Review: The Beach Boys, “Made in California”
Rarely have five simple words in pop music held such promise. The message at the time was an invitation squarely aimed at teens: “If everybody had an ocean, across the USA/Then everybody’d be surfin’ like Califor-ni-a…” But ultimately, the promise and California dream embodied by Hawthorne, CA’s native sons came to mean so much more than mere surfin’. The sound of The Beach Boys – Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, David Marks, Bruce Johnston, Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar – has crossed generational and genre lines for over five decades. The group’s ocean of possibility has led to works of great beauty, joy, melancholy and triumph – in other words, the human experience. It’s not bad for a group who began in primitive fashion, marrying doo-wop vocalizations to a basic melody as they exhorted, “Surfin’ is the only life, the only way for me, now, surf, surf, with me!” The story of that band – from “Surfin’” to 2012’s Top 5 LP That’s Why God Made the Radio and beyond – is told on the new 6-CD box set Made in California (Capitol/UMe B0018509-02). “Box set” isn’t quite accurate, though – try “book set,” as Made in California is cleverly designed in the style of a high school yearbook, complete with inscriptions from Brian, Mike, Al, Bruce and David, advertisements from merchants of days gone by, articles including a high school essay written by Brian, and numerous photographs. In fact, the band’s (near-) entire story is told in their own words – including quotes from the late Dennis and Carl. (Emphasis on “near” as the yearbook skips from the early 1980s to the 2012 reunion!)
We’re goin’ to the beach right after the jump!
The new collection functions as both an update and expansion of 1993’s Good Vibrations: Thirty Years of the Beach Boys, which boasted 142 tracks over 5 CDs. Made in California takes in 174 tracks on 6 CDs, over 60 of which are previously unreleased. Of those 60, 17 are never-before-released live recordings and almost 20 are never-before-heard songs. The remaining “new” material consists of alternate takes, and mixes, backing tracks, and other miscellany. That said, hold onto your Good Vibrations box! Both sets follow the same template of blending big hits with rarities and session material, but their respective contents are substantially different. Some 38 tracks are missing from Good Vibrations’ first four core discs (“She Knows Me Too Well,” “Long Promised Road,” “Cool Cool Water,” “Can’t Wait Too Long” and “Still I Dream of It” are among the omissions), and most of that box’s fifth disc of session takes hasn’t been reprised. In their place, however, there are plenty of eye-opening tracks premiering here – plenty. And this is just the tip of the iceberg: even more outtakes and rough recordings still await official airing. The organization is simple enough: Discs 1-4 and the first half of Disc 5 tell the band’s story in chronological fashion. Disc 5 concludes with a sampling of live tracks recorded between 1965 and 1993, and Disc 6 rounds up odds and ends that didn’t quite fit onto the other discs.
So, though six CDs are a luxury, producers Mark Linett, Alan Boyd and Dennis Wolfe still faced an unenviable task in chronicling the history of this multi-faceted band into one cohesive whole. The surf-and-sun songs need to sit alongside the orchestral grandeur of Pet Sounds, the outré experimentation of SMiLE, the ragged rock and roll of Carl and the Passions – So Tough and the D.I.Y. whimsy of The Beach Boys Love You…and that only brings us to 1976! Much, too, has changed in the twenty years since Good Vibrations was released. Most notably, the original Beach Boys tapes for SMiLE were finally unveiled to the world, and the band reunited for a successful fiftieth anniversary tour and new album. 2012’s golden anniversary festivities might have ended in the kind of acrimony all too recognizable to longtime Beach Boys fans, but as always, the music is what remains. And that brings us to Made in California.
Though the first two discs cover the bases expected by casual fans of the band – the crème of the sixties surf songs (“Surfin’ Safari,” “Surfin’ USA”), car songs (“Little Deuce Coupe,” “I Get Around”) and all-time summer anthems (“Fun, Fun, Fun,” “California Girls”) – Linett, Boyd and Wolfe have woven in tantalizing nuggets and emphasized new or variant mixes over hit single versions. Session chatter precedes tracks such as “I Get Around,” “Surfers Rule” and “Graduation Day,” and many recently-created stereo mixes – with newfound fullness plus vocal and instrumental clarity – will perk up discerning ears.
