Friday 4 July 2008

The Beach Boys "Friends" (1968) (Revised Review 2014)

1) Beach Boys - Advertising Horde by Alan Pattinson

Click Here To Buy The AAA Beach Boys Guide!

(Originally published July 2008; Revised edition published June 4th 2014)

On which Brian Wilson proves that he doesn’t need much input from friends or even brothers and cousins to create a great album…

Track Listing: Meant For You/ Friends/ Wake The World/ Be Here In The Mornin’/ When A Man Needs A Woman/ Passing By// Anna Lee, The Healer/ Little Bird/ Be Still/ Busy Doin’ Nothin’/ Diamond Head/ Transcendental Meditation (UK and US tracklisting) 

For The Record:

Ones to watch out for: Wake The World, Be Here In The Morning, Anna Lee The Healer, Busy Doin’ Nothin’

Ones to skip: The last two songs on the album; the rowdy, unfocussed jam session Diamond Head - on which the Beach Boys might not even appear – and Transcendental Meditation,  the rowdy, unfocussed rocker about, erm, tranquillity and meditation (something’s not right there…)

The cover:  A pretty awful drawing of the band member’s faces in the sky while another drawing of them all grins inanely underneath (apart from Brain Wilson that is, as he seems to be sulking). The drawing of Carl Wilson is particularly poor. On second thoughts, no wonder this album was always seen as a poor seller…

Key lyrics: “Be here in the morning, be here in the evening, be here and make my life FULL!” “One by one the stars appear, the light of the day is no longer here…” “I wrote the number down but I lost, I searched through my pocket book, I couldn’t find it, so I sat and concentrated on the number and slowly it came to me, so I dialled it and I let it ring a few times – there was no answer – so I let it ring a little more – still no answer - so I put down the telephone, got some paper and sharpened up a pencil and wrote a letter to my friend.” (Now that’s a sentence!)

Original UK Chart Position: Contrary to popular belief, this album actually sold quite well over here and reached a respectable #13. This in big contrast to America where Friends didn’t even make the top #200 chart.

Singles: The title track, a rollicking waltz that only Brian Wilson could have thought of, made #25.

Official out-takes: Nothing from the official sessions, which lasted from February to April of 1968, although two rather superfluous recordings of the band messing about with some rather different sorts of American classics in May 1968 has been unearthed: Walk On By and Old Man River (you can hear these two as bonus tracks on the Friends/20-20 CD re-issue). Another out-take, taken from sessions held in-between those two albums is Dennis Wilson’s A Time To Live In Dreams which can be heard on the 2CD out-takes set Hawthorne, California (2001). Loop De Loop (Flip Flop Flying In An Aeroplane) might also have been in the running as the demo – with the song then known as Sail Plane Song  - was recorded at the right time. However, the backing track wasn’t recorded till slightly after (in the 20/20 sessions) and the song wasn’t actually finished until its appearance on the single CD compilation Endless Harmony (Brian’s sweet intimate demo of the song is on that set too).       

Availability: Part of Capitol’s superlative two-fer-one Beach Boys re-issues with 20/20 on the back of it and a smattering of bonus tracks that are fascinating if undeveloped curios plus both sides of the fine Break Away single.

This album came between: The previous album is the boogie-woogie style Wild Honey (1968), which nearly but not quite matched the charm of Friends; The follow-up album was the surprisingly good archive-scrounging contract-fulfilling 20/20 (1969), highlighted by Dennis Wilson’s series of scary songs for strings.

Line up: Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston, Mike Love, Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson and Dennis Wilson (producer: The Beach Boys)

ALL the Beach Boys’ post-Pet Sounds 60s albums are short and sweet. Friends is the shortest (at 22 minutes in total, it’s hardly worth putting on at all if you happen to own the original vinyl copy), but it’s also very much the sweetest as well. Friends is certainly a lot more stripped down and basic than Pet Sounds or Smile on both an arrangement and compositional front and not even a quarter of the way to being as ambitious as either masterpiece, but in its own quiet breezy way the album is just as delightful and pleasing. 'Friends' is a lot of fans' favourite Beach Boys album for some very good reasons - after so many years of hearing the band overpowered by session musicians it's lovely to hear them going back to being just themselves and it feels like there's more of the 'real' Brian Wilson on this album than any other (except possibly 'The Beach Boys Love You', this album's polar opposite which is noisy and harsh instead of gentle and philosophical).  What's more it's about the last time we hear Brian anywhere near full strength until that album nine years later too: much has been written about Brain Wilson’s breakdown during the Smile period and how he took to his bed for over a decade, but what most fans don’t realise is that Brian had a small recovery in late ‘67 through to early ’69 where he was very much the man in charge again.

