LP Look #1: ‘Friends’ and ‘Moontan’

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I just added two wonderful LPs to my collection, one from America’s greatest pop force and another from perhaps the Netherlands’ longest-running rock group. The first of which is the 1968 Beach Boys studio album Friends. The second is Golden Earring’s Moontan.

If all you know about The Beach Boys is the early era hits – like ‘Surfin’ USA’ and ‘Fun, Fun, Fun’ – and the innocuous ‘Kokomo’, stepping right into Friends may either confuse you or enchant you. Context… The Beach Boys slowly but surely ditched the surfing and fun-in-the-sun sound, and ditties about hot rods and hotties on the beach… As early as 1965. A move spearheaded by an ambitious Brian Wilson.

This rocky but rewarding climb resulted in 1966’s Pet Sounds, one of the greatest albums of all-time. An album that went many new directions in the ever-expanding pop and rock world, but also an album grounded in honest, introspective beauty. Unfortunately, it had caused a bit of rift in the band, made even worse by the chaos and creation of SMiLE at the end of 1966… The intended magnum opus was shelved in early 1967, and from there the band kept taking harsh blows to their reputation. The American record buyers had turned their backs on the band, not seeing them as a cutting edge force, which was only exacerbated by their record label – who kept selling them as a surf band by the end of the decade! Friends was released in the summer of 1968, following two LPs – Smiley Smile and Wild Honey – that had gotten lukewarm reception and sales at best, though they both broke the top 10 in the UK.

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Friends is probably the most serene and tranquil studio album of 1968, in fact it’s a record that is very much anti-everything 1968. No dizzying psychedelic tricks to be found here, or any harsh sounds. No protests, songs that would resonate with the public at the time. Nothing like ‘Revolution’ or ‘Street Fighting Man’, for sure. Peace and relaxation are the name of the game here.

Its title track is a soothing waltz, but it showcases one of the album’s biggest strengths… It’s very lush and evenly produced, sounding almost Pet Sounds-esque. Smiley Smile was rough and minimalist to the point where it felt like a collection of home demos, Wild Honey was also rough but had a little more polish. This album is not that… It’s quiet beauty is bolstered by its heavenly vocal harmonies, its beautifully-layered arrangements, and of course the ace songwriting.

Speaking of songwriting, brother Dennis Wilson starts to step up his game here, while brother Carl collaborates on some of the Brian-penned tunes. Dennis delights with ‘Little Bird’, another song that reflects the quirky and homespun nature of the LP. Though it really gets going right when it fades out, it’s a real gem. ‘Be Still’ is very short yet so to the point, not dissimilar to the album’s 40-second opener ‘Meant for You’. ‘Wake The World’ is also one of the short-and-sweets on the platter, giving Al Jardine a little songwriting start. It’s also absolutely beautiful, and it has a bit of Wild Honey in its DNA due to the use of the barroom piano… This should be a song you wake up to!

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A Canadian pressing!

Of course, Brian leads the charge here, despite his gradually dwindling role as band leader. ‘Be Here in the Mornin” is a strong ditty with some weird little garnishes here and there, while ‘When a Man Needs a Woman’ is a song that’s about the joys of… Giving birth. Yes, this was very, very out of place in 1968! The celebration of the mundane and personal continues on the bossa nova-flavored ‘Busy Doin’ Nothing’, an accurate snapshot of Brian’s life at the time. It even comes complete with step-by-step directions to Brian’s house!

Mike Love gets a word in with ‘Anna Lee, the Healer’, a Brian collaboration that is very pretty and again, drenched in lovely harmonies… But ‘Transcendental Meditation’? Thank goodness that one closes out the LP, so you can stop after the gorgeous and ethereal Hawaiian instrumental ‘Diamond Head’. Stupid lyrics, questionable quasi-hard rock mashed with pseudo-jazz sound, a fine example of Love’s boneheadedness that would often rare its ugly head onto otherwise top-notch Beach Boys LPs of the era. (Looking at you, ‘Student Demonstration Time’.) Would’ve made a better B-side, for it doesn’t work on here at all.

Friends‘ songs are all incredibly short, many of them being around or less than two minutes long. Initially, I had found fault with this, but the more I listen to Friends, the more that less-is-more approach really works. It gives the songs a very direct feel, getting the message across without fuss. Other LPs ran over 35 minutes long, Friends‘ scant 25-minute length could fill an entire LP side!

