Monday 22 February 2016

"The Beach Boys" (1985)

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"The Beach Boys" (1985)

Getcha Back/It's Gettin' Late/Crack At Your Love/Maybe I Don't Know/She Believes In Love Again//California Calling/Passing Friend/I'm So Lonely/Where I Belong/I Do Love You/It's Just A Matter Of Time/Male Ego

You have to feel for Dennis Wilson. There he was, for much of his childhood, dismissed as a 'troublemaker' while his elder brother Brian got praised for his many talents (not just in music but in sports, too) and his sweet younger brother Carl got all the hugs. Dennis, the most reluctant of the Beach Boys at first (he was only allowed to join the band because his mum Audrey thought it would be good for him) had perhaps the most fascinating journey of all the band members, slowly blossoming from a bored surfer propping up his brothers and cousins to a writer of extraordinary talent and power. The late 1970s are a golden age for Dennis supporters, with one finished and one unfinished album ('Pacific Ocean Blues' and 'Bambuu') that top anything still being released under the Beach Boys name at the time and - at long last - Dennis was getting the kudos he deserved. But as so often happens in the Beach Boys story things went wrong, fast. Dennis was struggling financially and emotionally, splitting for good with the love of his love Karen Lamm (for a second time) and falling headlong into romance number five (with Shawn Love, a girl who claimed to be Mike Love's illegitimate daughter and therefore his own second-cousin). A lack of funds meant that his precious second album was left unfinished when the creditors came to take his home studio away, agonisingly close to a completion date, with Dennis left unable to fund his own sessions at a 'proper' studio - and most 'proper' studios unwilling to let him near them anyway given his growing reputation for drink and drugs. For a time during 1983 Dennis had even become homeless, a world away from the reckless spender of years past. Dennis' life was clearly spiralling out of control and in retrospect it seems he was crying out for help long before that awful day in December he became the first Beach Boys fatality, drowning off the coast of Marina Del Ray in Los Angeles, in all likelihood banging his head on the side of a boat as he dived, inebriated, into freezing waters to look for possessions he'd once thrown overboard during a drunken row with Lamm years before. The irony of drowning  after so many years of singing about the sea and it's darker nature ('Pacific Ocean Blues' especially) would surely not have been lost on Dennis, the member of the band who'd got the band interested in surfing in the first place.

The other irony is that the Beach Boys and the Beach Boys community had, as they always had during Dennis' lifetime, been looking entirely the other way. Brian was the Beach Boy everyone worried about back in the first half of the 1980s. Slight rallies of Brian's mental state in 1976-77 and 1979-81 had offered hope that Beach Boys fans might be in for a fairytale ending after all, but since the last Beach Boys studio album 'Keepin' The Summer Alive' in 1981 Brian now looked poorly too, his svelte athletic frame ballooning up to becoming dangerously obese while the few people who saw him (Brian didn't  socialise much in this period) admitted later that they feared for his life. The Beach Boys had been put on hiatus partly because of concerns over Brian's health, with a particularly disastrous gig at Long Beach on the American Independence Day weekend in 1981 and lack of recent sales persuading The Beach Boys that taking another break might be a good idea (though they had one final and almost immediately aborted attempt to make another album in 1982). Brian, after all, was otherwise disposed - not through his own designs but because his wife Marilyn had in desperation called up his old therapist Eugene Landy who demanded 24 hour surveillance of Brian and refused to allow him any contact with the rest of the band (though Dennis allegedly snuck in the house to see his brother more than once; fans have started referring to Landy as a 'terrorist therapist'). Carl quitting the band, officially for a solo career but mainly because he was fed up of the band being a mere 'oldies' act, probably didn't help either as by the early 1980s he was the only member of the band still talking to everyone else. The other irony in all this of course being that regular touring and recording might have been just the thing Dennis needed to get his head and his finances together.

Things had shifted a whole 180 degrees by the time The Beach Boys finally put aside their differences and came back together again properly in 1985. By now Brian was the measure of health - physically, at least, although rumours (that turned out to be mostly true) were already surfacing about the mental torture Brian was going through at the hands of Landy, who helped ghostwrite (perhaps solely write) Brian's autobiography 'Wouldn't It Be Nice?' and insisted on becoming Brian's manager and co-writer as well (to be fair this is painted in the book as Landy attempting to make sure that Brian always had another person with his best interests at heart during business meetings - and there's no doubting that Landy's weight loss programme helped saved Brian's life however excruciatingly tough it may have been at the time - but that's not what Brian's been saying about either fact since he broke 'free' of Landy's control circa 1990). Dennis, meanwhile, was mourned and finally being paid posthumous attention as both band and fans began to realize just how important he was to the life and soul of the band and - as arguably the highest profile death of a 1960s legend in tragic circumstances since John Lennon in 1980 - the rest of the world began to understand some of 'our' grief too (the record carries a perfunctory sleeve-note credit to 'the memory of our beloved brother, cousin and friend', but it's better than nothing). Carl, still the only member of the band still talking to everyone else, had also grown bored of his solo career after two albums and wanted to be part of a 'band' again. In short 1985 was suddenly a very good year for The Beach Boys to make another album again, whereas in the early years of the decade it really had seemed to be all over.

