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Off the Beaten Tracks: The Beach Boys come of age – Part 2

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LAST week we left the Beach Boys on the crest of a wave with Pet Sounds, an album which changed the face of popular music in 1966. Brian Wilson’s next project was the single Good Vibrations, on which he was helped by Van Dyke Parks. It was hugely complex, taking months to record at a cost of many thousands of dollars, making it the most expensive track in history up to that point. Thankfully it was a smash on both sides of the pond.

Emboldened by that success the two men set out to make a masterpiece that would put even Pet Sounds in the shade. Smile would be a specifically American record to counteract the British domination of pop music led by the Beatles. It was conceived as a continuous suite with lyrics by Parks, bringing in his gleanings from world music, classical and jazz, plus yodelling. Wilson described it as a ‘teenage symphony to God’.

Recording took place from mid-1966 to mid-1967 but was frequently shambolic owing to the Beach Boys’ drug abuse. The whole thing was abandoned after Parks walked out in protest. Carl Wilson would later remark that ‘everybody was so loaded on pot and hash all of the time that it’s no wonder the project didn’t get done’. It would be 2004 before the album finally achieved release as Brian Wilson Presents Smile.

With Capitol still demanding product, Smiley Smile was recorded over six weeks in the summer of 1967 at Brian’s home studio and was an attempt to salvage some of the ditched material. One such song, Heroes and Villains, is the first track and possibly the best of a bunch which the fans and critics initially hated.

It was one of two singles taken from the LP, the other being the seriously weird Gettin’ Hungry. 

Melody Maker announced it was ‘undoubtedly the worst album ever released by the Beach Boys’. Not helped by a decision to pull out of headlining the seminal Monterey Festival, where Jimi Hendrix made a sensational appearance, the band were rumoured to have been scared of the opposition and became rapidly dismissed by the public as old hat. However history has been kinder to Smiley Smile and it is now seen, if not as a masterpiece, then a fascinating curio.

With drugs raging unchecked through Brian Wilson’s fragile psyche, brother Carl took the helm for Wild Honey, which also came out in 1967. This is a venture into soul music and clocks in at a mere 24 minutes, which might be why it was dismissed as ‘slight and inconsequential’. The title track bombed as a single but Darlin’ reached No 11 in the UK and No 19 in the US. Carl described the record as ‘music for Brian to cool out by. He was still very spaced’.

The next album, Friends, was released in June 1968 and is another shorty at less than 26 minutes. It reflects the band’s brief relationship with the Indian guru Maharishi Manesh Yogi and his transcendental meditation programme. The title track reached No 25 in the UK and No 47 in the US.

Brian said his favourite cut was Wake The World. ‘It was so descriptive to how I felt about the dramatic changeover from day to night – “One by one, stars appear, the light of the day is no longer here”.’ Hmm. Friends became the band’s worst-selling album so far.

A much stronger song, the brilliant Do It Again, was released as a single the following month and shot to No 1 in the UK. It would be the first track on the next album, 20/20, which came out in February 1969 and is largely a collection of leftovers from previous projects. Brian was absent for most of the recording sessions, having checked himself into a psychiatric hospital. Track two, I Can Hear Music, marks Carl Wilson’s taking over control from his brother – he performs lead vocals and produces too.

This song was previously a hit for the Ronettes, recorded by Phil Spector, and provided the Beach Boys with their 25th and final US Top 40 hit of the 1960s. The CD reissue of 20/20 also included the excellent Break Away, a single released in July 1969 which bombed in America but reached No 6 in the UK.

Having moved to the Reprise label in 1970, in a deal brokered by Van Dyke Parks, the band released their best album since Pet Sounds. Sunflower includes cherished tracks such as Tears in the Morning, All I Wanna DoCool, Cool Water and the lovely At My Window about a visit from a sparrow. 

Forever, co-written by Dennis Wilson with a friend, was described by Brian as ‘the most harmonically beautiful thing I’ve ever heard. It’s a rock and roll prayer’. Sadly, with the Beach Boys still regarded as rock dinosaurs, Sunflower was a commercial disaster and prompted the group to take on radio DJ Jack Rieley as their manager. He said: ‘It sounds silly, but people in America at this time were afraid to listen to the Beach Boys. 20/20 and Sunflower were real disasters sales-wise. But Sunflower was one of the finest recordings I have ever heard by anybody. So, I changed the group.’

