Friday 4 July 2008

The Beach Boys "Holland" (1973) ('Core' Review #55, Revised Edition 2014)

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(First reviewed in July 2008; Revised review published June 13th 2014)

On which the band re-discover their American roots – despite recording on the other side of the world! - on an album ignored at the time but which has since rightfully come to be seen as one of their best. It's certainly one of their most eclectic records...

Track Listing: Sail On Sailor/ Steamboat/ California Saga: i) Big Sur ii) Beaks Of Eagles iii) California// The Trader/ Leaving This Town/ Only With You/ Funky Pretty//Bonus EP: Mount Vernon And Fairway (A Fairy Tale In Several Parts) i) Theme ii) I’m The Pied Piper (instrumental) iii) Better Get Back In Bed iv) Magic Transistor Radio v) I’m The Pied Piper vi) Radio King Dom (UK and US and Holland tracklisting)

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For The Record:

Ones to watch out for: Sail on Sailor, California, The Trader, Leaving This Town

Ones to skip: None of these tracks are bad, but some stand up to repeated listening better than others. There’s not an awful lot going on in Steamboat for instance after you’ve given up trying to decipher some truly impenetrable lyrics, while the spoken word sections on California Saga quickly become irritating although the tunes themselves are quite nice.

The cover: A small, closely cropped shot of a boat taken in Holland at the top of the frame is dominated by a large picture of the boat’s reflection in the water. A hazy, crazy idea for a rather hazy, crazy album.

Key lyrics: “I wrest the waters, fight Neptune’s waters, sail through the sorrow of life’s marauders, un-repenting, often empty, sail on sail on sailor” “Feel the stinging I’ve been given, never ending, unrelenting, heartbreak searing, always fearing, never caring, persevering, sail on sail on sailor” “The river’s a bed of sweet berries and flowers, banks are first in line – please be careful – the stream is a night-class of heroes, bridges’ bright replies” “An eagle’s nest on the head of an old Redwood, on one of the old precipice-filled ridges above Montana Creek, that jagged country which nothing but a fallen meteor will ever plough” “A reason to live, a reason to continue” “She values flowers more than gold, thinks of her men as knights of old, she’s very spiritual I’m told, a-woah” “Some would say some would say why should I let my Pisces lady tell me why I still remember funky pretty why tell me why I still remember funky pretty pisces lady tell me why…”

Original UK chart position: #20, a pretty average chart placing for this period-Beach Boys in the UK –again this album was far more successful over here than in America where Holland was the latest in a long line of Beach Boy flops.

Singles: Sail On Sailor was a flop single and DNC, while California reached #37.

Official out-takes: None as such, although a few Holland-related oddities have escaped the vaults. A mix of the EP fairytale Mount Vernon And Fairway with all of the narration removed can be heard on the Beach Boys’ landmark box-set, the mammoth 5CD hits/album tracks/rarities collection 30 Years Of Good Vibrations (circa 1993). The superlative new Dennis Wilson 2CD set Pacific Ocean Blue also includes as a bonus track a rendition of Only With You with the middle Wilson brother on lead. Scrappy and less polished than Carl’s delivery here, it’s still a fascinating find, with Dennis’ rasp at his most moving. You can also hear the backing track of Sail On Sailor without the vocals on the 2CD out-takes set Hawthorne, California (2000).

Availability: One of the band’s rarer LPs (at least, it is with the bonus EP Mount Vernon And Fairway still intact inside), its now one of the band’s rarer CDs, thanks simply for the fact that it’s lengthy running time means it is half of the only 2 CD two-fer Beach Boys set in their career, along with the patchy Carl And The Passions - So Tough album on the front, but no bonus tracks alas.

This album came in-between: This album came after the curiously titled Carl and the Passions/ So Tough (1972) – an early band nickname chosen by Brian to badger his younger brother into taking part in when Carl wanted to break off and do his homework, ironically this is one of the few post-Brian albums Carl doesn’t dominate with vocals or compositions. This eight-track album is highlighted by the gorgeous fast-paced Marcella and the gorgeous slow-paced Cuddle Up. Shame about the rest of the LP though which is otherwise pretty much dire; The sort-of follow up album was In Concert (1974), a truly rocking live set with some unusual tracks (including a great version of Funky Pretty from this LP), although the effect is ruined by one-too-many hits (How many official live versions of California Girls and Surfin’ USA have there been now? We must be getting into double figures…). Fans had to be patient for a studio follow-up until 1976’s Fifteen Big Ones – and boy is this collection of simplistic Brian Wilson songs, previously abandoned album tracks and 50s rock and roll covers not worth the four-year wait!
The Album:

