The Beach Boys' material from 1967 to 1973 had been (mostly) critically acclaimed, but there had been a singular lack of commercial success, especially in the US (much of this material was far more successful elsewhere, particularly the UK). After 1973's In Concert nothing had appeared under the Beach Boys' name other than a flop Christmas single, 'Child Of Winter' (now included on the Ultimate Christmas set), and the fact that Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, two members who had been important to the band's renaissance as a live act, had both quit. Meanwhile a compilation, Endless Summer, had been a surprise hit, going platinum, and it was felt by certain elements in the band that the way to return to commercial favour was to return to the sound of the earlier hits. Long-term, this belief would kill the band creatively, and reduce them to a touring nostalgia act trading on 30-year-old hits, but at the time this decision led to 15 Big Ones being the first album since Pet Sounds to feature the 'produced by Brian Wilson' credit.
15 Big Ones
While Brian's mental health was (temporarily) much improved, he was, despite the 'Brian's Back!' advertising claims, not really in a state to produce an entire album. For this reason 15 Big Ones is a minor disappointment. Half the songs are (poor) covers of 1950s oldies, while many of the newer songs are second rate. However, the album, while second rate by the band's standards, does have its moments, particularly the cover versions of 'Palisades Park' and 'Just Once In My Life'. The latter in particular, contrasting Carl Wilson's beautiful voice against Brian's ravaged vocals (at this time Brian's voice was very different from the falsetto of old, being a gruff baritone, with definite signs of cigarette abuse), is one of the band's finest moments.
While it was a commercial success, this is probably the band's first truly disappointing album, and notable in retrospect only for prefiguring the stripped down sound of the much better Love You with which it is paired on the new CD release.
The Beach Boys Love You
The improvement between these two albums is so shocking as to make it almost unbelievable they are by the same band. Released in 1977, this album is the closest thing to a Brian Wilson solo album the Beach Boys ever did, and it shows. This is one of only three albums of new material ever to be entirely written by Brian Wilson (the other two being 1967's Smiley Smile and Brian's eponymous 1988 solo album).
Texturally, the album is shockingly modern compared with the early-1970s albums, which, while superb, do sound dated. The sparse instrumentation on the album (almost all played by Brian, and mostly Moog) is in direct contrast to the thick, layered sound of albums like Holland, and sounds very much like the more interesting punk music of the time. The lyrics are, as with the best Brian Wilson music, the sound of a man expressing his own feelings with no restraints, and veer from the unabashedly joyous ('Well/Oh my/Oh gosh/Oh gee') to the heartbreakingly sad. The lyrics are childlike, but not childish. The best description of this album, for those who have heard the music of Jonathan Richman, is to imagine Richman suddenly being given the musical talent of Bach, and two days in the studio. Anyone who doesn't love this album will loathe it, but it's their loss. Buy this album.
Oh dear, and it was all going so well... The band almost split up shortly after the release of Love You, and Brian Wilson was no longer really interested in recording, although he had recorded a lot more material around this time (including an entire unreleased Beach Boys album, Adult Child), so Alan Jardine was handed the reins for this album. The album was recorded at Maharishi International University, and has practically no involvement from Carl or Dennis (Dennis' sole vocal, 'My Diane', was a 15 Big Ones left-over), and Brian would clearly rather be elsewhere, although he gets dragged out on more songs than his brothers. Many of the songs on this album were originally intended for a rejected Christmas album (much of which is now available on the Ultimate Christmas collection), and Mike and Alan dominate both vocally and in writing, with the loss of quality that implies. 'Hey Little Tomboy' (a Brian song, but clearly written when he was not in the best of health) practically condones paedophilia, 'Matchpoint Of Our Love' talks about love in terms of a tennis match over a faux-disco beat, 'Belles Of Paris' is just offensively bad, and most of the rest of the material is so bland as to be completely forgettable even while it's playing. This album is only worth getting for Carl's only lead vocal, 'Sweet Sunday Kinda Love', and the beautiful 'My Diane'.
LA (Light Album)
Frustrated by Brian's continued disinterest in recording, the band called on former member Bruce Johnston to produce this, the last great (or even decent) Beach Boys album. The album was disliked by fans at the time, primarily because of the inclusion of 'Here Comes The Night' (not the theme song), a ten-minute disco reworking of a track from 1967's Wild Honey album, which many of the band felt was a mistake even at the time.
LA Light is almost entirely a Carl and Dennis Wilson album, with Johnston's slightly over-lush arrangements. Brian's only contributions are 'Here Comes the Night' (written 12 years earlier), 'Good Timin'' (a co-write with Carl that, truth be told, has more of Carl's fingerprints on it than Brian's) and 'Shortenin' Bread', a rocked-up arrangement of the old song that was recorded for Adult Child. Jardine and Love contributed one song each, respectively 'Lady Lynda' (Jardine's second best song, a rewrite of Bach's 'Jesu, Joy Of Man's Desiring' and a huge hit outside the US) and 'Sumahama', a faux-Oriental piece of nonsense with Japanese lyrics supplied by Love's then girlfriend. Dennis gave up the two best tracks from his unfinished second solo album, 'Baby Blue' (a duet with Carl) and 'Love Surrounds Me' (featuring Christine McVie on backing vocals), and Carl wrote 'Angel Come Home' (one of his finest songs, sung by Dennis), and the ballads 'Full Sail' and 'Goin' South', both of which aren't up to his very best work, but are solid songs with superb vocal performances.
