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Music Review: The Beach Boys – 50 Big Ones

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I wish I could say that the 50th anniversary of the Beach Boys has been handled with nothing but class, but with their brief reunion already over, it has been a little messier than that. For a band to stay together (sort of) for 50 years is nothing less than remarkable. Given the history of the group, the volatile situation surrounding the reunion is none too surprising. Although it is unlikely that we will see Mike Love and Brian Wilson together onstage again, the classic music that they have made over the years can never be denied. The new two-CD set 50 Big Ones is an excellent overview of the recorded works of The Beach Boys from 1962 to 2012.

For this official version of The Beach Boys story, the 1966 Pet Sounds album marks the halfway point of their career. There are 25 songs from the years 1962-1966, and 25 from 1967-2012. Although the collection is not presented in strictly chronological order, the majority of the first disc is drawn from the period up to and including Pet Sounds, and the second from then all the way up to this year’s That’s Why God Made the Radio.

Disc one opens with “California Girls,” and includes such other early classics as “Surfin’ Safari,” “Little Duece Coupe,” and “I Get Around.” Brian Wilson’s fantastic Phil Spector homage “Don’t Worry Baby,” and the glorious “Surfer Girl,” and “All Summer Long” are just a few more classic titles on this disc. Things get really interesting however with a couple of the more obscure tracks that are  included.

The first of these is the 1965 non-LP single “The Little Girl I Once Knew.” As a casual fan of The Beach Boys, I must admit that I had not previously heard this song before. It is a very good however, and one of the relative rarities that make 50 Big Ones a bit more attractive than “just” a hits collection. Although released much later, the song “Getcha Back” is another relatively unknown tune. The song was released in 1985 on an album titled The Beach Boys. This was their first new release after the 1983 death of Dennis Wilson, and the last to feature Brian Wilson until That’s Why God Made the Radio.

The second CD opens with the surprise 1988 smash “Kokomo.” The song was included on the soundtrack to the (awful) Tom Cruise film Cocktail, and holds the distinction of being The Beach Boys’ highest selling single of all time. It was also the group’s first number one since “Good Vibrations,” some 22 years previously.

“Good Vibrations” was to be the centerpiece of Smile, the album Brian Wilson envisioned as his answer to The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The saga of Smile is central to the mythology of Brian Wilson and The Beach Boys. It was during the recording of Smile that Wilson broke down, and the album was not completed for another 37 years. To the surprise of the world, Brian Wilson finished and released Smile as a solo effort in 2004.

With their leader effectively sidelined, The Beach Boys did what they could to maintain their status in the music world, post-”Good Vibrations.” This is where 50 Big Ones gets really interesting. I have described myself as something of a casual Beach Boys fan, and as such, I have never gotten very familiar with much of their post-Pet Sounds work. The second CD in the set contains representative tracks from quite a number of those later albums.

The title tracks of Wild Honey and Friends appear, as do a few from the aborted Smile sessions. From Smiley Smile we get “Heroes and Villains,” and from Surf’s Up comes the brilliant title song. There are also tracks from Sunflower, 20/20, Carl and the Passions “So Tough,” L.A. (Light Album), and 15 Big Ones. Another non-LP single is also featured, Leadbelly’s “Cotton Fields (the Cotton Song),” from 1970.

There is one album from this period which I think stands with the best of The Beach Boys’ catalog. It is Holland, released in 1973. “Sail On Sailor” was the single, with vocals by Blondie Chaplin. Also from Holland is the cool “California Saga (On My Way to Sunny Califor-i-a),” sung by Mike Love and Brian Wilson.

To mark their Golden Anniversary, The Beach Boys managed to put aside their differences (for a while at least), and recorded That’s Why God Made the Radio. It is without a doubt one of their finest sustained efforts, and the album reached number three on the Billboard 200 album chart. The title song made the remarkable claim of their having 50 years of hits a reality.

As previously mentioned, the collection is not presented in strict chronological order. With that in mind, the compilation closes with what many consider The Beach Boys’ (and Brian Wilson’s) finest moment, “Good Vibrations.” I must say, the song still sounds amazing, and winds this compilation up on the perfect note.

As a self-professed old guy, I always choose the physical version of an album or collection over downloads, and this prejudice pays off nicely with 50 Big Ones. The discs are housed in a very sturdy box, similar to that of last year’s Smile Sessions. The booklet contains a nice essay from David Wild, and lists all the pertinent information about each track. Most impressive though are the seven black-and-white 4×4 photos, which look to have been shot around the time of Pet Sounds.

The songs of The Beach Boys have been collected on so many compilations over the years that I have lost count. Endless Summer is probably the most famous of these. It was so successful that it led to Rolling Stone naming them “Group of the Year” in 1974. What sets 50 Big Ones apart from the rest of the pack is the fact that it contains music from literally every period in their history, all the way up to 2012. If nothing else, the set is great for those who wish to briefly familiarize themselves with all aspects of their long and storied history. 50 Big Ones may not be definitive, but it certainly offers a great overview of this most American of bands.

