If you’re new here or you don’t really know me well, here’s a few words… I am obsessed with The Beach Boys. I don’t play favorites, but in terms of artists and bands? They would be in my Top Ten… Sitting comfortably alongside another 60s act whose name starts with B-E-A.
To the intermediate Beach Boys fan (do you know what SMiLE is?), you can skip the next few paragraphs…
Now you’re probably thinking, “What? That surfing band from the 60s that did ‘Surfin’ USA’ and ‘Kokomo’?” To that, my heart slightly cracks. But it’s OK, because that one side of The Beach Boys is the one you’ll often see and hear about. The surfing, happy, fun-in-the-sun recordings of the early-to-mid 1960s and the tired quasi-tropical 80s throwback ‘Kokomo’ are pretty much their “image”… Similar to how wholesome family entertainment is The Walt Disney Company’s image, when in reality, their body of work includes things from the bold Fantasia to wild The Three Caballeros to the powerful wartime propaganda of Education for Death… I probably just lost you there.
Sometimes, the image does not always match the work. It is very true that The Beach Boys started out on these ideals, their success was built on that. Energetic, lively, sunshiny, atmospheric California jewels like ‘Surfin’ USA,’ ‘Fun, Fun, Fun,’ ‘I Get Around,’ and ‘California Girls’ certainly built the base. That being said, only one Beach Boy was a surfer, and at their core was a modern-day Mozart: One Brian Wilson…
I’ll try to condense their history as much as possible, for it’s not easy to sum up in mere words. Or is it… The Beach Boys were way more than just a silly surf pop band.
Brian Wilson took his sophisticated songwriting to levels hitherto unheard of levels in the mid-1960s, on the albums The Beach Boys Today!, Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!), and one of the greatest and one of the most innovative and influential albums of all time… Pet Sounds. Brian sought to take his prowess to an even higher level, wanting to marry it to more musical experimentation. An album of complex “pocket symphonies” that was about God, American history, and the elements… It was called SMiLE…
Unfortunately, Brian’s rising mental health issues – exacerbated by countless drug addictions – and turmoil within the band lead to the project’s collapse. Material from the album was released over the years in pieces, Brian himself recreated it with a band in 2004, and the original sessions were finally given an official release in 2011. Seek it out and let the pure godliness of it blow your mind inside and out…
After that and a disastrous no-show at the Monterey Pop Festival in the summer of 1967, The Beach Boys immediately turned into the squarest of squares. Overnight… In America. Europeans, especially charitable UK record buyers, still dug them. From 1967 onward, the band went all these different directions as Brian’s role as band leader diminished by the months. During a confused yet eclectic period that spanned roughly six years, the band put out some of their most fascinating work… High quality, unusual, timeless albums like Wild Honey, Friends, 20/20, Sunflower, Surf’s Up, and more… These all come highly recommended. Mostly ignored by Americans on their initial release, they are gems.
The story is not over yet… The mid-1970s was a period of inactivity for the most part, but Americans became nostalgic for the late 1950s and early 1960s, probably due to the dire mood of a post-Vietnam/Watergate world. These same Americans made a compilation of the early era hits – Endless Summer – a #1 smash. A sequel compilation sold extremely well, too. Soon, the country wanted their Beach Boys back. They returned with a new studio album in 1976, with a semi-rehabilitated Brian Wilson, called 15 Big Ones. The whole thing was built around a campaign focusing on Brian’s return… “Brian’s Back!”
Sadly, the album was indicator that the band might’ve finally been losing its way, but it nonetheless sold very well. Later on, Brian pulled out all the stops and the next album – the wonderfully weird Love You, which turned 40 yesterday – was made, but was a sales flop. After a near break-up, the band slowly but surely fell apart, and by the early 1980s they had officially become the image they tried so hard to move past for a decade. The enormous success of ‘Kokomo’ in 1988 – due to its inclusion in a then-popular Tom Cruise movie called Cocktail – completely cemented that.
