Friday 23 December 2011

"Merry Xmas From The Beach Boys" (1977) (News, Views and Music 126)

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 “Merry Christmas From The Beach Boys” (Unreleased, 1977)

Child Of Winter/Santa’s Got An Airplane/Christmas Time Is Here Again/Winter Symphony/I Saw Santa Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree/Melekalikimaka/Bells of Christmas/Christmas Morning

Ah yes the Beach Boys. California sun, long summer days (and summer nights), driving down to beaches in little deuce coupes to meet surfer girls with good vibrations. The same Beach Boys who just happened to release one of the most yuletide-friendly snowscape-making themed albums of all. No, I’m not just going to repeat my whole review from a couple of years ago (see news and views 17), because this year I’m going to look in more detail at the second Beach Boys album that ever so nearly came out in 1977 (and can now be heard on two festive Beach Boys compilations!) Many fans aren’t even aware that it exists – most stopped caring about the band by the early 70s anyway – but there’s a joy and a spirit in these recordings missing from most of the band’s other albums of the period. While that doesn’t make this a great record (there are only about half of the above eight tracks finished for the project you’d ever want to hear more than once a year at Christmas), it is about time that ‘Merry Christmas From The Beach Boys’ got treated as a record in it’s own right, not just an appendix to the equally divisive ‘Christmas’ album from 1964. Not least because one of these songs is an outright, best-recording-in-years classic, sadly missed off from the otherwise superlative ‘Dennis Wilson’ set of a few years ago. If you haven’t bought your Christmas presents yet, keep an eye out for it as part of either of the two Beach Boys xmas comps out there: ‘Ultimate Christmas’ or ‘Christmas With The Beach Boys’.

As you may have gathered, there really aren’t that many AAA Christmas albums around. We’ve already covered the Beach Boys’ first Xmas album from 1964 (as news and views 17) and  The Beatles’ Christmas fanclub flexi-discs (as news and views 85) which doesn’t leave us a lot else to cover (I would do The Moody Blues’ ‘December’ album but, well, you don’t want me to suffer that much this yuletide do you?!I don’t want to be that unkind to a band I love over Xmas...) Anyway, to cut a long story short, there’s a second Beach Boys Christmas album that hardly anyone knows about, although a good two-thirds of it was completed and ready to go before the band’s label Warner Brothers told them ‘No! Bah humbug!’ (it’s not all Warner Brothers’ fault, though, as we’ll be seeing later...) Whilst the project was never finished and no ‘running order’ was ever put together, it’s a safe bet that all eight of the songs we mention here would have been included. The only possible omission would have been the rare 1974 single ‘Child Of Winter’, though if I know my late 70s outtake-loving Beach Boys they’d have used any old recording even vaguely connected with a xmas theme to fill up space on a record made in something of a hurry so this little known, chart-missing single is an obvious choice to include. The good news for the collector is that all eight songs have now been released officially – the bad news is that you have to buy at least two different CDs to own all these recordings because ‘Christmas Time Is Here Again’ is only available on one (more on that story later).

So we get yet more festive recordings about Santa Claus rocking around Christmas trees, of cold wintry mornings and children unwrapping toys by the fire and even how to say ‘merry xmas’ in Hawaiian, some 13 years after the Beach Boys’ first festive record. Even that album wasn’t as much of a hit as the band expected, being outsold by the ‘Beach Boys Concert’ and ‘All Summer Long’ albums before and after it, although its fair to say that most fans probably know it better than either of those two records nowadays.  Some of these songs are quite good: Dennis Wilson is at an all-time career high in this period, having just finished his impressive ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’ album and his song for the album is very reminiscent of his orchestrally heavy songs from the aborted follow-up ‘Bambu’. Brian is having a bit of a mixed time, rising from his bedroom prison long enough to add some pedestrian arrangements but also some genuinely touching moments, with ‘Winter Symphony’ and the earlier ‘Child Of Winter’ the most effortlessly entertaining things here. Even the much maligned (to the point where it actually got left off the last Beach Boys festive compilation because fans hated it) ‘Christmas Time Is Here Again’ (not the Beatles song) is pretty nifty in a not-trying-too-hard kind of a way. By and large there’s less mistakes than on the first Xmas record too, less traditional carols sung in a Four Freshman type slumber and more focus on parties and good times.

But it also speaks volumes that when record company Warner Brothers rejected this album outright the band simply re-recorded most of the remaining songs with more ‘Beach Boysy’ lyrics about surfers and girls and they ended up on the band’s 1978 ‘MIU Album’, not actually sounding that different it has to be said. It also speaks volumes that absolutely every one of these songs that were re-recorded and thus rescued from the vaults are the worse ones here. The wrong musicians are in charge of the ship and it’s sinking, quite frankly. ‘MIU’ is the nadir of The Beach Boys’ catalogue and I dreaded getting the remnants of this Christmas record after hearing that much of it is ‘outtakes’ from that album. But actually the mind boggles over why Warner Brothers had such a big problem with this problem because its definitely superior to ‘MIU’ and possibly even ‘Beach Boys Love You’ and ’15 Big Ones’ as well, the other ‘Beach Boys’ albums from this period where a ropey Brian Wilson is effectively hand-cuffed to the studio controls and ordered to work by Mike Love and Al Jardine. And a happy Christmas to you too! Thankfully relations are better between the band now (hence the shock new the band are getting together for an album and tour next year) and it must be said in the latter’s defence that after some crummy business decisions the band needed money quick, Brian especially (most of his royalties went on drugs and beer by this time).But still, the reason this Christmas album sounds so uncomfortable at times is because no one really wants to be here in this studio in November singing songs about festive cheer: even Al and Mike don’t