Among Rieley’s first acts was to ditch the boys’ matching white polyester stage suits. He also appointed Carl Wilson as official band leader. After two months of rehearsals they played two sets at the Big Sur Folk Festival in California; performances which redeemed them in the eyes of the critics.   

While it’s obviously not as strong as Pet Sounds, 1971’s Surf’s Up remains my favourite Beach Boys album. The opening track, Don’t Go Near the Water, reflects the record’s ‘save the planet’ theme. At Rieley’s suggestion, there were more political songs to make the group seem more ‘relevant’ to the Seventies. Instead of plunging into the surf, they are shunning the ocean because it’s polluted.

Long Promised Road is Carl’s baby. He wrote it and played almost all the instruments. Take a Load Off Your Feet is a leftover from the Sunflower sessions. Disney Girls (1957) is a sweet and nostalgic composition by Bruce Johnston. The heavy-handed Student Demonstration Time I can do without. Side Two begins propitiously with the dreamy, synthesiser-driven Feel Flows, co-written by Carl and Rieley. The manager takes on lead vocals for A Day in the Life of a Tree and then we have the superb ‘Til I Die,  a song about helplessness written by Brian Wilson.

In it, he compares himself to a cork on the ocean, a rock in a landslide, and a leaf on a windy day. He said it was ‘perhaps the most personal song I ever wrote for the Beach Boys’. Johnston described it as the last great Brian Wilson song. Here’s an alternative, longer version. 

Finally comes the title track, originally part of the Smile project, co-written by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks. ‘The lyrics were very Van Dyke,’ Wilson told an interviewer. ‘It took us about an hour at most to write the whole thing. We wrote it pretty fast; it all happened like it should.’ Surf’s Up is a phrase used by beach boarders to suggest it’s time to hit the water, although in this case it is meant to suggest that the band’s original subject matter has been consigned to the dustbin of history.

Johnston left the band after an alleged clash with Rieley and was replaced by two South Africans, multi-instrumentalist Ricky Fataar and singer-guitarist Blondie Chaplin. They brought a rockier sound to the next album, Carl and the Passions ‘So Tough’. The only tracks from this record to make it to my iPod are Marcella and the excellent All This is That. 

For the 1973 album Holland, the band and their families relocated for reasons known only to themselves to Baambrugge, a village near Amsterdam. According to Al Jardine ‘it was rough being in Holland. We were working 24/7 in a small homemade rebuilt piecemeal little studio in a garage next to a cow pasture. Yeah, it was rough. We didn’t even have the correct electricity so that kind of affected the sound of our equipment. It was a mixed blessing.’

Holland opens with a strong track, Sail on Sailor, while side one is dominated by the three-part California Saga, which dices with pretentiousness and just about gets away with it. Carl Wilson’s singing on The Trader prompted rock legend Tom Petty to describe it as ‘something of a miracle’ adding: ‘The Trader may be the best piece of work ever by a man who did many, many great vocals. The song is the centrepiece to Holland and all these years later still leaves me with my mouth hung open when I hear it.’

With the vinyl album came a separate EP Mount Vernon and Fairway (A Fairy Tale) which suffice it to say has only once graced the steam-driven radiogram-cum-drinks cabinet at Ashworth Towers. And that’s the last Beach Boys LP I bought.

PS: At the beginning of last week’s column I said that Pet Sounds is, for me, where interest in the Beach Boys begins. It will not surprise regular visitors to our website that, so far as my early-sixties-pop-loving missus is concerned, it is when they started to lose the plot.

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Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth
Alan Ashworth is a former national newspaper journalist now retreated to the Ribble Valley, where he grows cacti and tramps the fells with the family dog Bingo. He and his wife Margaret run a website, A-M Records , which includes their collected TCW columns plus extra features including Tracks of the Day. Requests, queries and comments can be sent to alanj126@yahoo.co.uk

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