In the Wilderness is a feature in which a group of Strange Currencies contributors examine an overlooked period of an artist’s career. While originally intended as a podcast, “social distancing” has necessitated a different approach. For the time being, In the Wilderness has taken shape in the form of a “Slack chat”.
For this installment of In the Wilderness, I have recruited two of my friends/bandmates, Tim Ryan Nelson and Glenn Krake. The three of us have spent a great deal of time in discussions of The Beach Boys – particularly their “peak-era” work of the mid-sixties, Pet Sounds and the abandoned-then-resurrected SMiLE project.
In our Slack chat, Tim, Glenn, and I focused on The Beach Boys’ “post-SMiLE” era of 1967-1971. These years found the group moving away from the full control of singer/songwriter/producer/multi-instrumentalist/genius Brian Wilson, and toward a more “democratic” approach – incorporating the ideas of Wilson’s brothers Carl and Dennis, his cousin Mike Love, Al Jardine, and Bruce Johnston.
The six albums that The Beach Boys released during these years represented a dramatic departure from their earlier “surf, girls, and cars” formula. In some ways, they found the group trying to navigate a rapidly-shifting cultural landscape – with decidedly mixed results. The albums vary greatly in approach from one to the next, and – aside from the group’s impeccable harmonies, and the occasional reemergence of songs from the SMiLE project – there is often little that ties them together. Here are some of our thoughts on this fascinating era of an often-misunderstood group:
TRN: I’m an extreme late-comer to The Beach Boys. I knew “I Get Around” from Flight of the Navigator, and “Kokomo” from the radio when I was a kid, but they weren’t really on my radar until I heard “Sloop John B” on the Forrest Gump soundtrack. Even after that, I didn’t really delve into their albums. I don’t think I listened to Pet Sounds all the way through until I was 30 or so.
GK: Yeah, I’m a late-comer as well. I actually didn’t really dive into The Beach Boys with any seriousness until The SMiLE Sessions [long-awaited 2011 release of the recordings from the SMiLE project].
MR: My parents had a greatest hits cassette when I was pretty young, but I don’t remember them listening to it a ton. I also remember the Flight of the Navigator thing…and “Kokomo.” That shit was everywhere in 1988-89.
TRN: I either remember them playing it on Full House, or I remember the video with Stamos on drums, but I associate that song with Full House.
GK: I don’t remember Flight of the Navigator, but I’m pretty sure all my early Beach Boys exposure was on those Shell gas station Cruisin’ Classic cassette tape giveaways.
MR: There’s one on our agenda for today that was totally ruined for me by Full House.
TRN: Best Jesse and The Rippers song.
MR: It sounds like I “arrived” at The Beach Boys at a younger age than you guys. I bought Pet Sounds at the tail end of 1998, after there were a lot of comparisons to the then-new R.E.M. album. But other than burning a greatest hits CD from my parents, it was several years before I dove into any of their other albums.
GK: “New” R.E.M… Up?
MR: Yeah, that one.
GK: I’ve actually just been re-listening to Up and I can get behind that. It certainly has some Beach Boys flair.
TRN: Maybe there’s something about them that’s more appealing to older listeners?
MR: I think our generation had to fight against a lot of perceptions of [Beach Boys] lameness. We’ve already hit on Full House and “Kokomo,” and man, I hated that song, even as a nine-year-old.
TRN: Yes, lots of lameness, and for me that was maybe my first exposure to them.
GK: I totally see the “lameness” vibes with “Kokomo” and Jesse and The Rippers. I think that was also shaded with a bit of nostalgia as well with “Surfin’ Safari” and those early surf songs. That’s the intriguing thing about all of this. It’s as if The Beach Boys are quite a few different bands.
TRN: I think a lot of Beach Boys songs are so catchy that people don’t realize how intricate they are, and maybe don’t appreciate their complexity until they are bit more mature as a listener.
MR: Definitely. “I Get Around” is a great example of that. It’s catchy as hell, but it’s an extraordinary production work with super-complex harmonies. You don’t really notice that stuff if you’re not somewhat trained to listen for it.
TRN: I saw something once about Zappa being really impressed with “Little Deuce Coupe” because of something about the chord changes it used being really high-level, and I’m just like, “that’s a catchy tune.” Their early stuff comes off as casual and campy, and just not something worth putting a lot of thought into.
GK: I think my first eye opening to the complexities of The Beach Boys was “Good Vibrations.” I’d always heard it as a kid, but it wasn’t until I came back to it through the lens of the SMiLE Sessions that I listened to it more critically— with more “mature” ears, I guess?
MR: They started popping up as a talking point [as an influence] for a lot of music in the late-90s, early-2000s. But even still, as a relatively informed listener, twenty-year-old me basically had the impression that Pet Sounds was fair game, but that they weren’t worth my time other than that.