Dear readers, what happens to you when something goes wrong with your life? Do you sit and mope, do a bit of shopping, go off on a binge of alchol and drugs, make a life-changing decision and chat up all the nearby girls? (If you're name's Dennis Wilson you might well do all of these). Or do you suddenly decamp to another country halfway round the world, one that doesn't even speak the same language as you and which simply means that you're further away from being able to deal with all your problems as well as you ought to? When the Beach Boys decided that the best way of escaping their tax, managerial and musical problems was to regroup and record an album in Holland, you can be forgiven for thinking they were more than a little monkey nuts (go on, our website catchphrase has to take on soon!) During their short self-imposed exile the band nearly imploded (again) with the trip booked at the last-minute, leaving the various members scattered across hotel rooms several miles apart in a country they didn’t really know. So what are they American's most American band doing so far away from home? Their manager Jack Rieley told them to. Yep that's right - the band who only two records back were sitting at the top of the world with one of the year's most celebrated (if still slow selling) LP's 'Surf's Up' have now fallen so under the spell of their  manager/lyricist/ cheerleader that they're following his every word; Rieley, overwhelmed by all the financial pressures of trying to keep both his job at Warner Brothers and The Beach Boys afloat at the same time, had migrated to Holland and loved it. Like many new converts he tried to get his new friends to follow his way of life too: but unlike, say, your classmate who turned on you on to yo-yos, football stickers and strange Japanese animations involving talking pigs this enthusiasm was to cause huge ructions for the next few years of Beach Boys releases. None of the band were that enthusiastic so it seems strange in retrospect that at least one member of the band didn’t say ‘what the hell are we doing?’ (Rieley must have caught Mike Love in a blissed out transcenedental meditative state and told Dennis some story about all the pretty Dutch girls; there's no other explanation that I can see). Yet go they all did – eventually, well, sort of.

I can kind of see the point about the band going to Holland to get back their missing group solidarity by doing something ‘new’ that would make them ‘pull together’ in the face of adversity, something that was beginning to disappear after the strong spirit of Sunflower. I can understand too why a 'working holiday' would be more beneficial than simply another week of sessions in the same four walls of a recording studio (it worked for Wings: 'Band On The Run' was recorded in Laos and 'London Town' on two boats travelling around the Virgin Islands). But The Beach Boys were at least an album too far gone for that and the resulting squabbles kill off any left-over communcal spirit they still had; in many ways they'll carry on bickering until the end of this book. For the Beach Boys in the short-term the trip was a fiasco. The band quickly decamped into dividing factions which all but robbed them of the little unity they had left (Mike and Al on one side and Carl and Dennis on the other with Brian the very epitome of a floating voter, going with whoever was being nicer to him at the time), their latest masterpiece was an even bigger flop than their last run of albums and the whole shenanigans left a very sour taste in their mouths for a very long time.

Why the Beach Boys even vaguely considered taking Brian on the trip with them, I’ll never know. In the years since Carl and the Passions the band’s founder and guiding force had gone even further down his own dark road, with his bed becoming even more of a final barrier to the nasty world outside: the land of deadlines, meetings and strained band get-togethers that a tired Brian simply couldn't cope with anymore. Unable to even coax their leader into an American studio round the corner from his house (the Beach Boys famously built a whole makeshift studio in Brian’s kitchen – and even then only saw him in passing; more often than not his only artistic judgements were made by cheering or foot-stomping going on over their heads from his bedroom) and unenthusiastic about the venture themselves, how the band thought they could get Brian all the way to the Netherlands remains a mystery. In fact it took three goes to get Brian there: the first time he simply didn't turn up and the second time he somehow ducked his tough basketball-playing  'handler' (his cousin and Mike's brother Stan Love) and left his passport on his plane seat: alas for Brian he got tired on his way out of the airport and was found fast-asleep on a couch in reception. Even when Brian did finally go he didn't once come out of his hotel room and only added his few contributions to the album after the band had de-camped back to Los Angeles.

The band’s problems didn’t end there either. After all that work Warner Brothers still didn't like the record and rejected it; stung the Beach Boys tried to provide the 'hit single' Warners wanted, eventually reviving an old unfinished Brian Wilson song (suggested and given a few lyrical re-writes by none other than Van Dyke Parks, lyricist of 'Smile' and now a fellow Warner Brothers employee). This meant that a song had to go (still listed on the sleeve on some original European copies) and the Chaplin/Fataar song 'We Got Love' got the boot (you can hear a live version on next record 'Beach Boys In Concert' although the studio version only exists on bootleg I'm afraid); it probably was about the weakest but its a shame space wasn't found to include it all the same (at 36 minutes without the EP 'Holland' is arguably still a song short). For anyone whose interested the original track listing for the album would have been like this: 'Steamboat' 'California Saga' 'We Got Love' 'Trader' 'Leaving This Town' 'Only With You' and 'Funky Pretty'. The Beach Boys didn't fair any better than the album came out either - they missed the Christmas market by weeks, releasing the record in January (traditionally the quietest time for new releases). Also, having gone through more managers than albums in the early 70s, the Beach Boys were less than amused when they had to return home without Jack Rieley, who announced that he could handle their affairs from Holland without setting foot in the United States ever again and – maddened by this latest costly mess - promptly sacked him in an unusual period display of band unity. Holland’s detractors will also point out that the better known songs on this album – Sail On Sailor and California - were heavily tidied up or in the latter's case recorded from start to finish in hurried sessions after the band got back home. In pure practical terms the trip to the Netherlandsa achieved nothing except create lots of bad vibrations and another flop album that cost even more to make than the last three for Warner Brothers. Sonehow it speaks volumes that the band will take another three years before they go through the process again (quite normal today - Adele, who likes numbering her albums after her age ta the time of release, will have to make her new album '57' or something by the time she finally makes it - but commercial suicide in the 1970s when a new album was demanded every year or sooner). It speaks volumes too that, despite the band's tight contract, Warner Brothers simply let them.