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About Greg Barbrick

  • Igor

    OK, I went to youtube and reprised Surfs Up, with no improvement in my feeling. I also listened to California Girls while I was there.

    It was OK, but nothing special.

    I’m afraid that my musical tastes are catholic, I’m a dilletante, so my standards are purely my own, and not very conventional.

    And I get around, you might say.

    I started in music as a boy soprano, so I have little patience for pinched popular male sopranos. Indeed, I was a featured soprano, traveling around singing Handel and Bach Arias. I was so glad when my voice broke, tho my mother wept. I always admired the timber-rattling bassos, but now that I am one nobody cares.

    A real male soprano (in contrast to the shallow falsetto of pop singers) is a unique and profound sound. The naive think that male sopranos sing flat because the timbre has so much undertone, but they are wrong. It is just the experience of the counterfeits they have heard.

    You should see/hear the movie “Faranelli” (a trailer is on youtube) about one of the great castrati that sang Handels great arias. Since there are no castrato sopranos handy, the voice was synthesized from a counter tenor and a mezzo, and is a wonderful invention. The Vienna Boys choir is also exemplary, but ignorant people complain that they are flat (because they don’t sound like women, imagine that!).

  • Zingzing

    Actually, YouTube “surf’s up”. That should clue you in.

  • Zingzing

    (I don’t particularly want to harp on the brilliance of good vibrations, but…)

    Nothing about the structure of the song struck you in any way?

    Have you heard the follow up single, “heroes and villains”? It’s akin to good vibrations in its structure, but more out there in its textures and editing. And the lyrics… definitely not something the quartets of the past would have attempted. Good vibrations was a mike love lyric, but heroes and villains had van dyke parks, who was about the most cerebral guy working on the west coast at the time.

    It appears to me, Igor, that your understanding of the beach boys is that of someone who’s listened to the hits. Correct me if I’m wrong. The beach boys had a long career, only 3 or 4 years of which were popular in any real way. They went many places duringnand after those years, and “warmed over Kingston trio” suggests you have a treasure trove awaiting you.

    I got into them 30+ years after their cultural relevance had wained, but trust me when I say that they are truly one of the great American bands. Their music is so rewarding. It’s spotty at all times (other than 65-67), but there’s a gem around every corner, and the deeper you look, the better it gets.

    YouTube (that’s a verb) “until I die”

  • Igor

    I’ve heard Good Vibrations a thousand times, I suppose, and it’s a catchy tune, alright, but that’s about it.

  • Zingzing

    Igor, if “warmed over Kingston trio” is what you got out of it, you haven’t heard much. But one can hardly have lived the last half century, heard “good vibrations” and come to such a silly conclusion, so I guess you’re being a bit hyperbolic. And if the Kingston trio ever made something as complex as smile, I’d love to hear it…

    Greg, start with smile and friends, I say. Then sunflower and surf’s up.

  • Greg Barbrick

    Zing, I really do need to hear those post-Pet Sounds records (besides Holland). I have heard from a number of sources (besides yourself) that there is quite a bit of good material on them. So thanks!

  • Igor

    My old friend Ed is a big BB fan and I’ve been politely listening to his records for many years, often when a sort-of captive in his car. There are a couple that are good, but most are derivative.

    But I listened and searched for the gold.

    Sorry to disappoint you.

  • PAT

    Igor, Igor, Igor! Oh Igor!! You just need to LISTEN! Period.

  • Zingzing

    Greg, there are several good to great post pet sounds albums, namely friends, sunflower, surf’s up and love you. 20/20 is spotty, but good as well. The second side of surf’s up is particularly ambitious, while the entirety of friends (besides the grating “transcendental meditation”) is a masterful, if low-key bit of magic. Sunflower has some of their best work and is a bit of buried treasure, while love you is one of the stranger albums they released… Child-like, yet ageless in a lot of ways. 67-72 was a fertile period for the beach boys, and many people miss out.

  • Zingzing

    Oh, Igor…

  • Mark

    Igor, you also need to listen to SMiLE. And everything else they did after the “striped shirt” phase. And Igor, folk music is full of smirking pot references, and that is one of the things I love about folk, and blues, and country too.

  • Greg Barbrick

    Well Igor, I suggest you listen to Pet Sounds then.

  • Igor

    Seems to me that “The Beach Boys” are just warmed over “Kingston Trio”. They wear striped shirts too! Oh, and they add some smirking pot references.

    But The Kingston Trio has more musical variety and is more fun to listen to.

  • I liked Good Vibrations and I Get Around in particular.