'Friends' has of course gone down in history as a flop record. It was the first Beach Boys album to have missed the American top too (peaking at a lowly #131) and sold less copies than any other band record to date. However the album sold better in Europe than any Beach Boys album had in years, partly due to a growing word of mouth about the group and their strong touring regime. What's more, 'Friends' has undergone something of a revival, certainly since the band became 'big' again in the 1990s but especially since the albums were all re-issued on CD, many commentators finding that the two-for-one set with '20/20' was the unexpected highlight of the bunch. 'Friends' is what you might call a 'fan favourite' - your average casual fan who only wants the hits won't know it but many true fans of the band hold this record in high esteem. 'Friends' seems, well, 'friendlier' than other Beach Boys records somehow - a warm aural hug instead of the rather unsure and fragmented albums either side of it.

As if to emphasise how central Brian was to the Beach Boys again, the vast majority of this album was recorded in his kitchen. Not all of it of course, that would be silly - the rest was recorded in Brian's empty swimming pool! (he liked the echo effect it gave off!) Perhaps that's what makes 'Friends' feel like such a 'home-brewed' album, full of intimacy, snapshots into Brian's new existence with a life outside the music business and the pressure: the songs refer to family and friends and filling up days with nothing in particular, not lyrics about the band or world politics or matters of life and death. In fact its key that this album is called 'Friends' after not just the title track but the general feeling of camaraderie in the room. Talking of which, The Beach Boys are really pulling together as a group here: Al and Carl get their first co-writes on a Beach Boys song, Bruce plays a bigger part than normal and first time songwriter Dennis gets not one but two songs on this album. Bruce however is conspicuous by his absence across much of this album (it may be that the band still consider him Brian's 'touring' replacement and that there's no need for him to have a studio double). Only Mike Love is late to the party: the early sessions for this album coincide with his long-booked trip to Rishikesh, India with The Beatles to see the Maharishi and only really joins the album for the final vocal overdub sessions in March (rumour has it that this is why Brian is so full of life on this record - that without his cousin to keep putting his ideas down he was in full creative flow, although he still gets three co-writes with Brian on the album.

The album can be directly divided into two parts: on the one hand you have the ‘basic’ songs played by the band members together just as they had on the last two albums (Smiley Smile and Wild Honey). The band sound more 'together' than they had been on either project, though, with Brian's piano central to the work just as his voice is to the harmonies, surrounded by the odd bit of guitar, unplugged bass and percussion. On the other, you have Brain dipping his toe back into the water of elaborate productions for the first time since January 1967, using session musicians without any band presence. There's even horns, brass and strings on 'Little Bird', Dennis growing into the sort of elaborate arranger Brian always used to be but hadn't been since 'Smile', with Brian's return to using his old friends The Wrecking Crew (session musicians who played on hundreds of records throughout the 1960s from the Mamas and Papas to Phil Spector) on 'Diamond Head' 'Passing By' and 'Transcendental Meditation'. Friends should be an uneasy mixture, then - especially given the fact that the band are now just starting to co-write songs with Brian and the album now has all have their own individual styles to accommodate - and certainly most fans prefer the home-made tracks from the first two-thirds of the LP. Yet somehow even these tracks fit,  the album as a whole blending together seamlessly, floating from one track to another in a very becoming carefree manner. The last real ‘traditional’ sounding Beach Boys album, Friends is chock-a-block full of delightful harmonies, jazzy licks and intriguing lyrics. Sweet and gentle, it’s the perfect tonic to a bad day and a last dose of Beach Boys sunshine in the band’s up-and-down career.

