The BEACH BOYS – ” Feel Flows “

Posted: August 27, 2021 in MUSIC
Beach Boys Sunflower shoot

The Beach Boys will undoubtedly be most remembered for the first two chapters of their career. In the first, which ran from 1961 into 1965, they produced a long list of irresistible harmonic numbers about surfing, cars and young love—songs like “California Girls,” “Surfin’ Safari,” “Help Me, Rhonda” and “Don’t Worry, Baby,” to name a few. Then in 1966 and 1967 came the period when group leader Brian Wilson moved into uncharted territory with dazzling results on inventive albums like “Pet Sounds” and the long-unreleased “Smile”.

In the 1960s, the Beach Boys staked their claim as the US’s most popular band, as their dazzling, harmony-drenched songs about surfing, cars and California Girls epitomised the American dream. So, at the end of the decade, when leader and principal songwriter Brian Wilson – who had recently spent several months in a psychiatric hospital – suggested that the band were on the verge of bankruptcy, everyone thought it was a joke.

“We arrived in London for a tour on the day that hit the headlines,” co-founder Al Jardine says over the phone from California. “The IRS [US tax collection agency] had closed our studio and our offices in Hollywood. The hotels wouldn’t accept our corporate credit cards. In the end, I had to use my personal American Express card to pay for our rooms.”

By 1969, the Beach Boys were still huge in Europe but without a label after a costly royalties dispute with Capitol. Their previous two albums had tanked in the US, too: 1968’s Friends limped to No 126. More darkly, they had been tainted by an association with The Manson Family, who befriended drummer Dennis Wilson in the months before the Manson Family’s 1969 Tate-LaBianca murders. “I met him once and I didn’t want to meet him any more,” Jardine, now 78, shudders. “He was very hypnotic. He came over to use our studio. He played me a song he’d written and I started getting dizzy. I couldn’t wait to get out of there, but for some reason he cast a spell on other people.” There’s a moment’s silence as he reflects on how close they came. “He crashed one of Dennis’s cars. To be honest, I don’t know how Dennis got out alive.”

The Beach Boys’ greatness didn’t end with that era, however. True, their later work is not as consistently outstanding, but it contains more than a few high points and garners less attention than it deserves. For evidence of that, look no further than “Feel Flows: The Sunflower & Surf’s Up Sessions 1969–1971“. This 2021 collection, which features five CDs housed in a 48-page hardcover book, showcases the band’s resilience and resourcefulness at a time when its Capitol Records contract was ending on not-so-great terms and Brian was partially sidelined by his mental health issues. One reason for the strength of the Beach Boys’ material during this period is that all six members of the group stepped up to the plate to contribute memorable songs and lead vocals.

“Music was our way of healing,” says Bruce Johnston (keyboards/vocals), a genial 79-year-old, who joined in 1965 and is speaking from Missouri. Jardine has similarly happy memories: “We were all friends. Brian was coming back.”

Wilson, who had a first nervous breakdown in 1964, had been crushed by the pressure for hit songs. “When I joined the band [over the next 11] months, I toured and made three albums,” Johnston observes. “Thats incredible, isn’t it? It was just: what’s next? We were too young to protest.”

Johnston attended the listening party for the Beatles’ Rubber Soul – along with various other members of the Beach Boys, the Mamas and the Papas and Doris Day – which inspired Pet Sounds. “Rubber Soul was obviously a leap forward,” he says, “so Brian started to think, ‘Maybe I should make an album of completely connected songs, that’s just scarily incredible’.” Capitol Records didn’t understand Wilson’s melancholy paeans to youthful innocence on “Pet Sounds”. “He makes this gorgeous album and they go ‘Have you got any hits?’” sighs Johnston of an album that contained God Only Knows and Wouldn’t It Be Nice, and is often named the greatest LP of all time. “So he pushed himself too hard on Smile.” In 1967, Wilson abandoned this projected follow-up, by which time his initially creative use of LSD was damaging his mind. “And people would try to steal Brian. They’d go, ‘You don’t need the Beach Boys, man. Take this pill.’ I just remember that when I started working with him he was dressed great – hip, cool, happening, y’know? Then he went backwards, all the way to wearing his pyjamas.”

