Monday 20 December 2010

The Beach Boys "20/20" (1969) (News, Views and Music 84)

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(First reviewed December 20th 2010 - Revised Edition published June 7th 2014)

The Beach Boys “20/20” (1969)

Do It Again/I Can Hear Music/Bluebirds Over The Mountain/Be With Me/All I Want To Do/The Nearest Faraway Place/Cotton Fields (The Cotton Song)/I Went To Sleep/Time To Get Alone/Never Learn Not To Love/Our Prayer/Cabinessence

How fitting that we should end 2010 with 2020 (editor's note: this was the date when the review was first written for the Alan's Album Archives website), not just so I can make a really bad joke but because this song sums up the year well: schizophrenic (hopefully we won't still be writing this website in the year 2020 but then at the rate the likes of Neil Young keep releasing new LPs who knows?!)  Like the world in 2010, 1969 was a strange place, caught between the leftover childish innocence of the psychedelic years and the even more recent leftover political activism of 1968. Hippies never really treated The Beach Boys as their own, which is a great shame given not only Brian Wilson’s abilities to make the most psychedelic music I’ve ever heard (for ‘Smile’, not that the world ever got to hear it at the time – although tracks from it do start to trickle out, starting with two from this very album) and the Beach Boys’ ability to be all things to all men at almost the same time. All fans know ‘Pet Sounds’, a few of them know ‘Smile and ‘Sunflower’ and nearly all of us marvel at how, both with and without Brian at the helm, The Beach Boys managed to deliver consistency and an album where all the parts clearly belong together and could never fit onto any other album.

But, alas, that idiom didn’t always work in the Beach Boys canon and 20/20, probably the most obscure and poorest selling of any of the band’s albums of the 1960s since their first record ‘Surfin’ Safari’, suffering from a lack of direction more than most. It could be 20/20 hindsight going on here (ho ho see what I did there?...), but this last record sounds like one final struggle with record label Capitol, the label that had forced the band into releasing four or five albums a year when even The Beatles only had to deliver two and even as this album was being recorded was doing their best to ditch the band and milk their back catalogue in a series of uneven ‘greatest hits’ sets (the title 20/20 actually refers to this being the band’s 20th album of one sort or another – since 1962!) 20/20 was recorded under pressure, often in hurried sessions recorded between an unpopular European tour with a guesting Maharshi lecturing the youth at each concert which lost a lot of money and coping with a failing Brian Wilson whose energies and inspiration were pretty much spent (he’s not completely fallen apart yet though – that won’t happen till a couple of years later – so contrary to belief Brian is on this album, just not very often and almost all on his own songs; he was having a bad day when the photo-shoot was being taken, though, which is why he’s absent from the cover, a sign of things to come sadly). That said, Brian is hardly the creative force he was even on last album 'Friends'. While he turns in two delightful songs in the 'Friends' mould for the album ('Time To Get Alone' and 'I Went To Sleep') and has another turned into a hit by cousin Mike ('Do It Again') otherwise he's represented by tapes stretching back to 1966 ('Our Prayer' and 'Cabinessence', the two most 'finished' songs from 'Smile'). For the first time he'd been actively taken to a 'psychiatric hospital' for recovery, a fact that was kept as quiet as possible but demonstrates that after three increasingly fragile years the band were finally taking Brian's state of mind seriously (although digging up the tapes for 'Smile', the project that pushed him over the edge, probably didn't help). That doesn't matter as much in purely musical terms here as it will on later Beach Boys albums - the band are writing are their own material now, some of it (mainly Dennis') up to his level - but without Brian at the helm there's no direction to this album which is the first album to sound like a collection of tracks rather than one satisfying whole.