The result, though, is not what fans were probably expecting. Though the record is named 'The Beach Boys' (amazingly it's taken 25 records for the band to name one after themselves - most bands do that with their debut!) it's hardly the band's most unified album: the band turned up to work separately, adding their vocals long after the main backing tracks were recorded and it seems likely that only the song's composers (and there aren't many originals at all on this album) turned up to the first recordings. A public yearning to hear the Beach Boys' famous block harmonies have to wait a whole six tracks into the album before they hear more than two of them in the same room. Though the band, naturally enough, talked about making a tribute for Dennis for the album (an album which, arguably, might not have happened at all had his death not inspired them to get together again) it somehow got left off the album at the last minute, a rare mournful collaboration between Dennis and Brian somehow ending up unfinished. The band play nothing on the album themselves, a couple of quick Carl Wilson guitar bursts and some Bruce Johnstone piano aside - and while they hadn't played as a 'band' since '15 Big Ones' back in 1976 'The Beach Boys' takes this idea to a ridiculous extreme. Dennis must surely have given a wry grin on whatever cloud he was looking down from in 1985 when the sleeve notes came out crediting a whopping 17 additional musicians over the course of the album, including one Ringo Starr ('You see - it took that many people to replace me and one of them was a Beatle!')

The biggest surprise though is the production: rather than sound like the band always used to (an approach the band had largely clung to across the changing 1970s) or even their own Beach Boysised version of what everyone else is listening to (which is what the band will do for their next three albums 'Still Cruisin' 'Summer In Paradise' and 'That's Why God Made The Radio') The Beach Boys sound utterly lost inside a 1980s pop world that doesn't allow any wriggle room at all for the band to stamp their identity one iota. This is a problem common with many AAA bands in the 1980s (the rigid and synth-led emotionless decade that was the polar opposite of the free and experimental feedback brimming 1960s when most of our bands began), but even by these standards The Beach Boys sound utterly lost here, trapped in a world they really don't belong in with the usual Beach Boys warmth and emotion clashing head on with artificial sterile drums, then-top-of-the-range-now-thirty-years-out-of-date synthesisers and suspected artificial sampling 'treatment' on the vocals, surely sacrilegious for a group where the harmonies play such a central role. Many fans point their fingers at producer Steve Levine, then at the peak of his fame thanks to his work with Culture Club - but to be fair he delivers exactly what he was asked to by bringing The Beach Boys up to step with the latest technology (Bruce, always the Beach Boy with his ear closest to the pop market, was a fan and suggested him if you're wondering - chances are no one else in the band knew who he was). Levine knew the pop market of 1985 better than anybody and even begs, borrows or steals a leftover song from Boy George himself (perhaps the hottest star of 1985) so in that sense he's the perfect producer for a band determined to go all-out and reap the commercial rewards of being as 'current' as they possibly can be. He also urges the band to go all-out and make an album that's recorded digitally from start to finish - well ahead of most of The Beach Boys' rivals (though, as I never get tired of telling people, it wasn't some young punk but a 34-year-old Stephen Stills who became the first artist ever to record a song digitally back in 1979). This, though, is The Beach Boys, a band who can't even be in the same room as each other never mind agree on the direction their career should take (to show you what we mean only Carl and Levine were there for the first sessions in June 1984the album started recording in June 1984 with only Levine and Carl in attendance, Brian came in for two weeks in July and left again after recording his songs, Levine and Carl finished backing tracks in October and did some basic vocals with Mike and Brian, with Bruce and Al not arriving at the sessions until January 1985). Carl tries gamely to put up with an unlikely pop makeover with some un-taxing songs of his own and a few lead vocals as close to the mid-80s ballpark as he can get them (he even sounds like a Boy George clone on the Culture Club leftover 'Passing Friend'). Mike, Bruce and Al, meanwhile, barely change their stride delivering songs like 'California Calling' 'She's In Love Again' and unexpected hit single 'Getcha Back' which just sound like the usual Beach Boys songs played on synths.