In short, there’s way more to these California boys, a large chunk of their discography’s a treasure trove, and their history is rich, fascinating, frustrating, heartbreaking.
So now, I decided to take a look at certain songs of theirs that aren’t held in high esteem by fans, reviewers, and other folks out there.
Usually I don’t condone the uses of the words “overrated” and “underrated”, but since the Beach Boys’ catalogue is so vast, some songs did tend to get the axe. Sometimes, whole albums of theirs were embarrassments. (Looking at you, Summer in Paradise.) Here’s what I think of songs that I feel are better than their reputation may suggest? This is not to say that those who dislike these songs are wrong, this is more about why *I* don’t dislike them…
These are in no ranking order, either. Just chronological…
- ‘Land Ahoy’ – 1962 outtake, released on Rarities, 1983
- We start with an outtake that didn’t make it to the album… The band’s debut album, Surfin’ Safari, is often viewed as a very rough but excusable first-time effort. ‘Land Ahoy’ was left off of the album, for the boys wanted to include their first single that got them on the map, the garage rock-sounding ‘Surfin”, in addition to the big hit single the album is titled after. No room for this pirate-like romp, which is a shame because I find it amusing, and more successful than a lot of the tracks that did make the cut. Outside of the super hard to find Rarities and the long out of print 1990 Surfin’ Safari/Surfin’ USA two-fer CD, this one isn’t easy to come across. A year later, the structure was recooked into ‘Cherry, Cherry Coupe,’ which appears on Little Deuce Coupe.
- ‘Carl’s Big Chance’ – from All Summer Long, 1964
- The early Beach Boys albums are usually knocked off a few points for having filler tracks. Mid-1964’s All Summer Long is perhaps the first true studio album the band made, and not a hastily-assembled platter to keep up with Capitol’s demands and the then-recent smash hit single. That being said, it still has filler, such as the ‘Our Favorite Recording Sessions’ mumbo-jumbo that fares better on a box set or outtakes set than a studio album. ‘Carl’s Big Chance’ is the other “filler” track off of All Summer Long, a thumping instrumental with some surf guitar and a monotonous drum beat. It’s pretty barebones, but something about it… I like a good workout instrumental like this, it’s quick enough, and the guitar isn’t bad here, it’s serviceable. Perhaps it’s a lull in the middle of an album full of rich, thought-out songs. It’s certainly not on the level of better Beach Boys instrumentals like ‘Summer Means New Love’, ‘Passing By’, and ‘Diamond Head’… But it’s enough for me to get above “throwaway garbage” level.
- ‘Summer Means New Love’ – from Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!), 1965
- Sometimes I think this one is kind of swept under the rug. It’s a short instrumental, yes, but I think it’s quite a lovely production with that just-right summery vibe and I don’t mind the strings, either. Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!), like it’s masterful predecessor The Beach Boys Today!, was mostly without filler. Prior to 1965, most Beach Boys albums were built around hit singles. They had to keep them coming because of Capitol’s demands for more, more, more! Today! began the era where the band began to shine, the era where Brian Wilson showed his full potential as a songwriter, producer, and then some. Summer Days continues that, but with a harmless fun-in-the-sun vibe, perhaps one last hurrah. A goodbye to that youthful innocence… A track like this instrumental, is often seen as a “there” kind of track, but I think it’s quite nice.
- ‘How She Boogalooed It’ – from Wild Honey, 1967
- Now, I’m not going to lie… I don’t like where ‘How She Boogalooed It’ is placed on the near-perfect, brisk, and energetic Wild Honey album. The second-to-last track, the final of the two being an accappella snippet from the SMiLE version of ‘Vega-Tables’, it feels weird coming off of the ethereal ‘Let The Wind Blow’. ‘How She Boogalooed It’ sounds pretty different from everything on what’s already a different-sounding Beach Boys album, it’s a really fast-paced party song with competent playing, with Carl Wilson seemingly having a blast. Thematically it isn’t out of place, for it fits in with the energetic and sometimes sexy mood of the album. That being said, I could see this working better in the middle of the album, maybe after the start-and-stop sexiness of ‘A Thing or Two,’ and end side one. (Wild Honey is a very short album.) ‘Let The Wind Blow’ should’ve been this album’s climax, but I treat this and ‘Mama Says’ (the aforementioned SMiLE snippet) as bonuses.
