Monday 13 March 2017

The Beach Boys "15 Big Ones" (1976)

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The Beach Boys "Fifteen Big Ones" (1976)

Rock 'n' Roll Music/It's OK/Had To Phone Ya/Chapel Of Love/Everyone's In Love With You/Talk To Me/That Same Song/The TM Song//Palisades Park/Susie Cincinatti/A Casual Look/Blueberry Hill/Back Home/In The Still Of The Night/Just Once In My Life

Back in the mid 1970s even Paul Simon was releasing an album every other year, while the likes of Paul McCartney and Neil Young were often releasing two. However The Beach Boys' mostly superb quintet of albums for Warner Brothers sold so poorly that nobody else wanted to know and the band slowly splintered, losing Ricki Fataar and Blondie Chaplin physically and Brian mentally and becoming mostly an 'oldies' band playing the cabaret circuit. It was a tough loss for the group who'd once been billed as 'America's band' and who looked as if they might never make another record again, with  'In Concert' not so much the peak they'd intended but a farewell. But then something weird happened: Nixon happened to be specific, with the Watergate scandal effectively bookending the period of a fall in The Beach Boys that started around the time JFK was assassinated and The Beatles came along.  People didn't want to hear about lies and deception and losing trust and faith in the American Dream - instead they wanted to go back to a time when America was innocent and riding the crest of a wave, not making their inhabitants the laughing stock of the Western world. Capitol, more by luck than intuition, happened to deliver yet another Beach Boys best-of into the world named 'Endless Summer' in 1974 and suddenly the album was big news as everyone remembered just how great the band were back when they were young and innocent and they were too. Any sensible band would have capitalised on this, especially when sequel 'Spirit Of America' proved this sudden love for the band was more than just a passing phase, but no: the band sat out most of 1975, not seeing each other and not really talking to each other, even though they were family as much as bandmates by and large. Brian, especially, had become more reclusive and a lot more afraid and didn't want the pressures of fame again: as long as the royalties were pouring in, he was content to live out his days in bed, finally getting a break from relentless clock ticking and having to spend time with brothers, friends and cousins. If anything Brian rallies in this period, slowly finding his way back to health as he slowly comes to terms with the last few difficult days and the sudden death of father Murry in June 1973.

Then things got complicated. Brian was causing so much concern that wife Marilyn couldn't cope anymore and got the band to agree to place Brian under rather drastic treatment at the hands of 24 hour therapist Dr Landy who'll be around in one form or another until the early 1990s (though, balking at the cost and slow results, The Beach Boys decide to fire him after only a few years work the first time round). Brian, meanwhile, had found his own therapy - making music, just not for The Beach Boys. His only real work across 1973-75 was a short-lived attempt to escape The Beach Boys and form a new band named 'California Music' with just about the only two people he still trusted, Bruce Johnston (returning to work with him the first time since 1971) and Gary Usher (his old lyricist who last appeared on a Beach Boys release in 1964!) James Guercio was producing these sessions too until the rest of the band got wind of them and felt betrayed. So, without telling Brian, they decided to 'hijack' them - suddenly Guercio was out and replaced by Mike's brother Steve, a very tall and muscly basketball player who also worked as Brian's 'minder' when Dr Landy wasn't around. Brian, for his part, was said to be even more scared of Steve than he was of Mike and slowly the sessions went from being fun to being scary. Somehow along the way some legal dispute was 'discovered' which meant Brian could no longer work with 'California Music' anymore but, gee, Reprise are interested in a replacement Beach Boys album and they want Brian to produce it, which is just about the same thing right? And, oh look - if the band made it quickly to a deadline then, gee, it'll be the band's 15th anniversary and wouldn't that be something? No bands lasted until their fifteenth birthday back in 1976 and the fact that The Beach Boys hadn't either really after three inactive years seemed to pass everybody by. And, oh yeah, people-shy Brian is gonna love the 'comeback' publicity blitz planned for him and the record!

The result is the single biggest mis-fire in The Beach Boys discography (except, maybe 'MIU' in 1978). There is, of course, a world of difference between making music with people you want to because you want to and being told to come up with an album using a group you thought you'd escaped once or else. Brian seems to have hated every minute, while the other Beach Boys - who'd become a pretty tight band without his input over the years - resented having to work to his every whim. In this period Brian was ahead of the curve again and insisted on a pre-punk 'back to basics' approach that sounded very different to the last studio Beach Boys album 'Holland' and was the first to feature the band playing pretty much everything all the way through since '20/20' in 1969. As it happened this sound made The Beach Boys sound oddly contemporary in mid-1976, at least in Europe, but at the time the band were making the ridiculously named '15 Big Ones' it sounded alien and flat while even the most eccentric punk was never going to feature as many random synthesisers as this album. Brian realised quickly on that he just wasn't up to writing an album's worth of songs in quick succession after so many years of not really writing anything (much of 'Carl and The Passions- So Tough' and 'Holland' had been written long before those album's releases). So Brian decided, quite sensibly, that if he was going to end up making an album he didn't want to make he ought at least have fun with it and record some of his favourite 'oldies' (Brian seems to have always found arranging songs easier than writing them from scratch - if '15 Big Ones' had come out a decade later he'd have simply re-recorded Beach Boys classics, for sure). However he didn't tell the rest of the band this - they thought they were working on 'warm-ups' before doing the real thing and turn in some of the most miserable performances of their entire career with eight cover songs making up the final album of which only one (Carl and Brian's duet on a gritty version of Phil Spector's 'Just Once In My Life') is at all listenable. The band recorded a few things on the side - old songs of Mike's and Al's and a couple of songs Brian did write in his new simplistic, back-to-basics form and for a time this set was even a double-album of 'oldies' and 'newies' - so it was a shock when Brian turned round and said the album was finished and he wasn't changing it before slinking off to bed again; it was even more of a shock when the band heard the playback and heard just how badly they sounded.

