The challenge: The Beach Boys are best known for their Californian surfing-and-cars image. But fans who have dug a little deeper have found many gems in the back catalogue.
When a band has produced 29 studio albums and nearly double that number of compilation LPs, it’s hard to know where to begin.
My challenge was to sift through the back catalogue, seek out the best bits, and persuade my friend Chris that they were worth checking out. But before rushing down my local record store, I wanted to do some research. Nothing worse than coming home with a bunch of somewhat disappointing albums.
I had discovered the Tom Petty-endorsed-Holland was a revelation, in that it was a) actually good and b) not, in fact, mostly a play about flying radios as listening on Spotify might have you believe.
So the next task was to work out what LPs were worthy of a budding vinyl-collecting Beach Boy.
I had Pet Sounds already. We all pretty much know about Pet Sounds.
By 1966, The Beach Boys’ signature sound celebrating expensive cars and a middle class California lifestyle had become increasingly old hat as newer bands’ songs voiced concerns against the establishment and the Vietnam war. Motown and Stax were on the rise, the music of the latter in particular reflecting the civil rights movement.
Brian Wilson took a left turn with Pet Sounds, and the album, released on 16th May 1966, was an artistic triumph while still doing decently well commercially, spending 39 weeks on the charts, selling over half a million copies after five weeks and peaking at number 11.
But a Greatest Hits album released shortly afterwards overshadowed “Pet Sounds”’ success, and coupled with the October 1966 release of stand-alone single “Good Vibrations” which went to number one on both sides of the Atlantic, “Pet Sounds” was at risk of being overlooked.
And then… it all seemed to go a bit wrong.
Subsequent Beach Boys releases didn’t match up to the huge commercial success of “Good Vibrations”. Yet it was the post Pet Sounds period I wanted to explore in particular.
Could the man who had written “Good Vibrations” and Pet Sounds really so suddenly have gone completely off the boil?
Let’s have another quick history lesson:
- 1966: The warning signs begin to appear. Redecorating his house, Wilson asks for his front room to be filled with sand so he can feel it between his toes as he sits composing at his grand piano. The Beach Boys office then takes a call from a saleswoman at a Children’s store in Century City saying a young man is crawling through an in-store tree house and wants to buy it. That man is Brian Wilson. When the tree house is delivered, Wilson installs it over the front door of his home so visitors have to crawl through the tree house to enter the premises.
- Brian spends $30,000 on fabric to construct a luxury tent indoors, complete with hookah pipes (for hashish). He then realises there is no ventilation and the room is too hot, so the “tent room” is never used again.
- Perhaps most foolhardy of all, Brian painted his house purple, without consulting his wife, Marilyn, first.
- There are a number of stories of Brian’s strange behaviour, but we now know Brian had an undiagnosed schizoaffective disorder and mild manic depression. Wilson says in his autobiography he has had to deal with voices in his head since his early twenties, voices which first appeared a week after he first took LSD. “I’ve tried to ignore them. I’ve tried to chase them away with drink and drugs. That didn’t work. I’ve had all kinds of medication…all kinds of therapy. In the end I’ve had to learn to live with them”.
- We also know that Brian wants to write an album to better Revolver, to be called Smile. There’s TV footage from the time of Brian singing a new song, called “Surf’s Up”.
- This song does not appear on an album until 1971, and it will take until 2011 for a (5CD) version of the album to be officially released – with only an approximation of what the unfinished album was intended to sound like.
- Wilson’s drug taking combined with his mental health issues are catching up with him. When recording a section called “Fire” Brian has everyone wear a toy fire helmet, and starts a small fire in a bucket to capture the mood. Brian worries the music recorded is responsible for starting fires around Los Angeles when, a few days later, a building across the street from the studio burns down, and he tries to burn the tapes. When the tapes will not burn, they are locked in a vault. (As described in the book “Heroes and Villains” – Brian says in his autobiography about the tale burning, that’s “either not true” or he “can’t remember it”).
- Brian gives up on Smile. Van Dyke Parks has gone and there’s no-one to complete the lyrics, Brian can’t work out how best to put the pieces of the tunes together and is suffering further from debilitating voices in his head: on 2nd May 1967, Capitol Records announces the album has been abandoned. Brian reflected years later: “It felt like a big cloud moved over me after I junked SMiLE…it was the depression…that would eventually…paralyse me for so many years.”
- The Beach Boys pull out of The Monterey Pop Festival. Monterey ignites the careers of everyone who plays the show – from Otis Redding to Jimi Hendrix – and The Beach Boys are culturally left behind.
The Beach Boys themselves all appear to look at the success the Beatles had post 1966 with a feeling of what might have been.