Yet, for all of the bad blood 'Holland' is in many ways the last great Beach Boys LP (with the posible exception of the always overlooked 'L A Light'): the last point at which The Beach Boys are ahead of the game instead of vainly trying to keep up with the times; the last flexing of the creative muscles for a full album instead of the sudden mini-moments of inspiration that will dripfeed their way onto all the Beach Boys albums to come. There is undeniably something magical and mystical about this album, whether because of or despite of the problems facing the band, with each Beach Boy approaching something like their best work. For once on a 1970s LP, Dennis Wilson is neither a dominant or a missing force depending on how many solo recordings he was doing at the time, with all of the band members equal partners for the first time in years (if ever). That also goes for the two newest Beach Boys, the golden-voiced Blondie Chaplin and the multi-instrumentalist and future Rutle Ricky Fataar,. Slightly out of place on 'Carl and the Passions' - their only other record with the band - 'Holland' shows how fully integrated into the band's sound they could have become with time. Indeed, the pair help turn a good LP into a great one – Blondie’s lead on Sail On Sailor is staggering (even if, iornically, his most highly regarded moment as a Beach Boy is the last studio recording he'll ever made with them), their joint song with Mike Love Leaving This Town one of the better tracks on the album and Ricky's drumming always inventive and interesting – more polished than Dennis' yet more 'Beach Boysy' and natural than amny of the session musician players on records before and after. As for our old friends, bothers and cousins: Al Jardine is at a career-high doing his best Brian Wilson impressions on California;  Mike Love is getting all worked up on his American travelogue series of songs and pens perhaps his most beautiful set of words for Only With You; Brian Wilson is back writing mini-symphonies of howling desolation and glorious gibberish (Sail On Sailor and Funky Pretty respectively) while breaking our hearts if my synopsis of his fairy-tale bonus EP is even partly true; Carl Wilson is vocally at his best and his American pioneer song is one of his best on the album; finally Dennis Wilson does romance and gibberish at least as well as his elder brother, although slightly uncharacteristically and notably with all his songs handed over to brother Carl to sing: this is the last time you’ll hear one of his self-written tracks without an orchestra for the whole of his time with the band.   

Despite the inter-band feelings, the Beach Boys turn in their last great ‘group’ performances on this album too, perhaps because the camaraderie caused by the trip’s minor difficulties and the distance put between themselves and their old familiar habits forced them to lean on each other more. By this stage in the band's career they're about as well drilled as they ever were as a live band: it's no secret that the next band project is a live record because they clearly know each other well by now; 'Leaving This Town' is one of the finest performances on an album on which The Beach Boys play (even if its a slightly different Beach Boys to the one most people know), 'Only With You' is spine-tingling in its 'live-in-the-room' spontaneity and 'Sail On Sailor' rocks with the power of a band who know just how to groove without really trying. Ironically, though, there aren't many block harmonies on 'Holland' which is a major development in the band's sound and a pointer at just how unharmonious the sessions were : as far as I can tell 'Funky Pretty' is the only track on the album to feature more than four members of the band at any one time (with criss-crossing vocals by Mike, Al, Carl and Blondie - other songs feature two or three at most). Ever the peacemaker, Carl seems to be the only Beach Boy a part of all camps throughout the record, but recording this way in little pockets of musicians a bit at a time seems like a fair solution for the band: certainly the central backing tracks done by Carl, Blondie and Ricky have a real swing and power other 1970s Beach Boys recording don't possess.

