Last week's Retro Roundup entry, the Beach Boys' Today!, received from me a 50-50 interest ratio regarding the album itself and the circumstances behind it.
When it comes to the band's 1969 album, 20/20, I would say the interest ratio is 30 (for the album itself) and 70 (for the circumstances behind it).
Over the years, 20/20 has been viewed by critics as a slapped together album of recent singles (mainly the top-20 return-to-surf hit Do It Again) and leftovers, and a way to near the completion of the band's contract with Capitol Records, with whom they were frequently at odds. A lawsuit regarding royalties had taken place with the company in 1967, and the band did not like how they were marketed: particularly still being portrayed as a surf group, releasing a greatest hits album in competition with the masterpiece Pet Sounds; and in 1968, releasing a third greatest hits collection that was a)badly packaged b)featured fake stereo mixes for songs previously released in true stereo and c) included their 1964 rendition of Frosty the Snowman as part of the track listing, in fake stereo yet.
A more extreme view of 20/20 is that of an album created in an atmosphere of misery, with three convicted murderers having written songs contained on it. They included Huddie Ledbetter (the old song Cottonfields), Phil Spector (I Can Hear Music) and Charles Manson (Never Learn Not to Love, originally Cease to Exist).
The murderer angle is a bit silly — only Manson wrote something in that specific time period of 1968. But the misery angle is valid.
a) While Brian Wilson was active in the early parts of the recording sessions, especially for Do It Again; his efforts at a version of the standard Old Man River, which to me is wonderful, was halted by the band. That and other factors resulted in Brian admitting himself to a mental facility for a period, and the other band members (save Mike Love) did their own productions. As one can hear on the digital release of the session outtakes, they became quite experimental, particularly Dennis Wilson.
b) As mentioned above, Charles Manson wrote at least one song for the Beach Boys. That's because, around the time of the early-1968 Friends sessions, Dennis Wilson picked up a female hitchhiker (given his randy history, he could hardly resist) who just happened to be a member of what became the murderous Manson family. Dennis fell under Manson's spell, and he even attempted to launch a musical career for the self-proclaimed Wizard. When that failed, Manson vowed revenge. By the time of the Tate-LaBianca murders, Dennis had separated himself from Manson, but he still felt guilty for the rest of his life for having associated with him, particularly as he tried to get producer Terry Melcher to help launch Manson's career.
Melcher moved out of his house, and the new occupants were director Roman Polanski and his then-pregnant wife Sharon Tate. So I can imagine Dennis's torment.
Putting aside all this adversity, let's go through the album track by track.
• Do It Again: As mentioned above, this was the album's biggest hit, and a sort of return to the surf sound. It has a wonderfully distinctive (created by genius engineer Steve Desper) percussion sound, and classic harmonies. The song was mixed in mono for single release and stereo for album release, but the stereo mix allegedly flew out of Carl Wilson's convertible while he was on his way to the Capitol (Records) Tower in Los Angeles, and a fake stereo mix was created for the LP. Bizarrely, the song segued into the sound of a workshop, which was a brief segment of the unfinished Smile album.
• I Can Hear Music: A Carl Wilson-produced cover of one of Phil Spector's many hits. This soaring performance is so good that if you didn't read the credit, you would think Brian produced it. And this was Carl's first released production, at least under his name. Even Brian, who allegedly did not participate in these sessions (which I doubt), was shocked how good it was.
• Bluebirds over the Mountain: A cover version of an Ersel Hickey song, produced by Bruce Johnston and Carl Wilson. This was also released as a single prior to the album drop. It's not bad, but I prefer the bizarre Dutch stereo mix with the ping-pong sounds on one stereo channel, featured on the now-deleted Rarities album. It's more lively.
• Be With Me: This was produced and written by Dennis Wilson, and its eerie but effective sound indicates the musical experimentation taking place and the emergence of Dennis's unconventional style of song structure. The song's eerie atmosphere has caused some to wonder if Manson helped write this as well. (Manson was not credited on Never Learn Not to Love).
• All I Want To Do: Not to be confused with All I Wanna Do on their next album, Sunflower. This, also written by Dennis along with frequent collaborator Stephen Kalinich, is an all-out rocker with one of the best lead vocals ever recorded by Mike Love. As indicated on the aforementioned outtakes collection, Dennis attempted a lead vocal. Quality-wise, it was a close call, but choosing Mike's vocal was the right decision. At the end, if you turn up the volume, you can hear the sounds of an activity that, today, would have earned the album a Parental Advisory sticker.
• The Nearest Faraway Place: A nice instrumental by Bruce Johnston, resembling some of the densely arranged instrumentals on Pet Sounds. Problem is, on some formats (LP, tape, even some CDs), some of the song sounds distorted.
• Cottonfields: During Brian's less active time during the sessions, bandmate Al Jardine somehow convinced him to produce this version of the Leadbelly song. To me, it's okay, but a little lackluster production-wise. Jardine must have thought so too, as he produced a new, livelier, country and western-oriented version released as a stand-alone single in 1970.
• I Went To Sleep: A nice and understated Brian Wilson song about taking it easy on a lazy day. Gorgeously performed, but I wish the mix was better.
• Time to Get Alone: This is a Brian Wilson masterpiece, and one of my favorite songs, not just Beach Boys-wise but in general. Absolute perfection. So why does the song just bear a Carl Wilson production credit? That's because Brian originally recorded it for the group Redwood (later Three Dog Night) in a production that resembled the Americana vibe of Smile. The group, needing material, put a stop to those sessions, and a second recording with the same production values was recorded and only released on a rarities collection. Allegedly, for 20/20, the entire song was re-recorded from scratch, but I'm skeptical, which means I think Brian should have shared the production credit. I love all the recorded versions.
• Never Learn Not To Love: The aforementioned Manson co-write, and also effectively eerie and experimental. Dennis changed "cease to exist" to "cease to resist." Understandable, but this lyric change enraged Manson.
• Our Prayer: My evaluation of this would really belong in a Smile review, as this was the planned album opener. Suffice it to say this is harmony, wordless singing at its best.
• Cabinessence: Also a Smile track, I'll just say it's a masterpiece of production and structure, but it never hit me in the gut as much as other Smile tracks.
If Brian had completed the outtakes Been Way Too Long (started during the Wild Honey sessions as Can't Wait Too Long) and the planned Old Man River/ Old Folks At Home medley, and these replaced some of the lesser songs, this album would nearly have been as good as Smile.