Sunday 27 May 2012
The BEACH BOYS: 20 Golden Greats
(#171: 24 July 1976, 10 weeks)
Track listing: Surfin’ U.S.A./Fun, Fun, Fun/I Get Around/Don’t Worry Baby/Little Deuce Coupe/When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)/Help Me Rhonda/California Girls/Barbara-Ann/Sloop John B/You’re So Good To Me/God Only Knows/Wouldn’t It Be Nice/Good Vibrations/Then I Kissed Her/Heroes And Villains/Darlin’/Do It Again/I Can Hear Music/Break Away
“Southern California has the sweetest and highest life style developed by the race. Its surface manifestations – riding in open cars, surfing, being in the sun, making love and watching tv – can be deceptive and puzzling, like Stonehenge and the Aztec temples. Pacific American civilization is a startling synthesis of opposites – sad rootlessness and loving homeyness, crazy speed and narcotic calm, ugly plastic and the orange sun – the wise mindlessness of extreme America.”
(Lilian Roxon, Rock Encyclopedia, New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1969, from her entry on the Beach Boys)
“’That summer was such an extraordinary event,’ says Sophie Richmond. ‘I was out of the country a lot but as soon as you got halfway down Scotland, you noticed. Aberdeen was really lush, and then after that everything was brown. And it seemed that everything was getting out of control on a larger scale.’ As the heatwave intensified, drought conditions prevailed; by late August, columns of smoke from small fires dotted the landscape like warning beacons. When the weather broke in early September, the apocalyptic mood did not.”
(Jon Savage, England’s Dreaming: Sex Pistols and Punk Rock, London: Faber and Faber Limited, 1991, chapter 17, regarding the summer of 1976)
“All those movies, hundreds a year for fifty years, with only seven or so story structures in all of them. I can see through the window the street lamp on the corner saying Bedford Falls is safe and civilized. And there is the light in my window that anyone passing by might call tranquil home life, or anxiety’s tireless friction.
I write by night.”
(David Thomson, Suspects, London: Secker & Warburg, 1985)
So gold, so great, so bright and optimistic – that is, provided you’re not awake at 4:48 in the morning thinking about the darkness. A British summer so hot that it verged on meltdown, and this was the record, the music, we felt fitted the time best. But note the record’s unusual rapidity and continuing changes in focus; a record that begins with a man wanting to embrace the world and the world to embrace him, calling out loud for a sharing of his passions, his culture, and ends, six years and just over fifty-one minutes later, with the same man lying in his bed, hearing voices in his head. Is this really the sunshine of music, or one of the grimmest horror stories in pop?
Sometimes it’s nicer to think of the manifesto starting with “If everybody had a notion” when we really know it’s “If everybody had an ocean,” but the British wing of EMI had a notion in 1976; flushed with their successful re-marketing of the Beatles’ back catalogue earlier that year – did half a dozen old Beatles discs in the Top 40 signify a mark of respect or cultural starvation? – and aware of the continuing success of compilation albums from K-Tel, Arcade and Ronco, the company decided to launch its own television advertising division with a view to producing a series of basic compilations – the Golden Greats series - and promoting them aggressively in order to invigorate underperforming artist back catalogues. This was also the “EMTV” series, and the Beach Boys’ album – catalogue number: EMTV 1 – was the test run. The tracks appeared without contextualising sleeve notes and, in many cases, including the Beach Boys, without photographs of the artists themselves. Some tracks were faded early in order to cram them all in – the version of “Do It Again” here, for instance, is minus the SMiLE “Workshop” run-out groove – but, sensing a wider audience who wanted the hits and only the hits, the formula worked; with one exception, the first ten EMTV releases were all marketed as Golden Greats, and eight of the ten made number one over the next two years. Why fuck with the formula, as someone else might have said?