GK: Right. So I’ll admit, I’ve taken a roundabout approach really listening to The Beach Boys critically with the SMiLE Sessions and from there, I’ve gone back and explored the rest of the catalog.
TRN: I’ve mostly just cherry-picked. I tend to listen to the albums I like over and over again and ignore the others. I think I listened to Sunflower for the first time ever today.
MR: So SMiLE is kind of our starting point here, or more accurately, the collapse of SMiLE. That’s super ambitious music – for 1966, or any time. It’s not hard to see anyone being burnt out by that experience, and obviously Brian Wilson had a lot of “mitigating factors.”
GK: The “mitigating” factors part can’t be understated. Best documentary or book to capture the essence of the backstory?
MR: There’s a documentary on SMiLE [called] Beautiful Dreamer that’s pretty good.
GK: Right. Beautiful Dreamer. That’s the one I was thinking of. I highly recommend it.
MR: Brian was a step ahead of everyone, and he knew it. But with SMiLE, maybe that step was too far for others to see its merits; not the least of which were his bandmates. So SMiLE falls apart, but the band reworks parts of it as Smiley Smile – almost all of which was completely new recordings.
TRN: Recorded at Brian’s house. I’m not sure which songs used this technique, but since they didn’t have a proper echo chamber, the guys just laid down in Brian’s empty swimming pool and sang their parts from there to achieve a similar effect.
MR: How do you guys think those versions compare to the ones that came out on The SMiLE Sessions?
GK: I listened to Smiley Smile after having heard Brian Wilson’s ultimate vision. And it’s pretty sad. Smiley Smile is trash. I mean, aside from “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains,” which were really the only pieces Brian had been able to finish properly.
MR: “Good Vibrations” is more or less the single version that was released in 1966, right?
TRN: Yeah, it’s the same recording. I didn’t listen to The SMiLE Sessions for this but based on the 2004 [Brian Wilson’s re-recorded] version of SMiLE, I can tell the Smiley Smile versions are a lot more bare bones.
MR: “Heroes and Villains” is, I believe, a different recording, but pretty close to the original.
GK: “Vegetables” is WAY worse than the ultimate SMiLE version. It sounds hokey. It’s like they heard the rough draft of Brian’s idea and tried to finish it without him. But all the subtlety of Brian’s artistry was sort of botched up by people trying to finish it. It seemed to me like Brian was tired and threw out some ideas in various stages of completion and then when he bounced, everyone tried to piece it together as a cash grab.
TRN: I read the Wikipedia articles on all these albums as I re-listened. Something I learned about Smiley Smile is that Brian at that point was just done with the incredible effort of trying to make a big genius album, and he just wanted to hang out with his friends at home and sing songs and shit – and that really comes across in these recordings.
MR: Brian was officially listed as the producer, but I find it hard to believe that he was fully invested in it.
TRN: He takes the catchiest, most coherent elements of SMiLE and does party versions of them at home, and the result is a chill, fun record. Apparently there was a drug clinic that used this album to bring people out of bad acid trips (although I hope they skipped “She’s Going Bald”).
GK: Ugggh. “She’s Going Bald” is awful.
MR: I agree that [Smiley Smile] is chill and fun. Can’t second Glenn’s argument that it’s trash, but some of those versions are really underwhelming. I’m thinking of “Wind Chimes” and “Wonderful,” in particular. I’ve always found Smiley Smile to be a pretty good counter to the argument that they didn’t put out SMiLE because it was “too weird.”
TRN: What I learned in re-listening to all these albums is you have to take them almost completely out of context to judge them fairly. I don’t like Sunflower, but if I forget about all their other albums, it’s actually pretty good. Smiley Smile is not bad if you don’t compare it to SMiLE.
GK: I definitely agree there is a problem with comparison. Both now and then. It’s as if many at the time came to it wanting to hear “California Girls” and didn’t get that. Or maybe they came wanting to hear something more Hendrix-y, and didn’t get that either.
MG: It’s a fascinating album. You get glimpses of the brilliance of the SMiLE sessions, but it ultimately comes off as a frustrating listen. I think the band’s statements reflect that. Carl called it a “bunt instead of a grand slam.”
TRN: They did a few bunt albums in this period. Most of them, I think.
GK: I’d argue there is at least one “bunt” track on every album going forward.
MR: I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Smiley Smile was super influential, right? I’m thinking of stuff like Ram, McCartney II… Okay, Paul McCartney seemed to like it. It reminds me of some indie “bedroom pop” stuff of the last couple of decades.
GK: I love Ram.
TRN: I don’t know McCartney II very well, but I know it’s weird. McCartney supposedly recorded celery crunching sounds for “Vegetables,” but they didn’t use them.
MR: Let’s move on to Wild Honey. It’s kind of a 180 from SMiLE. Really a back-to-basics approach, but not a “basics” associated with The Beach Boys.
