; "I Just Got My Pay"), the interesting novelty tune "Loop De Loop," and an early version of "Big Sur" (later part of Mike's "California Saga"). (JA)
Carl And The Passions/So Tough (1972)
The group's goldmine of Brian Wilson outtakes had been depleted, so now they were stuck with producing entirely new records.
They weren't up to the challenge, as evidenced by lyrically vapid, gospel-inspired Mike/Carl anthems ("All This Is That"), and aimless, overproduced Dennis Wilson/Daryl Dragon epics ("Cuddle Up"). It's not a coincidence that Dragon went on to the big time as the Captain of the Captain and Tennile. "Here She Comes," a middling soul number by new Beach Boys Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin, and "Marcella," an unsuccessful single by Brian, are the most memorable efforts; but "Marcella" just proves that he and the band already were retreating to 50's nostalgia. With only eight tunes to start with, So Tough isn't at all a bargain - Warner recognized that at the time, pairing it with Pet Sounds as a completely incongruous double LP. (JA)
A surprising last-minute gasp of brilliance, this carefully produced album is far more sincere and hard-edged than its immediate predecessors. Mike nearly ruins it with a cheesy, musically incompetent, eco-nostalgic, three-track mini-concept album ("California Saga"), and one of the better tracks (Carl's "Trader") is spoiled by self-righteous, politically correct lyrics. But the rest is solid: hummable singles (the powerful, slowly building "Sail On Sailor," recorded with Chaplin on lead vocals to beef up the record), plodding but effective white soul (Dennis' "Steamboat"; the group effort "Leaving This Town"), and even a light-hearted R & B number ("Funky Pretty").
You'll want to skip certain selections, though, including the bonus EP, which consists of a self-consciously ironic, spoken children's story with a few snippets of Brian playing the piano. The Beach Boys recorded little over the next three years other than guest appearances, as on Chicago's "Wishing You Were Here" and Elton John's "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me" (both Top 40 hits in 1974). (JA)
The Beach Boys In Concert (1973)
A double LP now available on one CD, this is the only live Beach Boys record you'll ever need. The 20 tracks hit all the group's high points, since the immediately preceding Holland ended up being their last hurrah (four of that record's best tunes, such as "Trader," are featured). There's a lot of predictable stuff like another "California Girls," another "Good Vibrations," and another "Wouldn't It Be Nice," which with other tracks make Live In London redundant.
But there are also several gems, like a crafted "Don't Worry Baby," a beautifully creepy "Let The Wind Blow," an energetic "Heroes And Villains" (it's much more enjoyable than the official studio version), and finally the otherwise unreleased Holland-era Fataar/Chaplin anthem "We Got Love." This is the place to go if you want to understand why the Beach Boys continued to make money touring for more than three decades. (JA)
15 Big Ones (1976)
Brian's big comeback album, and it's a disgrace. Despite the trendy disco/soft rock production gloss, it's pathetically obvious that the man had been locked up in his house for the previous ten years listening over and over again to tacky 50's ballads (and he still does to this day).
Things get so bad that except for the excruciatingly "modern" lyrics, it's hard to tell the originals from the syrupy covers that fill out half the record (Spector's "Chapel Of Love"; Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill," with Hal Blaine on drums) - and you know there's a problem when an album's big #5 hit single is a tepid Chuck Berry remake ("Rock And Roll Music"; coming on the tail of Capitol's two successful greatest hits double albums, it became their first Top 40 entry since 1969).
Low points are everywhere, including a nauseating, sappily religious Mike Love tune ("Everyone's In Love With You") and an unlistenable, treacly take on the Righteous Brothers' "Just Once In My Life." High points are few, including Al Jardine's plodding, but ornately harmonized rock 'n' roller "Susie Cincinatti" (a slightly modified Add Some Music outtake).
At about this time the group worked up a new album that was never released, including some salvageable stuff (early versions of "My Diane" and "Hey Little Tomboy"), but also a bunch of oldie covers like "Ruby Baby" and some weak Add Some Music/Landlocked leftovers ("H.E.L.P. Is On The Way"; "When Girls Get Together"). (JA)
Love You (1977)
The most bizarre record in the Beach Boys' catalogue, which is saying a lot.
For the first time in a decade - and the last time for another decade - Brian somehow pulled himself together to write and produce a full LP's worth of material.
