Monday, 12 August 2013
The Beach Boys "Keeping The Summer Alive" (1980)
“When it’s ice cream weather get the gang back together, roll down your windows and ride, they’ll be sleepin’ in the sand dunes, dancin’ in the streets, just trying to keep the Summer alive” “Before we left there must have been some others, like storybook and fairy tale lovers, but in my life there’s never been another” “Oh darling, now that I’ve found you, it’s like a missing piece of puzzle has appeared, and now my darling, my love surrounds you, and since you came into my life my love, perfection’s never ever been so near” “God only knows how I love you only you” “You gotta see my favourite little acrobat, she really got her every move down pat, she’s got my vote for number one in the class, I couldn’t help but try and make a forward pass” “School days, school days, dear old golden rule days” “American history and practical Math, studying hard and hoping to pass, working your fingers right down to the bone, the guy behind you won’t leave you alone” “Back in the classroom open your books, the teacher don’t care how mean she looks” “When in the morning I must arise, I look in the mirror, it couldn’t be clearer, something is gone from my eyes” “This must have been going on pre-history, they may not ever solve the mystery, but they’ll talk until eternity” “Fill my sails, oh desert wind, and hold the waves high for me, and I will come, and test my skill, where the Santa Ana winds blow free, in waves of elation, my part in creation, becoming one with the boundless sea, Santa Ana winds keep blowing ‘cross my mind” “Ocean lovers who like to harmonize, they’re all cousins, friends and brothers, who make their mamas cry, record-making, heart-breaking, just West Coast boys, I know its’ the beginning of an endless harmony” “Striped-shirt freedom, brave new worlds, go out on the road, where there’s mid-sixties screaming, and night-time holiday scheming, while a lifestyle turns to gold, music’s growing, vibration’s showing what it all means, I know it means there’s an endless harmony”
The Beach Boys “Keepin’ The Summer Alive” (1980)
Keepin’ The Summer Alive/Oh Darlin’/Some Of Your Love/Livin’ With A Heartache/School Day (Ring! Ring! Goes The bell!)//Goin’ On/Sunshine/When Girls Get Together/Santa Ana Winds/Endless Harmony
...Or more accurately ‘Keeping The Beach Boys Alive’. Again. By 1980 The Beach Boys weren’t much of a band – Brian Wilson was still a good decade off his amazing rehabilitation, younger brother Dennis Wilson was all but kicked out of the band (his only appearance on the album is on the cover) and the cold war between cousins Carl Wilson on one hand and Mike Love and Al Jardine was still decidedly frosty. However rather than throw in the towel the band seek to pick themselves up and if the cover is anything to go by ‘defrost’ their old sound for one last Beach Boys album that sounds as if it’s trying, with mixed results. Even 30 odd years ago the Beach Boys were already being touted as an ‘oldies’ act – quite frankly that’s an assumption I’d dispute until as late as 1979’s excellent ‘L.A. Light Album’ when the band are still finding ways to surprise us and extend their natural sound. However, for this album it’s true: every other option the band has tried during the mid 70s (a retro covers band on ’15 Big Ones’, a reinvention as an electronic act doing whimsical songs on ‘Beach Boys Love You’, producers of twee two minute pop songs on ‘M.I.U’ and my personal favourite, a straight-from-the-heart collection of pioneering work in assorted styles on ‘L.A. Light Album’) has failed to click with the public; to be honest it’s a surprise the band haven’t looked to go back to their mid 1960s sound before now (somewhere between ‘Today’ and ‘Summer Days and Summer Nights!!!’). The band are so adamant about returning to their past that they even raids the archives for some period outtakes and return to ‘Western Studio 3’, the scene of most of the band’s ‘glory days’ in the mid 1960s (the band even hire old engineer Chuck Britz – who last worked with the band in 1969 – and a period 1960s engineering console to boot). One song, ‘Oh’ Darlin’, even includes references to both ‘Darlin’ and ‘God Only Knows’, two of the band’s best loved songs. At times on this album it’s as if the 1960s had never been gone – and yet at other times it’s clear that the Beach Boys of 1980 are a long way away from their 1960s model; more fragmented, less certain and seemingly unsure what their role is in a post-punk world (not that punk ever quite reached as far as California, but the ripples were felt even by them by this time).
...And the general consensus goes that ‘Keepin’ The Summer Alive’ isn’t much of an album. Certainly I’d never rate this record as being one of those Beach Boys albums that sparkles and fizzes from beginning to end with life, love and laughter (that’s ‘Beach Boys Today’ or ‘Friends’ you’re probably thinking of or - in some wonderful alternate universe - the unfinished ‘Smile’). But you know what – despite reading several scathing reviews of this record over the years it’s not all that bad either as at least the band occasionally sound like they’re having fun and not simply going through all the motions of a record they know probably won’t sell anyway. Whilst even I can’t claim any affection for the four gormless Beach Boys albums to follow (‘The Beach Boys’ ‘Still Cruisin’ ‘Summer In Paradise’ and, yes, even the recent reunion project ‘That’s Why God Made The Radio’ which was simply the worst Brian Wilson solo album yet with a couple of added overdubs by the others) ‘Keeping The Summer Alive’ has the last true 24 carat Beach Boy gems in the title track and Al Jardine’s ‘Santa Ana Winds’ and even the worst tracks aren’t that bad. Well, compared to what’s to come anyway. Yes, ‘Keeping The Summer Alive’ is the kind of album you only buy to complete your collection and see how the story went after the hits dried up, but it will put more of a smile on your face than the other collection fillers you feel like buying when you've got all the good stuff.