- ‘Bluebirds over the Mountain’ – from 20/20, 1969
- I was actually shocked when I found out that some folks out there really disliked this one. In fact, I was surprised to see 20/20 – a long-time favorite Beach Boys album of mine – get a critical beating in some outlets. 20/20 is far from being a consistent studio album on the order of, say, Pet Sounds. It’s not even as cohesive as something like Smiley Smile, Wild Honey, or Friends. There’s no thematic core, but I think it works fine as a Beach Boys grab-bag of sorts, an inadvertent history of the band up until that point (early 1969). Anyways, what’s the beef with ‘Bluebirds’? It’s a radically different cover of a 50s rockabilly song by Ersel Hickey, which has this weird pop back-beat and roaring electric guitars. It is a very awkward mix, but it is a pleasant listen. I’ve always enjoyed it, and the guitar never really bothered me all that much. It does feel a bit like a forced attempt to go for a harder rock sound, to sound “with it,” but everything else from the harmonies to the structure to a great ending save the song. Super far from the low points of the 80s albums.
- ‘Cotton Fields’ – from 20/20, 1969
- When some talk about 20/20, they often gloss over the version of ‘Cotton Fields’ that is on the album. The consensus is usually “The single version is better.” And that’s that… The band’s cover of the Leadbelly blues classic is done up in a baroque pop-esque manner here with a mild hint of the blues/country feel of the original and its other iterations (such as Creedence Clearwater Revival’s cover, which was released the same year). Al Jardine wasn’t happy with this take on the song, and sought to re-do it… He did so in the late summer of 1969, and that version – a more thumping country rock-like piece – was released by Capitol in early 1970 and included on the European versions of Sunflower. The single bombed in the US, but it was a massive hit in Europe. So big that in 1972, Paul McCartney and his then newly-formed Wings, had it on their Wings Over Europe tour setlist. I like the original 20/20 version. Not more, or less… It’s a unique arrangement that has Brian’s stamps, even though he wasn’t really all that involved with 20/20’s autumn 1968 sessions. The barroom piano throughout is a nice touch, I think. It’s certainly not as energetic as the later version, but I think on its own it is a respectable and atmospheric cover.
- ‘Got to Know the Woman’ – from Sunflower, 1970
- Often singled out as one of the weaker tracks off of Sunflower, ‘Got to Know the Woman’ is still a solid shuffling rocker from Dennis Wilson. Hardly a bad song, or even a mediocre one. I think the problem is, Dennis had some better songs in the can that could’ve been used here instead of that one… ‘San Miguel’ is probably my top pick, which wouldn’t be released until 1981, on the compilation Ten Years of Harmony. Other great songs sitting in the can at the time were ‘Lady’ (also known as ‘Fallin’ in Love’) and ‘Sound of Free,’ both were released as a solo single credited to Dennis Wilson and Rumbo (partner and later the “Captain” of Captain & Tennille, Daryl Dragon) in late 1970. Why they used this, I don’t know. It was actually originally intended to go on what was going to be the band’s final album for former label Capitol Records, but they pulled this song off the master tape and a few others because they wanted to use them on what would later become Sunflower, so I guess they really liked it. Again, I think it’s a solid rocker with a bit of a punch, a great final 30-or-so seconds, and silly lyrics… Though I get the sense they knew the lyrics were silly, you can hear Dennis laughing halfway through! Tongue-in-cheek, I’d say, like many a Wilson brother song.