There are oddities that aren’t frequently anthologized, like 2012 tour favorite “Ballad of Ole Betsy,” in which “raving beauty” Betsy “took some beatings but never once complained.” Thankfully, Roger Christian’s lyric is about a car, but Brian sings it against a backdrop of lush group harmony with the same beauty, ardor and tear in his voice he would direct at a loved one. In this sense, “Ballad of Ole Betsy” feels like a perfect companion to “Don’t Worry, Baby” (with another Christian lyric) which follows just a few tracks later. So persuasive is Brian’s fragile lead, the gorgeously aching melody, lush harmonies and Spector-styled track that you could be forgiven today for forgetting it’s a song about a drag race!
Then there’s the astonishing sequence of Brian Wilson/Mike Love songs that represent the zenith of the cousins’ partnership. “The Warmth of the Sun,” written in the wake of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, is an affirmative and powerful ballad of comfort (“I have the warmth of the sun within me at night…”) about a specific subject – young love, again – but rendered in such a shimmering, poetic and sensitive setting as to attain universality. If Wilson’s raw emotionalism inspired Love on “Warmth,” Love’s swagger as a vocalist and lyricist never brought out a more rip-roaring sensibility in Wilson than on “I Get Around.” “All Summer Long” is even more evocative, a sweet and carefree two minutes of escapism. But it’s tempered with a wistful edge: “Won’t be long ‘til summertime is through…” “Not for us now!” comes the bright response, even though this summer will inevitably fade into the same recesses of memory where the song begins (“Remember when I spilled coke all over your blouse?” and so on.) “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man)” looks forward to the explorations of Pet Sounds, while, like “All Summer Long,” acknowledging the ephemeral, ever-changing nature of it all. The melodies and arrangements were by now routinely defying Top 40 convention, as Brian Wilson was evolving as a composer at a pace exceeding that of even his most talented contemporaries. Love and Wilson, not to mention Dennis, Carl and Al, were for a brief time on the same remarkable page, their work precisely attuned to listeners of their own generation but poised for immortality.
Of course, it couldn’t last. Comparatively lesser-known songs like “Please Let Me Wonder,” “In the Back of My Mind” and “Let Him Run Wild” (the latter of which was written in homage to Burt Bacharach but sounds only, dazzlingly, like the work of Brian Wilson) show Wilson transitioning from sun ‘n’ fun and setting the stage for Pet Sounds. That roughly 35-minute opus, of course, couldn’t be represented in full, and so it’s been distilled to five tracks: “Sloop John B,” “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” “Caroline No,” and perhaps the greatest song ever composed by Wilson, “God Only Knows.” Of course, Wilson couldn’t have done it without the lyrical contributions of Tony Asher, who created a series of indelible lyrical images reflecting on the entire spectrum of adolescence.
With the sonically groundbreaking chart-topper “Good Vibrations” as the bridge, Made in California then segues to tracks from SMiLE, and they’re still wild, weird and wonderful in this context. The Brian Wilson/Van Dyke Parks collaborations have become more familiar in the years since the Good Vibrations box, thanks to the journey from 2004’s solo Brian Wilson Presents SMiLE to 2011’s Grammy-winning Beach Boys box set The SMiLE Sessions. And SMiLE is best experienced as a whole, in which the recurring melodic, lyrical and orchestral motifs can be more fully digested. But the selections here – including a previously unissued stereo mix of the poignant, wordless “Our Prayer” – emphasize the versatility of the compositions. “The Elements: Fire (Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow)” is as frightening as “Wind Chimes” is ravishing, and “Vega-Tables” is as kooky as “Cabin Essence” is cinematically sprawling. There was never music like SMiLE before, and there still hasn’t been since. On Good Vibrations, however, the material from the then-lost album stole the show, as much of it was being released for the very first time. On Made in California, it’s but one chapter of a larger story.
Post-SMiLE, The Beach Boys became a different, more democratic band. Youngest brother Carl came into his own as both one of the great blue-eyed soul vocalists in rock and also as a songwriter and producer. Middle brother Dennis pursued his own doggedly individualistic path, betraying his good-time image to create some of the most complex, adult and melancholy “post-Brian” music recorded by The Boys. Love, Jardine, Bruce Johnston (who joined the band in 1965, in time to sing on “California Girls”) and new recruits Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar (whose stints in the band lasted from 1972 to 1973 for Chaplin and 1974 for Fataar) all made substantial contributions to keeping the summer alive.
The third disc of Made in California begins the Beach Boys story that is still being written today, of a band frequently at odds with itself, challenging notions from both inside and outside the band of what “The Beach Boys” should be. But as the band rarely recorded a completely uninteresting album – 1992’s sole Brian Wilson-less long-player Summer in Paradise would seem to fit that description, as the compilers haven’t included a single track from it – there’s a great deal of exceptional music to explore. (In fairness, Carl’s vocal on “Under the Boardwalk” from Summer might have warranted inclusion.) Great as the early hits are, Made in California hits its stride on Discs 3-5. The compilation gets stronger with each disc, which is somewhat ironic because many of the albums represented never quite cohered. Here’s the chance for those LPs to be reexamined; Disc 3 covers the period through 1970’s Sunflower, with Disc 4 kicking off with Surf’s Up (1971).
