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The Beach Boys Wild Honey
Their Briefest and Sweetest Album
The Beach Boys built their mansions in the clouds on selling the idea of California's "endless summer" to the rest of America, and no chamber of commerce could have done a more masterful promotion. The band first hit the charts in 1962 with "Surfin' Safari," the same year that California surpassed New York as the most populous of the United States, with just over 17 million people; it peaked in 2020, with an eyelash short of 40 million.
National magazines, then more influential than television, portrayed Southern California as the wave of the future, where all trends started and spread eastward: Convertible cars, air conditioned houses, toll-free highways known as "freeways." Buff guys and bikini gals working out on the beach, the fad of mooning, affluent teenage drug use, surfboards. . . “swimming pools, movie stars.”
The last two items are from the "Ballad of Jed Clampett," played by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, as the introduction to each episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, in which a poor, uneducated family from the Ozarks strikes oil and moves to a mansion in Beverly Hills. It was one of the most popular TV sitcoms of the 1960s, and began its run in September 1962, the same month "Surfin' Safari" cracked the top 20.
But the music of the Beach Boys was arguably the most powerful, successful, and lasting representation of California. And the music kept evolving, as songwriter/producer/tormented genius Brian Wilson dragged his brothers and cousins and other members of the band into the future, not only standing up to the Beatles and Rolling Stones, and the Kinks, and the Who, and the endless autumn of British singles acts, from the Dave Clark 5, Herman's Hermits, Freddie & the Dreamers, but surpassing them. My whole "theory" of 1960s rock, to the degree that I had one, was explained in my 2007 book A Brief History of Rock...Off the Record (Routledge/Taylor & Francis), to which even I gave just 4 out of 5 stars in my own Amazon review. But the idea was that all the creative names: Lennon & McCartney, Jagger and Richards, Ray Davies of the Kinks, Pete Townsend of the Who, and Brian Wilson, were in competition with each other, driven to ever greater heights of creativity, by listening in awe to each others' latest mid-1960s masterpieces.
The emotionally fragile Brian Wilson stopped touring with the band in its initial iteration by the end of 1964, possibly having heard A Hard Days Night and deciding he needed time to raise his game, preferring to bring his visions to life in the studio. This did not sit well with his brothers in the band, Carl and Dennis Wilson; their cousin Mike Love, and friend Al Jardine. They were doing so well with hit singles, that atypically for American rock bands at the time, translated into album sales. Through 1964 and 1965, seven Beach Boys albums made the top 10; their Capitol mates, the Beatles, outdid them, of course, the label releasing massive amounts of both compilations and new material, especially when the Beatles began levitating: Rubber Soul in 1965, Revolver, 1966, Sgt.Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band, 1967, the three consecutive albums of "rock as art" by which the entire operation (rock music) would be measured.
A few months before Revolver, the Beach Boys released Pet Sounds, Brian Wilson's first seamless album-as-art masterpiece. It had some definitive singles: "God Only Knows," "Sloop John B.," "Wouldn't It Be Nice."
But Wilson's stateed aims were clear in the notes he wrote for the 1990 CD reissue of Pet Sounds (remixed in 1987): It begins:
In December of 1966, I heard the album Rubber Soul by the Beatles. It was definitely a challenge for me. I saw that every cut was very artistically interesting and stimulating. I immediately went to work on Pet Sounds.
Pet Sounds peaked at No. 10 on the Billboard album chart, which did not then match recent Beach Boys hits such as Beach Boys Party and Summer Days (and Summer Nights). Brian's main Pet Sounds collaborator was L.A. ad jingle writer only coincidentally named Tony Asher: same last name as Jane Asher, Paul McCartney's Beatle girlfriend. The other Beach Boys were not entirely pleased, and stress fractures between Brian and his brothers and cousin only got worse when he spent many subsequent months trying to top Sgt. Pepper with his legendary, troubled Smile album. For more on all of this, I recommend the writing of David Leaf, Beach Boys expert and Brian Wilson biographer.