And Brian? Well, Brian's music never pays any attention to anything anyone else is delivering anyway (barring his competitive spirit measuring up against Phil Spector or The Beatles), which is normally a good thing: that's why we get gems no other writer would dream of writing sprinkled across The Beach Boys catalogue, like most of 'Friends' and all of 'Smile'. Here, though, Brian's a little...distracted. Given the stories that have filtered out about Brian's miserable lifestyle in the early 1980s (a meagre diet, lots of jogging, little contact with family and friends and songwriting and piano sessions with-held as a 'special treat') it's no surprise that Brian's contributions are amongst his most eccentric. Landy has only recently 'allowed' Brian to start writing at length and after four years of thinking of music as something he used to do rather than something he can do now means that the elder Wilson is understandably rusty. Most Brian Wilson songs are, at least in there somewhere, philosophical nuggets about learning to cope as a sensitive soul in an often difficult and overwhelming world (even when working with a lyricist that's usually what Brian comes up with, due to his tradition of talking to his co-writers about their hopes, dreams and fears long before they put pen to paper; it's one of the things that makes his work so personal - and special). On 'The Beach Boys' Brian writes songs about chat-up lines and lust ('Don't know why we chase those tasty ladies, we'll still be doing it in our eighties!' - thankfully this only came out on the CD not the vinyl version of the album), going back to California on a holiday, a Four Freshmans pastiche in 'It's Just A Matter Of Time' and a love song in 'Crack At Your Love' so generic it may as well be a Culture Club composition. Only 'I'm So Lonely' hints at the real Brian in there somewhere, but ten lines in total with all emotion drowned out by an oh-so-80s-saxophone-solo-it's-wearing-deely-boppers doesn't add up to the best platform for Brian to bear his soul either. Though the story goes that Landy ripped Brian off by claiming credits on songs he had no hand in (a court case sometime around the millennium has since removed Landy's name from all songwriting credits), you do begin to wonder whether these aren't actually Landy songs being passed off as Brian Wilson credits to get them on an album.

Usually when Brian's in trouble it's his brothers who up their game and run to his rescue. Sadly that's no longer true of Dennis, but Carl at least half-rescues this album from being the shambles it might have been. Though I still prefer the songs the younger Wilson wrote with Randy Bachman for the 'Keepin' The Summer Alive' album the record before (a minority view I've heard), Carl proves once again the glue that holds The Beach Boys together come what may. His song 'It's Gettin' Late', the one Beach Boys US charting single that nobody remembers, is sumptuous stuff with it's one true show-off Beach Boys vocal moment (which must have been a real headache given the different band members turning up at different sessions and overdubbing) and it's emotionally 'real' sounding lyrics. 'Maybe I Don't Know' makes a better fist of updating Carl's usual sound for a pop market than anything on his solo records. 'Where I Belong' is a tender ballad that bucks the trend of this noisy synth-infested album and keeps things soft and simple, to poignant effect. With more lead vocals than any Beach Boys album in years, Carl is also the single best thing about many of the album's more half-baked recordings: he out-shines Bruce on his own 'She Believes In Love Again', makes 'Passing Friend' sound like an emotional confession rather than a song so uninspired Boy George couldn't sell to his own band, repays what he stole from Stevie Wonder on the 'Wild Honey' album with a vocal that almost sounds like Little Stevie twinned with Beach Boy DNA and turns 'Male Ego' from an utterly outrageous misguided attempt at a comedy track that insults the entire female population at a stroke to an utterly outrageous misguided attempt at a comedy track that insults the entire female population...with a nice rocking background vocal. Given what Carl had to put up with from all sides whilst making this album, aided only by Levine (whose later comments about the band being 'a little set in their ways' suggests it wasn't the happiest experience of his life either) the fact that this album was ever finished seems enough for a nomination into sainthood. That would have gone double if Dennis' song had ever been included however (while all of 'Bambuu' was up for grabs if the band had wanted to pay their brother, friend and cousin a 'proper' tribute). This is, regrettably, the last Beach Boys album where Carl makes anything more than a token cameo appearance.

Unusually, though, it's Mike who gets the album highlight with yet another variation of the tried and tested 'Do It Again' with 'Getcha Back', a single that deserved it's unexpected success a lot more than number one hit 'Kokomo' ever did. This time the couple in the song are getting nostalgic not for the beach so much as each other, remembering their own innocent times before modern life got in the way - a device that actually makes sense of why the song sounds like a hybrid of half-remembered Beach Boys trademarks and modern technology. Al, with Brian's help, also shines on the album's one utterly retro moment 'California Calling', which might not be much of a song but is one hell of a performance with everyone in the room sounding like they're having fun in the studio (for the first time since about 1973 to be honest). Reducing Mike to just two co-writes (his other, predictably, is on 'Male Ego'), Al to the same (he helped write 'Crack At Your Love' with Brian, though re-writing Landy's words from a finished demo seems more likely) and Bruce to just the one song seems like an odd call for a band who more than ever need to prove their status as a credible inspired creative group, though. Surely between them the three of them could have come up with something better than resorting to a Culture Club leftover or a Stevie Wonder song that, while good, is not exactly in their style?
For fans who'd waited patiently for this record for four whole years (the longest gap so far by a year or so), Dennis worshippers who longed for the band to find 'closure' and a more general public who'd only just discovered the band through compilations and the news about the drummer piquing their interest 'The Beach Boys' was a disappointment. Too much of the album is bland and forgettable, the harmony vocals are near-absent and the lead vocals often forced, Brian once again should have been given time to recover and get well, not be forced into writing songs his therapist is automatically taking a half-cut from and the production makes even the promising moments more underwhelming than they deserve to be. In many respects 'The Beach Boys' is weaker than both of the more maligned albums that come after it, as at least 'Still Cruisin' and 'Summer In Paradise' unashamedly sound like The Beach Boys, even if neither sounds like particularly inspired Beach Boys. There are, though, moments here and there that are worth putting up with all the mistakes to be able to own. For a minute there the real Brian comes shining through at the start of 'I'm Lonely' and it's lovely, right up to the minute the track becomes an unashamed pop song. 'It's Gettin' Late' proves that the 1980s weren't entirely incompatible with The Beach Boys, with some lovely ear-catching production swirls set around a powerful Carl Wilson tune. 'California Calling' might not be the deepest song The Beach Boys ever came up with, but it's simplicity makes it shine out on such an over-cooked over-produced album. 'Where I Belong' has both heart and voice going for it. And 'Getcha Back' is the kind of catchy Beach Boys number fans had been dreaming of. No this isn't a perfect 'Beach Boys' album and in many ways it's a travesty of an album simply for not sounding like 'The Beach Boys', but it's far from hopeless. If only we could give Carl the keys to the master-tapes and get him to do a remix (on the lines of the 'Stripped Down Mix' that so improved John and Yoko's similarlyover-80sised 'Double Fantasy'), substituting some Dennis moments for the weaker tracks, you sense this album has so much more it could have given.