If there's a theme to this record then it's one of healing - no surprise, really, given that Brian at least appears to be on the mend and back to somewhere approaching his old self. The band, too, are a lot happier than they were in the darker times of 'Smiley Smile' and 'Wild Honey' - with Brian to re-group behind this album came together a lot easier and left the band with hope that things would pan out in the future. Anna Lee, The Healer is the most obvious example of course: she is a masseuse after all, although you sense from Mike's lyrics than her effect is much more than just the physical - she's the long lost cousin of 'Rhonda', offering help for the simple reason she enjoys passing on kindness to others. However the theme is there on other songs too: 'Transcendental Meditation' - the first of Mike's songs on what will become his favourite subject, accompanied by Brian's brassy horn riff and a bit of arranging nous from Al - takes the 'healing' theme more literally, where meditating a few hours a day can 'emancipate the man and get you feeling grand'. 'Be Still' is a less specific form of the same thing: Dennis claiming that you'll lose all worries and know where you're meant to be going if you simply 'be still'. His 'Little Bird', meanwhile, is about the healing powers of nature (possibly with a few references to the state of the band thrown in too). Friends' itself is a plea for peace that celebrates a long-lasting friendship going back years (who inspired it? Al Jardine maybe- or one of the four friends who calls Brian up during 'Be Here In The Mornin' perhaps?!) that's been through some storms but where the pair know each other well enough to stay in contact. 'Be Here In The Morning' continues the theme, Brian pleading with a friend to come round and stay because their company is so welcome ('Be here and make my life FULL!' as the Beach Boys so eloquently put it). 'When A Man Needs A Woman' is more about family life than 'friends' though - Brian celebrating his wife Marilyn's pregnancy by imagining he's singing to his newly born son and trying to answer his questions about why he exists (the answer is through love - that 'when a man loves a woman he makes things like you, my son'). Brian actually has a girl though, Carnie, who'll be born on April 29th that year - about a month after the sessions and five weeks before release. The key song of all might be 'Wake The World', though - an ode to joy where Brian and co try to tell the world how great being alive can be, with a fresh start for everyone. Finally, even the busy day doing nothing that Brian writes about to eloquently sounds like a 'healing' day - he can 'afford' to lose his pocketbook, then his pencil when a friend rings up to talk to him because he isn't on the relentless exhausting rollercoaster ride of fame anymore - nobody seems to care what he does or how it takes him to do things. After six long years of recording four albums and six singles for Capitol per annum, it's good to hear him having some time to himself.

That's an interesting theme to have in 1968, perhaps the most turbulent year in British politics in the 50-odd period we cover on this site since 1962, the date of the earliest AAA album. Revolution is in the air and everyone seems to want to be a part of it: The Beatles release 'Revolution', The Stones do 'Street Fighting Man' and the likes of Jefferson Airplane are outwardly baiting Nixon for his stance on Vietnam and the like. Since Brian went a little doo-lally, however, The Beach Boys have been gradually more and more out of synch with their contemporaries: 'Wild Honey', the band's r and b roots album, came out the same time as the psychedelic 'Magical Mystery Tour' pushed music about as far as it could go- and 'Friends' couldn't sound less like the roots r and b everyone else is recording in mid-1968. The rest of the world seemed to spend 1968 by re-acting to troubled times by causing more trouble - of recognising that the psychedelic dream of peace and love might not work out any time soon  and that some corrupt powers have to be overthrown for peace to thrive. It's not as if the band were immune either: the first night of The Beach Boys' 1968 world tour which took place at the same time as the last sessions on the album was cancelled when Martin Luther King was shot; Robert Kennedy was killed just a few weeks later. 'Wake The World' especially couldn't be less at one with the other songs of 1968: 'another fine morning' 'wouldn't miss it for all of its glory?' With a backdrop of riots?! The Beach Boys have already moved onto healing the world - which is more a theme of 1969, the moon landing giving people hope for the future back, most obviously the Moody Blues' theme on the subject 'To Our Children's Children' but also the first 'CSN' album and The Kinks' 'Arthur'. To put 'Friends' back into context, its 22 minutes of tightly controlled beauty more or less on the same theme couldn't be less like The Beatles' next release five months later: the 90 minute sprawling epic 'White Album' that covers all bases and is the most 'war-like' fab four album in terms of both content and atmosphere.

