The Beach Boys – Sunflower (1970): Shadows in Stereo

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Let’s get right to it: Sunflower? What about the legendary, universally acclaimed Pet Sounds? After all, it’s the original Teenage Symphony to God; home to the musical gems “Wouldn’t It Be Nice,” “God Only Knows,” and “Caroline, No;” and rival to that other ’60s magical artifact, Sgt. Pepper (by those other famous guys). Sure, it’s as great as everyone says it is, but it can easily be argued that Pet Sounds is less a group effort and more a testament to Brian Wilson’s own personal genius.

Not that group effort equates with quality: Creedence Clearwater Revival’s final album Mardi Gras (1972), for instance, split the songwriting three (roughly) even ways. This only served to show that bassist Stu Cook and drummer Doug Clifford just didn’t have the songwriting chops of guitarist/lead singer/main songwriter John Fogerty, making the album the least loved entry in the CCR catalogue.

Nor does it mean that dominance in song composition relegates the rest of the group to the role of backup band for the principal writer. The Who is a good example of a group that for the most part relied on Pete Townshend’s skills as a writer, but always managed to retain the overall image of a band in the public’s imagination.

But clarity improves with hindsight – except in the cases where it gets clouded by legend. And everything about the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds is indeed legendary: Brian Wilson retiring from roadwork so he could assemble L.A.’s finest studio musicians to help him pursue his singular musical vision; the tension between him the rest of the group when they failed to completely understand what it was exactly that Brian was trying to achieve; and the poor reception the album originally got from both the public as well as the critics.

It’s become such a part of rock ‘n’ roll’s mythology that it wouldn’t be surprising to discover that most of the people who believe in its masterpiece status don’t spend a lot of time actually listening to it. In fact, in some ways, it’s more like a Brian Wilson solo album: a collection of mental images detailing his personal interior monologue, each picture expressed as a song.

Sunflower, however, is the result of long process of bringing some balance back to the band. After a brief return to success (“Good Vibrations”) followed by another event soon to become “legend” (the abandoned SMiLE project), the Beach Boys settled into releasing a series of singles and albums that were disappointing in terms of both sales and critical acclaim. They finally parted on bad terms with their record company, Capitol, and signed with Warner/Reprise. Eventually, after having it sent back to tweak the song selection, Sunflower was released in 1970.

On Sunflower, fewer outside musicians were used – which meant that unlike on Pet Sounds, the band often got to play their own instruments. The writing credits show Brian Wilson still involved in his creative capacity, but the rest of the band are involved as well. In particular, drummer Dennis Wilson contributes some of the album’s strongest material, including the opening track, “Slip On Through.” Another track written by Dennis is “It’s About Time.” Sung by brother Carl Wilson, it’s one of those “open your mind, let’s all get together people and love one another” type of songs popular around the late ’60s and early ’70s.

Much the same could be said about the rest of Sunflower: It certainly sounds contemporary. That’s not to say that sounding like everyone else is a good thing, but part of the issue with Pet Sounds is that to this day it seems to exist in a space and time all on its own. Sunflower sounds like their attempt to reinsert themselves into the musical community, establishing relevance for the new decade.

After this, there was new management, a new album whose centerpiece was a song begun in 1967 (“Surf’s Up”), and the departure of long-time member Bruce Johnston, to be followed by decades of very public personal struggles, infighting and reclusiveness documented in print, film, and (of course) legend. But Sunflower was the Beach Boys being a band for one last moment in their eternal endless summer.

JC Mosquito

JC Mosquito

JC Mosquito spends most of his day keeping the wolves from the door. When he's not occupied with this pastime, he's interested in all things rock and roll -- which may or may not have died back in the late 1950s, the late 1970s, or the early '90s, depending on who you believe. Contact Something Else! at [email protected]
JC Mosquito
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