But that’s not to say this album is bad. Even divided into several factions The Beach Boys still shine at least once each and that good old Beach Boys ethic of working hard under pressure and competing with somebody (even though in this case its themselves) mean all of them take a turn in the spotlight. Some of this album is extraordinary, whether its Carl Wilson learning on his feet how to do mega Brian Wilson/Phil Spectorish-sounding productions aged just 23, Dennis Wilson bearing his heart on only his second year of composing, Al Jardine keeping the Beach Boys’ run of hits going with his arrangement of ‘The Cotton Song’, new member Bruce Johnston using an orchestra on a Beach Boys track for the first time since ‘Pet Sounds’ and The Beach Boys’ old leader Mike Love, temporarily coming out of a Maharishi-led meditation haze and rocking like never before. 20/20 isn’t a great album – how can it be when the band feature a different line-up and attitude on every single track here? – but when this album is good it's very very good and right up there with anything the band ever did. If you own the CD two-fer re-issue with the bonus tracks of the last Capitol single (the superlative ‘Break Away’ backed with the almost-as-good B-side ‘celebrate The News’) then adding them to the end makes for an album as good as anything else in the Beach Boys’ canon (well, excluding ‘Smile’ of course for, as I’ve said on here countless times before, what album can ever lived up to that one?!)

As a result, some of these songs you’ll know well (really well if you live in the UK where ‘Do It Again’ was a surprise #1 despite barely making the top 20 charts in America), some of these songs you might vaguely recognise if you lived through 1969 and did a lot of listening to local radio stations (where many of this album’s flop singles were played a lot), some of these songs you’ll know if you followed my advice and bought Brian Wilson’s ‘Smile’ from 2004 (finished at last! Sob!) and some of them I’ll bet you won’t know at all (unless you followed my advice at the end of my ‘Friends’ review – no 21 on the list – and went out and bought this two-fer, of course).

Because of the rather split way of making it, this is an album of extremes without any one theme except perhaps to confuse the listener as much as possible: 'I Went To Sleep' is the Beach Boys at their most peaceful - 'Be With Me' the Beach Boys at their most unsettling. 'The Nearest Faraway Place' is the band at their most lush and orchestrated  - 'All I Want To Do' is the band at their most raw and raucous. 'Bluebirds Over The Mountain' and 'Cottonfields' are the band trying to cut a pair of frivolous, nonsense songs as singles - while 'I Can Hear Music' is an attempt to show that the band can still make the most polished sounding singles of anybody. 'I Went To Sleep' and 'Our Prayer' are The Beach Boys at their simplest - 'Never Learn Not To Love' the band at their most complex.  If that's left you scratching your head then, well, me too: that's what happens when a band have to cope without their leader and no two people can agree on the same direction to go in. In the future the Beach Boys will divide into factions - Mike and Al replicating the past one side, Carl and Dennis pushing the band somewhere new on the other, with Brian and Bruce caught somewhere in the middle and later Beach Boys LPs will either be one thing or another, depending whose won the most arguments that week ('MIU' is a Mike and Al album for instance; 'L A Light' a Carl and Dennis project). This album, though is schizophrenic throughout, a feeling only matched once in the later Beach Boys run ('Carl and the Passions - So Tough' in 1972, with two new members on board to settle into the mix): next album 'Sunflower' sounds much more of a 'band' LP, chiefly because Carl is firmly in charge of proceedings.

A quick word now about the most famous Beach Boys co-writer: Charles Manson. The future murderer had fallen in with Dennis ('befriended' is too strong a word), reportedly when one of his pretty followers met Dennis while out hitch-hiking. Though not exactly overwhelmed by Manson's talent, Dennis liked one song enough to record it: 'Cease To Exist'. Manson, without a published name to his credit, was eager to get the song onto a Beach Boys album and gave Dennis carte blanche to change the melody (there isn't much of a one on his solo recording of it anyway, if the snatched fragment occasionally heard in Beach Boy documentaries is anything to go by). However Dennis figured he's better change some of the lyrics too: the original 'Cease To Exist' was about murder so Dennis changed them to the slightly less controversial 'cease to resist' and re-titled the song 'Never Lean Not To Love' after another line in the song in the hope that Manson wouldn't notice. He did and came round to a Beach Boys session to complain; Dennis is meant to have hit him and taken his name off the writing credits as a result. The song was then published on this very album without a mention of Manson's name anywhere, leading fans to question whether the 'Manson' story was just a rumour; but it isn't: the first version of the song really was his. Manson, furious at losing his best composition, withdrew all contact apart from sending Dennis a bullet in the post with the curt message 'this is for you'. One of many setbacks the wannabe writer suffered, Manson's state of mind was impaired even more when the revolution-filled Beatles 'White Album' came out three months later - and that's the trigger for the tragic murder spree takes place, Manson going on the rampage killing celebrities in Laurel Canyon (as Neil Young will write about on 'Revolution Blues' from his 1974 album 'On The Beach'); Dennis reportedly locked himself in his Bel Air Mansion and refused to come out for several days: those close to Dennis says he was never quite the same after that, which is a huge blow for The Beach Boys: on both this record and follow-up 'Sunflower' it's Dennis who seems to be the most prolific Beach Boy and the one most able to stand in Brian's long shadow.  Instead Dennis will have to wait till 1977 to be taken seriously by anyone, enduring several years of heavy living that will turn the once innocent and pure this on this LP into an emotional hole of booze, bile and occasionally beauty.