What’s more, this album had more ‘excuse’, as it were, to be godawaful from the start than any of the later albums which are – to put it bluntly – pretty darn horrible. Despite telling the record company that Brian would have ‘more involvement’ with this record – and enjoying the tie-in publicity this statement caused to boot – ‘Keeping The Summer Alive’ arguably features the lowest participation levels of the former head Beach Boy of the whole Beach Boys run (barring ‘Summer In Paradise’ from 1992, at least, when Brian was busy building a solo career). His entire period contribution to this record consisted of four unused backing tracks for four planned ‘cover’ songs, none of which made the record (Al Jardine taking over the planned Chuck Berry cover and starting again from scratch). Amazingly Brian Wilson is back for the next two albums (and we really mean ‘back’ this time, not like the horrible wish fulfilment ‘Brian Is Back’ campaign the band used in 1976) and even if the Brian we have by 1985 is still working at half-speed then that’s still better than having no Brian at all. Yet somehow both ‘The Beach Boys’ (1985) and half-record ‘Still Cruisin’ (1987) sound much less like the Beach Boys than ‘Keeping The Summer Alive’ which does at least sound like The Beach Boys, if not always the Beach Boys at their best.
What’s more a staggering half-dozen of the songs that made this album started life as outtakes. Some, like ‘Santa Ana Winds’, are only a year old and had quite a lot of work put into changing them – but others, such as ‘When Girls Get Together’ were a full eleven years old and were barely changed at all. Some fans will shudder to think that the like of such weak albums as ’15 Nig Ones’ and ‘M.I.U.’ had outtakes, but actually the selection isn’t too bad by and large: anyone whose heard the band’s unreleased material on such sets as ‘Endless Harmony’ ‘Hawthorne, CA’ and the ’30 Years Of Good Vibrations’ box set will know that the Beach Boys are one of those AAA bands with an embarrassment of unreleased riches (and there’s dozens more unreleased songs on youtube too, all of them still uncollected on any official CD).Bruce Johnston’s contribution ‘Endless Harmony’, meanwhile, is a ‘new’ recording of an ‘old’ song that Bruce had originally cut solo in 1974 (two years into his six year hiatus from the band), which perhaps explains why this autobiographical Beach Boys tune is sung in the third-person for most of the way through. For a time the album was set to feature even more ‘dips into the past’, with songs such as ‘Loop De Loop’ (a Brian and Al collaboration recorded in 1969, re-recorded with festive lyrics in 1977 and finally released as part of outtakes set ‘Endless Harmony’ in 1999), San Miguel (a retro 50s rocker penned by Dennis and sung by Carl recorded in 1969 and released on the ‘Ten Years Of Harmony’ compilation in 1981) and Can’t Wait Too Long (a stunning Brian Wilson song from shortly after the ‘Smile’ sessions in mid 1967 and finally released as a bonus track on the CD re-issue of ‘Smiley Smile’) all seriously considered for the album (all three would have brightened it up no end).
As a result, I like to think of this album as the ‘twin’ of The Rolling Stones’ ‘Tattoo You’ released a few months later. Both bands are bored by 1980, the weight of expectation hanging heavy over their heads and both bands know in their hearts that their fans in concerts only want to hear their old material and the record companies are only interested in them for their fading glory, not any new ideas. Relationships between both bands had also reached the point where both the Beach Boys and the Stones didn’t work the way they used to anymore – Mick ‘n’ Keef had such different interests they were barely in the same continent for any length of time in 1980 and The Beach Boys, too, were going their separate ways. Despite their image as warring tribes, however, every previous Beach Boys album had featured at least some collaboration, usually between cousins Brian and Mike. This album marks the first time that the band wrote separately and the Wilson-Love credits you see come from Mike re-working his cousin’s abandoned songs (I’m curious as to why Brian gets a co-writing credit on ‘Santa Ana Winds’ too, seeing as he appears to have had nothing to do with the song; is this a last generous gesture from old school-friend Jardine, knowing how bad Brian was financially suffering in this period?!) Another mirror between ‘Tattoo’ and ‘Summer’ is that neither band spoke at the time about this being an album of outtakes (That news came out years later when the album came out on CD, although the great long list of engineers did make us wonder). Interestingly, both albums were heralded by most critics as a sort-of ‘return to form’ after a dodgy period despite the fact that the bulk of both records are outtakes from supposedly ‘lesser’ albums – which goes to show either that both bands are rotten judges of their own work or that you can fool most of the people most of the time. Finally, both ‘Tattoo’ and ‘Summer’ are indeed better than most of the albums around them and certainly a lot stronger than the next couple of albums to follow (even if the Stones’ ‘Miss You’ from 1978 and the Beach Boys’ ‘L.A. Light Album’ from 1979 are two of the better albums of the period).