So why were they there? In fact, the first thing many Beach Boys fans want to ask about this album is ‘dear God, why?!’ As we said in our review of the first Beach Boys Christmas album the band are associated with surf, summer, sand and sun, not winter wardrobes and icicles. Like that first record, the whole idea seems weirdly wrong and yet strangely right, all at the same time, perhaps because 4/5ths of the band always associated Christmas with music, the three Wilsons and cousin Mike Love getting together to sing harmonies at many a xmas party. Even and above that, though, the timing is way off. For the four-albums-a-year Beach Boys to follow up a massive hit with ‘Little Saint Nick’ with an album full of carols and festive originals is one thing – but by 1977 punk is king, Christmas albums are dead and the band themselves aren’t exactly setting the charts alight. The answer is decidedly unfestive. The Beach Boys had somehow managed to impress CBS into signing them into a multi-million dollar deal, more to have the band’s name listed on their portfolio than in any hope that a new Beach Boys album might actually sell. Unfortunately, the band were still tied to Warner Brothers and had one more record to give to them, hence this rather tetchy last-minute album and the even tetchier rejection from a label that had nothing but trouble and slow sales since singing the band in 1970 (and again in 1976). No one quite remembers who first suggested a ‘festive’ record, but the idea seems to have gone down quite well – even Dennis, off on his own solo career and ‘missing’ from most Beach Boys recordings since 1973 – was enthusiastic enough to set a recording date aside and slightly alter one of his new songs for the project. Brian, struck by memories of the first Beach Boys record (one of his favourites, if only because it was made with his idol, 4 Freshman arranger Dick Reynolds), seems to have enjoyed the idea too, being able to build on his work of a decade before.

The chasm between the two records is huge. The 1964 version is very much Brian’s baby, recorded back in the days when radio interviewers could call him the ‘chief’ Beach Boy without batting an eyelid (as heard on the ‘Christmas Interview’ bonus track on the ‘Ultimate’ CD). As a result it’s carefully planned, with an orchestral backing for side two among the most meticulous and, well, 1950s sounding of any Beach Boys record (given the chance to work with Dick Reynolds, Brian simply wants to re-create the lush sound of the Four Freshman’s heyday). Even the funnier, sunnier songs on side one are sweet an innocent, like they date from another age where rock and roll was a passing fad. Of all 12 songs on the record only ‘Little Saint Nick’ is obviously by The Beach Boys on first hearing rather than another competent harmony group – and that was actually recorded a year earlier in 1963. By 1977, though, Brian is back in bed, Carl has been isolated and Dennis is off working on his own solo albums. That band feeling is gone, which is especially sad when you realise that this means the harmonies are gone too for the most part. However, the rocking backing tracks seem to have more spirit and ‘punch’ than their 1964 counterparts and the album doesn’t slow down to a standstill as it did too often on the 1964 record’s lesser moments. Best of all, all these songs are new (well, see below for more on re-recordings and bits of carols stuffed between the songs), which means that we don’t have to listen to The Beach Boys doing ‘Blue Christmas’ while thinking of Elvis’ original or ‘We Three Kings’ while thinking we’re sitting through some godawful nativity that never ends. Removing the ‘Christian Carols’ element also gives these songs a universal feel and makes it a much more teenager sort of record as you’d expect from The Beach Boys, which is ironic given that the band were by this time in their mid 30s. Christian carols simply don’t mix with The Beach Boys sound, however good, although it’s fair to say that by and large Mike, Al and even Brian’s later songs don’t match up to what Brian was writing in his youth (only Dennis’ cameo is up to the first album’s largely high standard). No doubt we’ll be revisiting that first festive album again some other Christmas (seeing as I’m running out of albums to cover!) so you’ll get the full idea of the comparisons then.  

The idea for making a second festive record, then, is sound given the approach the band have (even if it was never likely to sell many copies) and much of this album works well – far better than it has a right to given that nobody takes Christmas albums seriously by the late 70s. In fact in spirit this album is much more ‘LA Light Album’ than ‘MIU’ (see review no 75 for more on this under-rated classic), with each band member involved and giving something to the project (Carl and Dennis get just one vocal apiece on ‘MIU’). Indeed, most fans let out a sigh of relief when this material was first released in the late 90s, not because it was particularly strong or inventive but because it wasn’t as awful as most of the records we’ve had from the band since (‘LA Light’ really is the last gasp of talent from a great band – I own all four of the later albums but honestly couldn’t tell you when I last played any of them, they’re that, well, ordinary). Goodness knows there’s room for improvement (if I’d have been at Warner Brothers there’s no way I would have allowed the children-narrated ‘Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree’ or the patronising lyrics of ‘Bells Of Christmas’ through without major, major re-writes – but then again the band wouldn’t have got away with 90% of the content of ’15 Big Ones’ either), but like the first Beach Boys album at least the band are trying to win our affections and, heck, it is Christmas after all, they’re forgiven (For the more ‘normal’ ‘MIU’, however, there really is no excuse...)