TRN: Yes, it was their soul album. I likeWild Honey pretty well.
GK: What’s the time frame between Smiley Smile and Wild Honey?
MR: Three months. What are some favorite tracks from Wild Honey?
TRN: Title track and “Darlin’.”
GK: I like “Wild Honey” and “Darlin’.” They have just the right touch of Motown to them.
MR: Agreed that those are the highlights. Speaking of Motown, what do we make of the Stevie Wonder cover?
GK: I’m a fan.
TRN: It’s a good cover.
MR: Yeah, it’s generally not well-regarded, but I like it too. Pretty faithful to the original.
GK: That’s probably why I like it. I’m a sucker for “Mama Says,” too, but that’s a SMiLE holdover.
TRN: I like “A Thing or Two” and “Here Comes the Night.” Something about when the vocals become sort of shouty and atonal…. I like that. I know we’re getting to Friends in a minute, but this album has a couple of those chill Brian songs that are just about being at home doing day-to-day things. “I’d Love Just Once to See You” has that feel.
MR: …Which turns a bit weird at the end. I like “Country Air.” It’s got a “vibe.” “Let the Wind Blow” is another good “vibe” one. I really like the piano sound on the album.
GK: I HATE “How She Boogalooed It.” “S-O-C-K-I-T Sock it to me.” Bleeecccchhhh.
TRN: Yeah, “Boogalooed” is not great. Bunt song.
GK: “Boogalooed” sounds like Mike and Al trying to make a fan-pleaser surf track. Read: Cash-Grab.
MR: Yeah, “Boogalooed” sucks. I’m okay saying that the rest of the album is really good.
TRN: Was this mostly done in the home studio too?
MR: I don’t know. It definitely has that feel.
TRN: Presumably the studio evolved quite a bit in this period, and the tones they were able to achieve improved over time.
MR: Okay, so of the 1967 albums, which is better?
GK: Wild Honey. Tim nailed it. Wild Honey has soul.
TRN: It has songwriting too.
MR: I like more songs on Wild Honey, but consider that listeners in 1967 could have gotten “Good Vibrations” and “Heroes and Villains” on the same album.
TRN: But if we’re talking in terms of albums and not singles… “Good Vibrations” was already available as a single, and “Heroes and Villains” is a little truncated outside of SMiLE. Wild Honey is stronger overall.
MR: Yeah, Wild Honey has the consistency, Smiley Smile has the better highpoints.
GK: Agreed. I think “Good Vibrations” might be my favorite Beach Boys song, period.
MR: Okay, Tim. I know you love Friends. What makes that such a special album?
TRN: The initial reason I liked it was because of how chill it is. Reading up on it today, I learned that it was very intentional. This was their Maharishi album. They were even going to tour with him, but it fell through. In general, I just think that it’s immensely listenable. The songs get stuck in my head, and personally I don’t think it has any bunt songs. There are no skippable tracks for me.
MR: There’s an effort that was lacking on the previous two, but it still has a very laid-back feel. The instrumental arrangements are much lusher.
TRN: Yes, the production takes quite a leap here. I think there is more studio work with session guys on this one. The instrumentation is lush and layered across the whole record – lots of bass harmonica and sax and all kinds of crazy stuff. I love the bass lines and bass playing. As to effort, yes. Similar to Wild Honey in the sense that there are songs that they took the time to write, as opposed to just kind of winging it like on Smiley Smile, and there’s an underlying theme to the whole record as far as the Maharishi stuff and transcendental meditation.
MR: The bass part in “Wake the World” is great. They bring back the Pet Sounds bass sound. Wikipedia’s personnel section only lists the band members. I was convinced that some of those [bass] parts were Carole Kaye [bassist for the famed “Wrecking Crew” of studio musicians]. I think that opening trio of songs is great.
GK: “Transcendental Meditation and “Anna Lee the Healer” are too on the nose for my liking, but yes, I agree the album is super listenable. I love “Little Bird.” Dennis has swagger.
MR: Yeah, “Little Bird” is really good.
TRN: I hear you on “Transcendental Meditation” and “Anna Lee” — they’re definitely the weaker spots, but I still like them.
MR: “When a Man Needs a Woman” is a little…uncomfortable.
TRN: Eh, it’s about his pregnant wife. I mean, it is a little weird, I guess.
GK: Super weird. I like “Be Still.” For some reason it seems more authentic, whereas “Transcendental Meditation” and “Anna Lee” feel forced. Maybe it’s Mike vs Dennis. I love Dennis’ voice on “Be Still.”
TRN: There’s a Dennis two-fer right in the middle of the record. And yeah, Dennis has a great voice on this record. This is way before it got all gravely. I really love “Busy Doin’ Nothin’” – the best Brian “sitting at home” song. It gets stuck in my head at random times, even if I haven’t listened to the album lately.
