Sunday, October 9, 2016
The Beach Boys: Good Vibrations - Thirty Years of the Beach Boys (1961-88)
The CD era with its high-capacity discs brought forth a new way for labels to rake in some cash while recycling older catalog material; by and large, boxed sets are a pet peeve for many because, apart from things like Miles Davis session boxes and "complete recordings" packages, they seem to cater to a nonexistent audience -- the person hardcore enough to want to spend a good deal of money (in the pre-streaming era, at least) on three or more discs of material, but casual enough that they still need the introductory package of career-spanning selections in lieu of the actual relevant albums and such. There's a reason the trend took off mostly under Christmas trees. There were exceptions, however, and with a complicated discography with lots of hit-and-miss albums but also a more gargantuan number of hits and classics than could fit on a reasonably sized compilation, the Beach Boys are the ideal band for the (now largely dead) format if anyone is. And unlike the many greatest hits packages put together for the Beach Boys over the years, the 1993 set Good Vibrations is well-balanced enough to provide a sampling of every significant period in the band's lengthy career; it's ideal for listeners who like the band already and want all of the best-known songs but are looking to branch out a bit as well. Now that you can listen to it on Spotify and the like (the beautiful physical version, which I really think is worth owning, is out of print but fairly affordable), its utility is even greater.
Even if one has almost everything, this set remains valuable, first of all because of its excellent gathering of unreleased material (they even dug up a decent outtake from MIU Album); it's almost as persuasive an introduction to Beach Boys bootlegs as it is to their catalog. But on top of that, to date Good Vibrations is the only compilation of any kind that can seriously claim to having "all" the hits; with the exception of the execrable "Beach Boys Medley" and the Fat Boys guest shot "Wipe Out," every song the band placed on the top forty in America is here. (International hits like "Lady Lynda" and "Tears in the Morning" are absent, alas.) Even more importantly, all of the Beach Boys' classic singles through 1967 are presented in mono -- and they sound magnificent -- which means that the first two discs here are genuinely the best place to take the journey of tracking Brian Wilson's evolution as an artist, from bashing out "Surfin' U.S.A." alone on a piano to crafting hit after hit after hit on the first disc to orchestrating the increasingly elaborate arrangements and 45rpm sonic miracles on the 1965-66 material on the second, peaking with Pet Sounds, "Good Vibrations" and Smile -- a half hour of the raw materials from which is finally given official release here, in what (apart from an indulgent, meandering set of "Heroes and Villains" - "Do You Like Worms" outtakes) remains the most enjoyable compilation of the very flawed material from those sessions.
One piece of that story tracking Brian at his impossibly youthful peak finally finds its definitive home here. "The Little Girl I Once Knew" can be heard as setting the stage for Pet Sounds with its sparkling instrumentation, elaborate vocal arrangement and genuine strangeness; the seconds of silence before each chorus add immeasurable drama to what's already an intense, exciting record. The song stalled at a fairly low placement on the charts and gives the first indication that Brian was pulling ahead of what had been almost a built-in audience for his creative work. Capturing the Beach Boys at the threshold of their most brilliant moments on record, it sounds despite its simple boy-girl lyric like a conscious attempt to capture how it feels to be steeled and focused on the unknown future ahead. Though the flow is interrupted by the inevitable "Barbara Ann," and an abridgement of Pet Sounds is bound to satisfy no one, this story has never been told in a more convincing, linear way than on these discs.
The band's eclecticism is surprising even on the earliest material; on disc one they swing effortlessly from the beautiful fragment "Little Surfer Girl" to jazz standards "Their Hearts Were Full of Spring" and "Things We Did Last Summer," all among classics like "409" and "Surfin' U.S.A." Later, they contribute a winning, funny take on "Ruby Baby" before flying into the depths of the Smile vault. The highlights are original complete takes of "Wind Chimes" and "Wonderful" that burst with warmth, romance, and clarity, and a startling solo piano version of "Surf's Up." The beauty of "Wind Chimes" -- "Now and then, a tear rolls off my cheek" -- and "Wonderful," with their playfully mysterious lyrics and sensual melodies, is undeniable, and they're among the most assured and gloriously perfect pop recordings you are likely to hear. Such elegance became rare in the increasingly elaborate Smile sessions, which eventually collapsed at the eleventh hour; the album was never finished or released, and the conventional wisdom has long been that the evolution of the Beach Boys ended at that point.
But we don't really hear the Beach Boys imploding. We just hear them moving in another direction across the third and part of the fourth discs of this set. It's true that Smiley Smile is radically different from the orchestrated "teenage symphony to God" that Smile was meant to be, but Brian's own impulse that a more pared-down (but not necessarily "simpler") take on some of these songs would be more fitting for the Beach Boys was undoubtedly correct. It's interesting to note that what was left pointedly behind was either fragmentary or almost painfully verbose, and Van Dyke Parks' pretentious lyrics on "Cabin Essence" and "Surf's Up," however much I love both of them musically, never sounded like they completely scanned to me, especially coming out of the Beach Boys' mouths; obviously this is a minority view among big fans of Brian and the group. Though it generated some incredibly inventive music, Smile still feels like a directionless failure to me, which again seems to have been a primary reason it was dropped. That's part of the lie -- Smile was left in the void because Brian and the band weren't happy with it and they started doing something else (something even stranger, initially) instead. The other part is that the Beach Boys remained an interesting, vital, even wonderful band for many years following that debacle.