Another point worth making about this record is how American it is. Many fans seem to dread buying this LP because they take one look at the album title, the reviews saying 'it sounds nothing like the Beach Boys' and don't see how the 'Flame' pair can ever have settled down into the band's sound post 'So Tough'. But 'Holland' may well be the most American Beach Boys album of them all - well since 'Surfin' USA' at least.‘America’s band’, as the Beach Boys liked labelling themselves, never talked so much about their homeland as they do here, suggesting that absence really does make the heart grow fonder (yep, even in their Californian surf and sun early 60s days). The American Trilogy on this album is the most obvious example—but the US of A is mentioned several other times too, from the American settler who sees his homeland grow in The Trader to the American explorer who sets off for pastures new on Steamboat. Far from a glorious album about what new horizons the band could set for themselves with a fresh input (as no doubt intended by Rieley) The Beach Boys instead become more and more concerned with their homeland and revisiting their past. Those Beach Boys - take them away for a holiday and all they do is write postcards about missing being back home! Travelling is a key theme of this album too, what with songs about sailors and steamboats, but actually that's a bit of misdirection: The Beach Boys felt like the early American settlers must have done, bringing their culture and way of life on board with them and talking to strange natives in foreign tongues (nothing makes you feel a part of country more than when you're a very small representative of it in a foreign land, with everyone laughing at your accents, dress sense and passport photos). As a result a lot of this album isn't just about contemporary America, as per usual, but what it means to be American: how a collection of so many different settlers from so many different worlds united into one new nation with a shared vision. The whole of the first side ('Sail On Sailor' 'Steamboat' and 'The California Saga') plus the first song of the second side ('Trader') deal with the very start of American life: the struggles for freedom, the fight for justice, the slow build up of trade with the natives, the 'beaks of Eagles' becoming an American emblem: perhaps if The Beach Boys had named the record 'Spirit Of America' like their forthcoming compilation this record  might have sold more copies. By contrast, Holland is never mentioned once in the song's lyrics.

So what has Brian Wilson been up to in his hotel room? Well, despite the sheer head-scratching response to his latest creative project (the Mount Vernon and Fairway EP' given away 'free' with the parent record - mainly because the others felt it didn't fit with their songs) Brian's view of the world is actually closer to his brothers friends and cousins' than it has for a while. Brian is deeply  homesick for America too and concerned with history: but it's not pioneers and settlers that concern him but his own past. We'll be looking in more detail at the Rieley-narrated fairytale at the end of this review, but suffice to say for now that it concerns Brian's childhood, the sudden violence in it and the feelings of competitiveness ingrained into him as a child when all he ever wanted to do was escape and listen to his radio. Brian has never really spoken about this EP - at the time he couldn't and later he didn't want to - but I'm convinced that Brian thought that 'Holland' would be the last album the band would ever make (after four relative flop albums Warner Brothers were't eager to fund any more) and wanted to leave his fans with something that went full circle and explained a little about his plunge from all-conquering musical hero to bedbound sufferer: the muse that once burnt so bright, that he accidentally but magically tuned to like a wavelength on his pocket transistor radio doesn't work anymore and without any way to charge his creative batteries Brian can't get it back. While couched in the language of childhood, related as a 'story' with Rieley reading out in his best child-friendly voice, I put it to you dear reader that 'Mount Vernon and Fairway' is one of the most personal pieces Brian ever wrote: even this album's'Sail On Sailor' (reworked by Van Dyke Parks and Rieley from an unfinished Brain Wilson song from a few years earlier) doesn't come close. Of course, that doesn't stop everyone going 'wha?' every time they hear it (especially on CD where it really doesn't belong so soon after 'Funky Pretty' - personally I'd have put 'So Tough' and 'Holland' on one disc and added this on its own as a bonus 'second disc')

As a whole, though, 'Holland' is a fine album, one that's deeply adventurous and yet somehow still recognisable as The Beach Boys. Many see Holland as the Beach Boys’ last creative effort as a pioneering band rather than one that all too frequently rested on its laurels in the 80s and 90s. Whether you agree with that assessment or not (see album review no 76, LA Light Album, to see why I don’t!) there’s no denying that the band never worked as well as a unit again and in just those three short years this most talented of bands are left playing second fiddle to a terribly poorly Brian Wilson, backing him on some half-baked rock and roll covers and some pretty awful self-made nursery rhymes. A shocking waste given the way all the band members are stretching their creative sea legs on this album, one of the most complex, sophisticated and adventurous sets they ever released. Brian’s return to brilliance comes much later—but for now, at least, the other Beach Boys don’t need him, making one of their most consistently successfully records of their many years together.

The Songs:

Brian Wilson, in fact, nearly wasn’t represented at all on the album, as the band were to varying degrees rather against the inclusion of his rather eccentric spoken-word fairy tale (it was released as a bonus EP with the album  as a desperate compromise - more on that later). After the band’s first submitted version of Holland was rejected (not the first time this happened to the band – see album review for Sunflower, no 37 on the list), Brian’s old collaborator Van Dyke Parks - then working as a consultant of sorts for Warner Brothers- dug out an old copy of a song the pair had written together (but one that dated a bit after the famous Smile sessions). Unfinished and decidedly ropey in sound and performance and with an eerie spoken word opening ('Hypnotise me Van Dyke! Hypnotise me and tell me I'm not crazy!'), this song about overcoming obstacles married to a pounding, stubborn riff was still obviously head and shoulders above most things Brian had been writing of late. Sensing a hit on their hands, the record company backed down from their stance, agreed to back the album and scored a middling success in the American charts in the -process. A last minute addition to the album (the track replaced a so-so Chaplin-Fataar collaboration We Got Love, a live version of which appeared on the Beach Boys In Concert album), Sail On Sailor nevertheless fits Holland’s themes of overcoming problems to fulfil your promise and personal goals perfectly. Struggle is the theme of much of this album, whether finding blissful relief from it or running into it head-first. Sailor is the most bitter, weary, resigned track that Brian (or Van Dyke) ever wrote – and yet, like much of the album, there’s a large gust of hope blowing through this piece’s sails too, pushing it ever-forward, the hope that through perseverance the narrator can end his ceaseless travelling through troubled waters and head for home at last. This classic track is handled with vocal aplomb by Blondie Chaplin in Brian’s absence and the song reveals what the brains (and Brian's) behind Smile might have sounded like had they continued to work together through the 60s and into the 70s. A pseudo-autobiographical take-on-all-obstacles song with harrowing verses but an uplifting chorus, like many a Brian Wilson song of the 1970s it’s an expression of horror at the Moby Dick-sized problems that seem to have hit the troubled sailor/whaler narrator. The water-filled imagery in the song is so perfectly fitting for the Beach Boys its amazing it hadn’t been written by Brain for one of their early 60s albums when literally any connotation to do with beaches and waterways seemed to find itself into a song. In fact, this is the flipside of all that innocent fun and sun in the surf songs—life comes at a price for Brian nowadays and all the happiness and rewards that sounded so easy to find in the Beach Boys’ early period are only found after a great deal of searching, if indeed the narrator ever finds happiness at all  Like the subject matter, the music to this song is tough but manoeuvrable, with a thumped out piano chord moving its way up and down the keys, improvising its answer to the unexpected problems it hits from time to time, sliding left and right, upside down, anything to shake its demons off its back. The perfect embodiment of a helpless ship cast upon a torrential wave, its full of typical Van Dyke type half rhymes that more than match Brian’s chaotic changes of melody. A magic opening for any album, the song’s theme of perseverance helps sum up not just the album but the state of the Beach Boys - and perhaps America - in 1973 well, tired and worn out but still just about standing and dreaming of brighter days to come.

Steamboat, meanwhile, find’s Brian’s younger brother Dennis in terribly uncharacteristic mode. Whereas before in his career Dennis went for full-out rockers with the odd up-tempo ballad thrown in, this song is one of the slowest and most ponderous songs the Beach Boys ever recorded. The slow pace of the tune seems designed to make you concentrate on the lyrics but these – provided by then manager and occasional collaborator Jack Rieley – are confusing at best, representing some of the murkiest waters the Beach Boys ever set sail on. The closest I can get to understanding this song – and believe me, it’s a long shot –is that ‘water’ used to represent mankind’s hopes and dreams - the great unknown oceans with new worlds at the end of them waiting to be explored - that in the present day have ‘living ever faithfully died’ and are no more. But, hey, that’s only my take on it, this is one of those songs that come along every so often that literally could be about anything. Chuggingly elliptical is the best description for Steamboat, which does its onomatopoeic best to sound like a slow moving vessel until the strong ocean current of a spiky guitar solo comes out of nowhere to propel the song forward again. That’s even younger brother Carl Wilson singing the lead on this song by the way – for pretty much this album only, the Beach Boy singing a track is not necessarily the one who wrote it and as ever Carl does a good job of what can only be described as the strangest set of lyrics he ever had to sing. For all the confusion, however, there’s something ear-catching and intriguing about these murky waves, the feeling that rather than just empty addled nonsense there really is something enticing lurking just beneath the surface – it’s just that you can’t quite get to it and unlock its secrets before the song ends. 

The California Saga is a Love/Jardine special and is two parts epic, one part singalong, all dedicated to the splendour of America, just like in the days of old – even though bizarrely the band are singing their love song to a homeland they had just sailed halfway across the world to escape from! The first Big Sur section is another slow, churning song in waltz time (3/4) that sounds like its giving vocalist Mike a few problems trying to fit his own words around it. The tune – one of the few that Mike, the band’s chief lyricist who never played an instrument, is credited with – is lovely, rolling up and down a stately and rather fragile backing of piano, mouthorgan and strings and you wish he’d written a lot more of these songs. The narrator, like its composer temporarily stranded away from home, thinks of all the big plans he has for when he gets back there on this simple but nevertheless lovely song, highlighted by a rolling piano lick that seems to suddenly fall of the edge of a cliff at the end of the track.