Another Beach Boy going through an interesting period was Bruce Johnston. Up until now he's only really been a big part of the band's touring history, except for the odd high profile harmony part (such as the one on 'California Girls'). Here, though, with a Brian shaped hole at the album's centre, the experienced writer starts to be used properly. This album's 'The Nearest Faraway Place' was being saved for use as a solo single before The Beach Boys 'borrowed' it - while this lush instrumental sounds deeply out of place on the album, being the sort of thing the band had stopped recording around 1966, it is fitting as part of the band's catalogue: Bruce has long been 'Pet Sounds' biggest supporter decades before most of the world's press seem to catch up with him and agree and has said since he was directly influenced by Brian's sounds and textures on that record. 'Bluebirds Over The Mountain' was meant to be on the 'other' side - Ersel Hickey was a writer Johnston had long admired but, unsure what to do with it, he 'borrowed' Carl to help him with the arrangement; by the time the backing track had been recorded it had somehow turned into a Beach Boys song, the rest of the band overdubbing their vocals on it later. The major effect of all this is that Bruce is finally seen as a fully integrated paid up member of The Beach Boys instead of the Brian sound-alike they used on tour and his contributions over the next two Beach Boys albums are a key part of their back catalogue (before Bruce foes through the drama of leaving for a solo career and then having to fight for his place in the band all over again!)

By comparison Mike and Al don't get a lot to do; the latter is reduced to covering folk songs (although 'Cottonfields' isn't even up to his last cover choice 'Sloop John B' never mind most of Al's superior originals) while the former only gets two vocals, one of them on a song written by Dennis! That said has there ever been a more Mike Love song than 'Do It Again'? Inspired by a visit to see an old school friend and a day spent roaming Californian beaches from their past (what must the surfers have thought of a real live Beach Boy turning up? Well, sadly, probably not a lot in 1969!), Mike suddenly rediscovered a lot of the energy and optimism he'd once had for the band and rushed to Brian's house, telling him to play some of his favourite 'Chuck Berry' style chords like he used to. The song is Mike's though, full of energy and hope and returning to his favourite themes from early in the band's career; after three albums when the singer has been getting less and less to do and his attention in the band seems to be drifting it's great to hear him back full strength. 'Do It Again' (the band's biggest hit since 'Good Vibrations' in Britain) should have been the start of a whole new phase in The Beach Boys' canon: this retro rocker and reminder of more innocent times was exactly where the band should have been going - and indeed to some extent 'Sunflower' is an attempt to write an album full of songs with the sense of sunshine and hope as here; it's just that, for one reason and another, most of them aren't written by Mike (who won't really dominate the band's sound again until 1976) and none of them refer to the beach.

Overall a bit of a hybrid album, then, with The Beach Boys pointing in several directions at once – to the past, to the present and untimely to the future. And, unusually, I’m the kind of Beach Boys fan that loves all periods more or less equally, which might be why I have quite a soft spot for this LP when other reviewers are left scathing. After all, what other Beach Boys album covers quite this much ground and has this much space for everybody to shine in turn?  Or perhaps that’s my 20/20 hindsight again – after all, in 1969 The Beach Boys were officially the unhippest band on the planet and nobody had anything good to say about them even when they arguably at their peak as a ‘group’ (in the following year, 1970). But give this unrecognised album a chance and it might well impress you – if not the whole record then there’ll undoubtedly be something here you like, whether its Carl’s adult pop, Dennis’ edgy paranoia, Mike’s unexpected rocking vocal, Al and Bruce’s quiet commercialism or Brian’s most simplistic and most complex songs.