Did The Beach Boys ever sound more intimate than on the elegiac “Meant for You” or the laconic “Friends” (the former of which is presented in a previously unissued alternate mix)? “Busy Doin’ Nothin’” is another highlight, perhaps the most deliciously offbeat bossa nova ever written. “Break Away,” included in its superior alternate version which first appeared on 2001’s Hawthorne, CA, should have built on the success of “Do It Again.” Co-written by Brian and his father Murry, it’s infectious, adventurous pop with surprisingly dark and introspective lyrics that still manage to embrace the light. As The Beach Boys finished out their Capitol Records tenure before decamping to Warner Bros. for Sunflower, they flirted with R&B (the Wild Honey album) psychedelia (“Sail Plane Song”), and folk and oldies revivals (“Cotton Fields,” Carl Wilson’s superb production of “I Can Hear Music”).
Sunflower – ironically The Beach Boys’ lowest-charting album to date (No. 151) marked the beginning of a new decade and a new sound for the group. The band was working together harmoniously to create an album of rock-oriented productions from a variety of voices. It was their most organic in years, and a step away from the spare recordings that dominated their most recent albums. The same year, Dennis teamed with Daryl Dragon – the future Captain, of Captain and Tennille fame – for a European 45 RPM release credited to Dennis Wilson and Rumbo. Though the baroque “Lady,” a.k.a. “Fallin’ in Love” first appeared on CD in 2009 in a new stereo mix, the single’s rocking other side “Sound of Free” (co-written by Dennis and Mike Love) makes its debut here in its original mono single version. In one of the box set’s few truly puzzling choices, the compilers missed the chance to premiere “Fallin’ in Love” on CD in mono, opting again for the stereo remix.
The restlessly creative 1970s proved a decade of ups and downs – sometimes on the very same album – and also established the band as purveyors of sun-drenched nostalgia. Before 1974’s Endless Summer began its 155-week stay on the Billboard chart, on which it peaked at No. 1, The Beach Boys rocked like never before. “Marcella,” “Sail On Sailor,” and “The Trader” all showcased a reinvented sound. The band ventured into lysergic territory with Carl’s hypnotic “Feel Flows” featuring jazz great Charles Lloyd on flute. Unlike most of the trippy Smiley Smile, “Feel Flows” found beauty in its far-out grooves. Nostalgia was always part of the equation, of course; Made in California finds room, too, for Al Jardine’s sprightly “California Saga (On My Way to Sunny Californ-i-a)” and, naturally, Bruce Johnston’s warm “Disney Girls (1957).” But the anything-goes spirit seemed to taper off after 1974 and Endless Summer.
Rounding out the seventies, selections appear from 15 Big Ones (an all-new mix of the Mike-led “Rock and Roll Music” with a previously unheard verse, and an alternate of Mike and Brian’s bouncy “It’s OK”), The Beach Boys Love You (Brian’s loopy D.I.Y. “Solar System” and impossibly stunning, atypical-of-the-era “The Night Was So Young”), the still-unissued Adult Child (the lounge-y “It’s Over Now”), M.I.U. (Al’s hit revival of “Come Go with Me”), and L.A. (Light Album) (Brian and Carl’s lush throwback “Good Timin’,” the Carl-written and Dennis-sung “Angel Come Home” and Dennis-written, Carl and Dennis-sung “Baby Blue”). The rare single “It’s a Beautiful Day” from the Americathon soundtrack appears in a sparkling new mix.
