Monday, 18 March 2013
The Beach Boys "Carl And The Passions - So Tough" (1972)
“I need a breeze blowing softly to stop my wind vane from standing, I need a whole lot of sunshine to stop my sundial advancing, I need some soil before my grass will grow, I need some spark to help my candle glow, relief I cried, ain’t no shuck and jive, I need a mess of help to stand alone!” “Rolling in madness she does everything for me, wherever she goes you know the devil dances and the gods lay down in defeat” “I’m a simple man, for all I know this may be the hard way, but it’s easier for me to take the changes that are always amazing, but never to let them fence me in” “He came down (to make me care for my home), gave me a song (to help the sound of my own), showed me the way (to get through every day), I thank you lord for sending this man home!” “Mystic maiden’s mind is soft and sexy, she can mess my mind with the stuff that she knows, her new found beauty goes beyond her covering and sets a flame in her soul” “One arm over my shoulder, sandals dance at my feet, eyes that’ll knock you right over, ooh Marcella so sweet” “Brave new woman standing proud and dazzling, grips the goal that eluded her soul, direction bringing her to now’s tomorrow, and my love for her still grows” “Look at me, funny face, that’s not you, a wrinkled nose, a tear, you’re crying!” “All of my life I haven’t known much, all I know is what I feel, and what I feel is love” “Daybreak and I take a glide to the pool of peace inside (always travelling), two waves and I travel by – and that makes all the difference to me” “Life’s supporting waves of bliss, mother divine’s precious kiss, brings with love the light of wisdom and the gift of eternal freedom”
THE BEACH BOYS “CARL AND THE PASSIONS – SO TOUGH” (1972)
You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone/ Here She Comes!/He Come Down/Marcella//Hold On Dear Brother/Make It Good/All This Is That/Cuddle Up
Sometimes I approach my collection like a hyper-sensitive primary school teacher. There’s always one part of my collection that seems to be being bullied by someone else, albums that get attention they don’t quite deserve or other albums that simply get lost in the mix of louder, bigger, more look-at-me albums. Of all the records in my collection ‘Carl and the Passions – So Tough’ is probably the best example of this. It’s sandwiched in the Beach Boys pantheon between the commercial success of ‘Surf’s Up’ and the artistic success of ‘Holland’, two noisier, far better known albums that every true Beach Boy fan owns. It contains no ‘hits’ or ‘near hits’ that were played on radio a lot – something which is unusual even for quite an unloved patch in the band’s history. Many of the tracks are timid – low key arrangements, whispery tunes and shadowy sketchy ideas that get eaten alive compared to other early 70s tracks like ‘California Saga’ or ‘Cabinessence’. There are only eight songs on the album – two of which don’t even feature any ‘established’ members of the band singing lead vocals - and a running time of 34 minutes that’s short even by Beach Boys standards. Worst still, this is an album that seems destined for comparison with other great works: the current CD re-issue doubles this album with the far more energetic ‘Holland’ and – ridiculously – was released on vinyl as a double album with ‘Pet Sounds’, so all fans could stand and sneer at how badly the two albums compared (although I actually prefer ‘So Tough’). Ignored for years, dismissed by fans and critics alike (one hilarious customer review on Amazon starts ‘Than k God it’s only eight tracks...’) and one of the band’s poorest sellers, ‘So Tough’ has had a miserable life in the 40 odd years since its release.
However if you accept that ‘Carl and the Passions’ is going to be a slow burner – one of those kids that suddenly blossoms in stature and intelligence some time after his peers have learned the basics – then there’s actually much to love about this album. By turns its daft and silly-headed and oh so serious, takes in hard rock, gospel and epic classical music balladry and is the epitome of a band being dragged in at least four, maybe even six or seven directions at once (although that said this album also includes ‘Marcella’, perhaps the most template-perfect Beach Boys song of them all). What do you do with a kid like that? Well, you nurture it – the band are clearly in a bad place when this album is being recorded (band manager Jack Riley is about to abscond having taken most of the band’s savings with him; longterm member Bruce Johnstone has just quit after six years having had suspicions of the sort, spiritual leader and focus point Brian Wilson is still very very poorly and barely functioning and Dennis Wilson has just fractured his arm in a stupid, pointless accident leaving him unable to drum on any of the recordings) and even though there’s dozens of things the band clearly get wrong there’s also a dozen of things it gets right. ‘Holland’ is around the corner and it remains one of my all-time favourite Beach Boys records, and this album shares pretty all the same ingredients as that album – it’s just that things haven’t quite gelled as yet.