The Beach Boys had already hit number one for a week in the States in October 1974 with a double album of early cuts, Endless Summer, which overnight revived the band’s fortunes (and ensured they remained in demand as an oldies act); in the wake of Watergate and other misdemeanours, one can understand the appeal that pictures of a younger, less complicated life presented to a generation of disillusioned American baby boomers. 20 Golden Greats, however, ran through the sixties gamut of their music (as both compilations came out on the Capitol label, only their sixties material could be included) and is so swift and brutal a summation of the group’s travails through that decade that it’s a wonder that anyone considered it an ideal soundtrack for their outdoor barbecue or seaside picnic. Side two of the record is disturbing enough to make its listeners forget about the barbecue.
But there are important differences in how Americans and Europeans react to the Beach Boys’ music, and much of the Americans’ passion for their early work derives from the wider world it promised. There is this thing in America’s history and ethic about progress, moving on, crossing more and newer frontiers, about setting out – since one of the purposes of that original boat at Plymouth Rock was to set out – about going as far as you can. And what happens when you reach Southern California, which is as far as any American can go, and look out onto the endless, placid blueness of the Pacific? Do people even realise how gigantic and encompassing that stretch of water is? But if you come from there and grow up there, you quickly realise that it’s always going to be there; a reminder of how far you’ve come but also of how far you can go.
The Beach Boys, when they first set out, were about nothing if they weren’t about setting out. They grew up in Hawthorne, west of downtown Los Angeles, a place not quite on the seashore but close enough to know that the infinite water is there. And this family of Beach Boys – do not forget that we are essentially dealing with a flesh and blood family here – choose to love the ocean, want to drive down there, eat and drink there, maybe even surf there (and as every schoolboy knows, only one of them could surf; also the only one of them to die at sea). And they want these good times – contrary to popular belief, Southern California is not endless sunshine; there are dreary times of cloud and rain like anywhere else – and finally they want everybody else to know how good their times are; to extend the mission, to show the world just what is so good about America and its spirit. The story of the group and its members has been told so many times that regurgitation here is redundant, but whatever else you think about the relationship between Brian Wilson and Mike Love – and I’ll have more to say about that later – think of the two boys, back then, over half a century ago, crouching in Brian’s Nash Rambler at dead of night, listening to Johnny Otis’ show on KFOX radio, because – well, because they just have to.
For a while, when they started out, the Beach Boys nailed it. We are now exactly twenty years down the line from Songs For Swingin’ Lovers - a record which shares a label and studio with some of the Beach Boys’ work – and it would seem that in the interim so much has happened yet so little has fundamentally changed. And maybe the Wilsons looked back on that, and Brian in particular to Gershwin, Foster and others, but what they managed to pull off with their early work was a quietly artful assimilation of differing strands of American music – the cool, disciplined harmonies of the Hi-Los and Four Freshmen, the angelic swagger of doo wop (particularly its youth wing in the form of Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers), the breezy bustle of Chuck Berry – which in its way rivals that of The Band in its ambitions towards a definitive all-American music (see also the overlapping lead vocals which remained a Beach Boys characteristic). We look at Terry Pastor’s cover artwork – Pastor being a British artist best known for designing the covers of Hunky Dory and Ziggy Stardust - and, provided we don’t look too closely at its faceless artifice, the image is all the music needs, even if you forgo straight-down-the-line celebration; think of the Lonely Surfer as a variant of The Band’s “worried man,” forever on the move, wondering why he can’t or won’t settle down, secretly worried that these waves might ultimately eat him up.