The fifth disc of Made in California quickly surveys the Boys’ officially-released material from 1980 on, excerpting just one song from Keepin’ the Summer Alive (“Goin’ On,” with obligatory Big ‘80s sax solo), one from 1985’s Steve Levine-produced The Beach Boys (Mike and Terry Melcher’s catchy “Getcha Back”) and one from compilation Made in U.S.A. (a Melcher-helmed cover of “California Dreamin’”) before getting to the inevitable comeback single “Kokomo” and finally, two tracks from 2012’s That’s Why God Made the Radio. But four songs make their first appearances here (more on those soon) and the disc concludes with a sampling of eleven live tracks recorded between 1965 and 1993, most newly mixed by Mark Linett. The placement of these live recordings as mere half of one disc renders them essentially an afterthought, but they make the case that a box set or anthology of live music might be a project worth Brother Records’ consideration. Best of all, Linett, Boyd and Wolfe have selected songs you aren’t likely to hear at a typical Beach Boys gig, such as “All I Want to Do,” “Only with You,” “It’s About Time,” “Wild Honey” and “Summer in Paradise,” the latter representing the 1993 album of the same name. Another wonderful inclusion, Dennis and Stephen Kalinich’s “Little Bird” from Chicago in 1968, has recently been rediscovered on Brian Wilson’s latest solo tour, sung and played by David Marks. The live set also includes a rare Dennis lead on “Help Me, Rhonda,” and Blondie Chaplin tearing into “Wild Honey.”
The most revelatory tracks, needless to say, are the studio outtakes appearing for the first time. These songs, never commercially released and many never even bootlegged, are spread over the first five discs as well as the From the Vaults compilation on Disc Six, and include some of the most coveted recordings from the Brother archives.
Fans will know the bucolic Brian Wilson/Bob Norberg song “Back Home” (“I’m goin’ back this summer to Ohio/To seek out all my friends I’ve always known/I’m goin’ back to that farm that I remember/Well, I’m gonna spend this summer back home!”) from 1976’s 15 Big Ones, but Made in California unearths Brian’s prime, dense Wall of Sound-esque production, complete with honking saxophone, recorded in 1963. Al delivered a spot-on vocal and his own new lyrics for a second recording of the song, made in 1970 during the Sunflower sessions, and you can hear that for comparison’s sake, too.
And it’s not the only Phil Spector homage here. Brian’s 1980 duet with Mike on Spector, Jeff Barry and Ellie Greenwich’s “Why Don’t They Let Us Fall in Love” is rough around the edges but charming, and has the same doo-wop bass vocal style that will recur on Brian and Andy Paley’s 1995 recording of “Soul Searchin’.” Producer Bruce Johnston even got into the Spector act with a 1979 take on Spector, Barry and Greenwich’s “Da Doo Ron Ron” so terrifically sung by Carl. And the crown jewel is Brian’s 1976 Beach Boys Love You outtake “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” Sure, he isn’t at his vocal peak, and one can only imagine what a younger Brian plus the full forces of the Wrecking Crew would have sounded like on the Spector/Barry Mann/Cynthia Weil song. But Brian’s one-man Righteous Brothers act has emotional resonance as he takes the famously grandiose production and strips it down to its essence.
There are also other previously unreleased Brian songs sure to get the heart racing. “Where is She?” is, put simply, a major find. A darkly beautiful baroque composition with a showcase for Brian’s still-impressive falsetto, it was recorded in 1969 during sessions for Sunflower. “I Believe in Miracles” is a vocal fragment from 1967 with a definite SMiLE feel to it. From a decade later comes the instrumental track “Why,” a snapshot of Brian channeling his sixties sound in lo-fi fashion on the keyboard. These are enticing snippets, for sure. Another long in-progress song is “Sherry, She Needs Me,” finally released by Brian in 1998 on his Imagination album as “She Says That She Needs Me.” On Made in California, you’ll hear the original 1965 backing track (intended as “Sandy”) with Brian’s 1976 vocals added during the Love You sessions.
“Soul Searchin’” and “You’re Still a Mystery” were recorded in 1995 by The Beach Boys, and it’s a revelation to hear these oft-bootlegged tracks in such pristine completed versions. These abortive sessions produced by Brian, Don Was and Andy Paley didn’t lead to a full Beach Boys album from the fractured group, but it’s clear that the quality of the material had nothing to do with the decision not to continue with the project. Carl’s passionate vocal on “Soul Searchin’” was utilized by Brian Wilson on his solo version of the song for his Gettin’ In Over My Head album, and the song has also had a further life as covered by the late Solomon Burke. But there’s magic in hearing the full power of The Beach Boys on the R&B track. “You’re Still a Mystery,” with a lead from Brian, successfully channels the style of Pet Sounds with its vocal harmony, guitar and percussion sounds. Sharp-eared listeners will notice variations on both tracks from the bootlegged originals.
Like “Soul Searchin’,” Brian Wilson re-recorded his “California Feelin’,” co-written with poet and lyricist Stephen Kalinich, as a solo track. On Made in California, you’ll hear the earnest and low-key ode to the Golden State in its 1978 recording sung by Brian, Carl and Bruce as well as in Brian’s very rough 1974 piano-and-voice demo. The harmony eruption on the title phrase in the studio version is worth the price of admission. Another California celebration premiering here is Mike Love’s spirited “Goin’ to the Beach,” recorded during the 1979 sessions for Keepin’ the Summer Alive. It typifies Love’s belief of what Beach Boys audiences want: sun, surf, and fun, fun, fun.
