It was the best of times; it was the worst of times…for Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys.
In May 1966 the Beach Boys released Pet Sounds, which is generally considered among music critics as the high-water-mark for the band. It seemed that, although not a huge commercial success, it inspired envy and even fear among critics and the band's musical contemporaries.
The Beatles were blown away, Pet Sounds being among Paul McCartney's favorite albums and spurring the Fab Four into famously creating (as the story goes) Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band as their response. Interesting, as Pet Sounds was the Beach Boys’ response to the Beatles’ Rubber Soul album.
Thinking back to those times, we, as young music consumers were watching the behemoths in the music biz grapple with the emergence of the long-playing album as the real rock music art form, while at the same time knowing that a hit single was still required to take one's career to the next level..
None other than Bob Dylan’s sound man in 1966, Richard Alderson, (the husband of one of my oldest friends who personally related the story to me) was in London with Dylan (he was Dylan’s live sound engineer for Dylan’s entire 1966 world tour) and The Beatles as they all listened to Pet Sounds for the first time in Dylan’s hotel room. Alderson told me they all stunned by the beauty and sheer complexity of the album.
The Beach Boys in the mid-Sixties. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/public domain.
However, that was in 1966.
But in less than a year, Los Angeles was no longer the exclusive home of The Beach Boys’ surf music, the Mamas & the Papas, or the Monkees. L.A. was now full of serious rockers (read: album artists): the Doors, Buffalo Springfield, and Arthur Lee’s band Love.
If you really think about it, as much as the Beach Boys are one of the greatest bands that America ever produced, there is a world of difference as to their relevance in the years from 1966 to 1970.
In England, from 1966 – 1970, the Beatles would release a new single or album and the rest of the British rock world would race to catch up. There were dozens of amazing artists coming out of Britain at that time and just when it seemed that a new song, band or album would take the throne, the Beatles would release another 800-pound gorilla of a record which put everyone in their place.
This is my way of saying that as long as the Beatles were releasing new Beatles music, everyone else was (and remained) in awe.
Not so with the Beach Boys in L.A.
1967 reshaped the U.S. music world.
San Francisco gave us The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service, the Steve Miller Band, Moby Grape, and Janis Joplin with Big Brother and the Holding Company.
1967 brought us Jimi Hendrix.
According to all the press I could find at the time, Crawdaddy magazine (Rolling Stone had just started to publish) the Beach Boys, led by Brian Wilson, were ready to unleash their response to Sgt. Pepper. The gauntlet had been thrown and we as the collective rock audience was waiting for:
The album never came.
What we can all see clearly now (with 55 years of hindsight) is that the tour de force “wall of sound”-type production that was the hallmark of Pet Sounds suffered the same fate as producer Phil Spector’s finest creation: the Ike and Tina Turner song “River Deep – Mountain High.” Both of these superb pop masterpieces were released in May of 1966 and both essentially crashed and burned, sending both Brian Wilson and Phil Spector into deep depressions.
Pet Sounds was no Sgt, Pepper in its commercial and artistic impact. Where Sgt. Pepper featured studio tricks and innovations that continue to reverberate to this day, nobody really re-entered the “Wall of Sound” concept until, in 1977, the Meatloaf/Jim Steinman monster operatic album Bat Out of Hell.
What the lack of commercial success for Brian Wilson and Ike and Tina Turner told these musical giants was that the pop music world had seemed to pass them by.
The opening of the Fillmore East and West in the late 1960s and the rise of FM radio (which was a rejection of the Top 40 hit record format) laid waste to many hit-single-driven artists.
Weird to think about it now, as Pet Sounds set the stage for what appeared to be the Beach Boys’ transition to the album format just 12 months earlier.
In 1967, the Beach Boys entirely fell off my radar and were replaced by Vanilla Fudge, the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, The Doors, Jimi, Procol Harum, Jethro Tull, B.B. King, Albert King, Muddy Waters, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, Iron Butterfly, Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young, and Led Zeppelin… (fill in the rest from your favorite list if you were fortunate to have lived through those times).
The only time the name of the Beach Boys entered my consciousness between 1966 – 1970 was during the Manson murder press coverage in 1969, when it was reported that Charles Manson had befriended Dennis Wilson and that the Beach Boys might have recorded some songs written by Charles Manson.
I think that I thought that was pretty weird, but I also had read many stories about the seemingly mythical L,A, neighborhood of Laurel Canyon, which brought together the likes of members of the Monkees, the Mamas and The Papas, the Doors, Jimi Hendrix, John Mayall, Mick Fleetwood, Joni Mitchell, members of the Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and the Beatles in what seemed like to me, a 17-year-old New York musician, as some kind of rock and roll fantasy camp experience that I could barely fathom except to understand some kind of universal respect among all these seemingly disparate musical geniuses.
Four years came and went.
And then one day in the spring of 1970, while I was jamming with some local musicians in a second-floor apartment on 92nd Street off Broadway in Manhattan, a weird thing happened. The windows of the apartment were wide open (the music we were playing filled the street) and a limo was driving up past the building and stopped in front.
