❉ A bruised Brian Wilson may have stood down from the helm after Smile but he was still hugely gifted and capable.
It’s unlikely to have escaped your attention that this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of anything that was made in 1967. Most obviously, The Beatles’ Sgt Pepper has been celebrated left, right and centre, not least with a whopping new 6-disc ‘super deluxe’ edition box-set. That’s not to say that Pepper doesn’t deserve the hoopla. Back then, though, it was just another salvo in a friendly battle between the era’s two pre-eminent bands.
When the Beatles made Rubber Soul, the Beach Boys upped their game and came back with Pet Sounds. When The Beatles released Revolver, the Beach Boys cracked their knuckles and started work on Smile. But by the summer of 1967, the Beatles had recorded and released Sgt Pepper. The Beach Boys had become seriously bogged down with Smile, so instead they licked their wounds, regrouped and put out two quickie replacement albums, Smiley Smiley and Wild Honey, just three months apart towards the end of the year. Neither album sold well, and all talk of creative oneupmanship with the Beatles quickly ebbed away.
1967: Sunshine Tomorrow is a new two-disc set which captures The Beach Boys at this pivotal point in their story. The headline attraction here is a proper stereo mix of Wild Honey. (Long story, but stereo wasn’t the Beach Boys’ chief format of choice at the time, partly because it was still generally perceived as a novelty, but also because Brian Wilson had lost most of the hearing in his right ear). A stereo mix of the wondrous Smiley Smile was released a few years ago, so the album isn’t presented here in full. It’s represented by outtakes and session tracks, though – although curiously that’s held back until the second disc, so the set as a whole is virtually in reverse chronological order.
There’s also a generous helping of live tracks, bordering on the exhaustive. The most genuinely compelling of these is the previously unreleased Lei’d in Hawaii material, supposedly an genuine live album but actually recorded live in the studio inbetween Smiley Smiley and Wild Honey, with the intention of adding audience sounds on top later.
The new mix of Wild Honey lets a lot of light in to the sound and, in particular, lets the bass and drum stretch out. That’s significant, because the whole album has a much beefier sound than the Beach Boys had aimed for before. Their most recent singles – Good Vibrations, Heroes and Villians – had been built on particularly driving bass riffs, and many early listeners had Good Vibrations down as an R&B track. The Smile material didn’t sound so much like that, but in the wake of it not being released, the band took a very different direction. Pet Sounds and Smile were something close to being Brian Wilson solo albums, with lyrics by outside writers, music played by crack session musicians and Brian himself dominating the vocal duties. For the most part, the other Boys were restricted to singing harmonies.
Smiley Smile and Wild Honey were different. Brian stepped back – only slightly, at first – and installed a makeshift recording studio in his Bel Air mansion. The band recorded most of their work there for the next few years, sharing out the vocals more evenly than before and gradually upgrading the equipment as they went along. Their music from this period often has a delightfully home-made feel, for very good reason. Most of it was made in Brian Wilson’s living room.
This set kicks off with the wailing theremin of Wild Honey‘s title track, but such outlandish instrumentation is the exception, not the rule. For the most part, these songs are being played by the Beach Boys themselves, mostly on drums, piano, guitar, bass and organ, with a dash of bongos and tambourine. Session musicans were used to add some string and brass parts subsequently, the latter especially. They’d used them before, of course, but only selectively. Pet Sounds is awash with French horn, flutes and clarinets. Throughout Wild Honey, the whole sound is brassy and driving. It suits absolutely, because the songs are all about love and desire by lusty young men in their early 20s.
Pet Sounds, recorded just over a year earlier, was relatively chaste and romantic. Think of Wouldn’t It Be Nice, Don’t Talk (Put Your Head on My Shoulder) and Let’s Go Away for Awhile. Now, suddenly, they’re singing about how they love’d to see you in the nude, and promising that they’re gonna love you every single night. (After Pet Sounds and Smile Mike Love was making a comeback as lyricist, so perhaps he’s the culprit.) Basically, this is the album where the Beach Boys get the horn(s). Whisper it, but Wild Honey isn’t just about yer actual wild honey.
There’s scarely a whiff of psychedelia here, and the finger-clicking Mama Says aside, none of the tarted-up Smile off-cuts which would find their way onto their next few albums. All told it’s less acid, more marijuana. Having abandoned the production race towards an ornate, progressive sound, the band hit upon something much more rootsy and gutsy, informed by their youthful love of rock ‘n’ roll and the then-current wave of soul and R&B, spearheaded by Motown. It’s not exactly funky, but it knows where funky lives. There are contemporary covers here, too – their corking, Carl Wilson-driven version of Stevie Wonder’s I Was Made To Love Her (complete with an excised a capella doo-wop break); a Lei’d in Hawaii take on The Box Tops’ The Letter; and a rough crack at Wayne Fontana and the Mindbenders’ Game of Love. They all fit in rather snugly.
