Friday 4 July 2008

The Beach Boys "L.A. Light Album" (1979) ('Core' Review #75, Revised Edition 2014)

You can now buy 'Add Some Music To Your Day - The Alan's Album Archives Guide To The Music Of The Beach Boys' in e-book form by clicking here

On which the Beach Boys light the way one last time...

Track Listing: Good Timin’/ Lady Lynda/ Full Sail/ Angel Come Home/ Love Surrounds Me/ Sumahama// Here Comes The Night/ Baby Blue/ Goin’ South/ Shortnin’ Bread (UK and US tracklisting)

For The Record:

Ones to watch out for: Good Timin’, Lady Lynda, Angel Come Home, Here Comes The Night, Baby Blue

Ones to skip: Full Sail and Goin’ South are lovely, sleepy songs with Carl at his most delightful, but in truth there’s not an awful lot going on in either of them.

The cover: 12 different artists were contracted to illustrate the band’s name, album title and all 10 songs for the front and back covers. Most of these drawings are very impressive (the ship made out of vinyl records for Full Sail is particularly clever and very Beach Boysy), some are just plain lewd (the all too literal interpretation of Love Surrounds Me… was this Dennis’ idea perchance?) and some are just plain confusing: Why are there dogs dancing for Good Time? Why is Lady Lynda shaving her legs? (Bet Mrs Jardine was thrilled with that one...) Why is a toucan, of all birds, Goin’ South? Why is a toddler throwing his dinner all over a radio for Shortnin’ Bread? (answers on a postcard…)

Key lyrics:  “All us people, well we’re just living, the world keeps turning and we keep learning about good good timin’, good good timin’ ah-h-h-h, ah-h-h-h” “Now the puzzle’s laid out on my table, pieces don’t fit, I move from chair to chair, but that empty one’s there where she used to sit” “I wanted to hold her – I just let her go, lonely nights thinking, its starting to sink in, that we had a way to go, we’ll grow closer together by being apart” “Did I have love? Or did love have me? Love surrounds me, all around me, but there’s no love of my own!” “My mind was a mess until you brought happiness and that’s not hard to understand” “Late at night when the whole world’s sleeping, I dream of you, close to you I feel your sweet heart beating, I dream of you”

Original UK chart position: A surprisingly high #32 in the UK– this album has always had the reputation of being one of the band’s worst sellers; by contrast follow-up album Keepin’ The Summer Alive only made #54 and predecessor MIU Album didn’t chart at all (wise choices all round, Beach Boys fans…)

Singles: Lady Lynda reached an amazing #6, many many years after the band last had a top 10 hit in Britain and deservedly so, its one of their better later-period songs. Even more bizarrely this single missed the charts completely in America where the band’s records were still selling in droves (if you’re wondering why live performances of this song always sound so ropey compared to other modern songs, incidentally, the Beach Boys made Lynda a regular of their European tours but barely if ever played it in their homeland). Meanwhile a shortened single mix of the band’s new disco re-recording of Here Comes The Night divided critics and fans and did pretty well to struggle to #37. Amazingly there was a third single taken from a Beach Boys album, though Sumahama only just made the bottom end of the charts at #45.

Official out-takes: The original version of Love Surrounds Me, as taped for Dennis’ aborted second solo album Bambu, is included on the new 2CD re-issue of Dennis’ Pacific Ocean Blue – but isn’t really all that different, missing only Carl’s harmony vocals and a touch of sweetening in the arrangement (boy, if there’s one thing Dennis’ 1970s songs didn’t need it was re-sweetening in the studio, but I’ll let it go as at least its Carl sensitively doing the honours this time around). Strangely Baby Blue isn’t on the same set, despite dating from the same period – plus we know there has to be at least one other recording of this as Carl sings half the lead on the Beach Boys’ version. The original, barely two-minute (!) version of this album’s eleven-minute(!!!) track Here Comes The Night can also be heard on the Beach Boys’ Wild Honey (1968). The tune and lyrics are still there, but everything else about this arrangement couldn’t be more different if it tried. There is also a three-minute edit of this song only available as a single and currently unavailable on CD, but as long as you own this album version you’re not missing anything. A non-album single, the Jardine-Love collaboration It’s A Beautiful Day, was also recorded at these sessions and though it sounds thematically more in keeping with predecessor MIU Album its return to Beach Boys formulas tried and tested works far better than anything on that album and it would have made a nice addition to LA Light. You can hear the song as part of the soundtrack for the film Americathon and as part of the ‘Brother Records’ Beach Boys compilation 10 Years Of Harmony. A passing mention too for the woefully inferior re-recording of Lady Lynda now re-named Lady Liberty, a track recorded in honour of America’s 200th birthday, which simultaneously manages to insult Americans as well as just about all of their traditional enemies and allies. It was included as one of the many B-sides of the 1989 Still Cruisin’ single (amazingly, this A-side and the other two B-sides are even worse). Many Beach Boys books also comment that Brain spent pretty much all of his spare recording time in the late 1970s taping increasingly odd versions of Shortnin’ Bread, so presumably there’s a few CDs worth of recordings of this oddball cover out there somewhere, but none have been released so far.