Unfortunately The Beach Boys didn't have a choice in releasing this album: Reprise were all ready for it and would most likely have sued if they didn't get it and had an entire publicity campaign all set and ready to go. The band couldn't buy anymore time to re-do it and anyway, many of them still had faith in Brian's abilities despite his years out of the musical world - maybe it wasn't really that bad? Unfortunately, though it is. With the exception of 'Just Once In My Life' and 'It's Ok', the one song here that 'feels' like a Beach Boys song, much of '15 Big Ones' is hackneyed, simplistic and tuneless. What's worse is that the publicity campaign was so smug and so full of itself: the art department seem to put achieving fifteen years of not killing your brothers/cousins on stage sufficiently remarkable to make them out to be Olympic heroes on the back cover, with a 'five rings' logo. The band all wear smug, conceited grins on the front cover (even Brian!) of the sort usually reserved for the opening credits of really cheap and tacky soap operas. The back cover features Brian's name no less than 68 times - writing, arranging, singing and playing the piano/organ/synthesiser/synth bass/harmonica/ chimes/bells on various songs - as if to say to the world 'there, see - Brian is back!' There was a self-indulgent TV special plugging this album for NBC, in which most of the band glare at each other throughout and which is only watchable for Brian somehow coming back to musical life on a great live version of 'That Same Song' in front of a choir - the most people he'd had in the same room with him since the days of 'Smile'! The publicity campaign telling us over and over that 'Brian is back!' (even though he clearly wasn't and had in fact never been sicker by the time these sessions finished) was also bogus and highly deceptive from a band who'd always spoken from their hearts (at least after ditching their surfboards). It could have been worse though: Mike's newest song 'Brian Is Back!' gushed about that very thing while the person who more than anyone was responsible for Brian's condition in the first place offered the treacly chorus 'but in my heart he's always been around'. 
Somehow Carl got conned into singing on it too and the song ever so nearly made it onto the record - the fact it didn't is a rare example of good taste on an album that doesn't have much of it on display.

Even the better songs are swamped with bits that don't work. There's a tasty version of 'Tallahassee Lassie' hiding in the middle of the dreary 'Talk To Me' but alas the good part of that song only lasts a few seconds at best. 'The TM Song' begins with a band 'fight' on a freeway that's even less convincing than the one on 'Cassius Love V Sonny Wilson'. 'Had To Phone Ya' starts off well but ends up with Mike singing the word 'you' so many times over I still get up to see why my record's got stuck (and yes I still do this even though I own the CD now!) 'Rock and Roll Music' has some nifty harmonies and intriguing futuristic synth parts, but it's forgotten how to rock - and if you can't rock while covering Chuck Berry when can you? 'Back Home' sounds as if Brian's having fun boogieing on his own but then the rest of the band chip in to parrot the verses as if The Beach Boys have turned into a drunken Sha Na Na. The flattest Beach Boys chorus harmony ever begins 'A Casual Look', one of the worst covers of all time by anyone anywhere. Of all the songs here only 'Just Once In My Life' sounds good from first note to last note and that's because it's the only song here that means anything to the people singing it except 'fun' - or 'money'. Normally when an album by talent only shines through in bits I'd blame the producer, but that's a touch unfair in this case: there's no way at all Brian should have been left alone to produce his first album since 'Smile'. Marilyn didn't dare risk leaving their children alone in the house with him at the time, so why anyone expected Brian to cope with the rigours of producing an album under demand to a tight schedule is a pretty stupid decision. The Beach Boys, of course, were used by now at producing themselves - but with Brian in charge they didn't know which takes were 'real' and Dennis' increasing addiction to drugs, Mike's increasing addiction to transcendental meditation and Carl and Al's increasing addiction to keeping the peace and enjoying the quiet life at all costs robs this album of what it could have been.