MR: Yeah, that’s a good one. It’s got a bit of a bossa nova feel to it too, which is cool. Lot of guiro on this album. That’s a plus. Little touches that were lacking on the 1967 albums.
GK: I love that Brian wrote a song using directions to his house.
TRN: Yeah, it’s kind of the ultimate Brian song. Beautiful music and really dumb lyrics. Nothing about love or emotion or dread…. just what was that phone number? Mundanity.
GK: Yeah, but at least it’s authentic and endearingly earnest. That’s the fine line I’m talking about with “Transcendental Meditation” vs. “Be Still.”
MR: I like “Passing By” and “Diamond Head”, as semi-instrumentals are concerned. “Transcendental Meditation” is a weird end. I like that it does something musically that is different from the rest of the album, but it feels a little out of place.
TRN: Coming after “Diamond Head” – which is almost a soundscape – the difference is jarring for sure. And the vocals are weird… why sing the whole thing in that weird falsetto? But, imagine ending this album on “Diamond Head.” That would be weird and kind of a bummer. “Transcendental Meditation” comes charging in with that awesome low saxophone drone and the rocking drumbeat. “Transcendental Meditation” has the elements of a normal song, it just sounds like a band of Fraggles covering a normal song. I’m a big Daniel Johnston fan, and his songs are notoriously well-written, but the recordings sound like vomit to most people. Maybe my ear is especially trained to hear a song like “Transcendental Meditation” and hear it as a pretty normal, pretty catchy and upbeat song. It’s a banger.
GK: Should have ended the album with “Busy Doin’ Nothin’.” Scratch that. I guess ending with “Busy Doin’ Nothin’” doesn’t feel right. But I still get cringey thinking of Mike Love singing “Transcendental Meditation” to get in good with the Maharishi.
TRN: Funny thing about “Transcendental Meditation” is that the only vocal credit on the wiki is Brian, but I thought of it as a Mike song too. I think “Transcendental Meditation” is definitely on the nose though. “This is our ‘TM’ album, let’s make a song literally called ‘Transcendental Meditation’ and repeat those words over and over.” It sort of beats the theme over your head at the end.
MR: Weird end to a weird album. It fits.
GK: I suppose. I will say I like Friends a ton more than 20/20.
MR: Well, shall we?
TRN: 20/20 is inexplicably pretty good.
GK: Inexplicably pretty rough.
MR: What do we like on it?
GK: “Cabinessence” and “Our Prayer.” So… the SMiLE session holdovers.
MR: They are faithful reproductions of some SMiLE tracks. Again, all you could’ve gotten in 1969. There’s a tiny bit of “Workshop” tacked on to the end of “Do It Again.”
GK: I like the Phil Spector cover, “I Can Hear Music.”
MR: Yeah, great production and vocal by Carl.
TRN: I’ll be honest, I’m real fuzzy on 20/20 and Sunflower, even after this relisten. I don’t know if I even have specific opinions on specific songs. Most of them are covers. It’s a weird collection. My general impression was that the album sounds like a bunch of professionals who had to come up with something without much help from their leader, and they somehow managed to pull off something relatively listenable that still sounded like the Beach Boys.
MR: Seems to be a fair take.
GK: I wouldn’t lump Sunflower into that, but I agree with 20/20, and I’d add 15 Big Ones [an album of covers from 1976] to that take as well. I like Sunflower, but 20/20 seems flat.
TRN: Oh, and I think this is where Dennis emerges as the guy who writes about doin’ it with chicks and nothing else.
MR: Yep, that’s his thing. “Bluebirds Over the Mountain” sucks. “All I Want to Do” is garbage.
GK: HOT GARBAGE.
TRN: I think “All I Want to Do” is kind of fun. It’s a rocker, but it’s a little too much about doin’ it.
GK: “All I Want to Do” is awful and not to be mistaken with “All I Wanna Do” [confusingly the title of a song on the band’s next album, Sunflower], which is great.
MR: We’ll get there. But yes, pile on to “All I Want to Do.” It’s awful.
GK: That moaning at the end of “All I Want to Do” is just…. awful.
TRN: I don’t hear the moaning, but even the wiki said they used audio of Dennis doin’ it with a groupie. Is the moaning on an alternate take?
GK: I don’t think so. It’s on the end. Quiet, but there. Isn’t 20/20 the Charles Manson era? Just saw Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and kept thinking about Dennis Wilson narrowly escaping…
MR: It is. “Never Learn Not to Love” was a Manson song.
TRN: There are a couple of Brian’s mundanity songs and I actually like the Charles Manson song quite a bit. This might be one of those ones where one side is way better than the other one. Side B is the winner here.
MR: Okay, side B. “Cotton Fields” is the least soulful thing I’ve ever heard. Leadbelly was spinning in his grave when they recorded it.
TRN: Yeah, “Cotton Fields” is a little weird. I don’t know, it’s not that bad though. It’s got pretty rich production. I kind of like it.