The big talking point of the time was that perhaps the quintessentially white-American band of all time had suddenly become multi-racial with the addition of Blondie Chaplin and Ricki Fataar from a group called ‘The Flame’ that Carl Wilson had taken under his wing and had even opened for the Beach Boys on a couple of tours. This sort of thing would make no comment now, after an explosion of mixed race bands in the late 1970s like The Specials and the ironically named Average White Band, but at the time it was unusual for any band (the first generally accepted mixed-race band were Love, just beating the Jimi Hendrix Experience by a few months in 1966 – only six years before this album) and unheard of in an established band. It would be wrong to say the new members hugely change the band’s sound or steer it any new direction, but Blondie (now a backing singer with the Rolling Stones) has a distinctive vocal howl quite different to any of the founding Beach Boys and multi-instrumentalist Ricki Fataar (who went on to play George Harrison in the Rutles TV special and various re-unions) has a much tighter, controlled drum sound than Dennis’ typically loose and raw playing (whilst not sounding quite like the session musicians of the 1960s either). Most fans hate the new songs the partnership bring in and its true to say that they don’t sound terribly Beach Boys-ish – but then neither do the original Beach Boys themselves on much of this album and ‘Leaving This Town’, for one, is an amazing song (unfortunately for ‘So Tough’ it’s on ‘Holland’ rather than this album).
The irony is that the Beach Boys added new members and gathered a new sound when there was such a nostalgia for their old sound. The very title of this album is a nod to the past and the band’s just-passed 10th anniversary (‘Carl and the Passions’ is what the band were called when they weren’t ‘The Pendletones’ and before they accidentally became ‘The Beach Boys’ – when a teenage Carl, the most accomplished guitarist in the group, threatened to quit for a school band brother Brian offered to call the group after him in a desperate attempt to get him to say which, together with much nagging from mum Audrey, worked; the ‘So Tough’ title is less easy to guess but might simply show how close the band were to breaking up in 1972). It may have been felt, too, that 1971 had seen the full passing of the band from being Brian Wilson and the other Beach Boys to being Carl and the other Beach Boys but actually their new lead singer, equal writer and always lead guitarist is comparatively quiet on this actual LP (its very Carl actually – the first time the rest of the band give him total creative control as ‘executive producer’ he goes into the background a little to let the others shine). The very fact that Warner Brothers added ‘Pet Sounds’ to the contents of this record demonstrates what nostalgia there was for the band’s ‘glory days’, something that the runaway success of two compilations of classic tracks (‘Endless Summer’ and the lesser known but actually superior ‘Spirit Of America’) had also proved. Admittedly, when Warner Brothers agreed to buy up the rights from old label Capitol (who were surprisingly quick to get rid of their biggest ever cash cows and typically ungrateful) they were actually after the session tapes for ‘Smile’, an album that label head Mo Ostin kept pushing for the band to finish and even had its own proposed catalogue number for a few months (before it became obvious that Brian was in no fit state to put the album together – and without him not even Carl had any idea over how the fragments should be stuck together). Whichever album was intended for re-issue/finishing, however, the very fact that the band were being asked to dreg up their past rather than look to the future shows how things were turning in the record market and that groups who’d been around as long as the Beach Boys (who were first, by the way, with a year’s head-start on even the Beatles) were now the ‘old’ established generation, not the youth movement straining at the leash. Add in, too, the fact that early sessions for the album still had Bruce Johnstone in the band and offering up his own Beach Boy tribute ‘Endless Harmony’ for the album (eventually released on his return in 1981 on the album ‘Keepin’ The Summer Alive’) and the band are clearly in nostalgic mood.