On the plus side, Bruce Johnston is back properly now after some nine years away and he was exactly what the band had been missing – certainly in the years since the ’15 Big Ones’ comeback in 1976. After helping out on the ‘disco’ version of ‘Here Comes The Night’ the year before (which I seem to be alone in actually quite enjoying, especially Carl’s swooping vocals) he takes over fully for this album which was a lot more positive for the group than Mike trying to take charge (as he did on 1978’s hopeless ‘MIU Album’) or Carl (who coped pretty well with ‘L.A. Light Album’, but whose presence did allow Al and Mike to fume in the corner muttering about the way the new album was shaping up). Bruce was a (largely) neutral voice who despised conflict and could act a s a go-between for the two main factions in the Beach Boys who by now were doing everything they could to avoid being in the same room as each other (even if he has ended up the only Beach Boy still playing in ‘Mike Love’s version of the group all these years later). His ‘new’ song for the group ‘Endless Harmony’ might not be the greatest of the small handful of his songs recorded by the group, but it’s certainly not the worst and the sprinkle of velvet Beach Boys harmonies over the end is goosepimply magical and the one moment on the album that sounds like 60s Beach Boys (no matter how much some other tracks might try to go back there). One other key step to getting this album made is that old and tried AAA idea of keeping the band members apart for as long as possible: the photographs included as an insert with the LP (and as part of the CD booklet) show the band working alone or in twos or at one stage threes. Note the amount of people who strangely have their ‘backs’ to the camera on a fair few of these photos, as if to fool us into thinking that there are lots and lots of people there! Note too the sheer amount of recording studios used to make this album: there’s the handful of songs started by Brian at the band’s old haunt Western in Hollywood, al Jardine’s home studio ‘The Barn’ in Big Sur (which really was a barn, although many tracks were recorded in the open-air too), Brian’s home studio in Bel Air (the one in his kitchen), Super Sound Studios in Monterey (for the backing track of ‘Santa Ana Winds’) and Rumbo Recorders in Los Angeles. Chances are none of the band were altogether at any one time and a lot of these recordings were done by the band members individually, in the studio nearest to where they happened to be, with Bruce overseeing everything. Having said all that, though, for once adding overdubs this way seems to have worked: it doesn’t happen often but some songs such as ‘Endless Harmony’ and ‘Goin’ On’ do sound as if the band are all singiong around the same microphone as in the days of old.
On the minus side, though, Dennis Wilson is absent without leave – apparently storming out of the early album sessions when Brian made it clear he was more interesting in recording cover versions than any new material. This wouldn’t be the first time Dennis did that, but it’s a real shame that the last Beach Boys album released in his lifetime (he’ll die in December 1983, drunkenly trying to retrieve precious artefacts he’d thrown overboard his houseboat during a temper a few months before) doesn’t even feature a drum lick from the middle Wilson brother. What’s more, Dennis was on a creative high during 1980: after a superb first solo album ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’ in 1977 and some well-received (especially by me!) recordings for The Beach Boys’ ‘L.A. Light Album’ in 1979 he was gearing up to finish his second solo album ‘Bambuu’ in this period. Sadly he never did finish it, a litany of drinking and drug sessions and run-ins with the bailiffs meaning that Dennis never quite got enough session time to finish his magnum opus, which only saw the light of day as a ‘bonus CD’ with ‘Pacific Ocean Blue’ when that album was finally released on album in 2007. Whilst Dennis’ emotional, volatile, incredibly real songs would have sounded completely wrong set next to what the Beach Boys were doing in 1981, it would have been great to have had at least one of them included – especially as, when this album was released in March, it already seemed clear that the album was never really going to happen. ‘Constant Companion’ would have been the best bet perhaps, the most traditionally commercial and ‘Beach Boysy’ of the 15 songs Dennis left unfinished during the album sessions and ‘It’s Not Too Late’ featured Carl on second lead, making it more of a Beach Boys song – although there’s no evidence that Dennis would have allowed any of his songs onto the album.
What we do get is two new songs from Carl in collaboration with Randy Bachman (from Bachman-Turner Overdrive), two new songs of Brian’s that Mike works up into something completely different without his say-so, three old songs from Brian and Mike that appear to have been left untouched, an Al Jardine song, a Bruce Johnston song and a Chuck Berry cover. Of the lot Carl’s two songs and Al’s are the best; the title track of the album rocking along with true Beach Boys power circa 1968, ‘Living With A Heartache’ being a simple but quite sweet song that actually dug a lot more deeply lyrically than might sound musically and Jardine’s wind-swept ‘Santa Ana Winds’, easily Al’s best song for the band since 1973’s ‘Holland’.
Surprisingly, it’s the Mike Love material here that sounds least Beach Boysy, despite the long-held belief that Mike was the one who ordered the others never to ‘mess with the forumla’; ‘When Girls Get Together’, a jazzy waltz from 1969, sounds quite unlike anything else the band have ever done; ‘Some Of Your Love’ is cocktail jazz Beach Boys style, dating from 1977, complete with a parping saxophone and lyrics about a circus performer; ‘Oh! Darlin’ is a drippy anonymous ballad more akin to Elton John or Rod Stewart than the Beach Boys and the polar opposite of the similarly titled Beach Boys hit ‘Darlin’ from 1968; ‘Goin’ On’ is a curious fast-slow contrasting tune whose sudden bursts of speed and power feature the only appearance of Brian on the record; finally ‘Sunshine’ is (thankfully) the only Beach Boys song that ever dared to tackle reggae. ‘Sunshine’ and an ‘a’ at the end of their names are about the only thing Jamaica and California have in common – quite why the band thought their record-buying public wanted to hear America’s premier ‘white’ band sound ‘black’ is anybody’s guess (this song makes even 10cc’s attempts at reggae sound vaguely authentic). Come to think of it, the most authentic Beach Boys sound of all on the record comes from the, err, one cover song on the record – a spirited cover of Chuck Berry’s ‘School Days’ revealing how big a debt the band’s 1963 single ‘Be True To Your School’ owes to Chuck (who successfully sued over Brian stealing the tune of ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ for ‘Surfin’ USA’, don’t forget). A mixed bag then, featuring everything that was good and bad about the Beach Boys in one place. It’s certainly downhill from ‘L.A. Light’ (where all the songs were good near enough and all the band members were featured at their best but with an emphasis on Carl and Dennis) but it’s still way way way better than anything to come (words cannot express how bad the 1985 album ‘The Beach Boys’ is. Which is a shame because I’m running out of other Beach Boys records to review and will have to tackle this monstrosity sometime soon...)