Availability: As a typically value-for-money two-fer-one re-issue with MIU, but no bonus tracks this time around.

This album came between: The MIU Album (1978), exactly what you’d think a Mike Love-Al Jardine album guest starring a still-poorly Brian Wilson would sound like – dopey, ropey and more than slightly hopey, it ticks all the right boxes but lacks the soul of Dennis or Carl or Brian on an even adequate day. Highlight: Dennis growling his way through My Diane, a Brian Wilson song which substitutes the name of Brian’s wife Marilyn for that of her sister (and fellow singer back in the days when the girls performed Brian Wilson songs as The Honeys) but is clearly about the couple drifting apart; Follow-up Keeping The Summer Alive (1981) starts off well with the title track, the best Beach Boys rocker in years, but quickly goes downhill. The album gets an extra star for its cover though – a painting of the boys bringing their summer sunshine to…the South Pole! (I envy those penguins and that polar bear – who seems to be holidaying there from his home in the arctic before anyone points that out!)

Line-up: Al Jardine, Mike Love, Brian Wilson, Carl Wilson and Dennis Wilson with Bruce Johnston (produced by The Beach Boys with Bruce Johnston and James William Guercio)

The Album:

FOR a band that dedicated their early craft to the simple formula of fun, sun, surf and cars, there are many mysteries in the Beach Boys universe. To take just a few – 1) why did the band reject Smile for being too gloriously out-there for people to understand and then release the un-gloriously out-there Smiley Smile in its wake? 2) Why did the band embark on a ‘Brian is back’ campaign in the mid-70s at the exact same time that the band’s leader Brian Wilson had never been further away from full health? 3) Why are Carl Wilson’s solo albums so ordinary when his work was the creative glue that held the late Beach Boys together and gave them their better band moments? 4) How did one of the biggest back-stabbing families in history hold on to their joyous summer fun image for so long? 5) Why are the ‘Beach Boys’ currently out touring under that name when they only have one original member (Mike Love) while Beach Boy leader Brian Wilson was threatened with a court-case and untold nastyness if he tried to use the name when Al Jardine toured with him a few years back? 6) Why are Beach Boys fans so keen on making lists? There are millions of the things on the net (on second thoughts, don’t answer that!) And, finally in connection with this album, 7) why did the band release such a great LP right in the middle of a patch of un-mitigatedly banal and pointless albums that litter that band’s late-period catalogue? Oh and 8) Why is one of the band’s deepest, most thoughtful and downright heavy albums called ‘L A Light’? (and no I don’t buy the inner sleeve’s mystical idea that its all to do with'the awareness of and the presence of God here in the world as an ongoing, loving reality'. If that was true then it's a categorical fact that an album as terrible as the 'MIU' record wouldn't exist and would vanish in a puff of spiritualism while the 'ten commandments' would come with a soundtrack taken from 'Smile'). Flipping slippers, erm, 9) why is this terrific album one of the band’s most neglected in terms of praise and one of their worst sellers in America, despite being their biggest hit in nearly 10 years in Britain? The band's chart positionings have been see-sawing wildly in difference across the pond for a while now, but seriously a difference this extreme? (#32 versus #100?!)

Now that rant is off my chest, on to the album. Most Beach Boys fans tend to ignore any album made after, say, 1973. A load more refuse to listen to anything made after 1966. Even I can’t strike up much of an argument for owning most of the albums from 1976’s 15 Big Ones onwards – they’re mostly ersatz Beach Boys, with some false fun sun and surf references that wouldn’t even have made good outtakes back in the 60s when the band could do this stuff in their sleep (well, apart from Beach Boys Love You that is, which is cutesy and off-the-wall but not always in a good way and certainly not loveable across the entire LP). But L. A. Light is something different, a forgotten gem, an amazing last gasp of inspiration when the band finally seemed to be stretching their impressive array of talents and concentrated on making a ‘good’ album, not just one that would sell. I'm not sure if I'd ever put 'LA Light' on the same level as 'Smile', but the same level as 'Sunflower 'Surf's Up' and 'Holland' - why not?! After all, it's got Brian Wilson back to writing 1960s style Brian Wilsony songs again (instead of the curios that made up most of '15 Big Ones' and 'Love You' and the 'put-your-name-on-this-Brian tracks on 'MIU'), Dennis Wilson not only back in the band but dominating it (with lots of leftover material thanks to the aborted 'Bambu' sessions), Bruce Johnston back in the band for the first time in eight years (reports of his new enthusiasm for the band meant that a lot of the credit for this album should probably go to him) and Carl Wilson is on a roll, coming up with more songs and creative ideas that at any time since 'Holland'. Even Mike and Al, relegated to a song each, turn in one of their best songs each, with both their contributions on this album better than anything on 'MIU'. There's even the most inventive Beach Boys album cover for an awfully long time and like the record it's almost overflowing with creativity, with 12 illustrations for the album title, band name and ten songs; not so long ago we were looking at a generic shot of somebody surfing ('MIU', again) and one of the ugliest typefaces known to vinyl ('The Beach Boys Love You, But This Typeface Thinks You're Ugly').

