Even when the Beach Boys were more or less fully functional, their albums (with the one exception) were relatively patchy and prone to filler; this state of affairs was exacerbated as the band descended into dippy hippie culture and interscine passive/aggressive co-dependent dysfunction. A precipitous post-Pet Sounds plunge in popularity coincided with the abandonment of ambitious “teenage symphonies” and, beginning with Smiley Smile, the Wilsons, et al. simply regressed, effectively producing gentle, if deranged, children’s records by recycling songs and ideas from Smile, but shorn of their original modular context.
While not without the odd highlight (and some of these were very odd highlights indeed), the overall effect of this transitional period at the tail end of the 60s was one of artistic marble loss. As underproduced and slapdash as you’d hear a major pop act before bands started appending bonus discs of demo versions to their Lps, Friends represents a high-water mark in this goofy/naïve approach and, either despite or because of its retreat from adult reality and the mental illness at its heart, comes off as an unsettling yet coherent statement.
Something had to give. Time and fashion had moved on quickly and the BBs could no longer depend on Brian for hits or sonic guidance. Fortunately, Carl and Dennis (not to mention Bruce) had been paying attention all those years and, if not scaling the elder brother’s composition or production heights, made records that at least sounded like the Beach Boys, albeit a more mature version of the band. This is the band’s journeyman third period where dogged professionalism replaced the wide-eyed/dilated-pupiled experimentation of the era immediately preceding. Bruce Johnston recently cited Sunflower as his favorite “band album” (as opposed to a “Brian-at-the-controls album”) and it’s easy to see why. Rededicated to democratic songwriting of a commercial standard and recently signed with Warners in the US after a difficult and painful final spell with Capitol, Sunflower sounds like what it must have felt like to the band: a re-birth.
I had certainly heard Sunflower (subtitled, in the parlance of the times, “An album offering from the Beach Boys”) before, but hadn’t ever credited it that much. I was grateful for the chance at re-appraisal afforded by its purchase (and that of Friends, which I’ve listened to a lot more over the years) at a boot fair in Great Chart south of Ashford for 50p this Bank Holiday Monday.