Beach Boys: The Lost Decade

The Beach Boys. Illustration by Kevin Thayer.

The Beach Boys. Illustration by Kevin Thayer.

Listen to Alex Rawls’ accompanying Beach Boys Playlist on Spotify

When the Beach Boys play Jazz Fest, it’s a safe bet that their set will rely heavily on the hits, most of which were recorded between 1961 (“Surfin’) and 1966 (Smile and “Good Vibrations”). They may reach forward to 1969 for “Do It Again,” 1976 for “Rock and Roll Music,” or 1973 for “Sail On, Sailor,” though the latter seems less likely since South African guitarist Blondie Chaplin sang the lead vocal. If the reunion show sticks to those first five years, it will make the crowd happy, but for me, the next 10 years of the band’s career—1967 to 1977—is more intriguing because it’s more flawed, yet it’s just as rewarding as the Beach Boys applied their musical gifts to subject matter beyond a Californian fantasy.

After the Smile sessions, things could never be the same for the Beach Boys. Pet Sounds and Smiley Smile—the jumbled attempt to salvage something from Smile’s wreckage—put two albums between the band and its last odes to the surfing life. They couldn’t profess their love for cars and the girls who looked good in them anymore, and it was 1967 anyway. Songs about beachly pleasures were at odds with the countercultural moment.

At the same time, the damage to resident genius Brian Wilson had become serious. He stopped touring before recording Smile after a panic attack aboard a airplane on the tarmac forced the band to leave without him. A breakdown during the album’s recording brought those sessions to a premature end and made it impossible for the band to count on him as their leader. Those two factors—simultaneous crises of identity and leadership—make the next decade of Beach Boys’ music poignant. With each album from Wild Honey to The Beach Boys Love You, you can hear the band trying to figure out how to be relevant and successful with a musical history that would never entirely disappear from the rear view mirror.

Wild Honey picks up where Smiley Smile left off—with a synthesizer or theremin echoing the theremin that was so revolutionary on “Good Vibrations.” The conceptual weight of the previous albums is replaced by a musical playfulness typified by Brian’s “I’d Love Just Once to See You” (“in the nude,” he sings). “Here Comes the Night” is the song power pop artist Dwight Twilley would spend his entire career rewriting, and “Darlin’” is a simple, giddy pop song. Critic Robert Christgau awarded the album the only A+ he gave a Beach Boys’ album:

It feels weird to call this a great record—it’s so slight. But it’s perfect and full of pleasure; it does what it sets out to do almost without a bad second (except for “Let the Wind Blow,” each of the 11 tunes—total time: 23:54—ends before you wish it would). And what does it set out to do? To convey the troubled innocence of the Beach Boys through a time of attractive but perilous psychedelic sturm und drang. Its method is whimsy, candor, and carefully modulated amateurishness, all of which comes through as humor.

Friends is almost as light, though it features a more ambitious musical palate than Wild Honey. Brian writes or co-writes all but two tracks—Dennis’ “Little Bird” and “Be Still”—and side one is pure pop pleasure. Still, there’s a fixation on the moment that hints that things aren’t as easy as they seem. When Brian sings, “I had to fix a lot of things this morning / because they were so scrambled / but now its okay / I tell you I’ve got a lot to do” in “Busy Doin’ Nothin’,” it sounds like an OCD attack before the affliction had a name.

The instrumental “Diamond Head” sounds a note that would reverberate throughout the decade as the band would try now and then to evoke its heyday. The song is named after a popular beach in Hawaii, but it’s a lush, tiki-time interlude instead of a call to the surf, complete with a ukulele and the sound of lapping waves. Mike Love discovered Transcendental Meditation before and during the Friends sessions, which led to his two main lyrical contributions: “Transcendental Meditation” and “Anna Lee the Healer.”

The highlight of 1969’s 20/20 is “Do it Again,” which is a little naked in its ambition—to go back to when the beach was the place to be, and by extension, a place where the Beach Boys were big (none of the post-Pet Sounds albums to this point had cracked the Top 20, and “Good Vibrations” was the last successful single). Still, the song’s fat, mid-tempo chug and the juxtaposition of fuzzed keyboard textures with banks of harmonizing vocals obscure whatever desperation might lie behind the track. 20/20 was largely made without Brian, and it suffers from a lack of inspiration. The band filled out a slate of his leftovers and new songs from Dennis with a handful of odd covers including “Cotton Fields” and “Bluebirds Over the Mountain.” Its highlight—aside from the Smile refugee “Cabinessence”—is Bruce Johnston’s “The Nearest Faraway Place,” a sublime instrumental that hints at exotic places without succumbing to Martin Denny exotica.

1970’s Sunflower has been held up as the best of the Beach Boys’ albums from this period, and perhaps it trumps Wild Honey because of its ambition. No song sounds like a knock-off; certainly not Brian’s “This Whole World,” which packs an album’s worth of ideas into 1:56 without seeming ambitious. It’s certainly a balanced album, with four songs from Dennis, two from Bruce Johnston, and co-writes from Carl Wilson, Al Jardine and Mike Love. Everybody but Jardine had at least one lead vocal. Dennis was becoming more of a force in the band, and he sang three leads including “It’s About Time,” the story of a dissipated artist who discovered “the joy I was to find / in learning I was only me.”

