The challenge: The Beach Boys have a legion of fans, but I had precisely two of their albums. What had I overlooked?
And was it still possible to build up a concise collection from The Beach Boys twenty-nine studio albums that a) didn’t cost the Earth and b) that were good enough to get regular plays on the turntable?
With Beach Boys Today! and Holland, complementing Pet Sounds and Surf’s Up, that made four Beach Boys albums in the collection.
There was one more trip to my local record shop to make to complete the set. Bob still had all the early records, aside from the copy of Beach Boys Today! I had snaffled, but I was more interested in searching his £5 and £10 bins for a few other albums that might be lurking around.
I was hoping The Beach Boys would be sufficiently off the radar for many new record collectors.
Happily for me Bob is always decently stocked and he had a nice double album set for just £10: one of Capitol Records reissues from the seventies.
It was the albums Wild Honey and Friends in one neat package.
The packaging wasn’t thrilling, but for sheer value I wasn’t complaining. The reasons to buy Wild Honey are as follows:
- After the Pet Sounds mini-symphonies comes a refreshing back-to-basics approach with fewer complex harmonies – but also jettisoning the surfing sound. It contains R&B influences, and people talk about it being The Beach Boys’ R&B album, but it is a long way from being a Stevie Wonder album (although does cover Wonder’s “I Was Made To Love Her”).
- Second single “Darlin’” is one of The Beach Boys’ best ever uptempo tunes. What a tune! I defy anyone to not hum along to this. What has changed for the better is that the twangy surf guitar and lyrical themes have gone, replaced by an updated sound to reflect the times, while the harmonies remain.
- Brian’s boogaloo piano. Listen to that slightly loose piano rumble on the title track (underneath that theremin – another throwback). It rattles! Brian says “I tuned my piano slightly out, more like a twelve string guitar”. I can’t quite work that out, but the loosened strings in the piano give the album a unique feel. “How She Boogalooed It” has a title that sums up the song beautifully.
The reasons to buy Friends?
- Dennis Wilson begins to contribute songs. You can imagine one of his songs on here, “Little Bird” appearing on The Beatles’ White Album.
- It has a sound we might describe nowadays as pastoral – something Paul McCartney (among many others) explored further in his early solo work and inspiring lo-fi indie bands to pick up their acoustic guitars and glockenspiels. Listen to the wonderful “Busy Doin’ Nothin’” for something simple, or the title track for – of all things – a cheerful choral waltz.
- It has well-known fans: St Etienne’s Bob Stanley describes the album as a forgotten gem with a timeless simplicity. Brian Wilson describes Friends as “my favourite”. And who are we to argue with Bob Stanley and Brian Wilson?
The next LP spotted in the rack was a keenly priced £7.50 and was called “Sunflower”.
In 1969 The Beach Boys left Capitol Records amidst some acrimony, claiming underpayment of royalties. Capitol were so fed up with their unpredictable behaviour, which included Dennis Wilson’s ill-fated friendship with Charles Manson, Mike Love being restrained in a straight jacket and hospitalised, and Brian Wilson’s continued lack of productivity as he reportedly spent most of his time in bed, they deleted the entire catalogue, making it impossible to buy any of the old albums, and cutting off royalties.
The Beach Boys delivered an album called Add Some Music which Warners, their new record company, rejected. Five songs came out, five new songs went in, including tunes by Dennis (“Forever” and “Got to Know the Woman”), Bruce Johnston’s “Deirdre” and Brian’s “All I Wanna Do”.
The album became Sunflower.
Released in August 1970, and the predecessor to Surf’s Up, this was another leap in quality from the previous few albums.
The first reason to buy this album is the cover. This LP has a gatefold sleeve with photos of the band that reveal how bad men are when they are left to dress themselves. By now the striped tops hadn’t been de rigeur for some time and they’d all gone a bit rogue.
Mike Love is dressed like Jesus, patting children on the head inside the gatefold, at the start of his fascination with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and transcendental meditation, and reaffirming what a lovely child-caring sort of man he is by carrying two kids on the cover while being careful not to spill what looks like a generous glass of pinot noir.
Meanwhile Alan Jardine is dressed alternatively as a cowboy and a 19th century French market stall holder, Carl is either a horseman or a stockbroker, Brian a ferryman in one photo and dressed all in white in the other, never a good idea if you are looking after a one year old, especially when the guy next to you is holding a glass of pinot and two kids, while Bruce Johnston is either a 1930’s wedding chauffeur or a university student.
Dennis appears to think he’s in the Air Force.
It’s all very mysterious. But the music! The second reason to buy this album is that Sunflower is perhaps the most Pet Sounds sounding album in the Beach Boys canon, except for, well, Pet Sounds itself.
Brian wanted to change the name of the band to The Beach, “as we weren’t boys any more”. He was voted down. But instead of being a Brian Wilson solo vehicle, this has songs from all the band – as mentioned earlier, Dennis Wilson gives us the gorgeous “Forever” – written while Dennis was falling for his future wife, Barbara Charren, whom he met when she was working in a hamburger restaurant – and the superb “Slip on Through”.
For those who want to hear the definitive version of “Forever”, here it is, from TV show Full House…
And the third reason to buy this album is for the contribution of Bruce Johnston, who gives us the none-more-Brian Wilsonesque “Tears in the Morning” and “Deirdre”. Bruce later wrote “Disney Girls” on Surf’s Up and, wait for it, Barry Manilow’s “I Write The Songs”, for which he earned a Grammy.
