Sunday, October 9, 2016

The Beach Boys: 15 Big Ones (1976)


(Reprise)

Sadly, this marks the moment when the Beach Boys' evolution basically halted. They had given up in the studio, for the first of many times, after Holland was released and Brian's condition deteriorated. Their only new release in 1974 or 1975 was a strange Christmas single, "Child of Winter," which to its credit did employ Brian's terrifying Nonetheless, all eyes were on the group; Capitol released, with perfect timing, a brilliantly-sequenced greatest hits album called Endless Summer that hit #1 and catapulted the Beach Boys back into full-fledged stardom. It should have been cause for celebration (live audiences did pick up considerably, and the band's critical and popular reputation was cemented for a long time to come), but it led to what became a tiresome conflict -- the shadow of the Beach Boys' past lurking behind them, and its stranglehold on their new material from this point. Time and time again, they released a half-baked effort that spawned a hit or two, then regained the courage to make a bolder album that subsequently bombed, sending them back to step one. As the years rolled on, the good albums became slightly less revelatory and fresh, the bad ones increasingly unlistenable.

15 Big Ones marks the beginning, and Endless Summer's effect is felt everywhere. With Ricky Fataar and Blondie Chaplin gone by this point and the band back down to the classic five-man lineup, the sincerity of the group's explorations in the early '70s is incredibly distant. 15 Big Ones seems to pretend the last several records never existed. Additionally, Brian has been forced back to the booth to work some of his old magic, so the album is his first "official" recording as sole producer since Pet Sounds; his production here resembles a tinkertoy variation on his mid-'60s accomplishments. Even the large number of tracks -- more than any other Beach Boys album -- seems to have been influenced by the mammoth Summer.

The concept, given the wave of escapism and nostalgia that embraced the mid-'70s, was to record an album of covers of early rock and roll plus some originals cut from the same patchwork. It's not inherently a bad idea -- John Lennon did it well, and the exuberant spirit of the energetic classics was exactly what the decrepit monster that mainstream rock music had become was lacking. Of course, these things always work better on paper than they do in execution, and in his production, arrangements and specific selections Brian plays it safe almost from beginning to end. "Chapel of Love," "Talk to Me," "A Casual Look," "Blueberry Hill": the oldies come one after the other and all are state-of-the-art, lush, and plastic. Covering these songs is pointless if you're not going to bring anything to the table except a sterilizing polish. A hoary, butt-stupid take on "Rock and Roll Music" became a major hit, suggesting again to the Beach Boys that the public's appetite for recycled waste was limitless. It's more than a little disappointing considering the independent spirit that just three years before had been such an inseparable part of their work, their appeal, their legacy.

That's not to say the band has nothing left to offer; some of the originals here are wonderful, particularly those that foreshadow the masterpiece of the following year, Love You. "Had to Phone Ya" shares that album's quirky genius, while "Back Home," a Beach Boys outtake from the early '60s rerecorded with infectious enthusiasm, is one of Brian's most charming compositions. Al's long-in-limbo "Susie Cincinnati" is agreeably brash, the hit "It's OK" is far more fun than it probably should be, and while the gospel-hybrid "That Same Song" stretches their limits as a band and doesn't work too well, at least they give it a shot. Even some of the covers are worthy: Carl turns "Palisades Park" into a wistful but lovably boisterous workout, and it's one of the few times Brian's production comes close to his former genius. It's a blast just to hear Dennis have a go at "In the Still of the Night," too, but the undeniable treasure -- and album highlight -- is the version of the Righteous Brothers' "Just Once in My Life," which not only tops the original but is among the Beach Boys' most sublime moments on record. Carl and Brian duet on the track and exhibit a remarkable emotional range in the space of four minutes; Carl's desperate "Baby, don't leave me" is spine-chilling, and it's in these interludes of confidence that it almost feels the way it used to.

Unfortunately, they just can't sustain something like that for fifteen tracks. Aside from the awful covers mentioned before, originals like Mike's ludicrous "Everyone's in Love with You," which perhaps might be impressive coming from a three year-old, and the unbearable "TM Song" (it's as cringey as "Cassius Love vs. Sonny Wilson," especially the fake arguing at the beginning) make the Beach Boys sound so out of date you wonder how prepared they ever would've been to court full-fledged commercial success after the '60s. 15 Big Ones isn't awful, nor is it that much more compromised than Sunflower; it's just that they can do so much better. Thankfully, they soon would.

***

[Altered version of a review posted in 2003.]

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