Part Two, The Beaks Of Eagles, is a truly strange monologue about the passing of time, with the sort of monotone narration that really annoys you when you play the album lots. This poem by Robinson Jeffers sounds pretty atmospheric and eerie, with this most American of American bands telling us an allegory about the country’s formation (an American eagle making a nest and gradually giving birth to a growing number of young—what Abraham Lincoln thought of being called a hulking great bird is probably best left unprinted) although why the band should sound so scared that ‘nothing has changed for thousands of years’ is unclear – the whole point of the poem is that mankind is growing outward and multiplying every generation. Nice as this segment is, it’s a shame it couldn’t have been saved for some other purpose because the music by Al Jardine running along behind and bursting forth every now and then sounds like nothing short of a long-lost Smile fragment (that’s high praise on this list by the way). In another league entirely, the music features rushes of atmospheric piano, with orchestra and flute accompaniment, that more than deserves to have been developed into a song in its own right, especially the ghostly piano lick. As for the monologue, Robinson Jeffers’ poem is indeed a lovely work, one of the better nationalistic pieces of Americana it has to be said (and way better than our own UK jingoistic monstrosities - the second verse of Rule Britannia that is thankfully rarely heard these days is so racist and smug it makes me ashamed to be British) but Mike Love’s nasal narration does neither the song nor the poem any favours.

The first two parts of this trilogy are easily surpassed by the third part California, however, possibly the band’s best song about their American roots since California Girls. The band suddenly sound young again, rather than frazzled and middle-aged like they do on much of the album, and turn in a fine group performance here, with the best block harmonies out of the whole of Holland. Even Brian turns up for his only vocal cameo on the song’s first verse (so sudden was it that the band had to drop everything and record Brian while they could, even though they were busy recording the backing track at the time – which is perhaps why the sound quality of this section is a bit weaker than on the rest of the CD!) Most people assume this is a Brian Wilson song in fact, so many of his ‘trademarks’ does it include – catchy chorus, deeper reflective verses, complex harmonies, boogie woogie bass lines and an intriguing blend of old time banjos and futuristic moog. Al Jardine had obviously been playing close attention to his old friend on this track, one of his best in the Beach Boys canon, which manages to cram in loads of typically Beach Boysy references whilst sounding as if its treading new ground with every step. Delightful.

Onto side two and The Trader finds Carl Wilson on good form, both in his classic rolling melody and his sterling, rocking vocal which somehow manages to make sense out of some more truly incomprehensible lyrics from manager Jack Rieley. Trader is actually about an explorer rather than a tradesman, returning to the Smile theme of colonization in its themes of developing a country where ‘humanity is on its way’, whether the people there like it or not (presumably the country is America, given the song’s follow-on from the last track, but we are never told its name). The lyrics to the song’s opening strident verses are seen by many fans as being anti-colonialist, but actually they could be read wither way, with a growing sense of unease knocked aside with the lines about teaching natives to read and be educated and protecting them from disease. Even so, Carl seem to sing the line ‘trader civilised all he saw’ in a very tongue-in-cheek way, as if to acknowledge that as the American natives had survived thousands of years perfectly happily they really didn’t need any help from their pale-faced cousins. The song suddenly changes gear about three minutes in, with the narrator now reflecting on all the hopes of equality and harmony the new colony will bring to everyone sometime in the future which is really quite moving, with the new world offering a second chance of redemption to the travellers who messed up in their homeland. In keeping with the song’s theme of explorers risking everything to bring future generations security and contentment, that’s Carl’s young son Justyn saying hello to you at the song’s beginning! (Make sure you say hi back to him!)

Next comes another epic, Leaving This Town – a track by the band’s new members Blondie and Rikki with some help from Mike which most fans don’t seem to like. It’s not hard to see why, as this song is an atypical moody piano piece with a synthesiser solo that doesn’t sound much like The Beach Boys and takes an age to get going, but so subtle is this song, so powerful the long gradual build-up in the middle that for these ears at least it’s one of the album’s clear highlights. A simple tale of having to do a U-turn in your life after hitting an obstacle, it’s a terribly mournful song about what the narrator is going to miss about his old lifestyle when he adjusts to his new one. Realising too that his problems will always follow him wherever he goes – ‘leaving this town for another one’ – and that he has already found the source of his happiness, the narrator gives it one last try, asking his loved one for the last time whether she really wants him to stay or go. While she considers the matter over the narrator waits an absolute age in silent, a million conflicting feelings running through his head, all conveyed through that staggering synthesiser solo that just slowly turns up the pressure and builds to a powering climax. With two pianos churning away underneath it, this close cousin of Good Vibrations’ theremin keeps slowly rising its way upwards above the mundanity of the backing track, trying to seek its way out of the gloom. After all that the last verse is an anti-climax, with no answer forthcoming and the narrator still pausing on the doormat, weighing up his options. An arranging trick that even Brian Wilson would be proud of, this song sounds even better on the In Concert record where the climax builds much quicker and the song becomes much more of a group performance. Blondie turns in another perfect vocal on the track, locating the fine line between despairing heartbreak and the zest for life the narrator needs to fight back again. A forgotten album archive gem.

