Why are the mainstream music press being so churlish about the Beach Boys? The surviving members of the band including David Marks, who was booted out by Murray Wilson in the early 1960s and Murray’s son Brian, the tortured genius responsible for all their greatest songs, have got together and made a 50th Anniversary album. And I think it’s rather nice. The trouble is, that your more conventional music journalist types don’t agree with me.
From where I’m sitting it is – if not quite a masterpiece – still a pretty good album; on a par with Brian Wilson’s more recent records, and better than anything that the Beach Boys have done for decades. Maybe that’s the problem.
In the last ten years, Brian Wilson has produced three major albums, all in collaboration with various outside musicians, mostly connected with a band called the Wondermints. The first and most controversial of these was/is their re-imagining of their 1967 meisterwork Smile. The second a song cycle in collaboration with Van Dyke Parks (who wrote most of the lyrics of Smile) called That Happy Old Sun. I liked both of these albums, and have even had a seasonal hum and toe tap along to the third (and much slighter) record, a collection of Christmas songs called Christmassy. For some reason, the mainstream music press seem to have an aversion to post-therapy Brian. They seemed convinced that he is somehow being exploited by person or persons unknown, and that therefore his tunes, which I think are often as magical as ever, are somehow diminished.
The reception to the two most recent Beach Boys’ records is ever so indicative of this. The new album is – apparently – contrived. Of course it’s contrived, it was put together by a bunch of people who have had no real connection with each other for decades, to mark a half-century since they first started playing together in the early 1960s. So what! The album has lovely moments and is certainly better than anything he has done in the Beach Boys name since the Beach Boys Love You in 1977 (which was, by the way, an album full of first fruits of Brian Wilson’s first batch of therapy with the controversial therapist Dr Eugene Landy). It is, unlike most records of this ilk, surprisingly age appropriate. This is not a bunch of old men pretending to be teenagers. This is singers, composers and lyricists in the autumn of their lives, basking in the glow of a rich and fulfilling sunset. They could, I suppose be accused of looking back at their glory days through rose-tinted spectacles. But, for heaven’s sake, who doesn’t? As a man in my early 50s, I look back at the time when I was thin, could walk properly, and didn’t have a mortgage. It is only natural.
The other recent album is more problematic. It is the long awaited release of the Beach Boys’ own recordings of Smile from 1967. They are, of course, a valuable historical document, but it should always be remembered that these are demos, rough working sketches of a work in progress, and should not be compared in any real sense with the Brian Wilson version of 2004. They are two totally different animals. In fact, I found it vaguely unpleasant trying to listen to them back to back, and gave up.
The Beach Boys have given us some of the most glorious Caucasian rock and pop music of the past half century. Brian Wilson has written some of the most enduring songs in that time and the band’s falsettos and harmonies have provided the soundtrack to many of our lives. Can we not just leave it at that, and allow them to enjoy their 50th Anniversary?