Here’s one for the record books: perhaps the strangest, most banal and nut crushingly odd album from the pen of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys. Yes, even stranger than the universally beloved/loathed “Love You.” Even stranger than those mid-period albums they made before Love took over. Which, of course, makes it one of the maddest albums ever made yet never released (and don’t let the shoddy recording quality fool you, this was a completed album).
Which is saying something, as the Beach Boys have roughly…50 insane unreleased albums. And it’s weird enough to be entry three in the “Inexplicable Albums” series!
This proposed follow up to “Love You” was supposed to continue the whole “Brian is Back!” marketing campaign that had resulted in one “meh” album “15 Big Ones” as well as the delightfully odd (obvious solo album wannabe) “Love You.”
What makes this album odd is that it mixes the big cheese Broadway arrangement style from “20 Big Ones” with the childish (not childlike) songwriting of Wilson to create…well…the weirdest fucking Broadway ditties you’ve ever heard in your life.
A great example would be opening track “Life is for the Living.” It starts out with Brian trying to establish a smooth vocal smooth with a slightly off-key “liiiife! Is for the liiving!” as horns honk out a “finger popping” (I hate that term) Broadway riff.
Then Brian sings the following line which should tell you all you need to know about the lyrics on this album: “don’t sit on your ass, smoking some grass, that stuff went out a long time ago.”
Wow! And as always with Brian, I have absolutely no doubt he meant those lyrics in a completely heart felt manner: the guy always bled sincerity in a good and bad way.
Which is then exemplified (again) on the follow up track, “Hey Little Tom Boy.” This song is a…well, it features a band of weird, drugged up bearded 30 something’s chanting “hey little, hey little, hey little Tom boy! Time to turn into a girl!” as well as a creepy middle section where they “make her over” to be a “girl.”
Amazingly, this song made it onto the rushed replacement for this album “MIU” but without the creepy “hey put your hair down baby!” middle section.
I won’t go over every track here: that would require somebody trained in psychology to unravel Brian’s insanity at the time. Instead, I’ll discuss a few of the covers he tries to pull off: “Deep Purple” which is no better or worse than a million other versions of the song (and probably worse) and “On Broadway” which is…Al singing “On Broadway” backed up by a fully arranged cheese orchestra.
So far, so good: again, I don’t doubt Brian’s sincerity with these recordings. I believe he fully loved these songs and tried to do them the best justice he could at the time. And they aren’t bad: just banal.
The best cover is the insane “Shortnin’ Bread” cover which Brian had developed an insane obsession with around that time (climaxing with the infamous Alice Cooper/Ozzy Ozbourne/Whoever hour long singalong of the song led by Brian). It’s the exact same version (I think) featured on the later “LA (Light Album}” which should indicate how far the band was stretching during this period.
Better are the original songs like “H.E.L.P. Is on the Way” which is indescribable. It sounds a bit like a more arranged “Love You” outtake but with lyrics centered on getting into shape (with the HELP of the H.E.L.P. Health food store. Get it?!) or “Games Two Can Play” which is actually catchy as HELL but CREEPY AS FUCK as Brian wants to “play games that two can play.” One assumes in the bedroom.
As with everything Brian, the ballads are where he truly shines. They are the typically heart felt confessions that all his ballads turn into but with banal atmospheres and arrangements instead of his head spinning genius. “It’s Over Now” gets by on the melody alone as well as Brian’s resigned, “seat of death” vocal melody.
Perhaps the one song on the album that truly lives up to the Brian Wilson name (all the songs here are well written and catchy in their idiom but marked by banal arrangements, insane lyrics and lunatic atmospheres). It has an absolutely classy piano and vocal arrangement with minimal orchestral intrusions and a very well developed and winding melody. It’s appropriate it comes at the end of the album as it makes a solid capstone for the whole experience.
This album is something that can seem so utterly crappy and uninteresting the first few times you listen to it but which becomes interesting the more you learn about the band. After giving Brian full reign for a few albums, he must have had the confidence to do things his own away completely again.
Unfortunately, Brian was completely insane by the time this album came out and probably needed a bit of focus and prodding to create a great album. It’s probably why the songs were generally arranged by…somebody else (I forget the name, I think it’s a Sinatra arranger though).
I basically find it mostly interesting as a historical artifact and a priceless piece of information in the Great Brian Wilson/Beach Boys puzzle. It illustrates how truly fucked the band were at this point in their career: sure, Brian was Back but what good was that if he was chucking out albums as weird and hard to sell as this?!
It actually puts Love’s ascension on albums like “MIU” and LA (Light Album)” in a better light: with Carl never being a creative genius (solid, but no genius), Dennis trapped in a drug haze, Brian worthless and Jardine and Johnston seemingly along for the ride, SOMEBODY had to take control of the band and lead it into the future.
Sadly, it was the least creatively gifted member of the group who had to take control. And yes, he led them through the enjoyable but hardly essential “MIU” and “LA (Light Album)” albums but he also lead them into their abysmal “Stamos” years and “Kokomo” which makes this album seem like a lost masterpiece instead of a rightly rejected turd.
Songs to Youtube:
“Life is For the Living” as nothing can compare to this odd combination of trademark Wilson melody, jazz rock arrangements and trademark “WTF?” Wilson lyric.
“Still I Dream Of It” for evidence Brian still had IT but simply couldn’t get IT up at will any more.
(I’d like to thank the commentator who pointed a few jarringly obvious and embarrassing mistakes that I, as a lifelong Beach Boys fan, should never have made. However, since his comment contained personal attacks, I trashed it and won’t share his name. I invite criticism and corrections, but personal attacks about me or any of the writers who contribute to this site will not be tolerated.)