One other thing that I find hilarious about this album is that, at Mike’s prompting, this decidedly Christian Christmas album (though not as much as the first xmas record) was recorded at the Maharishi International University in Iowa – quite what the Maharishi thought of the band using his venue to promote Christian values is, sadly, not recorded. Remember too that this is the album which split the Beach Boys up (along with the re-recordings for ‘MIU’ recorded here too) and caused ructions that outlasted the lives of both Carl and Dennis – which was made in a place of peace and sanctuary between lectures about living in peace and harmony with one another. One famous quote has Mike yelling at Carl ‘learn how to meditate properly – or you’re fired!’, which isn’t a very good advert for how relaxing and calming a meditation programme is supposed to be. Incidentally, it seems to have been two months of hanging round the centre and meditating before starting work proper rather than recording that seems to have done the most damage, as the band were used to keeping their distance during life on the road in this era. In the end there was simply nowhere to hide from each other, or hide the major problem of how ill Brian really was. By the way, that is the same Maharishi The Beatles (and Mike Love) stayed with in India – to his credit, Mike stuck by his ‘guru’ long after the Beatles’ passion faded away (and he was subjected to, most likely false, claims of sexual abuse by an irate John Lennon) and is still a devotee to date. However, whether one man’s passion should be sufficient to move a whole band and entourage onto a university campus for a month and a half and turn it into an ad hoc recording studio is another matter. Of all the bonkers Beach Boys business decisions over the years, this is right up there with manager Jack Riley re-locating the band to ‘Holland’ (as tax exiles) and then staying there when the band get fed up and go home, intending to manage them from a distance (this is in the days before emails and webcams, remember).

Again, I sigh at what this band could have achieved with a ‘Brian Epstein’ figure at the helm to steady a wobbly ship, instead of the run of father-managers, hangers-on and business executives with no taste for music that they got (the longest any manager lasted with The Beach Boys was six years – and that was Murray ‘dad’ Wilson). What the Beach Boys really badly needed in this period was some direction, some sensible person that all five men respected who was forceful enough to control them and empathetic enough to smooth over divisions and unresolved anger issues that had been left simmering for decades. (Like every other band of ‘brothers’ on this list, The Beach Boys had the same love-hate feelings towards each other as The Kinks, Dire Straits and Oasis. Even at Christmas). What they got instead was a poorly leader-in-command, one who ducked every decision he could in case he upset anybody and would much rather be left alone in bed after giving his nervous system to the band after years of giving his all. In the past the band went to Brian, set up a studio in his kitchen and listened for feedback from the ‘thumps’ on Brian’s bedroom floor – it speaks volumes that by 1977 the band are at Mike’s place of work and no one has given a thought as to how Brian will cope without his ‘comfort blankets’.

Poor Brian really suffers in this period, unable to fight against the leaner, meaner fighting machine of cousin Mike who in his mind at least has won the battle of whether The Beach Boys should be a commercial money and joy-making machine rather than an ongoing inspirational creative unit, as preferred by Carl and Dennis. It really hadn’t been a happy few years for Brian. Just as everything he’d touched in the early part of the 60s turned to gold, so everything he touched in the 70s seemed to fall apart. Ever since the ‘Smile’ period but especially since 1970 Brian had retreated into himself and taken to his bedroom so that he could give up all responsibilities and expectations people had of him. Far from the incredibly charismatic and together guy of 1966, 1976 had seen Brian at his lowest ebb, frustrated at the band’s lack of progress and still guilty that he had let ‘his’ band down. This was not a good time to be forced into working again but that’s what happened when the others sniffed a new contract with Warner Brothers and hastily convinced their new boss that Brian would be part of the deal, re-creating the old magic of the 1960s. In fact Brian was barely functioning and the wonder is he managed anything at all, never mind coming up with the one great band performance of ’15 Big Ones’ (‘Goin’ Home’) and the wonderfully eccentric little ditties of ‘The Beach Boys Love You’ (a solo LP until the others commandeered it). The trouble was, even though Brian was partly back and even though the others were now bowing to his authority (at record company insistence), Brian’s world was smaller than it had been and instead of wanting to reach out to every teenager in an embrace of music and laughter Brian wanted to work out some issues in his head.

