Seeing past the "Endless Summer"

Mark Athitakis reviews the Beach Boys' 'Endless Harmony,' which spotlights the classic vocal group's underrated later history.

Published August 27, 1998 6:30PM (EDT)

As anyone who's spent any amount of time working in journalism knows, you can get pretty cynical about press releases. A steady stream of hype-laden front-office prose comes in over the transom so routinely, so uninformatively, that it's easy to imagine how a slightly more cynical fellow than myself might miss the following line, the final sentence of EMI Music Distribution's announcement about the Beach Boys film and tie-in CD, "Endless Harmony":

"Beginning in 1999, Capitol will launch the re-release of all of the
out-of-print Beach Boys albums originally released in the 1970s on the
group's own Brother Records label."

It's about time. Capitol's 1990 Beach Boys CD-reissue program stopped at
1969's "20/20" album, and the label publicized their remastered version of
the 1966 masterpiece "Pet Sounds" at the expense of the rest of the band's
output. News of any classic band getting its complete discography back in
print is always good to hear, but the announcement happily comes at the
tail end of a year when it's been depressing to be a Beach Boys fan. Carl
whose gorgeous, soulful voice propelled the band's classic ballads
and whose guitar drove its early surf rock hits, died of lung cancer this
February. This June, with much fanfare, the band's resident genius, Brian
Wilson, released the solo album "Imagination," a heartening but ultimately
lackluster collection of new songs; it exists mainly as proof of his recovery from the manipulative tentacles of drugs and overbearing doctors, but little else. But the upcoming re-release of the band's '70s records is crucial because it goes a long way toward dismissing the biggest lie ever
told about the Beach Boys: namely, that after "Pet Sounds," the band was finished. As a collection of rarities and other musical ephemera, "Endless Harmony" might not debunk that myth entirely. But it's a good place to start arguing the point.

The reason that myth is so pervasive involves more than just the lack of
'70s-era CDs for new fans to pick up. It hinges on a simple fact: Brian
Wilson never finished "Smile." It was during the creation of that
notoriously unfinished record, which Brian Wilson promised in 1967 to be a
"teenage symphony to God," that he suffered a nervous breakdown; the band
was still creative for a number of years afterwards, but their reputation
had become severely damaged, and years later the ghost of the greatest
record never made continued to haunt them.

"Endless Harmony" includes a 1972 live version of the "Smile"-era "Wonderful," where Carl Wilson makes the following announcement to the crowd: "Several years ago, we did an album called 'Smile.' It should be coming out ..." -- he pauses for a long
moment, as if he doesn't quite believe it himself -- "... this coming year." Still, his prayerful vocal on "Wonderful" resonates, as do many of the songs that came out of the "Smile" era. On an unreleased demo of "Heroes and Villains," Brian plays piano and chats with his then-lyricist,
Van Dyke Parks, shifting from the song's familiar chords and vocals into
interpolations of unfinished songs of the same time: "I'm in Great Shape"
and "Barnyard," where he imitates livestock noises, singing scales in a
chicken's voice.

It's a frightening and revealing moment, and certainly adds more fodder for the
belief that Brian had truly gone off the deep end by the late '60s. But
even on the brink of madness, Brian Wilson's goal as a songwriter never
changed: He wanted to channel a feeling of innocence, be it at the beach or
around the barnyard. The remixes and demos of earlier songs included here -- "Help Me Rhonda," "God Only Knows," "Kiss Me Baby," the
transcendent "Good Vibrations," here in the form of a 1968 live
rehearsal -- are proof of that. His goal never wavered, although it did become more
sophisticated and, arguably, weirder. The previously unreleased 1969
doo-wop jaunt "Soulful Old Man Sunshine" finds the band nodding further
into the soulful psychedelia that would come into bloom on later albums
like "Sunflower," "Holland" and "Love You." The inclusion of "Til I Die,"
the centerpiece of the band's beautiful 1971 album "Surf's Up," shows Brian
Wilson at his saddest and his most heartbreakingly confessional; the mature
follow-up to "In My Room," he achingly sings, "I'm a cork on the ocean,
floating on the raging sea ... I lost my way."

Brian wasn't always a major player in the late '60s/early '70s version of the
Beach Boys; the "Smile" debacle truly did take its toll on him, and in
truth, some of his output at the time could be maddening, like the oddball
musical fairy tale he included as a 45 with 1972's "Holland." But
it offered a chance for the other members of the group to prove their worth
as composers and musicians, which "Endless Harmony" amply displays. By
1970, Carl Wilson had increasingly taken on the role of producer and
ringleader of the band, exemplified by his strong, soulful vocals on
"Darlin'," here included from a 1980 concert, and "Long Promised
Road," another highlight from "Surf's Up." Drummer Dennis Wilson, who died
in 1983, never got much of the spotlight as a vocalist, a situation rectified
here by the inclusion of two '70s songs, "Barbara" and "All Alone," which show him
as the owner of a rich, mournful tenor. Unfortunately, Mike Love didn't fare quite so well. By 1976, Brian was falling further under the influence of self-abuses and began his
relationship with a manipulative psychiatrist, Eugene Landy. To burnish
Brian's image, the band launched a "Brian's Back!" campaign to coincide
with the release of the band's worst record, "15 Big Ones." Love's
previously unreleased song to his cousin, "Brian's Back," tries hard to
praise his genius, but Love winds up mainly promoting himself in front of a
'70s chintz-rock background. "They say that Brian is back," he croons, "I
never knew that he was gone." Well, maybe he didn't -- but everybody else did.

The Beach Boys' history has never been a pretty one, but, to its credit,
"Endless Harmony" doesn't try to smooth out the rough spots. Even when the band was great -- and make no mistake, the band had strokes of greatness well after "Pet Sounds" -- it was often mired in failures, infighting and aborted concepts and projects. But the messes that the
band wound up with should be seen as proof that the group's ambitions went
much further than fun, fun, fun and two girls for every boy. When those
'70s albums start coming out next year and fans no longer have to scour the
used LP bins, that story will become much clearer. But for now, "Endless
Harmony" offers something that the Beach Boys' tale desperately needed for
a long time: perspective.

By Mark Athitakis

Mark Athitakis is a regular contributor to Salon.

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