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Naturally, that all didn’t fly with Americans, who already soured on the band by this point. Friends reached only #126 on the US chart, at the time a new low for the band. The UK dug it, buyers sending it to #13 on their chart. It reportedly sold pretty well throughout most of Europe too, the juice that helped keep The Beach Boys recording on a regular basis. Friends is not only an LP so ahead of its time and also seemingly belonging to an alternate timeline, it had shown Dennis’ songwriting chops and would be the precursor to albums where all the band members contributed to the songwriting process. It kept The Beach Boys’ magnificent post-Pet Sounds streak going, even if many didn’t notice it at all.

Inviting, cozy, cuddly, free of cynicism, Friends was an understated call for peace in the middle of a battlefield.

My other new arrival is quite a change in tone and pace…

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I admittedly know very little about Golden Earring, other than the fact that they formed in 1961 and are one of rock’s longest-running, still-performing (?) groups. While successful in their home country, Golden Earring achieved international success with two particular singles. The first of which was 1973’s highway jam ‘Radar Love’ (which comes from the LP in question), and the murky, action movie-sounding ‘Twilight Zone’ in 1982.

Moontan hits us hard with massive tracks… Massive songs that aren’t content with being shorter than 6 1/2 minutes long. ‘Radar Love’, the hit single from the album, is the prime example here. ‘Radar Love’ is driving rock at first, but then goes into a big solo, then gets brassy and epic, then bangs to a tribal sound before reprising the meat of the piece. You lost a lot of that in the single edit, as I don’t quite like single edits of long songs like these.

‘Candy’s Going Bad’, also six minutes long, chugs. If ‘Radar Love’ was like a sports car cruising down a desolate countryside highway, ‘Candy’s Going Bad’ is a rocket taking off. Its final minutes fully launch you into orbit, as you float away into outer space during its intergalactic workout jam. The other two epics go for the big nine. ‘Are You Receiving Me’ is a much more jam-like piece, repeating itself over and over, but keeping the momentum by changing up the repetitive lines – adding some brass here, or punching up the guitars there. ‘The Vanilla Queen’ is much more experimental and layered, integrating dialogue from the Marilyn Monroe film There’s No Business Like Show Business during its White Album-esque freak out towards the end.

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Moontan was released in 1973, but there are two versions of the original album. The first of which was released on Polydor Records in the Netherlands and continental Europe. Months later, the American *and* UK release would call for an alternate tracklisting. That version of the album would be released under MCA’s Track Records moniker in 1974. To me, shockingly, the US/UK tracklisting is a bit better than the Dutch one!

The original Polydor LP contained two tracks, ‘Suzy Lunacy (Mental Rock)’ and ‘Just Like Vince Taylor’, two straightforward rockers that arguably didn’t quite gel with the 6-to-9 minute goliaths that dominate the rest of the spinner. The former is a standard blues-rock chugger, nothing amazing but nothing mediocre. It appropriately rocks out with croaky vocals, the latter is spacey and uptempo, with an energetic vibe. Here in the states, it ended up as the B-side to ‘Radar Love’.

In their place is an 8-minute gargantuan that sits quite nicely alongside the other heavies on here: ‘Big Tree, Blue Sea’. A remake of the flutey, almost Jethro Tull-esque jammer that appeared on the band’s eponymous 1970 LP, ‘Big Tree, Blue Sea’ is the most psychedelic recording on here. Instead of going for the hard, sometimes cosmic sound of the other songs, ‘Big Tree, Blue Sea’ quietly meditates in its middle with flutes everywhere. It’s almost mystical in a way, ominous too. It’s a compelling patty sandwiched between two basic-rock buns, though its ending gets a little funky. Its lyrics are psychedelic ecology babble.

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Some CD editions of the album have used the original Polydor tracklisting, but added this lovely rendition of ‘Big Tree, Blue Sea’ as a bonus track, you can’t get that or ‘Big Tree, Blue Sea’ ’73 on iTunes or elsewhere. Nowhere else but the original Track Records LP, which is why I sought it out. On another note, the rest of the tracks are sequenced differently.

In the US, the racy album cover was quickly withdrawn and replaced with a bland image of a hoop on someone’s ear. (Har har get it? Because it’s Golden Earring?) Interestingly enough, the banned US cover uses the full image of the exotic dancer. The Polydor LP’s jacket is a gatefold, so you had to open it up to see the bottom half!

Either way, Moontan performed quite well on the US charts, and ‘Radar Love’ is a classic rock radio staple. Composed of big epics, big ideas, and lots of surprises, it’s sure to leave you stunned – no matter which version you spin.

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