MR: “I Went to Sleep” wants to be a Friends song, but it kind of fails. “Time to Get Alone” is pretty good.
TRN: Yeah, those two are the chill Brian songs I was talking about. “Cabinessence” is obviously a strong ending. Unlike some of the SMiLE songs that appear on these albums, I don’t feel like the ending feels unnatural. It’s a fade out, but feels right.
MR: “Cabinessence” has never been among my very favorite SMiLE-era tracks, but it clearly dominates over everything else here.
TRN: I like it a lot in general. The background singing during the “iron horse” section is my favorite. I love how it slides up and down.
MR: I’ve always felt like the “iron horse” part was super-claustrophobic. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it’s a weird contrast to the clarity of the other parts.
TRN: Interesting. Never thought about it like that. There’s definitely a lot of sound happening there.
MR: It’s cool. I think it gets the “train” thing across. “Break Away” is a good single from this era. Have you guys heard that one?
TRN: Don’t think so. Listening now… I like it.
GK: I haven’t. Intrigued… Is that a guiro? Tasty.
MR: Yes, guiro. It’s a rare “full effort” production from that era.
TRN: Real quick, how do you guys feel about the album cover of 20/20?
GK: Ummmm… I like the typography…?
TRN: I was mostly talking about the photo. Something about Al’s Lebowski sweater and prayer hands annoys me. Bruce’s face tends to annoy me in general.
GK: Lebowski sweater!!!!
MR: Yeah, the Al prayer hands have always struck me as weird, but not as bothersome as no Brian on the cover. I mean really? Drag him out of bed.
TRN: He was in a pic inside the gatefold apparently.
MR: A lot of good that does us in the age of streaming.
TRN: It’s not as bad as the photo on Sunflower.
GK: Agreed. And I do NOT like the Sunflower typography.
TRN: I’m changing my mind to say that Al actually looks pretty badass in this photo and he’s the only one taking it seriously. Bruce is dressed like fucking Gilligan.
MR: I’m surprised Mike allowed that much of his bald head to be seen. It’s the transcendental meditation.
TRN: I don’t think he knows there’s a camera. Brian is ready for karate class.
MR: I’m sure Dennis had several kids that he could’ve brought to the photo shoot.
TRN: Cuz of all the doin’ it.
GK: Hey oh!
MR: Okay, Sunflower. There are a lot of people that consider this their second-best album.
TRN: It’s pretty interesting. I’ve only listened to it a couple times, and it still hasn’t really sunk in. On the surface, and especially compared to other albums, I don’t like it. But I think if I spent some time with it I would like it a LOT.
GK: I like it. “Forever” is Dennis at his best.
MR: “Forever” was ruined by John Stamos.
GK: Not for me… until now… gahhhhhhh.
TRN: I think, completely out of context, if you listen to each individual song – not as Beach Boys songs, but just songs – they’re all pretty good.
MR: “All I Wanna Do” is a masterpiece. I want a whole album that sounds like that.
TRN: See, that one I still think is kind of boring, but I get it. It’s supposed to be the first chillwave song, or whatever.
MR: Yeah, or dream pop. It’s so easily the best thing on this album. I despise Mike Love, but this is a great vocal part by him. The bridge is great. Lyrics are dumb, but great vibe.
TRN: “All I Wanna Do” is kind of a sore thumb on this record though, as far as how it sounds overall, but sticking with my “out of context” comment, I guess I can’t judge it like that. There’s a quote from Brian in 1995 on the wiki where he says it’s boring too.
GK: I like “This Whole World” too.
MR: “This Whole World” is good. So is “Slip on Through.”
TRN: “Slip on Through” is so weird. Rhythmically, I don’t know what’s going on, but I like it. A quick aside about “Slip on Through” and Dennis’ voice in general on this album – he sounds weirdly like Merrill Osmond.
GK: Fun Fact: Donnie and Marie Osmond were my first concert.
MR: “Got to Know the Woman” is another Dennis doin’ it song. Better than the last one, but still not very good. Okay, so “Deirdre” and “Add Some Music to Your Day”…
GK: It bugs me that they say it “Deer dree,” but I like “Deirdre” just fine.
TRN: “Deer Dree” is totally bullshit pronunciation.
MR: “Add Some Music” is, to me, the perfect example of a Beach Boys song that is totally ruined by its lyrics. It’s so fucking lame. It’s basically a commercial for music. Like, “Hey, record buyer. You know what you might like? Music!”
TRN: That’s pretty dumb. “Hey, have you considered music?”
MR: “Music fiiiiiiiiillllls my sooooooooooooooul…”
TRN: “Why, you’re listening to music right now.”
MR: “Deidre” is similar. Really nice musically, but just “off” lyrically.
GK: Bruce’s “Tears in the Morning” is decent. What’s your take on Bruce Johnston?
