Note: Some people really don’t like the Beach Boys. Rolling Stone ranked one of their albums (Pet Sounds) #2 in their list of the 500 best albums of all time (#1 was this one), but a lot of people don’t like any of their albums. One of them is my good friend Monkey Bunghole, who’s been commenting on the Hymie’s blog since the beginning (bitch). He’ll probably love this post because it’s not about how good the Beach Boys are, it’s about how bad some of their songs are. Or if not bad just weird – not fun weird, but dumb weird.
Step right up, step right up…see the fantastic and amazing freaks, the songs by a band that also recorded the second best album ever that couldn’t possibly be by the band that recorded the second best album ever, the monsters of their family tree.
Judging from the collections that people bring into the shop to sell it seems absolutely everybody who bought records in the 70s owned a copy of Endless Summer. Everybody loves the pre-Pet Sounds Beach Boys hits (my favorite it “Don’t Worry Baby”). People either don’t like the post-Pet Sounds albums and that’s why you don’t see them in record shops anymore or, more likely, they survive every culling of the record collection because they’re pretty good.
One of the distinguishing characteristics of Pet Sounds is its two instrumental numbers. “Let’s Go Away for a While” is brief, lush and almost dreamlike. “Pet Sounds”, on the other hand, is jaunty and evocative. I’ve hard Brian Wilson hoped it would become a James Bond theme, but I don’t know if that’s true. Perhaps it’s merely the absence of lyrics, but “Pet Sounds” provides the album’s most light-hearted, fun moments, something so casually central to everything the Beach Boys had hitherto recorded. The unique percussion sound in “Pet Sounds” is, I have just learned, a studio drummer Ritchie Frost playing a couple empty coke cans.
Instrumentals appear on several Beach Boys albums in the following years, notably Smiley Smile, where “Fall Breaks and Back to Winter (W. Woodpecker Symphony)” seems to be an attempt to recreate the spontaneity and levity of “Pet Sounds”. Unfortunately, the new instrumental sounds more like an interlude from the Addams Family or the soundtrack to a cotton candy-induced carnival nightmare, and instead of helping build the album’s sense of grandeur, as the instrumentals on Pet Sounds had, it reinforces the overbearing sense of uncertainty and doom that pervades Smiley Smile.
(“Fall Breaks and Back to Winter”)
The most well-known silly song on Smiley Smile is the second, “Vegetables”. This song uses the sound of raw vegetable chewing as percussion. Paul McCartney joined the Beach Boys in the studio to masticate a little.
An unused passage from “Vegetables” appeared at the end of the next Beach Boys album, Wild Honey.“Mama Says” is just one of several Smile-sessions orphans to end up closing a later Beach Boys album. Wild Honey, clocking in under twenty-four minutes, is the shortest Beach Boys album, and when you take out the minute wasted on “Mama Says” the entire record is shorter than a single side of the Beatles’ White Album, suggesting a creative dearth.
A few years (and a few unsuccessful albums) later, the Beach Boys revived another Smile track, the long-awaited, mysterious “Surf’s Up”. The 1971 album of the same name – still my favorite of their records – also included another bit of matronly advice – “Take a Load off Your Feet”, an Al Jardine song inspired by a friend’s pregnant wife complaining about her aching ankles.
(“Take a Load off your Feet”)
I bought a copy of Surf’s Up years ago not for the famous title track by Brian Wilson but for a song by his brother Carl, “Feel Flows”. You may remember it as the song playing in the end credits of Almost Famous. That’s probably why I bought the album. Carl had been recently appointed the band’s musical manager, having kept them limping along through a series of disasters - Wild Honey, Friends 20/20 and Sunflower – and he wrote and sang two great songs on Surf’s Up. The other is “Long Promised Road”.
The short-lived Carl era had its successes, including “The Trader”, a brooding anti-colonialism track on Holland, one of the Beach Boys’ more obscure albums. Holland was one of their most collaborative records to date, hardly featuring one-time captain of the crew Brian at all. Seems he was, according to this song on Friends, “Busy Doin’ Nothing”:
(“Busy Doin’ Nothing”)
If any band’s woeful jump-the-shark moment was captured on wax it was the Beach Boys’. Ten years after Pet Sounds Brian Wilson was billed as producer again and they were at the end of their contract with Reprise (and the life of their own imprint, Brother Records). I guess some people The Beach Boys Love You (nearly released as a solo album called Brian Loves You). Others feel it’s the last good Beach Boys album, if even that. It’s weirdly-produced and the lyrics are dumb, even for a Beach Boys record (“My girlfriend Penny she’s kinda skinny / and so she needs her falsies on / she don’t like cookin’ but she’s so good lookin’ / I miss her when she’s gone”). The thing about Love You is that it’s the last Beach Boys record before punk rock and new wave change the landscape of pop music, and there’s only one moment so uncool they’ll ever sound this irrelevant again (click here if you dare).
I haven’t listened to most of the albums that follow this awkward shipwreck, but it seems entirely possible that the worst song in the entire Beach Boys catalog is “Johnny Carson”:
Here’s what’s fascinating about it to me: At some point somebody came over to Johnny’s house with this album and said, “Hey Johnny, you gotta hear this – where’s your turntable?” And Johnny took them into his living room or his den or something and they sat down and listened to this song. What did Johnny have to say? How did he react? Did he even make it to the end of the song? I would love to know.