The Beach Boys - The Shitty Years (or: a Welfare Story)

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The Beach Boys - The Shitty Years (or: a Welfare Story)

Postby Xenu » Tue Feb 21, 2006 11:29 pm

Inspired by MK's thread on Prince...


I've been going through something of a weird phase as of late. It hit me a few months ago, when I was browsing through a record store in Chicago. I stumbled across a CD copy of "Dirty Work" (the original CBS, no less) for $2.99. "Shit," I scoffed. "I bet this sits here for..."

Wait.

I've never, ever listened to Dirty Work all the way through.

Lots of bands have their "shitty years," or the years outside of what is generally regarded as Critical Gold. There are at least a few cases where those albums are really pretty good, if not as "important" as some others. I like Goats Head Soup and It's Only Rock 'n Roll, not to mention Who By Numbers and Who Are You. So, steeling myself, I decided to actually really listen to some of these albums (ask me about the two day period where I listened exclusively to Black and Blue, Emotional Rescue, Undercover, Dirty Work, and Steel Wheels...no Still Life, as even I'm not ready for that)

At some point, I decided to dive into Part 1 of the Beach Boys: the albums between "Pet Sounds" and "Love You." My feelings below; feel free to pile on.


Smiley Smile: In historical context, Smiley Smile is disastrous, and it sets some pretty unfortunate artistic tendencies for the band: principally, its tendency to release "larks" like this. History, though, has been pretty kind to it. I suppose it helps that the songs--mangled or not--are Brian Wilson compositions, and are splendid. The off-putting studio sound and production, which annoy me on "Wild Honey," are endearing here, given the strangeness of the compositions themselves.

I finally really warmed to the SS version of "Heroes and Villains" (after being primarily familiar with the standard "alternate version" from the boxed-set), and I prefer this version in the context of the album. I also think that the Smiley Smile version of "Vege-tables" is far more appropriate and interesting than the kiddie-like "Smile" arrangement. Ditto for "She's Goin' Bald," which puts that really wonderful, catchy melody (by the way, is it borrowed from something? It seems almost too familiar) to great use; Mike is disarmingly unobnoxious, and the ending refrain ("It's too late mama") is delicious, with that great guitar hook. "Little Pad" mines some similar territory. I see it frequently dismissed as a throwaway, but it's catchy as all fuck, and I've found myself humming Carl's (?) wordless refrain more than once.

The only things I really don't care for are the remake of "Wonderful" (is the "smutty" interpretation of this song spot-on or what? The dirtiest lyrics to ever come out of the BB camp...), and "Getting Hungry," which does nothing for me.

Wild Honey: I don't like this one as much. Firstly, let me go on record as saying that I simply don't buy the Beach Boys as an R&B outfit one fucking bit. Yes, some of their attempts at this are decent, but...no, sorry, not fond of it. That said, "Wild Honey," "Darlin'," and the odd Stevie WOnder cover are servicable. That said, the entire album suffers from a lack of any sort of arranging sense; the weirdness of Smiley Smile is gone, and in its place is that odd studio sound and piano effect. Bleh. It's notable that the few songs with arrangements ("I'd Love Just Once to See You") stand out so prominently. Everything else seems composed, recorded, and presented as-is.

Friends: A welcome upswing. Arrangements are suddenly back in force, the fake F&B is mostly gone, and even the throwaways ("Diamond Head," "Anna Lee, The Healer") are enjoyable. I hate "Transcendental Meditation," and find Dennis's songs here to be a bit overrated (particularly the soporific "Be Still") but you can't have everything.

20-20: Not an album, but still fun. I would like to register that I adore "Never Learn Not To Love." Does this make me a bad person? I think "Bluebirds" and "I Can Hear Music" are enjoyable, but a bit schlocky.

Sunflower: I like, although the production on this one is really weird. "Tears in the Morning" would be OK with a FUCKING LYRICAL REWRITE, BRUCE, WHAT WERE YOU THINKING? Mostly good. "All I Wanna Do" is sublime, Dennis's songs are goofy but fun (although I'm not that fond of "It's About Time"). I've finally warmed to "At My Window."

