The Beach Boys - The Warmth of the Sun

The Beach Boys The Beach Boys
The Warmth of the Sun

3.5 out of 5 stars
Reviewed for Coffeerooms by Mike Jefferson

The Beach Boys’ “Warmth of the Sun” takes on the daunting task of encapsulating a 45- year career in 28 songs. There may be a few chronological gaps here and there, but “Warmth of the Sun” is meant to be a companion piece to 2004’s “Sounds of Summer: The Very Best of the Beach Boys” which had the built in advantage of being able to cherry-pick most of the Boys best-known songs, so ya gotta have both. “Warmth of the Sun” focuses on many of the group’s almost hits from the surfin’ 60s and a selection of strong, album cuts from their albums in the 70s that show The Beach Boys were much more than Brian Wilson’s puppets. All of the tracks are remixed and are as crisp as a 30 foot wave off of Oahu.

In the Beach Boys vast ocean of work there are two albums that stand the test of time – and one of them isn’t “Smile” – the Brian Wilson’s legendary aborted answer to the Beatles “Sgt. Pepper” album. Not “Pet Sounds” either, which offers the trio of hits “God Only Knows,” “Sloop John B.,” and “Caroline, No” and little else. No, the only two Beach Boys albums you can play start to finish without stumbling over obvious filler, ill-advised covers or outdate surf lingo are “Surf’s Up” and “Holland.” Fortunately, both albums are represented on “Warmth of the Sun.”

“Surf’s Up” was the album where the Beach Boys finally spit out their bubble gum imagery and became adults. The lyrics were much more socially conscious and there was less emphasis on girls like Ba-ba-ba-ba-ba Barbara Ann, little deuce coupes and less fun, fun, fun. The transformation from boys to men didn’t take place overnight and it wasn’t without growing pains. With the advent of flower power, the group had cautiously tried to slip more relevant songs onto their albums. Mike Love, Bruce Johnston and Alan Jardine wanted the group to continue along a more commercial path; The Wilson brothers: Dennis, Carl and Brian, were ready to craft their albums more carefully and evolve into a more contemporary group. Their new manager, Jack Rieley, wisely followed the Wilson brother’s vision. Only now Brian was a shell of the “genius” who’d guided the group’s early hits; he’d fallen in love with hallucinogens and would spend the 70s playing piano in a sandbox in his living room. Dennis was functional, but equally prone to substance abuse and nonproductive bouts of playing up to his playboy image. Rieley wisely put the group in Carl Wilson’s hands for the critically-lauded “Surf’s Up,” and upped the ante for the follow ups “Carl and the Passions” and “Holland” by bringing in singer/guitarist Blondie Chaplin and drummer Ricky Fataar.

A master stroke begun by Van Dyke Parks and Brian Wilson, “Surf’s Up” was first attempted in 1966 (it was seen as a work in progress on a TV special and was praised by Leonard Bernstein). A mini-opera that took years to iron out, the song was finally completed in 1971 by Carl Wilson. A lament to surfer dudes getting old and worse -- realizing it, “Surf’s Up” was the perfect troubled end cut for the album that bore its name: “Surf’s up, all aboard a tidal wave. Come about hard and join the young and often spring you gave.” If the Beach Boys had done material like this all along, there’d be no arguing over their importance. This is the Beach Boys realizing that life isn’t all hot cars and bikinis, and its pure alchemy.

“Feel Flows” is a lysergic masterpiece, murky psychedelia, with a foggy, omnipotent vocal from Carl, who wrote the piece. A mystical chant backed up by twittering flute pitted against a fuzzed out guitar and keyboards eddying in time with the drums, “Feel Flows” couches Carl in the wizened role of the group’s Dali Lama. Given their clean cut uncool image, it was hard to believe the Beach Boys would reinvent themselves as hippies, but they were very into meditation and E.S.T (especially Mike Love) and LSD (especially Brian Wilson). The Airplane, Steve Miller, Quicksilver Messenger Service and everyone else on the west coast were experimenting with the sounds of summer, so why not the group that typified the season?

“Disney Girls (1957)” is a creative slice of nostalgia sung by charter Beach Boy Bruce Johnston, chock-full of 50s imagery…Rick and Dave, (referring to Dave and Rick Nelson), singer Patti Page, Tootsie Rolls…There are mentions of activities that no longer exist, (lemonade stands, local girls, bingo and pillow fights), that earmark the 50s as an era of innocence. That innocence is reflected in the purity of the vocals and the pep-rally arrangement. “Disney Girls” is the good side of being a square and all American: “Love…Hi Rick and Dave, hi pop, well good morning mom. Love…Get up, guess what I’m in love with a girl I’ve found. She’s really swell, ‘cause she likes church, bingo chances and old time dances.”