Only With You is the band’s best ballad in years, similar to God Only Knows in its quiet, angelic lyrics of devotion and Carl’s whispering lead. The song is actually a one-off collaboration between Dennis (music) and Mike (lyrics) – amazing that two of the 60s biggest rabble rousers should write such a beautifully expressive song of love on one of only two times they worked together! Like much of the album the backing track to this song is muted and taken at a very slow pace, but whereas much of this album sounds cold and distant, this track sounds very intimate indeed, with a nice Beach Boys vocal round in the middle the highlight of the track. Carl does a good job with the vocal, focussing on the song's beauty rather than Dennis'; world-weary chords, but the definitive version is still Dennis Wilkson's solo version - taped during the 'Pacific Ocean Blues' sessions in 1977 but not released till that album came out on CD in 2008. Gruff and raw but with an honesty this prettier version is missing, it's one of Dennis' best performances on one of his stronger melodies and cousin Mike's better lyrics. This is incidentally the third time the Beach Boys use the chorus line ‘all I want to do’ in a song – they even used that line as a title for two separate tracks available on 20/20 and Sunflower, one by Dennis and one by Mike.

Holland closes with only Brian’s second song on the album, Funky Pretty which is, well, pretty funky as the lyrics will tell you. Another of Brian’s epic-but-compact four-minute masterpieces, he’s actually the only band member not singing lead on this track which switches nearly every line (from Blondie to Al to Blondie again on the choruses to Mike to Carl on the verses). The third song to feature incomprehensible lyrics from Rieley, these are probably the best he wrote for the band, as you can still (just about) work out the narrator’s tale of trying to understand his partner by reading her horoscope, describing her often conflicting Piscean characteristics in the song. Realising that she is an incurable romantic who loves dancing at the drop of a hat, he soon realises that life with her will be – err – unusual (‘Her calendar is not like ours, the hieroglyphs mark changing hours’, indeed) but never boring or dull. Deciding to ‘come back when the aspects are right’ the narrator bides his time to catch his dream girl in the right mood so he can sweep her off her feet - and seems to still be waiting if the long two-minute round of harmonies at the end is anything to go by. The jaunty, surprisingly gutsy music and slightly muddy mix means that you are still concentrating on the sound of the words rather than any sense they might make, however. The most adventurous and technically complex track the band had attempted for, ooh, ages, there are more criss-crossing background harmonies and additional harmony chants than even in Brian’s hey day and the band seem to be performing this rather off-beat and challenging song with relish, making you wish they’d done more pieces of this ilk. The song’s  elongated fade, where the overlapping vocal lines and spiralling bass riff seem to go on and on is one of the most thrilling moments in the Beach Boys back catalogue, with your ears never quite sure what sounds to pick out next (Mike, Carl, Blondie and possibly a lowly-mixed Al are all singing different parts in counterpoint). To think that this was the last Beach Boys track to be released on a new album for three years and that this is the last complex arrangement Brian attempted right up until Rio Grande on his 1988 solo album Brian Wilson is enough to make you weep. There should have been many many more albums like this one to follow Holland, where did that magic go?

Original copies of Holland (and the latest CD re-issue!) came with an EP containing what is possibly the strangest release of the Beach Boy’s back catalogue (and there have certainly been a few strange moments over the years, the highlights ranging from a backing track made up of crunching vegetables to faked studio arguments about each other’s squeaky voices!) Mount Vernon and Fairway is nothing less than a Brian Wilson fairy-tale, narrated by our old friend Jack Rieley who does a very good job of trying to make sense out of a piece so fragmented its even harder to follow than his lyrics (perhaps Brian was getting his own back?!?) The story follows a fairy who comes out of a transistor radio to spread love and happiness to the life of a lonely prince, a feeling that is sadly short-lived because the prince gets too full of himself and no longer likes the music he hears through the radio, deciding he can do better on his own. The prince then has to watch sadly as the magic within is passed on to the boy’s two brothers who do make full use of it until their mother gets sick and tired of all the racket and throws away the radio for good. If Brian was writing an allegory here (Mount Vernon was the area in Hawthorne, California where his cousin Mike Love and their family lived, where Brian reputedly first fell in love with rock and roll via the radio while on a visit) then its one of the saddest, gut-wrenching pieces in this book.