The Songs:

We start off with Brian’s simplicity. ‘Do It Again’ was a conscious (sometimes on this track too conscious) attempt to regain some of the band’s old swagger and appeal to the same kind of sun-loving teens that used to buy their records before they went all ‘moody’. More than one fan has seen this record as a ‘betrayal’ of everything the Beach Boys stood for by 1969 and considering this song badly out of date, but its nostalgia for more peaceful times and very deliberate echoes of people’s own summers suited the climate well (it's a softer version of The Beatles’ ‘Get Back’ which came out the same year). In truth, there isn’t really a lot going on in this song (making the inclusion of the backing track on the instrumental only Stack-O-Tracks a few months later even more peculiar), but what there is is a lot of fun: Mike Love’s curiously detached-in-the-mix vocal still manages to catch your ear, the harmonies are as bright as ever (especially Brian’s falsetto, just as magical as ever at this point) and the nagging guitar riff, suddenly exploding into life in the instrumental break, is one of Carl’s best (if indeed it is Carl – it sounds like his work but then it also sounds a bit like the band’s guest guitarist Ed Carter too; ah well, its great whoever it is that’s playing). Carl’s also erroneously been given the credit for the production, but it's actually pretty much a last throw of the dice from Brian, full of his typical attention to detail touches even on such a simple track. The opening distinctive snare drum lick, for instance, came from adding a long echo on the drums in post-production, making for a highly recognisable and hard-to-copy sound that sounds almost psychedelic and rather fitting for this song about looking back to the past. Alas, production money from Capitol didn’t stretch to the full arrangement the Beach Boys were hoping for – listen to Brian doing his impression of a trumpet in the opening verse! Curiously, too, for such an important song with such a detailed arrangement (‘Do It Again’ was very much a conscious attempt to put the band back in the charts) the old Beach Boys bug bear of studio talk and coughing makes its way onto the final mix (best heard at the opening of the song under the snare drum). Just as on the recordings from the early 60s, its impossible to tell what exactly is being talked about, but it sounds like Brian giving orders and saying something on the lines of ‘let’s do another one...’ The ending of the song – as heard on album but cut for the single release – adds the first of three genuine pieces of music from the ‘Smile’ sessions. This time round its the sound of a bunch of confused studio musicians chopping up wood for a track called ‘ I Wanna Be Around’ and only made sense when Brain unveiled the full song in 2004 (‘I wanna be around to pick up the pieces when somebody breaks your heart in two’).

‘I Can Hear Music’ used to be famous for re-establishing The Beach Boys in the charts (although, oddly, it was outsold by the previous track). Nowadays, of course, its famous for appearing in our Alan’s Album Archive YouTube video! In case you’re wondering why I chose it, this Barry/Greenwich/Phil Spector song sums up perfectly the sweet side of music and its ability to soothe all ails – something this website does when it snot ribbing the Spice Girls or David Cameron – and is in many ways the template for the superior song ‘Add Some Music To Your Day’ from ‘Sunflower’. I can’t say its one of my favourites – the song never really seems to go anywhere and unlike most Beach Boys songs, which are interesting to the end, rather gives up after we’ve heard the first verse and first chorus. But as a production this is sensational: Carl Wilson’s double tracked lead is sweet but powerful and the unusual use of double-tracking for some reason emphasises the flaws rather than the strengths in his voice, giving him a vulnerable feel for all of his strength that suits this hopeful song well. The Beach Boys’ backing harmonies are superb too, especially on the middle eight when Mike Love’s bass and Bruce’s falsetto (filling in for Brian) sound like they’ve cut in from a different song altogether. Alas, though, the song seems to fade before we get any resolution on the song: will the narrator be in love forever more? Will it all fall to pieces once the music goes out of his head? Or will he be able to write it down in a love song?