One thing that’s truly great about this record is the ultra-cool cover. And I mean ‘cool’ in both senses of the word: for those who haven’t seen it the Beach Boys are playing inside a centrally-heated dome to a bunch of bemused penguins and polar bears in some snowy landscape (presumably at least one set of these animals are on holiday, seeing as the two live at different ends of the earth. Maybe they’ve all got Beach Boys tour passes...). The cover is so clever (the Beach Boys have arguably had biggest successes in areas that are cold and damp and as far away from Californian sunshine as it’s possible to get – like Britain for one – so this is exactly what they’ve been doing) and is particularly relevant to this record (which is very much trying to hark back to the band’s traditional ‘fun in the sun’ sound). For those keeping check, this is the sixth and final AAA album to have spent many happy years hanging on my wall as a summation of everything these groups stand for (along with ‘CSN’ ‘The Monkees’ The Hollies’ ‘Romany’ The Moody Blues’ ‘To Our Children’s Children’s Children and ‘Stephen Stills’) and is as perfect an image of the Beach Boys as any from across their 50-odd year history. Thank goodness the band elected to choose ‘Keeping The Summer Alive’ as the album title – for a time there the cover was nearly abandoned when the band went with the far less marketable title of ‘Cousins, Friends and Brothers’ (after a line in ‘Endless Harmony’), although ‘Can’t Wait Till Summer’ was a strong second choice (until, perhaps, somebody unkindly pointed out the fun record critics would have with a title like that). Personally I can’t think of a better title – the Beach Boys have always been about trying to ‘keep the Summer alive’, even if the story of this band features more than it’s fair share of gloomy winters.
In summation, then, this is isn’t the greatest Beach Boys album ever made, but at times this record is a lot better than it has a right to be, given the problems making it and the lack of input from Brian and Dennis. Most fans moan about this album as being the start of the ‘end’ for the band (assuming that said fans haven’t written the band off after ‘Pet Sounds’ in 1966, ‘Surf’s Up’ in 1971 or ‘Holland’ in 1973 anyway, the other traditional landmarks after which fans claim it was all downhill) and ushering in a period of lacklustre albums from a band who should have stayed quiet to keep their legacy intact. Instead, I see it as the end of the ‘beginning’ – the last time when the Beach Boys were trying to do anything with conviction and belief instead of on auto-pilot in the knowledge no one will buy the thing anyway. Record label Caribou really wanted a hit record and it appears the band did too: there’s certainly a lot of energy and thought put into this record and a determined effort to get back to the ‘sound’ the band are famous for – it’s just a shame that at times that energy couldn’t have been put to better use. One person who comes out of this whole record well is producer Bruce: he manages to get the Beach Boys to at least sound like the Beach Boys again (which is no mean feat if the last four albums are anything to go by) and for them all (bar Dennis) to agree to roughly the same ideas (which after the eruptions in the band from 1978-79 makes Bruce eligible for the AAA equivalent of the Nobel Peace Prize). He also adds a deft touch to the harmonies, which fill sin the missing ‘space’ where Brian should be far more effectively than any of the solutions the band have come up with since dispensing with his services in 1971 (Bruce was hired to sing and play Brian’s parts on tour, after all). It’s a shame, then, that after all his hard work the rest of the band didn’t have anything more exciting and energising to offer him: Carl and Al come up with a strong song apiece but Brian isn’t interested and Mike seems to have lost his golden touch after the gorgeous ‘Sumahama’ on ‘L.A.Light Album’. Personally, I’d file ‘Keeping The Summer Alive’ under a list of albums that are patchy but still worth buying after you’ve bought all the Beach Boys classics and – if you happen to be one of those fans who buys your albums or at least reads these reviews in chronological order then I’m sorry to have to tell you that this is the last time that I will be able to say this. To a very large extent the Beach Boys story ends here, before Dennis’ death and Brian’s further descent robs the band of their last creative spark and the band become just another singalong pop combo with slightly better than average harmonies but less than average songs.
