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The Beach Boys: Heroes and Villains (alternate version)

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 deliberate.

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 interested.

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 is in some kind of on-going recovery (see the interview here), Murry is dead and so are brothers Dennis (the only real surfer of the bunch) and Carl.

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 counter-claim.

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.

t1larg.beach.boys.stripes.giThe 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 are great.

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.

brianWithin 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.

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