So what to say here, except that the key track might be the very first. Was there ever a pop record which bundled along with so much animated promise as “Surfin’ U.S.A.”? I note, in the bicentennial summer of 1976, just how much “Surfin’” and “Fun, Fun, Fun” sound like the Ramones (you only have to listen to “Rockaway Beach” for the umbilical link); indeed, had Brian rechanneled his art-statement mind to that same initial happy spirit, and more importantly if he had remained in a position to do so, he might have come up with the Ramones himself. Pop art minimalism? If nothing else – and that does not imply that there is nothing else – the best of the early Beach Boys work points out just how crazy all of mainstream America’s schemes were at this time; the arms race, the space race, Camelot – somehow, the Beach Boys both made this stuff look as silly as it was, and yet celebrated it for its very silliness. What is “Surfin’ U.S.A.” – apart from a “Sweet Little Sixteen” cop, for which Chuck Berry subsequently won a co-composer credit – if not a message to the world about what America could be like? The eager guitar (Carl Wilson? David Marks? Tommy Tedesco?) munching up the beat like one of those new lawn mower gadgets, the heartwarming openness of the “Inside, outside U.S.A.” backing vocals, the namechecks for all the country’s best surf locations. Look, the song seems to say, this is what we stand for, this is what we can give you, as the world. Don’t, it winks, you want to be us (or “U.S.”)?
“Fun, Fun, Fun” is the same, except it takes “Johnny B Goode” as its lead rather than “Sixteen” and makes a pretty unavoidable equation between cars and sex (it’s clear from the guitar break alone what the grounded girl wants to do). “Little Deuce Coupe” goes one step further with its obsessing over the car as phallic object, and I don’t think the teenage Springsteen missed this as a flag-up. But note the reverb which swoops like the most elegant yet inexplicable of waves over the end of the “There’s one more thing” section; already we get the feeling that this is not enough in itself.
The whole thing came to a head with “I Get Around,” the only pre-1966 Beach Boys single to make the UK top ten (others did reasonably well in Britain, but there was limited scope for Deuce Coupes in a land of Robin Reliants). With a very subtle wave to the mood of “La Bamba,” Mike Love’s vocal is distinctly more frustrated than previously (“I’m gettin’ bugged drivin’ up and down the same old strip”) and Brian’s music seems to share this frustration with its minimalist guitar, rumbling Johnny and the Hurricanes organ, and above all the far more complex web of vocal harmonies. The track wants to move on.
“Don’t Worry Baby” was “I Get Around”’s B-side here, and the single as a whole was rated so highly in Britain that the NME placed it, as an unofficial double A-side, in fourth position in its 1976 writers’ Top 100 Singles poll (when this poll was redone in 1987, the single did not even place in the Top 150, although this reflects certain aesthetic battles at work in the paper at the time). Of course the JFK era had already come to its abrupt end, and it’s not exaggeration to say it left a scar in the group that never really healed – not just “The Warmth Of The Sun,” but think about that “Brother John” sleeping in “Surf’s Up.”
But “Don’t Worry Baby” went further than the group had previously envisaged. Taking some inspiration from the Four Seasons (did you catch the “walk like an ace” backing vocals in “Fun, Fun, Fun” and think instantly of “Walk Like A Man”?) as well as from their easy listening/doo wop predecessors, Hal Blaine sets up the “Be My Baby” beat for Brian to sing of – well, continuing subjective inadequacy, but then the song is about, of all things, a drag race. He’s been shooting his mouth off about how good is car is and someone’s called him in on it; he frets about losing face or possibly even losing his life (“Tell Laura I Love Her”) but the important thing is “she” is there, reassuring him, comforting him, and it is only when you delve into the song’s more remote crevices that you realise that he feels like this all the time. Meanwhile, the lead guitar is minimalist, and there is a transitional chord from chorus to verse which harmonically has no precedent in Beach Boys singles.
Even from here there was no way back. “When I Grow Up (To Be A Man)” introduces block chords and unresolved sevenths so severely that you wonder whether its composer is trying to compensate for the possibility that he might not grow up. The harpsichord is new, and the whole, particularly its vocal harmonies, points the way towards the Monkees. “It won’t last forever/It’s kind of sad” warns Love as the track fades. “Assessment of “Help Me Rhonda” is not helped by the fact that the version included here is not the 45 cut, but the Today album track with its tambourine, ukulele and stereo scans (and minus the single’s crucial guitar and piano breaks). Still, the determination in the performance is fairly fervid, the drums are variegated in approach and the whole suggests a halfway house between Spector and Motown. Their version of “Then I Kissed Her,” though rushed out as a stopgap single in ’67 by Capitol in Britain, partly to cover for the protracted genesis of SMiLE, and partly for other reasons, comes from around this time and is markedly faster and more punkish than the deceptive elegance of the Crystals’ original; here there is no ambiguity about the deeper world the word “kissed” signified.