I bring this up because a crucial part of the Smile mystique is the notion that the band stagnated after it was abandoned. That's why the third disc of Good Vibrations is the real gift; from the swooning beauty of "Can't Wait Too Long" to the erotic charge of Dennis' "San Miguel," it investigates the period in the Beach Boys' history most ripe for discovery, from the underrated Smiley Smile to the hardened resignation of Surf's Up through undeservedly forgotten singles, album tracks, and some astonishing unreleased material -- two new discoveries from Brian Wilson, "Games Two Can Play" and "I Just Got My Pay," are particularly potent in establishing his darkening mindset and increased focus on humor, always a big part of the Beach Boys' appeal but frequently ignored when compilers and biographers go to work, and impossible to ignore by the time of Mt. Vernon and Fairway (here presented without its narration), Love You and the unreleased health food store jingle "H.E.L.P. Is on the Way." The typically uncollected single "Break Away," a flop in the waning days of the Capitol contract but an incredibly engaging, beautiful record (cowritten by Murry Wilson!), seems to describe a mental breakdown and thus feels of a piece with the buried pain in a lot of Brian's often absurdist work from this period. All the while, the Beach Boys and especially Carl and Dennis step into the blank spaces left by Brian as they become a more democratic unit and prove their mettle, first as appealingly eccentric architects of ethereal, idiosyncratic pop in the studio and then as a properly functioning rock band with traces of weed-stoked soul. With every single or double-disc collection of the Brother Records years to date having been a failure, this disc of the box is an ideal summation of a complex period, and frankly one of the best and most truly representative hours of Beach Boys music in existence.
Disc four, on the other hand, is uneven because the final two decades of the band's career are uneven; it begins beautifully with the Blondie Chaplin/Ricky Fataar-era material, omitting any evidence of the brilliant live band they'd become by that point, before descending into "Rock and Roll Music" and a few of the salvageable tracks from the abortive 15 Big Ones. Nonetheless, the six cuts that follow are a highlight of the entire box. High enough praise cannot be lent for the two heretofore unheard cuts from the unreleased, Brian-produced semi-big band record Adult Child. "It's Over Now" and "Still I Dream of It" are two of the saddest, most beautiful songs he has ever written, unfiltered and bruising. Four spot-on selections from the last great Brian Wilson album Love You follow, but then the box becomes a document of demise. "Come Go with Me" is the only track included from MIU Album; "Baby Blue" and "Good Timin'" are hard to seriously dispute, but "Goin' On" and "Getcha Back" are featured strictly by necessity, with the '80s albums otherwise (and, for the most part, deservedly) ignored. The end of the disc does a semi-nice job of skirting the band's failings in their declining years ("Kokomo" is buried at the end and there's nothing from Summer in Paradise), but it could have done better, for instance by emphasizing Carl's work on the last few records, the only material that really redeemed the band after Light Album.
Rounding out the set is a disc consisting entirely of unreleased material that comes off mostly like an unfocused bootleg. It has a nice demo of "In My Room" and some fascinating instrumental tracks and session material, and its survey of the "God Only Knows" tracking session in particular probably gave rise specifically to the Pet Sounds Sessions box a few years later. Otherwise it wastes time with unnecessary radio spots, "separated" mixes (with vocals on the left and instruments on the right) of a few hits, and some scattershot live material. This supposed draw for fanatics is probably the box's weak spot, but it is, after all, a "bonus disc."
There are other big flaws to Good Vibrations; the liner notes aren't great, some aspects of the design are dated, and you can carp endlessly about the exclusion of certain songs. I personally miss "All I Wanna Do" from Sunflower and truly can't comprehend the skirting past Summer Days -- "Girl Don't Tell Me," "Let Him Run Wild" (apparently left off at Brian's insistence, as he disliked his vocal) and "You're So Good to Me" are arguably the three best songs in the catalog not to make an appearance, and it feels especially strange since they are all on the twenty-track Endless Summer, moreover that the tepid if enthusiastic cover of "Then He Kissed Me" stands in their place. All this is excusable, of course.
If I can briefly get personal here, the day this box came in the mail was a watershed moment for me. I'd rediscovered the Beach Boys in late 1997 and gradually became more and more fascinated, first with Smile and then with the catalog as a whole, until by the time I turned 17 I was full-on obsessed, but it was a few months before I could afford to get my own copy of this set, especially with the reissued twofers I wanted to hear around the same time. When it showed up at the post office and I opened it and saw that shiny booklet, I understood for the first time the sheer excitement described by so many upon finding With the Beatles or whatnot under the Christmas tree in 1963. The excitement didn't dissipate when I played the discs; the handclap instrumental break in "Catch a Wave," so huge-sounding in the mono mix I'd never previously heard, set me to an almost fevered joy. I remember sitting on our back porch listening to the third disc and coming to know new sides to this band I so loved (I had heard most, possibly all, of the albums as a child thanks to my brother, but it had often been well over a decade since I'd listened to them) and feeling like I was in the eye of a hurricane, that all chaos in my life couldn't affect my relationship with this band and this music. I like to think an immaculately judged, generous collection like this can still have such an effect on others, and now you don't have to lay down $70 to hear it. If you've heard Endless Summer and Pet Sounds, head here next.
[Expanded from a review first posted in 2003.]