Surf's Up: Yikes. Several things go bad at once. The production wonks out considerably, and things get decidedly more facile; what was fun the first time around sounds like repetition here. I happen to really like Carl's progressive epics (which makes his plunge into shit on the next album that much more disheartening), and I'd like to take a moment to sing the praises of Al Jardine. "Lookin' At Tomorrow" is an interesting song with an interesting lyric and interesting production; following on "Suzie Cincinatti" (which I really like) and "Good Time" (which I also really like), and his good taste with the Cottonfields cover, Al actually establishes himself as a pretty stable force. I could care less about "Day in the Life of a Tree," and does "Don't Go Near The Water" sound like a cop of "Bluebirds" or what? (if this is pointed out in the liners, please forgive me)

Carl and the Passions: I stepped into unfamiliar territory with this one; I've owned a vinyl copy forever, but never got around to listening to it. I suppose I was expecting more of the "flawed, and sort of goofy, but enjoyable" tendency expressed on Surf's Up, as after all this one doesn't get the sheer hatred usually seen directed at, say, MIU and LA.

Wow. Distinctly unimpressed. There's nothing going on. What a boring lark this is.

Ugh. It's short...really, really short. We suddenly have Blondie Chaplin and Fataar in the band, but they don't really do that much; in fact, they may effect this slide into sub-par, lite R&B. "He Came Down" is a great summary of everything that's wrong with this album: horrific lyrics, horrific arrangement, horrific delivery...it's got it all in spades. Most of the rest isn't actively bad, but just shockingly nondescript; had this not been an album by the BEACH BOYS, I doubt any major label would ever have released it. I enjoy some of the tracks near the end, but...

Holland: See above. Not that familiar with it (I have the Caribou disc), and pretty much disappointed, especially given the fact that some people really ADORE this album. That said, I will risk crucifixion by saying that I don't really like "Sail On Sailor," so clearly the sublime brilliance of Holland is wasted on me. "Trader" is fun, but suffers from the same midtempo lack-of-arrangement as do some of the other tracks.

This version of "Big Sur" pales in comparison to the outtake version.

This is all I have to say at the moment.
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Re: The Beach Boys - The Shitty Years (or: a Welfare Story)

Postby lukpac » Tue Feb 21, 2006 11:45 pm

Xenu wrote:Lots of bands have their "shitty years," or the years outside of what is generally regarded as Critical Gold. There are at least a few cases where those albums are really pretty good, if not as "important" as some others. I like Goats Head Soup and It's Only Rock 'n Roll, not to mention Who By Numbers and Who Are You. So, steeling myself, I decided to actually really listen to some of these albums (ask me about the two day period where I listened exclusively to Black and Blue, Emotional Rescue, Undercover, Dirty Work, and Steel Wheels...no Still Life, as even I'm not ready for that)


WBN and WAY? Nahh. More like the two Kenny albums...

And to hijack your thread some more:

Goats Head Soup - pulled that one out a few months ago. It really wasn't doing a whole lot for me.

IOR&R - I still haven't got this on CD. I used to listen to it on tape quite a bit, but it's quite possibly been a decade or more.

Black and Blue, Dirty Work - still don't own them

Emotional Rescue - No CD, had it on tape. Even then I don't think I listened to it much.

Undercover - I know I don't have it on CD. I honestly can't even remember if I have it on tape, if that tells you anything. I might, but I'm not sure.

Steel Wheels - I still have a place for this one in my heart, since I can still remember it being a hit on the radio. Finally got it on CD recently, and while it isn't great, it isn't too bad, either. Which is pretty much like everything semi-recent from the Stones - not bad, but not really very memorable.

Still Life - Used to listen to it quite a bit (on tape), along with Love You Live and Flashpoint. Not sure if I could stomach any of them today.
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Postby Andreas » Wed Feb 22, 2006 1:53 am

I will just list some of my favorites from these Beach Boys albums that I overlooked at first.

Smiley Smile: Fall Breaks And Back To Winter is a mini-Elements-suite, the chromatic motive from the Fire Intro, the vocals (later used on the Fire 2004 version), the canon-like repetition, the spooky production. Whistle In is also a nice surprise, only a snippet, but an impressive one. Think of it as a fade to a non-existing Smile song, and it sounds splendid.

Wild Honey: Country Air and Let The Wind Blow. Both are a bit hard to swallow because of the minimalist production (and the distortion on Country Air), but those melodies are always in my head. The defining moment in Let The Wind Blows is the line "But don't take her out of my life, Don't take her out of my life" with the additional vocals that suddenly change the color of the chords.

Friends: The entire albums minus Transcendental Meditation is full of hooks and delicate, if a bit minimalist production. Most importantly, the focus is back on harmonies (the ending of Anna Lee The Healer) and sweet lead vocals (Be Here In The Morning). And it has Mike's finest moment ever laid on tape: Meant For You.

20/20: I also regard this album as a mess (many Beach Boys fans disagree with this). But you have Be With Me (Dennis' most daring production), I Went To Sleep and especially the excellent Time To Get Alone (admittedly, I prefer the Redwood/Three Dog Night version).