“California Girls” sees the transition solidifying. If in its emotional openness and vulnerability, contrasted with the richness of the harmonies, “Don’t Worry Baby” more or less set the scene for sensitive Laurel Canyon work in the seventies – the Eagles are there, as is the Buckingham/Nicks Fleetwood Mac, as is Jackson Browne – then the prelude to “Girls” which we not entirely inexplicably find returning in altered form as the introduction to “Tonight’s The Night” and the leitmotif of A Night On The Town, points towards the future, even if some radio stations just head for the song itself and Love’s entreaties to the daughters of Midwest farmers. Although the song was conceived and recorded around the time Brian first took acid, this does not really impinge upon the song itself, a heartfelt celebration of the Golden State and its women which I know makes my Californian wife feel all warm and content.
“Barbara-Ann,” a throwaway from the equally throwaway Party! album – so throwaway that a visiting Dean Torrance, from Jan and Dean, ends up doing most of the lead vocals – was, to the disgruntlement of some band members, their breakthrough single; in Britain it was their first to make the top three. In its own way – a cover of an old doo wop hit by the Regents – it does, however, set the scene for “Sloop John B,” an old Leadbelly number that Al Jardine had the bright idea of updating to fit the group’s sound. With a busy, baroque arrangement and ambiguous drums (are they playing fast or slow?), Brian managed to turn the song into something of a lament; you can smell the boat rocking in the waves, but also Brian’s increasing disquiet; “This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on,” he sings at one point, and it doesn’t sound as though he’s referring to a boat; when the drums eventually do double their tempo at fadeout, and Carol Kaye’s bass immediately locks into the throb, there is a strange but entirely logical resemblance to the Who’s contemporaneous “Substitute.” “You’re So Good To Me,” another try at a Motown four-on-the-floor stomp-along with guitar which predicates Eddy Grant on “Baby Come Back” which also showcases Brian’s blossoming interest in thick, continuous textures of harmony, appeared as “Sloop”’s B-side.
That latter track opens side two of 20 Golden Greats, and the Lonely Surfer is already in danger of vanishing from view. In fact, for many American critics, the Beach Boys’ work from 1966 onward continues to represent a door through which they prefer not to venture. The lack of understanding of Pet Sounds in Mystery Train is a major blemish in that study; other critics continue to flick their metaphorical locker room towels. Dave Marsh’s The Heart Of Rock And Soul: The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made is no such thing (in either sense) – this is a book which manages to find room for Billy Ocean’s “Get Outta My Dreams, Get Into My Car” but not for “Good Vibrations”- and is really the story of a decent blue collar Detroit type who just wants the equivalent of the music he heard when he was twelve and thirteen (thus it’s a good guide to doo wop and the sounds of immediate pre-Beatles US radio but not much else). The Beach Boys appear five times in the list, and it’s all early work, including a B-side, with ceaseless snide remarks about Pet Sounds, “Surf’s Up” and so forth in the reviews themselves.
To try to determine why this is the case is to try to read the minds of post-war American baby boomers who heard “Surfin’ U.S.A.” and “Fun, Fun, Fun” at a time when they were just coming to terms with themselves, discovering their own joys and happinesses within a country which, it seemed to them, did its best to deny fun of any kind (the draft, let us remember, was a constant Damoclean sword at this time), and when things became more complicated as the sixties wore on, began to drift into something approaching disillusion. They wanted the striped-shirt Beach Boys, the fun n’ cars n’ girls n’ surf Beach Boys – they wanted to remember who they were - so didn’t, or couldn’t, or wouldn’t, comprehend “Over and over, the crow cries uncover the cornfield” or Vietnam or drugs or Manson; the Beach Boys’ position in all of these respects by about 1968 was not quite so clearcut. “Never Learn Not To Love” – who said you shouldn’t?