One of these days I’m going to organise a ‘blind listening test’ for you, dear readers. One of the first things I shall do is play ‘Keeping The Summer Alive’ for anyone who doesn’t know it and see if they can guess what era of Beach Boys history it comes from. I’m willing to bet few of them would guess as late as 1980! The last of a great run of Beach Boys rockers about having innocent fun in Summer, it features a gritty lead vocal from Carl, a stinging guitar break (that sounds more like George Harrison than Carl’s usual work) and some great Beach Boys harmonies that are the best on the album (especially Mike’s daft bass growl and Bruce and Al’s combined falsetto harmonies). Carl wrote the song with Randy Bachman, then just rising to fame as part of the Bachman-Tuner Overdrive but also a lifelong Beach Boys fan. The pair’s lyrics are fully in keeping with the run of pop songs the band had circa 1963-66, even if the ‘muscle’ of the song sounds more like the late 1960s (I’d have sworn that was Dennis’ distinctive drum pattern on there too, had all the books not told me otherwise too). There’s even a bona fide middle eight just like the old days (the one thing that prevents many of the band’s later attempts at re-creating their ‘old’ sound truly capture their past), when the track drops down in volume and style for a reflective 20 seconds or so. The ‘yeah yeah aha I know we’ll keep the summer’ vocal riff might be daft on paper, but its so close to what the band used to sing in their glory days that I’m surprised they hadn’t used this phrase before, back in the ‘old days’ when Brian had to come up with half a dozen songs about summer every month or so. The only thing that stops this pretty great return to the band’s original sound is a rather artificial feeling about the backing track, which makes it sound as if the band are all singing in different rooms and an ocean apart from the session musicians turning in their solid backing. Even so, had a time travelling alien plucked Brian Wilson out of space and time in 1963 and told him that his band would still be making songs of this quality 17 years later, I think he’d have been quite happy with this song, which is very in keeping with Beach Boys tradition and quality. One of the album highlights and I’m shocked that this catchy but quality song was never released as a single (especially given the two tracks Caribou do choose to release as a single from this album...) Just try not to think of Carl singing about going back to school at the age of 33...
‘Oh, Darlin’ is one of those songs that fans either love or loathe. Typically, I’m in the middle – this song is so slow and wandering I used to play my old vinyl copy at 45rpm to give it a bit more ‘life’ (pretty good it sounded too, actually – arguably better than it did at 33rpm) and yet there’s a certain stately grace and poise about this song which puts it in a class above most of the things the band had been coming up with of late. Carl sounds unusually sleepy here (as if he’s singing at slow speeds), which might be because Brian was all set to sing this one before getting cold feet (the original song apparently sounded more like a ‘samba’ too before being turned into a ballad by Bruce which I’d love to hear; tellingly the finished song is very much in keeping with Bruce’s line of slow, breathy ballads). Mike, the lyricist for this song, sounds much more natural (perhaps he should have sung the whole thing?), adding in a sprightly middle eight (well done chaps, I can’t tell you the last time I reviewed an album that had two on the trot) and a lyric that veers from sounding pedestrian (rhyming ‘inspiring’ and ‘desiring’ for instance) to heartfelt (‘Now that I’ve found you it’s like a missing piece of puzzle has appeared’). The arrangement is similarly mixed, opening with a treacly cheesy string part (that has Bruce’s fingerprints all over it, whatever the credits for this song say) but also a charming tack piano part, of the sort that used to feature on every Beach Boys song from ‘Good Vibrations’ down. It may well be Bruce’s idea to add the ‘God only knows how I love only you’ counterpart, too, seeing as how ‘God Only Knows’ was always one of his favourite Beach Boys songs. There’s not as much space for harmonies on this recording but those that are here sound pretty good – a double tracked Carl singing bottom and top harmonies along with Bruce, Al and possibly even Brian makes for a lovely mixture, especially on the brief linking piece ‘Love like moonlight glowing keeps our love growing’. To be honest the only way the record scores badly is when set against the similarly titled ‘Darlin’, the up-tempo rocker of 11 years earlier which beats it for commitment, energy and craftsmanship. Still, even if ‘Oh, Darlin’ is far from Not the best on the record, certainly, but far from the worst.
‘Some Of Your Love’ is another curious hybrid. Whilst far from the creative peaks the band reach on most of ‘L.A. Light Album’, this outtake from 1978’s horrid ‘M.I.U’ album is light years better than even the highlight of that record (Dennis’ gruff vocal on Brian’s moving ‘My Dianne’ for the record). A typical Mike Love song, it sports one of his cousin Brian’s better cyclical Beach Boys pop riffs and plenty of room for those band harmonies that still sound vintage, despite the age, wear and tear, alcohol and drugs that show on some of these other recordings. A surprising saxophone part takes us straight back to the days of ‘Shut Down’ but the song is probably closer to ‘Do It Again’, Mike’s first and best attempt at going back to the band’s old formula from 1968. Some commentators have claimed that this song started life as the rare 1974 flop Christmas single ‘Child Of Winter’, but other than a similar fast-walking-pace tempo and a vaguely on the same lines nagging riff (that was adorned with sleigh bells for the earlier song) I can’t see much of a genesis there (you could make as strong if not a stronger claim for this song and ‘Do It Again’). Mike sounds a little under the weather on the lead vocal, even double-tracked (like many of his MIU songs, suggesting not much was done to this track once Bruce got involved) but the rest of the band sound great and Carl turns in another spiffing middle eight (three in a row! I’m in heaven!) The only real problem is with the song’s lyrics which, like many a Mike Love lyric try so hard to sound effortless and spontaneous that they often sound more awkward to sing than most ‘intellectual lyrics’, but his talent for turning his cousin’s intellectual music into accessible, catchy pop songs is rarely bettered. The highlight of the song is the three straight repeats of the chorus the band sing at the end, near a capella (the band is still playing but they’re suddenly mixed way down), the whole band sounding as if they’re having a great time (arguably the last time you can honestly say this about any Beach Boys recording). Again, not the deepest or best of songs but the band are at least trying and for the most part their hard work is paying off.