The biggest shock for fans who know  Brian's story post-'Smile' isn't his amount of writing credits or even what the songs are, however, but his vocals. To my ears Brian has never sounded better than he has on 'Friends', with a kind of rosy glow that comes from not having to strain so hard to nail every single track spot on. Despite the many horrors he's seen, his falsetto is still fresh and pure and some of what he sings across this album is jaw-dropping (just when you think Brian can't sing any higher he modulates up a whole key during 'When A Man Loves A Woman', as if his joy at becoming a father has given him superhuman powers). The Beach Boys are on top vocal form too, of course, and thankfully 'Friends' has more examples of block Beach Boys harmony than any record since 1965's 'Summer Days (and Summer Nights!!!)' 'Passing By' is in fact the first ever Beach Boys album to simply use the band's wordless a capella vocals, albeit over an instrumental backing: by 1968 the band are so tight they don't even need words to get their emotion across.

Another key factor in the success of 'Friends' is their new engineer Steve Desper, who'll be with the band through much of the 1970s. Effectively the replacement for the  reliable Chuck Britz, Desper's sound for this album isn't the sometimes harsh and upbeat of the old pop hits days but a more vibrant, warmer, casual sound more in keeping with the times. Desper additionally ensures that the Beach Boys switch from spending most of their time on mono mixes and 'Friends' becomes the first Beach Boys record in stereo, many years after most of their contemporaries have made the switch (there are good reasons for this: chiefly the fact that Brian, whose been the chief mixer on all of the Beach Boys albums at least since 'Surfin' safari, is partially deaf in his right ear and can't hear stereo panning too well - allegedly the result of being hit by his father as a child; a few Beach Boys songs pre-'Friends' have since been remixed into stereo, most notably 'Pet Sounds' in the 1997and a few compilations, but 'Friends' is the first 'official' Beach Boys product made for twin speakers).

Of course 'Friends' isn't perfect. It's way too short for one thing: how on earth did the band get away with taking a 'whole' six months to record this album (their usual time was four!) and then release an album that's just a couple of minutes longer than most groups were offering per side in 1968? It's not as if the band were short of material to release either: the two Beach Boys box sets from 1993 and 2013 have revealed all sorts of goodies that could and should have made the album: a longer 'Meant For You' that adds an entire gorgeous middle eight, with more lines about the powers of parental love and nurturing to the human race (Brian clearly wasn't thinking about his own turbulent upbringing when he wrote this song!) Arguably the first incarnation of 'Sail Plane Song/Flip Flop Flying In Aeroplane' as heard on 'Endless Harmony' was ready to roll at this time too (before Al Jardine got involved and turned it into a more upbeat pop in sessions song across 1969. At a push two of the bonus tracks heard on the 'Friends' CD - recorded in May 1968 in between sessions - could have been polished up to include on the album in June as well, a rather odd cover of old folk tune 'Old Man River' reinvented as per 'You Are My Sunshine' on 'Smile' to sound eerie and other-worldly, plus a nicely mellow cover of Bacharach and David's 'Walk On By' (where Brian sings even higher than Dianne Warwick!) Dennis' brief 'A Time To Live In Dreams' was demoed at around this time too - like his other songs on the album its a collaboration with Steve Kallinich and a moody ballad about wanting perfection that would have fitted onto the album nicely, even if it needs another verse to really soar. Another sour grape is with that hideous album cover, childlike illustrations of the band at work, rest and play with a particularly poor Carl Wilson (who looks more like a Brian clone!) My first copy of this album was a plain white sleeved double vinyl set with 'Wild Honey' and that suited the contents better somehow: compact and unfussy, a world away from 'Friends' land where faces in clouds overshadow the band on land.