When we looked out the window, it looked like a rock star was getting out. The person walked into the lobby and started to push the doorbell buttons seemingly randomly. When he hit the button for the apartment we were in, the mother of the brothers whose apartment we were in answered in her very broken English. (She was Nicaraguan, as were her sons who, however, grew up in New York City and spoke perfect English). She ran into the living room shouting, “Beach Boy downstairs, Beach Boy downstairs!” The door opened and who walked in but the band’s Bruce Johnston. He was in town for a B.B. King concert and the driver just happened to drive up our street.
We sat there pretty stunned. Finally, Louie Echeverri, one of the brothers who were renting the apartment, handed him a bass guitar and asked him to play “Good Vibrations” and then “Help Me Rhonda” to prove that he was, in fact, a member of the Beach Boys.
Remember, we were all 16 or 17 at the time.
This was the first realization to me that the Beach Boys were still a band.
In my mind, as cool as that was to witness, the summer of 1970 was dominated by the release of Workingman’s Dead.
I was living on Fire Island that summer with a couple of nascent Deadheads (long before there was ever a term to describe us) and the new albums by Hendrix, the Doors, Johnny Winter, the Dead, Moby Grape, B.B. King, Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Santana etc. had overtaken our listening hours.
But…I had a friend named Jeff Pulin who worked at a legendary New York record store, Sam Goody (which also sold stereo equipment – he sold me a pair of JBL 100s). He worshiped all the music I did but was obsessed with the Beach Boys and convinced me to buy a copy of their then-latest release, Sunflower.
I bought it and, before I put it on my new stereo (Dual 1019 turntable with a Shure V15 cartridge, my new Dynaco Stereo 120 power amp and matching PAT-5 preamp, and the JBL 100s) I read the back of the album jacket (as we all did back then).
The Beach Boys had left Capitol Records and were now on Warner Bros. (a very serious rock label). There was a paragraph written by Mo Ostin, the president of Warner Bros. Records.
Mo Ostin had been written about a lot in the rock press. He ran Warner Bros. Records and was considered a legend. He had signed the Grateful Dead and guided the careers of Jimi Hendrix, Van Morrison, Joni Mitchell, Sinatra, CSNY and Sammy Davis Jr. to name a few.
The fact that he just signed the Beach Boys (and gave them their own record label, Brother Records) really impressed me.
I took the album out of the cover and placed it on my new rig.
Out poured some of the most beautiful music I had heard in years.
It was the Beach Boys for sure, but with a sophistication that I did not expect. I realized that the music that had taken over my world was not oriented in the way that only the Beach Boys could do.
The bands with the best vocal harmonies to release albums during this time was Crosby, Stills and Nash and CSNY.
No doubt they were great, but just as no duet could ever sound like the Everly Brothers, no other musicians/vocalists could sound like the Wilson brothers. The Beach Boys also had a secret weapon: Mike Love. His nasal whine matched the brothers perfectly and when you added Al Jardine and Bruce Johnston, you had a revolver shooting six bullets.
Where Pet Sounds was essentially a Brian Wilson solo album, written and recorded while the band was on a European tour in 1965 – 66, Sunflower was truly a group effort.
The opening track, “Slip on Through” led off the festivities with its off-time intro, followed by the gigantic multi-layered vocal power of “This Whole World.”
“Add Some Music to Your Day” is quintessential B.B.
There are 12 tracks and each one flows into to the next. While it is true that we listened differently in those days (playing the whole of side one into the whole of side two) there was a natural flow which said to me that not only were the songs great, but care was taken as to the arc of the presentation.
The whole band was present and the lead vocals were all shared, and none of these leads was “less than,” Just another flavor maintaining the consistency of the whole.
I lost my original vinyl copy of Sunflower many years ago and recently bought the SACD version from Acoustic Sounds, along with a half-dozen older classic Beach Boys albums.
Playing Sunflower brought back such great memories of 1970.
I then started playing Pet Sounds again. I found vinyl of both a stereo mix as well as a remastered mono mix in my collection.
So much had changed in the four years between these two albums were released and it's not like the Beach Boys hadn't released other albums during that time. They had, and I even had some in my collection (to my surprise) that I had never opened!
1970 however, signaled the end of the Beatles, and the deaths of Jimi, Janis and Jim.
It was a very interesting time. CSN&Y were the biggest American band that year.
1971 was going to unleash Who’s Next, Every Picture Tells a Story, Sticky Fingers, Led Zeppelin IV, the Doors’ L.A. Woman, and Bowie’s Hunky Dory.
But somewhere in this sea change existed this little bit of leftover innocent Americana.
Something that at the time hadn’t been heard in years, and maybe that was what was so fresh about it.
Critics may never replace Pet Sounds on the pecking order of the greatest of all Beach Boys albums. I understand that. But Pet Sounds signaled the end of the bombastic orchestral “wall of wound” era that began (in my consciousness) in August 1963 with the Ronettes’ “Be My Baby” and ended in May 1966 with “River Deep – Mountain High” and Pet Sounds.
Sunflower, in contrast, signaled a new beginning.
Sunflower signaled that the Beach Boys were back.
Enjoy listening to it this summer. I have, immensely!
Jay Jay can be heard on his podcast, The Jay Jay French Connection: Beyond the Music, on Spotify, Apple music and PodcastOne.
Header image: The Beach Boys' Sunflower album cover.