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The Beach Boys… Under A Microscope

The Beach Boys… Under A Microscope

In the long-twisted history of rock and roll perhaps no one better typifies the moniker of “the All American band” than the Beach Boys. Over sixty plus years their continuing saga has shown us flashes of jaw dropping brilliance that even put the Beatles on notice, but also head scratching lapses that make you wonder if they even have an idea of what they are doing and how it will be interpreted. Let me make it perfectly clear that I am a huge fan, though even I’ve been confused about their history that plays out like a soap opera.

The recent Disney documentary is getting picked apart over what it included and omitted and just whose story it told. There’s an old saying that “the color of truth is gray” and with so many members and years under their belts there are many shades to be seen. Disney studios always puts out a solid product, but in this case it might have benefitted from a longer more in depth production similar to the Get Back series. Until that comes about, it’s up to scholars, critics and fans to assess the band’s lasting impact and there’s plenty to dissect with more on the way.

By the mid-70s the Beach Boys had settled into their role as a nostalgia act. They could still draw crowds but they wanted the hits, and with Brian Wilson pretty much incapacitated they depended on their back catalog. I was in radio for a long time and had plenty of opportunities to meet up with the various members. They always made themselves accessible and Mike Love, who can be “testy” at times, was always very gracious. When Capitol Records released the four CD retrospective box set “Good Vibrations” back in 1993, the Beach Boys were in Cleveland on their summer tour and Love came by the WMMS studios then at Tower City. The next hour, Bruce Johnstone took over. The box set had a hefty price tag but plenty of rarities, including songs from the “Smile” album that were thought to have been destroyed. I asked Love what he thought of the set and he made it clear he didn’t like it saying some things were never meant to be released. Oddly enough, Beatles producer George Martin gave me a similar answer when I asked about the Beatles’ Anthologies CDs. The tapes were locked away for a reason. Even so, Love and Johnstone did offer commentary as we played cuts on the air.

Since that time a series of comprehensive (and often pricy) box sets have been released, including the rumored “Smile” sessions, as well as “Pet Sounds” and practically everything they’ve ever done. Despite Love’s hesitation, it’s a treasure trove for the select audience willing to hunt down every track generated by the band, and Capitol kept it coming. The “Hawthorne, CA” set has a wide range of rarities ranging from backing tracks and alternate takes to Murry Wilson directing a radio promo and even a stereo mix of “The Lord’s Prayer”. At times the multiple takes can seem tedious, but they do give a unique look at the creative process. However, there are moments that back up what Love said about stuff that should have stayed under lock and key.

Let me stress that musicians should be paid fairly for their work. Pete Townshend was known to break a bootleg LP over his knee when asked for an autograph. At his last Kent Stage show, Leon Russell was at his bus signing for fans and put his name on everything but would also point out bootleg CDs. Napster initially opened the door for streaming and chances are if something was recorded it would find its way to consumers. The Beach Boys found that out the hard way. Some prime examples that happened to slip through include:

The radio station promo for the album “Smile”. The album was never finished in time for its release after “Pet Sounds” and the band had to patch together something quick.

Mike Love was not a fan of “Pet Sounds” and never understood the concept of ”Smile”. He did his own promo as a joke and it got leaked.

But perhaps one of the strangest things to escape from the Beach Boys bunker was a song by Brian titled “Smart Girls”. Artists crossing genres is nothing new. Beyonce was a hit with her country album, the Beatles dipped their collective toes in heavy metal with “Helter Skelter”, the Rolling Stones had a disco hit with “Miss You” and you can make a pretty strong argument that Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was a precursor to rap. This is where it gets really weird. “Smart Girls” is a rap song, too…..but Dylan could pull it off. Brian, not so much.

Mark Lewisohn released the first book of a trilogy about the Beatles. He’s giving himself about ten years to do each and volume two could soon be on the horizon. It promises to be the most impartial and candid history of the band and he is devoting his efforts full time to completing it. That might be the only way to record the complete history of the Beach Boys.

One more thing: When Bruce Johnstone finished his interview at WMMS, he asked if there was a record store nearby at Tower City. Each of the Beach Boys got one copy of “Good Vibrations” and he wanted more for gifts. I walked him down to the shop, he picked up all five copies and laid down his credit card. The clerk was all of about twenty years old and said, “Wow. You must really like the Beach Boys!” Johnstone just smiled and said, “Yeah! They’re pretty good!”

Mike Olszewski

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