Recordings of February 1991: Surf's Up, etc. Page 2

It's hardly surprising that the first batch of Baby Boomers was able to sense the immense wave of denial on which surfed their immediate predecessors, the Beach Boys, and which was to nearly drown this crippled family when the tensions of the lie became too much to bear. Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, eternally trying to please their abusive, unpleasable father Murry Wilson, used their relentlessly upbeat, really-nothing's-wrong vision of light not to illuminate their own dark side, but to blind themselves to its existence. And this was their tragedy: to be so blessed with so much musical talent, yet never to use that talent to work through, in art, the tangled emotions of their family dynamics.

So you see why my saying "I like the Beach Boys" is no simple statement.

Capitol Records has received a great deal of positive press for their exhaustive, almost scholarly reissue series of '60s Beach Boys albums, most of which had been out of print for years. That press is well-deserved, as Capitol makes up for decades' worth of shaving songs off of already too-short albums to avoid paying composers' royalties. Their Beach Boys reissues include the original album cover art, lengthy track-by-track notes, and previously unreleased or obscure bonus tracks.

The Capitol albums include the music for which the Beach Boys will always be known—surf songs, beach music, car songs, 20 top-ten hits—in addition to that quintessential hymn to adolescence, Pet Sounds. The series ends with the quartet of eccentric, forgotten records through which—as composer/arranger/producer/leader Brian Wilson took an increasingly remote role while he retreated further into madness, describing the ever-tightening downward spiral of his daily life with numbed accuracy (in ditties like "Busy Doin' Nothin'" and "I Went to Sleep")—the Boys groped toward a new musical Manhood on their own: Smiley Smile, Wild Honey, Friends, and 20/20.

With much less fanfare, Caribou/Brother/Epic/Columbia has begun to reissue the Boys' 1970s post-Capitol albums, two of which are, I think, the best records these slowly maturing Beach Men ever made. After the increasingly quirky, almost determinedly "uncommercial" studio verité of Smiley Smile and Wild Honey—there are similarities to Dylan's and The Band's Basement Tapes, recorded at roughly the same time—Brian had gradually stepped down (or been gently shouldered aside) as producer and primary composer, and Carl and Dennis Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, and new member Bruce Johnston began to take larger and larger roles as composers, arrangers, lead singers, and producers. As a link across the label gap, Carl's newfound sumptuousness of style, prefigured on "I Can Hear Music" from their last Capitol album, 20/20 (1969), reaches full flower in Sunflower (1970), the first of their custom-label releases on their own Brother Records to be distributed by Warner Bros.

Sunflower is one of the great "lost" Beach Boys albums. If Pet Sounds was a direct response to the Beatles' Revolver and the inspiration for Sgt. Pepper, as both Brian Wilson and Paul McCartney have admitted, then Sunflower is the Beach Boys' Abbey Road. It's not a perfect record—there is no perfect Beach Boys record, not even Pet Sounds. ("Got to Know the Woman," Dennis's annoying saunter through the ghetto, is just too full of ersatz "soul," if you'll pardon the expression.) But it's their finest record by far, and almost no one's ever heard it: when it was released, the Boys were just pulling out of a slump so bad that, when they played New York, they drew only 200 people. But just as, on Abbey Road, the Beatles seemed to no longer be mere mortals playing actual instruments, but gods sending down music from Olympian heights, so the Beach Boys, with Sunflower, seemed for the first time to have actually ascended to live in eternal sun and surf in Brian's carefully constructed California myth.

