Graham Reid | | 5 min read
As with any great and long-running
band, the Beach Boys were capable of the sublime, the superfluous and
the downright stupid. Were.
The use of the past tense is quite
Nobody – except perhaps organisers of
those weird American commemoration days where the remnants of the
band made their tedious appearances for decades -- could ever think
of them in the present tense. They are part of rock history, their
annual July 4 revivalist concerts and tours notwithstanding. There
are no Wilsons in the current touring line-up, two dead and Brian not
They gave rock some great albums,
notably Pet Sounds in '66 which no serious collection should be
without. They also gave the world the L. A. (Light Album) in '79
which no serious collection should contain.
But the Beach Boys are from way back
then and their story is well known by now: how brothers and cousins
came together under the gifted leadership of chubby Brian Wilson, who
crafted their sublime, innocent surf hits, how they were hammered
along by the ruthless, violent Wilson father Murry, and how Brian
increasingly wrote the story of his own self-doubt and musical genius
into their albums before cracking up, taking to his bed for burgers
by the mid-Eighties and finally having to be retaught how to tie his
shoelaces and say “Hello, my name is Brian Wilson.”
From being the gifted musical brain
behind America’s most popular band to abject paranoia, hiding in
the cupboard and dribbling while you eat is quite a journey. And then
that long recovery process, playing pet Sounds live, completing the
Smile album he abandoned in the late Sixties, recoding again . . .
If the band was a celebration of
America; as the Brian-less line-up fashioned itself since the
Eighties, then it is rotten at the core.
Brian’s autobiography, Wouldn’t It
Be Nice, wrote of such viciousness and greed, self-interest and
indifference to his condition by the band members that it is
impossible to watch the smug Mike Love (interview here) at recent awards ceremonies or
show without feeling naked contempt.
The only fun fun fun the Beach Boys
provide now is in watching their on-going litigation and
But their musical legacy has been very
well served, Pet Sounds has come in expanded editions, all of their
significant albums have been represented with extra tracks and in '93
their box set Good Vibrations arrived which sank all previous (and
subsequent) hits packages and collections.
Here were a whopping hundred-something
tracks (including radio shots, live tracks and unreleased songs) over
four discs, another 76-minute disc of previously unreleased material
and yet another (mostly dull) five tracks on a sixth disc. Plus a
booklet, naturally. Oh . . . and a sticker.
The first disc has all the early hits
plus the odd radio promo spot and a piano demo of Surfin' USA.
There's Brian's prescient In My Room
(“I lock out all my troubles”) and the melancholy Surfer Girl
which was a forerunner of the dark Caroline No-thread of Wilson's
work which later Beach Beach Boy and Brian's substitute in the
touring line-up Bruce Johnston picked up for his lovely Disney Girls.
All that is there, but it is the second
disc where thing really take off. Here is Brian saying I Guess I Just
Wasn’t Made For These Times and weird stuff like the song about
vegetables. Then there are the segments of his intended seven-minute
Heroes and Villains plus unreleased song from the abandoned and
legendary Smile, the intended follow-up to Pet Sounds. With the
belatedly finished work appearing they have perhaps ben superseded
but they stand well in this context.
The collection of previously released
and unreleased Smile material which takes the last third of the disc
reveals an album of quietness and harmony at odds with Brian's
internal conflicts and the baroque excesses of Sergeant Pepper's, its
competitor for attention . . . had it been completed.
With as many tracks as this over the
four main discs – the bulk of the final one is largely superfluous
it has to be said – this is still a great collection.
It mostly favours Brian’s stuff, but
other tracks where his input was minimal are well chosen. Dennis’
pieces are moving,
Yes, this is a sprawling, engrossing
collection and the additional disc of out-takes is for the real
obsessive or curious fan. Brian's unreleased songs about being fat
It's a pity Dennis’ Never Learn Not
to Love isn’t here, though. Thats the one written by his friend
Charlie (the pre-massacre) Manson who was living at the permanently
stoned Dennis mansion. The song was originally titled Cease to Exist
but Dennis – more courageous than he realised -- changed the lyric.
It’s also a pity the segments of
Heroes and Villains weren’t arranged together, it takes a bit of
bouncing around to get the picture.
And, of course, only those prepared to
give the Beach Boys that much energy would be into this expensive,
perhaps overlong but wonderful collection anyway.
Good Vibrations, the expanded Pet
Sounds, the Smile album and Brian's book would adequately occupy most
of the summer months to come with their revelations, heroic and
tragic music, classic pop songs and soundtrack to a musical genius
going off the rails and trying to tell the world.
Within five years the world of surf songs and
Be True to Your School Fifties-sounding sentiments were blown away,
first by the Beatles/Stones, then by acid rock.
Brian had the gift to set the pace and
the band to do it . . . but they didn't have the inclination and he
didn't have the confidence or support to keep up. But Pet Sounds
showed what he was capable of, and McCartney still says God Only
Knows is one of his most favourite songs.
It's absurd to say the Beach Boys are
America . . . that's playing into the hands of guys like Mike Love.
No, they were simply an extraordinary group of talented singers which became an American icon despite themselves. And Brian was the troubled genius within. The evidence of all of that is boxed up in Good Vibrations.
For an informative and detailed DVD overview of Brian Wilson's compositions in the Sixties go here.