One person who probably agreed with all of this was Mike Love. I have no wish to delve into the murky depths of the word of one camp of followers against the other; it is, I think, sufficient to make an unlikely comparison here. Mike Love and Brian Wilson are like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Farfetched? Like Dino, Love was cool, easy, instinctive, happy to keep doing what he was doing forever as long as people wanted it and it kept paying. Whereas from 1966 the suspicion grew that Brian might be something of a Lewis; a fusspot perfectionist, endlessly tinkering with material in order to get it right, or to locate a particularly elusive “it,” and someone who finally lost touch with the artistry that made him special, in favour of increasingly mawkish and unapproachable work.
This tidy theory is upended by several factors, including that Love gave Pet Sounds its name, that he went down with Brian to Capitol HQ to plead the record’s case, and that he made “Good Vibrations” complete; when the band returned from tour to rejoin Brian in the studio, the composer played the various, seemingly unending takes and fragments of the song to them but confessed that there was something missing and he didn’t know what. Love recognised the problem immediately: “You need a hook,” and so went off and wrote one.
Likewise, one could go on about SMiLE - Love might have balked at “Over and over, the crow cries…” but on “Cabinessence” that’s Mike Love singing it. Taking this into account, and everything else leading up to and including the current That’s Why God Made The Radio, what I am trying to get at here is that cousins Brian and Mike are joined at the hip. They are two sides of the same coin. Like Jagger and Richards, or Daltrey and Townshend, they might not always get on but they need each other; Mike needs Brian’s creativity, Brian needs Mike’s commercial knowhow, and above all he needs Mike’s voice.
So Pet Sounds, the record that almost closed them down in America but opened them up fully in Britain (where it was a sensation, acclaimed by critics and only kept off the number one album slot by the perennial Sound Of Music) – and what a bright and disturbing half-hour it is. I’m not too sure that excerpting it is the best way to listen to the record – like Dark Side Of The Moon, it needs to be heard as a single entity – but the double-sided “God Only Knows”/”Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” (the sides were reversed in the States) single is as good a summary as any. Far from being an agreeable, upbeat introduction to the record – although as an embroidered rocker it works well, its use of studio space and unusual instrumentation (accordions, baritone sax, oboe etc.) paving the way for the work of Todd Rundgren and Roy Wood in the seventies - “Nice?” is a rather embittered record about the impossibility of growing up (since, in Mystery Train, Marcus asserts that the central failing of the Beach Boys was Brian’s inability to grow up). “Wouldn’t it be nice if we were older?” the song initially asks; like Paul and Paula, or Tony and Maria, they want to stop having these stupid obligations and live the way they want to live, the way America keeps telling them they should be living. Harmonically the song is an inversion of “California Girls” but the dominating mood is one of wretched uncertainty; and, again, what they really want is the joy of sex. But note how the song slows down to almost nothing so that their flower can blossom (“We could be married” they have earlier blissfully sighed) and the central failure of the American dream can be described: “You know the more we talk about it/It only makes it worse to live without it” – so no wonder that, shortly afterwards on the same side of the same album, the words “don’t talk” appear.
But then there is “God Only Knows,” the song and record which told George Martin and the Beatles that they had to do better than they had ever done before; a song where the singers prayed before recording it, a song with the word “God” in its title, which, if not as unprecedented as Brian thought (“God Bless The Child”), was nonetheless still extremely rare in 1966, a song of beyond-living devotion which begins with the line “I may not always love you.” There are hardly any lyrics to the song beyond the chorus and two haiku-like half-verses but it is the ambiguous despair that Brian and lyricist Tony Asher wanted us to feel – and who says that the song is being sung to a person, and not state, or a country (or possibly God Himself – might this just as well be a hymn)? Remember that they are looking out at the Pacific, looking back at where they live and where they are now, their part in the greater scheme of things, and thinking: “Well, I may not always love you – you may betray me in too many important ways, lead me up the garden path, send me off to die – but what else have I got?” What else, but this country which he only wanted to share with us in the first place? Musically the optimism is still all there – the accordions again, the French horn, the little alto and bass flute rondo, the solemn, Schubertian string quartet materialising in the midway break, the exulted/querying pause before same, with its angulated steps and spaces – and there remains that sunshine which it was so critical for 1966 to have. “God Only Knows” is a record which looks forward to the future, because it is already creating its own future, the multiplying voices at the end repopulating the land, giving birth to Generation X.