All that said, you'd be hard pressed to improve on perfection and only a slight wobble with the closing duo lose 'Friends' any marks. You'd be hard pressed to single out any one song as being a true Beach Boys 'classic' (though 'Busy Doin' Nothin' comes closest) but as an overall mood piece nothing matches Friends' quiet consistency and upbeat charm. Anyone who has been through the Beach Boys' story roughly in order will know how rare these happy days have been till 1968 - and they'll become even rarer once Brian starts his even longer decline into the 1970s. This is how The Beach Boys should always have sounded in this era - with their leader back in the main role he was born to play, but happier and less troubled and with a band on top form rallying behind him, throwing their own ideas into the mix. As Brian puts it in his sleevenotes for the CD: 'Pet Sounds' is by far my very best album, but 'Friends' is my favourite'. While I query the first statement (the quality 'Pet Sounds' has been blown up since the 1990s out of all proportion), I concur with the second: lovely, pretty, carefree and beautifully sung, 'Friends' might well be my favourite Beach Boys record too.

The Songs:

Meant For You is the starting point for the album and sums it up in a nutshell – undeveloped to the point of hardly being there at all, it’s a 30-second hymn with a gorgeous tune and lyrics of devotion. The song features Mike Love at his, well, loveliest and is crying out to be developed and turned into a triple-gold-disc best-seller. Co-writer Brian is content to let it go at one verse and a short chorus, though, and somehow he’s right on that score too – he’s said all he wants to say already and anything else would be repetition. Still, putting out a 30-second fragment was a brave move for a record of the day (many of the band on this list released 90-minute double-albums in 1968, never mind 22 minute ones like this one! It's a shame that the band didn't allow the full unedited version to appear on album - it might still be on the short side at 90 seconds on the 2013 box set 'Made In California', but the typically brilliant Brian Wilson counter melody about a foal being looked after by its' mother adds an interesting twist on the fragment we've known for all these years: this is a song about parental and family rather than sexual or romantic love. Mike Love is, of course, a natural to sing it!

Friends itself is a lovely, intricate song that sounds like Brian addressing the band and asking them to take over the musical reigns for him, reflecting on all the help he gives his ‘friends’ and they give him, little knowing the decades of litigation that lie in wait for the band. The song is a rare example of the Beach Boys working together in harmony – the three Wilson brothers and Al Jardine are all credited with writing the song – and it features some fine band harmonies to boot. Friends is also one of Brian’s many rock and roll waltzes that he used to write from time to time – and like the forthcoming Cabinessence on Smile (editor: the reviewed were written this way round!) rather breaks the longstanding tradition that waltzes always have to be slow and you can never have a 'fast' waltz! In short, this is nothing less than Beach Boys harmony heaven. The song if fictional for the most part, returning to the teenage Californian everyman that the Beach Boys used on their early 60s records who in this case is being thanked by hid friend for ‘talking your folks out of cutting your hair’. Yet reading Brian’s now dis-owned autobiography Wouldn’t It Be Nice? it seems clear that lines like ‘you leant me money when the funds weren’t too cool’ and particularly ‘days I was down you would help me get out of my home’ might have been Brian’s true feelings at this point in time: the band were in litigation with record company capitol at the time and Brian’s once limitless horizons were already being trimmed down to the four small walls of the bedroom he hid himself away in for much of the 70s. 

Wake The World is made up of so many song-writing fragments it sounds like a rock-opera despite its 150 second running time and might have made a fine addition to Smile. However, the days of epic masterpieces are largely over for Brian now and both he and co-composer Al Jardine are content to leave this song as a lovely under-stated three-minute masterpiece. Brian’s optimism is also great to hear at a time when people had written the Beach Boys genius off (“Wake up to another fine morning, wouldn’t miss it for all of its glory”) and this simple tale of watching the stars disappear one by one as morning breaks acts as a fine metaphor for the Beach Boys’ sales dip in this period in time. Assuming Jardine wrote the words (Brian doesn’t usually write lyrics in this period, although there are exceptions even on this album), then his nice and simple phrases act as a lovely contrast to Brain’s music, which is so full of yearning emotion on the verses it rather overpowers the song. Unusually, though, his vocal contribution - and Mike's, Dennis' and Bruce's - are minimal: this is instead a rare chance to hear the two Wilson brothers Brian and Carl in full flow. Like a lot of this album, coming to this track for the first time might make you wonder what on earth anyone could possibly see in such an obviously undeveloped song, but joining up the dots of what these recordings could have been is part of the fun is listening to Friends  and pieces of greatness simply litter this track, unfinished or not. 

