The challenge: To find lesser known moments from The Beach Boys catalogue and build up a concise collection of Beach Boys records that a) don’t cost the Earth and b) that are good enough to get regular plays on the turntable.
I popped into Wow and Flutter in Hastings while taking a couple of days off.
My wife used to be surprised how often we would “accidentally” stumble across record shops when on holiday. She used to remark upon it. “It’s amazing how often it happens” she would say, all innocently, to friends.
And then the scales fell from her eyes, and she realised when following me down an unpromising back street only to find a record shop, there was more at work than mere coincidence.
Before you get the wrong idea, it didn’t take her very long to catch on. After which we could all relax. I would then lead everyone down back streets and everyone would roll their eyes at each other and look for ice cream shops or other ways to entertain themselves for twenty minutes while dad went through the motions of looking surprised at coming across a record shop and ninnied around looking at what was hiding behind the inevitable piles of copies of Paul Young’s No Parlez therein.
So by now, the trip to Wow and Flutter was well signposted, and off the family went to find something else to do. Inside, hidden behind the government appointed face mask, was Tim, proprietor of Wow and Flutter and also known to many as one half of the “We Buy Records” Podcast.
After a decent dig around what was an excellent and properly priced selection of records in his shop, including a lovely copy of The Blue Nile’s “Hats”, I said hello and asked Tim what he was playing on the shop stereo. It sounded suspiciously Beach Boys-y, but I couldn’t place it.
“Ah” said Tim “We often get asked what this is when we play it. It’s Holland by The Beach Boys”.
When the challenge was first mooted, the biggest doubt in the back of my mind was the time I had listened on Spotify to the follow up to “Surf’s Up”: the album called “Holland” of which all I could recall was that much of it consisted of an interminable narrated fairy tale about a Prince in a castle who listens to a flying transistor radio, and which was a) not a patch on Tony Hancock’s earlier play about radios, b) clearly what happens when people take too many drugs and c) awful.
“I was rather put off this album by all the weird bits about magic talking radios” I told Tim. “Where are they? Is that on the other side? This all sounds rather good….”
“Ah” nodded Tim sagely. “You’re talking about the EP that came with the album. The actual album is one of my favourite Beach Boys LPs – it’s great. I wish I had more copies. People always want to buy it when we play it.
“I don’t suppose…?”
“Ah, I’m sorry, no. This is the shop copy. But it isn’t that rare – you shouldn’t have much trouble finding it”.
That was fair enough, and Tim was right – I had seen plenty of copies over the years. But this “EP” business was news to me.
On Spotify, the extra EP tracks had been tagged on to the album, with no explanation. One of the many pitfalls of using Spotify.
I had rather dismissed Holland because I thought a third of it was a terrible play (and let’s be very clear, there are no redeeming features about this play. Even the most devoted parent would have booed their own kids off stage had they performed it as an end-of-school-term play. And it could have been worse. Brian Wilson tells the story of how his original concept was going to be even more unbearable, or as he put it, “much more ambitious”. He ran it by brother Carl whose reaction was magnificent.
“What?” said Carl.
Brian says he isn’t to this day sure if Carl thought it was “too creative, too ambitious or if he just didn’t like it”.
So let’s clear that one up. He didn’t like it, Brian. No one does. It is truly abysmal).
So without the magic of vinyl, “Holland” is a confused mess. No context. Nothing to explain why the tunes disappear and the band go off on one about Princes and flying radios like they’ve all been turned into simpletons.
On vinyl, however – and here’s the magic of vinyl summed up in one easy example – said EP is a treasured collector’s special bonus EP. And one that can be safely – and thoroughly if I have anything to do with it – ignored.
A few weeks later I went to Southend Record Fair, with half an eye on picking up a copy of “Holland”.
The more seasoned vinyl hunters among you will know what happened next, and what tends to happen if ever you go to a record fair or shop with a view to finding a specific record. I looked through perhaps fifty or more boxes of records. Each box must have contained fifty to eighty records so that’s somewhere between 2,500 and 4,000 records. Naturally, not a single copy of said album was to be found for love nor money. A trawl around several shops was equally fruitless. I was not worried. This was par for the course. To be expected. The hardened vinyl hound merely stiffens the lip and marches forward. The Vinyl Gods may not be benevolent today, but sacrifices to the Gods can be made – perhaps a calf fattened and burnt as an offering – and better fortune will follow.
Fortune favours the persistent. I went back a month later and – at a stall I hadn’t seen before – found a nice copy for £12. “No EP?” I enquired more in hope than expectation, and to open up the conversation. “It would be a lot more money if it did” advised the Benevolent Vendor.
I looked at the record again. “Did this come with an inner sleeve or anything?”
“No. But it’s a great album. Lots of people say Pet Sounds is their best album, but this is my favourite Beach Boys record” added the B.V. confidently, sort of echoing Tim’s recommendation, in a self-serving sort of way. I had pleased the Vinyl Gods and I was to be rewarded. No EP (but who cares, right? It’s terrible). I snapped it up. £12 well spent.
