LP Look #2: ’20/20′ and ‘Rarities’

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Two Beach Boys LPs this time, one a studio album that quite frankly is kind of a compilation, and the other an actual compilation album…

Now funny enough, my previous (and first ever) LP LOOK post featured the Beach Boys studio album that preceded the one that’s being focused on here. Friends, released in the summer of 1968 and being so out of place in the US at the time, is to me a peaceful, tranquil ode to the joys in life and home and the mundane. It was a sales flop in the states, but did far better in the UK and Europe, which was by that point the usual for every new Beach Boys LP.

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Between the release of Friends in May 1968 and 20/20‘s debut in the cold February of 1969, the Beach Boys wrote and released a song about surfing. This was the first time they had written about the subject since 1964’s ‘Don’t Back Down’, and it was just sort of something that came up with and they all did it. The result was ‘Do It Again’, but ‘Do It Again’ wasn’t some cheap slice of nostalgia. The band injected a real rocking energy into it, and made that “surf” sound fresh again. The boys had moved away from the surf and fun-in-the-sun ditties of the early 1960s when leader Brian Wilson wanted to scale mountains and change music as the world knew it… In the form of the albums of The Beach Boys Today!, the iconic Pet Sounds, and the shelved-and-unearthed SMiLE.

For the unfamiliar, here’s the abridged version. Brian Wilson got ambitious, and Pet Sounds had been acclaimed though it wasn’t quite a hot seller back in 1966. The message was quite clear, as summed up perfectly by a book title: “Goodbye Surfing, Hello God”. Brian then wanted to outdo himself yet again, with an album full of godly “pocket symphonies” called SMiLE, the masterpiece ‘Good Vibrations’ preceding its planned debut in fall 1966. SMiLE collapsed due to a number of reasons, most notably the band’s (well, mostly Mike Love’s) opposition to its esoteric songwriting and overall strangeness, Brian’s escalating use of drugs, and Brian’s crumbling mental health.

Brian’s role as a producer and leader dwindled gradually after SMiLE‘s cancellation in mid-1967. Released in its place in the fall of 1967 was Smiley Smile, which took some SMiLE recordings and re-imagined them as even weirder, almost home demo-like pieces. The band’s no-show at the Monterey Pop Festival had already damaged their reputation, as the American public began to view them as an outdated group of – as David Leaf wonderfully put it – “surfing Doris Days”. They were the squarest of the squares. To Americans, that is. The folks on the other side of the Atlantic thought differently…

Smiley Smile was a relative failure for them, their lowest-charting studio album at the time of its release. It was too weird for the long-time fans who were accustomed to the sunny Californian sound, it wasn’t cool enough (or too confusing) for the hip crowd, it didn’t quite resonate. Their reputation was essentially shot in the foot overnight. Wild Honey didn’t make matters any better, but like Smiley, it did quite well in Europe. Friends all but disappeared and died in the middle of 1968’s battlefield, but enjoyed some time in the spotlight abroad.

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‘Do It Again’ was a modest hit on the American charts in the summer of 1968, hitting a decent #20, while hitting the Top 10 in pretty much all the European territories. So it was time, once again, to record a studio album. On Friends, we saw Dennis Wilson start writing some songs, while brother Carl Wilson amped it up a bit, and we saw some more from Al Jardine. On 20/20, with Brian pretty much in the dark, everyone – even Mr. Love – makes an effort to step it up.

Carl Wilson spearheads a cover of ‘I Can Hear Music’, which is as every bit as beautiful and soaring as a top-notch Motown production, and the band go for a more straight-rock sound with a cover of Ersel Hickey’s ‘Bluebirds over the Mountain’, though they add in a rather aggressive electric guitar to make it more rocking, which can be a little overblown. Actually, there are quite a few covers on this album! ‘Cotton Fields’ is the third and final cover on here, an old blues standard, and it gets a quiet, inviting, and banjo-backed baroque pop-like arrangement with vocals from Al.