Brian’s greatest muse – music itself – which first came to him as a teenager through that very transistor radio and the thing that makes him feel special above all others, deserts him. He no longer feels special and despite being a 'prince' born to greatness everyone has turned their backs on him. What's worse is that the 'magic spell' has been given to his own brothers instead (OK, Brian doesn't have four sister and four brothers but this is a fairytale, right? Having Dennis as your brother rushing around all day long would make it seem like you had seven siblings anyway!) and the prince has to watch as they rush on and take all the glory: given that Carl and Dennis take all the applause on stage and are writing their own easy-flowing songs no wonder a now tired and ill Brian feels so jealous. Note the references to the 'secret bedroom' where the prince feels 'safe' , his 'magical kingdom' when he comes home from school (a true re-write of 'In My Room'). Brian (sorry, the Prince) doesn't even need to do anything to make the radio work: it comes to him so naturally as if he's conveying something running through him - many creative personalities (and Brian was more creative than most) have reported a similar feeling. The Prince then discovers that the person in his radio is a 'pied piper' and the pair make a pact that he will keep hearing the music if he keeps the existence of his new friend a 'secret'. If nothing else this passage explains why Brian took to his bed: the pied piper only comes out at night, when the Prince is tucked up safely in bed - the one place he feels safe and loved. The ‘pied piper’ in the radio even sings a chorus of ‘better get back in bed, hope to see you again’ – which is almost certainly about Brian’s life at the time, when the troubled musician really did stay in bed for pretty much eight years, uncertain what to do without that radio ‘spirit’ driving him on. However a few nights later the magic has gone and arrogantly the Prince throws the radio away - which is where his two brothers find it. The Prince doesn't dare break the pact and talk about the pied piper with them - but they've clearly discovered it too; he can hear them laughing, even while he feels deeply miserable.

However there's a twist: all fairytales need a wicked parental figure and the parents in 'Mount Vernon' are more wicked than most (interestingly, though, its the mum not the dad who does all the speaking: is this Brian covering up Father Murry's behaviour?), hiding the radio and leaving the family alone to 'have fun'. There are many many parallels here with the way The Beach Boys formed, with mum and dad Wilson away seeing friends and the three brothers alone in the house; if the piped piper had suddenly started playing 'Surfin' it couldn't have been a more accurate re-telling of the famous story. The boys never find it - an eerie parallel given that this EP and 'Holland' will be the last thing The Beach Boys did for a while and arguably they never found their full creative force again. The piece then ends with the narrator talking about the pied piper and how he has passed to another transistor radio: the result is clear - the muse is no longer with The Beach Boys and that creativity has now passed on to someone else. More than any other record he ever made, this is Brian's 'farewell; piece to his longstanding fans, his garbled reasons for having to leave us for what he thinks is forever and his statement about just how much his life is intertwined with music. I used to get really annoyed with this record - it's little itty bitty phrases, it's lack of plot and resolution and the occasional real glimpses of melody that could have been turned into great little songs ('Better Get Back In Bed' 'Magic Transistor Radio' and 'I'm The Pied Piper'). But now that (I think) I've 'unlocked' it and suffered similarly chronic fatigue-induced cognitive issues I realise that 'Mount Vernon' is the way it is because it's the only way Brian can write: a collection of random memories, guilty feelings and hallucinations wrapped up in a riddle inside an enigma.

Thank goodness Brian is more or less back to his creative control again nowadays, creating at least a handful of songs that are among his best work over the last decade or so and he must have great satisfaction knowing that ultimately he proved this fable wrong, with more pied pipers in his radios, as it were, than the complete range of Dixons (editor's note: that sentence shows how long ago this review was first written, as UK firm Dixons went bust a long time ago - let's replace it with 'PC World'). Note too the porud album title when The Beach Boys got back together in 2012: 'That's Why God Made The Radio' - Brian clearly relates music with radios and radios with spiritual messages from God and sounds confident that at least half a pied piper is back working in his mental 'set' once more. There’s some nice music going on in the story too by the way, which rather undermines Brian’s allegory of not being able to write anymore, but none of it is terribly long and all of it is irritatingly overdubbed with the narration. Beach Boys fans heaved a sigh of relief when the band finally released the backing tracks to this song without the overdubs on their fantastic box-set 30 Years of Good VibrationsAficionados are still arguing over whether that’s Brian or Carl acting out the voice of the radio by the way – it sounds like Carl, but check out Brian’s ‘grinch’ vocal on the 1974 Child Of Winter single (available on the Beach Boys’ Christmas CD, first released in 2000 and re-issued every yuletide since then to date) which sounds remarkably similar. While hardly the sort of thing you listen to over and over for pleasure 'Mount Vernon and Fairway' is in context very moving, very weird - and very Brian Wilson. Had it been his last release (before band and record company bully him back into work again three years later) it would have been a very fitting goodbye.

So then, weird fairy tales about magic transistor radios, pioneering explorers, chugging steamboats and Piscean ladies, there aren’t many albums that cover such a strange array of subjects but that’s all to the good given how brave, adventurous and progressive the Beach Boys were for this short magical time in the 1970s. This record might not sound like any of the Beach Boys tracks you’ve grown up with on compilations over the years, but the tell-tale signs are there – just hidden – and the mellow slow-burning grooves within make this one of the unsung highlights of the band’s long career. When can I book the band their next flight to Holland?!

Other Beach Boys and related reviews 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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