Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Beach Boys Today!-Fifty Years Later by Peter Reum

The Beach Boys Today! - Fifty Years Later
by Peter Reum

Beginning in July 1964, Brian Wilson began work on what would  become a landmark collection of songs known as one of the finest albums of The Beach Boys' entire career. The latter day critical reappraisements of the Today! album are near universally laudatory. Rolling Stone Magazine in its 2007 article on Rock's 500 Best Albums  named Today! as one of three Beach Boys albums included in that elite list.  Allmusic awarded The Beach Boys Today! a rare five star critics' rating on their site, actually surpassing listeners' ratings. Today! has also been included as essential listening in several compendiums of best albums of the Rock Era. 

During the sessions for what became The Beach Boys Christmas Album, Brian held a session for Don't Hurt My Little Sister, a track initially written for consideration as a Ronettes record. The composition, with lyrics by Mike Love and Brian, offered a hint toward the eventual flavor of the entire first side of Today!, which is a mature rock flavored set of six tracks, all centering upon a theme of mature relationships with young women. The six songs comprising the album's first side feel unified both in musical approach and in lyrical content. Several authors through the years have pointed out that the rock and ballad sides of the album are suite-like in their sound and subject matter. Ironically, Today!'s two sided thematic structure was first developed on The Beach Boys Christmas Album, with its first side being a rock oriented collection of Christmas themed tunes that hang together well, and the second side being a more traditional collection of Christmas music that also sounded beautiful as a composite work.

What made Today! such a strong album was that six tracks on the album that were either "A" or "B" sides of singles over a period of roughly 7 months. The August 1964 single When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)/She Knows Me Too Well showcased a more mature form of relationship orientation, more that of a couple in love with each other as opposed to a "going steady" type of theme lyrically.  Both tracks showed a more layered production approach,  Vocals on both songs are intricate, with counterpoint quite prominent. Also, it is notable that The Beach Boys played nearly all of the instruments on these two tracks. It is interesting that Brian was looking into his future, trying to imagine what life would present in his thirties.  September brought a heavily Spector influenced I'm So Young and the stunning outtake All Dressed Up For School. A close listen to I'm So Young shows a dense arrangement of vocals and instruments. All Dressed Up For School reveals Carl Wilson singing his only lead vocal of the Today! sessions, along with a clever ascending vocal scale which was later repeated on a Heroes and Villains session in 1967.

The Dance Dance Dance single was cut in an early version toward the end of September in Nashville, followed by the final Los Angeles version in October 1964. The single, backed with the lovely The Warmth of the Sun, was a top ten charting hit, having been released in late October. Brian's touring and studio responsibilities took a toll on his ability to get everything done to his satisfaction, and an exhausted Brian had an anxiety/panic attack on a flight to Houston, Texas to play a concert on December 23, 1964. In February 1965, the next single was released, Do You Wanna Dance/Please Let Me Wonder. Dennis Wilson's energetic lead vocal on Do You Wanna Dance made the song a hit in the United States and abroad. The session was notable for being a likely time for when Brian informed the rest of the Beach Boys that he would no longer be touring and would confine his efforts to songwriting and producing. The second side of this single, Please Let Me Wonder, is a reflectively amorous song, showing some of the thoughts that a young adult might have, thinking about whether the girl he loves is the "one."

Another lovely ballad,  Kiss Me Baby, was released as the "B" side of the rerecorded and catchier version of Help Me Rhonda, which replaced the unusual Today! version of the song, entitled Help Me Ronda, which had several prominent fades which then went back to regular volume before eventually fading just past the three minute mark on the song. The tune was optioned by The Hondells to be a single, which Brian nixed, knowing that if he recut it, it would be a monster hit. Kiss Me Baby marries a lush instrumental track with very unusual vocals highlighting the tempestuous ups and downs of a couple trying to workout boundaries and emotional intimacy in what might be their first potentially "serious" relationship.  