Along with Sunflower (another album with a lot of input from Johnston and Dennis), this is one of the few Beach Boys albums to be both a true group effort and an artistic success. It was all downhill from there.
Keeping The Summer Alive
Produced by Johnston, this is essentially MIU part II. Considered by almost every Beach Boys fan to be their worst album to this date, the album features a lot of sub-standard Wilson/Love compositions, one decent song (Brian and Alan's 'Santa Ana Winds'), a couple of bland songs co-written by Carl Wilson and Randy Bachman (of Bachman-Turner Overdrive), a pointless cover of Chuck Berry's 'School Days' and Johnston's slushiest song ever, 'Endless Harmony' (slushy even by the standards of the man who wrote 'I Write The Songs') add up to one of the dullest albums ever inflicted by a major act.
The Beach Boys
Five years had elapsed since the last album, during which time Carl had left and rejoined the group, and Dennis had died. Brian was once again being 'treated' by Dr Eugene Landy, the 'doctor' who had brought about his brief improvement during the Love You period (Landy's 'treatment' methods later caused him to be banned from practicing medicine, or having any contact with Brian), and as a result played a larger role in the album than he had for years. The band were teamed with Culture Club producer Steve Levine, who coated the mostly substandard originals in a uniform synthesiser sheen, and brought in rejected Culture Club and Stevie Wonder tracks, which Carl Wilson sang, doing uncanny impressions of the songs' originators, but obviously wanting to be elsewhere. The album's hardly great, but nothing's less than listenable, and 'Getcha Back' is the last great Beach Boys single, Carl's 'Where I Belong' is stunningly beautiful, and Bruce's 'She Believes In Love Again' is very strong. The rest of the album is saved from mediocrity (Brian was 'back' again, but his song writing didn't improve until his 1988 solo album) by strong vocals from Carl and Alan.
In 1988 the Beach Boys, without Brian, scored a surprise number one hit with the dire 'Kokomo'. On the back of this they put out this quickie album of 'fun in the sun' nonsense that featured their other recent hit, 'Wipe Out' (a collaboration with novelty rappers The Fat Boys), along with a few new songs (one by Jardine, one by Brian, the rest by Love and Terry Melcher with various collaborators) and three 1960s oldies tacked on for no discernable reason. The title track is OK, Brian's one song, 'In My Car', would be a decent track with a remix to make the vocals audible, 'Somewhere Near Japan' is really quite good, and the rest is unlistenable synth-heavy muzak. An embarrassment.
Summer In Paradise
There are two versions of this album available (one released in the US, one in Europe). Both have no Brian Wilson involvement whatsoever, neither have any Carl Wilson or Alan Jardine songs. Both have lots of Mike Love-written insults to the idea of music with lyrics like 'Doing unto others is the golden rule/but doing it to you would be so very cool'. Both have the rhyme 'paradise' with 'wouldn't it be nice' in almost every song. Neither sold. There is no excuse whatsoever for owning this insult to the legacy of a once-great band.
Stars & Stripes Vol 1
Brian was on board again to co-produce (with Joe Thomas) this collection of new versions of some of the band's most famous songs, with lead vocals by country singers. Much of the album is second rate, and the instrumental tracks (produced by Thomas) are no good, but a few tracks, especially Willie Nelson's 'Warmth Of The Sun' are up to the standard of the originals, and the gorgeous vocal tag on Timothy Schmit's 'Caroline, No', with Carl, Brian and Mike singing over a Jimmy Webb string arrangement, is one of the best moments in the band's recorded work.
And after that...
Since the release of Stars & Stripes Vol 1 Carl Wilson passed away at a horribly young age, and the band effectively split up. Brian has released two very good solo albums and, at the time of writing, currently tours with a backing band featuring former Beach Boy touring member Jeffrey Foskett, along with the Wondermints (an LA-based powerpop band who have made several very good records on their own) and various other musicians. Alan Jardine has been touring with various members of the touring band, along with his sons and Brian Wilson's daughters (formerly of Wilson Philips), performing a mix of hits with the occasional more obscure song thrown in, but this band has effectively been put on hold by repeated lawsuits from Mike Love, due to Jardine's use of the words 'Beach' and 'Boys' in the band name and promotional material. Love and Johnston meanwhile are touring as 'The Beach Boys', churning out third-rate versions of the surfin' oldies, along with whatever other 1960s nostalgia tracks they think the dwindling audiences would like to hear. They have talked about releasing a new 'Beach Boys' album, featuring a remix of the Summer In Paradise version of 'Surfin'' done by the team behind 'Macarena' (the track is said to sound 'like Britney Spears'), and Love has talked about re-recording the beautiful 'All This Is That' with Frankie Valli impersonator and touring band member Adrian Baker replacing Carl Wilson. God help us all...