Oh and in case you're wondering where our usual praise/moan about the front cover is...well there isn't really much to tell you about, with the band's name filling in a picture of the beach when printed on a plain white background. It's nothing like as good as the covers for 'Keepin' The Summer Alive' or 'Summer In Paradise' in the future, but neither is it quite as tacky as '15 Big Ones' 'The Beach Boys Love You' or 'MIU'.

Moving onto the music, 'Getcha Back' isn't like the rest of the album - it's an unashamed pop song from Mike and his new writing partner Terry Melcher (see our Byrds reviews to learn about the input of Doris Day's son in the music world) that plays it sturdy and safe, rather than novel and weird as Carl and Steve Levine cook up between them. Though your instinct on first hearing is to feel ever so slightly disappointed (the song runs out of tricks once you've reached the end of the chorus and needs a middle eight, a solo, a bridge or something to make it soar) by the time you know the album well this is the track you look forward to the most. That's mainly for one of only two instances of full on block Beach Boys harmonies with Brian, Carl, Mike, Al and Bruce all here - especially Brian whose lived-in falsetto still sounds wonderfully pure and innocent despite everything he's recently been through. Had Brian written this song himself of course he'd have no doubt instinctively tidied a few things up: his harmonies sound like a sketch rather than a melody, while the chorus needs more than 'getcha!' (Mike used to be an expert at writing choruses so it's odd he loses the knack round about here). That said, though, even though Love's lyrics shamelessly re-write 'Do It Again' from 1968 that's no bad thing; it's touching to hear that the usual Beach Boys tales of holiday romances at the beach didn't always work out and the narrator's pangs of nostalgia and regret as he passes his old haunts. It's very Beach Boys, too, that the trigger for this sudden mood comes from hearing them 'playing our song' on the radio and that it's music that unlocks the memories (a regular Beach Boys theme, though music has nearly always inspired happy memories until now). In context, you wonder if this was written more about the band than a marriage too, with four years of near-enough silence and the death of Dennis broken by less than harmonious album sessions and a lead song that asks 'can we ever get it back again?' The track deserved it's top thirty US chart status (the band's best since as far away as 1976 - and even then with a cover song 'Rock and Roll Music') and proved that Mike knew the Beach Boys formula backwards - and sometimes that's all you need, even if you'd never claim this as one of the greatest or most pioneering thing the band ever did.

'It's Gettin' Late' is the closest the album comes to being daring. The Beach Boys don't just dip their toe in the water of 1980s pop here but dive right in and the result is, while not up to past classics, at least more ear-catching than most of the album. Digitally sampling and combining Brian's and Carl's voices for the opening sounds of 'aaaahs' over casio keyboard hell ought by rights to be the single ghastliest mistake The Beach Boys ever made, but there's an instinctive understanding here by someone (Levine?) who knows what he's doing enough to allow the band to get away with it. Carl wrote the song, with an awful lot of help it has to be said (his writing partners throughout the album are Nashville songwriter Robert White Johnson, better known as a producer for Celine Dion and Lynyrd Skynyrd among others and Myrna Smith-Schilling, who'd already written songs for Carl's two solo albums; this will end up being their last work together) and it sounds like one of his solo album tracks with the benefit of some Mike and Brian guest spots. Not least for the surprising amount of lust in the lyrics (Carl's solo albums are full of this, either in a belated attempt to get a hit or to overthrow his 'gentlemanly' image within the band) which find Carl getting uncharacteristically impatient for his lover to turn up and spend the night with him. Though the tune and lyrics are pretty basic by themselves, a punchy chorus and the acrobatic twirls of the opening (which carry on in only slightly more subdued fashion throughout the rest of the song) add some extra depth to the lyrics. The constant motion (and emotion) makes this seem less like a one-off lover's tiff than a long-term romance heading for the rocks after the narrator gave her one final chance to show up. Though the song, sadly, ends on a fade at just the wrong time there's a finality about this track in common with Carl's solo tracks written around the time of his divorce - the stakes are higher and this is a relationship that's getting 'late' and old. The result is a strong one-off experiment that really comes off and is arguably one of the four tracks on this album really worth hearing, although you're also pretty glad the band didn't do a whole album of this stuff.

