Best Post-Pet Sounds Beach Boys Songs
Patti Page and summer days
on old Cape Cod
Happy times makin’ wine
In my garage
I know, I know. It’s been a LONG time since I’ve reviewed a movie on here. And it’s, unfortunately, going to be a little bit longer. I’ll see a movie again. Don’t worry. But, hopefully this will hold you for a little while.
The following is a line that has been said over and over again by enough people to make it nearly trite, but no less true: there is something about the Beach Boys that makes you immediately think of summer. Seeing as how it’s summer now, it’s time to revisit the Boys…but not the stuff that we all know by heart. No, I want to take a deeper look. A look into the stuff that no one knows, or doesn’t realize that they know. The Beach Boys kept putting out albums after their 1966 opus, Pet Sounds. The hits very nearly dried up, but that doesn’t mean that there weren’t great tracks and even good albums after that. Here are the tracks that I think are the best, in more or less chronological order.
GOOD VIBRATIONS–This one pretty much goes without saying, but since I specified “Post Pet Sounds,” I have to include it. Good Vibrations is absolutely one of the greatest pop singles of all time. Everyone knows it and almost everyone loves it. What’s so strange about this fact is that the song itself is so strange. It changes temp, key, direction and, in fact, song right in the middle. Originally slated for inclusion on Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson just couldn’t get the song finished in time, so it was on the accidental follow-up, Smiley Smile. (As anyone adept at pop history knows, Smiley Smile was originally going to be Wilson’s next great statement of genius, Smile. Too much time, money and a nervous breakdown pretty much destroyed any chance of that happening, so the rest of the Beach Boys cobbled together what was ready into Smiley Smile.)
Suffice to say, Good Vibrations is NOT a normal pop single or even a normal Beach Boys single. It is a masterpiece of nearly magical quality. With its mellotron and Theremin break-downs and constant surprises, it’s sci-fi beach music. Somehow, the audiences of 1967 were right up to speed and made this the last true Beach Boys hit. There would be minor hits after this, but nothing would ever live up to this. Hell, even The Beatles had trouble living up to it.
HEROES AND VILLAINS–Even more out there than Good Vibrations is Heroes And Villains, the opening track of Smiley Smile. It was supposed to be the centerpiece of Smile and you can tell that Brian and the Boys spent just as much time experimenting and perfecting this as their big hit. This one is less about a beguiling girl (as GV is) than it is about the friends and enemies you make as a kid. Sure, the girl shows up here, too, but she’s surrounded by the heroes and villains of our lives.
What’s always gotten me about this song is that it was released as a single…but it went nowhere whereas Good Vibrations took the world by storm. They’re almost the same song, but I guess HAV is a bit sillier with a slide-whistle and an a cappella break that basically takes the song out in the fade. It’s a hard song not to love, though, even with all of its weirdness. It makes me sad that it took nearly 40 years for Brian to bring the real Smile to the masses.
WILD HONEY–The title track of their next record (from 1968) is harder than just about anything they had put out before. Still not hard rock, by any means, but it contains a pretty rough, almost bluesy vocal and a whining Theremin line throughout. Brian had pretty much withdrawn from reality at this point and, while songs from Smile would show up on their albums for years to come, they were suddenly doing things without him. They were also playing all of their own instruments, which they hadn’t really done since 1963. Wild Honey was nearly a hit for them, but their glory days were past. Now it was time for them to do some interesting stuff. Too bad they wouldn’t always decide to do that. If they had kept doing songs like Wild Honey, I think they may have had more hits later in their career. Hell, even the rest of the album couldn’t live up to the title track. Although…
DARLIN’–This was the second best track on Wild Honey. Not wholly original or particularly innovative, but a nice little Beach Boys rocker that was a Top 20 hit. Not much to say here because, while it’s a really cool song, there’s just not a lot to really say about it.
