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.