He ended up with instrumental backing that consists of layered organ, piano, and synth parts; startlingly creative vocal harmonies; lead vocals that are often traded off by all five of the original band members; and lyrics that range from embarassingly emotional to just plain wacked out.
There's hardly any drums or guitar, and fat, horn-like synth lines take the bass parts.
Side 1 has a bunch of kitschy novelty numbers like "Johnny Carson," one Add Sme Music/Landlocked outtake (Al's "Good Time"), and a co-write with Roger McGuinn (the brief "Ding Dang," with harmonies that defy description); side 2 gets loaded down with the love songs, at least one of which ("The Night Was So Young") is elaborate and intriguing.
The record's a tough listen, and Brian's hoarse, quavery lead vocals don't make it any easier.
But at least it's a unique artistic statement.
Brian's "autobiography" proudly claims that Gene Landy was responsible for a lot of the wretched lyrics. (JA)
Goin' Public (Bruce Johnston: 1977)
Johnston's only solo album, produced during a lengthy absence from the band.
Produced by Brian's early 60s songwriting collaborator Gary Usher, it includes remakes of three Johnston tunes: "Disney Girls" and "Deirdre," which had appeared on Beach Boys records, and "I Write The Songs," Barry Manilow's amazingly ironic #1 1975 hit (Johnston had originally written it for David Cassidy, who had a #11 U.K. hit with the song earlier in 1975). (JA)
Pacific Ocean Blue (Dennis Wilson: 1977)
The great 70s Beach Boys album that never was - Dennis might have been the least vocally talented band member, but he was far from the least musically talented, and he was the only one to score a legitimate commercial success as a solo artist.
And this, his only solo album, is full of his trademark half-whispered vocals, gentle piano parts, and creepy orchestrations, making it a must for anyone who enjoyed his earlier compositions. It's a million times more sincere and up-to-date than anything the band was doing at this point, with ballsy horn parts, indulgent lead guitar lines, unpredictable arrangements, and plenty of grit and emotion. Plus there are all the smooth Beach Boys-style vocal harmonies you might expect (the silly eco-friendly title track, co-authored by Mike), supplied by numerous backing singers including Bruce Johnston, a Baptist choir, and Dennis' then-wife Karen Lamm.
Everything works, including gospeley Holland-style pop songs ("River Song"), mellow 70s-style love songs ("You And I"), dramatic confessionals ("Friday Night"), and uplifting harmony ("End Of The Show") - even the lyrics are effective ("Dreamer").
Co-produced and mostly co-written by Dennis' long-time friend Gregg Jakobson; there's a ton of sidemen including Beach Boys regulars like Hal Blaine, Ricky Fataar, and Ed Carter, as well a horn section and James Jamerson's son Jamie. (JA)
M.I.U. Album (1978)
This is the Mike Love show all the way: he almost literally forced Brian to write most of the tunes, credited him as "executive producer," and then wrote most of the lyrics himself. And the lyrics are the worst ever on a Beach Boys record - which is saying a lot (embarassments like "Belles Of Paris" and "Matchpoint Of Our Love").
The only indication of sincerity is Dennis' ragged vocal on Brian's aching "My Diane," and the silly but harmless "Hey Little Tomboy." The record was cut at the prestigious Maharishi International University in Iowa, the Maharishi of course being Mike's guru. M.I.U. is a blemish on the Beach Boys tradition; I'm ashamed that I've listened to it even enough times to review it. Somehow I wasn't surprised to discover that it was raised from the ashes of a Christmas album, complete with standards like "Oh Come All Ye Faithful," that Warners had refused to release just months earlier. (JA)
L.A. (Light Album) (1979)
I don't have this, on Brian's own recommendation - he has even fewer kind words to say about it than the other 70s disasters he participated in. By the time the record was done, he was apparently almost completely burned out and non-functional, with Bruce Johnston, Carl Wilson, etc. trying to fill in (Johnston had returned to the group after a six-year hiatus). The record's main feature is an extended disco version of "Here Comes The Night," originally one of the nicer, quieter numbers on Wild Honey. The band just scratched the Top 40 a few months later with "Good Timin'," which was written during the 15 Big Ones sessions. (JA)
Keepin' The Summer Alive (1980)
Encouraged by his ability to salvage the last record, the band let Bruce Johnston produce this time. There are a bunch of Brian/Mike cowrites here, with one Chuck Berry cover ("School Day"), two tunes by Carl that were co-authored by BTO cheesemeister Randy Bachman, and one by Bruce ("Endless Harmony," an elaborate, self-referential soft-rock production roughly in the style of "Disney Girls" that dwells nostalgically on the group's glory years; it's excruciating until Carl shows up to lay on a superb harmony).