It could be too that no one had any real idea of what the Beach Boys sounded like in 1972. The success of ‘Surf’s Up’ had been down to a great cover, some splendid Smile-era songs revived from the vaults (it’s a mystery that more weren’t used, too, given how many near or completely finished songs we know exist thanks to the ‘Smile Sessions’ box set of 2011) and one or two lucky guesses that chimed with the times (the actually quite tame 50s re-write ‘Student Demonstration Time’ and a new ecological bent in the lyrics). However The Beach Boys were never a ‘band’ in the traditional sense that they always went in the same musical direction as each other and without Brian as captain of the ship none of the crew – not even Carl – felt comfortable enough imposing a band ‘sound’ across an album. This eclecticism works wonders on ‘Holland’ (which seems to travel in several directions at once – and is a real ‘travel’ style album from the title down), but somehow never gels on ‘So Tough’. That may be because of the shorter running time, the newness of the band or simply the sheer size of the gap between musical styles but it’s been said many a time that this album isn’t an album – it’s a collection of A and B sides being worked on by different bands at once. The ‘transcendental meditation’ pair of Mike Love and Al Jardine are famous now for their mega falling out in the 1990s but back in 1972 were the closest they’d ever been, with two songs all about their newfound peace and beliefs. Of the rest of the band only Carl appears. Dennis, meanwhile, is working entirely on his own with just Daryl Dragon (soon to become the first half of ‘The Captain and Tennille’) for support, crafting breathy orchestral ballads that are the natural link between his simple romantic songs for ‘Sunflower’ (with ‘Forever’ the most famous example) and the rather scarier, romance-gone-wrong songs on his solo albums. Neither of his two songs sounds anything like the Beach Boys (there’s no drums, bass or guitar) and there’s only a slight lilting harmony part from a full band choir on the fadeout that suggests the others even heard what he was up to. The two new members Chaplin and Fataar seem to have simply carried on with what should have been songs for the second ‘Flame’ LP and only Carl (who produced their first and as it turned out only album) joins in at all. That just leaves two songs from the pen of a very poorly Brian Wilson who has no interest in the actual recording and simply leaves things to younger brother Carl to finish. There’s almost no correlation between the four parts and a confusing running order mangles things up further, putting Brian’s two songs near the beginning and Dennis’ two near the end (not for the last time on this site the ‘cassette’ lineup works better, dividing the songs up into pairs for the most part and with ‘He Come Down’ now the first track and Dennis’ two songs last as a sort of medley that’s very effective).
We’ve looked before on this site many times at what Brian Wilson was going through in this period, none of it good and most of it inflicted on him by the outside world (which is a poor returns for the love he spread to people in the 1960s). However, in 1972 things were looking, if not quite back to normal, then at least on an up. Increasingly sickened with the Beach Boys and pleased-yet-jealous that they’d been able to maintain some sort of a career without him, Brian had drawn away from the band he’d championed for most of the past decade. His big project of the year was ‘American Spring’, an album of mainly ballads he’d been writing for his wife Marilyn and her sister Dianne (Brian may have been feeling guilty that she’d all but given up her career to look after, first, their children and then Brian himself, who spent most days in bed). Brian poured more energy into that album than any since ‘Friends’ in 1968 and was crushed all over again when it flopped (the album’s so rare even I don’t have a complete copy, although I have heard bits of it on bootlegs and on Youtube). Sweetly, Brian chose his brother Dennis’ ‘Forever’ for the duo to cover as well as his own ‘This Whole World’ (both released on the Beach Boys’ ‘Sunflower’ from 1970), an early version of ‘Good Time’ (which appears on 1977’s ‘The Beach Boys Love You’) and an unissued song co-written with cousin Mike Love titled ‘Thinkin’ Bout You Baby’. Given how few songs the latter were writing together in 1972 it seems fair to say that this song at least was half-written with the Beach Boys in mind and would actually have made a more apt and better addition to the album than ‘Mess Of Help’ (although that song would have been even less suitable for the ‘Spring’ – perhaps Brian was so worn out working on ballads he wanted to write a heavy rocker for variety?!) Even this project was a strain for Brian, though, who gave up on the recording after a while and left it to faithful Beach Boy engineer Steve Desper to finish with a few occasional interjections (the fact that the album was being recorded in Brian’s own house made the experience strained for all concerned and probably sent Brian backwards even more so than the commercial ‘failure’ of both ‘So Tough’ and ‘Holland’).
One thing that would have made this album better is the production. Compared to some (The Rolling Stones and early Kinks for instance) all Beach Boys have really sonically clear and well spaced mixes, something as essential to their work as it is to the similarly productions by contemporaries The Beatles and The Moody Blues. The band had been super-lucky in finding that this strength continued when they left Capitol for Warner Brothers in 1970 with ‘Sunflower’ and no other Beach Boys album (except possibly ‘Beach Boys Love You’) suffer from production issues. However, ‘So Tough’ often sounds like a mess. The CD is much improved on the vinyl but even then mixes are often muddy or illogically balanced so that, for instance, ‘Here She Comes’ sounds like a drum solo by Ricki Fataar with some people mumbling in the background and ‘He Came Down’ veers so hugely between far too quiet and WAY TOO LOUD! that it’s more than a little wearing on the ears. Add in fades that don’t go in or out cleanly (‘Cuddle Up’ I’m looking at you!) and a completely over the top production kitchen sink job on ‘Mess Of Help’, which should be one of the simplest of all Beach Boys songs, and you begin to understand why so many people steered clear of this record. The question is why – engineer Steve Desper was certainly earning his money’s worth, effectively producing Brian’s extra-curricular ‘American Spring’ project at about the same time, but his work on both that album and other Beach Boys classics for Warner Brothers are superb. I’m tempted to explain it away by the fact that new multi-track recorders were in during that time and it took a few years for other band to fully exploit them too – and then I hear ‘Holland’ (which Desper also engineered) which is one of the best sounding records of all from the early to mid 70s, where the same issue should apply. Strange.
