One of early rock's most vivid and enduring myths is that of Brian Wilson, the California dreamer. It's an image easily summoned by anyone familiar with the Beach Boys' saga: pale, pudgy Brian, sitting alone in his room with a piano and a notebook, wistfully writing odes to the waves he never rode, the hot rods he never drove, and the surfer girls he never knew.
It's a powerful image despite the irony implicit in his stay-at-home existence, and a marvelous testament to an artist's ability to conjure a whole world though words and music. But what truly draws us to this myth has less to do with his imagination than with ours. Because at root, this myth reflects an essential truth about the listener's experience -- that the surfin' life was just as much a vicarious experience for Beach Boys fans as it was for Brian Wilson.
So it's more than fitting that "Good Vibrations: 30 Years of the Beach Boys" (Capitol CDP 81294, five CDs) opens with the sound of Brian at the Wilson family piano. Even better, the recording in question happens to be the demo version of "Surfin' U.S.A.," the retooled Chuck Berry tune that gave the Beach Boys their first Top-10 hit.
There's one thing this demo doesn't do, though, and that's live up to our image of Brian Wilson as a dreamy-eyed wallflower. Instead, it rocks, and what comes across in his performance isn't wistful idealism but confidence, professionalism, and vision -- the sound of someone who knows exactly what he wants from the song, and how he intends to get it. Hearing him play, it's easy to understand how the final arrangement followed his lead, and how much the single owed its success to his original concept.
That, in a nutshell, is the lesson offered by this set. No matter how much "Good Vibrations" might seem to celebrate the Beach Boys as a whole, it's Brian who shines as the group's guiding light. There's more than six hours of music included here -- 142 tracks in all -- and Brian was responsible for the majority of it, from familiar favorites like "Surfer Girl," "I Get Around" and "California Girls" to lesser-known gems like "Hang on to Your Ego" and "Sail on Sailor." In addition, the set includes a ton of previously unreleased material (most of it his), including session tapes and 10 tracks from the legendary "Smile" album.
Of course, the Beach Boys were never a one-man show; how could they be, when so much of their sound depended upon group harmony? And each of the other original Beach Boys -- Al Jardine, Mike Love, Carl Wilson and Dennis Wilson -- has at least a couple of writing credits sprinkled through the collection.
But let's be honest: Had it not been for Brian's singular approach to harmony and melody, the Beach Boys would never have outlasted the surf-rock craze. His ideas -- the way their singing brought the tightly harmonized sound of the Four Freshmen into the rock era, the richly emotional melodic ideas, the ear-catchingly idiosyncratic instrumental arrangements -- were what gave the band its distinctive identity, and its claim on history. And in that sense, the story sketched by "Good Vibrations" is essentially his.
Start with his interest in harmony. From the first, the Beach Boys were known for their tight-knit group vocals, an approach that pushed well beyond the norms of doo-wop. Going by the singles, it's easy to assume that the increasing sophistication of the Beach Boys' arrangements simply reflected the group's growth over time, moving from the simple thirds and fifths of "Shut Down" or "Little Deuce Coupe" to the more complex chords of "In My Room" or "I Get Around."
In truth, the Beach Boys -- Brian especially -- had cut their teeth on the jazzy close-harmony sound of groups like the Four Freshmen. Indeed, one of the numbers on the Boys' original demo for Capitol Records was an a cappella rendition of "Their Hearts Were Full of Spring" (released for the first time on this set) that finds them breezing through harmonies that would have stymied contemporaries like the Beatles. And though that kind of singing was downplayed in favor of rock on most of the group's albums, the Boys nonetheless tried to keep their hand in, even cutting a big band-style version of the Jule Styne/Sammy Cahn ballad "Things We Did Last Summer" for the "Little Deuce Coupe" album (it didn't make it, but is finally included here).
By 1965, three years into the group's Capitol contract, the Beach Boys hit their creative peak. Although the band's best-known material still maintained a surf-rock sheen, Brian's melodic and harmonic ideas went well beyond the stylized simplicity of conventional rock fare. Although the lyrics for songs like "Help Me Rhonda" and "California Girls" seem cut from the same cloth as the group's earliest efforts, the vocal arrangements are infinitely more inventive, full of daring intervals and intricate inner voicings.
"Good Vibrations" makes it easy to hear just how involved those arrangements are, thanks to a section of disc 5 dubbed "Stacks o' Tracks/ Stacks o' Vocals." Here, five Beach Boys classics are remixed with the vocal track hard right, and the instrumental track hard left. Keep the balance control in the center, and you get old-style two-track stereo; shift it all the way to the right, and all you hear are voices. It's quite a revelation, too, to hear just how much harmonic complexity is packed into the deceptively simple lines of a song like "Wouldn't It Be Nice."
Inspiring the Beatles
Then again, "Wouldn't It Be Nice" brings us up to "Pet Sounds," an album Paul McCartney credits with in
spiring the Beatles to break away from traditional rock sounds and record "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." "Good Vibrations" includes fully half the album, as well as "Hang on to Your Ego," a song originally intended for the album that was dropped (allegedly due to objections from the others over the title) and later reworked as "I Know There's an Answer."
This is Brian Wilson at his best, and the level of detail within these songs is nothing short of astonishing. But even better are the tracking tapes included on disc 5, which find
Brian leading the recording sessions for "Hang on to Your Ego" and "God Only Knows." It's fascinating enough to hear him give direction, asking for more bass clarinet at one point or running through a tricky time change with the drummer, but the real revelation is the extent to which these tracks stand up even without vocals.
Brian was never able to top that album, though he did try. "Smile" was to have been the successor to "Pet Sounds," an album intended as the definitive statement of rock ambition, one that would instantly dwarf "Sgt. Pepper" -- or so went the legend. But Brian, under pressure from the band, the label and an unhealthy number of drugs, never delivered, eventually abandoning both "Smile" and the ultra-ambitious attitude it embodied.
"Good Vibrations," however, unearths eight uncompleted tracks from "Smile" and, for hard-core fans, they alone are worth the price of the set. Because none of these songs are "finished," it's hard to say how "Smile" ultimately would have sounded, but what's here is both stunning and frustrating, offering a virtuosic display of sonic texture and harmonic dexterity, but rather less in the way of melodic coherence.
Still, it's hard to judge what Brian might have done with these tapes, particularly given what he would later accomplish with the single from which this set takes its name. "Good Vibrations," as radio listeners heard it, was at once kaleidoscopic and coherent, razzle-dazzle display of studio technique. But as the extended "track" version of "Good Vibrations" included on the fifth disc shows, Brian reworked, shuffled and discarded dozens of ideas before finally hitting on the magic combination many consider the Beach Boys' greatest single.
Unfortunately, the Beach Boys' story goes steadily downhill from there. Disc 3 boasts some memorable melodies (particularly the underrated "Wild Honey"), but is mostly noteworthy for the way Brian's deteriorating mental condition is reflected in his increasingly unself-conscious lyrics. Who could possibly hear the previously unreleased "H.E.L.P. Is on the Way" and not wince at the way he describes his self-image and eating problems?
Best times are past
As for disc 4, although it does manage to include a few worthy selections, like "Sail on Sailor" and the lovely "Marcella," it stands mostly as evidence that the band's best days are behind it. And how could they not be, given the embarrassing spectacle of "Rock 'n' Roll Music" or "Kokomo"?
No matter. As bad as the Beach Boys might sound today -- and that's pretty bad, as anyone who has caught them lately can attest -- there's no denying that this was once one of the most accomplished and imaginative acts in rock. And "Good Vibrations" is precisely the sort of monument such a band deserves.