'L A Light' needs some historical context so here goes – back in 1978 the band, with an ailing Brian barely making it out of bed for most of the sessions, had camped out at the MIU Maharashi centre to record their first Xmas album since 1964. Record company CBS, already annoyed at the band for saying falsely that Brian was ‘back’ when he clearly wasn’t, promptly rejected it. Undeterred the band waved a creative magic wand and turned their Xmas songs into fun, sun and surf songs, naturally deleting the best material along the way. Carl and Dennis had little to do with the project and contributed just one vocal each and absolutely no songs of their own (in the past—and future—they were often the only group members who did much of either). So how did the Beach Boys navigate such a swing in fortunes? Basically by 'MIU's failure -with Brian failing again (see 'Adult Child', if you must), Mike and Al claimed to know what they were doing, cobbled together a whole load of catchy, commercial songs (of which 'Come Go With Me' was a genuine hit - just not for another three years yet) - and watched the record sink without trace. The duo had been talking for a long time about trying to regain a 'formula' - that's why Brian was brought of retirement again in 1976, whether he wanted to be or not - and with The Beach Boys now asigned to another record label (eventually: the Beach Boys being the Beach Boys they still owed one album to Warner Brothers when they signed the contract in 1978; it's just as well they did actually because no one would have hired them after that record) the band couldn't afford another flop. To their credit Mike and Al neatly acquiesced, paid just enough attention to the album to be part of some of the most stunning Beach Boys harmonies in years and let Carl get on with running the ship. Dennis' contributions probably came about because he was particularly close to new label boss James Guercio: 'Pacific Ocean Blues' had come out on the Caribou label and while not exactly seller of the year had done much better than expected. Surely lightning can strike twice?

Well, yes and no. You see, creatively 'L A Light' is The Beach Boys regaining their foothold in the 1970s marketplace and proving they still had plenty to give - but in American commercial terms #100 with a big publicity blitz isn't really all that much better than #151 from a band and record company who know a relationship is over and are reluctant to do anything to help each other. Some critics were even more scathing than they had been over 'MIU' (a Rolling Stone Magazine review of the time stated that 'it's worse than awful - it's irrelevent'. The rest of the band gleefully went 'see' to Carl and Dennis and The Beach Boys went back to being the uncomfortable democracy it had been in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the band actually working together next time on 'Keepin' The Summer Alive' but disliking the experience they waited five years before doing it again. So many Beach Boys fans have since looked at this album's placing in the chronology between two rather lesser works, heard about the eleven minute disco song and decided to give this album a miss. That's a shame.

Ah yes, that disco song. 'Here Comes The Night' is a curious moment in Beach Boys history: nobody hearing this song as part of the 'Wild Honey' album in 1967 (where it struggles to last two minutes) could possibly have guessed that in 12 years time the band would revive it and turn it inot a monster: the longest running song in the Beach Boys canon by some margin. This idea - instigated by Bruce but joined in with happily by most of the others (Brian was ill, Dennis was absent) - has caused so many ruptures between fans and the general public alike, it was as if the whole of California had suddenly been invaded by a flock of Bee Gees and all surfboards had been turned into flared trousers in the blink of an eye. Short of a Beatles reunion covering Spice Girls songs or a new line-up of Pink Floyd dedicating a rap song to the memory of Syd Barrett, its hard to believe how shocking this wagon-jumping would have sounded at the time: suffice to say the band's fans were in shock at the band hanging on to an already fading bandwagon by their surfboards instead of driving it like they always had in the past. Glam rock and reggae had a good go, but arguably disco was the first ‘new’ phenomenon to hit the true mainstream of pop music since psychedelia (and even then it wasn’t that inventive or new – by contrast punk was a new phenomenon (sort of) but one that passed by everyone older than 30 who wasn’t already in a band; too big for a cult admittedly but not quite big enough to be truly ‘mainstream’ either). After Saturday Night Fever and Grease, record companies everywhere wanted to turn their artists into new-born disco kings, whether their past releases had been suitable for boogieing to on the dance-floor or not – and, alas, daft as it sounds, the Beach Boys were prime candidates, having just been unceremoniously booted off their last record company and only just finding reluctant solace in the arms of a ‘trendy’ new one. Naturally, the Beach Boys sound woefully out of place here, trying to sound like they’re part of a scene they just don’t belong in, but having said that I quite like this disco arrangement. If any band should do disco it's The Beach Boys: all those sweeping harmonies, that tough background rhythm ('Little Deuce Coupe' is the natural dancing pace for most human beings if not John Travolta's dancing double) and the idea of building up a song through several sections all tied together with nothing more than a solid rhythm and sheer bravado is something Brian Wilson largely created with 'Smile'. What's more the band pay more attention to this song than any in years - they had a lot riding on it after all - and the harmonies are genuinely terrific (Bruce must have been shocked after his time away from the band to hear just how gruff Brian's and Dennis' voices had become - with them briefly out of the picture the four-piece Beach Boys here sound much more like their old selves). Nowadays this song seems much better than it ever did at the time, more like a cute little time capsule and less like the what-the-hell-are-they-doing-cashing-in-on-a-modern-fad like it seemed at the time. Even so, that song and its reputation almost single-handedly capsized this LP in the minds of the public and many fans who assume the whole of the album is going to be like that: the good news is it isn't, although the other good news is that 'Here Comes The Night' is actually a lot better than contemporary reviews and sneering audience responses in the years since suggest: rather than an 11 minute hole on side two, it's the sound of a band trying to go somewhere new and yet the same and it ever so nearly comes off.