‘Living With A Heartache’ is another good song that just doesn’t really sound much like The Beach Boys (it’s closer in style to Carl’s Californian softrock pair of solo albums). The second and final song co-written with Randy Bachman, it sounds like the kind of empty country-rock The Eagles et al had been making for years (after stealing the idea from their superiors Poco who started a full year earlier) and is a style completely new to the band, which is sadly not necessarily a good thing (Carl sounds right at home but the rest of the band sound like they’re intruding when they build up to full Beach Boys harmony, guests on their own record). However, far from being anonymous, these might well be Carl’s most sincere song in years, his and Bachman’s shared marital troubles (Randy was going through a divorce, Carl had just come out of one) inspiring a sensitive lyric as keeping to his situation as Tony Asher’s were to brother Brian in 1966. The trouble is that the lyrics are urgent and should be sung in angry bursts full of minimal sentences and exclamation marks (‘I miss you every day! Come back to me and stay!) and Carl’s chosen to sing them to a laidback country tune (so laidback, in fact, that legend has it Carl sang this vocal while at Al Jardine’s ‘Barn’ studio, leaning against the door to keep him upright and sipping a beer). The song is a little too long (it might only be 4:06 but on this short-running album that means it’s a good 25% longer than almost all the other songs here), has a couple too many repeats of the chorus and like ‘Oh, Darlin’ would have been better still with a kick up the backside to get it going. Still, though, Carl’s reflective song of heartache is an interesting attempt at something new and is one of the better songs on the album, even if the style doesn’t really fit on this record. Oddly this was the second song from the album released as a single despite sounding the least like The Beach Boys (in fact only Carl and Bruce appear on it – that’s Doris Day’s son and former Byrds producer Terry Melcher singing harmonies with his good friend Bruce).
‘School Day (‘Ring! Ring! Goes The Bell!)’ is the latest in a series of 1950s cover songs the Beach Boys seemed determined to keep recording (perhaps because, inexplicably, their covers of ‘Rock and Roll Music’ ‘Peggy Sue’ and ‘Come Go With Me’ had all been the band’s biggest single hits in America since the band’s recording return in 1976). Like all these covers, it’s good fun but rather frivolous, the band not really adding and arguably taking away from the original (in this instance a Chuck Berry song) and seemingly wasting time when they could have been doing a ‘bona fide’ Beach Boys song. That said, Al’s lead vocal shows more enthusiasm than almost everything else on the album (even if his chuckle and cry of ‘are you ready?’ into the instrumental is a trifle overcooked) and it’s nice to hear Brian singing as part of the group on this song’s a capella introduction. It’s that intro that sets out the problem though: the band try to sound as unified and note-perfect as they did in the 1960s and fall way short – without the rehearsal time, less capacity for hard work, Brian’s failing voice and (most likely) singing in different times in different studios this belated attempt at sounding like the old days was always going to fall short. To be honest, it’s uncomfortable: was this band really only 13 years on from the ridiculous telepathy of ‘Our Prayer’ from ‘Smile’ (the outtakes of which – released in 2011 on the ‘Smile Sessions’ set – are almost all note perfect from the first)? The rest of the song is better, if only for the fiery guitar playing which manages to channel Chuck via Jimi Hendrix and Eric Clapton (God knows whose playing it though – it doesn’t sound like Carl and there’s so many names credited as ‘musicians’ on the album sleeve who are never heard of again it could be anyone!) The earliest recorded song on the album, half-started by Brian during the ‘Western Studio’ sessions, it seems as if Jardine is the only one really interested in the song and from most reports the rest of the band barely had anything to do with it once they’d added their harmonies on top. Again, it’s a little awkward hearing a 38 year old singing about his delight at escaping school, although I guess you could see this narrator as the classes’ teacher! (If so, he’s a lot hipper than any of my teachers ever were – barring Mr Hutson anyway, take a bow on the extremely slim chance that you're reading this!)
‘Goin’ On’ was single number one and sounds to me very similar in style to ‘Good Timin’, the best received (though not actually the best) song from ‘L.A.Light Album’ – the two possess the same sleepy tempo, the slight bossa nova rhythm and the same cat-and-mouse structure that alternates between Mike, Carl and even Brian for a single line, just like the united days of old. It’s certainly given one of the bigger production jobs of the album, with full harmonies more or less throughout, a stabbing ‘Goin’ On!’ chorus and some eccentric instruments including another squealing saxophone solo and some eccentric percussion. In actual fact, the song featured even more eccentric percussion in it’s original form, when the chorus was interrupted by what would have been only the second Beach Boys drum solo on record; cute ideas as it was, it’s probably for the best it was shelved. Brian’s original version of this song was titled ‘Why Didn’t I Tell You?’, featured a stronger emphasis on the boassa nova rhythms and was even more paranoid in it’s original form than on Mike’s finished lyrics, even if these too share the same feeling of panic and frustration. In fact, unfinished sounding and unresolved as they are, these might well be Love’s best lyrics in some years: the narrator wearily hauls himself out of bed to face another day realising that ‘something is gone from my eyes’; gradually it hits him (post hangover perhaps?) that the love of his life has left him and the realisation knocks him flat. In this context the urgent chorus line ‘going on’ suddenly becomes more than just another variation on the ‘Do It Again’ riff and becomes a call to arms by the narrator to turn his life over again and put things right. The song runs out of steam after two verses, ending up in familiar bland territory (‘I love you! I miss you! I’m sorry!), but for a while there Mike almost sounded as if he was singing from the heart. Brian admitted in interviews of the day that Bruce adapted his song one heck of a lot from the pair’s first demo, by the way, so perhaps the praise belongs to him despite the lack of a writing credit once again. Still, overall, not bad at all and this song did indeed become the band’s last single to chart for some five years. That said, it still wouldn’t have been my choice as a single: it’s too stop-starty for most listeners and only really sounds like the Beach Boys because of their singing not because of the unconventional song structure, melody or lyrics.