Most Beach Boys fans have probably already skipped ahead to hear what Brian has to say, but for once in his career the elder Wilson is writing songs slighter than his brother or cousin. 'Crack At Your Love' sounds like 'Matchpoint Of Your Love' from the 'MIU' album (a daft song comparing a romance to a tennis match) but one that's more self-aware about how stupid it all is. Strangely, while the old Brian would have kept such looniness for himself (this song would be right at home on the near solo Brian 'Love You' album), he passes the lead vocal over to Al Jardine. Now, Al has a sense of humour to go with anyone but his natural persona is more reserved than the rest of the band (he's the one that isn't a brother or cousin after all). Singing a straight song about California or Santa Ana Winds, especially those with a folk lilt, he excels. Singing Brian's daft comedies he always sounds deeply uncomfortable and that's more so here than even 'Take A Load Off Your Feet, Pete' or 'Honking Down The Gosh Darn Highway', both of which have to be heard to be believed if you haven't heard them yet. Weirder still that's Brian himself popping up on the mournful middle eight which is so brief and to the point ('Lonely nights...lonely days') that you wonder if Landy/Levine/Love (what is it with people whose names begin with 'L'?!) heard Brian begin to pour out his heart and soul over the pain of the past and reminded him 'hey, keep it light - this is a pop album!' Not for the last time in a piece of Brian's comedy, though, it's the serious bit that catches your ear and sounds like the real deal - the rest of the song sounds forced, right down to the disco style 'ooh's and the lyrics that rhyme 'bliss' and 'kiss' and 'eye' and 'sky' with such pride that you wonder if this song was written in high school. Not horrid by any means, but very very weird as only The Beach Boys can be.

Not that Carl is a lot better on his go at a pop-rock song 'Maybe I Don't Know', although at least he sounds at home in this world of 80s pop, turning up the grit on his voice and adding some nicely grungy guitar to make up for a chord sequence so 1980s Stock-Aitken-Waterman probably have it copyrighted. Like much of Carl's second album 'Youngblood' it finds him trying to both hurry and shy away from the dating scene now he's a bachelor again. However Carl's rage (well comparatively - Carl's not the sort to lose his rag completely) seems misplaced for someone he's only just started dating, which leads me to wondering if this is instead a song he wrote defensively when trying to escape The Beach Boys circa 1982 when all they wanted to do was tour the old songs. 'You've got me thinking your existence is my life' nags Carl, before blaming himself for 'Ever thinking we could make it good'. It would be very Carl to ask for a 'guarantee' that things will be better, even though he and we both know you can't guarantee something like that in a changing life. The barn-storming guitar solo by Gary Moore, played with a surprising amount of anger for a Beach Boys recording, suggests that Carl was certainly directing the song at somebody. Ironically, though, if it is a song aimed squarely at the Beach Boys it suits their harmonies well, with Bruce especially shining on the backing vocals which goes well alongside Carl's typically charismatic lead. The performance and production, though, are simply making the most of what's at best only an ok song that like many on this album needed a middle eight or a bridge to make it sound 'complete'.

Bruce fits in his second token song since rejoining The Beach Boys in 1979 and it was even released as the album's third single, becoming one of the few of the band's singles to miss the charts completely on both sides of the Atlantic. 'She Believes In Love Again' is a bit wet to be honest, Bruce using the new technologically enhanced backing to go even slower and fill even more of the awkward silences up with noise than usual. He sings the song as a duet with Carl which means the song overcomes the problems of many of his songs in the past by making it sound more 'Beach Boys-ish'. But fans - and apparently the singles buying pop fans of 1985 - dislike this song for a reason. It just doesn't go anywhere and its main idea (she never used to be in love till she met me) has both been better done in a hundred other songs (The Monkees' 'I'm A Believer' and The Hollies' 'I'm Alive' among them), while sounding, like many of Bruce's solo songs, a little egotistical (it's not love in general that helps his girl recover her enthusiasm for life - it's his love; usually we'd give AAA writers the benefit of the doubt but this is the person who came up with 'I Write The Songs That Make The Whole World Sing' remember). The tragedy is Bruce is so much better than this - his songs in the late 60s/early 70s are amongst the more unfairly overlooked in the Beach Boys canon - and with Dennis gone and Brian going it could have been like the 'Sunflower' period all over again, with band members pitching songs and ideas in to keep the band afloat. Instead Bruce's only song on the album - and his only new song since 'Endless Harmony' on 'Keepin' The Summer Alive' - is his weakest yet, only salvaged really by Carl's contribution.  Bruce, who can sing with the best of them (and arguably has more of a voice left in the present day than any of his bandmates), doesn't even sound good on this record and is either trying way too hard to sound like an 80s boy band (New Beach Boys On The Block?) or has a nasty cold coming on. The album's second weakest moment.

