54. THE BEACH BOYS – SUNFLOWER (1970)

Lairs of Harmony

The customary Liner Notes of the 1960s and early 1970s album demonstrated little variation. Usually they were insipid, vain attempts by unfeasibly witless record companies to promote their artists (Check out the US ‘Meet The Beatles’ issue: ‘You’ve read about them in Time, Newsweek, The New York Times. Here’s the big beat sound of the fantastic phenomenal foursome. A year ago the Beatles were known only to patrons of Liverpool pubs. Today there isn’t a Britisher who doesn’t know their names…’) Occasionally some aspired to be more meaningful or poetic, although sometimes pretentiously so. For The Beach Boys ‘Sunflower’ album however, a novel approach. Neither witty nor poetic, they serve a quite different purpose. Forgive me for reprinting them in their entirety:

‘This album was recorded at the studios of Brother Records and utilizes the most advanced recording techniques in the industry today. All original recording was done on a special 3M 16-track tape recorder, supplied by Wally Heider Recording Inc., of Hollywood, using 2-in wide tape. Microphones used include: Neumann U67, U87, KM-85, RCA DX77, DX44, EV 666, and RE-15. A custom-built 30 position mixing console, manufactured by Quad-Eight Corporation, provided extreme flexibility and special effects for this album. Tape to disk transfer was done at Artisan Sound Recorders, Hollywood, using the latest Model Neumann computer controlled mastering lathe, equipped with a Neumann SX-68 helium-cooled, dynamic feedback cutterhead. The songs on this record were recorded in true stereophonic sound; they are not 16 monophonic signals placed somewhere between the right and left speakers blended together with echo, but rather total stereo capturing the ambiance of the room and the sound in perspective as heard naturally by the ear. Although more difficult to perfect, this type of recording is far more satisfying to hear, as will be demonstrated upon playing this album.’

And there we have it. No sanctimonious homage, no empty promise that the record will change your life – instead we have a convoluted itemisation of the sound engineering and recording equipment which will make this ‘a more satisfying’ listening experience. Of course in one sense, these are liner notes to be avoided altogether, but if you, like me, have over time, nurtured a tremendous fondness for this album, you just may find yourself returning to them to contemplate what it is precisely about the music on ‘Sunflower’ that makes it sound so incredibly fresh 45 years on? Perhaps the SX-68 helium-cooled, dynamic feedback cutterhead? Or surely the addition of the KM-85? (Those old KM-84s were useless, everyone knows that) The latest model Neumann computer controlled mastering lathe possibly provided the crucial ingredient. Those Germans are very efficient you know. Your eyes may be drawn to that EV-666 – which certainly sounds suspicious. Could those nice Christian boys have struck a deal with Satan? After all, isn’t he supposed to have all the best tunes? On the other hand, these liner notes could be the best – or at least the most honest – ever written. For ‘Sunflower’ does exactly what it says on the tin.

I have played ‘Sunflower’ with greater frequency than almost any other album I can think of, since I first purchased it second-hand on vinyl from a small, oft-forgotten Glasgow record shop called Rebel Records in the late spring of 1988. I distinctly remember the occasion as I handed over my £1.99 to Stuart Murdoch, later of Belle and Sebastian fame, who was serving at the till that day. The shop, located right at the very top of Renfield Street, was often deserted and didn’t stay in business long. Presumably, he would have had more than adequate time to nurture his budding songwriting skills while spending endless hours gazing around his deserted environs listening to his favourite tunes. Time would be kind to young Stuart, while in 1988 The Beach Boys were not as fashionable as they were to become in the early to mid-1990s, perhaps due to the monster Brianless (nope, no spelling mistake) comeback US chart-topper ‘Kokomo’ from 3 years earlier.

I hadn’t heard of the ‘Sunflower’ album before I spotted it in Rebel Records. I treasured ‘Pet Sounds’ of course and had the ’20 Golden Greats’ compilation – the blue one with the surfer on the cover. I figured that was all anyone needed of The Beach Boys. As I perused the sleeve, interiorly debating the wisdom of a potential purchase, the only date visible that I could see was 1980, although the puzzling back cover portraits (Mike with his Maharishi toga ‘teaching the children’, Al – minus only the obligatory lederhosen – decked out for a Munich beer fest; Bruce in a wedding chauffeur costume) suggested an earlier incarnation of the group. It may have been prudent to exercise caution for, if truth be told, when The Beach Boys recorded ‘Sunflower’, they had more or less been written off as an antiquated relic from a distant past. It turned out the album in my hand was a later reissue – and was in fact from 1970, in some ways a forgotten period of The Beach Boys story. The reason ‘Sunflower’ doesn’t feature very often in The Beach Boys story is not simply because it wasn’t a big seller (it reached only #151 on the Billboard Album Charts) but because it dates from a time when Brian was no longer undisputed director of operations and for many people, Brian Wilson is The Beach Boys. If any of that post-‘Smile’ stuff was worth listening to, it may have led one to the dangerously heterodox conclusion that there was more to the BBs than Mr. Brian Wilson. But while it would be more than a little foolish to question Brian’s pre-eminent position in The Beach Boys, that is a pill too difficult to swallow for some, for whom any acknowledgement of a positive musical contribution from Mike Love is a concession akin to climbing into bed with Beelzebub. I’m by no means the defence counsel for Mike Love, but that pantomime villain stuff is just plain silly.