Sunflower: At My Window is the weak point, but otherwise, the strongest album from start to finish after Pet Sounds. Deirdre is seriously underrated, and of course the dreamy All I Wanna Do, which sounds like a completely failed mixing experiment resulting in a work of genius.

Surf's Up: Til I Die is one of Brian's top 10 songs of all time, no question. But the key to this album is really A Day In The Life Of A Tree. Concentrate on the fade. The fade to don't Near The Water is also a fine surprise (at the end of an otherwise terrible song).

Carl & The Passions So Tough: Marcella, Cuddle Up and All This Is That. These three songs are as good as it gets for 1970s Beach Boys. Marcella has become a staple for Brian's concerts. Cuddle Up is Dennis' most melodramatic composition. All This Is That features some of Carl's and Mike's most wonderful vocals. The fade with the obscure "Jay Guru Dev" repetitions almost turned me into TM. :)

Holland: That's an album that I never really got into. Sail On Sailor is by far the best song here, fully realized, composed and produced. The last-minute-deletion We Got Love is the other highlight for me, probably the finest Chaplin-Fataar song. The single mix of "California Saga" is more enjoyable because of some additional vocals (can be heard on the Greatest Hits Volume 3 CD).

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Re: The Beach Boys - The Shitty Years (or: a Welfare Story)

Postby J_Partyka » Wed Feb 22, 2006 7:05 am

Xenu wrote:Smiley Smile ... I suppose it helps that the songs--mangled or not--are Brian Wilson compositions, and are splendid. The off-putting studio sound and production, which annoy me on "Wild Honey," are endearing here, given the strangeness of the compositions themselves.


I agree with this; I seem to like this album more all the time. The odd, slightly creepy atmosphere really appeals to me for some reason. Favorite moments: the Gregorian-chant-like "Wind Chimes" coda; "Little Pad" in its entirety (I love this track); that melody in "She's Goin' Bald"; and the slow fade of "Whistle In."

But yeah, "Getting Hungry" does suck. Can't believe they put that one out as a single (under the name "Brian and Mike").

As for "Heroes" and "Good Vibrations" ... I still think of them as singles that have been tacked on to the album. I love them both, but I don't really think of them (particularly the latter) as real Smiley cuts.

As for Wild Honey, it's really uneven, but I like it a little more than you do, mostly for the title track, "Country Air," "Darlin'," "Let the Wind Blow" and "Love Just Once to See You." Everything else is forgettable, and the dry, demo-like production is problematic. But those five cuts would make a strong EP.

Friends is the best post-Pet Sounds album, I'd say. I can listen to "Wake the World" (a rare Brian/Al writing collaboration) over and over, and I think "Busy Doin' Nothin'" is underrated (if a little disturbing as a look into Brian's day-to-day life at the time).

The 20/20 hodge-podge is worth having for "Do it Again," "I Can Hear Music," "Time to Get Alone" (I've never heard the Redwood version; I should track it down) and the two Smile leftovers. "Never Learn Not to Love" isn't bad; I kinda like its ominous atmosphere. Everything else is disposable.

I've spent much less time with the subsequent albums, apart from Sunflower, which I like a lot (particularly Dennis' work and Brian's "This Whole World"). I don't care for "Sail on Sailor" either, and the only post-Sunflower album I can stomach is Love You, but that one is so weird and it hardly feels like a Beach Boys album at all.

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Re: The Beach Boys - The Shitty Years (or: a Welfare Story)

Postby MK » Wed Feb 22, 2006 1:37 pm

Glad to be an inspiration

Xenu wrote:Smiley Smile:
I finally really warmed to the SS version of "Heroes and Villains" (after being primarily familiar with the standard "alternate version" from the boxed-set), and I prefer this version in the context of the album...


I went through the same thing with Heroes & Villains, I first heard the alternate box set version on a sampler promo. Maybe it was missing some additional info, but the disc I had made no indication it was the alternate, and for awhile that was the version for me. It took a while for the SS version to grow on me. The rest, I still don't enjoy. It just seems to slapdash. For some that's part of the charm, I know Christgau loves it, but I dunno, it's like listening to a bootleg of informal recordings. It ain't terrible, but I still can't dig it.

Wild Honey: I don't like this one as much. Firstly, let me go on record as saying that I simply don't buy the Beach Boys as an R&B outfit one fucking bit. Yes, some of their attempts at this are decent, but...no, sorry, not fond of it. That said, "Wild Honey," "Darlin'," and the odd Stevie WOnder cover are servicable. That said, the entire album suffers from a lack of any sort of arranging sense; the weirdness of Smiley Smile is gone, and in its place is that odd studio sound and piano effect. Bleh. It's notable that the few songs with arrangements ("I'd Love Just Once to See You") stand out so prominently. Everything else seems composed, recorded, and presented as-is.