So far the album has been pretty good with no bad tracks at all (even if one or two could be better). Alas ‘Sunshine’ is one of the most misguided mistakes on all Beach Boys albums, a reggae song for goodness sakes! Like Simon and Garfunkel’s ‘Why Don’t You Write Me’ and 10cc’s ‘Don’t Send We Back’ before it, the result is more than a tad embarrassing, white session musicians who’ve never stepped foot near Bob Marley territory suddenly dropped into playing for a completely new style with a different emphasis on beats. Unsurprisingly, this song really doesn’t swing and even at less than three minutes long the song pales minutes before the end, Bruce and Al’s bored and tired dum-de-dum harmonies sounding so unlike the carefree island sun paradise of the lyrics it’s hard not to laugh. Interestingly Mike and Carl both sound quite at home on what is lyrically just another Beach Boys song about messing around in the summer, but everyone else sounds like they were given a wrong turning by their sat nav and have instead ended up in a rainy concrete-filled West Midlands. Legend has it this song was ‘created’ at the last minute when the band realised that one of Brian’s intended cover songs (‘Little Girl’ by The Crystals) sounded plain wrong and that the band didn’t have time to start another song from scratch (that figures – this is a very generic backing track that could easily be ‘Little Girl’ along with a hundred other similar songs with the same tempo and the lyrics do indeed sound deeply uninspired and like they were cooked up inside five minutes. The wrong band playing an awful song in a completely wrong genre, ‘Sunshine’ isn’t just one of the worst tracks on the album, it’s one of the worst of the Beach Boys’ entire career.
‘When Girls Get Together’ would sound awful next to almost every other Beach Boys song – by contrast at least this experiment in old fashioned waltzes sounds like something that could have worked had the band spent more time on it. In fact, they sis spend time on it – 11 years to be exact – after first taping this song during the extended sessions for ‘Sunflower’ back when this sterling album was still known by it’s working title ‘Add Some Music To Your Day’. ‘Sunflower’ outtakes have been filling Beach Boys albums since ‘Surf’s Up’ in 1971, but you can see why this one was passed over so many times; it’s slow, rather precious and full of it’s own importance and somehow deeply unlikeable. The pompous mood of the whole song, the inter-war period setting (which must surely be another Bruce Johnston idea, not all that far removed from his own ‘Disney Girls’ but without the charm), the slow tempo and especially the sarcastic, sexist lyrics (‘This must have been going on pre-history, they may not ever solve the mystery, but they’ll talk until eternity’ – at least ‘Hey Little Tomboy’ had the good humour to be treated like a joke!) make it deeply unlikable. That’s a shame because even though this is another peculiar fit for the Beach Boys Mike and Bruce in harmony sound good together and sound one heck of a lot more faithful to the period setting than any of the band did on ‘Sunshine’. Ultimately, though, this is another horribly weak number which more than deserved to be booted off ‘Sunflower’; the wonder is why it was revived at this point, instead of the superior ‘San Miguel’ ‘Loop De Loop’ ‘I Just Got My Pay’ ‘H.E.L.P Is On The Way’ or even ‘Our Team’ (the song from the MIU sessions that broke up the band and is all about how, erm, nothing can ever break the Beach Boys up). Bah! Humbug!
Thank goodness for ‘Santa Ana Winds’, Al Jardine’s quiet song about a genuine meteorological weather condition in California. Funnily enough, despite being hidden away on one of the Beach Boys’ poorest selling albums, this song has already outstripped the genuine winds’ fame if the search engines are anything to go by (almost every link for it is a Beach Boys one!) Like ‘California Saga’ this song is an idealised view of California, a land so serene even the fierce howling winds are mystical and enlightening and part of the lighter side of nature rather than something to fear – in truth these winds are better described by their ‘alternative’ name as the ‘devil winds’. You’d be hard pressed to look on the real Santa Ana Winds as visions of beauty when they gust past your house at 40 m.p.h., but the narrator of this song makes it clear that he’s really singing about how much he loves California rather than simply about the wind that rages there and is cleartly so much in love with the place he can’t even find anything bad about to say about an annual weather condition that could kill him. It’s a wonder, actually, that no one had come up with a song about the Santa Ana Winds before this (the younger Beach Boys included) – it’s a regular feature in Californian fiction (appearing in books by Phillip Marlowe, Raymond Chandler and Joan Didion), though always treated as a sinister force of threat rather than one of beauty and healing. Jardine’s clever lyrics are some of his best, mixing the metaphors of a girl being born during a storm with mother nature watching over California and ending up in the first person as ‘the wind’ itself ‘on a pilgrimage to the sea...to breathe life into humanity’. The song in general and especially the clever arrangement show perhaps just how much Al had learnt from paying close attention to old school friend Brian over the years, and fittingly Brian comes out of retirement to add his harmony to the chorus. There’s an earlier, rougher version of this song doing the rounds on youtube, which features much more harmonica but much looser harmonies – it’s nowhere near as together as this finished version (the clear album highlight) but it is more than good enough to have made the ‘L.A. Light Album’, so you wonder why it was put to one side for so long. Despite singing about a storm instead of their usual Californian sunshine, this song also manages to sound like the most Beach Boysy song on the album, with some clever, classy harmonies – especially Bruce’s second lead vocal.