I went to the next stall, to discover I was but a pawn in the Vinyl Gods’ game of chess. This stall too had a copy, only this time for £15, BUT it had the EP. And, what’s more, with a nice inner lyric sheet I hadn’t realised existed.
The full package. Now, my newly acquired £12 copy of Holland was like this…
None of this makes much sense outside of record collecting. I had a perfectly good copy of the Holland album, purchased moments ago, which I now looked at with large sense of buyer’s regret. The only difference between the two records was that one had the original inner lyric sheet (in Tim’s parlance, “Printed Matter”) containing rather serious lyrics by poet Robinson Jeffers like this:
…and an EP I detest and will never listen to.
I bumped into a friend. (Not literally, there’s a pandemic on, don’t you know) and told him my predicament. He nodded sympathetically with the air of a man who had been there before. I sighed, and came to my senses.
There was really no contest when you looked at things sensibly. Reason prevailed.
Of course, I bought the £15 copy. I’m not a monster. You only buy records once. It would only have gnawed endlessly at my soul like Prometheus’ vulture if I hadn’t had a proper, complete copy. I reasoned I would sell the other on eBay or give it away.
After half an hour my friend came back and told me he’d seen another copy of Holland out the back. They had been scarce a month ago – and I ripped the place apart that day – but they’d bred like rabbits since…
More importantly, is Holland any good?Here’s what we need to know:
- 1972: Following decent success with “Surf’s Up” and a disappointing response to follow up “Carl and the Passions – So Tough!” the band relocate to Holland from Los Angeles after a successful Amsterdam concert. In Holland, they reason, there will be fewer drugs than in LA. Which is all you need to know about LA in 1972.
- Brian Wilson, now 30 years old, boards a plane to Amsterdam to join the band to record the album, but gets cold feet and sneaks off the plane unnoticed before it takes off, leaving behind his ticket and passport on the plane. When the plane lands everyone thinks he’s vanished in mid-air, only to find him, asleep in an LA airport lounge. He gets there eventually.
- The strange fairy tale EP (called “Mount Vernon and Fairway”) was written by Brian Wilson after drinking Dutch cider and listening to Randy Newman’s “Sail Away” album. It is reason enough to discourage anyone from doing the same. (It was also inspired by his memories of listening to his transistor radio when a boy).
- The album is initially rejected by the record company because they don’t hear a single, so they speak to Van Dyke Parks, then working at Warner Brothers, who had previously collaborated with Brian Wilson, notably on the unreleased Smile album. He happens to have recently written a tune with Brian Wilson called “Sail On Sailor”. It is a minor classic, and is immediately added to the album.
- The rest of the album doesn’t quite reach the heights of Surf’s Up, but certainly has its moments. The California Saga “benefits” from spoken word pieces from Mike Love during middle section “The Beaks of Eagles” which won’t be to everyone’s taste, but does, at least, have an ecological message. And in its defence, it’s not nearly as bad as the EP. By now, the whole band are contributing to songwriting, and Carl Wilson puts in some great vocal performances.
I called my friend Chris, who had poured scorn in the idea that The Beach Boys were worth bothering with.
“Chris” I said “I think I might be on to something.”
He looked doubtful, even over Zoom. But my research had unearthed something I knew would capture his attention. Chris is a Tom Petty fan, and in 2000, The Beach Boys reissued their music on double CDs with well known musicians writing about their favourites. Elton John wrote about “Carl and The Passions – So Tough”, and packaged with that album, Tom Petty wrote the liner notes for Holland.
Petty pulls out “The Trader”, a Carl Wilson song, as a favourite. “Carl co-produces every track here, and his vocal on his song The Trader is, well, something of a miracle.” wrote Tom.
“The Trader may be the best piece of work ever by a man who did many, many great vocals. The Trader is the centerpiece to Holland and all these years later still leaves me with my mouth hung open when I hear it.”
It’s also not dissimilar in style to “Long Promised Road” (and none the worse for it) but notably it shows The Beach Boys embracing forward political thinking, speaking out against the harm done by colonialism. When you compare “The Trader” to the earlier “Ten Little Indians” you can see The Beach Boys’ collective social conscience has been on a journey, especially when you realise in 1970 Mike Love didn’t want to appear at a festival in Monterey being organised by Joan Baez because he was worried she was “a commie”.
Amusingly, even on the sleeve notes Petty can’t quite bring himself to praise the magic radio play. “Listening to it, for me, is a little bit hard” admits Petty. “At best I would call it “weird.”
You can imagine that’s Tom Petty at his most tactful.
But Petty redeems himself… “Holland is not only a wonderful listening experience, it’s a great case for the Beach Boys being more than Brian Wilson’s backing singers” he added.
We had a winner. “Holland is our first Beach Boys album to get to know better. It has plenty of fans, from knowledgeable record shop owners to Tom Petty” I told Chris. “And what’s more, I have a spare copy which I am going to send you.
It doesn’t have the accompanying EP, but believe me, you’ll thank me for that if you ever have the misfortune to hear it…”
Next time: Part 3: After Pet Sounds