FRIENDS–Here’s where things start to get kind of interesting. The title track to their second 1968 record is pretty light weight, but it’s a good kind of light weight. It’s about exactly what it sounds like it would be about. “We’ve been friends now for so many years.” Maybe not the deepest song about friendship ever, but certainly one of the sweetest. The Boys, at this point, were all writing songs for their albums, so we got a bit of the personality of each of them. I’m not particularly good at figuring out who sang/wrote which song, so I won’t speculate here, but it certainly made their albums of this period interesting…and idiosyncratic.
ANNA LEE, THE HEALER–This is one of those songs that sounds like a lesser selection from The Great American Songbook. I could kind of hear someone like Dean Martin singing this one. Maybe not Frank Sinatra. It’s obviously about a nurse that one of the Boys had a slight crush on…or maybe she just got him well again. It’s a very slight song (clocking in at less than two minutes), but it makes an impression.
BUSY DOIN’ NOTHIN’–Brian’s ode to being lazy, this pretty much summed up what was going on in his life at the time. Yes, he was still writing, but he didn’t really interact with his bandmates anymore. He stuck to his house, mostly laid in bed and wrote. The bossa nova beat makes you feel even lazier while listening to it than Brian was at the time. There’s an entire passage about forgetting a phone number. Brian was obviously just writing what was happening to him at any given moment. It’s super silly, but it works to show how it feels to just be lazy and do nothing. I like it.
DO IT AGAIN–Probably the best known post Pet Sounds song outside of Good Vibrations, Do It Again was a deliberate look back at a time when The Beach Boys were the top of the pops and everyone was dreaming of the beach. It’s that rare single that is both backwards looking and forwards looking at the same time. The music is bang up to date with a rocking’ guitar and a fuzzy bassline. The 1969 album that it’s attached to (20/20) is more of a collection than a real album, filled up with singles and unreleased tracks from the late 60s. Maybe that’s why it’s more cohesive than a lot of their albums of the time. Still not amazing, but definitely good. Do It Again is a great opening track and definitely one to seek out. One of my favorites of any Beach Boys album.
I CAN HEAR MUSIC–Not written by the Boys, but it may as well have been. They really made this Barry/Greenwich/Spector track their own, from the opening falsetto vocal to the great singalong chorus and wall of sound production (complete with sleigh bells). Again, it’s a deliberate look back to a simpler time in the Boys’ lives, just without being quite so explicit as Do It Again. 20/20, indeed.
BE WITH ME–A soaring song pleading with a girl to just “be with me.” Brass, strings and big production make this, against all odds, more interesting than it probably should be. It’s a great song with kind of a weird fade out…including a barely there nearly jokey vocal and creepy strings.
TIME TO GET ALONE–Brian wrote this one, of course. It’s often sited as his last great song and I can see why. He uses his own insecurities and need to be alone to write a song about being alone with his girl. Strangely enough, it works. Of course, the song is all over the place, musically. But that’s Brian. Without it, he would have been Mike Love. And no one wants that. It’s a great song that deserves some attention.
NEVER LEARN NOT TO LOVE–This one is here more for curiosity than anything. It’s a fine song, but it was apparently written by none other than Charles Manson, who was a close friend of Dennis Wilson. It’s credited to Dennis because he actually rewrote it. It was originally called “Cease To Exist.” Go fuckin’ figure. As it is, it’s kind of a sweet song. With that added level of creep, though, it’s just that: creepy.
CABINESSANCE–Another album, another Smile outtake that outshines all of the rest of the songs. Once again, this Brian/Van Dyke Parks track shows just where they were going with Smile and how amazing it would have been had it come out in 1967 like it was supposed to. As it is, Cabinessance ends 20/20 on a crazy, schizophrenic, amazing note. With it’s “doing doing doing” backing vocals and lyrics about a “home on the range,” the song is an epic of down homeyness. Lovely and crazy, it’s worth a listen or six.
