As hard as they swam against it, nostalgia always pulled The Beach Boys back. As we left them at the end-of-season cliffhanger of their last boxset, their new manager Jack Rieley had recently tried to bring the band up to date. They embraced ecological issues, politics and new technology; they grew their hair and played with the Grateful Dead. Even as it broke new ground, however, 1971’s wonderful Surf’s Up ended on familiar territory. Bruce Johnston wrote a song (“Disney Girls”) that hymned the very mom-and-pop America the band were allegedly trying to leave behind. The album concluded, meanwhile, with “Surf’s Up” itself, a song rescued from the abandoned Smile sessions of 1967 – and an image of children playing in the waves.
In this new box, we join the group in a period about which we are likely to have mixed feelings. Much of the music is still delightful, of course. But that joy is tinged with a certain sadness as we know what awaits them. Even with new blood in The Beach Boys, Carl Wilson having recently recruited Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar from South African rockers The Flames, we are aware that this is the band’s last substantial push forward before a flush of successful retrospective albums and tours sets them irrevocably on a path as an oldies act.
In the meantime, The Beach Boys (“a new Beach Boys…” as a radio ad included here calls them) are on a crusade to convert audiences to their new music. On two discs of the six here, we find The Beach Boys on stage at Carnegie Hall in November 1972. This is a previously unreleased show from the tour that gave us The Beach Boys In Concert album, and we hear how well they deliver newer stuff like “You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone” and “Only With You” and bring a deep instrumental swing to “Leaving This Town”. The crowd, though, are demonstrably more up for the smattering of hits that follow. “Save your requests,” says Mike Love at one point. The show, he says, is “not only for those who came to hear ‘Barbara Ann’…”.
If the band were concerned about people focusing on their older material, they might have done well to have a word with whoever decided to promote their then-current album, 1972’s Carl And The Passions – “So Tough”, by packaging it with a copy of Pet Sounds. The comparison was not so flattering. Recorded in Brian’s home studio, but without peak-fitness Brian, Carl… has influential fans among the members of Saint Etienne and its diaspora but it’s not widely loved beyond it. Album sessions were intimate and gave up some solid tracks (Brian’s “Marcella” and “You Need A Mess Of Help To Stand Alone” are both good), but it feels a little slight. Try as Al Jardine and Mike Love might to make it a heavy number, “All This Is That” (where Robert Frost meets the Maharishi) feels more like an interesting outro to a bigger song that isn’t there. It’s not the suite of beautifully sequenced material that Surf’s Up has led us to hope for.
The record is named for Carl (in a nostalgic nod to an occasion when the band renamed itself in his honour for an early appearance at Hawthorne High School), but it’s other Beach Boys who emerge triumphantly. Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar’s “Hold On Dear Brother” is delightful – and also biographically on-brand for the company they now keep. Meanwhile, with Brian creatively recessive, Dennis volunteered songs destined for a speculative solo project called, semi-seriously, ‘Poops/Hubba Hubba’. “Make It Good” and more expansively the orchestral deep dive of “Cuddle Up”, written with his collaborator Daryl Dragon, give the album a vulnerable and introspective mood becoming to the new decade. Among the most important outtakes in this box is the superb, fractionally later “Carry Me Home” in which Dennis imagines himself as a US soldier in Vietnam.
By the time of Holland, however, it was clear that The Beach Boys had rallied. Even if Brian and Carl were devoting an inordinate amount of time to the “Mount Vernon And Fairway” concept, which hasn’t retained all the charm it was once thought to have, it was clear Dennis’ compositions would have to fight harder for their place. Quite why Jack Rieley decided that a way out of a creative impasse for The Beach Boys was to build a studio in Los Angeles at huge expense and then have it rebuilt in a Dutch barn isn’t entirely clear. Whatever the thinking, the ends justified the means.
While it felt as if Carl…, great titles notwithstanding, spread its inspiration thinly over its eight songs and long vamps, Holland is far more robust. It was, as it said on the sleeve “one and a half long-playing records” with songs to spare and the “Mount Vernon…” tale on a separate EP. There was also something more like a unifying concept: a suite of complementary songs that found The Beach Boys messing about in boats and on some accustomed coastal routes, but also navigating their way into deeper subjects.
If Brian’s “Sail On Sailor” joyously established the theme, “Steamboat” found Dennis on a boat trip to deep and melancholic reverie, all Sgt Pepper gear changes and Fender Rhodes. It’s such a wonderfully 1972 sound, you could swear it was David Gilmour on guitar. With the help of Mike Love, Al Jardine continued to channel Americana, exploring the natural wealth of the American West Coast and its “new-born fauns” in “California Saga”. Elsewhere, Carl came into his own magnificently with “The Trader”.
Along a melody that seems to have escaped from Surf’s Up, he investigates the morality of western expansion. At precisely halfway through the song, it is as if he remembers that he can be an expert manipulator of mood, and changes down a gear into two-and-a-half minutes of minimal, beautiful music (“Reason to live…”) up there with anything in the band’s recorded history. From this, the impeccably sequenced album flows into Ricky Fataar’s “Leaving This Town”, which sounds like Peter Gabriel guesting on a horizontal Steely Dan number.
There was more. Among the outtakes here are tracking tapes, another Chaplin/Fataar number (“We Got Love”) and long-rumoured but undeveloped extracts (“Spark In The Dark”, “Body Talk”, “Oh Sweet Something”). Oddly, given what seems to have been a creative outpouring, the exuberant opener “Sail On Sailor” was devised later and added to the mix after the band had returned to Los Angeles.
Particularly interesting among the demos (and these really are early sketches) is the entertaining “Out In The Country” (banjos, acoustic guitars, an Eagles vibe), which is taken two radically different ways; seeming to show that the band didn’t just have one route out of the perpetual summer of 1964 and into the introspective, soft-rock 1970s, they had several – this one even involving country rock.
The Beach Boys would record new music again, of course. But with Brian in uncertain condition, and a ready demand for offering the American Graffiti version of themselves to a happy public, their future was solely in the past and pleasing the crowds. Ultimately, in spite of all their pushing at their music’s limits, it was a formula that now just couldn’t be fucked with.