The rest of LA Light Album is almost comfortingly traditional. Mike Love’s travelogue is his usual mix of patronising Americana and ever-hopeful citizen of the world, Al Jardine has his best shot at writing the poppy masterpiece he’s been threatening us with since the late 60s and Carl – though sleepwalking compositionally – is in absolutely glorious voice and all but dominates this album vocally. Brian? Well, he’s busy being Brian, contributing a song with memorable tunes and intriguing, inventive lyrics (Good Timin’) and contributing a bizarre re-write of a traditional Southern America cotton-pickers anthem for no other reason than he could (whenever anybody called round to his house and asked him to play something between about 1977 and 1980 his response would be 'Shortenin' Bread' - whatever you'd asked him to play).

I've often wondered what impact Bruce's return had on the album. Officially he came back simply to 'lend a hand' with 'Here Comes The Night', but it does seem rather a coincidence that the last time The Beach Boys buzzed with this much creativity was 'Surf's Up' - his last album with the band. What's eerie is that he's effectively drafted in as Brian Wilson's replacement a second time: the elder Wilson, after running the ship between 1976 and 1977 and then just about hanging on in 1978 is no longer in control and the band simply won't listen to youngest member Carl on his own: in other words the situation is just as it was in 1967 post 'Smile'. Bruce had an interesting 1970s: his solo career had started with a bang when he wrote 'I Write The Songs' for Barry Manilow (yep, even Barry wasn't that full of himself) and won a Grammy award for it: something even Brian Wilson had never done. However delays in actually getting round to that solo LP he'd ;left the band to make meant that when 'Going Public' came out in 1977 much of Bruce's momentum had been lost: people had forgotten him as both writer and Beach Boy. That's a shame because, while even more of a rollercoaster ride in terms of quality than '15 Big Ones' and 'The Beach Boys Love You' the best of the record shows just how capable Bruce might have been as a solo star. By 1979, though, the whole solo career thing was looking like a bad move and Bruce was wondering what to do next. You have to wonder, who made that call to him to get him back in the band? Was it Carl (who needed support?) Mike or Al? (Bruce was another 'floating voter' who might have proved useful in getting control of the band again) Or James Guercio? (he'd just spent a surprisingly peaceful time with Dennis making his first solo album, which was anything like the 'drama'a he must have thought it would have been by contrast all the Beach Boys together are a handful and he may have felt he was losing control of the project). Whatever the result - and however much Bruce's space within the bands dwindles to the point where he's lucky to do anything in the 1980s and 1990s - the decision was a good one in 1979: 'L A Light' sounds much tighter polished and enthusiastic than any Beach Boys album since 'Sunflower' - as much as the new record contract probably had something to do with that Bruce surely deserves a lot of the praise too.

That just leaves Dennis. The middle Wilson's 1970s were erratic to say the least: one minute Dennis is the de facto band leader ('Sunflower'), the next he's split for a solo career that never happens and doesn't appear on an album ('Surf's Up'), the next he turns up with two songs so completely unlike anything else on the record that most fans think of his contributions separately ('Carl and the Passions'), the next he's co-writing songs but not singing or playing on any of them ('Holland'). Thereafter Dennis hung around long enough to appear vocally on '15 Big Ones' and 'Love You', usually in passages where the band wanted to make Brian (whose voice wasn't quite as shot as his brothers') sound good. But Dennis is on a creative high: much as everyone else tried to ignore it, the other Beach Boys were shocked when 'Pacific Ocean Blues' came out to rave reviews and stronger sales than their own albums. No one, not even brother Carl, thought that Dennis had it in him and with Carl now back in charge he didn't want to make the same mistake. What's more Dennis had an awful lot of material to choose from, thanks to the endless 'Bambu' sessions that had been officially parked. What's interesting about this is what Carl decided to 'borrow' for the project: you could understand him going for the poppy 'Under The Moonshine', the moody 'It's Not Too Late' (which even features a ready made Carl counter-vocal, neatly disguising the fact the song is a solo recording)or the already-finished, pulled-from-Pacific-at-the-last-moment 'Tug Of Love'. Instead he plumps for 'Love Surrounds Me', one of the heaviest going and unmelodic songs from the sessions, with Carl overdubbing a counter-melody to cover up the point where Dennis' working vocal didn't come in at the right time.Moreover Carl then gives his brother one of his own songs to sing, correctly guessing that 'Angel Come Home' would suit his rasping, desperate-sounding voice more than his own. That just leaves 'Baby Blue', a gorgeous Dennis song with full backing from Carl and we still don't know when it was taped (as part of 'Bambu' or as part of 'L A Light'?) Either way there was no way this dreamy Dennis song wasn't going on the album: it's my candidate for the single best Beach Boys group release in a decade: slow, heartfelt, melodic, lush and immensely beautiful, with the contrast between Dennis' realism and Carl's purity as its finest.