As a result of all these things ‘So Tough’ is one of those albums where you have to search for the golden nuggets sprinkled across a mammoth mineshaft, but they’re certainly there alright. The whizz-bang multi-layered harmonies on ‘Marcella’ shows how great the Beach Boys sound on the rare occasions when they do all work together in harmony (in both senses of the word) and is my candidate for the single best vocal band performance they ever ever did (given how many harmonic gems there are in this band’s catalogue that’s quite a claim!) Dennis’ ‘Make It Good’ and ‘Cuddle Up’ are two very touching songs, delicate orchestral pieces of beauty that reveal just what an empty, aching heart beat inside the seemingly tough exterior of the middle Wilson brother. Ignored for far too long, they’re among the best songs Dennis ever recorded with the group (even if both still pale in the shadow of the moving solo record ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’). Finally we have ‘All This Is That’, the single best song the Maharishi ever inspired in either of the bands in his care (the Beatles being the other) with a serenity and calm that’s made for quiet, understated albums like this one. Even the other tracks, lesser though they surely are, have a certain ‘something’ about them on repeated playing: Blondie has a great voice even if his songs don’t always give him something great to sing; meanwhile ‘Mess Of Help’ and ‘She Come Down’ are as out-there as the Beach Boys ever get, re-modelling themselves as a hard funky rock group and a gospel choir respectively, experiments that clearly fail but have a lot of fun messing round with the formula.
Many fans list ‘So Tough’ as the weakest Beach Boys record, which has always felt a bit hurtful to me. Now I’m not saying that ‘So Tough’ is the greatest album they ever did either (although Elton John makes an unexpectedly good case for exactly that argument in his typically eccentric sleeve-notes to the CD re-issue of this album) – it’s too short, insubstantial and, yes, weird for that to be true. But equally this album is clearly head and shoulders above other supposedly well loved BB records (such as the all-singing, all dancing look-at-me ‘15 Big Ones’ which doesn’t even have the decency to include many group originals) or the ‘MIU Album’ (which is what the Beach Boys might have sounded like without a Wilson brother in the group to drive them forward – winningly commercial, but hopelessly empty) and is clearly trying its hardest to be loved, not simply shallowy accepting our money and cynically getting by with as little effort as possible. If you’re a new fan who’ve recently discovered the group then, well, this isn’t necessarily your first port of call to embrace everything that’s great about this band but ‘Marcella’ alone should keep you happy. If you’re an old fan who was put off by the bad reviews and found this album so rare to get hold they never actually got round to buying the thing then it’s worth another look and its random experimentation has actually aged rather well across 40 years. If you’re an old fan who loves the Beach Boys and owns absolutely everything they ever did then, well, you probably know already that sometimes the so-called lesser albums in our collections can be special too and you’re probably grooving away to this album as I speak. Far from being the timid kid in the playground this album is a remarkable and actually quite brave achievement which, with just a little more confidence, could easily be in the position to laugh at the other albums around it instead of always being picked on.
‘You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone’ is a song that would be great if it was all done simply and simply rolled off by The Beach Boys in one un-caring raw and ragged take – but is ruined by too much thinking going on. And that starts with the title – to be fair it sounds great when Carl Wilson’s singing it double-tracked and doing his impression of a raw-throated blues singer, but what does it actually mean? Not a lot when you come to read the lyrics, which are par for the course for those written by band manager and lyricist Jack Rieley (i.e. weird) without approaching the charm of other collaborations like ‘Steamboat’ ‘Funky Pretty’ or ‘The Trader’ on album ‘Holland’ (sample lyric: ‘I need a breeze blowing softly to stop my wind vane from standing’). The backing track is simply too noisy too: normally I love the Beach Boy mega-productions but this one is simply so chaotic your ears don’t know which way to turn: one minute there’s a tack piano, the next there’s a very 70s synthesiser and then there’s a screechy violin. There’s a whole essay to be had here on why the similarly packed ‘Good Vibrations’ works and this track doesn’t, but suffice to say that there’s not as clear a path from A to B and the wonky mix (which makes the two Carls sound as if they’re singing from a cupboard under the stairs) doesn’t help. Chances are I’d have liked this song much more had I heard it on its original state (quick check on youtube – no, sadly, still no one’s posted a bootleg of it yet) as ‘Beatrice From Baltimore, originally a collaboration between Brian and his friend and songwriter Tandyn Almer (later a collaborator with Brian on ‘Sail On Sailor’ and this album’s ‘Marcella’, perhaps the two greatest Beach Boy songs of the period; sadly this unsung hero of the Beach Boys career died two months before this article was written), which is according to those who’ve heard it much gentler and subtler. Perhaps the worst sin of all for an opening track of an album: it sounds nothing like any previous Beach Boys song – and nothing at all like the rest of the album either. It’s almost as if the band are trying to get rid of their fans by making it the opening song on the album. All that said, I’m quite fond of the instrumental in the middle (when the band stop making noise and start playing the tune, with a lovely Jerry Garcia-ish pedal steel lilt) and the ‘she don’t know me’ round which might be simplistic but sounds wonderful in full Beach Boys harmony. Still, all that said, ‘Mess of help’ needed a mess of help more to become an album highlight.