Part of the uneasy beauty of Sunflower and the next few albums is how inescapably rooted they were in their time. Today psychedelic arrangements and self-actualization lyrics makes the songs seem dated and a little goofy, but particularly on Sunflower, they make the band sound like real people committed to the world they lived in without looking back.

Surf’s Up is just as democratic if more uneven. Carl Wilson, the heartbreakingly beautiful voice of “God Only Knows,” pens and sings two leads on the album, the powerful “Long Promised Road” and the woozy “Feel Flows” (“unfolding enveloping missiles of soul / recall senses sadly”). In each case, his voice is a wonder, and it in particular will be missed at the Fair Grounds. Bruce Johnston contributes the sentimental but pretty “Disney Girls (1957)” and Mike Love updates “Riot in Cell Block Number 9” as “Student Demonstration Time.” The latter attempts to be current, but it does so by referencing an R&B song from 1954 and feels as much of a novelty as Al Jardine’s “Take a Load Off Your Feet” as it makes the band seem old.

All the fluff and sputter is overshadowed by the album’s ending, though. The pair of Brian’s songs “’Til I Die” and “Surf’s Up” (a Smile leftover) play emotional hardball in a way that only adults could. “I’ve lost my way,” Carl admits on “’Til I Die” as he and Brian ponder their smallness in the world. Lyrics were never Brian’s long suit, and there’s a mumbled line in “Surf’s Up” where he never found the words. Still, the theme of suffering and endurance sharpened his focus and understanding. “How long will the wind blow? / Until I die,” they sing, and while Brian’s arrangement makes no effort to soften the gravity of the realization, its beauty and the harmonies balance the hard truth.

Brian’s absence on Carl and the Passions—“So Tough” shows. For the album, Blondie Chaplin and drummer Ricky Fataar were brought in, Fataar because a hand injury prevented Dennis from playing drums. Perhaps because of the lineup and band’s continued lack of single and album chart success, the Beach Boys sound particularly rudderless on this album and its follow-up, Holland. Both have good material, but even though Chaplin and Fataar’s “Here She Comes” is excellent, it sounds closer to Traffic than the Beach Boys. “Hold On, Dear Brother” is an indication of how lost the family band had become when the two rookies assumed a familial relationship to give them a musical pep talk.

The Wilsons do show up, though. Dennis’ hard living was tough on his voice, but his willingness to be emotionally vulnerable makes his songs some of the most powerful from this era, even when the songcraft is workmanlike. His performance makes “Cuddle Up” beautifully fragile, and Carl, Mike Love and Al Jardine sing “All This is That” in an understated tone akin to that of “’Til I Die.” The all-is-one lyrics are a little spongy, but they’re sung with such endearing reverence that it’s clear they held spiritual weight for the band.

Holland is an album that has really grown on me in the process of preparing for this essay, and while the issues that color Carl and the Passions are equally present on Holland, I simply like the songs a lot. The album’s title and central conceit—they took a portable studio to Netherlands—are further markers of how lost the Beach Boys had become. Their manager hoped a change of scenery would help snap Brian out of his depression, but in retrospect, it’s hard to imagine how someone with issues about traveling would find anything about the situation encouraging. Instead, the change of scenery made Love and Jardine homesick, which prompted them to write “California Saga,” a three-song suite that’s sappy, then beautiful, then woeful then charming. It self-consciously evokes Smile as each song fragment flows into the next, but it’s only memorable for its most dated element—Love’s sober reading of Robinson Jeffers’ “The Beaks of Eagles” backed by a jazz flute among other instruments. Far stronger is Chaplin’s “Leaving This Town,” which turns worldweariness into an art form with its slow, pulse-like spine and its going-nowhere chorus (“Leaving this town / for another one”).

Brian contributed Holland’s last track, which is better than its regrettable title—“Funky Pretty”—promises. Lyrically, it’s trapped in its 1973, but like so many of his songs from this period, it’s also an inventive piece of pop composition. His lead vocal is accompanied by a piano and a second keyboard until the pre-chorus, when a cloud of backing vocals surges in, balanced by a bass line played on Moog bass pedals. The moment gives shape to the song’s loping groove, and it hooks like a chorus even though the title phrase doesn’t appear in it. The passages that follow it and mention the title feel more like a bridge and a coda, and each has its own charms—all in a song about being in love with a Pisces.

“Sail On, Sailor” put the Beach Boys back on the commercial map—in the Top 20s, anyway—but they soon had to compete with their younger selves on the charts. In 1975, Capitol Records’ released the two-record set Endless Summer, a greatest hits collection that stayed on Billboard’s charts for 155 weeks, peaking at number one. It was still on the charts in 1976 when the band released 15 Big Ones (on Brother/Warner Bros. Records—the Beach Boys’ label since Sunflower). The success of Endless Summer—reinforced by the popularity of American Graffiti (1973) and the television show Happy Days (debuted in 1974)—prompted an album that looked back more nostalgically than any other Beach Boys album from this era. The version of Chuck Berry’s “Rock and Roll Music” was a hit, and it was one of eight golden oldies covered, along with “Chapel of Love,” “Blueberry Hill” and “Palisades Park.” Even the originals were nostalgic. Al Jardine’s “Suzie Cincinnati” returns to a classic Beach Boys theme, starting, “Suzie Cincinnati has a groovy little motor car.”