The other key player on this album, who seems to have come out of nowhere, is Geoffrey Cushing-Murray. Even by Beach Boys co-writer standards he had an interestingly varied career: a decorated Vietnam soldier and a member of the distinguished UCLA university fencing team, he doesn't seem a natural fit as a songwriter. But he struck up a close friendship with Carl, the pair meeting through Beach Boys sideman and brother of Carls' wife Billy Hinsche. The pair co-write 'Full Sail' 'Goin' South' and 'Angel Come Home for this album  before Cushing-Murray struck up a friendhsip with Dennis (collaborating on 'Love Surrounds Me'). While the former two songs are hardly Beach Boys classics the latter two are: Geoffrey captures Dennis' sensed of outraged alienation particularly well and it's a shame he never write for the band again after this (Carl will instead hook up with Randy Bachman of Bachman Turner Overdrive for the next LP). A third Dennis Wilson album, with Cushing-Murray in place of the departed Greg Jacobson and departing Carlos Munoz, would have been fascinating too.

Finally, we don’t tend to go on about record covers much, here at the Alan Album Archives database, but suffice to say that here the packaging might just this once be enough reason of a for buying an album in its own right. A stunning – and expensive – exercise, it featured 12 different drawings by 12 different artists used to illustrate the different songs on the album plus the band name and album title, two long years before The Who’s much bally-hooed copycat idea for Face Dances (although in their case it was 12 different drawings of band members). Most of these drawings are pretty impressive and in other settings could easily have been full-blown covers in their own right: certainly it goes without saying that they're all better than at least the last three Beach Boys covers. AAA merit stickers go to Steve Carver for the delightful picture of 'Full Sail' (a boat made out of records!), Drew Sturzan's suitably manga-ish illustration for 'Sumahama', William Stout's fun cartoon for 'Goin' South' (a toucan with a surfboard and luggage!) and, err, the un-credited erotica of 'Love Surrounds Me' : never have a few sand dunes, ripples and a cactus or two seemed more suggestive! Frankly all of them could have been the cover - except perhaps the last one (we'd have been arrested for buying it!)

The Songs:

As for the music, Good Timin' is an old Brian Wilson song, dating back to the early 70s, with the backing track dusted down and extensively re-worked by Carl. A good job he did too – it’s a perfect progressive and yet somehow traditional start to the album and the song’s gentle block harmonies are some of the best the band recorded post-Smile. Brian, you see, isn’t really here on this LP – vocally he’s hardly on it at all, but bizarrely (given that half of the band really are missing on the track) he might well crop up on Here Comes The Night having just given that song close aural scrutiny. Fittingly, this album’s one true delve into the band’s unfinished bag of odds and ends is almost a mini-medley of the band’s highlights to date. Queue those sumptuous harmonies, Carl’s lead veering between gritty rocker and silky smooth romanticist and the song’s theme. I’m surprised most Beach Boys commentators haven’t made more about this theme, given that this is the closest Brian ever came to writing about ‘good vibrations’ in a song after 1966. Admittedly, ‘vibrations’ aren’t mentioned anywhere directly in the lyrics, but this is a song about ‘pre-destiny’ and the idea that people are always attracted to certain people because of something unspoken, because whether by accident or design ‘its meant to be’ (Brian often says his 1966 classic was inspired by his mother saying that dogs picked up on the ‘vibrations’ of people around them and only barked when they sensed danger – here these unspoken vibrations are reversed and cause people to fall in love instead for similar reasons they never quite understand). The tune, too, is another subtle throwback to the past, as its gentle and ever-flowing melody sounds much like Brian’s late 60s work when he was busy writing his own takes on his favourite piece of the moment The Blue Danube by Richard Strauss (The album 20/20 is simply full of them). On the upside, this is the closest Brian’s come to sounding inspired by a musical idea for years, whatever this song’s muddled chronology and history; on the downside it is frustratingly short and undeveloped at just two verses and a repetitive chorus – just think of what Brian could have done with this idea just 10 years earlier, it would have been absolutely mind-boggling.