‘Here She Comes’ is a second track in a row that sounds nothing like the Beach Boys and, indeed, it’s likely that none of the ‘established’ members are on this song at all. Ricki Fataar is one of the world’s most natural musicians, able to coax a note of anything with notes like Paul McCartney and Brian Jones, and plays most (possibly all barring Blondie’s brief guitar solo) of the instruments here. Ricki also sings lead for the only time during his four songs with the Beach Boys, with Blondie Chaplin taking over for the choruses. Perhaps Ricki was nervous about his vocals (he never sang with the Rutles either) because the worst mix on the worst mixed Beach Boys album hides the vocals under loud pounding drums and a keyboard-dominated track that alternates between piano, synthesiser and organ. Rumours abound that this song and ‘Hold On Dear Brother’ are outtakes from a second ‘Flame’ album that was abandoned when the call to the Beach Boys came through but apparently that’s not true: everything on this album (barring Dennis’ two songs) were recorded in one 10 day rush (albeit with different members of the band tending to work in separate studios). Sadly with only four songs to their name we don’t hear enough of these Fataar/Chaplin collaborations to get a real feel for their music (and one of those booted off onto an obscure live album) but all four read a lot better on paper than they sound and are pretty encouraging for the ‘beginning’ of a songwriting career. Lyrically, this is one is a very George Harrison/Cat Stevens-esque song about searching for spiritual enlightenment and finding it lacking in a material world that causes suffering and illusions that get in the way of progress (sample lyric: ‘I’m a simple man, for all I know this might be the hard way, but it’s easier for me’). It’s a shame that the melody can’t match the words, but even so there’s a pretty good piano riff propping the whole song up and a nice rush from every chorus into a desperate-sounding harmony-drenched coda that’s extremely effective and shows that the band had at least heard of the Beach Boys, even if they weren’t out to copy them. This song’s a grower, but you have to work so hard just to hear what’s going on in the track and the whole thing sounds so un-Beach Boys-ish that I can understand why so many fans hate this recording so much.
As for me, I hate ‘He Come Down’, a song that many Beach Boys fans seem to quite like. At least it sounds a bit like the Beach Boys for the first time on the record – well, the Beach Boys as they’d have sounded had they been a gospel choir and worshipped Jesus and his 12 disciples instead of Chuck Berry and the Four Freshmen. A sappy, dappy song that sounds like its been stolen from the soundtrack of the film ‘Sister Act’, it veers so quickly between genuine celebration of spiritualism and mock-gabbling that the listener can never quite make out if the band mean it or not (chances are composers Mike Love and Al Jardine, big believers in transcendental meditation, did take this song seriously – and the rest of the band didn’t).Personally I’ve never been much of a fan of gospel, which always sounds more fun to sing and record than it does to listen to, and the sparse, unusual backing of a piano and organ doesn’t do the song many favours. That said, Carl’s mixture of innocence and cynicism is a delight and Blondie really nails the song’s effortless joy, while the sudden unexpected stop-start coda by Al with Carl answering is genuinely exciting. Unfortunately set against these positive elements are Mike Love at his most mumbling and half-asleep, a chorus so horribly awkward and convoluted only the converted could possibly be persuaded to sing it (‘I believe it, dig deep if you know what I mean now, way down inside, he come down down down down down down yes he did down’) and lyrics that seem to have been lifted directly out of a TM bible, with no extra thought added (well at least they’re educational I suppose: ‘Hey-yon-ducoma-nauga-ton means avoid the suffering before it comes’, which is interesting but no excuse for a proper song lyric). The last notes (an elongated ‘YES I BELEEEEEEVE ITTTTTT!!!) might well be the single worst moment on any Beach Boys album – and seeing as I’ve still never quite forgiven the band for forking out £10 on the mind-numbingly awful ‘Summer In Paradise’ album 20 years ago that’s really saying something. Not one of their better ideas, despite some good passages.
