The Beach Boys seem to be summed up in a couple different ways depending on who you’re talking to.
There’s the one that dismisses them as so much early 60s surf fluff that lacks any of the depth that fellow California groups like the Doors, Jefferson Airplane, or the Eagles carry and certainly that of the Beatles. For these people I feel almost a sense of pity because they are missing out on so much.
There’s another narrative, just as inaccurate, that depicts Brian as a brilliant but drug-addicted songwriter and producer who peaked with Pet Sounds, went nuts during the abandoned Smile sessions and then spent the rest of the 60s and 70s “in bed” while the band released forgettable albums only to become a shell of themselves touring the oldies circuit.
This too is inaccurate and quite a shame because it ignores both Brian’s tremendous writing throughout the last few years of the 60s and into the 70s as well as the bold growth of the band and individuals who comprised it.
Let’s clear some of this up and hopefully I’ll give you guys some motivation to dig through some of those later albums.
Yes, Brian crumbled under the weight of Smile. His mental illness coupled with self-medication through both prescription and illicit drugs and the suffocating pressure from all directions were too much to bear. Thus, he did shelve hours upon hours of material for Smile. That much is well-documented and true. But it’s hardly the end of the story.
The man who had come to be known for his “pocket symphonies” and for building some of music’s most ambitious and complex arrangements and productions decided to take an abrupt turn and strip all that away.
Recording in his living room, he produced three Beach Boys albums that can be seen as a launching point for the low-fi recording philosophy that grew up in the years after and continues to be favored by many groups. The three albums Smiley Smile, Wild Honey, and Friends, feature some of the most interesting tracks of the band’s career. They showcased some of the material from Smile but they were largely made up of new songs that now brought more influence and contributions from Carl, Dennis, Al, Bruce, and Mike.
Smiley Smile is one of the most unique albums of the time period. Combining that low-fi vibe, psychedelic undertones, spoken-word, and meditative harmonies, the album has endured as somewhat of a cult following. Check out tracks like “With Me Tonight,” “Getting Hungry,” and “She’s Going Bald.”
By the time Wild Honey came about, Brian really does begin his self-imposed exile. The album features one my favorite tracks, “Darlin’” and was written by Carl. My favorite contribution from Brian is “Let the Wind Blow.” The album is hardly a “genius” album but it is an important moment for the band as they transitioned into a group of equal contributors exploring what kind of music they would make, what life would be like, without Brian Wilson driving every aspect of the group’s creative identity. This is the period where Carl began to assume some of the leadership responsibilities both in the studio and on stage.
Friends was released in 1968 and features some of my absolute favorite Brian Wilson-penned Beach Boys songs. The title track, “Be Here in the Morning,” “Wake the World,” and “Busy Doing Nothing” are all essential listening for anyone interested in knowing what the Beach Boys were doing post-Pet Sounds.
The album is also significant for the emergence Dennis Wilson as a writer. Often dismissed as nothing but the good looking token surfer in the group, Dennis was essential to encouraging Brian to push forward with Pet Sounds and by this point showed he knew his way around a melody. “Little Bird” and “Be Still” are tender and intimate precursors to what would become one of Dennis’ (and the band’s) best moments, “Forever.” That song would emerge two years later on Sunflower.
The next three years would see the band release four more albums, 20/20, Sunflower, Surf’s Up, and Carl and the Passions – So Tough. Each of these albums has less and less direct input from Brian though songs from abandoned Smile sessions are harvested and are often the best tracks on each album.
1969’s 20/20 opens with what became the band’s biggest hit since “Good Vibrations”: “Do It Again.” Written under pressure (always pressure) Brian collaborated with Mike Love to pen a track this is all at once relevant, modern, and nostalgic. Brian’s other contributions include two gems. “I Went to Sleep” and particularly “Time to Get Alone” are sublime. Dennis brings three incredible tracks of his own. “Be With Me” is a lush ballad that more than proves he was paying attention to Brian during all those long sessions for Today!, Pet Sounds, and Smile. “All I Want to Do” is a sex-tinged rocker and “Never Learn to Love” brings one of his finest vocal performances. Dennis’ delivery had a painful quivering and pleading sense to it and this song shows that during the “come in closer…” lines.