In sum, yet another famously lousy record from the era of Brian's near-complete nonfunctionality. The single was "Goin' On." (JA)
Endless Harmony Soundtrack (rec. 1963 - 1980, rel. 1998)
Soundtrack to a video documentary about the group.
With 25 nicely packaged, mostly unreleased tracks presented roughly in chronological order on one disc, it's a much better buy than any greatest hits compilation.
Instead of trying to balance the group's periods the way Capitol did with its contemporary late 90s greatest hits CDs, this time they focus on Brian's best compositions from his 1965 - 1970 peak (surf-rock material crops up only as a live medley).
Unfortunately, the very best stuff is represented by live cuts ("Heroes And Villians"; "Darlin'"), alternate mixes ("California Girls"), alternate versions ("Help Me Rhonda"; "Do It Again"), and even a couple of annoying radio ads.
Most of those tracks are disposable ("Surfer Girl"), and the disc ends with both of the group's late-period attempts at self-promotion ("Endless Harmony" and Mike's 1978 outtake "Brian's Back," each bearable only because of Carl's harmonies).
However, about a half-record's worth of true oddities make the record essential for serious fans: a substantial 1968 outtake ("Soulful Old Man Sunshine"), the demo of "Break Away" with its surprising original lyrics, Fataar and Chaplin's soul rave-up "Don't Worry Bill," two unreleased Dennis songs from the 70s ("Barbara"; "All Alone"), and both a demo and a completed version of the long-lost gimmick tune "Loop De Loop."
And it's hard to go wrong with such extraordinary material ("God Only Knows"; "'Til I Die"). (JA)
Carl Wilson (Carl Wilson: 1981)
Entirely written by Carl and lyricist Myrna Smith. Apparently it's a dull but tuneful record, not nearly as inspired as brother Dennis' Pacific Ocean Blue. At least it charted, unlike Carl's follow-up album; both of them have been out of print in the US ever since, and I've never seen them. (JA)
Looking Back With Love (Mike Love: 1981)
Not to be outdone, Mike put out his own solo record, which failed to chart. The next time Mike had the urge, he had the good business sense to call it a Beach Boys record (Summer In Paradise). (JA)
Youngblood (Carl Wilson: 1983)
I've never seen this one either. The title track is a famous Leiber-Stoller song; there's also a cover of John Fogerty's mid-70s solo hit "Rockin' All Over The World." The rest of the music was mostly written by Carl, although he didn't write any of the lyrics, which are again mostly by Myrna Smith. The same year Dennis died and Brian got mixed up with therapist/guru Gene Landy again, which marked a definite improvement in at least his physical health. (JA)
The Beach Boys (1985)
The long-awaited eponymous album... not. Everyone contributed roughly equally on the songwriting this time, with Brian throwing in several Landy-coauthored tunes. They even got donated songs from Boy George and Stevie Wonder ("I Do Love You", with Wonder himself apparently performing the backing tracks). (JA)
Brian Wilson (Brian Wilson: 1988)
This is a deeply strange product. Most of it was written and produced by Brian, with help from Brian's guru/shrink Gene Landy, Landy's girlfriend, and one-man backing band Andy Paley (guitar, bass, drums, etc.). Guest musicians, mostly studio hacks, number in the dozens. The record is so over-produced, upbeat, gimmicky, and pop-oriented that it's downright grating, with electronic drums and layered, insipid synth parts on every song. Worse still, Brian has mostly lost his legendary falsetto (the a capella Beach Boys tribute "One For The Boys").
Landy's lyrics are noxious platitudes ("Love And Mercy," otherwise an excellent tune), and on his own, Brian just seems cracked ("Baby Let Your Hair Grow Long"). Despite all this, there are sparks of brilliance everywhere: the tunes are mostly memorable, the arrangements are often clever, and the harmonies capture almost everything that made the Beach Boys great ("Let It Shine," written with Jeff Lynne). Plus Brian ends the record with a sprawling, ambitious, multi-part suite ("Rio Grande," close to "Cabinessence" or "Cool, Cool Water" but tackier). Diehards like myself will wear their CD players out trying to decipher it all, but anyone else will be instantly turned off.