Just listen to 'California Calling' - yes it's one of those Beach Boys songs that's had a rummage through the box of clichés again but the band still sound amazing with song composers Al and Brian swapping vocals with Mike (Carl is taking a rare rest on this album). Out of context this is an annoying song, a tribute to California so simple it borders on stupid and with this latest return to teenage crazes sounding ever more uncomfortable as the band hit their middle 40s; if you sped the wonderfully paced 'California Saga' from 1973's 'Holland' up it would sound pretty much like this. In context, though, this track really gives the album a lift. This 1985 record is one of the band's more po-faced recordings, low on the energy and enthusiasm that's the band's trademark, but 'California Calling' is the one track where everybody is having fun and one of only two that sounds instantly Beach Boys, for better or worse. It helps too that the 80s effects are kept to a minimum, with just one keyboard part rather than seventeen and this is the only track on the album to have 'real' drums, as played by a visiting Ringo Starr (the Beatle drummer had got in touch after playing at the same festival on the Independence Day Weekend of 1984 and guesting with his fellow headliners; rather sweetly the song he chooses to perform with them is 'Back In The USSR', Paul McCartney's affectionate parody of 'California Girls' Russian style from 'The White Album'). It's a better fit than you might expect - Ringo's style really isn't that far removed from Dennis' and together with the 'old' style and some excellent surf-style guitar you could almost believe this was a track from years ago (only a slightly damp feeling about the backing vocals, which sounds as if they're singing through a synthesiser, gets in the way). Not the classic it might have been had Brian and Mike written it circa 1964-65 perhaps, but it's a better pastiche than the similar returns to the early sound on 'MIU' and about ten times more affectionate.

One of the reasons Carl tries so hard to get hold of a big-name producer was the address book of contacts it gave the band: surely an album released in the mid-1980s with a song written by Boy George (whose band Culture Club had scored one of the biggest international hits of 1983 with 'Karma Chameleon') couldn't lose, could it? Unfortunately this wasn't a good time for George, whose releases in 1985 were restricted to two forgotten songs for a movie soundtrack and who was struggling with a drug addiction so wild it made Brian's own look tame by comparison (if perhaps not Dennis'). 'Passing Friend' sounds in retrospect like a bitter song written to contractual obligation as a favour to a mate by a man who'd rather run away from the whole pop circus anyway. It's not so much 'Karma Chameleon' as 'Why was I ever born?' style moaning. The Beach Boys, always open about their own feuds in song, ought to sound right at home here but this is a song quite unlike anything they've ever done before. Just check out some of those words: 'In the child's eyes, there were feelings, touching my violet skin' 'There's nothing worse than a silent ghost or to lose your head at the starting post' 'I've been talking to a million people - you'd think by now I'd know the score'. Boy George (using his 'real' surname 'O'Dowd') doesn't need a band from the 1960s to sing his songs - he needs a psychiatrist and a rest. The Beach Boys could perhaps have got to grip with this song had they remembered their own 'why did we do this in the first place?' period of 'Smiley Smile'/'Wild Honey', turned up the sarcasm a notch and simply made the record to please themselves - but you can tell that somewhere down the line someone official went 'Hey The Beach Boys covering Boy George - make it as commercial as you possibly can!' Carl does a sterling job, even singing in George's own slightly slurred style to make the lyrics flow (he also sounds as 'gay' as any Beach Boy ever will, perhaps to counteract the outrageously heterosexual 'Male Ego'), but the only other singers are anonymous backing musicians and chances none of the other Beach Boys even appear on this track. To work, this experiment badly needed more of a reminder of the band's own style - as it is, it just sounds like a Culture Club song with the lead singing having an off day.