But oh what an album it could have been! The idea is sound - both the back-to-basics boogie of the original record the band were going to make (the seven new songs here are sound, if not spectacular) and the oldies idea, which would have been well ahead of its time had the band well and truly gone ahead with it. When Brian retreated to his bed he naturally retreated to his favourite music as well and fell in love with Phil Spector all over again - though that love doesn't always filter through into this record the Spector songs 'Chapel Of Love' and 'Just Once In My Life' are easily the best out of the covers and offer a chance to hear Brian re-working his heroes songs with his own very different instinctive grasp of emotion and power. A whole Spector covers album would have been fab! 'It's OK' is pretty good too, suggesting that had The Beach Boys really plugged into the idea of returning to their heritage in 1961 when rock and roll was simpler and more 'teenage' this album could have been a treat, especially if 'Back Home' had been treated to the same swagger. The production too has its moments - returning to not just the innocence of the olden days but the primitivism too this record makes for quite a distinctive sound, especially when the synth comes in to provide a more jagged, modern sound as if to remind us that this is a band who could sound hip and modern if they chose to (this will be taken further on next album 'The Beach Boys Love You', which is very close to being a Brian Wilson solo work). had the band made it more in the manner of organised chaos album 'Party' and less like the art of 'Pet Sounds', this album might have had a chance. There is a great album in here somewhere and when The Beach Boys pull together and remember how they used to do things this and spent the right time and energy this record comes alive - but there just aren't enough of those moments here to make '15 Big Ones' worth anything more than a cursory glance.

This album could still have been saved had The Beach Boys sounded more like The Beach Boys. Though Mike, Al and Carl all sound much like their younger selves, Brian and Dennis are a shock to fans who hadn't heard them in five years (given that neither sang  lead on 'Holland' or 'In Concert'). Multiple cigarettes have caused Brian's beautiful sweet falsetto to devolve into a croak, something he explained in interview of the time was caused by 'laryngitis', which sounds like something he was asked to say - certainly he sounds no better and arguably worse on next record 'The Beach Boys Love You' and won't sound anything like the Brian we know and love until his first solo album of 1988. Dennis has gone from being the romantic crooner of 'Cuddle Up' to the hoarse whisperer of 'It's OK' after five more years of sex, drugs and rock and roll and if anything his voice is even more of a shock: at least Brian can get by on spirit and strain but Dennis is reduced to gasping for air within a single line so he has to resort to double-tracking when no one else needs to. This sound will heighten the emotional resonance of his solo work to come, starting the very next year with the superlative 'Pacific Ocean Blues', as Dennis needs to sound like someone whose lived and loved too hard. But all these tracks should have a lightness of touch that Brian and Dennis can't manage and Carl and Al can't pull off. That leaves Mike as the album's unlikely hero, as Brian returns to making songs far more to his liking and the singer's comparative healthy living means he can sing effortlessly what everyone else struggles with (though Carl's struggles are more due to hating the material and the atmosphere in the room than his voice). Maybe it's by comparison's sake but Mike sounds great on the album's opening three tracks - almost certainly the first three because his voice makes them the 'most Beach Boysy' of the lot. Given that we last heard Mike singing 'The California Saga' almost in a whisper and having very little input into the 'Holland' sessions perhaps this record's publicity campaign should have been re-titled 'Mike Is Back' instead?!

Overall, then, '15 Big Ones' is not the birthday present most fans wanted. Only one of the new songs really adds much to the band's legacy and only one of the covers comes anywhere close to improving on the original. This is an ersatz album that was never properly finished, with no real conviction anywhere until the last track and with too many rough edges needing polish. The problem too is that, despite the title, almost everything here feels quite small and inconsequential - but then I suppose '15 smallish ones' would have been quite such a marketing dream. And that's all this album is: a marketing dream that had to have an album attached to it (and a similarly weird TV special) even though no one in the band was up to making either. Nobody comes out of this album well - even the guy who came up with the title (the original ironic title of 'Group Therapy' would have been perfect!) Especially not Brian, who should never have been allowed anywhere near having this much power when just weeks before he didn't have the confidence to tie his own shoes properly never mind direct a band. He needed a rest, he needed love and he needed his bed - the struggles of making this album will tip him backwards into a spiral he won't recover from for another decade and even a brief return to form on the next album only comes along because Brian is back but the rest of the band isn't, only joining sessions near the end. Was the record worth it? Well, it was the first 'new' album of Beach Boys material to make the top eight in America for the first time since 'Party!' so the marketing men probably got a raise that year, but for everybody else Brian and The Beach Boys clearly aren't back - or anywhere even close.

History doesn't record what Chuck Berry thought of The Beach Boys scoring a bigger hit with their limp cover of 'Rock and Roll Music' (USA #5) than he did (USA #8). Something unprintable probably. The whole point of the song is in the title: this isn't an ode to classical music or anything arty but the raw primal power of feeling that no other art form can provide as well as rock. The hint in the song, where the narrator tells his partner that he'll 'only' dance with her to rock and roll and not any other music, is that he's only out for a raw, primal relationship and none of the fancy keeping-up-appearances sort. The track is also about the history of rock and roll and the many people who took to it and like many a Berry lyric celebrates the very thing mums and dads hated - and teenagers loved. It's still mainly about sex though. The Beach Boys miss the point entirely, which is unusual for them as a covers band: 'Rock and Roll Music' doesn't rock or roll, it just sort of plods along with a surprisingly heavy production for such a simple album full of comings and goings. Mike sounds as if he's acting and turns in one of his worst vocals, affecting an accent that's somewhere between Chuck's original drawl and a civil servant with piles, while the other Beach Boys (most audibly Carl) are clearly bored going 'rock...roll...woooh!' for hours on end. The result is a song that could only ever have done well on the back of huge publicity, which was exactly what The Beach Boys got, with enough of the public enjoying the idea of The Beach Boys covering Chuck Berry to make this the band's biggest hit since 'Good Vibrations' ten years earlier. The differences between the two songs - one distinctive, original and groundbreaking and made over the course of months, while the other is a rather sorry affair tossed off within a few minutes - merely shows the yawning chasm between what The Beach Boys were and what they'd become. Rock and roll? The Beach Boys have forgotten how.