So far the rest of the album sounds like it’s been ‘playing’ at being a Beach Boys album. ‘Marcella’, though, is a shimmering exotic beauty, intoxicating and hypnotically beautiful as only the very best music can be. I adore this song, which might not be the most original ever written but shows off all the things the Beach Boys can do that no other band can even touch. Brian Wilson’s genius had been dimmed not extinguished by the previous few years of depression, illness and self-doubt and the melody to this song is superb, especially the powerful ‘round’ on every chorus that might well be the only part of this album where all seven of the band members sing their hearts out together. Never has a narrator sounded more in love or smitten than on this swirling passage (‘One arm over my shoulder, sandals dance at my feet, eyes that knock you right over, oh Marcella so sweet’) where all time seems to stop and (thanks to a wonderful production from Carl that makes full use of double-tracking) every single sense seems to be filled up with images of the title character. All the band excel themselves and their harmonies have rarely been better, especially the extended round that takes up a full 90 seconds on the end of the track and yet doesn’t last a second too long. Highlights include Carl’s feisty lead (‘She’s so fine, my my my hey-hey’), Dennis’ soulful second vocal, Mike’s bass rumbles on the choruses and his quiet, plaintive lead vocal heading into the coda that’s amongst his most powerful singing. I saw Brian Wilson and his backing band The Wondermints live in 2006 and this song – sadly never played live by the actual Beach Boys - was the absolute highlight of the set, rocking away for a good ten minutes or more. Few songs get it as perfect as ‘Marcella’s does but even a slightly dodgy lyric (again from Riley: this time the sample line is ‘mystic maiden’s soft and sexy, can mess my mind with the stuff that she knows’ – note the second use of ‘mess’ as a verb on an album) can’t get in the way of one of the best things the Beach Boys ever did. The band should really have released this song as a single instead of ‘Mess Of Help’ – it might, just might, have rescued their career and shown the public that there was still a great deal of life in the band yet.
‘Hold On Dear Brother’ is the second Fataar-Chaplin song and again sounds quite unlike the Beach Boys even for this album, being not quite as good as their first (or their third and fourth on ‘Holland’). A slow half-waltz with a curious sort of limp (the beat actually goes 1-2-3, 1-2-3-4(WHALLOP!) and a pedal steel playing in the background throughout, I’m willing to bet nobody who didn’t own this album would guess this was the Beach Boys, even passionate fans. Once again the lyrics rescue a so-so melody, with some actually quite poetic lines about whether to end a relationship or not when it doesn’t seem to be developing or becoming mutually supportive (the ‘brother’ in the title could be the narrator singing to himself in lonely support while worrying about his girlfriend or could be about a ‘brother’ - my guess is this song was written when ‘The Flame’ seemed to be, err, extinguished and falling apart before Ricki and Blondie got the call to be Beach Boys). Blondie seems unusually uncomfortable with the vocal, even breaking off completely on the line ‘I want your love’, which could mean either that these words are gobbledegook or a bit too close to the truth. Some of the lines seem to ‘feel’ very real (‘What can I love that isn’t you? But you never understand inside of me’), but it’s a shame more thought wasn’t put into the rather drab chorus (simply ‘Hold on dear brother’ repeated four times over) and there’s not quite enough variety or thought in this song to make it take off. Still, I prefer this song to many a Beach Boys fan who have probably never played these ‘Flame’ songs since getting the album home; if only the other Beach Boys had taken more interest (as they do on the stunning ‘Leaving This Town’ from ‘Holland’) then this song might have been better all round!