Bluebirds Over The Mountain’ was a big flop at the time – the first really huge Beach Boys flop it has to be said – and its not really a surprise because despite this song’s strengths it really doesn’t sound like a Beach Boys song, perhaps because Bruce Johnston is producing for the only time on a non-Johnston song. In fact, Bruce revealed years later he’d intended to cut this song as a solo track before roping in Carl to help him with the overdubs. Both the rather twee verses and the surprisingly noisy instrumental section have their admirers, but the two parts don’t belong on the same song at all (it’s like Paul McCartney doing The White Album song ‘Helter Skelter’ in a medley with ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’). The highlight of the song is undoubtedly ‘seventh Beach Boy’ Ed Carter, a regular of the Boy’s touring group but appearing on his only Beach Boys studio album, whose eccentric growling guitar seems to be laughing at the rather naive aspects of the song, pouncing on the narrator’s rather hopeful pleas for his loved one to come back home. Listen out too for Bruce’s one word ‘ba-ab-by’ on the song’s fade, an intriguing snippet to leave the listener with which shows how much he’d been picking up from Brian (whose own songs are full of bits and pieces like this). This song was a hit for writer Ersel Hickey (no relation to My Name Is Earl’s Earl Hickey!) as long ago as 1958 – 11 years before this recording took place, which might explain why it sounds so wrong – its very much a pre-Beatles song, half rock and half music hall. Full marks for trying something different though: even under Brian’s direction no other Beach Boys song ever dared to unite marimbas, electric guitar and horns again!

‘Be With Me’ is Dennis Wilson in a nutshell. Like many Dennis songs, it tries hard to be romantic, so hard in fact that it ends up sounding aggressive and scared in its pleas for a couple to stay together (just to remind you, Dennis married six times in his short life – two of them to the same person!) However, ‘Be With Me’ might be the ultimate Dennis track – and the Beach Boys song that best gives notice for the startling new sounds on his solo recordings -  because its all so extreme. The opening seductive purr of a verse finds Dennis at his most calm and confident, before growing in panic as his loved one turns on him and his planned night of wonder turns into a nightmare. By the middle eight Denis is no longer the strutting lover man but a scared little boy, left on his own thinking that his partying girlfriend should be with him and pleadin g ‘plea-a-e-e-e-a-a-a-e-e-e-a-a-a-se’ in such a pained and moving way the listener doesn’t quite know where to look at hearing something so personal. The string and horn arrangement for this song by Van McCoy (who scored a hit of his own with the dance song ‘The Hustle’ in 1975) are top-notch, going from jazzy triumph to horror movie in the blink of an eye so subtle you can’t work out where the divide is (indeed, the string scratching on the fade-out is enough to set your teeth on edge and, when joined by Dennis’ mock scream right at the end, is enough to make you see ghostly ghouls under your bed). Best of all, though, is the tired and cynical horn playing on the song’s brief instrumental section, heard when the narrator has finally finished pleading and is taking a breath – the feeling in the song is that this has happened to Dennis so many times that he’s getting tired of it, yet can’t work out for the life of him what keeps going wrong. The result is a complex, eerie and downright emotional track that tugs at your heart strings both in cackling defiance and in aching sobs, an extraordinary track that is the album’s not-so-quiet highlight (the Smile songs notwithstanding) and which deserves to be much better known than it is.

‘All I Want To Do’ is a real surprise – sworn enemies Dennis and Mike collaborate for the first of only two times in their career! (Holland’s beautiful ballad ‘Only With You’ is the other). Writer Dennis and singer Mike loved competing as the Casanova of the group, racking up so many illegitimate offspring between the in the 60s they could have spawned three separate Beach Boys tribute acts (Dennis even went out with Mike Love’s daughter for a time – depending on who you listen to it was either out of genuine love and concern or an attempt by Dennis to wind his cousin Mike up!) ‘All I Want To Do’ (the first of two song’s in the band’s canon with that name – the second, by Brian, is on ‘Sunflower’) is very much what you’d expect a Dennis song written for Mike to sound like: its a raw, raucous rocker with a very explicit fade of a bed rocking backwards and forwards with two lovers panting (Dennis and Carl watched Brian’s use of sound effects like a hawk for this album – how typical of Dennis to add a sound effect entirely the opposite of Pet Sounds’ subtlety and romance!) The end result is very far removed from most Beach Boys songs, with only the as-ever spot on backing harmonies from Carl giving it the sound of a Beach Boys track, and I’m not sure whether that’s a good thing or a bad. The band do sound at home on this track, much more so than on ‘Bluebirds’ and ‘Cottonfields’, and Mike especially sounds more alive than he had since about the second Beach Boys album (is this really the same period he was deeply into meditation?! There’s nothing peaceful about this song!) But once the shock value is over and done with there’s not much going on in this song – just a bone-rattling noise about how much the narrator is in lust with his woman (and unlike the girls on past Beach Boys albums 20/20 is all very much about grown women!) and wants to spend all his time with her.

