The Beach Boys in 1968
It was not going well for the Beach Boys. If you are even peripherally aware of their history, you know that in the period right after the grand experiment that was going to be Smile became a jumble of gem-like little pieces that no one could quite manage to pull together, the group was in creative and commercial disarray.
Brian Wilson, their musical visionary, was adrift and devastated, and the reputation of the Beach Boys—already a fragile thing in the late ’60s, when Smiley Smile’s (the modest Smile substitute) considerable charms went unappreciated—was crumbling. They’d passed on playing 1967’s Monterey International Pop Festival, where bands like the Jimi Hendrix Experience, the Who and Big Brother & the Holding Company planted their flag claiming rock’s future, and later that year the low-key but loveable Wild Honey failed to make Billboard’s top 20. In May ’68, right before the release of the album Friends, they embarked on a tour co-headlining with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, an enterprise so foolish that it had to be abandoned after a handful of shows.
By the time they made their debut appearance at the Fillmore East in October (their opening act was the on-the-rise band Creedence Clearwater Revival), the Beach Boys were considered, as the reviewer in the New York Times put it, “a once-influential group that that has fallen on hard days” (he also said they “suggested a yellowed photograph in a family album”). Friends was a catastrophe in purely sales terms, the first album by the group that fell short of #100 on the album chart. That, you might think, was that. Any chance of them building on the good will generated by the trippy, innovative smash “Good Vibrations” was kaput. With Brian mostly on the sidelines, the rock audience moving on to new heroes like Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, and Clapton, how could the Beach Boys, in their new matching white suits that replaced the striped shirts as stage wear, hope to ride the new wave?
Friends has, over the decades, been more fondly embraced than it was in the turbulent summer of 1968. It was as though they knew the spotlight wasn’t fixed on them, that getting heavier and more far-out wouldn’t work, so they holed up in Brian’s studio and crafted a small, serene musical novella. Something prosaic, in the best sense. And now, thanks to U.S. copyright laws pertaining to recordings, we’re able to sift through—if not sort out—the elements that made up Friends and its follow-up, 20/20. These “copyright protection” streaming and online releases are typically dumped at the end of the year so that the record companies in possession of the music can continue to own the masters, which otherwise would slip into public domain after 50 years. So, we have Wake the World: the Friends Sessions; I Can Hear Music: the 20/20 Sessions; and The Beach Boys on Tour: 1968 (Live).
It’s like a big yard sale where the owners have just gone to the attic, pulled down some old boxes and dumped out the contents on the lawn: Here, the record label is saying, you sort through this. There are demos, instrumental tracks, song fragments, a cappella versions, new and alternate mixes, some with different lead vocals, some with just background vocals. And if you’re a Beach Boys fan, you pick up and examine each item: Oh! here’s Brian singing Bacharach & David’s “My Little Red Book,” here’s the “Friends” backing track that makes you realize it isn’t that far away from being a Pet Sounds outtake, here’s a variation on the Friends song “Busy Doin’ Nothin’” called “Even Steven.”
That song is a little marvel, a soft samba where Brian gives seemingly helpful but actually vague directions to his house:
Drive for a couple miles
You’ll see a sign and turn right (on the Friends version, it’s left, so…?)
For a couple blocks
Next is mine, you’ll turn left on a little road
It’s a bumpy one
I can’t tell you how much I love that, the imprecise “couple” instructions, the “you’ll see a sign” (street sign? billboard?), the caution about the bumps. It’s just so artless and casual, like the songs Brian wrote for The Beach Boys Love You a few years later. Looking back, Friends is one of those albums that wasn’t made for its times, like Nilsson’s playful Aerial Ballet, or The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society, something self-contained and nearly perfect, even though it has a song called “Transcendental Meditation.” It also has relatively small doses of Mike Love, the first signs that Dennis Wilson had songwriting talent, and the sunshiny “Wake the World.”
20/20 is less coherent. It’s like the Beach Boys’ White Album, all those different voices and points of view, from a group that needed to step up to fill the growing Brian gap (he’s represented by the lovely “Time to Get Alone”; another here’s-my-day diary entry, “I Went to Sleep”: “Ten-thirty I turned my radio on/Some group was playing a musical song”; a couple of retooled Smile scraps; and a retro-surf tune written with Love, “Do It Again”). I Can Hear Music shows how many things Dennis was working on, and includes his original vocal on the rocker “All I Want to Do”—not to be confused with “All I Wanna Do” from Sunflower—that Mike sings on the finished album.
Brian, Dennis, and Carl Wilson, Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston all get production credits on different tracks, and 20/20 (and, even more, Wake the World) is a picture of a group cobbling things together out of disparate parts. There’s a Ronettes song, a Lead Belly song, an Ersel Hickey song, a Charles Manson song (“Never Learn Not to Love,” which Dennis modified from Manson’s “Cease to Exist”). Although “Do It Again” was a moderate hit single (about the level of Wild Honey’s “Darlin’”), 20/20 didn’t snap the group’s cold streak, and it was the last studio album they made for Capitol Records.
The Beach Boys On Tour, the third catalog-drop this past holiday season, is almost a defiant act, a test to see how devoted the group’s fans are. It’s not that they weren’t playing well, or that the sets weren’t an entertaining balance of newer (Pet Sounds through 20/20) material and hits. You might, as I did, want to hear live versions of “Aren’t You Glad,” “Darlin’” and “God Only Knows” from 1968 (some of the songs from a U.K. date were on the group’s Live in London LP, so it’s not all newly-issued). But there are 114 tracks and only around twenty different songs. Most of the shows are exactly the same. Like, exactly, down to Mike’s hammy master-of-ceremonies patter. Over and over, you hear him introduce a hits-medley as “oldies but moldies.” Every time, he calls “Barbara Ann” “our audience perspiration song” (it’s not funny the first time). He tells each audience that they did “Their Hearts Were Full of Spring” “on The Johnny Carson Show.” Sometimes, he’s just snide, calling “Friends” “a bomb of ours.”
You can see that as self-deprecating, I guess, but there is a tinge of lingering resentment in there. Brian, who’d been such a reliable creator of hit records, had allowed himself—as Mike would have it—to get diverted and distracted, to chase art, leaving the group to pick up the pieces. To go out there every night playing the songs that were Brian’s gift to the world. But Brian won. Fifty years later, we’re still listening to “Friends.” There’s an a cappella take of that song on Wake the World, and its warmth is irresistible: “We’ve been together through the good times and the tears,” Carl sings, then he’s joined by his brother Brian. “Turned each other on to the good things that life has to give.” It’s enough to make you smile.