In 2000 the disc was rereleased with a dozen bonus tracks (mostly single sides and alternate versions). (JA)
Still Cruisin' (1989)
Still lost in the parking lot, huh? This is a Frankenstein record, centering on "Kokomo," a major hit that Brian had nothing to do with because Mike blew him off when the time came to record. The rest consists of one new tune each by Brian and Al; a couple of Mike-Terry Melcher numbers; and even a take on the Surfaris' venerable "Wipeout." But a new low in creativity is signalled by the second side, which is nothing more than a mini-greatest hits package of classic 60s Beach Boys tunes ("I Get Around"; "Wouldn't It Be Nice"; "California Girls"). (JA)
Sweet Insanity (Brian Wilson: rec. 1991)
Still under the thumb of Landy at this point, Brian completed a second solo album and had it rejected at the last minute by his record company. Numerous bootleg copies are kicking around, but I've never seen one cheap. Shortly after this Brian finally disentangled himself from Landy. (JA)
Summer In Paradise (1992)
I thought the "Beach Boys" really scraped the bottom of the barrel with this one - it's essentially a Mike Love record with Al, Carl, and Bruce guesting - but the more recently released Stars And Stripes sounds like an even bigger ripoff. Still, though, this one has serious one-star potential. For the first time Brian doesn't appear at all, his feud with the band having reached a climax (in the last couple of years they've reconciled somewhat, although lawsuits continue to traded).
Long-serving Beach Boys producer Terry Melcher helped Mike with much of the songwriting, but there are also covers of Sly Stone's "Hot Fun In The Summertime," the Drifters' "Under The Boardwalk," and the Beach Boys' own "Surfin" and "Forever." (JA)
I Just Wasn't Made For These Times (Brian Wilson: 1995)
This is the soundtrack to a Brian Wilson documentary; everything's newly recorded by Brian. With 80s pop meister Don Was co-producing and the band consisting of studio cats like Jim Keltner, Benmont Tench, and Waddy Wachtel, it's really slick - but not too much so.
That's due to two factors: first, they focus on overlooked, but hauntingly beautiful Beach Boys songs like "'Til I Die," "Let The Wind Blow," "Warmth Of The Sun," and the old B-side "Meant For You" (only "Caroline No" is an outright standard); and second, they usually stick very closely to the original arrangements ("Wonderful" gets filled out nicely).
There is some newer material. "Love And Mercy" and "Melt Away" were both botched on Brian's solo album, and both are brilliantly resurrected using his "classic" late-60s treatment. There's also "Still I Dream Of It," an aching, stark, and unfortunately lo-fi piano and vocal demo from 1976 (it's as good as anything else the Beach Boys did in the mid-70s).
Brian's voice is in pretty good form, and I can't imagine a better track selection. So despite all the redundancy with the original recordings, the stingy 30 minute running time will be the only downer for true fans.
Brian's daughters Carnie and Wendy (ex-Wilson Phillips) harmonize inaudibly on "Do It Again." (JA)
Orange Crate Art (Brian Wilson/Van Dyke Parks: 1995)
If you thought Brian's solo album was maximally weird, think again. This time he shuffled into the studio to add vocals to a completed Van Dyke Parks record - Brian didn't even write the instrumental arrangements. So what, you'd think, but Brian did get carried away and slathered approximately one jillion harmonies onto every song (title track).
Parks' music and lyrics are complex and kooky enough, with amazingly dense instrumental arrangements that recall both Brian's work ("My Jeanine") and his own: classical orchestra, harmonica, steel guitar, steel drums, accordion, dog barks, synth everything ("Sail Away") - a lot like what you hear on really intrusive G-rated movie soundtracks ("Movies Is Magic"; "Lullaby"). But some of it is lively pop ("Wings Of A Dove"; "San Francisco"), and Brian pulls out every damn trick; he modulates like crazy, unexpectedly beams in massed choruses, and adds little unresolved melody tags all over the place.
He really sounds like no one else, and with the lyrics being one long pass-the-Prozac paean to the middle-aged, super-wealthy L.A. lifestyle, the effect is downright wacky. But despite the fact that the tunes are consistently catchy and have plenty of stylistic and tonal variety (the pseudo-Asian "Palm Tree And Moon"), it's all too self-referential, saccharine, and bloated to entertain anyone who isn't a diehard Brian fan.