As the “Sunflower” sessions began, Wilson stopped turning up to studios, so the band relocated to a 16-track facility in his living room in Bel Air, the idea being (as well as saving money) that the studio might be more tempting if it was two floors below his bedroom.

“The studio was our man-cave,” Johnston remembers, cheerily. “It was the happiest time. I was 29. I had my Porsche, a great girlfriend, no responsibilities. I’d go surfing in the evening and record during the day.”

Jardine describes the daily ritual: “Go to the house, raid the refrigerator, then get to work.” Because of Wilson’s fragility, Sunflower became their first group effort, with members showcasing their blossoming talents as lead singers or songwriters, such as Dennis with the extraordinary “Forever”.

The original “Sunflower” and “Surf’s Up” which first appeared in 1970 and 1971, respectively—do incorporate the occasional loser. “Student Demonstration Time,” which weds words by Mike Love to the music from Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller’s “Riot in Cell Block 9,” is much closer to pretentious than profound, for example, and the nods to environmentalism, “Don’t Go Near the Water” and “A Day in the Life of a Tree,” also feature banal lyrics.

But you’ll find lots of standouts on these records. Bruce Johnston contributes the sweetly nostalgic “Disney Girls,” for instance, and Carl Wilson adds “Long Promised Road” and “Feel Flows” (the latter with flute by jazz artist Charles Lloyd). And like George Harrison in the Beatles, Dennis Wilson emerges as an underused asset with ballads like “Forever.”

The best tracks, though, feature Brian as writer or co-writer, including the poignant “Til I Die” and such bright, upbeat numbers as “Cool, Cool Water,” “Add Some Music to Your Day” and “This Whole World.”

Brian was retreating from the commercial world and we began to make more personal music,” Jardine says. “We all supported each other, so you’d work on your own thing or someone else’s. We all listened to each other, which was a wonderful feeling. Every so often, Brian would hear something coming up through the floor and come hurtling down.” Usually in his bathrobe. In the “Feel Flows” box liner notes, engineer Stephen Desper recalls how Wilson’s creativity was so spontaneous that he had to “chase him around the studio with microphones” to capture what he was doing.

Johnston twitters like a sparrow on Jardine’s “At My Window”. Wilson and singer/cousin Mike Love’s hazy “All I Wanna Do” virtually invents a shoegaze sound, 20 years before its time. “We were a little ahead in that we were experimenting with technology,” Jardine recalls. “We borrowed these big synthesisers from Robert Moog and stuffed them into the control room. I remember playing “Cool, Cool Water” for [new label] Reprise on huge loudspeakers in the dark. This single note came out of the synthesiser and shook the room. Everyone was blown away.”

Although Reprise subsequently rejected an initial version, “Sunflower” is now generally viewed as one of their greatest albums. “There’s a real warmth to these records, compared to the thinner sounding ones they’d made earlier,” Coombes says. “That sun-soaked California vibe just pours out of the music, but then there are these sudden chord changes, weird edits or left turns. As a young sort-of songwriter who was getting into bands, finding out about the dynamics in the Beach Boys was fascinating, and a big influence.”

At the time, though, despite rave reviews, it reached a disastrous No 151 in the US, shifting fewer copies than 1968’s Friends. “We weren’t hip,” Johnston says. “The radio wouldn’t play us.” What he calls their “scrubbed clean image” of matching suits and surfboards didn’t square with the prevailing counterculture or newer, heavier artists such as Jimi Hendrix or the Doors, which wasn’t entirely fair. “Half the band’s behaviour was hardly squeaky clean. Don’t forget we had the Vietnam war going on, but people probably didn’t realise Carl was a conscientious objector [who refused the draft]. It felt like the music world was heading in the opposite direction.”