Dennis Wilson has his day with three of his own songs, one of which co-written by poet and collaborator Stephen Kalinich. ‘Be With Me’ is a brassier, and statelier ‘Little Bird’ while ‘All I Want To Do’  really brings out his sexier side (with Mike Love oddly handling the lead vocals, and quite successfully, too!), a better hard rocker than ‘Bluebirds’. Play this one for your friends who know only the band’s early hits and ‘Kokomo’, just to see their reactions!

The third Dennis-penned song on here has the most unsettling backstory. In 1968, Dennis had met a freakish man named… Charles Manson, and was looking to jumpstart a musical career for him. Together they wrote some songs, one of which was titled ‘Cease to Exist’. The Beach Boys were actually going to produce his debut album. Manson then threatened Wilson in August of 1968, and soon the wild drummer distanced himself from the man and his cult. He left his entire home to him and the girls. He was up and out that situation…

Dennis, however, thought ‘Cease to Exist’ was a keeper. The song is only credited to him on the album, and the title – which is the song’s opening lyric – would be changed. Called ‘Never Learn Not to Love’, and opening with the words “cease to resist”, it’s not the most interesting of the three Dennis songs, musically. If not for how it came to be, would there be any talk about this particular number? Maybe for its very creepy backwards-cymbal intro, but little else. 20/20 was released six months before the Tate/LaBianca murders. Actually, the scariest thing about this album… It has a song written by Charles Manson, a cover of a blues song written by a murderer (Huddie “Lead Belly” Ledbetter), and a cover of a Phil Spector composition. That’s… Unsettling! Beautiful production and harmonies and all.

That all aside, 20/20 is made up of some new studio stuff, some older modified material, and SMiLE pieces. Of the other new stuff we have Bruce Johnston’s first try at this game, a competent instrumental called ‘The Nearest Faraway Place’. It’s pleasant, but little else. ‘I Went To Sleep’ is said to be a Friends outtake, and certainly sounds like one, but apparently there’s some evidence that disputes this? Either way, it’s minimalist yet lush, it’s very Brian-in-1968 (busy doin’ nothing and falling asleep on park benches!), and it’s very calming. Short, too.

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As you can see, this is a Dutch pressing!

‘Time To Get Alone’, perhaps the album’s real standout, is a leftover. It actually dates from the Wild Honey sessions. Brian had written and recorded this for a then-budding band called Redwood, who would later become the hit-machine Three Dog Night. For me, it’s hard to hear Three Dog Night even doing a song like this. But you can actually hear it thanks to bootlegs! I have a hard time deciding if their version, which is basically their vocals against the band’s created-for-them music, actually works as well as the boys’ own version. Either way, Redwood/Three Dog Night didn’t do it because the rest of the band wanted first rights on Brian’s newly-composed tunes. It was the right call, too, for we may not have gotten this song or ‘Darlin”.

No matter what, ‘Time To Get Alone’ perfectly paints a picture of a quiet and peaceful vacation on a snowy mountain, it’s the perfect blend of harmonies and has such strong, graceful melodies. Marking the start of Brian’s brief love of making waltzes, it’s ethereal and operates on a whole other level, not dissimilar to something on SMiLE. Here, it’s a bit sweetened up, as the original 1967 recording – which was made available on the 2001 compilation Hawthorne, C.A. – was longer, wasn’t as layered, boasted an extended snowy mountain middle, and had a neat end section that unfortunately got cut from this version.

The two SMiLE remains aren’t just little pieces, but actual, completed tracks! SMiLE may have collapsed in mid-1967, but its spirit lived on in some way or another. Smiley Smile‘s self-explanatory, but a tiny piece of ‘Vega-Tables’ made it onto Wild Honey. In addition to that, ‘Cool, Cool Water’, a remake of the water section of the Elements suite, was started during those sessions as well, and was completed for Sunflower in 1970. 1971’s Surf’s Up is also self-explanatory, as it ends with and is titled after the song ‘Surf’s Up’. From time to time, there were hints that the original album itself could’ve been completed and finally released, but that of course never went through back then.