The last recording project before ‘Merry Xmas’ had been the decidedly unfestive ‘Adult Child’ album, an unreleased record similar in tone and feel to ‘Love You’ but with less of the jokes and the joy (more like the second side than the first, in other words). If anything Brian’s world gets even smaller, with songs like ‘It’s Over Now’ and ‘Still I Dream Of It’ (both since released, on Brian’s ‘Gettin’ In Over My Head’ and ‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’ records respectively) emotional autobiographical songs about the difficulties in Brian’s teenage marriage to Marilyn Rovell.  When ‘Love You’ flopped the band simply gave up on Brian, cajoling him to write what ‘they’ wanted him to rather than letting him write out his demons. While they had a point commercially, what the others ‘miss’ is how valuable songwriting was to Brian’s recovery – in Brian’s (now disowned) autobiography ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice?’ he recounts how the band ordered his minders to keep him away from the piano for bad behaviour (had they let him write his demons out the way Dennis did he would have been around longer and they’d have had more respect, if not more record sales). This will reach stupidity levels with the toothless ‘MIU’ album round the corner (although full marks for letting ‘My Diane’ through from the ‘Adult Child’, that record’s one magnificent moment) but for now Brian hasn’t hit rock bottom quite yet and sounds surprisingly content and pleased to be making an album with a ‘theme’ instead of empty pop records or breaking his heart in two. His contributions are by turns fun and sinister, although its interesting that his hilarious cameo as ‘the grinch’ on ‘Child Of Winter’ from three years earlier was recorded right slap bang in the middle of the band’s ‘wilderness years’ when they had no record contract and for the first time Brian was free to truly escape the album treadmill (he sounds much happier here than he does being put to work or told what to write). ‘Winter Symphony’ isn’t quite so much fun and games, caught halfway between being joyful and sinister, but neither is it quite as desperate sounding as many of the songs from the past couple of years. Happily it’s the start of an upward trend for Brian, who will only get as sad again on songs deliberately written about his past (the best tracks on ‘That Lucky Old Sun’ for instance, or the title track of ‘Gettin’ In Over My Head’ and ‘Imagination’s glorious burst of harmonies which is ‘Cry’).

Carl, though, has never felt more lonely or more put upon. When Brian faded away it was his hard work that kept the band together and his memory of his brother’s work that enabled him to re-create Brian’s studio ‘magic’ so closely that all but the biggest fans struggle to tell a ‘Carl’ production from a ‘Brian’ one. Since 1968 Carl has been the de facto leader of the band and – to some extent – the band went along with his wishes, even when it meant recording an album in the Netherlands and recruiting some South African musicians into the touring band. But Mike Love’s presence of the band has been growing stronger, with the singer slowly coming round to the band’s true situation after years of blissful meditation and going with the flow and he’s found a ready ally in Al Jardine, a fellow convert to the idea that the band should go back to basics and stop trying to progress. All of Carl’s hard work is rendered useless, first by the loss of a record deal and then by a series of albums on which he’s progressively silent, even though its Carl giving all the album highlights (especially his sterling vocal on ‘For Once In My Life’ off ’15 Big Ones’, perhaps his greatest vocal of all). By the ‘Xmas’ record the band he’s been busy steering don’t care in his opinion at all and legend has it he walked out of the MIU sessions several times (possibly the xmas sessions too because he’s not very audible here). Vocally he’s missed hugely on this album and there’s a gaping hole where his guitarwork should be, which neither Mike Al or even Brian can fill. After dominating the band’s sound between 1967 and 1973, Carl doesn’t get a single lead vocal on the whole of this (admittedly unfinished) album – and only gets one on the ‘MIU’ follow-up. A shocking come down after selflessly turning the band around from the post-Brian malaise of 1967 and 1968 when Carl was doing pretty much all the work.

The only other Beach Boy truly capable of filling Brian’s hefty shoes is Dennis – and he’s a million miles away (figuratively if not geographically), passing up the chance to shack up in a student’s hall of residence in comparatively wintry Iowa in favour of the sea of California. The other Beach Boys had been adamant during the past few years that they don’t need Dennis anymore and that he’s something of a liability, but Dennis was the ‘heart’ and emotion of this band and without him they are just a semi-slick covers and novelties act. Thankfully Dennis, who refused outright to go to the MIU building, heard that the band were planning a Christmas album rather than just another rock and roll one and, warmed to the idea, broke off from his (also abandoned) ‘Bambu’ sessions long enough to add his own piece into the mix. Dennis comes and goes on many of the Beach Boys’ LPs, seemingly at random, but the first Xmas record saw more of Dennis’ presence than any record until ‘20/20’ and ‘Sunflower’ in 1969 and 1970. Christmas brought out something of the ‘giving’ side to Dennis and it make perfect sense that Brian should have given the 1964 record’s closing speech to the drummer to say (even if it makes no sense why they should leave his vocal fluffs intact – I know they were on a tight schedule, but surely not this tight!) The excellent CD of 2007 that mopped up all of Dennis’ finished and half-finished songs from the late 70s period sadly missed out both this song and ‘Baby Blue’ from ‘LA Light’, which is a crying shame as both of these most beautiful songs are among his strongest and the best of any song associated with The Beach Boys. Solemn, stately and other-worldly, they’re full of the intriguing orchestral touches Brian added to ‘Pet Sounds’ such as orchestras played back at half speed and harmonicas played a semi-tone down and, like all of Dennis’ work in 1977 and 78, sounds like nothing else. ‘Christmas Morning’ is well worth the price of the ‘Ultimate Christmas’ CD alone and as moving a song as any Beach Boys track I’ve heard – but of course it sticks out like a sore thumb on this record/compilation (especially on the ‘Ultimate’ CD, sandwiched between the teeth-clenchingly insincere ‘Belles of Christmas’ and ‘Little Saint Nick’ done as a charity advert).