What’s striking is that the Beach Boys’ abdication from the international Search for a New Sound race, though it was no longer so obviously forward looking, actually anticipated the general trend. Old-school and unadorned was actually the way ahead and became the sound of the late 60s and early 70s. Yes, there may be a low-key Lei’d in Hawaii cover of With a Little Help from My Friends on here, but if anything, the Beatles ended up following in the Beach Boys’ slipstream again with Lady Madonna, The White Album and Let It Be. As everyone knows, Back in the U.S.S.R. is part-spoof, part homage to the California lot, and McCartney’s throwaway 1968 ditty Wild Honey Pie might well have a nod of sorts in its name. (While we’re at it, Penny Lane was surely Pet Sounds on a trip to the Liverpool suburbs; and an outtake on the new Sgt Pepper set reveals that the Beatles considered ending A Day in the Life with a long harmonised ‘ommm’ highly reminiscent of Smile‘s then-unreleased Our Prayer).
The session tracks here show that the Beach Boys’ 1967 material was actually deceptively simple. In fact, they’re dense, layered pieces. It’s just that they’re designed to make the listener groove along rather re-examine their relationship to life, the universe and everything. Even fine but relatively unexceptional songs of the period – Aren’t You Glad, say, or Let the Wind Blow – sound like sharp, tuneful beasts when unveiled here. Others – Darlin’, Wild Honey, the early version of Time to Get Alone – are right up there with the band’s greatest songs. The live versions work precisely because these songs were written to be played live.
A bruised Brian Wilson may have stood down from the helm after Smile but he was still hugely gifted and capable. Sadly, his real problems were just beginning, and he was first treated in a psychiatric hospital shortly after this period. As things got worse, the other members stepped into the breach to different degrees. For a time, Carl Wilson virtually held sway, but there were always too many cooks, too much pure ego. The band sounded different prior to 1967, but they never sounded quite the same again afterwards, either. Of the songs here, only Brian’s irresistable ditty I’d Love Just Once to See You would feel at home on their next album, 1968’s Friends, which is so laid back it’s basically horizontal.
One element that touches a nerve here, though, is the reflective interview material with Mike Love which sits alongside that of Brian Wilson in the liner notes. No doubt things could have got litigious if Love hadn’t had his say, as he did in other major Beach Boys releases of late such as the Pet Sounds and Smile box-sets. Now, Mike Love is a fine singer, a natural showman and a passable lyricist. But co-architect of the Beach Boys’ incadescent greatness he is not, however much he would like to doctor the story.
It’s striking that one particular outtake from the period is not included here, and has never been officially released. It features Mike Love in the studio delivering a ‘comic’ rant over the backing track of Heroes and Villains, not long after it was released as a single. He begins, “In every recording group’s career, there comes that moment when they realise that they have a nuclear bomb on their hands.”
Just a bit of fun in the studio, you understand – but within the course of three and a half minutes, Love manages to slate, amongst other things, the single’s chart performance, its lack of radio play, the lyrics, Carl Wilson’s laboured breathing and Brian’s eating habits, laying responsibility for the song right at the door of the latter. Love concludes by saying that the song makes him want to puke, adding, “being basically masochists, we kind of enjoyed having this record bomb”. Peace and love though, right, Mike? (If we’re being catty here, over the five decades since, Love has released just one execrable solo album, now long since deleted.)
This new collection can sit nicely beside the existing Pet Sounds and Smile sessions box-sets. It might not be quite so extensive, but it certainly charts what happened next. We know that this new direction didn’t last, of course, and yet, here we are, still listening to it fifty years later. If science has it right, there must be a parallel universe out there in which The Beach Boys finished Smile back in 1966 – and Lord alone knows what they went on to do next. In our reality, though, we have Sunshine Tomorrow, and the fact is it could have been far, far worse. Certainly, it doesn’t sound like a band fighting for their survival. It just sounds like they’re having a really good time.
❉ Andy Murray is Film Editor for Northern Soul and a regular contributor to Big Issue North. He’s also the author of the Nigel Kneale biography Into the Unknown and co-author (with Dr Mark Aldridge) of the Russell T Davies biography T is for Television. He’s not the tennis guy, obviously. But he did once receive a publicity photograph of him to sign by mistake.