First up is ‘Our Prayer’. If you ever needed a showcase of the boys’ vocal harmonies… Look no further than this. It’s the beginning of SMiLE, too, if you go by the 2011 release’s track listing. The other is ‘Cabin Essence’, which for some reason is spelt as one word on this album alone, the infamous song that had driven Mike Love to question Brian and collaborator Van Dyke Parks’ lyrics, a scene that was pivotal in the shut-down of the album. It’s pretty much the original recording on here, but with added Carl vocals and some other modifications.

‘Cabin Essence’ was meant to capture the sound of the American West, the Chinese men who had worked on the railroad. Like anything on SMiLE, it’s nothing but delectable! It’s an exciting, shaky steam train ride through a psychedelic frontier that’s both haunting and mesmerizing, divided into all these enthralling sections. No different from ‘Good Vibrations’, or the other epics on the project.

Weirdly enough, 20/20 almost feels like a decade-in-review, a retrospective of the band in some ways. ‘Do It Again’ recalls the early surf stuff and associated youthful innocence, ‘I Can Hear Music’ compliments Brian’s early love of Spector’s wall-of-sound production approach and how he used that for inspiration to further his talent, Dennis’ new material shows an evolving songwriter, not dissimilar to how Today! and how Brian showed his real chops on that LP. The new material possess the sophistication of the Pet Sounds times. Then we have two SMiLE leftovers, a Wild Honey leftover, and a song that sounds like something on Friends… It almost sums up their musical career, in the span of two LP sides!

Yes, 20/20‘s not a cohesive album with a central theme, it’s a collection that was pretty much thrown together… But that doesn’t make it inferior nor does it shut it out of the league of great Beach Boys albums. As time goes on, I find myself loving it more and more, finding new things to love about it, and then some…

Next up is an actual compilation album… Rarities.

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This is, ironically, a rarity itself. Capitol Records put out this spinner in 1983, a year where the band was mostly dormant. The Beach Boys didn’t record a new studio album between the 1980 release of Keepin’ the Summer Alive and the summer of 1984, so we saw quite a few compilations pop up from both Capitol and Warner Bros. One notable compilation was WB/Reprise’s Ten Years of Harmony, a nice if oddly-sequenced chronicling of the band’s tenure under their watch that included lots of nice rarities, odds, and ends. Capitol themselves tried to repeat the mid-70s success of Endless Summer and Spirit of America with Sunshine Dream, which mostly went for the later-era/post-Pet Sounds tracks.

Rarities was compiled by Beach Boys historian Brad Elliot, and would boast never-before-released tracks, alternate versions of favorites, and harder to find material. One good example of the latter is ‘You’re Welcome’, a breezy accapella song from the SMiLE sessions that would be released as the B-side to ‘Heroes and Villains’ in mid-1967. Another accappella B-side showed up here, ‘The Lord’s Prayer’, which originally appeared on the B-side of the band’s holiday smash ‘Little Saint Nick’. It’s also nice and godly! Why is it here? Well, this is the true stereo mix of the song that was created in 1969 as a possible track for what could’ve been the band’s final album for Capitol Records – the ill-fated Reverberation/Fading Rock Group Revival/Last Capitol Album project. ‘Auld Lang Syne’, from The Beach Boys Christmas Album, is presented here for the first time without Dennis Wilson’s narration, also very pretty.

The single version of ‘Cottonfields’, spearheaded by Al Jardine in summer 1969 after being dissatisfied with the earlier version on 20/20, appears here as well. This was the final Beach Boys single on Capitol Records, as the recording dates from those “last Capitol album” period. As expected, it completely tanked in America but was a huge hit all across Europe. Though, it had appeared on Capitol’s 1982 compilation Sunshine Dream, so not really a rarity by 1983. Also included is the Dennis-penned B-side ‘Celebrate the News’, which was on the opposite side of the 1969 gem ‘Break Away’. ‘Celebrate the News’ has that slower, soulful sound that ‘Forever’ (co-writer Gregg Jakobson also contributed to this one, no surprise) would boast, but is nonetheless pleasing if not a wee bit long.