The remaining album tracks consisted of Good To My Baby, In the Back of My Mind, and an unusual group discussion entitled Bull Session With the Big Daddy (Earl Leaf), who chaperoned the group on their 1964 tour of Europe. Good To My Baby offers an occasional unusual time signature with a full complement of  Beach Boys and The Wrecking Crew playing on the date. Recorded in what sounds like 7/4 time, but is actually 4/4 time, the tune instrumentally is a challenging track, innovative in both its arrangement and performance.  The Bull Session With the Big Daddy segment is a curtailed discussion with Earl Leaf about the 1964 European Tour. The track is somewhat of an unusual end to an exquisite and romantic second side of Today!, and might have been better sequenced as the last track of side one. The heartfelt and emotional lead vocal of Dennis Wilson's on In the Back of My Mind foreshadows many of Dennis's later intensely emotional vocals on his own songs on Seventies Beach Boys and solo albums. The instrumental arrangement of In the Back of My Mind is stunning, and is a preview of some of the more lush and jazz flavored Pet Sounds tracks.  

What can be said about The Beach Boys Today!? First, it moved the emotional content of the songs from a more high school flavored lyrical theme to that of young couples in love and contemplating marriage. It having a Rock Music side and a Ballad side gave the album an aural consistency that was unprecedented in Beach Boys' albums. The gradual and more extensive use of The Wrecking Crew on The Beach Boys Today! gave Brian the option of using more complex instrumental tracks serving as beds for the group's increasingly sophisticated vocal arrangements. Overall, the album charted strongly at Number 4 on the charts, earning an RIAA Gold Record Award in the fall of 1965. Perhaps most importantly, Brian's pioneering use of the studio as an instrument flowered strongly on Today!, foreshadowing the complex jazz influenced music on Pet Sounds. It marked the next step in the consistent exponential growth that began with the Surfer Girl lp, moving into the "fun in the sun" themed All Summer Long album, and was then succeeded by the iconic Pet Sounds album.  It is justifiably the first 5 star Beach Boys album.

Text Copyright 2015 by Peter Reum-All Rights Reserved

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Turnin' On the Wayback Machine: 1980 Review of Keepin' the Summer Alive by Peter Reum

Author's Note: This review was published in the May 1980 BBFUN Newsletter. In reading it again, 35 years down the road, I can see the rose colored glasses that were over my eyes to a degree. it is with a few corrections that make it more readable... 

Want something familiar but fresh sounding in your musical diet? The Beach Boys' recent albums have often been criticized for sounding dated in the eyes of some critics. No such criticism is fair in relation to Keepin' the Summer Alive. The album has flavorings that recall the best in past Beach Boys music. Vocals are intricate, harmonic, and most important, spirited. Bruce Johnston's production efforts are bearing fruit, and this album is a testament to his catalytical role in the band's present situation. Stephen Desper's engineering gives the album an aural sheen which is at times breathtaking. Rarely has a Beach Boys album sounded so tasteful.

This is an album for fans to be proud of, to play for friends, and to get behind. Minor criticisms arise, but in the context of the whole album, they are relatively picayunish. The first thing that someone who has followed the the band for years hears is Brian's enthusiastic participation. His contributions may be heard in the tracks, the vocal arrangements, but most especially in the songwriting. The essence of a Beach Boys album is usually based in Brian. This album qualifies as that type of a record. 

Carl contributes two new styles of material, the title track, and the country flavored "Livin' With a Heartache." The balance of the songs on the album will sound a little more familiar to Beach Boy fandom. Critics of Beach Boys music are usually divided into two factions....those who simply never liked Beach Boys music - and those who feel that their music since Surfs Up or Holland has been sub par. Those of the first school seem to dislike the album as much as ever, but the interesting critical trend is among the second school.  These critics generally love the album as much as ever, are very positive about it, and there are more than just a few. This in turn brings casual Beach Boys fans back into the fold. We of the hardcore fan persuasion knew this album was special the minute Goin' On hit the radio. The spectrum of experimentation on this album leads to a variety of songs which appeal.