Instead of then-incomplete Smile, Capitol released Smiley Smile in September 1967, three months after Sgt. Pepper. This was not a failure: It had both "Good Vibrations," and "Heroes and Villains," two majestic singles that will outlive us all: It was Dennis Elsas on WFUV/90.7 FM from Fordham University in The Bronx, who played "Heroes and Villains" a few days ago that reminded me of its intricate, multifaceted brilliance. These two songs, despite Brian Wilson's LSD and mental health challenges (not to mention PTSD from physical and psychological abuse childhood abuse courtesy of his father and longtime Beach Boys manager Murry Wilson), squeeze everything good and lasting about psychedelics and creativity into just two songs.
There are also cool tracks such as "Wind Chimes" and the health food conscious "Vegetables."
But the album I've come to write about--in journalism, this is known as "burying the lede"--is Wild Honey, a song, legend has it, inspired by a jar of the sweet, sticky stuff on Brian Wilson's kitchen counter. I heard an interesting conversation about Wild Honey on another professional New York area college station, "retro radio" WFDU-FM/89.1 FM at New Jersey's Fairleigh Dickinson University.
I have long thought of Wild Honey as my favorite Beach Boys album, much more than the acclaimed Pet Sounds. It is anything but typical. It was released at the very end of 1967, a week before Christmas, where record labels used to send unwanted released to die, without any holiday promotional buildup.
Carl Wilson, the soul music fan of the group, probably gets a lot of lead vocal time, and almost all the original songs are credited to Brian Wilson and Mike Love. The exceptions are "How She Boogaloo'd It," credited to Carl Wilson, Al Jardine, Love, and frequent member/touring member Bruce Johnston. “Boogaloo” was still a new thing even in New York, where it was the coming trend in Latin soul music.
If you're following my drift, this is thought of as the Beach Boys R&B record, not an intuitive leap even for a band that started by stealing from Chuck Berry ("Surfin' U.S.A.," now properly credited as at least a Berry co-write, and owned by Berry and Chess Records' publishing arm, Arc Music). Their vocal roots were more in doo-wop and the collegiate pop harmonies of the Four Preps and Four Freshmen. (The Beach Boys fluky 1965-1966 hit "Barbara Ann" is a cover of the 1961 recording by the Italian-American group the Regents of the Bronx, NY, and is sung by Dean Torrence of California surf and car song precursors Jan & Dean.)
You wouldn't think it in the Beach Boys' wheelhouse to cover contemporary Stevie Wonder, but they do on Wild Honey with "I Was Made to Love Her." Though no one in the Beach Boys sounds entirely comfortable with the song's opening declaration, "I was born in Little Rock," they pull off the song with respect and elan. In fact, I think of it as one of the best Stevie Wonder covers, right up there with Rahsaan Roland Kirk's version of "My Cherie Amour" on his great album, Volunteered Slavery.
In fact, there are no false moves on this album, every song distilled to a sweet essence. "Darling," an original with a Motown flair, and the title song were both minor hits. "Wild Honey" maintains the "whoo-whoo" theremin sound that made "Good Vibrations" so inventive. "Here Comes the Night" has a soulful swagger, or as much as it can muster.
I've been listening to what I think is my original vinyl version, and I've got one of those manual turntables that requires one to get up and retrieve the tone arm at the end of each side. It did strike me that I was getting up almost as soon as a side started, and a little research showed that this album is short even for its time: Its 11 songs are a few seconds shy of 24 minutes long.
I don't know ifloves it as much as he once did. Wild Honey is that rare “A plus” in his Consumer Guides. It was so early in Consumer Guide history that it was before Christgau created the very sensible 30 minute rule for a full album. If you came in shorter, the Dean, as his CG readers well-know, an album was "docked a notch for time," so that a B plus record under 30 minutes would get a B. But "it's perfect and full of pleasure," he wrote. St. John's University, where I teach and start a new semester three weeks from today, does not allow "A plus" in its grading rubric. It doesn't exist as a final grade in the automated grading system. So docked a notch for time or not, Wild Honey, short and sweet as it is, is one of the few A albums in the Beach Boys vast discography. If you have a few minutes, a very few minutes, you ought to give a listen.
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