Jardine’s Lady Lynda also bucks the trend of the last few years’ worth of solo-singers-backed-by-synths album tracks by sounding like the band used to sound – ie block harmonies, a classy tune, an expressive lead vocal and another classical nod (this time its Bach’s Jesu, Man Desiring, whose stately and well-known musical phrase is repeated endlessly throughout the song). The track is a classic composition in its own right, even without such ‘borrowing’ going on, with its witty and gently romantic lyrics, but it’s the performance that makes the song great – this really is a 1979 recording this time, but suddenly hearing the band working together again properly makes all of the Beach Boys sound about 10 years younger. The arrangement is pretty inventive too: booming bass vocals from Love back at his 60s best, falsetto vocals from Carl and Al side by side like the good old days, lead vocals where Jardine actually sounds like he’s proud rather than embarrassed by the song, you name it. The whole track could easily have become cluttered with so much coming and going, but someone – possibly Johnston, possibly co-producer and Caribou label overseer James Guercio – carefully puts all the ‘spaces’ back into the sound, dividing the song into sections so that parts of the arrangement come and go without getting in the way of their neighbours. As for the lyrics, no wonder Jardine suddenly sounds quite interested – this song was written as a message of love to his wife and its notable how natural and emotional this lyric sounds compared to the ‘forced’ Love-Jardine songs of recent years (let’s just hope she liked Bach…) The other Beach Boys audibly pick up on that authenticity too and go to town on the classy harmonies. It’s hard to find I know, but if you do happen to own it, compare this original version of Lady Lynda with the re-make Lady Liberty on the B-side of the 1989 single Still Cruisin’. Despite sporting the same tune (and almost-but-not-quite the same words), the result sounds simply terrible because the band aren’t singing it with the justice it deserves and the criss-crossing vocals sound simply horrible and messy this time around. The band surprised even themselves when the original version of  song became a big hit in Britain – bizarrely it missed the charts completely in the USA, the complete opposite of the American #1 Kokomo a few years later. Most British readers are probably scratching their heads at this point going ‘wha?’ at this point (Kokomo peaked at a lowly #25 over here) but it’s the second-best selling Beach Boys of all time across the globe – similarly, most American fans probably can’t even remember what Lady Lynda sounds like without playing the record.

Goin’ South and Full Sail are both dreamy Carl Wilson songs that are so empty and spacious that they ought to sound like lift music, but thanks to the benefit of some classic Beach Boys harmonies they sound sublime. Carl makes the most of his few lyrics which in both songs are about the pleasure of getting away from it all and following promising new horizons. It’s interesting to see a general picture emerging on this album about happiness being where your heart takes you to (via pre-destiny in Good Timin’ and pure blind faith in your partner in Lady Lynda) – but typically Beach Boys, that theme disappears in the album somewhere about now. Oddly, Carl – the member who more than any other kept the Beach Boys together and revelled in playing as part of a ‘band’ rather than a series of individual overdubs- might well be the only Beach Boy present on both of these two songs (barring the returning Bruce Johnston, who isn’t officially a Beach Boy yet anyway). The bizarre mix of friends and session musicians on the backing track actually sound quite impressively like the real thing in places (its nice to hear Johnston given such prominence in the mix if nothing else), but both of these tracks sit outside the album to some extent. Indeed, one is tempted to wonder if these are recordings Carl couldn’t get onto either of his solo albums – oddly enough it’s the three tracks Dennis was involved in, which really were solo recordings for an abandoned solo LP, that have some of the greatest ‘band’ presences on the album. Alright, alright, I’ve put it off long enough, now onto the songs. It’s just that there isn’t much to grasp in either of them.. Full Sail sounds like the same narrator heard later in the album on 'Goin' South' but latwer still in the same journey, ploughing full steam ahead to his dream destination and that’s it really – just a string of clichés about travelling: ‘steady as she blows’ ‘the winds will blow’ ‘adventure on the high seas’, you get the idea. Yet, easy as it is to pick at these song’s faults (and let’s face it, compared to Carl’s other fine songs like Trader and Long Promised Road these songs are travesties), there’s something quite loveable about both tracks. Any group can do bouncy in-your-face-wow-look-at-me songs but it takes a real expert to make languid, dreamy, meandering songs like these keep your attention to the end.   

Strong as Al and Carl are, however, it’s Dennis’ contributions that shine most on this album. Angel Come Home is the middle Wilson brother at his rasping best, using his now sadly-lived in voice to add some grit and passion to brother Carl’s best song on the album. Tough and emotional, without losing touch with its poppy singalong sunshine melody, it’s a classy piece of work. The narrator seems to be at peace with his partner’s decision to leave for much of the song which is calm indeed for a Dennis Wilson-sung epic, but there are hints of remorse, guilt and bitterness on the verses that don’t take a musical Sherlock Holmes to realise the narrator is really in denial. All that built-up angst simply explodes into self-righteous pity on the song’s catchy chorus. The song is well arranged too, with the Carl-led Beach Boys chorus joining in at key points in the song and a soothing string arrangement with a stately bass line and sweet xylophone swirls contrasting with Dennis’ gruff voice. Dennis’ tracks would have had the narrator straight round to his missus, demanding an explanation or expressing his devotion for her, but Carl is a much more subtle character than that and Dennis gets an all too rare chance to display his vocal subtlety here. Indeed, if it was Carl’s generous idea to donate the song to his brother, then it was an impressive one – Dennis’ vocal here may be his best for the band and its clear from the sadness in his voice that he’s reflecting on his own recent misfortunes in love (I won’t list them all – there isn’t space – but Dennis had just divorced wife Karen Lamm for the second time by this point in his life. Rumour has it he also had a child with Mike Love’s own illegitimate daughter around this time – you couldn’t make this stuff up, really, could you?)  My guess, though, is that 'Angel Come Home' was just too personal for Carl to sing - writing partner Cushing-Murray remembered later that a tearful Carl was in the process of splitting up with his wife and used the songwrtiting sessions as 'therapy' in the same way that Brian used to during 'Pet Sounds'. And if a song is too painful for you to sing yourself then it makes sense to give it to the next closest person to you in the band in both a friendly and DNA way: your brother.