After destroying the spirit of the 1950s, somehow The Beach Boys have remembered what it was like to live in the 1960s perfectly. 'It's OK', isn't just a great song, it's a great Beach Boys song - perhaps the last of their traditional style numbers that isn't a parody until 1981's 'Keepin' The Summer Alive'. 'Fun is in!' cries Mike, back with his old voice again, as he invites a girl to enjoy the present 'while it lasts' and maybe, just maybe, our happiness will create a better future for all of us. Gorgeous block Beach Boys harmonies are used better than anywhere else on the album and even if Dennis is struggling on his big moment (the middle eight 'find a ride!') this works too as a reference to both cars and in a wider sense life as The Beach Boys set down a 'funky' long and winding road. This song has a catchy chorus ('Sum Sum Summertime') that feels so perfect it's a wonder the band hadn't used it before in all those years of looking for variations on their favourite topic and indeed most of the future tracks that try to be 'just like we used to be' tend to go for this bit and 'It's A Beautiful Day' rather than true traditional Beach Boys compositions. However, like the 1960s itself, it's not all rainbows and optimism - there's a realist streak in this song too as we suddenly plunge into a weary minor key for the lines 'gotta go through it, gotta get with it', which isn't so much motivational as simply moaning. Even the title isn't exactly over-bursting with joy: life isn't great, but it is ok if you can find a way of making it so and enjoying the small simple pleasures of simply being alive. The best 1970s example of Mike's sunny disposition meeting Brian's melancholy into a fully original whole, this should have been the hit single not 'Rock and Roll Music'! Only a slightly slow and overcrowded backing track, busy with not just the usual album synths but a whole sheen of saxophones (all played by Roy Wood, recording a Wizzard album next door) we really don't need, spoils the view. An early version of the song, taped during the abortive 1974 sessions, is still in the vaults though the basics of it probably appear here over-laden with synths to make it sound more like the rest of the record.

'Had To Phone Ya' is a lesser example of the same ideal. Mike and Brian wrote this song too, with a few ideas from Brian's sister-in-law Diane oddly enough (her band American Spring rehearsed an early version, that's probably why though it's odd Marilyn doesn't get a credit too), and it's another example of the cousins' contrasting personalities as we effectively get two very different songs based around the same subject: the telephone. Mike and later Al, Carl and Dennis can't wait to get in touch with a loved one - she makes 'California seem not so far away', lifts their spirits and makes them happy all over again, a lifeline for a narrator away from home. However Brian's music already has a touch of his usual sadness about it: the song's line curl down at the corners of the mouth and the main refrain is played by a sad lamenting flute. Only Mike truly sounds happy in this part of the song too - Al's jollity sounds forced, Carl sounds a little wild-eyed and desperate and Dennis sounds drunk and desperate. Finally we get to Brian for an angry urgent tag: he needs her so badly so why isn't she picking up the phone and talking to him? What's going on - does she not love him anymore? Does she have someone else? Is he not important enough in her life? Suddenly the song's romantic haze turns into paranoia, the song getting stuck on Mike's repeated thoughts of '' before Brian nags 'Come on and answer the phone, come on come on!' while the rest of the band, weirdly, say 'I'll walk you home' as if the narrator is dating rather than married. Proof that this song is about a more substantial relationship than that comes with who does finally answer the phone: it's wife Marilyn who replies 'Hey, Bri!' This song isn't that good on its own merits but in context of what was going on within the band (Mike wanting to reach out to past audiences and Brian wanting to withdraw and keep well away from everyone) this is still a fascinating work and one of the better songs on the album. The performance is better than average too, with Mike on fine form even if the rest of the band don't quite nail their cameos which are decidedly 'phoned in' as it were (maybe Mike should have sung it all?) and Brian's return to using an orchestra for the first time in a long time (I won't say how long because we don't know how many songs were arranged by Carl in the late 1960s, but it's been a while) is a small triumph.

