Sunday, October 9, 2016
The Beach Boys: Endless Harmony (1963-98)
Endless Harmony was a documentary about the Beach Boys produced in the late '90s; though not as informative or well-crafted as the contemporaneous A&E Biography episode about Brian and despite being named after one of the worst songs they ever released, it was certainly an improvement on the earlier band-sanctioned film The Beach Boys: An American Band, and in its generous gathering of archive footage and talking-head interviews with major figures, it served as sort of a smaller scale response to the massive ten-hour documentary The Beatles Anthology from 1995. So it goes with the accompanying album: an extraordinary set of Beach Boys rarities scratching the surface of their huge reservoir of great unreleased material. That it's just one disc rather than six hurts for fans but perversely makes it a surprisingly good, well-curated hour or so of Beach Boys music that can appeal to new or casual fans more easily than the Beatles' bootleg-thwarting alternate takes and such. Indeed, although only a tiny bit of it is newly recorded, it's likely the strongest collection of "new" material to come out of the Beach Boys since the '70s.
Still, a big reason to make the Beatles comparison is to address one of the stark central problems of the Beach Boys' recorded legacy in comparison with that of their peers, and this seems as good a place as any. Much like the Beatles consistently met the right people at the right time while the Beach Boys always met the wrong ones at the wrong time, the Beatles' output and the course of their career is marked by a quality that the Beach Boys never had: outstanding quality control. There's gobs of good unreleased Beatles stuff, some of it on Anthology and some not, but you almost always understand why they chose to release what got released and leave behind what got left behind. Take this same watchful eye over to L.A. watching over some Beach Boys sessions and your head might explode. Apart from a good run in the late '60s, nearly all of their albums feature at least one cut they should very well have been embarrassed to release, and up to around Dennis Wilson's death, in every phase of their story there's at least a half dozen examples of songs they deserved to be proud of that might even have been enormously successful but that were nevertheless left unfinished, or worse yet finished but not released until decades later.
Endless Harmony begins with one of the more eyebrow-raising examples. Preceded by a brief, tantalizing demo from Brian, the superb 1969 Sunflower outtake "Soulful Old Man Sunshine" (written with Rick Henn of the Sunrays) is an absolutely incredible, bubbly swing-derived production that never relents; it's about as blissful and engaging and beautifully sung (with Carl in the lead) as anything they ever released. Trying to imagine the decision-making process that led to it not making the album that's bogged down with the likes of "At My Window," "Tears in the Morning" and (sorry, Dennis) "It's About Time" can make your head explode. But even beyond that, imagine having this completed, irresistible song at your disposal as the potential first single from your brand new recording contract with a new label and choosing the draggy, tentative "Add Some Music to Your Day" instead. You think about it too much and you start to wonder how they even had a career for so long.
That of course is incidental to the pleasure of finally hearing "Soulful Old Man Sunshine," a stronger and more instantly appealing song than anything on most bands' greatest-hits collections, and so long as you don't catch yourself wondering how the fuck it isn't a world-famous bona fide classic you'll live. People already know about the legend of Smile, but Endless Harmony and the Good Vibrations box are likely the gateway for most new fans into the Beach Boys bootleg market and the huge quantity of head-spinningly great, often superior material left languishing for years (or in some cases, forever as of this writing) in the "vaults." The q.c. disconnect with the Beatles extends to the way the respective bands have handled the rolling out of this material over the years, too; the Anthology unleashed pretty much everything the relevant parties could agree to let out to the general public. For the Beach Boys, the gradual rollout of tiny little bits and scraps has now been going on in piecemeal fashion for more than twenty-five years, starting with the twofer bonuses and the boxed sets and then through archival releases and other oddball, deeply inconvenient places. You can hope for a more coherent overview someday but it will likely be in vain.
So, much as Anthology felt like a fan compilation of the "best of the bootlegs," Endless Harmony features Andrew Sandoval and his fellow compilers tracking down an hour-fifteen of obscure Beach Boys material that mostly is up to the quality standard of one of their better hits packages. Some of the indulgences have now dated a bit; the sound quality was a revelation at the time because it predated the later rounds of remasters, and the glistening stereo mixes of "Kiss Me Baby" and "California Girls" are now sort of old hat because most of the band's catalog has since been remixed. We don't learn much from the early live medley or the binaural "Surfer Girl," and the release of the whole Knebworth concert makes "Darlin'" here superfluous. You could complain about "Endless Harmony" itself being here, or about it being anywhere, and you could complain about being exposed to "Brian's Back," the catchiest most horrible most evil jingle in response to a family member's mental breakdown in recorded history courtesy of Mike (and a swooning Carl, who apparently was sort of a pushover if he agreed to this), but it is part of the band's history. A shameful part, but a part.
However, the rest of the unheard material is often staggering. Alternative studio takes of "Help Me Rhonda" and "Do it Again" are at least as interesting as the similar material from the twofers, while a ghostly extended mix of "Til I Die" tops the classic original. Brian's early "Break Away" is fascinating, but he really shines on a piano demo of "Heroes and Villains" (with fragments of "Barnyard" and "I'm in Great Shape"), with Van Dyke Parks providing animal noises, on which his enthusiasm is magnetic. The live stuff is magnificent, stretching from beautiful, minimalistic '60s rehearsals of "Good Vibrations" and "God Only Knows" (suggesting what the former might have sounded like if properly rearranged for Smiley Smile), the highlights being In Concert-era performances of "Heroes and Villains," "Long Promised Road" and a stunning, impassioned medley of "Wonderful" and the Flames' "Don't Worry Bill." (Our kingdom, seriously, for a whole boxed set of In Concert outtakes.)
That last cut and "Soulful Old Man Sunshine" alone would make this disc worth your time, but the other uncovered tracks don't deserve to slip through the cracks: the psychedelic "Sail Plane Song" and its "Loop de Loop" revision, completed just for this package, and Dennis' Bambu tour de force pair of "Barbara" and "All Alone" are all exemplary songs. This package deserves praise, especially coming out of an era when the band's catalog was being egregiously neglected, for treating the Beach Boys with respect and commercial wisdom without skirting over their eccentricities.