A short lament equating the death of nature to a man’s lifespan, “Till I Die,” is a sensitive and reflective ballad surrounded by vibes, organ and tight harmonies. When the boys sing “I’m a leaf on a windy day, pretty soon I’ll be blown away,” the background vocals combine with the keyboards to imitate a rustling wind. Brian Wilson wrote “Till I Die” after staring out at the ocean, feeling like an insignificant part of a vast universe: “I’m a cork on the ocean, floating over the raging sea. How deep is the ocean? I’ve lost my way.” The song was initially rejected outright by Mike Love who felt it was too depressing. (Has this guy ever been right?). Alan Jardine and Carl Wilson agreed, but the group was strapped for material for “Surf’s Up” and had to include it. Talk about being forced into doing the right thing.

“Don’t Go Near The Water” is the last selection taken from “Surf’s Up” and the most irreverent choice. (The gospel flavored “Long Promised Road,” one of the group’s most uplifting tunes, would have been a better choice, but it doesn’t really fit into the warmth of the sun theme.) “Don’t Go Near The Water” nearly drowns in its own cuteness, but it shows The Beach Boys went green long before it was fashionable. Now instead of surfing, The Beach Boys were warning us that our money-grubbing ways were polluting the water. The problem with the boys being accepted as spokesmen for the ecology was the same as their conversion to transcendentalism. Mike Love was showing signs of being a sleaze bag even a con man wouldn’t associate with -- he was already moaning about the band’s direction and complaining about not getting credit for songs he didn’t write. (Dennis Wilson got so mad at Love he dated his daughter out of spite.) If anyone else in the group had spearheaded the boys attempt to stop abusing the earth their movement would have had more credibility, but every note Mike Love ever sang or every disguise he ever took on always had a cash register attached to it, so listeners were skeptical about the boy’s ecological enlightenment. Love and Jardine attempted to get on board the group’s shift toward more socially conscious material with this and “Take A Load Off Your Feet,” but both songs were light weight and interrupted the more serious tone of the rest of “Surf’s Up.”

“Warmth of the Sun” plucks “Sail On Sailor,” one of “Holland”’s best tunes, for inclusion as well as “California Saga (On My Way To Sunny Californ-i-a),”one of the worst. “California Saga” was originally in four parts, and the loping “Sunny Californ-i-a” refrain references the 49ers (the settlers not the football team), Monterey and John Steinbeck. At least they included the best section of the song’s four pieces.

The Beach Boys go soul (or at least get some soul) thanks to Blondie Chaplin’s lead vocal on “Sail on Sailor”. Blondie who? He and fellow South African musician Ricky Fataar were briefly drafted to be Beach Boys and Blondie was tabbed to sing the lead track from the “Holland” album. A last minute addition, “Sail On Sailor” saved the “Holland” album. When Warner Brothers heard the final version, they were distressed at the lack of singles. Carl Wilson’s “Trader” glided beautifully, but was an unwieldy five minutes long, Chaplin’s “Leaving This Town” seemed even longer and had an extended moog synthesizer solo, and although “Only With You” and “Steamboat” were exceptional ballads, they were deemed too complicated for record buying teens addicted to buying 45s. Originally penned by Brian Wilson and Van Dyke Parks, “Sail On Sailor” was resurrected as a possible single. Tandyn Almer, composer of the Association’s “Along Comes Mary,” manager Jack Rieley and future KGB super-lunged singer Ray Kennedy contributed to the revised version. It shows how good the oohing and aahing Beach Boys could as back up singers for someone other than themselves, launching an entirely new career for them.(They would begin parlaying their talent as back ups by singing on Chicago’s “Wishing You Were Here” on “Chicago 7”.) One of their best songs from the 70s, “Sail On Sailor” is so catchy you can visualize the boys, beer steins in hand, swaying to the seafaring beat as they sing.

Not all the gems from “Warmth of the Sun” are confined to “Surf’s Up” and “Holland.” “Forever” from “Sunflower” features a lead by Dennis Wilson, whose voice was deemed too gruff for the spotlight. (Dennis was further dissed in his role as the group’s drummer. He was often replaced on studio recordings by ubiquitous session drummer Hal Blaine. No wonder Dennis was so insecure.) Brother Brian once called “Forever” “A rock and roll prayer,” naming it as one of his favorite Beach Boy songs. Dennis was a better songwriter than he was given credit for, and wore his lyrics and his heart on his sleeve. There’s a smokey hurt in his vocal that gives the song credibility and substance: “If every word I say could make you laugh, I’d talk forever… If the song I sing to you could fill your heart with joy, I’d sing it forever…” Dennis knew he was a screw up. He also knew he’d make a lot more mistakes – although he probably didn’t know one of them would kill him. His songs were apologies for his past and future behavior and “Forever” is a love letter to his beleaguered wife.

