Gimme Five: The Beach Boys’ Al Jardine on “Help Me Rhonda,” “Don’t Fight the Sea,” “Sloop John B”

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Al Jardine joins us, just ahead of a series of concert dates with Brian Wilson and Jeff Beck, to talk about classic Beach Boys tracks — from his first lead vocal to their latest reunion effort.

This special edition of One Track Mind also finds Jardine discussing the genesis of a key song from Pet Sounds, a new collaboration with Sean Lennon, and a highlight cut from Jardine’s current solo effort, A Postcard from California.

Wilson’s new tour, which also features fellow founding Beach Boys member David Marks, kicks off on Friday …

“FROM THERE TO BACK AGAIN,” (THAT’S WHY GOD MADE THE RADIO, 2012): The second track in a stirring four-song suite to close out the Beach Boys’ unexpected reunion disc. That’s Why God would become the band’s initial Top 10 entry since the 1976 hits package 15 Big Ones. Jardine is the only other featured vocalist besides main composer Brian Wilson, who closes out the album with the deeply emotional “Summer’s Gone” — a song written in the wake of the deaths of both his mother and his brother Carl.

AL JARDINE: That brings tears. A lot of people tell me they weep when they hear that. It’s quite a moving piece of music. Brian’s performance, with that iconic voice, it’s still to me a miracle. He’s a walking, talking miracle. He’s just has a psychic energy, I think, that reads between the lines — between the musical lines. Everybody knows the same notes, but he has a way of putting those things together that’s just extremely, extremely special. All the way back to those early deep cuts that we do now, they’re a revelation — even to me. When I listen to them on the box set that was just recently released, there are even more revelations, even to those of us who made them. I wouldn’t be surprised if even Brian goes: “Wow, did I do that? Did we do that?” (Laughs.) Things like that happen only once in a great, great while. And you’re going to hear those things in their original style when you come to our concerts. You have the architect of the music up there, and you have original Beach Boys voices. What else can you ask? This is as close as we can get to it, minus a couple of upstarts — or one particular upstart — and, unfortunately, Carl and Dennis, who can’t be with us.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: Al Jardine, in Part 1 of our SER Sitdown, discusses a new tour with Brian Wilson and Jeff Beck, his own ‘Postcard from California’ and a forthcoming solo disc from Wilson.]

“HELP ME RHONDA,” (SUMMER DAYS AND SUMMER NIGHTS!!, 1965): The Beach Boys’ second chart-topper, after 1964’s “I Get Around,” found Jardine taking his first-ever turn as frontman. Evidence of how difficult it was to get this one just right: “Help Me Rhonda” was eventually reworked, appearing on successive albums. Jardine says, even today, he’d still like another crack at it.

AL JARDINE: That was my first big lead, and there were several producers involved, telling me different things. It got to be very difficult to pull that off. I don’t think I ever really got it right. We actually did that song twice. We did one version on the Beach Boys Today album and then the single version. It was just one of those days where there were too many cooks in the kitchen. That was a day, I’ll tell you.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: 2012’s ‘That’s Why God Made the Radio’ reunion, in particular over its final sequence, showed how much magic could still be conjured by the remaining Beach Boys.]

“GIVE PEACE A CHANCE,” with SEAN LENNON (2013): Jardine’s take on this John Lennon-Yoko Ono anti-war anthem, done for U2 frontman Bono’s advocacy group the ONE, found him collaborating with their son Sean Lennon. The song was later projected onto the side of London’s Tate Museum last June as part of the week-long “agit8” efforts meant to encourage world leaders to address poverty.

AL JARDINE: Sean and I hit it off big time. He’s a huge fan. He’s a bigger Beach Boys fan, I think, than a Beatles fan! (Laughs.) A Brian Wilson fan, anyway. He’s quite an accomplished musician himself. So I am very, very pleased that we were able to connect. In fact, I’m working on some material for another album, and I’m hoping we can get together on that.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: 1972’s shamefully overlooked triumph “Sail On Sailor,” featuring Blondie Chaplin, represents an intriguing road not taken by the Beach Boys.]

“DON’T FIGHT THE SEA,” (A POSTCARD FROM CALIFORNIA, 2012): Some basic tracks for this song, co-written by Jardine and Terry Jacks, reportedly date back to 1978 — as Jardine was at work on a solo album with an ecology theme alongside Mike Love. Jardine later updated “Don’t Fight the Sea” to include more recent concerns over global warming. In keeping with its decades-in-the-making gestation, Jardine is heard singing with several figures from the Beach Boys classic era, including Brian Wilson, Bruce Johnson, Love and — most notably, for long time fans — the late Carl Wilson.

AL JARDINE: You know what? When I hear the blend, I don’t hear an individual. I hear a completely different thing. I hear a sixth voice, a different vibration — a different sonic register. They become one voice. I don’t really think of the individual contribution, other than when I hear Carl singing by himself on the bridge. That’s pretty haunting. It’s really reminescent of a voyager trapped on the high seas, someone who’s stranded out there without any hope of getting back. Because you don’t have any wind, or fuel, or whatever it is that makes you go. Somehow, you’ve lost your spirit. So, it reflects what’s going on out there in the ocean, where really we don’t have any protection for those areas called the high seas. It’s pretty much unregulated. We have, like, 12 marine sanctuaries in the United States, in the East Coast, West Coast and Hawaii. Only about two percent of the world’s surface is protected by these sanctuaries, and that’s about it.

[SOMETHING ELSE! REWIND: A new rarities-filled Beach Boys box set showcases not just Brian Wilson’s genius, but also important later contributions by his brothers Carl and Dennis.]

“SLOOP JOHN B,” (PET SOUNDS, 1966): Originally a traditional folk song out of the West Indies called “The John B. Sails,” this song was first widely heard as part of a 1927 collection of Carl Sandburg-curated music called ‘The American Songbag.’ It came to the Beach Boys by way of Jardine, who loved a Kingston Trio version from 1958 called “The Wreck of the John B.” This new version, with a lead vocal by Brian Wilson and Mike Love, went to No. 3 in 1966.

AL JARDINE: Brian went nuts for it! As soon as he heard it, he called the Wrecking Crew (a group of famous 1960s-era studio musicians), and about 24 hours later, we had a track that was just totally amazing. He took my arrangement, after I changed the chord structure to fit the Beach Boys’ style. I told him: “This is something that we could put our style on, and we could have ourselves a pretty big hit.” He took it to heart, and we expanded on the concept. It was just the great template of a song. Brian never fails to amaze. He’s just got a sixth sense for this stuff.

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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