By contrast, Dennis sounds less at home on his own song Love Surrounds Me, which is another growling anonymous ballad that has only slightly more punch than Carl’s earlier songs. The subtle, but eerie, string arrangement is very Dennis however, as is the use of the other Beach Boys not as crooners of warmth and sunny-ness but as a scary hammer horror movie squeal that pops up every now and then. The lyrics are about claustrophobia and – unusually for Dennis – the narrator’s belief that everyone else is getting a better deal out of their romances than he is. Moping after a past break-up and upset at seeing so many other couples in love, its surprising that Dennis doesn’t sound more emotional in his vocal (after all, the last track has just given us a glimpse of the bottomless well in his heart). Perhaps its because Love Surrounds Me was never meant to be a Beach Boys track at all – like Baby Blue which crops up later on this album, it was meant for a second and ultimately unreleased solo project called Bamboo that was a last-chance saloon attempt to carve out a new niche for Dennis’ creative talents. Dressed up for this album (mostly by Carl, who may again be the only other Beach Boy on the track), it suits LA Light Album’s general mood of heartbreak and regret very well – but curiously, given that not a lot’s been added, this second version doesn’t sound much at all like Dennis Wilson and yet the solo original does, rasping vocal and all. Indeed, hear this track as a bonus on the new re-issue of Dennis’ Pacific Ocean Blue and its one of the most moving pieces on the whole double-CD, full of a poignancy and bleakness that got a bit lost on this second sweetened version. It’s still a classic track though.

Sumahama closes the side with a Japanese travelogue from Mike Love and surprisingly its actually quite sweet and tasteful, not like the hideous French and Haiwaian ‘tributes’ on MIU that were simply insulting and used every cliché in the book. Perhaps its because Mike Love has dropped his habit of talking about the scenery and gone for what he does best here – Sumahama is a love story about a teenage Japanese girl who meets her suitor after a long journey and yearns to see him again. Remove the oriental trappings and the place names and this could easily have passed for a typical 60s Beach Boys romance song (it even mentions beaches at one point). Indeed the stirring opening string section, doing a fair job at mirroring the song’s oriental tale of love and passion, is one of the best beginnings to any Beach Boys track and only Mike Love’s awkward vocal (especially on the Japanese passages) prevents this song from rating amongst the band’s biggest classics. Indeed, this song was another hit single in Britain in this period but not in the rest of the world where it remains woefully obscure even in the US (and Japan, perhaps strangely).

For many, the album’s centre-point is the much-feared, much-talked about, much sneered at, but actually little-heard disco version of Here Comes The Night. Originally a sweet little 2-minute rocker with the first hint of Brian’s paranoia creeping in from 1968’s Wild Honey, here its transformed into a 11-minute epic journeying to hell and back again several times throughout the song. It takes a full three minutes to get going before we even get a proper vocal– ie a full 150% of the original song – but the build up is worth it, as the sweeping string section remains one of the most startling and daring in the band’s back catalogue. The song’s beat just keeps on coming as some more classic Beach Boys harmonies (or some of them anyway – Dennis for one is definitely missing) blend in and out of the mix, counterpointing Carl’s gritty lead. Most fans seem to hate this song but I don’t know why – like Ray Davies’ Superman on the Kinks’ Low Budget album in 1979, the band aren’t jumping on the disco bandwagon so much as hijacking the driver and speeding off on their own little journey which is far more successful than anything done in the original genre. The computer-treated Beach Boys chorus is an interesting touch too, with Mike Love’s nasal whine distinctive even through dozens of layers of technological gloss. The strings, which sound pretty sweet but actually keep driving the song back into a minor key every time it seems to right itself, are quite impressive too. Most impressive of all, however, is the song choice – the Wild Honey original stops before it gets properly going, but even then the song stood out for its unusual grunting chorus-line and desperate wail of a chorus (‘Squeeze me! Tease me! Don’t ever leave me! Tell Me I’m Doing Alright! Hold me!’) which is half poppy and catchy and simple and half a seemingly genuine cry from the heart. Nobody but the biggest fan had ever properly noticed the song before (indeed, not many fans ever got round to buying Wild Honey in the first place) but its choice here is inspired. The band don’t add anything lyric or melody-wise other than some sweeping ‘oohs’ and ‘dit dit dits’ at the beginning and end and a repeat of the title line every time things get a bit boring, but by spacing the whole thing out and adding verses every four minutes or so this sounds like a completely different song. Far from the gentle aimless plod that most disco songs seem to be, Night somehow manages to be toe-tapping and horrific all at the same time, as Carl sounds quite genuine when he pleads over and over for his partner to show him some affection and support. Interestingly the four-minute single version of this second version sounds woefully lame by comparison, despite the fact that it misses nothing really important -ultimately its this song’s longevity and space that gives it its power and its easy to see why dance-floor divas rubbished the single version first time out. Don’t be fooled – this album version is quite different and this isn’t really disco in the usual empty-headed sense anyway, but a quite unique and largely successful experiment the band never dared to attempt again.  