Then there’s a treasure trove for Dennis Wilson fans, including the single most exciting find here: Dennis Wilson and co-writer Stanley Shapiro’s never-leaked Surf’s Up outtake “(Wouldn’t It Be Nice To) Live Again.” The haunting 1971 recording – four-and-a-half minutes of majestic melancholy sung from the heart – is sonically of a piece with Dennis’ solo masterwork Pacific Ocean Blue. It’s a supremely sad track that turns one of The Beach Boys’ most famously upbeat song titles and concepts on its head. The older and wiser singer asks, “Who ever said that love could die?/Who ever said the very first lie?/Who ever said goodbye?/Tell me, who ever said a man can’t cry?” before declaring, “I know I can cry/And we’ll live our life alone and I know it’s all right…it’s all right…” The song cedes from a dark, dense rock setting to a jazz-inflected jam, and is a potent reminder of just how much Dennis Wilson had developed as a composer, singer and arranger. So is “My Love Lives On,” written by Dennis and Kalinich. Dennis’ voice sounds more ravaged even by the time of this 1974 recording, but it’s piercing and powerful in this piano-and-voice only performance. The instrumental track to Dennis and Kalinich’s “Mona Kana” (circa 20/20) is a brass-and-strings orchestral tour de force that has the same unsettling yet spellbinding atmosphere as much of SMiLE. A true oddity is another 1974 track, “Barnyard Blues,” written by Dennis and sung by Dennis, Carl and Ricky Fataar, again evoking SMiLE. Had Dennis’ own demons been in check, he might have led the Beach Boys down a very different path in the absence of Brother Brian. Another compendium of his work – following the amazing expansion of Pacific Ocean Blue by Legacy Recordings – is long overdue.
Diehards will salivate over most of the material on Disc Six, the “odds and sods” portion of the box set. The Stack-o-Tracks instrumental treatment (with backing vocals) allows the intricacies of “Guess I’m Dumb” – Brian’s crowning 1965 production for Glen Campbell – to shine, while the Stack-o-Vocals-style a cappella mixes of Dennis’ “Slip On Through” and Brian’s “This Whole World” are mind-blowing. “California Girls” and “Help Me, Rhonda” (rewritten as “Help You, Rhonda”) are stripped down to their basics in spare, fascinating 1967 studio versions prepared for the scrapped Lei’d in Hawaii album. Love likely has never sung “California Girls” so quietly as on this rare recording, and “Rhonda” takes on a new, funky vibe.
Though Made in California has the feeling of a victory lap, it’s clear that the story of The Beach Boys is far from over. Though Brian, Mike, Al and Bruce have passed their 70th birthdays and exceeded 50 years making music, they show few signs of slowing down. And there’s still enough material in the vaults to warrant future archival efforts; in his liner notes, producer Linett remarks, “This career-spanning box contains nearly 200 tracks and could easily have included another hundred.” Some might lament what’s not on this set, but Made in California was never intended as a rarities-only box. The inclusion of “(Wouldn’t It Be Nice To) Live Again,” “Where is She?,” “Soul Searchin’,” “You’re Still a Mystery,” “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” and so many others in such an intelligently-curated and presented set is a rare treat, indeed. As an extra bonus for collectors, the box set also rounds up the exclusive odds and ends from The SMiLE Sessions’ 2-CD version and debuts on CD the tracks from the box set’s vinyl component. Plus, the handful of exclusive stereo mixes on last year’s 2-CD 50 Big Ones compilation also appear here, such as “Darlin’,” with its horn parts able to be heard anew.
This beautifully-designed set (compliments of Rachel Gutek and Mark London), remastered by Linett, is clearly aimed at those fans wanting to experience “the big picture” of The Beach Boys. For casual listeners, 50 Big Ones will prove more than enough. But Made in California improves upon its predecessor Good Vibrations and sets a high standard for the inevitable future anthologies of the group’s 50+ years of musical harmony. The yearbook packaging intentionally evokes nostalgia, but the rewards of the more outré and previously unreleased material are immediate, and all of the music timeless. During the hours it will take you to immerse yourself in the treasures of Made in California, there are no heroes and villains – just good, good, good vibrations.
You can order Made in California by clicking on the images of the set, above!