The Beach Boys – Friends (ST 2895) (1968) and Sunflower (SSLA 8251) (1970)

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. 

An unusual sighting of the Capitol rainbow Lp label on a British EMI issue.

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.

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Published in: on August 30, 2012 at 3:51 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. whenever anyone writes about brian wilson, you can be fairly certain sure that the word “genius” is in close proximity, or at least implied. however, once again playing the boy’s part in the tale of “the emperor’s new clothes”, in my opinion brian wilson is not a genius, just someone who once happened to be accomplished at the kind of thing he did (although not my kind of thing – i appreciate the high standard of their harmony work, but the only beach boys track that i consider worthy of inclusion in my music collection is “the warmth of the sun”).

    nor should anyone else who has been successful and critically acclaimed in popular music be given that much-abused accolade – if there are any musicians worthy of it all, then surely it is only the likes of bach and beethoven. but in my opinion, only those who have invented or pioneered something on a scientific level that has improved all our lives significantly and that we now all take for granted in this day and age should have the honour of being described as such – i’m talking about those responsible for stuff like steam power, electricity, cars, planes, radio, television, computers, even the internet, but perhaps most pertinantly sound and recording technology… without which, brian wilson and his fellow so-called genii of pop would be up a gum tree!

    on a perhaps less contentious note: even in the first flush of youth, mike love was never exactly convincing as a surfing type, but look at him on the sleeve of the “sunflower” album with his balding bonce and karl marx beard – how could anybody looking like that be described as a “beach boy”?

    • Yes, genius = abused/overused term.

      And the way Mike is suffering the little children to come unto him on both the cover and the inside sleeve….gives me the f*ckin’ creeps.

  2. You need to qualify the term genius, e.g ‘musical genius’, ‘scientific genius’, ‘literary genius’, because without that qualification it is meaningless. I would contend that quite a few musicians have operated on genius-level for brief periods of their career, but it is always fleeting. Perhaps someone like John Coltrane sustained it for longer than most. With Brian Wilson it was gone as soon as the drugs took hold. ‘Friends’ was a nice, therapeutic ‘comedown’ LP for Brian though and ‘Sunflower’ a refreshing new start for a band that still had plenty left to give, not least ‘Surfs Up’ and ‘Holland’.

  3. Yes, ‘Trane fairly sustained creative high, although I am particularly fond of the Atlantic releases; the first Impulse! albums are as good/better, but post-ALS, I can’t deal.

    For me, SU and Holland are pretty patchy.


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