Then it was time for “Good Vibrations” and maybe for SMiLE. The best one yet, the one that’s going to leave the Beatles and everyone else gasping to keep up. Who knows how a finished 1967 SMiLE might have played – a silencing masterwork that would have been enough to compel the rest of pop to give up, or an already over-quaint and dated folly that would have been laughed at for a week then forgotten and remaindered forever? Wasn’t one of the great attractions of SMiLE its long virtual invisibility, the fact that, bootlegs aside, it couldn’t be listened to or assimilated? Wouldn’t a finished SMiLE have been pop’s biggest disappointment?
These questions will probably never be satisfactorily answered. Delving into the endless bootleg albums of SMiLE and/or “Good Vibrations” outtakes indicates a record which potentially could have gone on forever, continued to expand until it filled the world. I applaud Brian’s “completed” version of SMiLE in 2004, admiring its architectural ingenuity while still wishing Carl and Dennis had been singing their lines and Blaine and Kaye playing the music. I salute last year’s The SMiLE Sessions, essentially a superbly remastered “best of the bootlegs” collection, while wishing that Brian had had the wherewithal to complete it with Van Dyke Parks at the time.
But SMiLE is a journey that might never end. Its broad precepts are simple enough; a journey through American space and time, from Plymouth Rock to Hawaii, and at the end ejecting the listener, Chuck Yeager-style, into the future of “Good Vibrations”; a structure not dissimilar, at least superficially, to the late Donna Summer’s I Remember Yesterday where Moroder and Bellotte constructed careful pastiches of past ages of pop before hurling into the now and tomorrow of “I Feel Love” (as a closing album track, it still packs something of a shock). But “Heroes And Villains” is a meditation with no end; even in its abbreviated 45 form here, without the cantina and multifocal sections which elsewhere extend the song to well over ten minutes, it is startling and baffling, a cascade of slide whistles, snarling trombones and concealed bicycle riders, with threatening organ booms and a motif which in the context of SMiLE rides throughout the piece as blithely as any bicycle rider. Even in its 1967 world, it has the power to transfix and muddle, sounds coming unexpectedly towards the listener from endless directions (and recall, too, how the Smiley Smile package which eventually replaced SMiLE was far, far stranger than the original record).
There really isn’t too much to say about “Good Vibrations,” though, apart from saying that it represented a liberation of, or dead end for, the pop single in the sense that after it the concept of the pop single could not really go further, except in terms of evolving into albums. Thanks to Love’s hook, the song changes from what was initially a rather creepy tale of lust into one of bowled-over love, and so now has a central mechanism from which all of the song’s other sparks can fly; every ten seconds or so of the single gives us a new picture, a revised perspective, with even more abstracted combinations of instruments – oboe again, flutes, riffing ‘cello, boxcar harmonica, tack piano, Jew’s harp, plaintive soprano sax, fractured drumming…and the theremin, giving the song its heartbeat, every new angle to the song describing in itself the sensation of falling in love, the bizarre wonder of it all. In the final chorale there are references going right back to Plymouth Rock, but the average music radio listener of 1966 must have felt like stout Cortez abruptly discovering that same ocean on hearing “Vibrations” as a new record. There is the precedent of “Telstar” (one that did not escape the attention of Joe Meek, then with less than three months to live). But if the radicalism of “Vibrations” is by necessity flashier than that of “Surfin’ U.S.A.” then that simply meant that changing times demanded a more sophisticated reaction, or the same reaction in a more sophisticated way. It was something that could not be topped, least of all by the Beach Boys themselves.