Next up is Dennis’ ‘Make It Good’ which isn’t so much a song as a free form tone poem, with Dennis’ rather uncomfortably double-tracked voice accompanied by a full size orchestra. Like much classical music to my ears (barring the always melodious Gustav Holst) this piece would have been better had it had an actual tune, rather than the listener being left to sway in the buffeting winds of the orchestral swells that blow hot and cold without fading. Still, what we do have is quite lovely and more evidence after the songs on the ‘Sunflower’ album of what a sensitive, un-quenchable emotional hole the middle Wilson brother was (I still don’t know why he didn’t get any songs onto the ‘Surf’s Up’ album). The song is clearly written with two-times wife Karen Lamb in mind, the narrator promising he’ll ‘make it good’ after an argument that’s left him, mid-curse, an emotional wreck at the sight of her sobbing. Like almost all of Dennis’ work, there’s a slightly unfinished air about this song which rather robs it of its full beauty but there’s no questioning the emotional impact and honesty of the song which veers from a whisper to a full-blooded scream within just three short and simple verses. Few rock-pop musicians would be able to handle the mixture of Wagner and Strauss orchestrations at the heart of the song and while the whole thing sounds deeply out of place here in the album (it works far better as a sort of prelude that runs straight into ‘Cuddle Up’) and it makes one yearn to hear what a full album of pieces like this might have sounded like (both this and ‘Cuddle Up’ were rescued from an abandoned first attempt at a Dennis Wilson solo album – sadly Dennis only finished one and that didn’t come out until 1977).
‘All This Is That’ is a sudden lurch back to Beach Boys territory, but it makes for very splendid territory all the same. This is a simpler, quieter admission of faith by Love and Jardine (who are at the peak of their interest in the Maharishi and his teachings in this period) than ‘He Come Down’ and much more believable and heartfelt. Starting with the hummable chorus ‘I am that, thou are that and all this is that’, the song takes on the feel of a Maharishi lecture, explaining that we are all part of nature and nature lives on inside us (the chant ‘Jai Guru Dev’, which you can also hear on The Beatles’ ‘Across The Universe’, translates as the rather lovely phrase ‘I am at one with the universe – and the universe is at one with me’). The narrator sounds like the road-weary veteran already heard on past Beach Boys songs as ‘The Trader’ and ‘Lookin’ At Tomorrow’ (Carl’s weary softly spoken ‘always travelling’ in the first verse speaks volumes) having his eyes opened up to the beauty in life around him. Mike, Al and Carl all alternate lead vocals and the former, especially, is on top form on a song that clearly meant a lot to its composer (although chiefly written by Love, the song was started by Jardine after trying to base a song on the Robert Frost poem ‘The Road Not Taken’; the similarities are superficial as the poem starts with the narrator at a crossroads in life, not sure which path he should take and taking the one ‘less travelled’, although he does find at journey’s end that the fact that no one else has been there before him ‘makes all the difference to me’). Some commentators have even gone so far as to claim ‘All This Is That’ is the best Beach Boys song not to have a Brian Wilson writing credit; while I’m not one that agrees (Carl’s ‘Feel Flows’ and Dennis’ ‘Forever’ ‘Baby Blue’ and ‘Only With You’ take that prize according to my ears) it is one of the very best Mike and Al wrote between them, up there with ‘California Saga’ as their best work as a partnership. One of the best songs on the album, especially the sweet fade which drops out one vocal and one instrument at a time, leaving a ghostly Carl serenely singing to himself, as if fading back into the real world. An excellent piece of work.
The same goes for album closer ‘Cuddle Up’, which is Dennis at his finest. Hearing this tender love song, it’s easy to believe why Dennis had five wives (one of them twice) and countless more girlfriends in his brief life – and why so many women kept going back to him after he’d let them down. Like many a Dennis song this looks nothing on paper (eight lines, none of them particularly original), but when combined with the music ebbing and flowing with passionate abandon and Dennis’ purring, sultry vocal it’s enough to make you go weak at the knees. Like ‘Make It Good’ the Wagnerian-Straussian strings are perhaps a tad too powerful and seemingly have nothing in common with a Beach Boys sound (this was meant for a solo album remember – although whether Carl added his multi-tracked vocal harmonies at a later date or was simply helping his brother out on his pet project is unknown). Also, equal credit should probably go to Daryl Dragon, who helped Dennis arrange these two pieces and even plays sensitive piano on the opening of this song. However this is obviously Dennis’ work and his personality and musical taste is in every pore of this truly beautiful and haunting song, one that signposts well his even more ambitious and unique work on ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’ and ‘Bambuu’ (although most of the songs on those two projects tend to have a bit more ‘bite’ from a then-hardened and slightly more bitter Dennis several abandoned relationships, projects and drink and drug sessions down the line). Who’d have thought in 1961, when Dennis first appeared on stage as a not-that-practised drummer, clearly there as the token band heart-throb who’d taken up music to help his brother out and to impress some girls, that he had the capacity and talent to come up with such original heart-breaking music? A surprise to many fans, then and now, ‘Cuddle Up’ is a terrific achievement that may have sounded out of step with everything else around in music in early 1972 but, frankly, a ‘road less travelled’ that everyone else should have followed instead of an empty pop chart filled with glam and novelty pop. A really sweet coda, when the song effectively begins all over again only with Carl’s harmonies soaring to heaven in the background, is the icing on a very lovely cake.