More than any other vintage Beach Boys album (except close successor ‘MIU’) this is Mike and Al’s record. We’ve been slightly unkind to both men elsewhere on our reviews – and will be again when we finally get around to doing the whole MIU saga. But for once their cheery grins and insistence on singalong choruses works, if only because that’s what everybody does on Christmas records (the sincerity of the 1964 Beach Boys xmas record struck many reviewers at the time as a little bit odd). None of their contributions to this record are among the best Beach Boys moments (and are a pale shadow of past collaborations like ‘The California Saga’) but they at least have a charm and some vaguely entertaining ideas unlike ‘MIU’. ‘Mekelikimaka’ manages to avoid the traps of its re-write ‘Kona Coast’ by being more than just another surfing song thanks to the wish-fulfillment aspect of a shivering surfer remembering past glories, ‘Belles of Christmas’ sounds genuinely festive unlike re-write ‘Belles of Paris’ which sounds like the band got a map and started rhyming some names at random and ‘Santa’s Got An Airplane’ has a kind of desperate charm about it (it’s the one piece that worked better when not heard as a Christmas song). Mike and Al both think that getting The Beach Boys back to the point where the band is a commercial commodity and everyone knows what to expect from is clearly the way to go. And whose to say that it’s wrong, given that this record was never actually released and we can’t compare any sales data? 

This debate between being pioneering and holding onto your audience by the scruff of their neck has been going back and forth between the band since ‘Smile’ collapsed in 1967, but it’s here – during recordings for, of all things, a Christmas record - that it becomes a ‘showdown’ or maybe even a ‘shut down’ between the two sides. When this record (and its similar re-recorded successor ‘MIU’) flopped Mike and Al seem to lose confidence in their masterplan to gain sales, sensibly choose to bring Bruce Johnstone back into the band after an eight year absence (he goes onto do a fair job at all the things we listed in a ‘band leader’ earlier, though alas it’s a bit too late to save the band from falling apart) and to some extent give way to Carl and Dennis. Personally I much prefer this approach and think ‘LA Light’ is as good as it got for the band in the 1970s, but that record too failed to sell and to some extent proved Mike and Al right – who knows which response to dying sales was really the right one (though I still hope to buck the trend and make ‘LA Light’ a big seller one day if I keep plugging it enough on these pages!)  

To some extent, then, The Beach Boys are just using Christmas as an excuse to make lots of money and keep Warner Brothers happy whilst securing a lucrative contract with CBS, but there’s another argument to be made here. It could be that the band hoped that by going back to the ‘glory days’ of their first Xmas record and singing about peace they could unite the band and reward the fans who’d stuck by them through thick and thin. Certainly there’s a lot of ‘repeats’ of past Beach Boys glories here designed for fans rather than general audiences, from the mentions of ‘Little Saint Nick’ to more obscure recycling such as the forgotten Beach Boys classic ‘Hawaii’ on ‘Mekelekikimaka’ (then a song all about sun in Hawaii and now a song about escaping snow and going to Hawaii). It would be easy to dismiss this sort of repetition as yet more cynical money-making, with the band only ‘in it’ for a profit and re-doing what worked years before, but there’s another ‘additional document’ to take into account. Of all the songs recorded between 1963 and 1977 and released on the ‘Beach Boys Ultimate Christmas’, the sweetest and most moving moment is an unplugged version of ‘Little Saint Nick’, re-written as a plea for radio listeners to donate unwanted gifts to a local children’s hospital and recorded during sessions for the 2nd Xmas album. Freed of all the politics, of trying to prove a point about who was ‘right’ over the band’s direction and the pressure to come up with something new all the Beach Boys (except Dennis, sadly) turn in a terrific performance. Mike sounds like a natural lead singer for the first time since the 60s, Brian’s clearly having fun and Carl Wilson is doing his old band role of keeping everyone together; the band made no money from these little radio jingles and no one outside of Oregon ever got to hear this one, but for a couple of minutes there The Beach Boys are a band again. And that’s what Christmas is all about, bringing warring factions together for a temporary truce – it makes the heart warm, far more so than any of the commercial recordings here.