Be Here In The Morning is another fine, simple song with classic Beach Boys multi-part harmony and an added punch on the word ‘full’ when the band sings in unison. The lyric – such as it is – tells us again how tired the narrator is (although Brian’s vocal is full of the energy and exuberance of old) but also how happy he is to have his loved one to come home to.  Like many a song on 'Smile' it's also a song about Brian's new, emptier schedule and his enjoyment of it, even commenting on how there have been no phone calls from '[Steve] Korthof' (another Wilson-Love cousin), '[Jon] Parks' (Beach Boys tour manager), or manager '[Nick] Grillo' - he doesn't sound too fussed when there aren't any!  The band don’t quite manage to do this lovely song justice (like all of Smiley Smile and some of previous album Wild Honey, the recording sounds rushed and the band are singing in a terribly offhand throwaway manner) but there are several nice touches, such as some classy full Beach Boys harmonies on the one-word 'FULL!' which takes you by surprise and the psychedelic underwater effects on Carl's voice, which doesn't have much to do with the rest of the song but sounds nicely trippy all the same. Listen out for the opening Hawaiian guitar lick – the last of a long run of Beach Boys tracks to have some link to Hawaii stretching back to third album 'Surfer Girl'  and Dennis’ rasping lazy ‘aahhhs’ at key moments in the song, dreamily drifting past your ear.

If the last few songs have been something of a band ‘compromise’, then When A Man Needs A Woman is Brian all over, from the match of tricky musical backing and lyrical simplicity to the singer’s sweet and quietly nervous anticipation of his first baby (which actually turned out to be a girl, even though Brain sings to his ‘son’ in the song. Named Carnie, she and her sister Wendy and their trio Wilson Phillips would go on to outsell most of their dad’s band’s releases in the 1980s!) This is a truly beautiful song with a marvellous tune and an intimacy not often heard on Beach Boys material. The key-change two-thirds of the way through the song is simply jaw-dropping, with Brian’s already high falsetto climbing the scales to sing a full octave higher than normal. Heartwarming stuff even though you know with retrospect that Brian never gets to be a ‘proper’ father to his children ( he spent most of their childhood on tour or hiding in his bed and creeping out to the kitchen late at night).

The album then hands things back over to the Wilson brothers, with Brian, Dennis and Carl combining their voices for a wordless, meandering song – Passing By - that never quite goes anywhere buthas a lovely time not doing anything in particular. This is the only time in the band’s history where all three brothers sing just on their own without the other members and for that reason alone it’s a key track in the Beach Boys canon – although as songs go it’s pretty weak and unfinished compared to the rest of Friends and might have benefitted from some equally fine words (unlike some Brian Wilson instrumentals this sounds like an unfinished song rather than a finished track in its own right). Words were written for this song (probably by Brian) but Wilson chose not to use them - the first verse has come to light would have read: 'While walking down the avenue, I stopped to have a look at you, and then I saw that you're just passing by'; it's unknown whether more verses were written or whether this one would simply have repeated.  Seeing as these words are far from the best thing ever to grace a Beach Boys LP our speculation is that a returning Mike Love, absent from most of these sessions, either didn't like them or ran out of time to record them in the great rush to get this album finished. Listen out for a Hammond organ part (played by Brian) that used to be so much a part of the early 60s sounds but must have sounded pretty dated even in 1968!

Things stay peaceful for side two, with Brian’s nod to his masseuse on Anna Lee The Healer at last giving non-instrumentalist Mike Love - whose also strangely missing from most of the band harmonies on this album - something to do! The basic backing – a piano, a bass and some lightly thumped percussion are all that’s there – contrast well with the band’s full blown harmonies and gives the song a gentle sophistication. Mike’s first references to his beloved Maharishi and transcendental meditation in general are also among his most palatable, acting as the backdrop to this tale of tranquil calm rather than ramming mystical experiences down our throat as on later albums and winding us up with the subject matter (which defeats the whole purpose, surely?!) This song is also notable for the slightly more grown up take on the old Beach Boys formula of the pretty girl down on the beach – Anna Lee is portrayed very much as the perfect wife in this song for ‘if she can help someone she’s really happy’, but unlike the perfect-world teenagers of old this very adult figure is out of reach (‘I’m just one of her many fans’ sings the narrator almost sadly to himself). With its delicate pretty backing and interesting twist on songs of old, Anna Lee finds the Beach Boys on good form, being just as restful and healing as the song’s subject matter and even more beautiful.