Brian Wilson still delivers, with “This Whole World” blending the signature harmony vocals with a driving, rockier sound.
In the US, these musical riches were rewarded by Sunflower being the worst selling Beach Boys album to date. As Bruce Johnston said “people in America couldn’t quite see that The Beach Boys had changed. We were still viewed as surfing Doris Days…”
But despite the slow start, it coincided with a separate revival in The Beach Boys’ popularity in the USA. An appearance at Monterey, and subsequent four nights at The Whiskey A Go Go – their first live shows in LA in four years – and then the Carnegie Hall in New York, showed how they had developed a killer live show with Mike Love emerging as a great front man. It didn’t immediately translate into album sales, but it was a start.
There was another Beach Boys in the box that was so pristine it caught my eye. “Love You” was released in 1977, recorded as part of Brian’s “therapy” with controversial therapist Dr Eugene Landy, who rewarded Brian with food and drugs on the completion of a song, which probably isn’t a technique found in too many medical books. Landy had his licence revoked shortly afterwards.
It looked like new and had a nice inner sleeve. A decent £10 investment. But is it any good?
Reason number one? Let’s hear from rock critic Lester Bangs, a cynical cove if ever there was one. He wrote a rave review on release: “The Beach Boys Love You pulls off a feat that’s eluded, say, Pete Townshend and Mick Jagger – it’s almost more juvenile than their original stuff. It’s not self-conscious, and it sounds right up-to-date. It’s that joyous, rocking, soaring, roller-rink-in-the-sky sound that always made them the real American Music of the Spheres, and as far as I’m concerned, it might as well be their best album ever…”
That’s Lester Bangs there digging the simplicity of the album.
Reason number two is the early-ish use of synthesisers. Not always a recommendation, but this time it is – the synths (a mini-moog in particular) are used sympathetically- this is not a proto-Depeche Mode album. But the synths bring a freshness to the music and complement some great songs like “I’ll Bet He’s Nice”, “Solar System” and “The Night Was So Young”.
Reason number three? Let’s hear from R.E.M.‘s Peter Buck in the liner notes to those 2000 CD reissues:
“ I have a confession to make: Love You is my favorite Beach Boys album. I know that this is an indefensible position to take, with albums like Pet Sounds, Sunflower and the unreleased Smile in the catalogue” says our Pete.
But why, Pete? Are you just cooler than all of us? Or is there an actual reason?
It turns out there is.
“In many ways this is a Brian Wilson solo album. For the first and last time on a Beach Boys record, Brian was responsible for a large percentage of the lyrics. When the record came out the childishness of the lyrics was a source of much mockery by critics and public. But to criticize the lyrics for not being suitably heavy is completely besides the point; this record, naive as it is, maybe the most personal record Brian ever made. I don’t listen to this record without seeing the Brian that I’ve had the pleasure to meet; a shy, unworldly, brilliant composer who is completely unsure of himself outside the boundaries of the recording studio.”
And if you don’t believe him, listen to “Parakeet” from “Up” and tell me there isn’t a Beach Boys Love You tinge to that song…
Brian Wilson says “I wrote some songs that were about how I felt in my thirties, the same way Pet Sounds was about how I felt in my twenties”. So what we have in “Love You” is Brian as a lyricist, writing simple songs, honestly.
So with some decent records, and convincing arguments in their favour, I felt confident in adding these LPs to the collection, and my friend Chris gave his Papal blessing. It was a decent haul, even a sceptical Chris had to agree.
Beach Boys Today! Wild Honey, Friends, Sunflower, Holland and Love You. All great albums, and a total of £57.50 spent on six LPs. I couldn’t find a copy of 20/20, but record collecting is a long game.
The final find came a week or so later at Southend Record Fair. There, in a big box of seventies albums was a copy of Pacific Ocean Blue, Dennis Wilson’s solo LP from 1977, for £25. CD copies of Pacific Ocean Blue were selling for over £100 at the turn of the Millennium, and I remember downloading a copy online to hear the fabled (and long-deleted) songs, so to see an original copy satisfied the vinyl-hound within me. It’s a cracking LP, and while nothing quite matches “Forever” on Sunflowers, “River Song” is a bona fide classic and it was very much the icing on the Beach Boys cake.
And the nice thing is, there’s always something else to look out for. Unlike, say, The Beatles, The Beach Boys vinyl catalogue doesn’t contain huge numbers of valuable collectibles, so you can build a collection relatively cheaply.
Thanks to reissues from the seventies, you can pick up two for the price of one. Perhaps 20/20 will pop up, or Brian Wilson’s solo “That Lucky Old Sun”, or even The Flame – the 1970 album produced by Carl Wilson, featuring Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar who were Beach Boys band members for the “So Tough” and “Holland” albums – will look imploringly at me from the racks next time.
When you’re a record collector and you visit a record shop, like with Forrest Gump, you never know what you’re going to get.
Postscript: If you’d like to hear some of the songs these last five posts have covered on Spotify , here’s a playlist:
- I Am Brian Wilson by Brian Wilson
- Heroes and Villains by Steven Gaines
- Good Vibrations: My Life As A Beach Boy by Mike Love
An expanded reissue of Sunflower and Surf’s Up will be released later this year