Rockers are seldom thought of as making music purely for the sake of musical beauty—that's for Mozart and Haydn, just maybe Roy Orbison, but mainstream rock'n'roll...? However, Sunflower is one of the most consistently beautiful exercises in denial that I know, such a masterpiece of sheer musicality that I can forgive most of the songs' mindless lyrics. Remember, this is the mindlessness of Ringo's "Octopus's Garden," of a harmless, charming simpleton, a Prince Myishkin, a clown of God, a guileless fool, a Parsifal. In "Cool, Cool Water," the album's closer, and to some of the most comfortable, comforting music in the world, one of the Boys sings/whispers, "In an ocean a glass / Cool water is such a gas." There's an ingenuousness there, childish and childlike at once, that I find irresistible (yes, you do have to hear it to know what I mean). Meanwhile, the music is breathtaking in its effortless joy in itself. There's an ode to music itself in "Add Some Music to Your Day" (these are both Brian's compositions), full of Boy choirs. "It's About Time" is an heroic anthem ("heroic anthem"? the Beach Boys?), and Bruce Johnston's supremely melodic "Tears in the Morning" has a remarkable arrangement for vibes, strings, accordion, trombone—the kind of music Liberace's suit of lights always promised but never delivered.

And the vocals—ah, the vocals—take it from me, this is the Boys at their height of accurate intonation, rich blending, and a cappella breaks as big as all outdoors. (Listening to the Capitol reissues reminded me how, in those earlier years, Brian always pushed his Boys just beyond their vocal capabilities.) And if Brian was no longer producing, his and Johnston's songs are still the best: "This Whole World" (you'll want the fade to go on forever), "Add Some Music," "Our Sweet Love" modulating all over the place, the satiny textures of "Deirdre," and, of course, "Cool, Cool Water" (not Bob Nolan's Sons of the Pioneers hit, though the earlier song is briefly quoted). And Brian's collaboration with Al Jardine, the childlike "At My Window," could have been brought off only by this band. The bass guitar in "Water" will challenge your woofers, the spaciousness of the mix goes on forever, and I have yet to listen to this record without hearing something new in the intricate vocal counterpoint.

From such pop studio mavens as Brian Wilson & the Boys, Sunflower's liner note is surprisingly good news for audiophiles: "The songs on this record were recorded in true stereophonic sound; they are not 16 monophonic signals placed somewhere between right and left speakers blended together with echo, but rather total stereo capturing the ambiance of the room and the sound in perspective as heard naturally by the ear." All of the hardware used in the recording is also listed. All this on a 1970, major-label, mainstream pop recording! What's likely is that each instrument or voice was recorded with a stereo pair of mikes, the signal pairs then pan-potted, much as Keith Johnson has been doing for Reference Recordings' recent rock releases—not multi-mono, but multi-stereo. Whatever; the sound of all three of the original LPs is lush, vibrant, deep, and very wet, and, miraculously, Joe Gastwirt's digital remastering (he also remastered the Capitol reissues) is at least as good, a bit of hiss notwithstanding. If only Epic had hired Beach Boys archivist David Leaf to do the same thorough (if breathless) job of liner notes he did for Capitol, and if only Epic had doubled-up the albums as Capitol did (Sunflower and Surf's Up could easily have fit on a single CD). But Epic and Gastwirt were true to the music, and that's what's most important.

With 1971's Surf's Up, the Beach Boys became fully Carl's band. The album takes up where Sunflower left off—with a song about water. The Boys are nothing if not sincere on this ecological "concept" album: "To be cool with the water / Is the message of this song." This was their breakthrough record of the '70s, the beginning of their slow second climb up the slopes of steady album sales and sold-out concerts to the headliner status they enjoy today. I remember going to a Beach Boys concert in my college gym only weeks after Surf's Up was released, and being astounded by the band's richness and versatility.

Surf's Up is a great, if lumpy, rock album, with many sidetrips. Mike Love's "Student Demonstration Time," about the Berkeley riots, is a lame, condescending rewrite of Lieber & Stoller's "Riot in Cell Block #9," though anyone who's read Montaigne's essay "Of Thumbs" will appreciate Al Jardine's ode to the pedal extremities, "Take a Load Off Your Feet," with its sound effects and processed vocals. Carl's mysterious "Feel Flows," with then-manager Jack Rieley's opaque lyrics, and Jardine's dark, folky "Looking at Tomorrow" (great phasing on the vocals!), so reminiscent of Stephen Stills's "4+20," remind you that the Beach Boys were really the only other group of that era who took the same care in production as did George Martin for the Beatles. And "'Til I Die" is Brian's lonely, despairing, hauntingly beautiful cry for psychic rescue.

