by Brian Erickson
Discog Fever is a regular feature on thegreatalbums.com, rating and reviewing a band's entire catalogue of studio albums.
The 1970s were The Beach Boys' most tumultuous, unpredictable decade. Creative and spiritual leader Brian Wilson began ceding control, leaving the rest of the band - brothers Carl and Dennis, frontman Mike Love, guitarist Al Jardine and bassist Bruce Johnston - to handle the group's songwriting and production as a fully-democratic unit, an ethos which would yield some of the group's most artistically-rewarding if commercially-disappointing material. The band would also be pockmarked by a consistently-shifting lineup and power structure that - like the decade before - would see them end up in a vastly different place than when they started.
The Beach Boys found themselves the recipients of a generous record deal with the artist-friendly Warner/Reprise at the dawn of the album era. As such, they took the democratic approach of Friends and 20/20 and wrote their best batch of new material since Pet Sounds. With FOUR original song contributions, Dennis is basically in beast mode (his most noteworthy tune being "Forever," made famous on the TV show Full House). Love contributes the excellent proto-shoegaze "All I Wanna Do," and Brian delivers the driving "This Whole World" (sung by Carl) and sentimental "Add Some Music." Elsewhere, Bruce emerges with "Tears in the Morning," a theatrical, minor-key highlight. Unfortunately, none of this translated to commercial success as the album peaked at #151 on the Billboard charts. But The Beach Boys were a fully-functioning band, making some of the best, most exciting music of their career. While they were still beloved around the world (particularly in the UK), the home crowd couldn't possibly care less. Recent critical reevaluation and placement on Rolling Stone Magazine's '500 Greatest Albums of All-Time' list have redeemed this album significantly.
Surf's Up (1971)
Part of the Boys' deal with Warner was that they would deliver the long, lost SMiLE album. And at this juncture, Carl had become proficient enough in the studio to give it a whirl himself. While he ultimately found the project too daunting, he was able to finish what would become this album's stunning title track. Complete with the band's patented mid 60s harmony stack and Van Dyke Parks' obtuse, poetic lyrics, "Surf's Up" - like "Good Vibrations" and "God Only Knows" before it - belongs on a very short list of greatest songs ever written. While Brian's retreat from the spotlight was ever-quickening, he did manage the bizarre "Day in the Life of a Tree" (sung by new manager Jack Riley, who had given the band a complete image overhaul), and the dark, dour "Til I Die." But the true highlights belong to Carl who penned the fantastic "Feel Flows" and celebratory "Long Promised Road." Bruce gives us the minor standard "Disney Girls," while Mike and Al offer up a few things that some folks might consider songs, also. Missing from the proceedings altogether is Dennis whose contributions "Lady (Falling In Love)," "Sound of Free," and "Wouldn't It Be Nice to Live Again" were left off the record. The first two ended up getting released as a single and would have been highlights. The third - languishing in the vaults until 2013 - might have been the best Beach Boys song since "Good Vibrations." Jealousy, evidently. Too bad because by 1971, with Brian largely sidelined and Carl still growing into his new role, Dennis was the best writer they had.
Carl & the Passions: So Tough (1972)
By 1972 Carl Wilson was now in full control and the results are rootsy, soulful, and rhythmic in a way that no Beach Boys album (even Wild Honey) has ever attempted. Bruce Johnston left the group, evidently not taking to the Jack Riley image makeover and Brian Wilson was now in the throes of bed-ridden depression. So Carl circled the wagons, recruited a pair of African-born musicians - drummer Ricky Fataar and singer/songwriter/ace guitarist Blondie Chaplin - and set out to reinvent the Beach Boys as a true-blue rock band. In the studio, there were a few missteps (even the remastered album sounds muddy), but the group functions fairly well as a democracy, mixing spiritual music like the Mike/Al mantra "All This is That" with the gospel-tinged "He Come Down." My personal favorites are the proto-Alt-Country "You Need a Mess of Help" and soulful strut "Marcella." Dennis returns to the fold with "Make It Good" and "Cuddle Up," two Redwood tree-sized ballads.
Seeking to snap Brian out of his ever-deepening depression, the band emptied its bank account and moved their California-based studio out to the Netherlands. One problem: he didn't make the trip, opting instead for cocaine, his bedroom, and apparently six packs of cigarettes a day. Once again, Carl took charge, and his and the band's efforts yielded one of their most respected 70s albums. The strongest and most well-known song, "Sail On Sailor," was an old Brian/Van Dyke Parks tune reworked and sung with the perfect balance of heart and soul by Chaplin. Other highlights include Carl's song "The Trader," an epic, two-part suite that marks his full development as a writer. Dennis adds another stunning ballad, "Only With You," while Love hits us with "Big Sur," a 3/4 country waltz that holds up as one of the Beach Boys' best songs of the period. Al adds the buoyant (if awkwardly-titled) "California Saga: California".
In Concert (1973)
Live at Leeds and Budokan often get mentioned as pantheon live recordings, and rightfully so. But I'll fight for The Beach Boys in Concert, as one of the ten or so best live albums ever. Joyous readings of "Darlin" and "Wouldn't It Be Nice" sit nicely alongside new song "We Got Love" and recent soon-to-be-staple "Sail On Sailor." Ricky Fataar behind the drum set proves particularly revelatory on cuts like "Funky Pretty" with its heavy ride cymbal outro. The only dark spot on an otherwise stellar release is the absence of Dennis Wilson. While he contributes keys and harmony vocals, he takes no leads and can only really be heard during a brief intro to "Surfin USA."