'Chapel Of Love' suffers from the opposite problem to most of the rest of the album: Brian's energetic and sweetly innocent take on The Dixie Cups' 1964 hit (written and produced by Phil Spector) is delightful, madly enthusiastic and full of character even if his double-tracked voice is still showing signs of strain. It's the song that palls: this song should work, returning to the same old idea of 'gee won't it be great when we're older and can be married?' of songs like 'And Dreams Come True' and 'Wouldn't It Be Nice?' But the band clearly aren't young - in fact they've never sounded older what with some truly oddball backing vocals, mainly from Mike, together with Brian's prematurely aged rasp and some oddball synth that doesn't so much play as cry, out of tune, across the whole song. This isn't the sound of innocent joy - it's the sound of a broken heart and it sounds more as if the narrator's putting a brave face on their tears (or perhaps that his bride is and he's just oblivious to her feelings). Throughout the arrangement this song feels as if Brian is 'dragging' everything else to the altar as it all feels kind of slow. My guess would be that the backing tracks has been slowed down a semitone or maybe two, perhaps to get the opposite effect to 'Caroline, No' and make Brian sound even older, but if that was a deliberate decision rather than an accident then it's the wrong one - what should be a merry song really drags.

Opening with a choral snatch of Procul Harum's 'Whiter Shade Of Pale' via Bach's 'Jesu Desiring' that the band will return to on 'Lady Lynda' in three years' time, 'Everyone's In Love With You' is a rather daft Love song that sounds like The Beach Boys trying to make up for the fact that they were about the only 1960s band not to enjoy a 'summer of love' (because of the impact of 'Smile' and Brian's breakdown mostly). Mike has spent most of the Beach Boys break really getting to grips with meditation and he continued to be a passionate supporter of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi long after The Beatles were back home and writing sarcastic songs about the experience like 'Sexy Sadie'. Like George Harrison, though, Mike senses something deeper beyond the material world and writes a song that could be taken either romantically or spiritually. The lyrics are a bit odd to be honest: everyone loves you, but you can't love everyone is the theme, because while romance is doomed to fail a 'universal' love runs deeper and can never die. Mike is quick not to use the words 'God' but that's kind of what he's hinting at and it's odd because The Beach Boys were never really a religious band; even 'God Only Knows' isn't really about God at all, even if the narrator is in love enough to start wondering. So this song comes out of left-field really and fan re-action was so poor that Love quickly decided to keep such songs to himself in future. My problem is not with the words but with the tune, which after moving on from plagiarising Bach sounds as if it's plagiarising The Lovin' Spoonful and lots of drippy hippie tracks without adding anything substantial of its own. A song about one's creator and the universe really needs to sound inspired, not 'borrowed' and it all sounds terribly unfinished - the chorus line of 'everyone's in love with you' needs another 'ba-doo' two syllables, while Mike ends his next line 'mi-i-i-i-ine' which needs an extra four. The Beach Boys (plus a guesting Daryl Dragon once again) deserve a better backing vocal than 'woo wahoo' too. Still, I don't quite know why fans hate it so - this track is in-offensive compared to some on the album, if a little stupid.

For instance, Carl Wilson has never sounded worse than he does on a slow, turgid cover of Little Willie John's 1958 hit 'Talk To Me'. To be fair to the youngest Wilson brother, he thought this take was just a warm-up and he never had any plans to properly release this song, while he was also busy taking direction from a producer-brother who didn't want to offer direction so couldn't exactly turn round and say no. Even so, it's a horrid idea: Brian tries to smother what was once quite a sweet and gentle simple song under a whole barrage of noise, as if trying to turn this into a Phil Spector production. Alas it's not like the Spector of the 1950s but the 1970s and the slow, top-heavy saccharine sound will be familiar to anyone who ever sat through the Lennon 'Rock and Roll' album, almost certainly an influence on this record too. Far better is the sudden burst of adrenalin that comes from Freddy Cannon's 1959 hit 'Tallahassie Lassie', which manages to rhyme the title with 'sassy' and 'classy' and features Carl suddenly switching from cruise control to first gear fun. Typically for this album, this entire section lasts just 23 seconds before we're back in the same sleepy insincere saxophone plod again. 'Talk to me' needs a stiff talking to.

'That Same Song' is the kind of song that would get an 'effort: A, attainment C' on its report card. Brian is trying so hard on this simple song in his old boogie-woogie style and his vocal nearly drags this song into the premier league with him, with both vocal and piano showing no signs of the wear and strain on him heard on the rest of the album, even if his voice is still gruff. The tune is kinda fun too, in a simple kinda way, with cyclical loops that sound a little like 'Smile' and a lot like the basis of his future solo 'epic' Rio Grande in 1988. However so much of this song goes wrong: this track is delightfully simple right up until the point amassed choir of soulless grinning Beach Boys jump on it and turn it into faux gospel. There's yet another awful sax part smothering the song's retro cheer with mid-1970s slickness. Brian's enthusiastic attempt to re-create the spirit of 'Do You Remember?' fails because he's not quite sure what he's writing: is this the history of rock and roll being maintained or the band being forced to stay in one place? (The lyrics alternate between both views). Brian also has as much trouble making his lines scan as his cousin: check out the way he ducks out of the line 'the same mean-ing' by stuttering through it when he realises it doesn't fit. The multiple tracked 'I know, I know...I go..I go...' is also pretty weak for a writer of Brian's standards. So the end result feels like a song that was never going to work in a month of Sundays done remarkably well and isn't just like putting lipstick on a pig but being pleased about it too, even if in fairness it is a very pretty pig.