- ‘Take a Load Off Your Feet’ – from Surf’s Up, 1971
- This silly little ditty was actually not recorded for the Surf’s Up album, but for the preceding album (the masterful Sunflower). ‘Take a Load Off Your Feet’ reflects the state of the band in early 1970 more so than their state in mid 1971. It is well-known that after Sunflower – an excellent album – tanked in the US, a DJ named Jack Rieley came into the fold with a strategy. He was adamant that he was going to re-popularize the boys in a country that viewed them as outdated “surfing Doris Days.” Rieley, becoming their manager, took a look at what the boys had on hand – a mere tape of recordings long confused as a prototype album that never really existed – Landlocked. Most of the material was outtakes from the highly productive and sporadic Sunflower sessions. He scoffed at lightweight stuff like ‘Loop De Loop,’ but somehow this seemingly tongue-in-cheek ditty made it to the finished album. Surf’s Up, at Rieley’s request, was an album meant to be a little rougher, a little darker, a little less… Joyous? It’s an album with songs about then-topical issues, melancholic ballads, and a Brian Wilson composition called ”Til I Die’… Get an idea of the album’s mood yet? Rieley stated in a 1996 interview that Al pretty much forced this one onto the LP. It does not gel with most of the songs, or the themes of the album, but it fares far better here than Mike Love’s embarrassing ‘Student Demonstration Time.’ Perhaps the dislike of this song also stems from the fact that none of Dennis Wilson’s new compositions – ‘4th of July’ and ‘(Wouldn’t It Be Nice To) Live Again’ – made the cut. I think if this were a B-side in 1970 or 1971, I think it would be treated like an offbeat, fun, non-serious number. A sort of ‘My Solution’-like novelty. (That’s a reference to an at-the-time recording that humorously took on a Halloween aesthetic!) Anyways, it’s about foot care and health foods and stuff like that. Listen to the lyrics, have a good laugh, isolate it from Surf’s Up as a whole… It’s quite enjoyable, not far removed from another recording of the era, ‘H.E.L.P. is on the Way.’
- ‘Lookin’ at Tomorrow’ – from Surf’s Up (1971)
- Well look at that, another one from Surf’s Up! Surf’s Up can be a frustrating record for many a Beach Boys fan. For quite a few people, Surf’s Up is an album whose highs are right on the level of the band’s greatest, while its lows are downright terrible and hold the album back from being something truly amazing. Surf’s Up could’ve been the proverbial Sunflower II, but instead Surf’s Up is a little disjointed because of a few songs that weren’t written by the Wilson brothers. They say: While the Wilson brothers (well, the two of them, Dennis’ songwriting is unfortunately absent from the album) wrote all the “great” songs on the album, Mike Love, Al Jardine, and Bruce Johnston wrote all the retrograde crap that continued to set the Beach Boys back 8 years. I don’t think that’s entirely true. Bruce’s ‘Disney Girls (1957)’ is great and I don’t really care what anyone says (reception has always been mixed on this song – it’s either great or terrible), and I have a little sympathy for Al’s stuff. Now yes, Al’s two “major” contributions – this and ‘Take a Load Off Your Feet’ – certainly pale in comparison to the sheer majesty of ‘Feel Flows,’ the emptying ”Til I Die,’ the lovely ‘Long Promised Road,’ and the title track… But… I’ll take it over the forced environmentalism of ‘Don’t Go Near the Water’ (which is partially saved by its structure and pseudo-psychedelic feel) and the painfully tone-deaf ‘Student Demonstration Time.’ While ‘Take a Load Off’ is clearly a humorous song, this one isn’t. Then-manager Jack Rieley – hoping to rekindle the band’s long-lost commercial success – wanted the group to write more socially-conscious songs at the time. ‘Student Demonstration Time’ attempts to talk about protests, riots, and the Kent State shootings… And fails in so many ways, while ‘Don’t Go Near the Water’ falls flat on its bum trying to talk about ecological issues… ‘Lookin’ at Tomorrow’? It’s an inoffensive folk-like song about being on welfare, if the on-the-nose subtitle didn’t spell it out for you. The lyrics aren’t terrible but aren’t quite great either, in fact they’re kind of obscured by an echoey effect that makes the song feel kind of dark and mysterious in a way. I like it fine… But there were stronger songs sitting on the cutting room floor that could’ve replaced it.