SLIP ON THROUGH–The Sunflower album (1970) would bring The Beach Boys more critical acclaim than they had seen since Pet Sounds, but still no real sales. That’s too bad, because it really is one of their better post Pet Sounds albums. Part of that was due to the fact that Dennis Wilson was allowed to write and sing more. His voice was rough, but it was a great rock voice that really shined on tracks like Slip On Through. It’s a pretty bluesy, ballsy song for the Boys and deserved to be a hit…which it wasn’t.
ADD SOME MUSIC TO YOUR DAY–Maybe a bit trite, but the gorgeous harmonies that harken back to their glory days make this song rise above lines like, “You’re sitting in your dentist’s chair and they got music for you there.” Brian’s production (for he was truly back behind the glass here) doesn’t hurt things at all.
DEIRDRE–The Boys’ other secret weapon on Sunflower was Bruce Johnston. This old school 60s pop song was written and sung by the late-comer. (Bruce joined the band in 1965, starting his career with them with California Girls.) Yes, Bruce also wrote I Write The Songs, but before that he wrote this floating little ditty that helps make Sunflower as memorable as it is.
TEARS IN THE MORNING–Also from Bruce’s pen was this melancholy track that reminds me of something that Bobby Goldborough would have been handed. But it’s not nearly that cheesy or just plain awful. Instead, it’s a perfect remembrance of what it’s like to miss someone who has left you. Sentimentality runs rampant, but also anger and sadness. When there’s no more anger, the song ends with a distant keyboard line that’s just barely there for about 40 seconds. Quite possibly my favorite song on the album.
ALL I WANNA DO–Not to be confused with the hard-rockin’ All I Want To Do on 20/20 that’s all about doin’ it, this is a sweet little song with a waving and otherworldly vocal from Mike Love and Brian. Great, surreal stuff.
FOREVER–Yes, there are a lot of songs from Sunflower on this list. Sue me. It’s kind of a great album. Forever is a super-sweet song from Dennis. It’s so awesome that Brian called it “a rock and roll prayer.” Another contender for “favorite song on the album” status. I really wish that this one had been a hit.
LONG PROMISED ROAD–1971′s Surf’s Up is the album that fans remember the most from the 70s, although it’s not the most coherent. (That would be the previous Sunflower.) It does, however, have the best cover. The image of the Native American slumping on his horse in indelible. Long Promised Road should have been the opening track instead of Mike Love and Al Jardine’s silly eco-friendly Don’t Go Near The Water. It’s an embattled track with a great rock vocal from Carl Wilson that sounds both hopeful and beaten down…much like the song itself. This is the first track that tells us that this is an album to be reckoned with. (It’s also the first track that Carl wrote for the band.)
DISNEY GIRLS (1957)–Two tracks later we finally get a song that fulfills the promise of Long Promised Road…and surpasses it. Certainly one of the best songs of the Beach Boys’ latter years, Disney Girls (1957) looks back on a time when a Tootsie Roll could get a girl’s hand and Patti Page was someone to get excited about. Bruce Johnston’s finest four minutes.
FEEL FLOWS–Full of reverse echo and transcendental lyrics, Feel Flows is an otherworldly track that has had a small life of its own after being used in Almost Famous. Sure, it’s still not a hit, but it was on the soundtrack…which was a hit. Right? Well, it should’ve been. I love this song, even with its synth break. It, along with Long Promised Road, make me love Carl Wilson all the more. At nearly five minutes, it’s the longest track on the album and still doesn’t feel long enough.
A DAY IN THE LIFE OF A TREE–Certainly one of the strangest songs in Beach Boys’ history, this is a song about a tree choking on the pollution…but it’s also about Brian Wilson choking on reality. Instead of one of the Boys singing it, their manager, Jack Rieley, took the lead. His faltering vocals make the song that much weirder and sadder. It’s almost as cloying as Mike and Al’s environmental/social songs, but it works because of the crazy production and double meaning. Absolutely riveting stuff.