Like it or not, ‘Sunflower’ is undoubtedly the best whole group album the band recorded. From around ‘The Beach Boys Today’ through to the ‘Smile’ debacle, the other Beach Boys were really worker bees, buzzing around their consecrated and dominant queen. Brian had been touched by genius – he had outmanoeuvred The Beatles, and out-Spector’d Phil, but his walls of sound were about to come tumbling down. Subsequent post-meltdown albums (‘Smiley Smile’, ‘Friends’, ‘Wild Honey’ ’20/20’) were decent if unspectacular, but there is a sense that the slide in the Beach Boys popularity in the late 1960s was less attributable to any significant artistic decline than with changing fashions. A mere three years after being the only other band to be voted NME Readers’ Vocal Group of the Year (1966) during the imperious reign of the Fab Four, they found themselves suddenly unhip, passe, their angelic harmonies incongruous with a world of blues heavy guitar heroes and rampant hippiemania. But it is to their credit that they remained aloof from changing trends and watched as those around them burned themselves out like comets as the furious rapacious progress of pop fashion devoured many a bright new thing and spat them out, yesterday’s heroes.

From the mid-1970s onwards, The Beach Boys did not exactly cover themselves in glory, producing material almost unspeakably corny and banal (don’t go near the Light Album – the vomit-inducing title is enough) but the period between 1970-1973 is truly a golden one for the band; a new label (Reprise/Brother), a marked growth in the songwriting of the other group members, particularly Dennis, and three exceptionally good albums: ‘Sunflower’, ‘Surf’s Up’ and ‘Holland’ (‘So Tough’ credited to Carl & The Passions, doesn’t quite reach the same peaks) – the former two the best back-to-back classic pairing of their career (‘Smile’ wasn’t released, remember?) The secret? Well, the liner notes give us a clue. And then there are those harmonies… If Bruce Johnston’s melodramatic ballads are too saccharine for some tastes, it is important to remember that The Beach Boys career is laced with such moments – even ‘Wouldn’t It Be Nice’ (at least lyrically) is prime Camembert, but that doesn’t inhibit our affection for ‘Pet Sounds’ – in fact, it’s all part of its innocent charm. Brian and psychedelics, despite some intriguing results, was ultimately, an ill-judged marriage. And the lyrics – despite Van Dyke Parks best efforts – were always secondary to the music. It’s the harmonies that lure you in. So, in keeping with the spirit of the album’s Liner Notes, allow me to illustrate some of its harmonic brilliance with a few technical notes of my own.

Hear the boys soar on the opener ‘Slip On Through’ at 0:50 – a rushing flood of airborne voices almost as if, like an unstoppable force of nature, they had burst through the studio doors, a human tsunami. Or consider for example, the incredibly complex construction that is ‘This Whole World’; it has a career’s worth of hooks packed into its sub-two minute duration – it is difficult not to succumb to those layers of litany between 1:18-1:31, and the mesmerising ‘Thiiis Whoooole Woooorld’ group harmony at 1:41. For an even more impressive exposition, give ear to the remarkable ‘All I Wanna Do’, where the densely echoed production between 1:25-1:45 almost beggars belief. The song has been afforded the dubious credit of being a virtual blueprint for the Chillwave genre, but really deserves a greater accolade. I would rate it one of the greatest pure pop songs ever written. Remember too, that it was co-authored with Brian by Mike, who sings lead beautifully. Whatever you think of Mike Love, he deserves great credit for this little gem.

Vocal duties are shared out evenly on the gorgeous ‘Add Some Music To Your Day’, a perfectly structured beaut, showing tremendous love and care (check out the little vocal flourish between 0:31-0:37), but the great harmonising and string accompaniment through 1:14-1:31 makes it a showstopper and Carl’s flawless solo gives way to heavenly hums at 2:15. Carl shines too on the luscious ‘Our Sweet Love’ and takes the lead on Dennis’ driving frenzied ‘It’s About Time’ which closes Side One, showing that the boys could rock with the best of them… Meanwhile, Dennis himself, with newfound confidence, takes centre stage with the raunchy R&B of ‘Got To Know The Woman’, while on the wistful ‘Forever’ he creates one of the band’s most tender and perfectly realised love songs – hear the harmonies build irresistibly from 1:05-1:16. If Bruce’s gorgeous ‘Deirdre’ is really top tier MOR, it has a melting Bacharach chord change at 1:01, while his ‘Tears In The Morning’ with cloves of Gallic accordion, features an exquisite coda on grand piano which sounds like it’s being recorded in the room upstairs. Even on Al’s slighter ‘At My Window’ the harmonies at the end are breathtaking. The finale, ‘Cool Cool Water’, salvaged from the ‘Smile’ sessions is both a breeze across one’s forehead and somehow playfully buoyant, providing the perfect vehicle for showcasing the mastery of chief sound engineer, Stephen Desper, who conjures miracles from the mixing desk throughout the record.

I once read an interview with John Cale, where he was asked if he would rather have been a Beach Boy than a Velvet Undergrounder. With delicate Welsh diplomacy, he sidestepped the question, but confessed to owning a complete set of Beach Boys albums upon which he struggled to heap a sufficient complement of praise. In particular, for Cale, like many others, ‘those harmonies were unbelievable’ and he recalled listening to the albums endlessly when he relocated temporarily to California in the mid-1970s. Well, if those harmonies are given a greater exhibition on any BBs album other than ‘Sunflower’ then I for one have not heard it. And I’m pretty certain I’ve heard the lot. In Jim Miller’s original Rolling Stone review, he praised the album’s flawless production, noting it possessed ‘a warmth, a floating quality to the stereo that far surpasses the mixing on, say, Abbey Road.‘ He was right, and wise to overlook the lyrical deficiencies in favour of a total surrender to the music. If the Beach Boys did not have a lot to say – aside from cars and girls and surfing – they had a whole lot of love to give in their music, and they let it shine as brightly on ‘Sunflower’ as anywhere else. When Carl belts out the sublime cry ‘music is in my soul’ on ‘Add Some Music To Your Day’ I suspect few will remain unconvinced by his impassioned declaration. (JJ)

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