However, it must be said that however good ‘Cuddle Up’ is out of context, on the album it makes no sense and is all too obviously part of a solo project. Unfortunately that’s what almost all of the ‘So Tough’ record sounds like – a series of solo projects made by different bands released under the Beach Boys name because they all knew that, in 1972 with interest at an all-time low, a Beach Boys solo deal would be almost impossible to get. The only band member present on (almost) all of these songs is Carl, who fulfils his role as ‘executive producer’ on the album exceptionally well (when you consider that this is a role which varies from getting high with Dennis, empathising and being patient with Brian, encouraging the newbies Ricki and Blondie and trying not to start a war with the breakaway Mike and Al, that’s no mean feat). Unfortunately, though, an album made in parts by different bands will always sound like a compilation rather than a fully fledged album, no matter how great the individual pieces are (‘The White Album’ might be a candidate for the greatest collection of songs the Beatles ever released, but it’s not a great ‘Beatles’ album as they only play on about three songs together). Perhaps this album is just plain unlucky, one of those unfortunates that wouldn’t have been loved no matter how great it is (the Beach Boys really were unpopular in 1972 after all). ‘So Tough’ deserved to be hailed at the time for its three great songs (‘Marcella’ ‘All This Is That’ and ‘Cuddle Up’) but it was overlooked largely because of the mess of the opening three tracks. It should have then been hailed retrospectively as a stepping stone to greater things (not least ‘Holland’) but poor album sales and the loss of Chaplin and Fataar in 1974 kyboshed the Beach Boys recording contract until their heavily promoted, less than successful ‘comeback’ in 1976 by which time it was almost all over (only patches of ‘Beach Boys Love You’ and great swathes of ‘L.A. Light Album’ ever reach the heights attained here and on ‘Holland’). It really was tough for this album - which is probably three songs and 10 minutes short of true greatness - and was made by a band who were falling apart for an audience that was disappearing and a record label who were already begin to wish they’d never signed the band in the first place. It’ll certainly never become your favourite Beach Boys album if you own anything close to them all (although certain songs on it might become your favourite tracks). But there’s nothing on this album so bad it’s worth casting out to the un-loved and un-played sections of your record collection (along with the chart best-ofs you bought for one song you don’t even like anymore, murky quality bootlegs bought by mistake and anything by the Spice Girls given to you by your well meaning friends and family who know you’re into music). In fact, better still, reserve that place for the supposedly ‘superior’ Beach Boys records like ’15 Big Ones’ ‘M.I.U’ ‘Surf’s Up’ and - *gasp* - the ever-overrated ‘Pet Sounds’ (assuming I’m allowed to copy the majestic ‘I Just Wasn’t Made For These Times’ onto another album first) and you probably won’t even noticed they’ve gone. At turns thought provoking, beautiful, haunting, frustrating, forgettable, petty and pretty, ‘So Tough’ packs quite a lot into it’s 34 minutes and eight songs. Sometimes it really is the quiet albums you want to watch! Overall rating – 6/10
Other Beach Boys album reviews from this site you might be interested in reading:
'Surfin' Safari' (1962) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/04/news-views-and-music-issue-28-beach.html
‘All Summer Long’ (1964) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/the-beach-boys-all-summer-long-1964.html
'Beach Boys Christmas' (1964) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/12/news-views-and-music-issue-17-beach.html
'Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!!!!!!!) (1965) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/06/news-views-and-music-issue-65-beach.html
'Wild Honey' (1967) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/news-views-and-music-issue-115-beach.html
'Friends' (1968) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-21-beach-boys-friends-1968.html
'20/20' (1969) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/12/news-views-and-music-issue-84-beach.html
'Sunflower' (1970) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-36-beach-boys-sunflower-1970.html
'Holland' (1972) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-55-beach-boys-holland-1973.html
'Pacific Ocean Blue' (Dennis Wilson solo 1977) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/news-views-and-music-issue-97-dennis.html
'Merry Xmas From The Beach Boys!' (Unreleased c.1978)
'L.A.Light Album' (1979) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-75-beach-boys-la-light-album.html
'Smile' (Brian Wilson solo 2004) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008_06_29_archive.html
'That Lucky Old Sun' (Brian Wilson solo 2007) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/03/news-views-and-music-issue-55-brian.html
'Smile Sessions’ (box set) (2011) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/news-views-and-music-issue-142-beach.html