That gets overstated. The Beach Boys will never be the Temptations or the Miracles or the O'Jays or the Spinners. Having said that, I like this stuff for what it is. Carl Wilson will never be mistaken for a Motown act, but I still like hearing him sing Stevie Wonder. Kind of like the Beastie Boys' first album, none of them come close to Chuck D. or Run-DMC, but I dig it. When I first heard the title track, it almost seemed awful. I never heard a Beach Boy sing like that, hitting the notes off-key and straining with the voice instead of keeping it smooth, but I grew to like it. I think the whole album is actually their funniest, and not unintentionally (or corny like some of their earlier jokes).

Never heard the next two start-to-finish, only the singles. The assessment on Sunflower and Surf's Up sounds right on. The rest, I've haven't heard start-to-finish, but I have no interest in doing so. I tried, I REALLY tried giving Disc 4 of the box set a chance, there is NO WAY I'll ever get into that stuff. Yeah, maybe a melody here or an arrangement here, yeah, Brian's doing a 'new voice' so I was open-minded to that, but the songs, they didn't do it for me.

Clinton Heylin said it best, if you wanted classic Stones in 1973-1974, you needed to hear the New York Dolls. GHS and IOR&R had maybe three good tracks apiece. IOR&R as a whole was a better, more cohesive album, but still just so-so.

"Who By The Numbers" I actually listen to, it's interesting, some tracks really rock, the rest is still nice. "Who Are You" really does belong with the Kenny Jones era, even if Kenny wasn't in the picture yet.
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Re: The Beach Boys - The Shitty Years (or: a Welfare Story)

Postby MK » Wed Feb 22, 2006 1:42 pm

lukpac wrote:Black and Blue, Dirty Work - still don't own them


"Black and Blue" is worth owning, IMO, that was surprisingly good.

The rest after "Some Girls" sounds more and more like corporate rock. I used to chalk up "Tattoo You" as their last good album, but I take it back, it's the last one to have classic material, but it's not a good album. 'Slave' and 'Waiting On A Friend' are the two I like the best, 'Hang Fire' and 'Start Me Up' were hits, the latter becoming overplayed but still as popular as their "Hot Rocks" era hits. Outside of those four, the rest of "Tattoo You" is pretty average or worse.
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Postby czeskleba » Wed Feb 22, 2006 11:31 pm

I've never been able to get into Smiley Smile or Wild Honey. They sound like sloppy, amateurish demos. There are bands for whom sloppy and amateurish can be virtues, but not the BB. Their best work features polished, professional singing and studio musicians, period. They can't pull off sloppy.

Friends is great. My third favorite of their albums and better than the vastly overrated Pet Sounds. Quality songwriting, some of the last really great singing by Brian over a whole album. 20/20 also features some very good material.

Sunflower is also highly overrated. This Whole World is great, but then you have Tears in the Morning, which held the undisputed title for worst BB song ever until the late 70's (I dislike Bruce's voice, and melded to lyrics that schmaltzy intensifies the dislike).

Surf's Up I've listened to a few times, and the only songs that made an impression on me were the title song, Till I Die, and Student Demonstration time (in the case of the latter, it was not a good impression). So I guess I find most of the album competent but forgettable.

Other bands... Who by Numbers? Geeze, that thing is better than the overrated Quadrophenia. If it's part of the shitty years than so is Quad.

Stones. For some reason I liked One Hit (to the Body) enough to buy Dirty Work when it came out. Mistake. I remember the rumors that Charlie didn't even play on much of it... has that ever been confirmed?

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Postby Andreas » Thu Feb 23, 2006 2:04 am

czeskleba wrote:There are bands for whom sloppy and amateurish can be virtues, but not the BB. Their best work features polished, professional singing and studio musicians, period. They can't pull off sloppy.

I understand your point, but I completely disagree.

The mix of Pet Sounds is a school in sloppiness meets genius. Studio chatter in Herer Today, unerased tape for Waiting For The Day, clicks in Let's Go Away For Awhile, the false start of the bass harmonica in I Know There's An Answer.

And all their albums from 1967 on are unpolished, somehow unfinished, sometimes experimental, sometimes just not bothering to try to get the perfect take. Sunflower is a possible exception, but even that has the amateurish French verse in At my Window and the bizarre mixing issue of All I Wanna Do.

