Sunday, October 9, 2016
The Beach Boys: Sounds of Summer (1962-88)
It's not quite comparable to Rubber Soul giving rise to Pet Sounds which begat Sgt. Pepper, but the complex give and take between the Beatles and the Beach Boys continued long after either band ceased to be a functioning unit. While the Beach Boys were supposedly solidifying and standardizing their complex back catalog during a rollout of reissues and compilations from 1999 to 2001, the Beatles singles compilation 1 hit and was an unexpected monster success, scoring new multiplatinum numbers on a body of work the label had already been mining for decades. Similar all-encompassing greatest hits sets for Elvis Presley and the Rolling Stones (and, well, Wings) followed, heavily advertised on TV and designed to renew the respective artists' places on the charts and in the public consciousness. Particularly because they shared the Beatles' label, it was inevitable that Capitol would cash in on their other huge property, the Beach Boys' classic hits, in a similar manner.
The resulting disc, Sounds of Summer, stands out from earlier greatest hits packages in the sense that it not only purports to be a definitive collection of the band's work for casual fans but it actually accomplishes that. Thirty songs isn't really nearly enough space to more than scratch the surface of the Beach Boys' most beloved material, but by confining the focus to songs that charted in the top forty, the collection can make some claim to being "complete" after a fashion. As a listening experience it's nearly as successful as Endless Summer but thanks to the qualifying criterion for entry it's generous and impressive on rational and specific rather than hazy, emotional grounds.
The feeling of being overwhelmed by the sheer number of gigantic hits here, one after another after another, is welcome even for seasoned fans, tempered only by the insistence on including the handful of semi-successful post-Capitol singles; while it's nice that they ("Getcha Back," "Come Go with Me" and "Rock and Roll Music") are carefully stacked together in the middle of the sequence with the exception of "Good Timin'" and "Kokomo" (an inevitable inclusion given the product's aims), it's impossibly jarring to exit "Wouldn't It Be Nice" only to be sent directly into the dregs of "Getcha Back" with its icky, leering lyric and horribly canned sound. The two covers are worse. "Good Timin'" is the best track from the '70s or '80s to find a place here, which is depressing since it barely qualifies as a half-decent song. Except for "Kokomo," it seems the more logical choice would have been to ignore the later material altogether, or to give it a compilation of its own. (Sounds of Summer did get a sequel several years later, The Warmth of the Sun, but it went in a different direction.)
The rest of this material is infallible, and with complicated rights issues no longer separating the discography, it's terrific to hear the Pet Sounds, Wild Honey and 20/20 material joined up with the Endless Summer masterpieces. Eight out of twenty cuts from that finest of Beach Boys compilations are missing from this one, two of which ("Wendy" and "Girls on the Beach") not many people are likely to miss; although the absence of "Let Him Run Wild," "The Warmth of the Sun," "You're So Good to Me" and "Catch a Wave" hurts the vibe a bit, Sounds of Summer has one big leg up on its older sibling: the presence of "Good Vibrations," a psychedelic anthem that with its entrance into the pantheon now seems to define summer as perfectly as "California Girls." Even with the top-40 restriction and the darker, more soulful late '60s material, the Beach Boys' canon attains some dreamlike cohesion as a summertime concept record.
The notion behind 1, Forty Licks and the Elvis 30 #1 Hits sets was to rebuild the idea of consensus music: you put these on at a party and everyone's hearing music they love, and a whole lot of it. Indeed, it's difficult to imagine anyone raising many objections to most of these songs, the likes of "Surfer Girl" being among the few rock songs with a universal appeal, a simplicity and elegance to which most of us can relate. Even if this is only a one-sided sampling of a multifaceted artist, it's a more complete than usual (for a single disc) overview of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys' progression throughout the '60s and the more optimistic, muscular and populist side of their legacy.
Unfortunately, perhaps because of length, the album isn't quite a complete set of Beach Boys top 40 hits. It's missing two; the absence of "It's OK," a pretty good and very catchy Mike Love-led tune from 1976, is forgivable except insofar as it's a much better sampling of Brian Wilson's brief resurgence as a producer of hit records than the draggy "Rock and Roll Music." But given that there are more than three minutes to spare on the disc, the omission of "The Little Girl I Once Knew" -- a top twenty hit in 1965 and a non-LP Beach Boys hit that's never been compiled in a space really worthy of it outside of the boxed set and the Today!/Summer Days twofer -- is hard to look past. One can also bristle at the use of stereo mixes, many of them newly created for this collection. Some are OK, some ("Shut Down") aren't, but the larger point is that the stereo versions of these songs are not the "hits," and moreover that the historical revisionism is rendered harsher by the fact that mixes created long after the fact frequently have major imperfections and differences when compared with the canonical versions, like the missing Brian vocal line before the tag of "God Only Knows." It's fine for these new stereo mixes to exist out in the world, but not fine -- and contrary to the original intentions behind their existence, frankly -- for them to "replace" the original mono mixes as the "real" songs in the public mind.
But apparently we've lost that battle, and the sound quality is at least very good. Needless to say, a new fan isn't likely to care about that, nor is a non-obsessive one. If you're looking for the best way to get a fairly complete set of the Beach Boys songs most people remember most fondly, the hits you know with a welcome hint of something more, this is probably the one to load up. Without the potentially off-putting size of 50 Big Ones or the various limitations of the other hits sets, it will satisfy most listeners and might even be the only Beach Boys record a lot of people will ever need to play (or own, if they still do that). But I hope the hints of deeper things on "In My Room" and "Sloop John B," or the unexpected depth and enthusiasm of "Wild Honey," "Darlin'" and "I Can Hear Music" are enough to start people off on a deeper exploration. Even if it doesn't, singles were and always will be the real essence of the Beach Boys, and these records will live longer than any of us.