In our imaginary, ‘finished’ version of the record the album starts off with 1974’s festive single ‘Child Of Winter’. The only release the band made between losing their record contract in 1973 and gaining it again in 1976, it used to be ridiculously hard to find before EMI added it to their ‘Christmas’ line-up. For the life of me I’m not sure what the band were trying to do with this record, taped almost two years after sessions for ‘Holland’ ended. If it was a big attempt to re-launch the band’s career then why choose a Xmas single (hardly the most respected form of music)? And if it was a one-off the record company thought was worth releasing then, frankly, why did it turn out the way it did? To be fair there’s a good song buried in ‘Child Of Winter’ and the band turn in quite a good arrangement of it here, thanks mainly to Carl’s backing vocals and Mike’s infectious lead (where he sounds much more interested than he does in most of the band’s 70s recordings). The problem is that, given the Brian Wilson writing credit, we expected something more. This is one of Brian’s simpler songs, played in a straight 4/4 time and with a melody line clearly borrowed from several other Christmas Carols (by the middle eight the band simply give up pretending and go into a straight re-tread of ‘Here Comes Santa Claus’). The lyrics (by band friend and usually Dennis’ collaborator Steve Kalinich) are also hopelessly simple and a bit of a come-down after the intriguing title, being simply another empty Christmas song about Christmas activities seen through the eyes of a child (and a rather gormless one at that). Brian’s cameo as ‘the grinch’ in the  middle eight (where he sounds strangely like Mike) is either the most charming part of the song or more evidence that Brian’s commercial instincts have deserted him, depending on your taste. Add to that, whoever is playing the snowbells on this track messes up royally, not once but twice! I know its Christmas and all, but they should have been shot! In that sense, this record is similar to Brian’s last active involvement with The Beach Boys; the very odd and very Brian ‘Mount Vernon and Fairway’ Fairy Tale’, given away free with copies of ‘Holland’, confusing and delighting fans in equal measure. One part of this song that does work is actually the element that’s damaged many a promising Xmas record: the synths. Here they’re playing a proper tune but adding touches of colour rather than being the whole basis of the song as they are on the band’s later mid-70s recordings and sound pretty, well, Christmassy. A mixed bag, though I can’t tell if I’m just disappointed because I’d read so much about it before I finally owned a copy of it.

‘Santa’s Got An Airplane’ is yet another attempt to get Brian and Al’s 1969 collaboration ‘Loop De Loop’ onto a Beach Boys album (it almost made it onto 1970’s ‘Sunflower’ and various albums as late as 1981’s ‘Keepin’ The Summer Alive’ until finally seeing the light of day, with a new vocal from Al, in 1998 on outtakes set ‘Endless Harmony’). When heard how it was intended, as a novelty song about an aeroplane, it’s a novel way to spend three minutes, with a lot of wild and wacky (and very 60s) production n techniques and a silly chorus that makes full use of the band’s cracking harmonies. As heard here it’s a hopeless idea: why the hell should Santa have an airplane? And what’s happened to the band’s writing abilities – this song reads more like a monologue than a song lyric, with the rhymes in such odd places and the scansion so out (‘he sky-dives down to the chimney with ease, it’s Santa’s epical delivery to under your tree’ is at least four syllables too long) that the end result is quite surreal. In fact the band give up by verse 2 where ‘controls’ and ‘pole’ rhyme with, erm, ‘navigate by the stars’. Only the heart-warming reference to ‘Little Saint Nick’ working the controls of his new airplane the way he used to work his sleigh actually adds anything. And what’s happened to the band’s vocals: Al effortlessly managed to fit his vocal to the backing track in 1987, ten years later, so why does he sing so shrilly in 1977 (were the band really smoking that much?) I have a small soft spot for ‘Loop De Loop’, but this version of it is just a horrid, desperate-sounding mess. Anyway, for me less is more: the best of the many versions of this song around is Brian’s dreamy demo (titled ‘Sail Plane Song’), also included on the ‘Endless Harmony’ compilation. Bah humbug!

Moving on, ‘Christmas Time Is Here Again’ is the song I know least well here – in fact I only know it thanks to Youtube, though it is available on the ‘Christmas With The Beach Boys’ set. To be honest, I’d not been looking forward to listening to it – after all, how bad does a track not thought good enough to sit alongside ‘Santa’s Got An Airplane’ and ‘mekelekikimaka’ have to be? Hearing that this song is yet another re-tread, this time ‘borrowing’ the melody from Buddy Holly’s ‘Peggy Sue’ (and thus giving Holly and Petty a co-write) just made it worse. And yet, of all of Mike and Al’s contributions to this second album this one works the best. Al’s vocal is deliciously strong, as if the past few years have just been a bad dream, and the lyrics aren’t that bad, telling the tale of a boy waiting for Christmas morning with a lot more heart and pizzazz than ‘Child Of Winter’. OK, so I’d still prefer to hear the original, but the urgent chorus of ‘Christmas Christmas Christmas’ which replaces ‘pretty pretty pretty pretty Peggy Sue’ sounds a lot better on record than it does in print. Best of all, we get a full (or near-full) Beach Boys chorus for once on this album, with Carl and Brian on form at last. The Beach Boys will re-use this backing track for a straight forward cover of ‘Peggy Sue’ on ‘MIU’, taking all the fun out of the song along the way (especially the chorus, which sounds blooming awful on the ‘Peggy Sue’ version without Brian or Carl around). Bizarrely, though, this lifeless cover became something of a hit in Britain, the band’s first for some five years. I prefer it as a Christmas song...