MR: Bruce is almost completely unnecessary to me. I go back and forth on that song. Sometimes I really like it, and other times it’s a quick skip.
TRN: I don’t know much about Bruce and I’ve always been a little confused about his role on the albums, but I really like this song, and his voice. It’s a bit sentimental and cheesy, but his vocal is solid. It just sounds so effortless.
MR: It’s really melodramatic. The song. His vocal is fine. It adds another element to the album. I like it enough.
TRN: It’s really long too. For me… if it were a Beatles song, it would be my least favorite Beatles song, but I like it here in this context.
GK: I can see the “unnecessary” tag on Bruce Johnston. He doesn’t evoke strong emotions from me either way. He’s just kind of there. I prefer Blondie Chaplin, but that’s just me.
TRN: Just wanna say that “Cool Cool Water” is kinda nice. Wait, do they say cool water is such a gas? It’s clearly a liquid.
MR: That’s a bizarre song. It takes a SMiLE melody, which is cool.
TRN: Yeah, it originated in the Smiley Smile sessions, or at least the recording of it originated then.
MR: Another weird end to another weird album. If they invented chillwave with “All I Wanna Do,” they invented something with this song. Just not sure it caught on enough to get a -wave name attached to it.
TRN: Which is too bad because water and waves go great together.
MG: I never think of this song, but I really like it when it’s on.
GK: That’s an excellent assessment.
MR: Alright, I guess that means we’re on to Surf’s Up. Another freaking weird album. Just all over the place.
TRN: Should we talk about the backstory with the manager dude who met Brian at his health food store?
MR: Yeah, do it.
GK: What!? I don’t think I’ve heard this story!!!
TRN: I just read about this today. So, his name is Jack Rieley. At the time, 1969, Brian had opened a health food store called The Radiant Radish.
GK: Of course he did.
TRN: He would man the cash register in a bathrober [typo]. *bathrobe
GK: Of course he did.
MR: Incidentally, a “bathrober” is when Dennis does it while wearing a bathrobe.
TRN: Jack Rieley was a journalist and radio host, and chatted up Brian about doing an interview, but mostly wanted to talk to him about finishing and releasing the song “Surf’s Up,” which had achieved legendary status as an unreleased masterpiece. Brian thinks the song won’t work as a single and thinks it should just exist as a song for him basically. But at some point, Jack ends up writing some kind of manifesto or something about The Beach Boys and how to make them popular again. Wiki says it was a six-page memo about how to stimulate record sales and popularity of The Beach Boys. Based on that memo, they hire him as manager.
GK: Like a real “Show Me the Money” Jerry Maguire moment, eh?
MR: So, is that where all the environmental and social awareness stuff came from?
TRN: Yeah, he wants to make them more part of the counterculture, and he basically convinces them to make the songs on the next album more socially conscious – “Don’t Go Near the Water”, “Student Demonstration Time,” stuff like that.
MR: And most of all, “Take Good Care of Your Feet.”
TRN: Oh my god, I’m listening to that right now. I think it’s my favorite song on the whole album. Basically, I think the reason this album is good and feels somewhat cohesive is because they had this guy watching over them with kind of a plan.
MR: For this one, I’d like to start with what we don’t like.
GK: “STUDENT DEMONSTRATION.” Positively dreadful.
TRN: Oh, that song sucks ass.
MR: Yeah, it’s the worst song of this entire era. Mike had laid relatively low – aside from moments like “Transcendental Meditation” – but that song is a cash grab abomination.
TRN: Yeah, and it’s just an old Leiber and Stoller joint anyway.
GK: It’s like they had a theme for the album and Mike Love runs off to his lyric sketchbook saying “I GOT THIS.”
TRN: There’s another hokey Bruce song on here that I also enjoy.
MR: “Disney Girls”?
GK: Yeah, every time I hesitate clicking on “Disney Girls,” then I’m pleasantly surprised. Sounds like it should be awful.
TRN: Okay, so I’m not alone. It’s pretty good.
MR: Another one kind of ruined by the lyrics. It’s dumb, but harmless.
GK: It kind of bugs me that “Dis-uh-knee” is three syllables and the “Tootsie Roll” line is rough, but other than that, I like it. It’s strangely endearing.
TRN: No, it’s cheesy, but I like it. I think the fact that “Disney” is three syllables is a big part of why I like it for some reason.
GK: Yeah. I guess. Odd. I dig it. Can’t put my finger on it, but I dig it.
TRN: I really like “Long Promised Road” too, but only when it picks up.
GK: Ooooo, my favorite Carl song.
MR: Yeah, “Long Promised Road” is great. Particularly the upbeat part.
TRN: It’s a little dull at the start, but yeah it gets good.
MR: I also like “Feel Flows,” which is his as well. “Lookin’ At Tomorrow.” Good?
TRN: Not a fan. I think that’s my second least fave.