- ‘California Saga: Big Sur’ – from Holland, 1973
- Not really called a bad or weak song, but rather an inferior version of a song… Mike Love wrote ‘Big Sur’ in 1970, and the band recorded it shortly after. It was a possible candidate for The Beach Boys’ second album for Warner/Reprise, the sequel to Sunflower. When former DJ Jack Rieley took control of the band, he had a clear idea of where to take them… Sadly, due to circumstances, ‘Big Sur’ in its original, quiet form never made it to Surf’s Up. It has never been released, you can only find it on bootlegs. In 1972, Love and the band reimagined it for the three-part ‘California Saga’ suite on Holland… And yet I often see that version brushed off, the same way the 1968 version of ‘Cotton Fields’ on 20/20 is brushed off: “Eh, the other version is better.” Yes, maybe the 1970 ‘Big Sur’ recording is superior, but… I like this version too! It’s a little more produced, more Neil Young-esque, and still has the general mood. Definitely more country and blues-ified, it’s far removed from the original – which was definitely more sparse and more vocal-centric. Lastly, I think this versions is well-integrated into the overall feel of the ‘California Saga.’ An usually successful part of an album that was recorded in Netherlands…
- ‘Everyone’s in Love with You’ – from 15 Big Ones, 1976
- Yes, we all have a beef with Mr. Mike Love and his questionable songwriting from the 1970s onwards. (Give the guy credit, he helped the boys come up with some good stuff during the final Capitol years, sans ‘Transcendental Meditation’!) Anyways, ‘Everyone’s in Love with You’… It’s 70s cliches and meh lyrics, but something about it sounds so right. Especially that crazy flute! With a lot of Beach Boys songs from the post-Holland era, you’ll find backwards-thinking lyrics meshed with very nice melodies, and if you’re more about the sound than the lyrics, you might find yourself liking songs like these.
- ‘Match Point of Our Love’ – from M.I.U. Album, 1978
- M.I.U. Album… A big one. It gets all the scorn, for it is “officially” the start of downward spiral for the band. In a way it was… Mike and Al assumed control of the band after a break-up and subsequent get-back-together move in mid-1977. By this point, the band had signed on with CBS Records, but they still owed their then-current label – Warner Bros./Reprise – one last album. The intention was to make this contractual obligation a Christmas record, but the label said no. So without much of a direction, Mike, Al, and a subdued Brian put together M.I.U. Album (because the album was recorded at the Maharishi International University in Iowa), that was kind of a “called it a day” album. Side one is mostly them trying to relive the early 60s heyday, side two’s mostly boring adult contemporary. It’s a very “there” kind of album. I think it’s passable, with some decent songs here and there. (‘Pitter Patter’ and ‘She’s Got Rhythm’ are, to me, genuinely good songs. As is the outtake ‘My Diane.’) ‘Match Point of Our Love’, written by Brian and Mike, is very stupid – trying to tie love to tennis. Yet, Brian’s vocal is very good here and especially nice coming off of two LPs where his voice is roughed up from all the drug and alcohol abuse. The song has an overly 70s tone, almost channeling disco-era Bee Gees. Now disco’s probably the last thing you would want to hear coming from the band who gave us Pet Sounds and SMiLE, buuuuut… I have a soft spot for disco (well, watered down, popular late 70s disco), it’s way better than the check-the-boxes ‘Here Comes the Night’ remake from L.A. (Light Album), and is overall nicely constructed. Dumb lyrics aside, it’s enjoyable and not that bad of a song. Now if you want a truly bad M.I.U. song, just listen to Mike’s ‘Belles of Paris.’
