I wasn't planning on writing about The Beach Boys again so soon after extolling the virtues of Sunflower a few weeks ago. However, because writer Scott D. Parker is hosting a new feature on the last Thursday of every month in which a bevy of bloggers will write about forgotten music I've decided to participate by discussing one of the later albums by the famous surf-rockers. Their eponymous 1985 album, The Beach Boys, is one with an interesting backstory.
Except for Dennis Wilson, who died in December 1983, everyone else was present and accounted for on their first album since the drummer's passing. The lineup included both Brian and Carl Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, and Bruce Johnston. They dedicated the album "to the memory of our beloved, brother, cousin, and friend."
This LP was released around the same time that Brian was awakening from his twenty year death spiral. It was hailed as his comeback because he was fully integrated into the band for the first time in almost a decade. It would also be the last time all five of these guys worked together and Brian would never appear again on a Beach Boys album.
The producer was Steve Levine, who was famous at the time for working with Culture Club. Of course that meant the album became a typical, almost totally 80s, synthesized affair. Very few tracks actually featured the band playing their own instruments as Levine and his studio mates replaced them with all sorts of digital keyboards. The drums and bass were mostly programmed. Usually, the Beach Boy who was most responsible for writing the song added some keyboards or guitar to the arrangement but that is all.
The album's songwriting is passable. Two of the better tracks came from outside the band. Stevie Wonder wrote and played on "I Do Love You," and Culture Club's Boy George and Roy Hay contributed The very good "Passing Friend." The weakest song is the Jardine/Brian Wilson entry "California Calling." By this time it seemed so juvenile to hear men in their forties singing brand new songs about boogie boarding and the "ultimate wave" while using phrases like "totally rad." Fortunately that is the only song that tries to relive their glory years. The highlight is the Mike Love/Terry Melcher top 40 hit "Getcha Back," arguably the band's last really memorable song before the release of their final hit, "Kokomo," three years later. Brian co-wrote, sang lead, and helped arrange the vocals on five of the tracks.
In his autobiography the former head Beach Boy wrote that by working with Levine "I learned the lesson that so many people who made albums in the eighties missed: no matter how perfect technology made the sound, an album still boiled down to great songwriting and a spiritual investment in the music." He also wrote that Levine "was preoccupied more with the technology than the music. I saw lots of computers and blinking diodes, but I didn't hear any human qualities in the music. How could I? Levine recorded each of the five voices individually and ran them all through computers, which squeezed out every imperfection until they all sounded alike." Later, while Levine was out of the studio, Brian lined everyone up around a single microphone and had the group sing harmonies to one of his songs, "I'm So Lonely." When Levine returned he said that he had never seen anybody record a group of singers all at once before and he wasn't particularly happy about it.
Despite the criticisms above I like this album. It was the the great American band's last decent effort. The vocals, especially the harmonies, are classic Beach Boys, and in the end isn't that what these guys were all about? I can listen to them sing the phone book, and while some may argue that is exactly what they did on this album, Brian and the guys were able to elevate even the weaker tracks by utilizing their instinctively outstanding vocal abilities. Carl is the record's star. His voice was superb.
The Beach Boys was recorded in London for Caribou Records and the CD version had a bonus track, "Male Ego," that wasn't on the LP. "Getcha Back" went to #26 on the singles chart and the album rose to #52. It wasn't a big hit but it wasn't a failure either. In the end though the record ended up like most of The Beach Boys' work of this era, totally forgotten and in the cutout bins. It deserved a better fate.