"Some of Your Love" is what could be called an old time Beach Boys song. It is the song of the post Holland years that best captures the pre-Pet Sounds era sound, but for whatever reason - it works well, and the result is beautiful. It is a step beyond anything in the Seventies in "that recapture the old sound" effort. "Goin' On" and "Oh Darlin'" are some of the nicest ballads in recent years. "Goin' On" has vocal intricacies which extend musical and lyrical ideas from "Good Timin"  (and Surfer Girl) into a beautiful counterpoint vocal bridge. The Beach Boys have always been identified with songs of this type and they are wise to include something in this style. 

"When Girls Get Together" is from the archives.  Originally recorded in 1969, its beautiful track offers mandolins, marxophones, and a booming bass over which are some beautiful lyrical ideas and a nice group vocal are placed. Here's hoping there are more songs like this in the archives. Perhaps a cold tracks album would be nice. This song is unique in its sound. No other Beach Boys song approximates its Parisian/Roman sidewalk cafe flavor. 

Carl's two compositions with Randy Bachman are a perfect contrast to some of the more traditional Beach Boys sounding tracks on Keepin' the Summer Alive. The title track bounces along in a powerful fashion, with a boogie rock sound, something the Beach Boys are not known for. A nice tempo shift and Joe Walsh guitar solo highlight the song. "Livin' With a Heartache" is one of Carl's nicest compositions, and deserves hit single status. Both of these songs are new directions for the group, and they work. "Livin' With a Heartache" could be a country music crossover hit. 

"Sunshine" was inspired by "Little Boy," a Phil Spector production from 1963. Although it bears little resemblance to that tune, at one time The Beach Boys intended to cut the song. Instead, it served as a loose basis for this calypso/tropical flavored song. Another experiment in a new musical direction, it bears similarities to some of Van Dyke Parks' recordings. Steel drums played by Vince Charles show up, and add new dimensions to Beach Boys music. But, after all, what is the Caribbean known for but its beaches? This is another experiment with a new sound, and is most welcome.

"Santa Ana Winds" is a pretty song. Its problem is continuity. The spoken introduction disrupts the listening pattern from "When Girls Get Together." The transition becomes disconcerting.Perhaps a note on the inner album sleeve would have been more apropos. It is, however, the first venture into a pure folk sound since Holland in 1973.This is an exciting development.  The track is interesting, especially the harmonica track, which is outrageously good.

This leaves two "oldies" on the album, each closing a side. "School Days" is very nice for its acapella introduction, which is something that is a little touch which obviously had a great deal of effort put into it. The song itself is alright, but has background vocals that are jarring, taking attention away from a good instrumental track and a great Alan Jardine lead vocal. "Ten Years of Harmony" is a 1974 single "B side" by California Music, sung in third person by Bruce Johnston. Written as an affectionate memoir of his first tenure with the group, the song has been adapted into an interesting moody encapsulation of the group's first decade. The narrative has been changed from "they" to "we." Retitled "Endlesss Harmony," it is a nice closing track that should have had 60 to 90 seconds of acapella singing to close the album.  The ambiance of the track is stunning, a tribute to the work of Stephen Desper. 

Keepin' the Summer Alive is too short an album. It begs for another track on both sides, and even with them, it still would have been shorter than 40 minutes. There are no Dennis Wilson songs....this is sad. "Baby Blue" stands out as one of the finest tracks on the L.A. Light Album. Whoever did the graphics work should realize that some of us care about the lyrics, and would like to have them to follow. It makes the process of getting into the album a more intimate and personal experience. Beach Boys lyrics are good, and there is nothing for anyone to be ashamed of lyric wise on this album. (For those of you who care, buy a Japanese copy).

In spite of these flaws, the album reveals a freshness and vitality that bodes well for the future. The Beach Boys are 18 and 1/2 years young, and you are only as old as your musical ideas are. The musical ideas and experiments on this album are for the most part new. Sticking their musical toes into calypso,  folk, and modern country is the best step they could have taken. Yet, there are enough traditional Beach Boys sounds for the more musically conservative among us. So, while pleasing old fans, Keepin' the Summer Alive will make some new fans. (Now if they would only cut a George Gershwin tune). With support from us, the fans, we can all go out and wear down a few of the uninitiated and cynical. This album deserves to be a hit, more so than any album for a few years. Whatever becomes of it, keep up the extra effort and new ideas, guys, and thanks for the album!