After that we get the juicy stuff… Let’s start with the alternate versions of songs… A longer take of ‘I Was Made to Love Her’, from the scrumptious Wild Honey album, makes you wonder… Why didn’t they use this? It even has an extended ending with a funky coda! That’s to say nothing of an alternate mix of ‘Bluebirds over the Mountain’, which has a lot of sound effects, notably a ping-pong sounding pop that dominates most of the recording. All of these little effects, which make the song a little noisier, were dialed down on the final version, though you can somewhat hear them if you listen closely. This mix accidentally made it onto early pressings of the Dutch single!

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I don’t mind this version of ‘Bluebirds’, I don’t think it’s better by any means nor is it any worse than the version the boys were content with. It makes for an interesting listening experience if you have any love for the song. An alternate take of ‘Good Vibrations’, pieced together in such an odd way that nicely complements the version we know and love, is also a delight. Did it show up anywhere else after this? I don’t think so. We also get an appropriately rocking live version of ‘All I Want To Do’, which dates from December 1968. A performance at Astoria Park would make it onto Capitol’s Live in London LP, which they’d quietly release – apparently without the band even knowing – in early 1970, fulfilling the band’s contract. This performance of ‘All I Want To Do’ is from the London Palladium performance, just days after the Live in London concert (though it was erroneously stated prior to 1983 that the LP taping actually came from the Palladium show!) took place. It’s a very nice companion piece to that very solid live album.

Then we have truly rare recordings like ‘The Letter’, a competent and moody cover of The Box Tops’ 1967 hit that was recorded around the time of Wild Honey. Said to be an overdubbed version of the Lei’d in Hawaii rehearsal, it has a more focused sound, clashing with the raucous energy and weirdo flavor of that album, as does a pretty nice Wild Honey-era cover of ‘With A Little Help from My Friends’. ‘Land Ahoy’ is a fun seaside, pirate-sounding tune that unfortunately didn’t make it to the band’s debut LP Surfin’ Safari, apparently they felt including their first-ever single – ‘Surfin” – was the way to go, so ‘Land Ahoy’ got sent out to sea. Long unreleased for many years, I think, more than anything, it should’ve been on the LP. They’d later recycle its structure for 1963’s ‘Cherry, Cherry Coupe’, which appeared on Little Deuce Coupe.

Rounding out this set is a German version of ‘In My Room’, which lines up with the Beatles’ German versions of two of their early hits – ‘She Loves You’ and ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’. In German, it’s still lovely and breathtaking like its English-language counterpart, and the boys sing it quite well.

Rarities has lots of little bites, but sandwiched between them are some true knock-outs. The Wild Honey stuff is a treat indeed, as are some of the then-uncommon B-sides. They all make for a pleasant listening experience, though the line-up may be more for the fan than the general listener. Focusing on the period I admire, the late 60s/latter Capitol years era, I find it a nice back-and-forth, bonkers sort-of experience. The early 60s nuggets clash heavily with pretty much everything else.

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Rarities did not dent the US charts, and it was either deleted because of that or for legal reasons. The accounts vary, but Mr. Elliott put together a good package, and his liner notes are very informative and more than hype up the ignored-in-America sides of the band. All that being said, its decidedly retro beach cover with a hot babe suggests that it’s a collection of the early surf stuff. Maybe Capitol felt that this kind of cover could entice people to scoop it up, if they missed out on buying Endless Summer some nine years ago! Imagine the poor, unsuspecting customer who brought this one home in 1983, expecting ‘Surfin’ USA’ and ‘Catch a Wave’!

Even weirder Beach Boys compilations exist, and their track-listings are something to behold! Maybe I’ll look at those one day…

So… 20/20, an impressive albeit-cobbled together farewell to the lengthy Capitol era, and a fan-pleasing compilation… Good stuff as always from the brothers’ Wilson and company…

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