As in the case of last week's Retro Roundup on the Beach Boys' 1976 album 15 Big Ones and last June's entry on their somewhat bland and stale 1978 album M.I.U. Album, the story behind each of the band's late 1970s work is more interesting than the albums themselves.
As tell-all books and Beach Boys co-founder Mike Love's autobiography make clear, the late 1970s was an extremely turbulent time for the band of three brothers, a cousin and their friend.
To recap, 15 Big Ones emerged from Brian Wilson's rehabilitation from years of inactivity, mental illness and self-destruction, and near-inactivity by the group as a whole in the studio.
The next album, The Beach Boys Love You, benefited from a months-long spurt of Brian Wilson inspiration — he recorded enough material from late 1976 to mid-1977 for three albums. On the negative side, the band's label, Reprise, found two-thirds of the material to be overly quirky and non-commercial. Thus, the planned New Album and Adult Child material was only heard on bootlegs.
The next released LP, 1978's MIU Album, was recorded in the aftermath of the group splitting into factions — between druggies (Carl and Dennis Wilson) and clean-livers (Mike Love and Al Jardine) — and a near break-up. Carl and Dennis largely stayed away from the MIU sessions.
Is it any wonder that critic Lester Bangs referred to the Beach Boys as a "diseased bunch of m-----------s"?
And now we turn to the L.A. Album, released in 1979. According to various biographies, Columbia Records surprisingly — given their poor record sales of late — signed the band. Unfortunately, this happened while the band owed two albums to Reprise, and that company barely promoted those LPs.
Probably shell-shocked from all the familial tumult going on, including Carl Wilson embarrassing himself on stage due to drugs at several Australian concerts in early '78, Dennis Wilson becoming increasingly belligerent owing to his own alcohol and drug excesses, and Brian Wilson also spiralling, it's no surprise that the group would be a little short on musical inspiration.
This was becoming evident to Columbia Records biggie Walter Yetnikoff, himself quite the wild man, who summoned the Beach Boys to his office in New York City and famously told them, "I think I've been f----d." Brian Wilson promised great things were coming from the upcoming sessions to be held in Miami in late 1978, and the pressure relented.
However, more drama was to come. Brian was in a mental institution for a time in late 1978, he began divorce proceedings with wife Marilyn, and with all that on his head, he left the facility for the L.A. (Light Album, not Los Angeles) sessions.
What could one expect?
Here's where the story gets murky. By some accounts, Brian was surprisingly productive at this point, working at top speed and apparently recording an innovative cover version of Neil Sedaka's Calendar Girl with calliope sounds.
Then, something happened to Brian, and it's not clear what. Perhaps the sessions were not running as well as some thought. But the result was that Brian, or somebody else, put in a call for help to Bruce Johnston, who had not officially been a part of the Beach Boys since 1972, but who projected stability. Bruce ended up co-producing and permanently rejoining.
The ultimate result was an album that:
a) Sounded very 1979, in terms of its slick and hi-fi sound.
b) Was dismissed by critics as just another poor late 1970s Beach Boys album.
c) Contained some of the band's best songs in years, and some of their worst or at least mediocre ones. One of the better songs, California Feeling with a great opening Brian vocal, was not included and not officially heard until the 2013 Made in California box set.
d) Contained contributions from nearly all band members.
And at least the album was completed. Here's my song-by-song
Here's my song-by-song take:
• Good Timin'— One of the better songs on the album, written by Brian and Carl Wilson and sung by Carl. One of the best songs on the album, and the closest to the classic Beach Boys sound with sumptuous harmonies. The song was begun in 1974, and the original backing track with an incomplete Carl vocal is extremely touching.
• Lady Lynda — A not bad Al Jardine song with a classical opening, inspired by his then wife. However, there's something about the way the lead vocal sounds when the word "lady" is repeated that kind of turns me off.
• Full Sail — A pretty good but very slow Carl Wilson song that is one of the ways in which this album sounds of its time, as in the slick late 1970s sound.
• Angel Come Home — An excellent Carl Wilson tune sung with passion by Dennis Wilson — perfectly suited to the latter's rough, rugged voice. Apparently, this is the only song on the album on which Brian (background) vocally appears.
• Love Surrounds Me — For a long period of time following his own solo debut, Pacific Ocean Blue, Dennis Wilson was recording a follow-up to be named Bambu. But because of his deteriorating condition, the sessions were sporadic and unfocused. This song, recorded for that album, shows the potential Bambu had to be a wonderful, musically progressive album. It has the trademark Dennis unconventional musical structure, with some very effective synthesizer stabs. This song alone demonstrates that the critics who dismissed this album likely didn't listen to it, at least closely.
• Sumahama — A Mike Love song with some lyrics in Japanese. Not as smarmy as his Everyone's In Love With You from 1976 or Belles of Paris from '78, but not an album highlight for me.
• Here Comes the Night: Oh, the pain! The original version of this song, from 1967's Wild Honey album, was an excellent soul-inspired and not-at-all slick triumph. This remake, Bruce Johnston's idea, is an 11-minute disco "extravaganza." This could have been good — Carl Wilson's vocals are excellent. The problem was, every disco percussive and synthesized "special effect" was thrown into the mix. I like disco myself, but not disco clichés. Notoriously, an audience at New York's Radio City Music Hall booed when this version got its live debut. A 3 and a half-minute 45 RPM version is much more tolerable.
• Baby Blue: From pain to absolute heaven. This Dennis Wilson song, also recorded for Bambu, turned out to be one of the best Beach Boys songs of all time, an emotional masterpiece with Carl and Dennis vocals. The song also has that nice Dennis unconventionality, with some slightly discordant horn stabs in the second half of the song.
• Goin' South— Not bad, but not very memorable and a much too slow Carl song.
• Shortenin' Bread: For some reason, Brian Wilson was obsessed with this very old, traditional song and recorded a version pieced together from 1973 and circa 1976 elements. This version has a Carl lead, with deep Brian backing vocals, and is fun. This LP's version, a complete remake with Carl on lead and Dennis doing the deep backing vocal, sounds like it was recorded quickly to fill up album space. The rock guitar sounds slapped on and halfhearted. To me, it's one of the worst officially released Beach Boys songs.