For me, it’s the hardest Beach Boys album from this period to listen to because the covers seem stale and, with the exception of “Rock and Roll Music,” the performances seem half-hearted. Maybe I’m just identifying with the band and how defeated I’d feel if all anybody wanted from me was my 18-year-old self, but Mike Love’s the only person who sounds like he’s having fun on the album, perhaps because he’s the one generally credited with wanting the band to return to what once worked.

To coincide with 15 Big Ones‘ release, Love engineered a publicity campaign promising “Brian is Back,” and Brian starting performing with the band in concert again, though his voice was in rough shape from smoking, drug abuse and general poor health. Brian truly was back for 1977’s The Beach Boys Love You, and it was a mixed blessing. It’s the antithesis of 15 Big Ones, and there’s nothing nostalgic about it. When I played it in the office while preparing for this essay, people asked what the hell I was listening to (and not in the good way). On the other hand, Robert Christgau gave the album an A, writing:

Painfully crackpot and painfully sung, but also inspired, not least because it calls forth forbidden emotions. For a surrogate teenager to bare his growing pains so guilelessly was exciting, or at least charming; for an avowed adult to expose an almost childish naivete is embarrassing, but also cathartic; and for a rock and roll hero to compose a verbally and musically irresistible paean to Johnny Carson is an act of shamanism pure and simple. As with Wild Honey, the music sounds wrong in contradictory ways at first—both arty and cute, spare and smarmy—but on almost every cut it comes together soon enough; I am especially partial to the organ textures, and I find the absurd little astrology ditty, “Solar System,” impossible to shake. As for the words, well, they’re often pretty silly, but even (especially) when they’re designed to appeal to whatever Brian imagines to be the rock audience they reveal a lot more about the artist than most lyrics do. And this artist is a very interesting case.

Brian’s voice is hoarse and frail, but a more authoritative voice couldn’t sing to a baby “In the morning I could pick you up / feed you breakfast from a little cup,” nor could it make “I’ll Bet He’s Nice” any more heartbreaking. The album’s startling for its lack of pretense and its musical clarity, aided by heavy reliance on crisp, textured keyboards, but its most memorable moments are the most inexplicable. “Solar System” sounds like the lyrical product of a seven-year-old—“Neptune’s the god of the sea / Pluto is too far to see”—but its chorus—“Solar system / brings us wisdom”—is oddly comforting as the group harmonizes on the thought.

“Johnny Carson” is even more improbable. In it, Brian doesn’t only pay tribute to the long-time host of The Tonight Show; he positions Carson as a slave of sorts toiling heroically in the studios of Burbank: “When guests are boring he fills up the slack / The network makes him break his back.” The backing vocals punctuate these lines with a staccato singing of the syllables “Jah. Nee. Car. Son” before the song rolls into a piano-driven stroll for the chorus: “Ed McMahon comes on and says ‘Here’s Johnny!’ / Every night at 11:30 he’s so funny.” Brian celebrates Carson, singing, “Don’t you think he’s such a natural guy?”—perhaps because Carson was so many things Brian wasn’t.

Needless to say, such a determinedly odd record didn’t chart that well, peaking at number 53 and drove home the point that the young Beach Boys were American treasures while the band in real time was a sideshow. They would record two more albums in the 1970s—M.I.U. Album and L.A. (Light Album)—but the divisions in the group were too radical for good music to survive. The former was recorded at the Maharishi International University in Iowa at Love’s insistence, but without Dennis or Carl who disapproved of the idea, while the latter was further proof—as if it was needed—that the band couldn’t count on Brian anymore. The 10-minute-long disco remake of Wild Honey‘s “Here Comes the Night” is the band at its most desperate and was reviled by fans who considered it a sell-out not only for capitulating to disco, but for bastardizing a beloved song in the process.

Little of the Beach Boys’ post-Smile music is essential listening, but it’s impossible to listen to it and not hear the human drama that shaped it. The albums aren’t timeless, but the now-dated sounds and tropes only make their social and musical context clearer. On them, you hear Dennis in particular finding his musical voice, only to have it overlooked by a marketplace that wanted another “California Girls” if it wanted anything from the Beach Boys. You hear the second act of Brian Wilson’s career play out as mundane tragedy as he struggled to contribute, no doubt aware of the hope from label executives, fans and band/family members that he would be the Pet Sounds Brian again and deliver another pop masterpiece at a time when he struggled to get out of bed. But you also hear moments of startling musical invention, moments of great poignancy, moments of pop genius, and a belief in the voices that were at the heart of the Beach Boys’ biggest hits. The voice is the most human instrument, and this is very human music.

Listen to Alex Rawls’ accompanying Beach Boys Playlist on Spotify

  • well i luve this band alot they are favourites i like their voices alot wishing them a very best ov luck…..