If you can't enjoy the sheer joy of Country Air (a song where they did not bother to write any verse lyrics) or The Night Was So Young (where Carl is suffering from a cold), then...well you can't enjoy it. :)

In my opinion, allowing and appreciating sloppiness for artists like Hendrix or Neil Young or the Stones, but denying it for the Beach Boys, is pigeon-holing. (I hope that is a word.)
Last edited by Andreas on Thu Feb 23, 2006 5:31 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Postby Andreas » Thu Feb 23, 2006 2:14 am

czeskleba wrote:Who by Numbers? Geeze, that thing is better than the overrated Quadrophenia.

That's my take as well. Who By Numbers is my third favorite Who album, after Sell Out and Who's Next.

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Postby lukpac » Thu Feb 23, 2006 8:36 am

czeskleba wrote:Other bands... Who by Numbers? Geeze, that thing is better than the overrated Quadrophenia. If it's part of the shitty years than so is Quad.


What's that about strokes?

I *like* WBN, but I think even as a collection of songs (vs. a rock opera), Quad is a lot stronger than WBN. Of course, it doesn't have Success Story, but...
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Postby czeskleba » Fri Feb 24, 2006 11:51 pm

Since I'm lazy I'm just gonna copy some comments I made about Quadrophenia on the Hoffman board:

"The lyrics were a bit too awash in adolescent angst for me. In the Who's early days Townshend wrote about adolescent frustration from the perspective of being a frustrated teenager. On Quadrophenia, Pete was writing from the perspective of a being a rich guy in his mid-twenties reminiscing about how it felt to be a frustrated unhappy teenager. It just seemed a bit contrived and overwrought lyrically to me.

Keith's drumming also shows quite a bit of decline on this album. Although it's still creative and energetic (and much better than what was to come), it is a far cry from the stuff he was doing just a few years before during the Tommy era. I've always felt that as Keith goes, so goes the Who, and the albums I rate the highest are the ones where he is at his absolute best (My Gen, Leeds, Tommy). So all that combined with just too much synthesizer made Quad in my opinion an interesting album but not one of their best."

I may have been overstating it to say that WBN is a better album. I guess I feel Quad is overrated by so many fans so I overcompensated in my criticism. I prefer the lyrics on WBN and I prefer the instrumental makeup of the album (no synthesizers). But Quad's songs are probably stronger musically. I guess really I'd say their differing strengths and weaknesses make them about equal.

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Postby MK » Sat Feb 25, 2006 2:20 am

When it works, "Quadrophenia" is great, but there's some duff songs and some stretches where it peters out. Maybe a tighter single LP could've been crafted, I don't know, but even then, I'd still prefer "Who's Next" and "The Who Sell Out."
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Postby Xenu » Sat Feb 25, 2006 6:47 am

I was surprised to discover that I liked Quadrophenia when I first heard it; somehow, I had gotten the impression that it was a bombastic, overblown failure of an album, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover that it was bombastic, overblown, *and* enjoyable. Around the end of the sixties, Pete developed some intriguing compositional quirks, as with his tendency to compose bridges that have absolutely nothing to do (melodically) with the song in which they appear (to the point where I occasionally have difficulty remembering which bridge shows up in which song). I see Quad as one gigantic outgrowth of that quirk, with the repeating "thematic" bits, the songs-within-songs, the compositional asides...it's Pete indulging in his taste for a cutaway approach, and it mostly works.

My criticism is, oddly enough, that it's a little "samey." MK, I feel like we're touching on similar aspects of the album here. It's Pete's show through and through, and much as Tommy benefits from the included Entwistle compositions, I feel like Quad could simply use a break from that voice at some point in its narrative in favor of something from an alternative perspective. Or, err, perhaps a slight edit for length (my personal copy truncates I Am the Sea, and snips a little from a few other tracks).
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Postby Andreas » Sat Feb 25, 2006 8:17 am

Quadrophenia has some of Entwhistles finest moments. The bass in The Real Me is incredible. I always rate this album a bit weaker in the songwriting department than the previous albums or Who By Numbers, but the playing is as good as it gets.

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Postby JWB » Tue Feb 28, 2006 2:54 pm

Smiley Smile - not a big fan
Wild Honey - IT'S FUCKING BRILLIANT...EAT SHIT GOODWIN!...it does sound like shit though
Friends - lovely
20/20 - underrated
Ladlocked (unreleased LP) - excellent stuff, it's a pity these songs were left on the shelf
Sunflower - way overrated
Carl & The Passions - "All This Is That" rules, the rest is middling to poor
Holland - "Trader" is amazing, Brain's songs are great too
Live - A teriffic LP though it's patchy in quality