MR: It’s totally not a “Beach Boys” song, but I kind of like it. There are some cool melodic things happening in it, and I like the organ in the last verse. It’s only there for a second.
GK: Some cool spacey-phasery things happening, I suppose.
MR: “A Day in the Life of a Tree”?
TRN: Great song. Jack Rieley’s voice is perfect and there’s a funny story behind this one too.
GK: Jack’s voice is great on that one. Love the pipe organ too.
TRN: Brian kept having trouble with the vocal and called Jack over to show him how it should be done (I think Jack wrote the lyrics). He did five takes, and then Brian said “that’s great, you just did the final vocal.” I’m gonna copy the wiki text for the next part:
“Although he initially presumed it to be “another Brian Wilson cop-out”, Carl explained that everybody had agreed Rieley was fit to sing the lead vocal, and had worked out a plan to trick him into singing it.”
They tricked him into singing it!
MR: Cool. Didn’t he try to have Van Dyke Parks [lyricist for the SMiLE project] do the vocal at one point? Or is that Parks on backing vocals?
TRN: It is. And similar weird stuff with Van Dyke:
“I went up there to congratulate them on acting like grown-ups. On continuing to push. Then they had me doing a vocal. I liked that song about the tree just fine. I was just called in to do some singing on one line. It worked out well. Of course I had to stumble out of the studio in pitch darkness. Brian turned out all the lights. Had to crawl out of there on the floor, clutching my wife. Most humiliating thing I’ve ever … Oh it’s a power trip all right. But I can get behind that. I can get behind the way Brian does it. It’s funny to watch him when he can’t find something he owns. It’s cute when he ignores someone else’s needs, because he can always plead insanity.”
MR: Ha! They have a weird relationship.
GK: That’s funny.
TRN: It’s funny how much Van Dyke’s speaking voice is like his singing voice. He sings like he talks. Anyway, I love the song and how it slowly builds up and adds organs on top of organs and gets really loud by the end. It’s a real bummer lyrically.
MR: I think it’s a cool song. Fits the musically disjointed/semi-thematically connected vibe of the album.
TRN: Another part of the wiki said Jack was the only one who could sing it because it was so depressing no one else wanted to.
GK: Those closing three tracks work so well together.
MR: Yeah, they form a sort-of trilogy. A depressing one…
GK: Depressing and beautiful.
TRN: I’m not sure if I have thoughts on “’Til I Die.”
MR: No thoughts? It’s masterful. Best “new” song of this era.
TRN: I mean, I like it, but I think I let it sort of drift past me.
MR: It’s soooooooooooooooo good. You both know I’m a sucker for vibraphone, and that low organ is such a perfect match with those heavy lyrics. It’s oppressively dark. So damn good.
TRN: Yeah, it’s pretty good. This might be a case of me just not really picking up on the lyrics yet.
GK: It’s also another reminder that The Beach Boys’ harmonies/vocals really are like layered instruments.
TRN: True. I think it’s kind of a wash of sound, which sometimes causes me to glaze over. Songs really get my attention when they change tone or style often.
MR: I can see that. It’s very enveloping.
TRN: Like the more modular SMiLE stuff, “Good Vibrations,” etc.
MR: So, “Surf’s Up” is maybe a little more your type? There are a couple of distinctly different sections.
TRN: It is, but I think as far as the SMiLE songs that make appearances on these albums, “Surf’s Up” is the least suited to be a standalone. The ending feels really weird to me. It’s the “Child is the Father of the Man” stuff, and then it just fades out.
MR: It’s weird at the end of an album, as opposed to the end of a “movement” as it is in SMiLE.
GK: So… “Surf’s Up.” Best Beach Boys song!? I say pretty close to perfect.
MR: It’s right up there, Glenn. The vocal leap on “columnated ruins domino” is nothing short of breathtaking.
TRN: Love that part, of course.
MR: But is it Carl? He’s credited with the lead vocal.
TRN: Is it, or is it Al? Honestly, I have trouble telling their voices apart to this day. Brian and Carl for sure, but even Al and Mike sometimes. Dennis is pretty easy.
GK: I love the “surf’s up mmm hmmm mmm hmmm…” At some point, the lyrics don’t matter.
TRN: Yeah, that part has always been interesting to me. The “hmm hmms” are right in the middle of words, but they’re not words.
GK: I love that.
MR: The lyrics are so good. Van Dyke’s best writing.
TRN: Yeah, top-tier lyrics.
MR: I can’t even begin to describe what individual lines mean, and yet, I feel like I understand the song completely. That’s great writing.
TRN: Good way to put it.
MR: But some of that imagery…man. “The music hall a costly bow, the music all is lost for now.” “A broken man too tough to cry.” “Canvas the town and brush the backdrop.”
GK: I love how the title “Surf’s Up” brings in the nostalgia-seekers expecting to “Catch a Wave” and they get this. They just hit you in the gut.