‘TIL I DIE–”I’m a cork on the ocean.” Brian Wilson’s depression shines through on this one, too, and makes for some beautiful listening. In just over two minutes, Brian tells us exactly how depressing life can be, but in such a pretty way that you almost WANT to feel the way he feels. “These things I’ll be until I die.” Goddamn, Brian. Just goddamn.
SURF’S UP–The title track of the album came from the Smile days and, for years, made people REALLY want to hear that album. The baroque pop song (co-written, of course, by Brian and Van Dyke Parks) is so beautiful and ever-flowing that it makes me want to learn how to surf…although that’s really not what it’s about. The version that closes the Surf’s Up album is an amalgam of three or four different versions, including new vocals by Carl, who produced the new version. It beautifully sums up everything on the album and closes a trilogy of Brian songs that make the rest of the album pale in comparison…quite an achievement considering the great songs on the first two thirds of the album.
YOU NEED A MESS OF HELP TO STAND ALONE–One of Brian’s three contributions to Carl And The Passions – So Tough (1972) isn’t as amazing as any of his material from the Smile sessions, but it’s certainly telling of his feelings at the time. It’s a cool little rocker with a vocal from Carl, who had basically taken the band over at this point. Bruce left just as the sessions started and Carl brought in Blondie Chaplin and drummer Ricky Fataar. (Dennis couldn’t drum anymore because of an accident that nearly took his hand off.) Brian’s song, written with Rieley, wasn’t just talking about himself, I think. It was also a message to the band. Could they survive without him? Well, they would certainly give it a go. This was certainly Brian’s best song on the album.
HOLD ON DEAR BROTHER–One of two compositions by the new members of the band, this song allowed Blondie to give a soulful vocal on a song that could have been written about Brian if it had been written by one of the original members. As it is, though, it’s still a pretty damn good plea from one man to another.
ALL THIS IS THAT–Yeah, so don’t listen too closely to the lyrics. They’re a mess of new-agey junk that, while agreeable, are pretty silly. (“I am that, thou art that, this is that.”) But the harmonies are amazing and they make this song shine above just about every other song on the So Tough album. Jack Rieley may have wanted the band to go more hard rock, but this song shows that he was kind of dumb for that. They were alright at the hard rock, but the harmonies are where The Beach Boys were really at.
CUDDLE UP–Remember how I said that Dennis was becoming a songwriter? Here’s where he started to really shine. Cuddle up is a great big, baroque, slow piano ballad with a giant string swell and a heartbreaking vocal from the scratchy voiced Beach Boy. It’s a great way to close a fairly middling album that started the fast descent of The Beach Boys to has-beens.
SAIL ON, SAILOR–1973′s Holland dipped a bit further down, but it gave them a few more medium sized hits before they hit rock bottom. This track, co-written by Brian, Van Dyke Parks and apparently a committee and sung by Blondie Chaplin, it was maybe not the greatest song out there, but it’s definitely a fun song that you can sing along to and not feel embarrassed by it. I actually kind of love the song. It doesn’t sound a whole lot like The Beach Boys, but it sounds like a great 70s pop song. Not bad for a song that was just barely released. It was added to the track listing after Warner Brothers rejected the original album for not having a single. They dropped a weak song and added this old Wilson/Parks composition, tweaking some stuff here and there.
THE TRADER–Carl got his own highlight with this rather long track. (Still not the longest at just over five minutes.) The Trader is a loping and fun little song that ends up being one of the better latter day tracks. It sounds like Carl had been listening to his older brother’s work and wanted to emulate it a bit.
ONLY WITH YOU–Another great ballad from Dennis. Someone get this guy a solo contract, stat! Oh yeah. They did and his album, while awesome, went nowhere. It just recently got released on CD along with a second disc of an album that he was working on when he died. Great stuff if you can find it at this point. (There’s actually some disagreement as to whether this is Dennis or Carl singing. I think it sounds more like Carl because his voice isn’t as gruff as Dennis’. Either way, Dennis wrote it and it’s a great song.)