The album highlight, however, is not some fashion-fuelled magnum opus, or some catchy poppy Brian Wilson ditty but Baby Blue, a gorgeous and terribly moving Dennis Wilson ballad. Another reject from the drummer’s second unreleased second solo album Bambu (I’m still trying to get hold of the first one – Pacific Ocean Blue – but word has it its terrific so grab it if you can – and then send me a copy. Please. STOP PRESS: there is a God of music after all! Hallelujah, since writing this line Caribou have finally issued this album on CD for the first time with out-takes galore!) this is the Beach Boys at their effortless best, even though only two of them are actually on it. Dennis takes the verses and Carl the choruses and despite their by-now very different voices the two blend together so seamlessly that you hardly notice. Like most of Dennis’ songs, it’s a beautiful, drawn-out ballad with a lush string arrangement that somehow avoids being schmaltzy or overdone. The romance in the song is not hard to pin down – that’s Dennis’ second wife (and third – he divorced her twice!) Karen Lamm in the writing credits, creator of some of this song’s beautiful ethereal lyrics that go well with her part-time husband’s fragile tune. Delicate but slow-burningly emotional, Baby Blue is simply one of the best songs that Dennis ever wrote despite the fact that – typically Dennis – not a lot actually happens. There’s no denying the power of the smouldering arrangement however, all crashing deep piano chords and minor key vocals, or the wistful heart-tugging images in the lyrics (‘late at night when the whole world’s sleeping…I dream of you’). This song is even a prime candidate for best ever Beach Boys ballad, that’s how good it is – and boy is that saying something. Sadly, its also the last track of Dennis’ ever to be released by the Beach Boys and – barring the next, closing track – the last one he ever sang on too. Missing (again) on 1981’s Keeping The Summer Alive, Dennis drowned in 1983 after he got into waters too deep even for this Beach Boy. So legend has it, he was trying to hunt down souvenirs he had thrown from his boat during an argument with this song’s co-creator Karen Lamm and was either too weak or too drunk (or both) to surface again. Given the ‘what-the-hell-have-I-done-with-my-life-because-this-is-my-soiulmate-and-I’m-letting-her-go drama of this and pretty much all of Dennis’ other tracks on this album, its quite a sad way to say goodbye to us, with the track fading on Dennis’ yearning vocal. It’s no surprise that – pretty much without exception – this song is also the last even half-way decent track the Beach Boys ever released – without Dennis, the band’s reckless and unreliable but still their most movingly emotional core, it was all downhill from here. 

The already mentioned Goin’ South is another travelogue, albeit one that’s less specific and far less picturesque than most Beach Boys American travelogues down the years (if this was part of the 'California Saga' it would be the 'Big Sur' first part that nobody remembers), with its narrator dreaming of better places and wondering why he’s stuck in his stupid little apartment dreaming about them when he could be out there driving, sailing or flying to them this very minute. It's pleasant, but not terribly memorable, with the highlight being Carl's typically dreamy vocal.

All that’s left is for Brian to wrap things up with a new arrangement of the traditional song Shortnin’ Bread. Carl chips in with another of his best gritty rock vocals, Bruce sings some pretty falsetto and Dennis’ deep booming vocals adds greatly to the song’s comic effect, but like many of the band’s cover versions the answer is – why??? Shortnin’ Bread was hardly a song demanding a revival and the band don’t really have anything new to say. That said, it’s a fun way to spend a couple of minutes – but somehow you’re grateful when the song ends too, because there’s nowhere else for it to go (arguably its stretching it lasting even that long). There’s a funny story behind Shortnin’ Bread by the way: in his (now disowned! can you do that?!) autobiography Wouldn’t It Be Nice?, Brian remembers the time when scary and eccentric favourites Alice Cooper and Iggy Pop came to visit him in full rock make up when the Beach Boy was working on this song. After getting the two men to chant ‘shortnin’ shortnin’ behind Brian’s piano accompaniment for nigh on two hours, the rockers fled, crying ‘this guys too weird for us!’ Seeing what two minutes of this wretched song does to you, I can’t help but agree.

Even barring odd eccentricities like this track, though, LA Light Album is an impressive, generally forgotten beast. Spacious, audacious, and with enough power to make you say ‘good gracious’, LA Light is a last-minute burst of The Beach Boys doing what they do best. It might not be up to Smile (what is?!), but all the band’s best ingredients are in there somewhere and for once there aren’t so many cooks spoiling the broth the whole thing becomes an indigestible mess. The only downside to owning this brilliant record is that the only CD copy around is a double-set with the terrible MIU Album, although on the plus side that godawful set does show up again what a great record this is…. 

Other Beach Boys articles from this site: 

'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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