'I'm So Lonely' is another track that doesn't quite do what you expect. One of Brian's greatest gifts was his ability to wear his heart so openly on his sleeve and allow everyone to hear just what was going on inside his head. Unfortunately the twin restrictions of the band's desire for a commercial record and the ever-hovering presence of Dr Landy (who won't quite allow him to write the 'truth' in case it backfires on him) means that we get an opening verse of typically aching Brian Wilson poignancy, followed by a rather forced pop song set to synthesisers that don't even sound as cute and charming as the early ones on 'Beach Boys Love You'. The song even starts with a saxophone solo for goodness sake - everything that's sterile and artificial and in heavy contrast to Brian Wilson's own writing (if this song had been produced by his old self it would have been full of unusual instrument combinations bringing out the mellow bluesy mocking vulnerability of the song - harmonicas and cellos and harps or something. I don't know - only Brian would know the perfect combination of sounds. All I know is some 80s synths and a saxophone isn't it). Brian sounds like he's already pining for Marilyn, even though they won't part officially for a few years yet. He should, by rights, be pining for all sorts of other things as well: his children, his band, his old friends and his freedom, all of which Landy separated him from in an attempt to get him well/control his finances (delete according to how much of Brian's 'autobiography' you really believe). It sounds from those devastating opening lines, as if he's about to. But no: Brian suddenly cheers up, sounding about as cheerful as someone with a gun to their head might be, as he longs for his lover to come back and put things right. The whole song is wrapped up in 46 words, with everything repeated once, and when six of those words are 'so lonely' and one of them is 'whoa' it's probably fair to say this song isn't over-stuffed with things to get your teeth into. Despite all that, the song isn't bad if only because of that pure Brian Wilson-ness of the first verse which, simple as it is, overshadows everything else on the entire album.

'Where I Belong' is the other emotionally powerful track on the album, with Carl and his usual band of co-writers coming up with a song that sounds from the heart. Like his solo albums ('Youngblood' especially) Carl has been adrift, lost in a life that he's been struggling to understand ever since realising the love of his life was over. Now, though, he's been given a second chance and he's overcome with how overwhelming it all is. The fact that this is a Beach Boy, of all writers, singing about coming in to port after dangerous years away at sea adds an extra frisson of truth in there too. A pretty tune, some nice use of the rest of the band (especially Al adding the counterpart 'darling where I am', which itself recalls classic Beach Boys single 'Darlin'; there's a lovely 'ah-ah ah-ah ah-ah ah' chord progression that's pure Brian Wilson and proves just how much attention his younger brother had been paying) and a moving vocal from Carl that sounds as if he's giving his all understandably make this track something of a late Beach Boys classic for most fans. However, this track could have been better yet: those cold hard-edged synths at the beginning just sound plain wrong on such an emotionally bare song, the other Beach Boys only join in late and their vocals again sound electronically 'treated' (surely hearing the band older and more vulnerable - the usual thing producers are avoiding when they do this - would have made the track even more powerful?) and at least one of the three co-writers should have been able to come up with a better rhyme for 'island' than 'I am'. Despite the problems, though, this is an album highlight and Carl's last great moment as a Beach Boy.

Carl also stars on 'I Do Love You', which is another track by a guest writer no doubt brought in to provide something in their usual style who ends up giving something largely atypical. True, most Stevie Wonder fans will be able to spot the composer a mile away - the way Carl hangs  onto the end notes of each line, the distinctive Motown-orientated backing track (played single handedly by Wonder) and the direct simplicity of the lyrics. But Carl, a big fan of Wonder's late 1960s material, no doubt requested a song in the hope of getting another 'Wild Honey' or 'I Was Made To Love Her', songs that equally suited Carl (who has a very similar timbre to his voice at times). This one, though, is poppy and lightweight even for 80s Wonder (when, like so many stars who came to fame in the 60s and 70s he lost his way a little) and is ultimately even more underwhelming as a pop song than even Mike and Al's songs (though perhaps not Bruce's this year). Had Stevie swapped lines with Carl instead of a very uncomfortable sounding Al (who only gets to sing the title over and over), had Carl duelled with him on guitar or even Levine on keyboards this track might have had more chance of working. Instead it sounds like a track Stevie was too ashamed to sing himself, recorded by Stevie as a demo with Carl's voice superimposed over the top. It's not The Beach Boys. It's not much like Stevie Wonder. It really shouldn't be here and sounds even more out of place than 'Passing Friend'.

'It's Just A Matter Of Time' is, regrettably, almost painfully obvious Beach Boys. Not good Beach Boys either but the sort of slow clichéd waltz Brian has been churning out lately as a sort of poor memory of where the band started (as Four Freshman before Chuck Berry's DNA got stuck in there somewhere too). In the same vein as 'Oh Darlin' and 'When Girls Get Together', which slowed 'Keepin' The Summer Alive' down to a crawl, so this Brian (and allegedly Landy) song is unbearably slow and amongst the dullest things The Beach Boys ever did. Though the song sounds like a simple enough devotion of love, when you read them the lyrics and study them they're also pretty weird too: 'I'm sad with nothing to do - it's just a matter of time...' Just a matter of time until what? Is this Brian 'hiding' another song of very real suicidal angst within the context of another pop break-up song? Is he working through his demons for the inevitable split with Marilyn beckoning in the distance? Either way, like 'I'm So Lonely' it sounds like a 'real' song is dangled in front of our eyes before frustratingly being replaced with a boring and generic pop clone. Mike turns in his usual trusty lead, but Brian himself is hard to hear and the backing vocals are so simple yet sloppy that they make all of the Beach Boys' actual Four Freshman covers all the more amazing played back to back. Chances are Carl isn't here again which is a shame as the rest of the band really needed his discipline to knock this song into shape. The third worst song on the album even beating the out of place covers!