Mike Love: “After…1966 it was not preordained that The Beatles would have four or five more years of…success while we would drift off the charts. But Brian was our quarterback, and once he was out of the game, we could never keep up”.
But here’s the interesting bit. Over the next few years, The Beach Boys struggle on. They are dysfunctional, so it doesn’t always come easily. But they try new things, as much out of necessity as anything. Their comparison with The Beatles shows how successful they had become and how they saw themselves. But the difference was The Beatles already had three songwriters, and were about to focus on the studio and drop touring – going on to even greater things, whereas The Beach Boys had relied mostly on one, and while that songwriter was burning out, the others weren’t yet operating at the same level.
They release a series of albums that are more experimental than the early albums. More band members become involved in the songwriting. Mike Love plus Carl and Dennis Wilson relieve the pressure on Brian. The records take on influences from R&B or experiment with a lo-fi, indie approach, or experiment with psychedelia. So while few of the LPs create much of a commercial impression, the records each have a distinct character, and many years on, we can see them as a body of work that is worthy of reappraisal.
Here’s a run down of the albums produced after Pet Sounds that I was hoping to find, slightly unloved, in the record racks:
Smiley Smile: Released in 1967 instead of Smile. Something of a hodge-podge. If I can’t find it, I’m not too bothered tbh.
Wild Honey: Released just two months after Smiley Smile in December 1967 – and, if such a thing exists, is a Beach Boys “soul” album. It wasn’t a success – peaking at number 24.
Friends: influenced by the Boys’ introduction to transcendental meditation. It’s a gentle blissful record, completely at odds with the prevailing, angry mood of America in 1968, a year of political assassinations, civil unrest and riots.It did so badly, Capitol Records rush released an album of instrumental versions of the hits, “Stack-o-Tracks” which happily sold even worse.
20/20: Released Feb 1969. Brian by now is being treated in a psychiatric hospital. Dennis described this album as “the only letdown…it was the first album the group made that was completely disjointed”. I describe this album as “actually not that bad”.
Sunflower: An album Mike Love describes as “one of the best recorded and mixed albums of its day with an approach … that made even Abbey Road sound primitive”. Released in August 1970, this innovation was rewarded by a chart placing of number 151 on the Billboard charts.
A bit of a mixed bag then, sales wise, but what was going on?
Let’s take a quick check on how the individual members of The Beach Boys were faring as at June 1968, when Friends is released:
Brian Wilson: 2/10: Committed to psychiatric hospital, mostly bed-ridden, but married and has a daughter. If you want to know how much Brian recalls of the eight albums recorded between Pet Sounds and Holland, he covers them all in his (near 300-page) biography in just ten pages.
Dennis Wilson: 1/10: Taking lots of drugs, marriage to wife Carol hitting the rocks, mostly due to the drugs and his prolific infidelity, best summed up by his membership of a club: the charmingly self-styled “Golden Penetrators” which unsurprisingly Carol finds “tough”. But that’s not all. Dennis has made a new friend. Charles Manson. Their meeting was as follows:
Dennis comes home, a man he’s never seen before walks out of his house towards him.
Dennis says “Are you going to hurt me?”
The man says “Do I look like I’m going to?” and then falls to his knees and kisses Dennis’ feet.
I don’t know about you, but I’d have run a mile.
Carl Wilson: 6/10: Happily married for two years, aged twenty. Fighting the US government over his status as a conscientious objector.
Mike Love: 4/10: Married, two kids, but, according to Steven Haines biography, prone to bouts of domestic violence against his wife Suzanne. She, understandably, wants a divorce as a result, and has had an affair with (and this is awkward) Golden Penetrator Club founder member Dennis Wilson. To balance this out, Love has discovered the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Finds himself in Rishikesh, India, studying meditation. Unbeknownst to him until he gets there, other invitees include Donovan and The Beatles. (Side note: a few days in, McCartney shows Love a tune he’s been working on called “Back in the USSR”. “It’s sorta Beach Boys style” says McCartney. Love likes it, and says “You know what you ought to do. In the bridge part talk about the girls around Russia. The Moscow chicks…and all that”).
Al Jardine: 9/10: Happily married, living on a ranch, sober, owns dogs, horses. Seems to be the best adjusted of all of them. The only thing I could find in the slightest bit controversial was his owning a pet monkey.
Bruce Johnston: 10/10: The man brought in to replace Brian Wilson on vocals when Brian stopped touring. So clean cut, he doesn’t even own a monkey.
A visit to my local record shop was now essential. Which of these albums could I a) find and b) convince my friend would be worth his while?
Next time: Part 4 – The Early Years: