The Beach Boys – Made in California (2013)

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Brian Wilson remains the acknowledged mastermind behind the Beach Boys legacy, but history — and this sprawling new rarity-packed set — reminds us that he was absent from the day-to-day operations for long periods, appearing only occasionally from the SMiLE period through very recently.

In keeping, the first two discs of Made in California (due August 27, 2013 from Capitol Records) tend to focus on Wilson, while the next two — which cover the post-1967 output of the band — underscore the typically dismissed contributions made by Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, Mike Love and, to a lesser degree, Bruce Johnston and a growing phalanx of outside contributors.

The box is rounded out by live tracks and studio extras from across the Beach Boys’ career, but the message is clear: Brian Wilson gave this band its spark, but there was always more to it than that. In keeping, Made in California moves far afield from the group’s prodigious — and oh-so-familiar — hits. From the set’s initial blast of sun-soaked pop sweetness (a remarkable demo of “Surfin'”) through to a final disc highlighted by a series of offbeat outtakes designed to thrill even the most circumspect old-school fan, Made in California delights not by rehashing the Brian Wilson myth or even the group’s best-loved songs (though, in a package this expansive, they’re certainly here) but by ferreting out a series of little- or never-before-heard gems.

Disc 1 wisely culls almost half of Surfer Girl, the lovely vocal showcase “Ballad of Old Betsey” from Little Deuce Coupe, five tracks from All Summer Long, and six from Beach Boys Today, along with assorted other period items — with each of them, here as elsewhere, given fresh stereo or mono mixes. Over the next disc, Wilson’s quickly emerging genius begins to take shape. That includes five songs from Summer Days, a pair of fun moments from the Party project — though, sadly, not Dennis’ “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” — five tracks from Pet Sounds, seven from SMiLE (the expected “Good Vibrations,” but also a completely unexpected “The Elements: Fire”) and a few (in stereo!) from Wild Honey.

Of course, long-time fans know that Carl Wilson took over as producer to complete that last-mentioned 1967 recording, and Disc 3 illustrates the yeoman’s — and largely unrecognized — work that Brian’s late brother did to keep the brand going into the 1970s. There would be moments of inspiration from the badly faltering elder Wilson on the subsequent Friends project, and this disc also includes the lovely — if still far too short — gem “Can’t Wait Too Long.” But in the decades leading up to 2012’s reunion effort That’s Why God Made the Radio, Brian would typically be relegated to part-time contributor, at best. Dennis Wilson’s presence also begins to grow within the group, starting with the delightful “Little Bird.” He’s featured on a series of subsequent Disc 3 songs, including the superlative “Sound of Free.”

By 1971’s Surf’s Up, the Beach Boys were left to reconstruct the title song from remnants of the SMiLE sessions that had taken place years before. No matter the tune’s inherent musical wonders, a fair assumption could be made that the group had become creatively bereft. That’s countered here by moments like Johnston’s “Disney Girls (1957),” the Blondie Chaplin-sung “Sail On Sailor,” Jardine’s stirring “California Saga” and this set’s newly issued Dennis Wilson outtake “Wouldn’t It Be Nice To Live Again,” all featured on Disc 4 of Made in California. Each should rightly be hailed now as a late-period classic. That said, there’s no denying that the Beach Boys — despite the often-overlooked successes of albums like Holland — had lost all momentum by 1980.

There were times when something special could still be stirred, as illustrated by Made in California finds like “California Feelin'” and “It’s a Beautiful Day.” But Dennis, after contributing the superlative “Baby Blue” to 1979’s LA: Light Album, would die in a drowning accident in 1983. Carl, it seemed, grew disheartened, and focused on a solo career. By the time Love led the group back to the top of the charts with the formulaic 1980s ear-worm “Kokomo,” the Beach Boys had come to embody their own (however unfairly drawn) caricature as a fun-shirt-wearing oldies act. Everything from 1980’s Keepin’ the Summer Alive (highlighted by the belated release on Made in California of Love’s “Goin’ to the Beach”) through last year’s striking comeback album is represented here by just 10 songs — none of which, sadly, are “Summer’s Gone,” a complete return-to-form moment for Brian Wilson from last year. Of interest, though, are two 1990s-era tracks, written by Brian and reportedly produced by Don Was, for a Beach Boys album that was subsequently scrapped — the Carl-sung “Soul Searchin'” being a lost treasure.

From there, Made in California turns toward largely unheard live cuts and other off-beat rarities to round out the rest of Disc 5 and all of the final album. The concert recordings stretch from BBC performances in 1964 all the way to 1993, with some particularly raucous 1970s dates in between. The rest is dominated with sometimes idiosyncratic items — among them, early demos (Dennis’ “Be With Me,” “California Feelin'”), instrumental tracks (“Guess I’m Dumb,” the trippy “Transcendental Meditation”) and acappella pieces (“Slip on Through,” “This Whole World”). Still, even this section is keenly attenuated with signpost moments like “California Girls,” “Don’t Worry Baby,” Jardine’s ageless “Help Me Rhonda” and “Surfs Up” — each of which is borne anew through alternate takes that will intrigue even the most casual fan. Elsewhere, we hear Brian Wilson singing both parts on the Righteous Brothers’ hit “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling.” “Sheri She Needs Me” later appeared in finished form as part of Brian’s 1998 Imagination solo album, while “Our Sweet Love” had been completed by Carl for Sunflower back in 1970. Made in California, alas, concludes with “Coda” from the youngest Wilson brother, who was stricken by cancer and died in 1998.

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso

Nick DeRiso has written for USA Today, American Songwriter, All About Jazz, and a host of others. Honored as columnist of the year five times by the Associated Press, Louisiana Press Association and Louisiana Sports Writers Association, he oversaw a daily section named Top 10 in the U.S. by the AP before co-founding Something Else! Nick is now associate editor of Ultimate Classic Rock.
Nick DeRiso
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