Like baseball in autumn, like Alex Chilton in his Southern winter, The Beach Boys were built to elate you and to break your heart. They reached greater artistic and commercial heights than nearly any other pop band, yet their 56 years have been filled with the most utterly human suffering, and as much mediocrity as majesty. They remain our most purely American art-pop obsession; their music sighs like hymns in oil-lit front parlors, buzzes with the neon hum of the Jazz Age, twangs like an Okie banjo by a canyon campfire, and strives to sibilant AM radio heavens like Spector.
Only The Beatles have come close to matching The Beach Boys’ ability to create pioneering art that also achieved popular ubiquity. But there’s a profound difference in the way we relate to the two bands.
The Beatles were (and are) as remote and inconceivable as the dinosaurs; we eye them with awe, as if they are moonwalkers or mythical emperors, and think of them in gigantic terms. We deify The Beatles and treat their words and actions as scripture (and this is why we obsess over their Hamburg days, since it is the only time we can truly visualize them as human). The Beach Boys, on the other hand, continually defied attempts to be made into gods. They were chubby, and balding, and miniature, and sloppy drunk, and touched with madness. They made godly music, but they also made garbage.
The Beatles are a religion, but The Beach Boys are like a Russian doll: Their catalog and their vaults still reveal new joys, surprises and complications. I am constantly finding new wonder and joy in the work of The Beach Boys.
The just-released 1967 — Sunshine Tomorrow is the latest joy/surprise/complication, and a very goddamn welcome one it is, too.
The Beach Boys had a rather wondrous run of albums between 1967 and 1973. These were full of shimmering Topanga psychedelia, sunny blues, dusky autumnal-gold evensongs and gorgeous, lonely Smile remnants. These records underline the fact that there is far, far more to The Beach Boys than Pet Sounds, Smile and a large pile of astonishing hits.
Wild Honey, The Beach Boys' second album of 1967, has always been a weak thread in this string. The original mono mix of Wild Honey was flat and peculiar (as opposed to the nearly perfect mono mixes of Pet Sounds and Smiley Smile), and the whole album felt like an afterthought of Smiley Smile and a lesser preview of Friends.
Disc one of 1967 — Sunshine Tomorrow changes that in a huge way, because it’s the first true stereo mix of Wild Honey. Done with enormous sensitivity and grace by Mark Linett and Alan Boyd (the magnificent Beach Boys archivists who created the insanely good Smile reconstruction in 2011), the “new” Wild Honey is deep and delightful, human, rollicking, humming and rolling. Linett and Boyd have done that trick of changing everything while changing nothing; rather than seek a perfection not present on the original, they have understood that Wild Honey is a reflection of The Beach Boys at a vulnerable time, created as they faced the uncertainty of a future that might or might not feature Brian Wilson. (Although Brian contributes significantly to Wild Honey, it is the group’s truest “band album” since 1964’s Shut Down Volume 2).
Wild Honey is an album that not only defied the baroque acid vaudeville of The Beatles circa ’67 but also courageously contradicted rock’s expansion into pompous avenues of volume, psychedelia and lyrical pretension. In fact, the glowing, gripping, whispered and giggling Wild Honey (now conjured in beautiful, living pastel by Linett and Boyd) must be seen as a precursor to (and fellow traveller of) Dylan’s John Wesley Harding, The Kinks Are the Village Green Preservation Society and The Notorious Byrd Brothers.
There’s a lot more to 1967 — Sunshine Tomorrow, which attempts, as the title avers, to provide a fairly comprehensive snapshot of America’s Greatest Band during that crucial year. On the downside, this means that 25 of Sunshine Tomorrow’s 65 tracks are alternate takes and session excerpts from Wild Honey and Smiley Smile. I confess that I am not an alternate-take/session-excerpt guy, regardless of the artist; I have always found these are like watching one of those outtake reels on YouTube: “Oh, that’s interesting! It’s amazing Vicki Lawrence could keep a straight face for that long! I am not sure this will impact my future viewing experience of Mama’s Family, but at least now I know it exists.”
But there’s more gold in the package. 1967 — Sunshine Tomorrow includes the first authorized release of a much-discussed Beach Boys treasure, the very peculiar Lei’d in Hawaii live album that the band recorded in the fall of ’67 but declined to release.
The quasi-legendary Lei’d in Hawaii is totally unlike any other Beach Boys live record (and there are some very good ones out there, most notably the amazing Live in Chicago 1965, which features our sunny Beach Boys playing with a Jon Spencer–like zeal yet still nailing those harmonies). The basic concept of Lei’d was to record Beach Boys classics (and a few covers) with the stripped-down, living room–sized band that had made Smiley Smile. Much of Lei’d sounds like a ghostly, under-rehearsed experiment, and sometimes it’s like watching the band walk on a tightrope while holding panes of glass. This results in some minimalist interpretations of Spectorian hits (“California Girls” sounds like Mo Tucker dueting with Marty and Elayne) and some moments of absolute terror (“Sloop John B” is so incomplete that I guarantee you’ll check to see if both your speakers are working).
But just as you want to dismiss Lei’d as a failed experiment, it achieves transcendence. There’s a marvelous, trashy, Suicide-esque version of Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders’ greaseball three-chorder, “The Game of Love”; a wonderful take on “The Letter,” which finds Mike Love and Brian Wilson dueting in an emotional, rough-hewn manner that's impressively outside their usual wheelhouse; a heavenly bridge on “Heroes and Villains” that actually surpasses any of the studio versions; and a delightful, homespun “With a Little Help From My Friends,” which has a light saloon swing that would have made it an excellent fit on Smile.
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This revision of Wild Honey and Lei’d in Hawaii allows us to see The Beach Boys staggering from the heights of 1965 and ’66, emerging from Eden and creating the foundation for a fascinating and beautiful future based on who they actually were: uncertain adult children, men at the dawn of their lives searching for identity and achieving grace and magic in the process.
The Beach Boys' 1967 – Sunshine Tomorrow is out now on Capitol/UMe.