Little Bird and Be Still, curiously sandwiched together on this otherwise carefully programmed LP, are Dennis Wilson’s first ever published songs and they display a promising talent, with some interesting harmonic blends offsetting his characteristically raw vocals. Who’d have thought this well publicised hard-living rocker would go on to write such gentle, peaceful songs? Luckily nearly all of Dennis’ output on later Beach Boys albums comes under the same category, but are slightly more developed than they are here. Little Bird especially, though, is as strong as the songs other band members were writing at the time and the rest of the band sound right at home on this song that once again explores Friends’  key themes of sunshiney mornings and the feeling that life is starting over again. Big brother Brian himself would have been proud to have written this song’s close-harmony filled middle-eight and the nature references seem like something his brother would write too. Then again, one thought the cute little bird who sang such sweet songs before disappearing may be a simile for brother Brian: while unusual for Dennis it wouldn't be unheard of for the Beach Boys to write about each other in this way (see 'Mount Vernon and Fairway' especially!) Just look at that middle eight: ‘Where’s my pretty bird? He must have flown away. If I keep singing he’ll come back someday’ - it even hints that the other Beach Boys are trying to keep things together long enough for their leader to come back to them (which on this album he sort of does). As if to embellish the point, you can hear all of the Beach Boys – Brian included – doing their best to sound like birds on this track and we even get a verse about an empty tree ‘that used to taste so good’ which acts as a fine metaphor for the suddenly decaying state of the band’s fortunes in this period. However, it could be the bird has a message far bigger than the band’s story to depart, as at the end of the song it flies down to its old tree and tells Dennis’ narrator ‘not to worry about my life’ (keeping with the 'no worries' theme of the album). The ending section’s bass and drums’ battle of the off-beats is remarkably similar to part of an unused snippet from Good Vibrations – the song that, to the record-buying public at least, was Brian’s last great statement; coincidence or another hint at the identity of the bird singing in the tree? 

Be Still is far less innovative and is effectively one verse sung over and over to a church organ accompaniment, but Dennis’ choir-boy vocal is strong throughout nevertheless. The lyrics sound like a re-write of one of Mike’s Maharishi meditation songs, full of images of nature and Friends’ two key themes: ‘Life begins…’ and ‘Take that simple path and love will set you free’. Dennis always had a great gift for chords that emotionally resonate though and this early song sounds like a first draft for the sea-changes of his solo work - although in contrast to this track's serenity most of them will come with very big waves indeed. Arguably the song needs something else to make it a truly powerful statement (a middle eight would do nicely), but even in fragmented demo form 'Be Still' offers a nicely meditative mood. Dennis' talents would shine much greater than this on later albums and yet these two early compositions still sparkle brightly, even amongst songs by Brian at his best, evidence that the band's biggest rogue and sex symbol had hidden depths to him.

Busy Doin’ Nothin’, in fact, could only be written by Brian Wilson, being a charming bossa-nova ish symphony in miniature about, well, not very much at all. Brian wrote only a handful of actual lyrics for his own songs but these few sets of words reveal even more about him than his alarmingly emotional music. This song is all about Brian circa 1968: stuck inside his house, pottering around with no real aim in mind, Brian is still ‘writing down his thoughts’ but admits to the listener that, far from his creativity being the be all and end all of life, if he didn’t write things down ‘he would forget them in a while’. It’s tale of the composer trying to remember a friend’s phone number, getting no reply when he finally rings it and deciding to write a letter instead is one of the funniest of Brian’s many ‘innocent naive’ couplets and is almost as loveably charming as the composer himself. Apparently you really would have ended up at Brian’s 1960s house in Bel Air if you’d followed the instructions in the lyrics – but the band managed to persuade Brian not to tell his fans where the starting point for the journey is, or the house would be besieged by fans even now! Chances are that Carl and Bruce Johnston are the only other members of the band on this track, which adds a full-blown orchestral arrangement to the backing for the first time since the Smile days. Simplicity is the key of this song however – only Brian could so marvellously hold our attention on what is in truth a very simple childlike yet likeable track. 