The album closes with ‘Endless Harmony’, a rather peculiar autobiographical ballad by Bruce Johnston which features his thoughts on having been a Beach Boy (and thus singing about the band in the third person) with a belated, tacked on last verse sung by Carl in the first person. The earlier version (released as the b-side to an anonymous Johnston pop song ‘California Music’) isn’t all that different, although Bruce does sound more grumpy than awe-struck when singing about the band (some band rows between 1971 and 1972 and a disagreement over the band’s choice of manager – the eccentric Jack Rieley who ends up writing more Beach Boys songs than most of the band – mean that he probably wasn’t thinking of them too fondly at this point). The result is a bit of a mixture: Bruce’s opening moody synthesiser section has its moments and some clever lines like ‘striped-shirt freedom’ as well as some fan-pleasing references to old songs (‘music’ growing and vibrations are showing’); equally Carl’s strident lead vocal in the last poppier verse and especially the closing swirl of full on Beach Boys harmonies (for the last ever time on record) have much to recommend them. However, the two don’t fit together – the switch between third person and first person is clunky, there’s a whacking great edit between the two sections that should have been better covered and the song’s ending seems to be going somewhere before lazily falling back unexpectedly on the tonic chord. It’s like going down to the beach only to discover that it’s raining and the tide’s out: everything is there but it’s impossible to enjoy. There are some really odd statements in this song too: ‘We sang ‘God bless America’ sings Car;l – did they?! When?! As for the next verse – ‘She takes good care of us’ – hang on a minute, remember the fall out when the band failed to play at Monterey and ended up bottom ofthe bill at clubs? Remember the time when Carl Wilson came within an inch of being drafted into Vietnam after which the band were publicly shunned? Remember when Ronald Reagan banned the Beach Boys’ ‘4th of July’ parties because they ‘encouraged the wrong elements and did not represent what Independence Day is all about’?! America were awful to the Beach Boys, for no other crime than having a lead member who fell desperately ill and for sticking to the same passé style shirts for a year too long. That said, it’s also wrong to hear Carl boast ‘people loved the way we sing’ - yeah, people like me do, but there’s an awful lot of people who (misguidedly in my opinion) hate the Beach Boys, so what about them? The title too: ‘Endless Harmony’? Fair enough if the band didn’t want to dwell on their many rows and less than brotherly attacks on each other down the years, but this whole song is treated as a eulogy, a last encore for a band who know their time is up. So the harmony is not ‘endless’ – indeed this song’s schmaltzy keyboard phrase is clearly tugging at our heart strings to make us cry. Like much of this record, in fact, ‘Endless Harmony’ is a few notes away from genius but it’s few galling errors get in the way of what greatness is there (not a bad tune, by the way!)
Overall, then, ‘Keeping The Summer Alive’ isn’t quite vintage Beach Boys, but it deserved an awful lot better street cred than it currently gets. Two songs truly are terrible, but two are absolutely magnificent and the remaining six songs all have something to recommend, even if they could and should have been better. If this album had come after any but the unexpected pioneering brilliance of ‘L.A.Light Album’ it would surely have been better received – as it is ‘Keeping The Summer Alive’ tends to be somewhat forgotten in between an experimental return to form and a noisy, dreadful commercial assault. Yes we miss Dennis and yes Brian is barely on it (two, maybe three vocal cameos and five songs – at least three of which were majorly changed by Bruce), but Carl, Mike, Al and Bruce are at least sometimes on top form. Had The Beach Boys hired Bruce back a few years earlier and produced this record at a time when the band’s fans hadn’t been quite so heavily burnt by some eccentric records (the poppy but pointless ‘MIU’ and ‘The Beach Boys Love You’, which is Brian Wilson’s one man band answer to the Human League especially) then this record might well have been enough to bring them back to the charts and inspire a whole new life and methodology for a band that had simply run out of ideas after very nearly 20 years together. Alas, though, there will be just four more Beach Boys albums in the 33 years and counting after this record and all of them are truly awful – the kind of saccharine, empty, bland filler that, well, this album was accused of being at the time. Sure compared to the great things that have been parts of ‘Keeping The Summer Alive’ sound like The Beach Boys have been trapped in a freezer not a bubble of hot air; but compared to what’s to come this is the last time a Beach Boys album can offer up those wonderful little nuggets of beauty, catchy little riffs that no one else can manage and harmonies to die for. The Summer of the title might be late Summer perhaps, when clouds interrupt the cloudy skies and rain is beginning to fall, but it’s a summer nonetheless and – for the time being at least – the Beach Boys do a pretty good job of keeping it alive. Overall rating – 6/10
Other Beach Boys album reviews you might enjoy:
'Surfin' Safari' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2009/04/news-views-and-music-issue-28-beach.html
‘All Summer Long’ http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/10/the-beach-boys-all-summer-long-1964.html
'Beach Boys Christmas' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/12/news-views-and-music-issue-17-beach.html
'Summer Days (And Summer Nights!!!!!!!!) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/06/news-views-and-music-issue-65-beach.html
'Wild Honey' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/10/news-views-and-music-issue-115-beach.html
'Pacific Ocean Blue' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2011/04/news-views-and-music-issue-97-dennis.html
'Merry Xmas From The Beach Boys!' (Unreleased)
'L.A.Light Album' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008/07/review-75-beach-boys-la-light-album.html
'Smile' (Brian Wilson solo)http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2008_06_29_archive.html
'That Lucky Old Sun' http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2010/03/news-views-and-music-issue-55-brian.html
'Smile Sessions (band outtakes) http://alansalbumarchives.blogspot.co.uk/2012/04/news-views-and-music-issue-142-beach.html