On the Beach: New LPs from Universal Music

The story is familiar. The British Invasion caused a deadly tsunami in the American music scene. Established stars, from Elvis to John Lee Hooker to Tony Bennett, saw their careers swept away in a matter of months in 1964. Few groups were impacted quite like the Beach Boys, whose resident genius, Brian Wilson, went into an emotional tailspin trying to compete with the Beatles.

The part that's always fascinated me most is what happened after the implosion, after the dust cleared, when Brian had become a shut-in songwriter and the rest of the band, still young and vital, was desperately trying to find a new relevancy and a fresh creative footing after the monster singles of the surfing years. Several albums from the period have been included in a new batch of releases from Universal Music in their continuing LP reissue program, which continues to feature heavy 180gm pressings of varying quality, some in lined sleeves, others not, which are not audiophile quality but remain quieter than most original pressings I've heard. Since most of the low hanging fruit in large recording catalogs—ie, the hit records—have already been reissued, Universal, like many of the major labels, is now moving into the more interesting, less well-known corners of catalogs of artists like the Beach Boys (footnote 1).

By 1968, the British Invasion had been joined by Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, angry protest music against the Vietnam War, Miles Davis and perhaps the most productive time in Anglo–American pop music history. The Beach Boys' early years seemed like ancient history. Lightweight, good time singles like "Fun, Fun, Fun" sounded quaint, like music from another planet. The still prodigiously talented group were clearly bewildered, a point that's painfully obvious on the oldest release in this new group of reissues, 1968's Friends. The melodies here are minor, the great harmonies timid and misused and the man who wrote Pet Sounds and Smile had descended into lyrical concerns for whom the word "trivial" would be a compliment.

"I get a lot of thoughts in the morning
I write 'em all down
If it wasn't for that
I'd forget 'em in a while

And lately I've been thinking 'bout a good friend
I'd like to see more of, yeah yeah yeah
I think I'll make a call

I wrote a number down
But I lost it
So I searched through my pocket book
I couldn't find it
So I sat and concentrated on the number
And slowly it came to me
So I dialed it

And I let it ring a few times
There was no answer
So I let it ring a little more
Still no answer

So I hung up the telephone
Got some paper and sharpened up a pencil
And wrote a letter to my friend"

The band rebounded the next year with 20/20 an odds and sods record, that benefited immensely from a soaring performance of the Brill Building classic, "I Can Hear Music," which is the sound of the band revisiting the harmonies and optimism of its glory years. The thumping, plodding "Bluebirds Over The Mountain," is an egregious mistake, an acid-rock guitar solo notwithstanding. In the absence of Brian material, Dennis Wilson's "All I Want To Do" is a decent rocker.

Things get wonderfully weird on side two of 20/20. A cover of Leadbelly's "Cotton Fields" with those trademark vocal harmonies rising and falling behind the lead vocal is indescribably strange. "I Went to Sleep" is another song fragment where Brian drifts on the winds of whim, enraptured by his navel. He tries harder on "Time To Get Alone. " "Never Learn Not to Love" is the infamous tune, credited to Dennis Wilson, which may or may not have actually been composed by Charles Manson. "Our Prayer" is just a rising and falling multi-part vocal harmony fragment. And "Cabinessence" is a Van Dyke Parks/Brian Wilson collaboration that was originally recorded for the abandoned Smile project.

By the time of the other two releases in this group The Beach Boys in Concert and Love You, the band had regained some measure of creative balance and Brian had begun to re-emerge as a creative force, albeit diminished, in the band. But the struggles of this biggest of American pop bands, in the turbulent post-Beatle blows period, remain an alluring listen.

Footnote 1: Almost a quarter-century ago, Richard Lehnert nominated the three great Beach Boys albums that followed this period—Sunflower, Surf's Up, and Holland— as the February 1991 "Recordings of the Month."—Ed.

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

From Jimi Hendrix, "Third Stone from the Sun":

So to you I wish to put an end
And you'll never hear surf music again