HAD TO PHONE YA–It took the Boys three years to record a follow up, but it was very nearly worth it. Not only was 15 Big Ones the biggest hit that they had had in years, but it was the return of Brian Wilson to the production boards. Had To Phone Ya is a light, poppy song about a man just trying to get his girl to answer the damn phone. Not much to it, but it’s a lot of fun.
IT’S OK–Brian was writing again and…well, he still had a ways to go before he really got his chops back. This is a pretty good little pop song, though, and one of the highlights of an album that was sort of a transition for them.
BACK HOME–Yeah, it’s a silly song, but Brian was in a silly place at the time. He was writing for his band again and this song basically brought him back to it in some sort of style. There’s harmonies and talk of summer. It’s a pretty typical Beach Boys song. Maybe not as great as the past, but still worth a listen.
JUST ONCE IN MY LIFE–15 Big Ones was about half originals and half covers…most of which were kind of bunk. This cover of the old Righteous Brothers hit was actually pretty damn good, though. With a joint lead vocal from Brian and Carl (and some unfortunate synths), you had the sweetness of Carl and the new-found gruffness of Brian. They worked pretty well together and it was a good way to end the album.
LET US GO ON THIS WAY–The Beach Boys Love You was the TRUE return of Brian Wilson. He wrote or co-wrote all 14 songs on the album and, while it wasn’t as big of a hit as 15 Big Ones, it got better critical appraisal than that one. The album opens with this cool little rocker with some fuzzy synths that make it sound a little bit like Do It Again. It’s not THAT good, but it’s a great way to turn over a new leaf. Too bad that leaf didn’t last more than one album.
MONA–Brian co-writes with Dennis and lets him take the lead vocal, making for a great old-school rocker. Dennis’ gruff voice brings out the pleading in the lyrics. “Baby, I know your gonna love Phil Spector.” Nice.
GOOD TIME–Brian’s peon to just having a good time with his baby. “Maybe it won’t last, but what do we care. My baby and I just want a good time.” A nice sentiment for young couples everywhere put to a cool old-fashioned tune. The song includes an old vocal performance by Brian recorded before his voice was ravaged by cigarettes and cocaine in the mid-70s.
THE NIGHT WAS SO YOUNG–A dual lead vocal from Brian and Carl fuels this song about a doomed romance…but there’s hope. “Love was made for her and I.” The best part of this one is the guitar in the background. I love the bend in the single note played over and over. Good stuff.
I’LL BET HE’S NICE–Brian wants his girl to know that he knows that her new man is twice the man that he is…but he’s still in love with her. A sad sentiment set to a peppy tune with some bleeping synths in the background that make this old-school pop song sound not as old-school as it could have.
LET’S PUT OUR HEARTS TOGETHER–Sung by Brian and his wife at the time, Marilyn (mother of Carnie and Wendy of Wilson Phillips). It’s a sweet little song about two people realizing how good they are together. Of course, Brian and Marilyn wouldn’t last.
LOVE IS A WOMAN–A pretty decent 50s sounding pop song that is a good way to end the last good Beach Boys album.
Over the course of the next few decades, The Beach Boys would release more albums, but none of them would be worth a damn. Want proof as to the “product” they were releasing after this? MIU, the album right after The Beach Boys Love You, was supposed to be a Christmas album. When Reprise told them no, they quickly rewrote the songs and overdubbed the new lyrics onto the old tracks. How did that seem like a good idea? And the less said about fucking Kokomo, the better. Sure, it gave them a huge hit, but it’s pretty terrible.
This year, they’re releasing kind of a 50th anniversary album with the surviving original members and Brian in full control. He’s put out some really good solo albums over the last decade, so we can only hope that the new album with his Boys will be good, too. I don’t have a lot of hope…but the Beach Boys have always been about optimism. Maybe, just maybe, they can pull off one more good album before they hang up their imaginary surf boards for good.