So the promise receded and the collapse began to take effect. SMiLE would not happen. Brian drew into himself so completely that invisibility would have been a distraction. There were legal battles with Capitol. Realising that Brian could no longer steer their ship with assurance, the rest of the Beach Boys had to develop as best and as quickly as they could as songwriters. Matters with Pet Sounds were not helped by the appearance of a Best Of The Beach Boys compilation, pointedly of their early work, only a few weeks after the album’s release. This too made number 2 on the UK album chart, but stayed in there much longer; for many entranced by “God” and “Vibrations,” this was an entry point into what they had done beforehand. While in late sixties America their stock steadily dwindled to sock hop level, they continued to write and record, and their popularity in Britain did not recede; 1968’s “Do It Again” barely dented the Billboard Top 20 but went all the way in the UK, putting them back at number one less than two years on from “Vibrations,” and they remained a hugely popular live attraction in Britain.
What is left on this collection is some sweeping up and summing up. “Darlin’,” from late 1967’s back-to-basics Wild Honey, is probably Brian’s best Motown pastiche, Carl giving a very fine performance of Love’s less-than-fine lyrics. “Do It Again” was entertainingly wistful nostalgia with a purposeful Carl guitar solo and Brian’s proto-synth delay double drum sound. “I Can Hear Music” found Carl picking up the Spector pieces and arguably making a better fist of the song than the Ronettes’ original. Whereas the concluding “Break Away” has an ambition which Brian’s underselling production doesn’t quite match (the complex harmonies at the record’s climax, for instance) but depicts a picture of its alienated author which would grow starker in the seventies.
But all of this was deposited into the middle of 1976 and it was loved, this record which in truth flashes through Brian’s development and decline in a blunt, no-nonsense fashion; going through its tracks is rather like flicking through the various sections of “Vibrations” – look! He did that! Now he’s doing this! What does he think he’s doing here? – and it’s not, as I hope I’ve demonstrated even on this cursory level, a particularly pretty story. It is the story of a man and his friends who hoped to show America to the world at its best, but also of someone who by the end of the story couldn’t even think of showing himself to himself. “Vibrations” was reissued as a single to promote the album, promptly returned to the Top 20 and made every other record in there feel ashamed. But, despite the wretched state of Brian Wilson himself in the summer of 1976, it is not true to say that he couldn’t benefit from or capitalise on the record’s success. There was in fact a new Beach Boys album, released just a few weeks after this one, called 15 Big Ones, involving Brian and all cover versions. It received moderate nods in the music press at the time (though Melody Maker’s Richard Williams hinted at deeper stuff going on outside the record’s grooves) but 20 Golden Greats cancelled it out; the album peaked at #31 and stayed on the chart for just three weeks. While by no means a great album – these had stopped after 1973’s Holland - its failure suggested that the audience for the present record were not concerned about the Beach Boys “now” but about their own, fallible memories. As it happened, Brian was still in no shape to contribute fully – the endless “Brian’s Back” stories of the mid-to-late seventies were as wearisome and unconvincing as Sly Stone’s I’m OK, Honest-type string of album titles over the same period. There remains serious doubt over whether he still is. We, sadly, know better now. We know that even outer space couldn’t satisfy the urgent need for constant expansion. We know that in the last fifty years or so the utopia outlined in “Surfin’ U.S.A.” failed. We need to retain these songs more as a warning than a reminder. But we also need to think of people like Kevin Shields, or the Reid brothers, people who knew their Brian Wilson, knew about propulsion and maybe a little too much about studio perfectionism. More than anything, we need to retain the dim light these songs throw on what is about to happen. And watch out for that mindful wisdom, and wonder whether Music For Big Pink superseded the need for SMiLE, or said the same things differently.
Posted by Marcello Carlin at 03:36