15 Big Ones (1976)
Where to begin. In 1974, Chaplin and Fataar left The Beach Boys. Capitol, their original record label also released Endless Summer a 20-track compilation of the band's pre-Pet Sounds hits. It sold three million copies, vaulted them back to #1 but also completely derailed the progressive direction they were headed in. Meanwhile, Brian Wilson had undergone 24-hour therapy sessions in an attempt to salvage his rapidly-declining health. So in order to capitalize on the recent success of this now-seminal hits package and to deliver an album to the growing-impatient Warner Bros, The Beach Boys got Brian Wilson out of his room, into the studio, and returned the control they had spent years trying to wrestle away. The results yielded an absolute critical dumpster fire. 15 Big Ones, named in honor of the band's 15th anniversary, is essentially an oldies covers album. Opener "Rock & Roll Music," peaked at #5, follow up single "It's OK" landed at a respectable #29, and the parent album went gold. Wait, what? Yes, you read that correctly: a pair of hit singles and true-blue commercial success. Not since their debut has such an artistically-inconsistent Beach Boys record reached promising commercial heights. Having said that, though, there are a few highlights in songs like "Back Home" and "Had to Phone Ya," both 60s retreads, and tender closing track "Just Once In My Life." Carl and Dennis both called the album's creation, "a bruising process," as they realized Brian was in no condition to produce music the way he used to.
Love You (1977)
Originally titled Brian Loves You this was meant to be an elder Wilson solo joint, with him taking on most of the composition and instrumentation himself. But following their reversal of commercial fortunes, the Beach Boys lopped off the beginning of the title and added their voices to the mix to create the most odd, unusual item in a catalog that houses weirdo's like Smiley Smile and 20/20. The production is laden with buzzy Moog synthesizers and angular, inside-out harmonies. Brian brought a minimalist, almost "punk" aesthetic, to the proceedings. His sweet falsetto is now gone in favor of a six-packs-a-day gruff, squeaky, often flat baritone. But there's an innocence and charm to the material and no question that Wilson is inspired and working with full use of his faculties. It's an interesting record and songs like "Johnny Carson" and "Honkin Down the Highway" have a dark strangeness to them that I can't ever seem to get enough of. The album was a bit too radical for the record-buying public, but it continues to be discovered by new fans as somewhat of a minor classic.
Pacific Ocean Blue (1977)
I'm not going to include every band member's solo album, but Dennis Wilson's effort has since been accepted as canon with the understanding that - had The Beach Boys decided to use this material as the basis of their next album - it would stand second only to Pet Sounds. Sonically, Pacific Ocean Blue, picks up largely where Holland left off, acting as a natural continuation of the rootsy "urban gospel" sound the band was beginning to refine and make small commercial gains on. Carl contributes backing vocals on remarkable opener "River Song," and Mike offers up the rocking title track. The whole thing is tied together by Dennis who is at the absolute top of his game as a singer, writer, and arranger, fulfilling the great potential that began showing through the cracks of his fractured band nearly a decade prior. Unfortunately, a peak chart position of #96 and Dennis' increasingly erratic professional behavior ensured that this would be his only album. In 2008, after being out of print for decades, Pacific Ocean Blue, was reissued with a bonus disc, an alleged unfinished follow up album that nearly matches the artistic quality of its counterpart. The reissue, which is still very much available, has allowed Pacific Ocean Blue to finally take its place as an uncompromising 70s masterpiece.
MIU Album (1978)
Back in proper Beach Boy land, things were not looking good. The band had one final album to offer Warner Brothers and Mike Love had the idea of issuing a new Christmas album. They hit commercial and critical pay dirt back in 1964 so why not see if lightning could strike twice, amiright? Nope! It was roundly rejected (eventually released as Ultimate Christmas in the 90s and - with the exception of Dennis' elegiac "Morning Christmas" - is roundly terrible with a capital "F"). So Wilson (who was off therapy and re-embracing his unhealthy vices), Love, and Jardine set up shop at Maharishi International University (aka "MIU") and recorded their worst album to date. Carl and Dennis were absent for most of the sessions as they were busy working on the latter's excellent Pacific Ocean Blue. Ill-advised Buddy Holly covers, songs about tennis, and a 36 year old Mike Love hooking up with a "little tomboy," make me want to wretch. "Pitter Patter" might have had a chance if its title and its lyrical content weren't so bad. Brian Wilson evidently doesn't remember making this album. Why this didn't get an "F," is because there would be more albums of even lesser quality just around the corner.
LA (Light Album) (1979)
After three albums with the Founding Five, Bruce Johnston returned to produce the last halfway-decent Beach Boys album. Carl and Dennis, thank goodness, are back. Their contributions, which occupy no less than half the album, are all good-to-great. Elsewhere, the title track recalls the group's classic sound, and Al Jardine's "Lady Lynda" is listenable. Mike's "Sumahama" has a pretty melody but is derailed due to corny lyrics and - by his own admission - a jibberish attempt at Japanese. The album veers off the road with "Here Comes the Night" (an ill-advised 10-minute disco track), and Brian's too-weird-even-for-him take on children's rhyme "Shortenin' Bread." All-in-all, the album would prove to be The Beach Boys' last grasp at respectability. The title track would scrape the bottom end of the Top 40, but ultimately proved too little too late as the band finally fell through the ever-weakening floorboards just a year later.