“Break Away” has a faster pace than the boy’s later recordings: “Time will not wait for me, time is my destiny, why change the part of me that has to be free.” The vocals, with Carl Wilson and Alan Jardine in the forefront, seep out of every crevasse and the drumming has a harder rock foundation than you’d expect. Like the “Surf’s Up” and “Holland” material “Break Away” has a maturity and honesty to it that appealed to the truth-seeking Woodstock generation.

Carried by a catchy chorus and accompanied by sparse dancing piano, electric, and brushes on drums, “All This and That” from “Carl and the Passions” is a positive piece containing the phrase “Jai Guru Deva” – further evidence of the group’s search for inner peace - or external satisfaction through increased record sales.

Although much of their early material is lyrically naive, there are some songs from the band’s surfing days that leave a few Bigfoot-sized footprints in the sand. The title track has a warm range of humming, satisfied vocals and is very much like “In My Room,” displaying a sense of self-realization sensitivity that their surfing ditties usually didn’t have. And no wonder -- written and sung by Brian Wilson, “Warmth of the Sun” was composed the night President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, a time when we all felt that the sun would never shine again.

With its goofy coconut shell marimba, “All Summer Long” is as joyous as young love can be, recalling carefree images of miniature golf, T-shirts and cars with high performance engines jutting from their hoods. Even if your summer hangout is tar beach in the Bronx, the collaborative joy of “All Summer Long” can wisk you off to California’s clean white beaches: “Every now and then we here our song, we’ve been havin’ fun all summer long.”

“Catch A Wave,” an ode to surfing, is sung flatly by Love and in full Frankie-Valli tight undies style by Brian Wilson. The organ solo and click-clack guitar runs are now remixed and sound as crisp as high tide smacking against a breakwater. Ironically, the only Beach Boy who could surf was playboy Dennis, who drowned diving off a pier in 1983. Don’t drink and dive, kids.

“409,”sung by Mike Love, is yet another tribute to a teen’s affection for his car: “She’s real fine, my 409…Giddy up, giddy up 409.” Given that a 409 engine could even turn a Vega into a guided missile, there’s a surprisingly laid back beat that’s more akin to a granny driving down the street with her blinker on. It’s a guarded pace, but it gets you there. Easterners had a hard time understanding the surf craze (hang 10 on the Hudson, anyone?) but we understood cars and speed, so “409” resonated as loudly as a dragster with open headers crossing a finish line.

“You’re So Good To Me” (no, not the Humble Pie vocal opus), is an obscure off-kilter stomp, with the back up vocals venturing into doo-wop territory. Brian does a great job staying on key despite having to deal with the bouncing ball beat, and a guitar break that sounds like the beginning of Christie’s “Yellow River.” But it’s hard to go wrong when the boys break out the “La, las” one of rock’s game saving phrases. The Wilson’s and their cousins can make any song sound like a personal invite for some beach blanket bingo.

Mess with the lyric a little, change genders, and you’ve got a credible cover of the Phil Spector/Ellie Greenwich/Jeff Barry standard “Then He Kissed Me” (retitled “Then I Kissed Her.”) Alan Jardine sings first then hands off to the smoother Carl, who hands the lead back to Jardine, while the rest of the band hums and aahs in the background like satisfied Lotharios.

The warmth of the sun shines through on the majority of the tracks, but there are few that should be buried in the sand. “Cool, Cool Water” from “Carl and the Passions” has an oasis of vocal talent but is parched for a viable idea. By 1972 (when the album was recorded) the boys were creating a lot of tunes that were, in effect, chants or rounds, relying heavily on tight harmonies to make slight material like this tolerable. Listen to the rising and falling back up vocals, rather than Mike Love’s passé lyrics and you’ll feel more refreshed.

The remake of “Why Do Fools Fall In Love” is simply an ill-considered mistake. It’s not that great a song to begin with and it’s worn out, having been covered by Diana Ross, Joni Mitchell and even actress Gale “My Little Margie” Storm. This version has the wall of sound treatment of their early surf years with the horns storming in to beef up the beat. Carl Wilson tries to drag his falsetto all the way through, but it’s too high an arrangement even for him.

Another rehash, “California Dreamin’,” points out that singers blessed with perfect pitch and a gift for harmony get old. For starters the sound effect of the thunderstorm in the background at the beginning of the song should have been toned down, and the echo effect laid on the vocals smack of gimmickry. And is that John “Full House” Stamos lead footing it on drums? (He did a few tours with the boys in between takes with the Olson Twins. Whoever it is, he’ll make you wish for Dennis Wilson’s clumsy stick handling.) Something should have been done about this tinny, thudding arrangement, including the unnecessary piercing sax solo. It was a good idea for them to try this, but it came twenty years too late.

With a vault of material that rivals the Allman Brothers and occasional lapses in judgment resembling those of the Pointer Sisters, the Wilson brothers and cousins Al Jardine and Mike Love can still boast of being one of the most successful families in the music industry, and this compilation proves it. “The Warmth of the Sun” offers up a lot of good vibrations, so catch a wave. Surf’s up, dude.



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