‘The Nearest Faraway Place’ sits in such contrast that its hard to believe its from the same band, never mind the same album. A moody yet slightly mawkish piece of classical music from Bruce, its appealing without really approaching the same level of interest of a Brian Wilson piece of the same nature – although the weepy strings do sound as if they’ve come straight out of Pet Sounds. In fact, this song is very much ‘Let’s Go Away For A While’ part two, from the title on down, but can’t conjure up the same feeling of regret and yearning (even though that’s probably my least favourite track on ‘Pet Sounds’ after the horrible ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’) Bruce was an overlooked talent in the band, mainly because he helped them out in the ‘missing years’ of 1967-71 and 1979-present when the band were at their lowest commercial ebb, but his sound was as distinctive as any of the others and given more time and effort his songs might too have been as well regarded as Mike’s, Al’s, Carl’s and Dennis’ by fans. Indeed ‘Disney Girls’ is more or less a well known song, covered by many people even if few fans realise its actually a Beach Boys original, but this instrumental, while enjoyable, isn’t in the same league and the lack of words don’t help.

‘Cotton Fields’ also starts off with a vocal from Bruce before the song passes over to Al Jardine, a sweet gesture than one wishes had happened more to unite this schizophrenic album. This cover of an old Leadbelly blues song was revived by Al in an attempt to recapture his suggestion of ‘Sloop John B’ to Brian whose arrangement for that track was very like this one, but good as the arrangement is (especially the backing harmonies) the song itself is a poor substitute for ‘Sloop’.  You see, that folk standard is all about longing to go home, even though its written for a sailor on a schooner – this song about a slave returning home from cotton fields gives us less emotion to work with and as a result sounds slapdash and almost throwaway in the way the lines are delivered (Al is an under-rated talent within The Beach Boys but this really isn’t his best vocal, his great ear-catching stutter on the line ‘an old man with the...he had a hat on’ not withstanding). Unbelievably, this is the first recording, made by a grumpy and tired Brian at Al’s insistence – the second, released as a single with Al producing, is even worse! (the fact that the band were determined to disregard Brian’s ideas and re-record it says much about their confidence and Brian’s declining role within the band in this period). 

Talking of Brian, all of his post-Smile songs are sweet little diaries to fill fans in with what’s been happening on in his life (not much, usually) and the next track, ‘I Went To Sleep’, sounds very much in keeping with his songs on ‘Friends’. Hear this song straight after the complexity and audacity of ‘Smile’ and you feel like weeping for all that lost talent and yet songs like this one and its cousin, 1968’s, ‘Busy Doin’ Nothin’, are still hauntingly beautiful songs. It’s almost as if Brian is so afraid of the monster he unlocked in 1967 that he refuses to go anywhere hear it, preferring to write his simplest and most one-dimensional songs since his first in 1961 within this period. ‘Sleep’ is so innocent and simple, though, its hard not to fall under its spell, with this short little song about taking a walk in a park and falling asleep on a bench before waking up, turning on the radio and falling asleep again is cuteness personified. It’s also quite moving when you consider this song in context of Brian’s forthcoming years ‘in bed’ when the singer was too afraid to leave his bedroom – Brian’s pretty much signalling his intent here, claiming that as he’s unable to do anything he might as well be asleep. As a chronic fatigue sufferer I must admit its quite a powerful song for me too, with its lost and lonely oboe part sweetly fighting against the plodding backing, all but forcing the narrator to submit to its slumber. The genius of this song is that nothing happens and yet everything happens; another quiet highlight of the album that is guaranteed to make you yawn.