MR: Exactly. God, what a song. Inner circle great.
TRN: I was just thinking how funny it is that they kept the name “Beach Boys,” despite it really being inaccurate for a very long time. I guess it made sense again around the time of “Kokomo.”
GK: So many have different ideas of what “The Beach Boys” are. Has anyone catalogued the different stages/iterations?
MR: Yep, popular perception of them is so varied. I can’t help but think of when we went to see Brian Wilson in what was essentially a glorified conference room, and that most of that crowd was patiently waiting for more “car songs” while he played “Surf’s Up.” It’s a complicated legacy, for sure.
GK: If you ask me, the beauty of the 66-67 Beach Boys in all their creative glory ends here with “Surf’s Up.” After this it’s mostly cash grabs.
MR: So, what is the favorite/least favorite of these albums?
TRN: Friends is best for me. Least favorite is probably 20/20, even though I still like it. Kind of a toss-up between 20/20 and Sunflower.
GK: Best: Surf’s Up. Worst: Smiley Smile (since I don’t consider “Heroes and Villains” or “Good Vibrations” part of that album). Otherwise, I agree. 20/20 is towards the bottom.
MR: Favorite: Surf’s Up (just can’t deny those last two songs). Least favorite: 20/20. I don’t see much separation between them, other than 20/20, and maybe Wild Honey, which just feels less consequential.
TRN: Yeah, I like Smiley Smile, but I also kind of exclude those songs and feel like the whole thing is pretty loose. I think Wild Honey has some pretty strong songwriting.
MR: There’s such good stuff on all of them, but a lot of garbage too. Friends may be the most consistent but doesn’t have the highlights of most of the others.
TRN: Yeah, it’s very even-keeled.
MR: Yeah, that’s a good way of putting it. Friends is so laid back that it doesn’t ever go out of its way to suck.
GK: I really enjoy Wild Honey but keep coming back to Surf’s Up. That’s definitely got the most listens for me. And we didn’t even talk about the cover art.
MR: The Surf’s Up cover is great.
TRN: Love it. Based on a sculpture. It’s funny because it’s sort of the opposite of the Beach Boys in Concert cover – Native American on a horse looking up [also the logo for Brother Records, founded by Beach Boys manager Nick Grillo].
GK: End of the Trail, by James Earle Fraser.
MR: Okay, time to make a playlist.
GK: I’ll use my first pick on “Surf’s Up.” It should be #1.
TRN: I pick “Busy Doin’ Nothin’.”
MR: My first pick is “Until I Die.” Okay, round two:
GK: I wanna pick a Dennis song, so… “Little Bird.”
TRN: I’m gonna try not to have all my songs come from Friends, so my next pick is “Darlin’.”
MR: “All I Wanna Do.” Round three:
GK: Gotta have a Carl song, so… “Long Promised Road.”
MR: Good pick.
TRN: “Take a Load Off Your Feet.”
TRN: Fuck yeah. I like the crazy shit they do with the vocals – the pitch manipulation and stuff.
MR: I’ll go with “Friends.” Round four:
GK: “Wild Honey.” Gotta have some sweet Tannerin [aka an Eletro-Theremin, played on this track by its creator, Paul Tanner].
TRN: “She’s Goin’ Bald.”
GK: That’s not cool.
MR: Now you’re just trying to sabotage the list!
TRN: No honestly, I like the weird ones. My first two were very mainstream picks.
GK: Except now I’m gonna have to use all my Spotify skips when those come up on the playlist.
MR: I will respect the rules of the game. Outside of “Surf’s Up,” I’m inclined to skip the other SMiLE tracks. I’ll go with “Break Away.” Last round:
GK: Well, since the SMiLE songs are the best part of this era, I’ll go with “Our Prayer.” Gotta have some of those a capella vocal beauties.
TRN: This last one is a tough choice.
MR: A lot of good ones left.
TRN: I kind of want to pick “Slip on Through,” but I think I’m gonna go with “A Day in the Life of a Tree.”
MR: Okay, I’ll close it out with “Country Air.”
TRN: Hmm interesting, but I like it.
MR: I was gonna go with “Feel Flows”, but we had a lot from that album.
GK: See what I mean!? Most songs from Surf’s Up. Best album. No songs from Smiley Smile. Worst album.
TRN: Hey, I picked “She’s Goin’ Bald.”
MR: He did. He actually did…
2 thoughts on “In the Wilderness: The Beach Boys, 1967-1971”
James Earle Fraser is a name I didn’t expect to see in an article about records. To me, he’s known for designing the “Indian Head” aka “Buffalo” nickel, the American five-cent coin minted between 1913 and 1938.
Interesting. Fraser is the guy who did the “Buffalo” nickel!? Learn something new every day. I only ever knew him as a the guy that Beach Boys album cover was based on. Who knew!?