Though Carl and Dennis Wilson are much missed, the harmonious and largely gratifying new album by the surviving and reunited Beach Boys comprises the first new studio material in over two decades from “America’s Band,” both celebrating and exemplifying “push button heaven, capturing memories from afar.”
Coinciding with this rewarding recording from founding or former bandmates Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and David Marks, and coming close to doing full justice — your subjectivity may vary too, after all — journalist Mark Dillon has engineered, in what must of been a labor of love, a page-turning heaven in Fifty Sides of the Beach Boys: The Songs That Tell Their Story. Garnering more than four dozen hits and hidden gems and infusing them with exclusive commentary by an array of collaborators, fellow musicians, and famous fans (from Al Kooper to Zooey Deschanel, the simplicity of “Surfin’” to the artistry of “Surf’s Up”) this treasure trove runs the golden anniversary gamut from giddy fun, fun, fun to a sense of misty melancholy — signature sounds still of the once-troubled but reemergent guiding light Brian Wilson. Encasing a depth that meets its breadth, Fifty Sides offers commentary and a chronicle that salutes the top-notch songwriting, production and pure pop craftsmanship marked by the group’s soaring and sweeping vocals, as instinctual as they are iconic.
And if that “ain’t enough to make you flip your lid,” there’s another consideration. They’ve “got the pink slip, daddy”: Part and parcel of another kind of “music to the ears,” is the ka-ching of the California sound that had generated for the Beach Boys, mostly during the mid- to late-1960s — 36 Top 40 singles, including four No. 1s; 23 Top 40 albums, including two No. 1s. In addition to critical success, they’ve sold, as Dillon notes, 100 million-plus records, and performed live before innumerable fans worldwide.
In short, the Beach Boys are “makin’ real good bread,” as Brian sang in their first No. 1 hit, 1964’s “I Get Around,” which gave the Beatles a serious run for the money, and really clinched the deal for me, at age 10, for long-term fandom. In the short term, however, it led me to willingly subject myself to a constant barrage of AM radio — swinging wildly back and forth between Los Angeles stations KRLA and KHJ, in big part to catch the latest Beach Boys or Beatles release. It also led to the very first album I owned, The Beach Boys Concert, recorded in Santa Monica, my birthplace. (I was later to learn that for the first five years of my life, we lived about a mile away from the Wilson brothers in Hawthorne, California.)
As for “I Get Around,” that revelatory two minute-plus blast of vibrant, harmony-packed, and infectious pop is still one of my favorite songs to crank up to 11 on my car radio, the perfect mix of words and music — and hand-clapping too, for that matter: Dillon shares my affinity for the verses’ percussive hand claps (the “cherry on the sundae” behind such lines as “I gotta find a new place where the kids are hip”) that helps propel the deceptively complex song, elements of which smack of a “classical composition,” according to Dillon — though it’s still “one of the group’s most fun, upbeat sing-alongs.”
Though Canadian producer, guitarist, and singer-songwriter Daniel Lanois may not seem to be the ideal candidate to rhapsodize about this particular slice of SoCal sunniness — it’s worth noting that part of Dillon’s methodology in matching up songs with commentators is to allow them to pick a song with which they “have a strong connection” — it does bring in a new slant to “I Get Around.” On top of his technical observations about the role of the California-made Fender Stratocaster upon surf music, Lanois gives sway to a more philosophical tone when he takes close note of the evocative details conveyed by this “snapshot song,” one that’s “like a Polaroid of a moment or a feeling. I like the way Brian wrote about specifics of a rising culture.” Lanois goes on to perceptively remark that “you could write a much bigger song, but by writing a small one, you address a big subject.”
This microcosmic approach, of course, applies to the sublime B-side of “I Get Around” — “Don’t Worry, Baby,” which constitutes one of the best ever back-to-back singles ever produced, and which is sketched out in Lanois’ conclusion as “representing the yin and yang of the group’s thematic makeup.” The full-chapter treatment in Fifty Sides, however, belongs to the commentary of Roger McGuinn, then leading the Byrds. Much has been written about the universality of “Don’t Worry, Baby” that lifts it from being just another “car song,” so I won’t belabor anything, but — in addition to citing the fact that there are fresh insights to be gleaned — it’s worth signifying Dillon’s characterization of it as “tough and streetwise without surrendering its sweet adolescent romanticism.” (And a cause for concern, perhaps, when we learn that McGuinn was a “drinking buddy” of Dennis’ and once rode shotgun in Roger’s new Mercedes roadster on the “wrong side of the Pacific Coast Highway at 60-70 miles an hour”). I do, however, want to linger around this chapter a bit more since it begs the musical question: why “Ding Dang”? The fruit of this merger of minds — McGuinn and Brian Wilson — is one of the biggest let-downs in the history of pop-rock collaborations. I don’t know how else to couch the anticipation and quick disappointment for anyone expecting more than the brief “harmless ditty” they get from this dispensable fragment on the ragged glory that is one of my favorite Beach Boys albums, Love You. “Ding Dang” is the Beach Boys’ “My Ding-a-Ling.” Dang!