Friends is a lovely bunch of gentle songs, then, that’s rather ruined by the tacked on addition of two noisy oddities, Diamond Head and Transcendental Meditation. The first of these is an instrumental co-credited to session musicians Al Vescozo, Lyle Ritz and Jim Ackley as well as Brian himself – but if Brian does appear on this track as those credits suggest then he’s inaudible. Only the tapped coke-cans effect (last heard on Caroline, No) make this screechy Haiwaiian nonsense sound like the Beach Boys at all - in many ways its what a bunch of musicians would put together if they were trying to make the sort of filler the band used to come up with, but with less of the natural musical talents. The song sounds as if started as a jam that the band were having fun playing (perhaps in Brian's kitchen) that was roped onto the album when the band realised how short it was running. In many ways it's as annoyingly pointless as the band’s early 60s filler of mock arguments, fake out-takes and a boring interview interrupted by the arrival of some fast food. As if to add salt into the wounds, this pointless and irritating track is the longest on the whole of the record!
As for Transcendental Meditation, how very Beach Boys that the one true out and out ode to relaxation and meditation on the album should be the noisiest and most over-produced thing on it! A brassy, bouncy song, this is more what TM-ers play to get them out of a trance - not into one! The song is sung off-pitch (double-tracked vocals from Brian with Carl joining in near the end, I think), features a most peculiar ending on which the band simply stop singing mid-sentence (which isn't very restful when you think your record player's just gone wrong!) and the horns stop mid-note (perhaps they meant to fade the track but the engineers couldn’t face listening to it again?!) Even by Beach Boys TM song standards the lyrics are straight out of kindergarten, simply repeating how meditation helps you in an 'ever changing world'. What's odd though is how conspicuous the band's biggest TM supporter, Mike Love, is by his absence. Yes his name is on the writing credits but it sounds as if Brian has recorded this song without him. Annoyingly, there’s a really good tune and riff in this song trying to get out and Brain’s high harmonies on the song are delightful – if only the band had been able to, ahem, ‘transcend’ the worst parts of this track it could have been a fine little rocker.  For reasons best known to themselves, the compilers of the 'Made In California' box set in 2013 decided to release just the backing track of this song, making a strange song sound even stranger.

Best to stop the album after track 10 and play it through again – Friends is one of those special albums that grow on you and never seem to let you down, always creating its own mood however harassed or stressed you feel. Kind of like your own special friend in fact. Undoubtedly Brian Wilson at his minimalist peak and – although long admired by fans – it deserves special attention for containing some of Brian’s best work of the 60s (make that anybody’s work anytime, period).                                                                                                                                 
Other Beach Boys articles from this site you might be interested in reading:


'Surfin' USA' (1963)

'Surfer Girl' (1963)

'Little Deuce Coupe' (1963)

'Shut Down Volume Two' (1964)

‘All Summer Long’ (1964)

'Beach Boys Christmas' (1964)

'Today' (1965)

'Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!!!!!!!) (1965)

'Party!' (1965)

'Pet Sounds' (1966)

'Surf's Up' (1971)

’15 Big Ones’ (1976)

'Love You' (1977)

'Pacific Ocean Blue' (Dennis Wilson solo) (1977)

'Merry Xmas From The Beach Boys!' (Unreleased) (1977)

'M.I.U Album' (1978)

'L.A.Light Album' (1979)

'Keeping The Summer Alive' (1980)

'The Beach Boys' (1985)

'Still Cruisin' (1989)

'Summer In Paradise' (1992)

'Smile' (Brian Wilson solo) (2004)

'That Lucky Old Sun' (Brian Wilson solo) (2008)

'Smile Sessions' (band outtakes)(2011)

'That's Why God Made The Radio' (2012)

The Best Unreleased Beach Boys Recordings

A Complete (ish) Guide To The Beach Boys' Surviving TV Clips

Solo/Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part One 1962-86

Solo/Live/Compilation/Rarities Albums Part Two 1988-2014

Non-Album Songs Part One 1962-1969

Non-Album Songs Part Two 1970-2012

Essay: The Beach Boys and The American Dream
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

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