- ‘Sumahama’ – from L.A. (Light Album), 1979
- Being a late 1970s release, the awkwardly-titled L.A. (Light Album) comes with a lot of baggage. It’s often generalized that the late 1970s was the beginning of the end, after the release of the marvelous, delightfully weird, and Brian Wilson-dominated Love You in 1977, things happened… A brief break-up occurred, but when they got back together, Mike Love had usurped the throne and would call the shots. Dennis and Carl were in and out, and by 1979, they were on a new label and were expected to keep up. Bruce Johnston, fired by a former manager in the early 70s, came back into the fold with a lust for adult contemporary. L.A. (Light Album) is mostly loaded with that schmaltz, which was the last thing fans probably wanted from the band… But unlike the rather bland M.I.U. Album before it, L.A. is a little more adventurous. To an extent! L.A. indeed suffers from some major issues – the ten-minute disco (!) remake of ‘Here Comes the Night’ being one of them, and HOW! – but there are moments of brilliance, as per usual with many Beach Boys albums. Then there’s things like ‘Sumahama’… This is either a very pleasant listen, or one of the worst, most insulting pieces of Mike Love-concocted garbage ever. ‘Sumahama’, lyrically, is STUPID. Stupid, stupid, stupid. The forced Japanese singing? Laughable… But Mike seemed to really believe in this one, it makes it likable in a strange way. The harmonies are layered wonderfully, the cliched Japanese sound actually works, and it’s just… Enjoyable all around. I can definitely see how it would offend, but I’m in the camp that finds joy in almost admittedly bad things.
- ‘Goin’ On’ – from Keepin’ the Summer Alive, 1980
- Let’s get it out of the way… Keepin’ the Summer Alive isn’t a good album, and it pretty much started the era where The Beach Boys checked out and just succumbed to being an oldies act, if they weren’t shades of that by this point. Songwriting aside, Keepin’ the Summer Alive – a Bruce Johnston-produced affair – is mostly boring, retro-tinged adult contemporary (again!) made for 1980 times. If it were some B-grade band’s album, it’d be pretty nice, but for The Beach Boys this is very subpar. Perhaps we should judge the post-70s albums on a different scale: The Mike-Al-Bruce Hour vs. the true Beach Boys/The Brothers Wilson albums. As a Mike-Al-Bruce Hour, it’s passable. It still has some nice melodies and catchy tunes… ‘Goin’ On’… One of the singles, no less, is one I actually really enjoy. It’s a bit of alright. Nice harmonies, okay attempt at adult contemporary, has an early BB sound that’s not grating, though it does go on (hahaha) for a bit too long. Inoffensive yes, but not horrible. The song pretty much paints a picture of the whole album, one dose of near-boredom (nice-sounding boredom) isn’t too bad.
- ‘Getcha Back’ – from The Beach Boys, 1985
- By the time the band’s self-titled album came out in 1985, they weren’t truly The Beach Boys. Or at least the real Beach Boys… It’s often agreed that after 1980’s Keepin’ the Summer Alive, The Beach Boys stopped being The Beach Boys, and became… The Mike-Al-Bruce Oldies Hour, the act desperately trying to recapture the early surfing days that the band – especially the artistic Brian – tried to get past in the mid-to-late 1960s. You could say by the late 70s/early 80s, with Mike Love, Al Jardine, and Bruce Johnston’s help, they fully succumbed to that outdated image. The Beach Boys is mostly boring post-Love You adult contemporary-esque pop, but meshed with a new wave sound. The songs sound nice, but that’s about it. ‘Getcha Back,’ however, has a sweet hit sound to it and I think it successfully combines the early 60s Beach Boys energy with a new wave flavor. That may be heresy to some, but I like a good slice of 80s cheese, and in this case it goes quite well with the early Beach Boys sound. For a more successful meshing of the two, try the 1986 single ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll to the Rescue.’
So there you have it!