‘Time To Get Alone’ is the other one of Brian’s new songs and is slightly more urgent, though only just. Like many of Brian’s songs in this period, it’s a rock and roll waltz (Brian was fascinated with the ¾ time signature used often by his idol George Gershwin among others – hear Brain’s newest CD ‘Sings Gershwin’ for more examples) although this time its slower than both ‘Cabinessence’ and ‘Friends’ (as I’ve remarked before, Brian’s output destroys the snobbish classical opinion that you can’t have fast waltzes or waltzes at all in rock – as you’ll be seeing ‘Cabinessence’ is one of the fiercest rockers around in the choruses). The lyrics, which unusually are by Brian as well as the tune, echo Dennis’ ‘Be With Me’ with their desperate attempts to escape distractions and be alone with their partner, but this time around things are more peaceful, with the narrator longing for a time when all the couple’s wishes can come true. Interestingly, the song was written by Brian not for the band but for his friend Danny Hutton’s group Three Dog Night, a band with which Brian’s wife Marilyn was involved (was Brian rejecting the Beach Boys’ constant nagging in this period? 1969 can’t have been an easy year for him or them what with their sliding status and need for hits at a time when Brian was at least capable of delivering). Carl’s vocal is as excellent as ever, though its the band’s sudden entry on the lines ‘DEEP AND WIDE’ that steal the show, adding a sense of urgency to a song that’s simply gliding its way through to the finish.

Now with all that wonderful Brian Wilson innocence out the way, the album can end on one of the most startling triple song sections of the band’s career. ‘Never Learn Not To Love’ is Dennis’ sort-of sequel to ‘Be With Me’, but if anything its even more desperate and on-the-edge. As we’ve seen Dennis was no stranger to extreme emotions, but this song might also get its sinister air from the co-writing credit by Charles Manson (yes, the same Charles Manson infamous for the Sharon Tate murder spree  and who used lyrics from The Beatles’ White Album in his defence). Dennis was friends with Manson in the days when we was just an edgy songwriter looking for members to join his ‘Family’ of beautiful women and rich men, although chances are Dennis was just play-acting being the rough and tough rebel while Manson was the real deal. Either way, Dennis did his best to secure his new friend a recording contract (the tapes for which still exist, incidentally) but all record labels were put off by Manson’s shabby appearance and scary eyes. This song is the closest Manson came to stardom, although Dennis managed to get his co-credit taken off the song after the murders took place. How much of the song Manson wrote is up for debate – he always claimed he wrote the whole of it and was especially angry at the way Dennis re-wrote his opening line ‘Cease to exist’ as the slightly less sinister ‘Cease to resist’, although the Wilson clan have always disagreed. Whatever the source this is another eerie, threatening song, with the narrator this time not taking no for an answer, all but forcing his girl into accepting his intentions and pleading with her join him because ‘I’m your kind’. There’s a second reading here which makes for intriguing reading given Dennis’ closeness to Manson – is this in fact Charlie’s message to Dennis to join his ‘family’, refusing to take no for an answer (in truth, Dennis got scared when his friend got more and more eccentric – fan boy legend has it that Manson left a bullet at Dennis’ house the night of the murders, with the message ‘this is for you’ attached). Whatever the source and whoever the writer, the song is an arranging tour de force, from the impossible-to-ignore opening (the sound of a gong being hit, played backwards and looped together with lots of echo) to the Beach Boys’ urgent backing vocal, Dennis’ own Jekyl-and-Hyde gentleman-turning-primate lead and the impressive use of contrasts (when the band come in with their ‘hum-a-now hum-a-now-hum-a-now-now-now’ vocals on top of Dennis’ already near-hysterical voice it sounds like the narrator’s girl is being flattened into submission). 
Alas, though, the one thing that stops this song being an out and out classic is the abrupt ending – the song fades so fast, on an almost apologetic ‘a-a-a-a-h’ line, without any resolution to the song as if in a stalemate.