Touring the old hits abroad helped financially and the Beach Boys got with the programme: their new manager Jack Rieley insisted those suits had to go. The subsequent “Surf’s Up” album isn’t the first “ecological album” (that’s probably Pete Seeger’s 1966 God Bless the Grass) but certainly seems prescient today.

“It was a different kind of pollution then,” Jardine muses. “Don’t Go Near the Water” was about how phosphates in our soaps had got into the water. Now it’s lead in the pipes. If we’ve helped bring awareness to any of this stuff I’ll be very happy.” Love and Johnston remain involved with beach campaigners the Surfrider Foundation, the latter having become environmentally aware as a schoolboy, when domestic incinerator smog meant “we’d have to go inside during physical education because we were all coughing”.

Although Carl’s beatifically hazy Feel Flows could fit on Primal Scream’s Screamadelica, Surf’s Up captures the zeitgeist of its times. “We’d grown up with Disney,” says Johnston, “but suddenly there was all this horrible stuff.” Love’s “Student Demonstration Time” referenced the 1970 Kent State shootings while Johnston’s own sublime “Disney Girls” pined for more innocent times. “These young high-school girls showed us they could inhale pot,” says Johnston, still the archetypal clean-living Beach Boy. “I thought, that’s not where I was at your age.”

By now, Carl had taken the reins as his brother remained troubled. Brian wrote the eco anthem A Day in the Life of a Tree, then insisted that Rieley sing it. “That was highly creative,” Johnston says, chuckling. “He did sound like a gnarled old tree.” The stellar title track was rescued from Smile tapes that were “lying around” the house. “I said to Carl, ‘We need to finish this,’” Jardine recalls, “so Carl, Bruce and I took over the production. Carl finished some of the vocals and we worked from sunset to sunrise just on the final mix.

Meanwhile, reports of its troubled composer’s behaviour ranged from having his own grave dug in his backyard to attempting to drive off a cliff. “I don’t remember anything like that,” says Jardine, but he does recall Brian’s cheery excitement as he announced new song ’Til I Die. “I was hoping for something a little more … optimistic,” he laughs. “You know, another hit! Instead it was all these morbid thoughts, but it turned into one of the most beautiful selections on the album. ‘I’m a cork on the ocean …’ Wow: that’s deep.”

Then there’s “Surf’s Up’s” title track, a number originally intended for “Smile” that weds a typically abstruse Van Dyke Parks lyric to one of Brian’s more adventurous melodies.

Remastered versions of the two albums that contain all these songs are just a starting point for Feel Flows, which features more than six-and-a-half hours of music. Assembled by Mark Linett and Alan Boyd, who put together the Grammy-winning Smile Sessions, the box incorporates live recordings, demos, radio promos and more. Amazingly, given the huge amount of archival Beach Boys material that has appeared over the years, only 25 previously issued tracks—including the 22 numbers from the original LPs—are among the 133 selections. (A promo video for the box erroneously promises 135.)

Released – again – to rapturous reviews, with an amusing advert (“It’s now safe to listen to the Beach Boys”), Surf’s Up became their highest-charting album since 1967. Engineer Alan Boyd, who assembled the new box set with Mark Linett, remembers his mother taking him to see the Beach Boys touring the album at San Francisco Winterland when he was nine. “They did the new songs and the oldies like Surfin’ USA, and I Get Around,” he smiles over Zoom. “The balcony was shaking.” Linett says: “They had to find their audience again, but once they did, everyone realised that the old songs were still fantastic.”