The worst though is saved till last, unless you're lucky enough to own the cassette or vinyl copies which don't have the track 'Male Ego' (trust us, you're not missing much unless you plan to start paying money for a therapist). Though for the most part Brian is as pure as the driven snow and a real gentlemen according to most of the people lucky enough to meet him, sometime in his songs something a little more...oddball lurks. Though not quite as misguided misogynistic as the more famous 'Hey Little Tomboy' (see 'MIU', if you dare), Brian/Mike co-write 'Male Ego' cuts it close. The narrator is trying to chat up a girl he sees passing down the street, telling us in a cheeky musical wink that 'we love the ladies more than wealth or fame' (maybe the spirit of Dennis really is represented on this album after all!) Brian sings that 'male ego' is a worldwide phenomenon, that he's got 'millions of girls' running through his 'brain' and during one of the most painful fades in Beach Boys history awkwardly chats the listener up ('Mm you smell nice, what's your name?') Thanks Brian but I'm taken...taken with how on earth anyone thought this was a good idea. Admittedly The Beach Boys don't exactly think a lot about the feelings of the girls in their songs but at least songs like 'California Girls' or 'The Girls On The Beach' have a certain class, talking about hypothetically 'perfect' girls that probably don't exist and praising women as a whole (we'll skirt over the fact it's for being 'hip' and that the narrator 'digs those skirts they wear' - it was the 1960s after all). 'Male Ego', though, is tacky - this isn't even about beauty but about lust. Released in the middle of a decade where some of the biggest strides in feminism were being made (we may berate Margaret Thatcher every chance we get for her policies, but the single most important thing - arguably the only good thing - she ever did was get into power in the first place and prove it could be done) 'Male Ego' sounds particularly wrong, the one moment on this record where The Beach Boys sound hopelessly out of date. The very 80s synth backing (which must have been very modern at the time of release) would have confused even more back then too - thankfully the music sounds at least as old hat as the subject matter now so this song doesn't seem quite as whole-heartedly 'wrong' as it used to. It remains, though, the weakest song on a weak record, sensibly buried away as a 'bonus' CD track (though the question remains why it had to come out at all, especially with other material in the sessions going begging - surely the unreleased Brian-Dennis collaboration couldn't have been worse than this?)

Overall, then, 'The Beach Boys' starts off kinda strongly, rallies a little at the start of side two and ends with two of their biggest misfires in a row. It's not the sort of album you hurry to play after you've bought it, not is it one that you learn a lot from you didn't know already ('harmonies - good, synthesisers - bad'). It's certainly weaker than the more under-rated albums The Beach Boys had been making most recently ('L A Light Album' their last gasp masterpiece and their patchy-but-better-than-people-say 'Keepin' The Summer Alive') and is a lot more dated and a little more uninspired than even the dross to come (1989's 'Still Crusin' is more inspired but only lasts for seven new recordings and three repackaged oldies while 1992's 'Summer In Paradise' has a pretty low average setting but never comes close to being as bad as 'Male Ego', thank goodness). It goes without saying you probably don't need to buy it unless you're a Beach Boys completist. If you are though (and you have my sympathies - why were we conned into buying Brian Wilson duets with Zooey De Schenel and an album of Disney cover songs again?) you might be surprised at just how many highpoints there are on this late period album, most of them due to Carl. 'It's Gettin' Late' and 'Where I Belong' try hard and nearly succeeds, 'I'm Lonely' starts trying and then gives up and 'Getcha Back' and 'California Calling' don't really try at all but have so much fun while they're about it they succeed all the same. Yes, you really miss Dennis (something tells me that even if he'd been alive one look at how these sessions were going and that whacking great bank of keyboards would have seen him bunking off again anyway, like he did on 'Keepin' The Summer Alive') and to be honest you really miss Brian too (or at least the 'real' Brian who barely manages to peek outside the demands for catchy hits). But Carl is doing a great job of steering a sinking ship, Mike and Al do well the few times they actually bother to turn up) and The Beach Boys - just - get away with a product that doesn't entirely undermine that illustrious past. You really don't need this album, but bits of it are still nice to have.

 Other Beach Boys related articles from this site you might be interested in reading if you have a spare few weeks and your own sandbox: 

'Surfin' USA' (1963)

'Surfer Girl' (1963)

'Shut Down Volume Two' (1964)

‘All Summer Long’ (1964)

'Beach Boys Christmas' (1964)

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

'Party!' (1965)

'Surf's Up' (1971)

'M.I.U Album' (1978)

'L.A.Light Album' (1979)

'Keeping The Summer Alive' (1980)

'Summer In Paradise' (1992)

'Smile' (Brian Wilson solo) (2004)

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

'Smile Sessions' (band outtakes)(2011)

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

The Best Unreleased Beach Boys Recordings

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

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

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

Non-Album Songs Part One 1962-1969

Non-Album Songs Part Two 1970-2012


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