I'm willing to bet that Brian got the sole writing credit on 'TM Song' out of either embarrassment or an oversight. In the interviews surrounding the album Brian was openly critical about the 'dangers' of transcendental meditation and how it seemed to change the characters of Mike and Al in the group since the last time they'd worked together. Brian found both distant and uncommunicative, so it seems unlikely he'd write a song championing their obsession - especially this song has the Mike 'n' Al trademarks all over it: it's insincere fluff, that arrives with a really big smug smile and reduces everything to the lowest common denominator (1978's 'MIU' album is full of songs like these). Poor and simple as some of Brian's songs are too, this just doesn't sound like his style: he'd write a song about trying to mediate, falling asleep and waking up hungry knowing him - or turning a song about peace and tranquillity into an up-tempo rocker as per 'Transcendental Meditation', the closer on 1968's 'Friends'. Al gets to sing and sounds so out-of-it you have to wonder if he was doing more than meditating that day, struggling to get through the silly words which for the third song in a row don't scan with the tune either. Plus we haven't mentioned the song's worst moment yet as Mike and Dennis 'improvise' a bust-up at the beginning that brings back awful memories of 'Cassius Love v Sonny Wilson' only this one isn't even that convincing: Dennis fluffs his lines badly, there's an ugly pause before Mike comes in and there's a horrible edit a few seconds in. The best part is Mike's Bugs Bunny impression 'Ahhhh shut up!' but even that is undone by Al's unconvincing decision to meditate, right there and then, in the middle of a car crash on the freeway and a car tipped over onto someone's lawn. If he did that for real after seeing two cars crash in front of him without rushing for help and ignoring everyone he'd be arrested - never mind meditation, he deserves a slap. Al sings that sometimes meditation goes fast and sometimes slow as time doesn't exist when you're meditating. Believe me, some songs can make time go really slow too and this is one of them, which even at 98 seconds feels longer than some albums. A definite low in Beach Boys history.

Meanwhile on side two we're back in 1950s America with 'Palisades Park', a cover of Freddy Cannon's hit from 1962 which sports a whole host of Beach Boys trademarks from previous songs celebrating the local fair from 'County Fair' to 'Amusement Parks USA'. This cover works better than most on the album thanks to the spirited, committed double-tracked lead from Carl and some ironic, postmodern comments from the rest of the band (Dennis stealing the song with his arch fairground/musical comment 'this track is rocking so bad I can't stand!) Though the song is simple, Brian's dressed it up to the nines with a whole sea of pianos, some complex backing vocals which are impressively tight for this era Beach Boys and the album's only real example of proper tight drumming (by Hal Blaine, who sadly doesn't get to reprise his 'carnival barker' this time around!) The song even features the same 'rinky tink organ' break as 'Amusement Parks' which sounds rather good. What it doesn't have is any energy or excitement, Carl's rocking vocals aside, or any real point. Back in 1962 The Beach Boys were celebrating fairs for real and in 1965 they were out to show that being a young American was the greatest thing to be on Earth - but in 1976 it's a noodling trip down memory lane that even at its best just reminds you how good those earlier two songs were.

'Susie Cincinatti' is an Al song that had rather a complex history. Rejected for the first version of what became 'Sunflower' it was revived for use as a B-side, although as so few fans bothered to buy the 'Add Some Music To Your Day' single (the band's poorest chart performance up until that time in 1970) very few knew about it. So when The Beach Boys needed a song in a hurry for the 1974 standalone single 'Child Of Winter' Al offered the song up again, with a new mix featuring slightly different appearances and disappearances of the harmonica and backing vocals. For '15 Big Ones' he somehow persuades Brian to give the song a third go - to be fair no one else in the band probably remembered it because it's not the most original song the band ever made and Mike especially sounds bored out of his skull on the backing vocals. Susie is a motorcycle chick who is up for every euphemism in town it seems - she 'lives for the night' 'knows where it's at' and 'can get you there in seconds flat'. The hint is she's a prostitute, especially with a name like that, though the track adds the unusual detail that she checks her kids are fast asleep at home before driving out so they don't see her 'real' life, suggesting Susie is a 'real' person (legend has it she was a Cincinatti taxi driver named Joellyn Lambert who asked if she could be in a Beach Boys song one day). If so, Al's probably in need of a second slap given his put down that 'her looks aren't exactly a plus' as if that's all that matters about her, though at least he's sport enough to call her a 'winner' as well as Cincinatti's 'number one sinner'. The music is groovy but un-remarkable, with a natty guitar riff giving way to some pristine Beach Boys harmonies which mainly because of the recording's vintage are far tighter than anything else on the record and still feature Brian doing the high parts. This song is too good for a B-side but not good enough for an album track and personally I would have revived Sunflower's other outtakes like 'HELP Is On The Way' 'Games Two Can Play' and 'Good Time' (which made it onto the next album 'Love You') over this one. Maybe, in fact, this song is only here because somebody pointed out the '15 years - 15 songs' gag and Brian decided to add one more?