The home studio was dismantled in 1972, Dennis drowned in 1983 and Carl died of cancer in 1998. Since then, Love successfully fought Jardine in court for the use of the band name; a 50th anniversary reunion tour ended sourly, while Jardine now tours with Brian. In 2020 the pair urged fans to boycott the Love-Johnston touring Beach Boys after they were booked to play a hunting group event which had Donald Trump Jr as a speaker. Johnston insists that Love never took the stage. When I ask Jardine what he thinks about Love’s tours he suddenly loses phone signal, finally offering, “Um, I don’t have a whole lot to say about that.”

Lately, though, communication for the box set seems to have rekindled some healing. Jardine, Johnston and Love appear on a newly recorded version of “Add Some Music To Your Day” (a Wilson/Love song on Sunflower) for charity and there have been hints at a 60th anniversary reunion. Johnston is more enthusiastic about his work with Skrillex than the idea of recording any new Beach Boys music, but says, “I would expect a televised event.”

Jardine is more optimistic. “We’re hoping to put together 10 or so concerts, worldwide, maybe something for charity,” he says, “while we still have our voices. It would be the appropriate time to come back together and do some great things.”

If this seems unlikely, Boyd explains: “They started out as kids, rehearsing in living rooms and garages. To this day, if you get them together in a room without anyone else, that’s what they go back to. They really are the ultimate garage band.”

Like many similarly sized boxed sets, this one does include some content that seems likely to interest only the most fanatical fans, such as instrumental backing tracks and versions and mixes that differ only slightly from the well-known recordings, Still, you’ll find lots of fascinating obscurities in the package’s long list of bonus materials. It includes spirited concert versions of six tracks from Sunflower and five from Surf’s Up, for example, as well as an extended rendition of “Til I Die” with alternate lyrics.

Also here are an instrumental snippet from Lennon and McCartney’s “You Never Give Me Your Money” and a reading of “Seasons in the Sun,” the 1974 worldwide chart-topper by Terry Jacks, who worked with the Beach Boys on Surf’s Up. There are notable, previously unheard renditions of songs such as Al Jardine’s “Susie Cincinnati,” a number that would appear on “15 Big Ones” in 1976, and “Good Time,” which Jardine wrote with Brian for 1977’s The Beach Boys “Love You”. Another standout is Mike Love’s “Big Sur,” a song that has never previously been released in any version, though it sounds related to his “California Saga/Big Sur” composition on 1973’s “Holland”.

For this performance, The Beach Boys band was augmented with a full horn section and the brass gives “Susie Cincinnati” a whole new edge.

The band’s excellence didn’t end with the years covered by the Feel Flows box: still to come were such gems as the aforementioned The Beach Boys “Love You” , which ranks with Brian’s most endearing work. But this box alone should be enough to convince many listeners that the group’s latter days were under-appreciated.

The newly-remastered versions of the Sunflower and Surf’s Up albums in a 135-track set that includes 108 previously unreleased tracks. The 5CD and digital set will focus on an influential and transitional period in the group’s history. It will add live recordings, radio promos, alternate versions and mixes, isolated backing tracks, and a capella versions, taken from the sessions for the two LPs.

The first clip in the Feel Flows series is Chapter 1: I See Love, and is described as “a visual exploration of this metamorphic and highly influential 1969-1971 period of the band’s legendary career.” It emphasizes the changes that the Beach Boys were going through by this time, their work far removed from the surfing and car-themed hits of their early years.

The featurette includes period footage and photographs of the band in the studio and elsewhere, beginning with the words “So you think you know the Beach Boys? By 1970, the Beach Boys had changed. What happens when the sound of a generation grows up?”

Across just under five minutes, the film also includes a short video clip of Bruce Johnston, who is also featured in audio, as are Brian and Carl Wilson, Mike Love, and Al Jardine. They discuss the making of “The Sunflower” album and how the Beach Boys became more democratic in that era, taking in contributions from all of the group. The result was a record that was undervalued on its initial release in August 1970, reaching only No.151 on the US charts, but has become one of their most important and critically lauded records.

Feel Flows – The Sunflower and Surf’s Up Sessions 1969-1971.

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