The Other Beach Boys
A new compilation proves that Brian Wilson needed them, too.
Why haven't the Beach Boys gotten their due? I mean the other ones: Carl Wilson, Dennis Wilson, Al Jardine, and Mike Love, whose glorious vocalizing is one of the pillars on which Brian Wilson's reputation as the Mozart of pop music rests. Just the fact that it's necessary to identify them as "the other ones" tells you something: Brian's legend looms so large—hit-maker at 20, recluse at 22, the man who made Pet Sounds—that it has crowded his band-mates into the shadows, where Dennis and Carl Wilson lived and died, and from which Jardine and Love continue to struggle halfheartedly to escape. Three brothers, a cousin, and a guy from the neighborhood—it might seem as if only the ties of family and friendship led young Brian to roll the dice with these four singers. But that sells them short. A new compilation of Brian Wilson's extracurricular production work in the 1960s aims to augment his reputation as songwriter and studio wizard. Pet Projects: The Brian Wilson Productions (Ace Records) has another, unintended result: It makes you appreciate the hell out of the other ones.
Out of ambition or insecurity (he was famously competitive with Phil Spector), Brian Wilson began taking on outside production work as early as 1962, the year of the first Beach Boys LP, Surfin' Safari. The earliest tracks collected on Pet Projects don't promise much. "The Revo-Lution," by Rachel and the Revolvers (actually Los Angeles session singer Betty Willis backed by Brian and Carl Wilson and Brian's songwriting partner Gary Usher) is a pale knockoff of Little Eva's "Loco-Motion." The Honeys' " Surfin' Down the Swanee River" (credited to Capitol A&R man Nick Venet, but really produced by Brian) is flat-out weird, a failed hybrid most notable for its songwriting credit: "Stephen C Foster Arr Brian Wilson." The latter is one of eight Honeys songs collected here, along with two by American Spring, a later incarnation, and generally speaking the tracks are an embarrassing testament to the girl group that occupied most of Brian's extra-Beach Boys time in the 1960s. Wilson may have been overworked in this period—pleading exhaustion, he gave up the road for a time starting in December 1964, though Capitol kept pressing him to produce more Beach Boys records. Or he may have been addled by love for group member Marilyn Rovell, whom he married that same month. Either way, he couldn't figure out how to make the group sound anything but lightweight. The contrast between "Swanee River" and, say, " Fun, Fun, Fun,"a Beach Boys production from the same period, is startling. The latter song is every bit as dumb, but it's impossible to resist, and the difference can almost entirely be chalked up to the depth and maturity of the five-part vocals. As much as the airy falsetto, it's the low, muscular gravity of the Boys' tightly massed voices that grabs your attention. Wilson just didn't have the goods to work with when he cut the Honeys. (He did come close once, on the propulsive, Spector-ish " The One You Can't Have" in 1963, which remains one of the great mostly unknown girl group records.)
He didn't do much better with solo singers. Two 1964 recordings featuring Gary Usher are bewilderingly bad; Pet Projects producer Rob Finnis is being kind when he writes that Usher "was not particularly blessed" as a vocalist, and when he doesn't draw the obvious conclusion that the sessions were a favor done by a loyal Brian after father Murry Wilson pushed Usher out of the Beach Boys' inner circle. Of the four tracks Wilson cut with singer Sharon Marie, the only interesting one is the 1964 "Thinkin' 'Bout You Baby," which would resurface three years later as the much superior Beach Boys song "Darlin'," featuring a soulful lead by Carl Wilson. (It's worth hearing too for the scalpel work Wilson did on the melody between '64 and '67, cutting and rewriting at precisely the place in the song's chorus where the air went out of the earlier version.) Listen to the Sharon Marie track, and then the same passage in the amended 1967 melody. Paul Petersen's "She Rides With Me," also from 1964, is a forgettable girls-and-cars number from a second-tier teen idol. Only Glen Campbell's " Guess I'm Dumb" holds up today, although that has as much to do with Campbell's appealingly casual vocal as it does with Wilson's unfrilly production, an artifact from the days before "middle-of-the-road" was a dirty word. Campbell was a road-hardened pro by 1965—a top L.A. session player, he'd taken Wilson's place in the Beach Boys' touring band at the end of the previous year—and you can almost hear Wilson's relief at having a real singer to work with.
A handful of novelties round out the package. "Vegetables," an oddity swiped by Jan and Dean's Dean Torrence from the Beach Boys' Smiley Smile, makes you long for the relative cohesion of the original track, if "cohesion" is the word to use for a song that spouts a collection of half-baked hippie aphorisms about the wonders of green food. By the time you work your way down to "Pamela Jean," featuring Brian and a bunch of his buddies doo-wopping under the unfortunate name the Survivors, you're positively hungry for the complexity and sophistication of a Beach Boys track like "Wouldn't It Be Nice," with Mike Love and Brian sharing the lead, and those soul-grabbing backing vocals. Finnis notes that "Pamela Jean" came out the same week Capitol released "Fun, Fun, Fun." It sank like a stone, offering the singular spectacle of America's greatest pop producer shouldering himself out of the way. The record-buying public made its choice that week, and got it right. There were better things coming.
Bill Barol writes Blather, a daily Weblog on pop culture and the news, from Los Angeles.
Audio excerpts from Pet Projects © 2003 Ace. All rights reserved.