Tons of session players here, including Lee Sklar on bass and ex-Three Dog Night leader Danny Hutton joining the large chorus that's on four tracks. (JA)
Stars And Stripes (1996)
Unquestionably a record that only the most glassy-eyed cult follower could possibly find interesting:
a "new" album of Beach Boys covers, featuring a different guest lead singer on each track. Because most of the guests are country-western stars, the only one of any interest to me is ex-Poco/Eagles bassist Tim Schmit, whose clean tenor is suited for this kind of thing. All of the then-surviving Beach Boys sang backup vocals on each track, including Brian. (JA)
The Wilsons (Carnie & Wendy Wilson: 1997)
This is essentially yet another Wilson Phillips record minus Chynna Phillips, and I'm only listing it because Brian wrote, produced, and sang on at least four tracks. (JA)
Imagination (Brian Wilson: 1998)
A methodical attempt to press the nostalgia buttons of every Baby Boomer Beach Boys fan who hasn't yet gone deaf from spinning Pet Sounds on a daily basis for the last third of a century (the fine single "Your Imagination").
Some of the tunes are sugary, generic pop ("Dream Angel"), the production values are unmistakably high tech, and Brian's weather-beaten, heavily layered vocals - he sings almost everything - are occasionally distracting.
But most of the record struggles valiantly to sound like Pet Sounds Vol. 2, with the same kinds of vocal and orchestral arrangments and the same starry-eyed optimism in the lyrics ("Where Has Love Been," written with Andy Paley and of all people J. D. Souther).
The sweetness is sometimes welcome (the languid "Cry"), he's sometimes charmingly goofy ("Sunshine"), and he really connects with the classic-sounding "Lay Down Burden."
But he's often over the top ("She Says That She Needs Me," written with Russ Titelman and Carole Bayer Sager).
He pads the record with two disappointing revivals ("Keep An Eye On Summer"; a toothless, note-for-note "Let Him Run Wild," one of my favorite Beach Boys tunes).
There's an awfully embarassing Big Statement ("Happy Days," like his worst 70s work).
And things get downright ridiculous when Jimmy Buffett sings and writes along on "South American," dishing out his usual "tropical" schmaltz.
Classier and less idiosyncratic than Wilson's last full-blown solo album, it's still disappointingly backwards-looking.
The band is mostly Greg Leisz (guitar), Paul Mertens (sax, clarinet, etc.), Michael Rhodes (bass), and Eddie Bayers (drums), with many others.
Co-produced by keyboard player and frequent cowriter Joe Thomas. (JA)
Greatest Hits Vol. 3: The Best Of The Brother Years (2000)
Capitol has started replacing its earlier greatest hits packages.
We don't review greatest hits records, but I happen to own this one, and for absolute obsessives it's worth noting that it includes four single versions of mediocre tunes like "Susie Cincinatti" and "Rock And Roll Music."
Talk about scraping the bottom of the barrel... (JA)
Live At The Roxy Theatre (Brian Wilson: 2001)
A very solid live double CD of Wilson's usual live set with Wilson's usual road band, including Jeffrey Foskett, the Wondermints, and several others.
It's split roughly equally between early/mid-60s Beach Boys classics, late 60s/early 70s quality tunes that are more obscure, and late period solo stuff.
Includes his cover version of the amusing "Brian Wilson." (JA)
Pet Sounds Live (Brian Wilson: 2002)
Exactly as advertised, a live version of the entire original album in its original track order.
Same band as on the last record, plus Andy Paley on guitar. (JA)
Gettin' In Over My Head (Brian Wilson: 2004)
Wow, hard to imagine it's been six years since the last studio album already.
Guest shots here by fellow dinosaurs Eric Clapton, Elton John, and Paul McCartney.
One track ("Soul Searchin'") has a lead vocal by Carl Wilson that was lifted from an old tape.
There are a bunch of recent Wilson associates in the mix including Andy Paley, Jeffrey Foskett, and the Wondermints, plus session musicians like Greg Leisz. (JA)
Smile (Brian Wilson: 2004)
It had to happen: nearly four decades after it might have mattered, Wilson decided to revisit his famous unfinished studio album, rerecording it from scratch with his current touring band.
Apparently, Van Dyke Parks collaborated on some new material for the record.
I'd be a million times more interested in hearing an official release of the Beach Boys' original Smile recordings, but I'll keep an open mind. (JA)
It's true - I get around.