‘Winter Symphony’ has its moments too. At first you think it’s going to be a really moody Brian Wilson piece, with its urgent string arrangement and plodding air (clearly the product of Brian banging out chords on a piano and fitting a song on afterwards). But despite the doom-laden air, this is actually a sweet song about how Winter isn’t as bad as it seems, with the chance to celebrate all the intricate details of a ‘winter symphony, snowflake fantasy’ and, in true Beach Boys style, there’s the chance to dream about the future when the sun will come out and ‘you’ll always be mine’. Brian may have written a better tune and rhyming ‘cosy nook’ with ‘hot drink and a book’ is a songwriting no-no, but taken as a whole this is a wonderfully witty and poignant song about fantasy and the passing of time. The band even let the song run long after the words have stopped, giving us a full two-minute long coda to show off the glossy string-and-horn arrangement – we haven’t heard Brian this confident about his work since ‘Pet Sounds’ and it’s quite unlike any other Beach Boys song of the 1970s. Brian’s double-track vocal, heard alone without any other band members, is wonderfully controlled and strong and by far the best thing he’s sung in this period. Perhaps that’s because, reading the (very) small print of my CD booklet I see it’s a song from 1975/76 and re-used for it’s Christmassy connotations. In that case, why on earth was this majestic piece passed over for ’15 Big Ones’ and ‘Love You’? Brian was also pretty ropey vocally in that period too, so this song really is a mystery all round, but a welcome one at that which deserved a much better fate than being stuck back in the vaults yet again.

Alas ‘I Saw Santa Rocking Round The Christmas Tree’ may well be the nadir of the band’s 1970s work. This time the song is ripped off Chuck Berry (particularly ‘No Particular Place To Go’) and poor Chuck doesn’t even get a writing credit! Perhaps I shouldn’t blame writer Al too much though: apparently the backing track was lifted wholesale from another unreleased Brian number called ‘Hey There Momma’. I’ve heard that that song is awful too, but it truly couldn’t be as toe-curlingly awful as this. ‘Santa’ starts with the hushed narration of Al Jardine’s sons Matt and Adam and, well, hard as they try it’s every bit as excruciating as you’d expect a poor song narrated by pre-teens to be. At least Matt seems to have  inherited his dad’s good-natured insincerity! Slightly more entertaining is the chorus for this song, made up of all the family members various Beach Boys were still in contact with, including the first recorded work of Brian’s Daughters Wendy and Carnie Wilson (they become two-thirds of ‘Wilson Phillips’ in the late 1980s, scoring many number ones together with John and Michelle Phillips’ ‘mini mama’ Chynna) as well as Hailey and Christian Love and Carl’s sons Jonah and Justyn. So far so sweet, but really there’s no point to this song at all, as its simply a re-telling of every other song about how Santa Clause looks a lot like the children’s daddy. The truly limp chorus, with a double-tracked Al still having less vocal presence than his sons, is truly bad even for a Christmas record and the fade-out with parping saxes, plodding drums and boogie-woogie piano must be one of the least interesting sections of any Beach Boys song. Even full of the joys of Christmas I can’t find one good thing to say about this record, sorry guys!   

‘Mekelekikimaka’ is an entertaining way to learn how to say ‘Merry Xmas’ in Hawaii. Alas, it’s not always entertaining for the right reasons: again the band are either trying too hard or not trying hard enough to get references to Christmas into a song that doesn’t really fit it, with lines like ‘that’s how they do the Island talk-a’ which really shouldn’t have been let through. That said, Mike and Al are at least putting the effort in and there is a good tune at the heart of all this, albeit one borrowed wholesale from past Beach Boys classic ‘Hawaii’. This song also features perhaps the perfect marriage between Christmas and The Beach Boys, with a poor surfer saving up his pennies so that one day he can fulfil his dream of spending his Christmas days in the sun, surfing. In context, it’s hard not to see this song as some sort of jealous response to Dennis’ success making his own records in California, spending time at the beach instead of trying to get a disruptive group to meditate and make xmas songs. Certainly, I prefer this version of the song to ‘Kona Christmas’, if only for the daft subject matter and Brian’s loopy harmonies on this festive version that are caught somewhere between sincerity and parody of past classics. The Hawaiian steel guitar is a nice touch too and evidence of a lot more thought than most of the tracks from this intended record. Like the next song, the original mix of this song was lost forever when the album was abandoned in 1977, suggesting perhaps that the band went on to re-record their ‘non-xmassy’ versions at a later date as the session boxes remain complete.

‘Belles Of Christmas’ is another song better known from its bastardised ‘MIU’ version and, again, it’s a lot more fun and a whole lot less patronising than ‘Belles Of Paris’, perhaps that worst record’s worst song. The faults of that song: the poor tune, the half-hearted vocals and the patronising lyric s remain, but somehow they make more sense in a Christmas record. Instead of trying to imagine life as some poverty-stricken Frenchman Al and Mike are imagining life as a group of Christmas-loving children. The song still sounds too much like a travelogue and not like a suitable lyric, but at least the subject matter is more forgivable. There’s also a much ‘tidier’ arrangement’ here, especially the backing vocals with Brian again on top form and a much better finale, where the mix fades down one aspect at a time until just the bells are left, like the fade-out to an old Christmas movie. Alas that means the new chorus us ‘Belles of Christmas, bells are ringing’, which is a lot less satisfying than the ‘MIU’ version’s ‘Church bells ringing, children singing’, but otherwise this xmas version is better in every way. Even Al sounds slightly more awake on the vocal, even if its the Beach Boys harmonies that catch the ear. Altogether, not too bad – which is a shock if you detest the ‘MIU’ version as much as I do!