‘Our Prayer’ has already been discussed at length in our review (no 101) for ‘Smile’. This earlier Beach Boys version – the Smile original, give or take a few overdubs from Carl that, having heard the original, really aren’t needed – is the same note for note and only the improved technique and closeness of the band make it sound any different (Brian’s band do well with it, though – few bands ever surpassed The Beach Boys when it came to harmony). The lack of words put the emphasis firmly on the band’s vocal and they’re pretty extraordinary , with Mike’s bass, Brian’s falsetto and Carl and Al’s middle parts sandwiching so well together its hard to tell where one voice ends and another begins. Along with the outtake of ‘Their Hearts Were Full Of Spring’, this is the Beach Boys at their vocal best and you can tell from this the hours of recording time that went into the song. ‘Our Prayer’ was originally intended as a quiet scene-setting choral piece, one part psychedelia to one The lack of words put the emphasis firmly on the band’s vocal and they’re pretty extraordinary     part madrigal, with the Beach Boys either calling to their ancestors or to their future selves depending on how you take the song. Brian often called ‘Smile’ a ‘teenage symphony to God’ when he was working on it, partly tongue in cheek it has to be said, but listening to this song you kind of hear what he means – this is among the most spiritual pieces in the whole of the Beach Boys canon, with the six singers sounding more like monks than striped-shirt wearing teenage idols.

What to say about ‘Cabinessence’? (Again, already covered in full on review no 101). Originally intended as the grand finale to a suite about American settlers, this short song manages to veer from laidback country to fast-rocking waltzing psychedelia without even batting an eye. Van Dyke Parks’ lyrics are magical, working on several layers at once, full of puns, historical references and alliteration while still telling a definite story, while Brian’s bouncy tune is one of his best, with the nagging ‘who ran the iron horse?’ riff one of his most memorable and shockingly unexpected when you first hear it. Like ‘Our Prayer’, some vocal overdubs were made by the band in 1968, though you can’t tell too much difference from the original (although the famous ‘bootleg’ mix is much clearer and easier to understand, I have to say). Thematically, this is about a group of settlers making their way across America for the first time, wondering where to set their camp, little knowing that one day the whole lot will become sprawling urban conurbations (something Brian and Van Dyke’ aren’t too keen on, judging by the nagging ‘who ran the iron horse?’ line, a wonderful summation of mankind’s technology out of control). The power of the chorus, when a group of string players start a riff that forever jerks the song down into a descending spiral of doom, set against a mass of Beach Boys voices singing over and over and drowning out poor Dennis who sings a garbled section of the song that’s hard to hear (it’s printed in full above in our lyrics section) is one of the most staggering in The Beach Boys canon. While admittedly 20/20 sold peanuts at the time and even the Smile songs didn’t get much of a mention in the day’s press, it was the few fans who heard this album and were in awe of the new sounds Brain had produced who picketed for Brain to revive the project (something he’d been intending to, mainly due to outside influences, since at least 1972). How wonderful that this song makes even more sense when heard in context, a testament not to Brian’s breakdown or drug use in the period but just how right he was to attempt the record ‘Smile’ should have been. Exhilarating, original and compelling, ‘Cabinessence’ is how every song should sound and opened up a whole new world of sounds to explore before the door was shut too tight too soon. Even when shorn of the songs before it (Heroes and Villains, Plymouth Rock and The Old Master Painter should have slotted in between these two tracks) a remarkable song the equal of any on this entire list.

So there we have it. While 20 out of 20 might be going a bit far, this song certainly deserves more than its current status as a ragbag mix of flop singles and outtakes. The Beach Boys of 1969 were never going to trouble the Beach Boys of 1966/67 for originality and purpose, but what’s extraordinary is that even on half-measure, without really trying too hard, the band produced a record as good as this.  For once that’s not all down to Brian Wilson - even though his fingerprints are all over this record, from the recycling of his off-cuts to his brothers’ careful study of his recording technique - but particularly Carl and Dennis, who really come into their own now and dominate the band's sound for some time to come, usually brilliantly.  On the back cover of the original vinyl edition (sadly its missing from the otherwise superlative CD re-issue) you can see Brian squinting at an eye chart through some new glasses. His puzzled expression must be because he’s just read the billboard chart positions for this album – how on earth did something this good sell so few copies? (Except in Britain, once again, where this album peaked at a respectable #3) Bah I hate fashion, give me The Beach Boys of 1969 over anything that was big and popular back then anyday (barring the first CSN album of course!) and gasp at how even Jimi Hendrix could get things so wrong, dismissing the band as ‘surfing Doris Days’ the year this album came out when by his own admission his own skill was waning considerably...  Overall rating:    ♫♫♫♫♫♫ (6/10)

Other Beach Boys articles from this website you might enjoy:

'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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