For the final two tracks of the album, the Beach Boys pulled two songs from the Smile Session. Something they would regularly do during this period. “Our Prayer” is a meditative harmonizing Brian had written as an opener of sorts for what would have been the Smile album. It was, in all actuality, a prayer. The album closes with “Cabinessence” that had, for the most part, been completed during the original sessions but Carl polished with some guidance from Brian.
1969 cannot be mentioned without the incredible single, “Break Away.” Penned by Brian and Murray, the song is a true highlight of the band’s output of the era. For a real trick check out the vocals-only take on YouTube.
Sunflower was a pivotal album for the group. They walked out of the sessions with a real sense of accomplishment. Top to bottom, the tracks are a product of a band that has begun to find its footing in this new era.
Brian isn’t the man behind the curtain. The Wrecking Crew isn’t doing the heavy lifting in the studio. Other than a couple of tracks that give a measure of credit to someone outside the group, all songs are written by the Wilson brothers, Al, Bruce, and Mike. The opening track, from Dennis, sets a tone for what would come. This is not your mom’s Beach Boys band. “Slip on Through,” “This Whole World,” and “All I Wanna Do” are phenomenal tracks. This album also features three of the most important songs not written by Brian: Dennis’ “Forever,” and Bruce Johnston’s “Deidre” and “Tears in the Morning.” Give those three a listen now. I’ll wait.
You back? They’re incredible right?!
The negative response to Pet Sounds and the resistance towards his ambitious efforts on Smile had an undeniable and well-documented impact on Brian’s state of mind. However the lack of positive response to Sunflower at a time when he and the band were beginning to catch their collective stride was a wrecking ball.
Thus Surf’s Up has a certain deflated sense to it. It isn’t without great material but it feels depressed. The Carl-penned “Long Promised Road” shines as does Bruce’s “Disney Girls (1957)” which is a personal favorite of mine. But, the band having lost Brian again, dusted off another track from the Smile session for the title track. “Surf’s Up” stands next to “Heroes and Villains” as perhaps the very peak of the Wilson-Van Dyke Parks collaboration.
Brian did make two contributions to the album and are as revealing of his mental and emotional state as they are different from what many would consider to be the “typical Beach Boys” song.
One, “A Day in the Life of a Tree” was considered so “depressing” that none of the Beach Boys agreed to sing the lead. Brian, dissatisfied with his own takes, had Jeff Reiley, the band’s manager who also co-wrote the song, take the lead vocal. The song is followed by “Til I Die” another song deemed so depressing by members of the band that there was strong debate as to whether Brian should change the lyrics. Thankfully Brian managed to stand his ground the words were sung as intended.
This brings us to Carl and the Passions – So Tough. This is the last album I’ll cover here though there are five more albums recorded before 1980.
By the time this album arrived Carl had cemented himself as the band’s leader. Lacking the ability to lean on Brian as well as the desire to prove the band was more than Brian and the Wrecking Crew, Carl enlisted the talents of two South African artists with whom he had become close friends. Drummer Ricky Fataar and guitarist Blondie Chaplin brought a gritty soul to the band that immediately bore fruit in the way of “Here She Comes” and “Hold on Dear Brother.”
Brian does have two songs on the album, due as much to the demands of the label as to his interest in contributing. The track’s opener “You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone” and “Marcella” both reflect the band’s sonic shift away from the lush harmonies to a more “roots rock” sound encouraged by the aforementioned Fataar and Chaplin. Another shining track on the album is again from Dennis, “Make it Good.” Adorned with lush but not cheesy strings, his vocal is delivered with a fragile vulnerability that makes his own descent and ultimate death all the more tragic. If there is a member of this group who has never received the praise and respect he deserves it is Dennis.
So there you go. Seven albums released after Pet Sounds that should open your eyes and ears to just how ambitious and fearless the Beach Boys were as the explored their own sounds, their own beliefs, and challenged the public’s and the industry’s labels and criticisms.
The Beach Boys did not end with Good Vibrations. They pushed forward into new and different styles and ideas. They explored genres, social issues, and more importantly, they explored their own creativity and ambitions.
There’s a common belief that John got the Beatles to the top but Paul kept them there. I think there’s something to that despite its oversimplification. But, to borrow a bit of that phrase I’ll say that Brian got the Beach Boys to the top but Carl was the glue that kept them together and coaxed incredible music from his band mates, Dennis in particular.
Do yourself a favorite and give these albums a listen. I’ve made it easy for you by putting all the songs listed here on a Spotify playlist. Check it out.
Until next time…
Be Well and Kind,