But Surf's Up describes its complex orbit around two opposed centers: Bruce Johnston's unashamedly nostalgic "Disney Girls (1957)" and Brian Wilson's and Van Dyke Parks's collaboration on the title tune. "Disney Girls" goes directly to the point: "Love—Hi Rick and Dave / Hi Pop, Well good morning Mom / Love—get up guess what / I'm in love with a girl I found / She's really swell / 'Cause she likes / church, bingo chances and old-time dances // Reality, it's not for me / And it makes me laugh / Fantasy world and Disney girls / I'm coming back." All to a gorgeous melody, Johnston's even more gorgeous singing, and the Boys' yet gorgeouser backing vocals. But such a song, as superficially regressive and escapist as it is, is still a step forward for the Boys: for the first time, they've actually admitted that that time, that world, that 1957 that never existed, is actually gone.

"Surf's Up" itself is a wonder, a relic of the abandoned, legendary Smile sessions, Brian's "teenage symphony to God" (footnote 1); Van Dyke Parks's gently apocalyptic lyrics kaleidoscope sense as Brian sings them to the most challenging, sophisticated, slippery melody he ever wrote. "Dove nested towers the hour was / Strike the street quicksilver moon"—there's something hauntingly eerie here, something ancient and, again, childlike, something very wondering, very magical, and very sad. This one song is the height of Brian Wilson's maturity as a composer, singer, and arranger, and his finest contribution to the American art-song.

The far inferior Holland (1973) was another major project that simply didn't come off, and the beginning of the Beach Boys' long downward slide into entire albums of generic filler like 1985's Beach Boys. There are three reasons to buy the disc: Brian's majestic "Sail On Sailor," a last-minute substitution for an inadequate piece of Mike Love dreck ("We Got Love") and by far the best thing on that album, or any Beach Boys album since (Steven Gaines calls it "the last masterpiece" ever to come from Brian and the Beach Boys); Brian's "Funky Pretty," with its classically oddball Wilson bassline and unexpected harmonies; and Dennis's tender, intimate, hothouse ballad "Only With You."

Other than that, there's not much: Love and Jardine's endless "California Saga"; labored, overworked songs by Dennis and Carl that never quite get off the ground ("Steamboat," "The Trader"); and Brian's embarrassingly awful "fairy tale," "Mt. Vernon and Fairway," a supposed children's story originally included as a separate 7" EP shrinkwrapped with the LP. The total inappropriateness and incompleteness of this piece of leaden fluff is ample evidence of Brian's increasingly casual acquaintance, at the time, with any kind of generally accepted definition of reality. Holland's production values are sumptuous, as usual, but the material is so poor and spread so thin that the album ends up as one of the Beach Boys' least satisfying records of the period.

Likely in the stores by the time you read this will be the far more interesting (than Holland, that is) Carl and the Passions—So Tough, The Beach Boys in Concert, and 15 Big Ones, with The Beach Boys Love You, The Light Album, The MIU Album, and Carl's and Dennis's solo albums to follow. For all my ambivalence about the Beach Boys' mythos and ethos, and for all my suspicion of my own foolishness in continuing to pore over the pop wreckage of the '60s, searching, like A.J. Weberman through Dylan's garbage, for scraps of visionary significance, I can't help but highly recommend the seven "lost" Beach Boys records—Pet Sounds, Smiley Smile, Wild Honey, Friends, 20/20, Sunflower, and Surf's Up—as subtly flawed masterpieces from a grossly flawed musical master. And yes, they're fun.—Richard Lehnert

Footnote 1: It's still possible that Smile may be released; in a recent Hi-Fi News article, Andy Paley, who worked on the Capitol reissues, told Ken Kessler that Brian might make it a two-CD set of many alternate takes of the songs.