Our imaginary record then ends with its clowning achievement. Dennis may be the only Brach Boy on ‘Morning Christmas’, but he learnt his trade in the band well and this song’s slow gradual growth from humble nothingness into epic beauty has the middle Wilson brother’s fingerprints all over it. This song is also strangely religious in a way none of these other tracks are, juxtaposing the happy birth of Jesus with the smiles on the faces of children all over the world on Christmas morning. As a result, the gormless kids unwrapping presents with fake smiles heard on so many of these other songs suddenly takes on a new meaning and a spirituality the other songs here cannot touch. The exotic sounds on this song are an old Dennis trick, used on much of the ‘Bambu’ songs from the same period, and feature an orchestra slowed down to sound much more ‘weighty’ and ominous and a piano and mouthorgan parts also slowed down to sound deeper (indeed, the instrumental ending to this track sound like the second half of the flowing instrumental ‘Cocktails’). The textures of this song, with its beautiful aah-ing choir, are as mesmerising and hypnotic as all of Dennis’ other recordings of the period, but the simple lyrics also say much more than any of the other, longer songs on this album. Almost haiku-like in their innocence and simplicity, they have a real sense of awe and wonder that suggests that early Christmases in the Wilson household must have been wonderful times indeed. There’s also a reprise of the chant at the heart of ‘Smile’, that ‘child is the father of the man’ and that ‘children who love to play’ can show adults the way they should lead their lives. I have heard some criticism of this song from some fans, namely that Dennis’ growly delivery is unsuited to the song and that it’s hard to hear the words, but even if 20 years of hard living have rendered Dennis’ once beautiful voice growly and husky, he still knows exactly what to do with it and you could never fault Dennis when it comes to real, heartfelt emotion. Clearly this is a song close to him and he spent a lot of time on it – to the point where if he hadn’t have bothered he might well have finished ‘Bambuu’ before hitting money problems and sinking into a drug-and-drink addled despair that saw Dennis dead by 1983- but I for one am glad he tried and I’m really annoyed that there wasn’t room for this song on ‘MIU’, where it might have risen from no stars to four courtesy of this song single-handed. One of the most moving Beach Boys songs of all, the effect of hearing this slow and stately song after 25 minutes of pop-rock madness is like seeing the stunning ‘Ave Maria’ finale of the Disney ‘Fantasia’ film after the madness of ‘A Night On Bald Mountain’. Even without a religious bone in my body I’m strangely moved by the majesty of this work and the way that salvation comes not from some great huge life-changing event but from small pin-pricks of light bringing healing peace. Dennis was quickly becoming the critic’s favourite Beach Boy anyway after 1977’s ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’ – he’d have become loved even more had The Beach Boys released this recording as planned.   

There’s at least one major reason to own either of the two hybrids of this album, then, but is ‘Merry Christmas From The Beach Boys’ the big mistake it’s often made out to be? Well, in parts, yes: we pretty much all loathed ‘Belles Of Christmas’ and ‘Mekelekikimaka’ in their original forms on ‘MIU’ (as ‘Belles of Paris’ and ‘Kona Christmas’ respectively) and they’re only a slight improvement on their original form. ‘Santa’s Got An Airplane’ sounds exactly like what it is: a hasty re-write of an outtake given a ‘Xmas’ setting even though it doesn’t work at all. ‘I Saw Santa Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree’ is also the single most misguided Christmas song outside of Paul McCartney’s ‘Wonderful Xmas Time’, too po-faced to be funny, too odd to singalong to and too twee to really care about. But the other songs here shows a care and a concern that had been missing from The Beach Boys’ catalogue for far too long and ‘Winter Symphony’ and especially ‘Morning Christmas’ deserve far better than to be stuck, forgotten, in a fault for 20 years. Why the band never returned to these songs (the two earlier excruciating examples apart) despite going through outtakes from other sessions over the next few albums is a mystery. Perhaps these sessions were just too tainted in ‘bad blood’ for the band to want to go back there – and that’s a shame because, in between the arguments mistakes and blunders there’s a really good strong message at the heart of this album about brotherly love and unity. The first Beach Boys Christmas album may still have the edge by a snowflake, thanks to some classy Brian Wilson songs, a better vocal chorus and the band’s leader in effortless, untouchable shape all round, but this second go is much more of a ‘band’ record, less obsessed with tradition and old carol;s done better by millions of other bands and more about what the Beach Boys are all about. Would it have been a success? Not on your nelly, but that doesn’t mean the band shouldn’t have tried to do an album like this – and, in part, they succeed at making a record that’s festive and enjoyable in it’s own right all year round. There are no standouts like ‘Little Saint Nick’ this time around, but thankfully there’s no interminable five minute versions of ‘We Three Kings’ to sit through either, so if you have one of these festive Beach Boys compilations in your sticking this year relax – it won’t be as bad as you think it’s going to be. And at least time around the band don’t hide the best track between a ‘Christmas message’ from Dennis fluffing his lines. Christmas without the Beach Boys? Why that would be like, err…Summer without the Beach Boys! Unthinkable! Overall rating (based purely on finished material): ♫♫♫♫ (4/10).

Other Beach Boys articles from this website 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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