The paramount importance, of course, is the craft of songwriting and record-making, and even if the match-up of a song with its commentator doesn’t look good on paper, some prime recollections can still illuminate and explicate in the pages of Fifty Sides some musical or lyrical aspect or another. An expressive Lyle Lovett talks about how “God Only Knows” gives him “a new appreciation for the pure musicality of the words,” and about how it transcends “being just a catchy pop song.” Lovin’ Spoonful’s John Sebastian takes on “Surfer Girl,” recalling that, as an East Coast folkie not especially attuned to the coastline craze, this pensive “epic” was “one of the songs that made you want to be a West Coast guy and experience that whole surf culture.”
Furthermore, having the theatrical Alice Cooper evaluate the delectably introspective and reflective “In My Room” might sound incongruous, but he not only aptly articulates what it means for a kid or teen to have such a sanctuary — “All the heartbreak goes on in there, and all the elation goes on in there” — he also stirs up some tantalizing tales of hob-nobbing gone wrong. Such vicarious fly-on-the-wall moments include an increasingly unstable and childlike Brian playing for Alice and Iggy Pop the least-expected “greatest song in the world.” And at another social scene soiree, we find out what led John Lennon to deadpan, after a couple of bizarre brushes-with-Brian antics, “He’s not well, y’know.” (It’s an observation I confirmed personally much later, at a 1991 book signing by a trembling and downcast Brian — not yet ready for his close-up or the premature but bally-hooed comeback from the depths of his 20-year spiral of drug addiction and mental illness. The book in question is the now-discredited “autobiography” Wouldn’t It Be Nice: My Own Story, largely engineered by his exploitive therapist Eugene Landy).
Moving on, the landmark Pet Sounds, from 1966, is studied with the usual suspects and been-there done analysis at play; there are no less than seven different songs from this deserved classic submitted for our perusal. Special note should be extended to one of Fifty Sides’ longest chapters, written by the album’s lyricist Tony Asher, a copywriter who had never bought a rock-and-roll record, it is said. In addition to offering some incisive discernment and expertise that stretches beyond the bounds of his chosen title, the affecting “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times,” Asher explains how he had urged the use of orchestral elements and instrumentation upon the recording, and asserts that he had introduced a receptive Brian to jazz and to the standards by such writers as Cole Porter, Johnny Mercer, and “all the great songwriters of the Tin Pan Alley days.” As a matter of fact, the last chapter of Fifty Sides bears out this fluency and familiarity as Brian’s 50th “Side” tackles George Gershwin, in a masterful but not slavish methodology on parade in the 2010 album, Brian Wilson Reimagines Gershwin. Whatever the extent of this awakened expertise, however, Asher focuses his historical and personal perspective with which to regard his own accomplishments, finding himself wonder-struck at the long-term legacy that came from the assemblage of words and music: “We couldn’t have known we would actually listen to them in our sixties,” he marvels.
It’s a wonder, too, that Dillon was able to make the tough decisions in choosing what to include and what disregard in for the essays that make up Fifty Sides. Some other honorable mentions that didn’t make the cut but that deserve quick recognition include: Al Jardine on “Help Me, Rhonda,” legendary bassist Carol Kaye on “California Girls,” Matthew Sweet on “Wonderful,” Three Dog Night’s Danny Hutton on “Darlin’” (featuring Carl’s soulful lead vocal), Cameron Crowe on “Feel Flows,” David Leaf on the haunting “’Til I Die,” James Guercio on “Good Timin,’” and Randy Bachman on “Keepin’ the Summer Alive.”
Then there are some things that, sadly, cannot be kept alive. With a commitment to a finite goal to consider, sins of omission — however forgivable — dictate that Dillon leaves by the wayside certain choice favorites, if only for the sake of having to avoid front-loading the chronicle with ’60s-heavy history and hits. Nevertheless, a quick acknowledgment may suffice as we take note of such could’ve-been contenders as “When I Grow Up (To Be a Man),” “Wild Honey,” “Friends,” “Break Away” (co-written by dad Murray), “I Can Hear Music,” and “Add Some Music to Your Day.” I especially miss the ouster of the exuberant “Dance, Dance, Dance,” and am disappointed that a place couldn’t be made for the breathtaking and elegiac “The Warmth of the Sun” inspired by and written on the evening of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. And, though Dillion does bemoan in general the fact that the much-maligned 1972 album Carl and the Passions-So Tough is unrepresented in Fifty Sides of the Beach Boys: The Songs That Tell Their Story, I would like to call for the inclusion of Brian’s stellar “Marcella” when Sixty Sides comes out.
In the meantime, thanks to FM radio, CDs, new toys and technology with all the trimmings, and more bells and whistles with which we can capture those “memories from afar,” we can still, as Randy Newman would have it, “roll down the window, put down the top [and] crank up the Beach Boys baby.” Don’t “let the music stop”– push-button paradise is still at hand. We just have more buttons to push.
Fifty Sides of the Beach Boys: The Songs that Tell Their Story
by Mark Dillon
Paperback: 360 pages
Publisher: ECW Press (June 1, 2012)