This time it's Mike you want to slap, as he murders the Six Teens doo-wop hit 'A Casual Look', clearly not understanding the first thing about how the genre is meant to work. Not that Al's gruff vocal is much better really, or that The Beach Boys could really have done anything to this song to make it work - even the original is a bit of a drag and there are a million other recordings from the same era that did this stuff better. At least it was light on its feet though which is more than can be said for this recording, which throws everything at this song to make it work but only makes it topple over in agony. There's a sea of duh-duh-duh-duh-dee-doo-dee-doo backing vocals that make Carl sounds as if he's having a fit, a river of percussion, yet more needless saxophone noodling and a peculiar decision to have Mike, Al and Dennis (who doesn't even take a lead on this song) narrate parts of the story as a boy tries to chat up a girl. As with many Beach Boys songs this one doesn't even consider the girl's feelings - the narrator assumes she's winking at him because he thinks he's gorgeous and he's imagined just how wonderful they could be together; he doesn't even bother to ask her though it sounds to me as if she just had something in her eye and hasn't even noticed him stood there next to her. The band may have picked this one to sing because of the choruses' similarity to the tag of 'Warmth Of The Sun' ('Can't marry no one, no one, awoooooo!'), which is about as doo-wop as early Beach Boys ever got. This track, though, is a poor man's idea of doo-wop, sung with all the notes in the right place but with none of the feeling of joy or abandon and instead the band treat this with all the slowness of The Four Freshman without any of the integrity. 'A Casual Look' is too darn casual.

Everyone deserves a slap for 'Blueberry Hill' - everyone! The song starts with the single worst saxophone solo I've ever heard (even Mike on 'Shut Down' was better), opens up to a plodding bass line that's three times slower than it ought to be, a guesting Bruce Johnston - curious what his old friends are up to - stays long enough to provide a horrid plodding piano part, Hal Blaine undoes two decades as one of the go-to session drummers with a curious percussion part that makes a slow song sound even slower and The Beach Boys' backing vocals are - by their standards - pathetic. I'm not all that keen on Fats Domino's original to be honest (it's not a patch on 'Ain't That A Shame' and does nothing more than rhyme 'thrill' with hill' and remembers a very clichéd romantic night outside), so he deserves a mild slap too, but even this song deserved better than what The Beach Boys bring it here. While I can forgive the band for thinking they were simply 'warming up', surely this recording is freezing down? I take back what I said about 'Rock and Roll Music' - this must be the worst Beach Boys cover ev-uh!

Back in 1975 Dennis figured The Beach Boys were over as a creative act and made the first tentative attempts to make a solo career with some early sessions for what will become 'Pacific Ocean Blues' in 1977. Curious as to what Dennis was up to, his brothers snuck in - Carl staying long enough to work on 'River Song' and add some vocals to 'It's Not Too Late', while Brian turned up with his own song which he went on to teach the band. 'Back Home' got some additional vocals from the rest of the band back in the 1976 studio but if it sounds for once (twice?) on this album as if Brian is actually enjoying himself, that's because his vocal dates back to a time when he was enjoying himself, writing songs he though no one else outside his family would hear and singing a mad OTT vocal because he knew that almost certainly wouldn't. Brian's enthusiasm is infectious, even though the song is only half-catchy. Fittingly for the mood of this album it's a song about returning to your roots, as Brian resurrects his favourite boogie woogie licks and gets thinking about the past. In keeping with 'Do It Again', Brian wants to return to the past which was safe, happy and secure and so different to his way of living now. This is, of course, a fictional childhood (the Wilsons really didn't grow up on a farm!) but may have been inspired by one last sad trip back to the family home for Carl and Dennis after Murry died in late 1973 and mum Audree prepared to move out. Brian, in bed, refused to go - but is said to have wept for hours over the loss of his 'room' which had once been his sanctuary. Perhaps that's what he imagined when he wrote this song, going back not as a dysfunctional musician but on their summer break perhaps as a student, enjoying the familiarity and comforts of home. Something else comes over in this song though: Brian seems to be crying out for a routine and discipline as he promises to get up early every morning to do household and farmyard chores - an unusual thing for a rockstar musician to want to have to do. Maybe Dr Landy's early therapy sessions, which provided routine if nothing else stable, are part of this song too. Either way it's nicely cheery and refreshingly simple in terms of arrangement even if the song is not one of Brian's most inspired. If the rest of '15 Big Ones' had been recorded in this back-to-basics way, however, it would have made for a far more listenable LP.

