Requiem for a Beach Boy
Music - Pop Released - Jan 10, 2013
“That’s Why God Made the Radio” is the 29th album by the Beach Boys, and their first since “Pet Sounds” to fully engage the group’s resident genius, Brian Wilson. In between are 17 lackluster albums that feature the writing talent of the other Beach Boys which--let’s be honest--is mediocre at best.
These in-between albums are well crafted musically and feature the Boys’ distinctive three-part harmony, but are woefully short on substance. Apart from Brian, when it came to songwriting, it seems Mike Love, Al Jardine, and brothers Carl and Dennis didn’t have much to say.
Back in the Beach Boys’ hayday, when the band was turning out top-ten hits with regularity matched only by that of Lennon-McCartney, Brian was forever dreaming up catchy tunes about surfing, fast cars, and the girl-next-door. His music was described as a combination of Bach, Chuck Berry, and Barbershop. When he needed a snip-it of verse, Mike Love or radio DJ Roger Christian would supply it. When he composed “Pet Sounds” he turned to a lyricist, Tony Asher. The ideas kept flowing until “Smile”, the ambitious double-album that was to top the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper.” After a year of recording 24-7, he collapsed in state of exhaustion and mental illness, went to bed, and didn’t get up for a year. After that he was never the same, until the 1990s.
Pressed into becoming song writers themselves, the other Beach Boys scrambled to fill the void. They reworked songs from the “Smile” sessions and old outtakes that Brian had rejected, wrote new tunes that were both smarmy and out-of-step with current music, and appealed endlessly to Brian to make a contribution, any contribution. Brian did, usually one song per album. Come time to shoot a new album jacket, they would drag Brian out of bed, prop him up like a pillow, and the resulting album cover would suggest that the resident genius was still at it, which he wasn’t, and that the Beach Boys were still relevant, which they weren’t. And it went on like that for 30 years, album after uninspired album. What kept the band financially afloat was endless touring and royalties from the recycling of greatest-hits albums.
Two positive things happened in these fallow years. One, Carl sang Brian’s parts better than Brian and, working with a lyricist, developed into a competent song writer; and, two, Dennis became a very good singer and songwriter himself (Dennis’s “Pacific Ocean Blue” is among the top 500 albums of all time, according to Rolling Stone). The downside was that together they weren’t prolific enough to offset the insipid mush written by Mike Love, Al Jardine and Brian’s replacement, Bruce Johnston. And it got worse with the passing of Dennis in 1983 and Carl in 1998. Al Jardine got the message and dropped out. Not to worry though, as Mike Love found replacements and the mediocrity deepened. How many times can you sing “409” and “Surfer Girl” without turning comatose?
At some point in the 1990s, Brian made a complete recovery, put together a new band, and began writing songs and touring again. In 2004, after a 40-year delay, he completed “Smile” to wide acclaim. It seemed only a question of time before he hooked-up again with Love, Jardine and Johnstone. They met informally in 2010, but afterwards Brian said he had no interest in reforming the band.
Late last year that changed and the Wilson-led Beach Boys returned to the studio to record “That’s Why God Made the Radio.” Rolling Stone said the new album sounds “like a transmission from an alternate, irony-free universe: 12 songs of Turtle-Waxed melodies and startling boyish vocals.” The first half-dozen songs are upbeat and reflect Love’s fun-in-the-sun optimism while the second six feature Wilson’s grander, darker themes. Continues Rolling Stone: “It’s part class reunion and part Requiem for a Beach Boy . . . to some degree, a sugary, brand-claiming nostalgiafest. But thanks to Wilson’s return, it’s also an ambitious statement--perhaps a final one--on a legacy that’s as much defined by confusion and creative cul-de-sac as by ‘Pet Sounds.’ The album is an uneven but deeply touching work by a clearly flawed Great Band--one that at its best, always aimed for the heavens, even if it didn’t always reach them.”