Dennis gets his turn on The Five Satins 1956 doo-wop 'In The Still Of The Night' and though he fares far better than Mike did on 'Blueberry Hill' or 'A Casual Look' the tired and strained backing vocals still sound like sabotage. The song's tale of looking back to happier times fits in well with the last song and Dennis struggling for breath does indeed fit this song, sounding like a wheezy old man looking back on the things he got up to while young. Dennis really connects with something in this lyric (is he singing it to on-again off-again wife Karen as he tried to woo her back a second time?) and - the next track aside - it's the most committed any of The Beach Boys are to the material for the whole album. Unfortunately though the very weak synthesiser robs the song of all passion and Dennis' own drumming is limp indeed after so many years without any need to practise. The result is a song that should work but becomes all the more frustrating because it goes so painfully wrong; in comparison to tracks like those other doo-wop covers The Beach Boys really could have made this work if they'd tried a little harder. I'd still have preferred the Dennis-sung outtake 'Sea Cruise' first released on 'Ten Years Of Harmony' though.

The album's one true masterpiece though features the other brothers Brian and Carl trading lines on one of Phil Spector's greatest songs. Righteous Brothers track 'Just Once In My Life' beats the likes of 'Unchained Melody' or 'You've Lost That Lovin' Feelin' (also attempted at these sessions) for me anyday: it's from the heart, desperate and powerful, full of real emotion that threatens to swamp the song throughout. Brian is almost moved to tears as he clearly equates this song with his splintering marriage to Marilyn, unsure how to make his scared and lonely wife love him in words so he pours his heart into the music instead. Carl, meanwhile, is stirred by his brother into his single best vocal on the album in the last verse when he starts screaming for his 'baby' not to leave him. Between them the brothers plead with everything they've got across lyrics that hint at a life of misery and loneliness and appeal to every God in the universe to 'hang on' to the only thing that's keeping them going. This isn't some sweet affair that happened when they were teenagers as per some of the other songs on the album - this is a desperate primal cry for help. The vocals and the strength of the material are enough to cover up another slightly woolly backing track, with Brian's synth bass grizzling at the bottom of a bass-heavy track that's high on claustrophobia and short on sunshine, but on the plus side a see-sawing 'ooooh' Beach Boys backing vocal is exactly what this song needs, sadly sighing in sympathy as Brian and Carl pour their hearts out. Carl's promise to do things better next time round, to 'call every day' if we don't 'leave' him will give you goosebumps, cutting through the artifice of the rest of the record. Oddly enough, though the two-fer-one CDs were a work of science fiction in 1977, the pairing of '15 Big Ones' and 'Love You' works best of all, especially here when 'Once In My Life' peals away on an awkward fade that still hasn't seen the narrator get what he wants only to 'resolve' itself musically (if not thematically) with the opening nagging notes of 'Let Us Go On This Way', a Brian original with Carl singing that's virtually a sequel. The two make a fine pairing, but even here as the end to the album 'Once In My Life' has a power and poignancy this sorry album is often lacking.

The end result is perhaps an album only a fan could love. With two from the top, three from the middle and the from the bottom it's clear that '15 Big Ones' doesn't add up to the mega success both band and label were hoping for after 'Endless Summer'. But then that's because this album isn't an endless summer - it's a permanent winter in which life is hard in the present, bleak in the future and at best bittersweet in the past. Even without all the drugs, alcohol, cigarettes and heavy living to coat their voices, you sense that The Beach Boys could never have really gone back to the innocent ways of their early days, which is after all what the public wanted to hear. Sensibly The Beach Boys don't try (or at least don't try often), choosing instead to revisit oldies and a few Beach Boy sound-alike originals in a postmodernist sense, where we know and they know that the world isn't full of fun in the summertime all day long and that actually people get hurt. What's a shame is that the band don't go further down this route and pour out their hearts about why things didn't work out, with the fears of 'Pet Sounds' coming true. The best of this album - particularly 'For Once In My Life' and 'Had To Phone Ya' - show how great a revealing, painful, middle-aged, adult Beach Boys album could have been. Which is good and bad news if you're listening to these albums and reading these reviews in order because 'Beach Boys Love You' is indeed revealing and painful - if oddly childlike with it...

Other Beach Boys reviews from this website you might be interested in reading: 

'Surfin' USA' (1963)

'Surfer Girl' (1963)

'Little Deuce Coupe' (1963)

'Shut Down Volume Two' (1964)

‘All Summer Long’ (1964)

'Beach Boys Christmas' (1964)

'Today' (1965)

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

'Party!' (1965)

'Pet Sounds' (1966)

'Surf's Up' (1971)

’15 Big Ones’ (1976)

'Love You' (1977)

'Pacific Ocean Blue' (Dennis Wilson solo) (1977)

'Merry Xmas From The Beach Boys!' (Unreleased) (1977)

'M.I.U Album' (1978)

'L.A.Light Album' (1979)

'Keeping The Summer Alive' (1980)

'The Beach Boys' (1985)

'Still Cruisin' (1989)

'Summer In Paradise' (1992)

'Smile' (Brian Wilson solo) (2004)

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

'Smile Sessions' (band outtakes)(2011)

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

The Best Unreleased Beach Boys Recordings

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

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

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

Non-Album Songs Part One 1962-1969

Non-Album Songs Part Two 1970-2012

Essay: The Beach Boys and The American Dream
Five Landmark Concerts and Three Key Cover Versions

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