Brian Wilson: Sure, Pet Sounds Is Great, But Have You Heard Beach Boys Party!?
Brian Wilson is not a great interview. Actually, the best quote I can pull from 10 painful minutes of taped conversation between me and my all-time favorite musician is this:
"Print that Brian says: 'Please, come out to my concert.'"
On the surface, that's probably the worst quote any music journalist has ever published. However, it's also maybe the best, because it sums up pretty much everything you need to know in advance of a concert by the legendary genius behind The Beach Boys.
Listen up, everyone: Brian Wilson has asked you, in a fashion both polite and timely, to attend his concert. Are you going to deny him?
You could not — or, at least, you should not — because it's Brian fucking Wilson. The Roman Catholic's current canonization procedure requires but one otherwise inexplicable miracle in a prospective saint's name. Brian Wilson has two: one you know well, one you probably don't.
Pet Sounds, obviously, is Brian Wilson's best-known work. The 1966 masterpiece has been called the best rock record ever made by most of the top British music mags — NME, The Times and Mojo among them. America's top source for all things '60s, Rolling Stone, in a perhaps non-coincidental case of reverse homerism, put it at number two, behind Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Pet Sounds is, of course, the first record the Cameron Crowe character pulls out of the stack under his bed in Almost Famous, the collection of hand-me-down vinyl that will "set him free." I'm not going to write another word about Pet Sounds; chances are you know what you need to about the record.
However, I submit to you that the Beach Boys album preceding Pet Sounds is also a true masterpiece, deserving of enshrinement in the National Recording Registry alongside it's more famous sibling. That record, Beach Boys Party!, is something of an obscurity. Chances are you haven't heard it. Actually, I hadn't even heard it until three years ago, and I'm the music critic making a case for Wilson's sainthood here. Now, though, I tell every Pet Sounds fanboy I know to get a copy. Because while Beach Boys Party! is maybe not equal to Pet Sounds, its certainly the second-best Beach Boys record ever made (sorry, Smile) and is undeniably unique, with a certain magical quality all its own.
In a nutshell, Party! is a faux live record with 12 songs, clocking in at just over a half-hour. Among those songs are several Beach Boys hits, three Beatles covers, a Bob Dylan cover, and versions of a few old rock 'n' roll standards like "Hully Gully" and "Mountain of Love." Party! is all acoustic, and all the tracks are mixed together with between-song dialogue, clapping, and catcalls, to make it sound like one continuous take. The album is a highly stylized imitation bootleg that's almost too fun and loose to be a commercial release, which is probably why it was a surprise hit with curious consumers when it first came out 45 years ago this November.
Moreover, Party! is essentially a genre unto itself: a live acoustic "party" album that functions as the realization of the ultimate fantasy of every dude who picks up his guitar and starts playing by the backyard campfire at a late-fall get-together, or anyone who sits by him to listen, hoping to be blown away.
Actually, the best listening experience I've had with the album (and maybe any other album, for that matter) came when I blared it from my buddy Seth's cabin while our gang of friends hung out around the campfire, talking and drinking. In the dark woods, with a few stiff drinks in me, it was like attending a party where The Beach Boys at their peak were playing inside. If that's not my cornfield in Iowa, I don't know what is.
The record starts with "Hully Gully," a minor hit by The Olympics in 1959, which Wilson pulled off the scrap heap. Like the rest of the record, it's self-consciously lo-fi but actually perfectly mixed by Brian's golden ear at its peak, around the same time he recorded his universally beloved masterpiece. The simple percussion comes from bongos, while Mike Love takes the lead vocals and Brian calls out instructions to his younger brother Carl, the group's lead guitarist. As it unfolds, you can almost see the girls in the crowd — sun-baked California blondes wearing modish miniskirts, I'd imagine — shimmying along.
The second track, a cover of The Beatles' "I Should've Known Better" is where things shift to the next gear. Though some critics have dismissed The Beach Boys' use of three Beatles covers here as a cheap attempt to move records, I find it astonishingly brave. These were, after all, two of the most vital groups of the era, though some fans and critics (who hadn't yet heard Pet Sounds, mind you) seemed desperate to condemn The Beach Boys to the junkpile of other pre-Beatlemania American rock groups who'd outlived their purpose. Looking back now, though, what "Should've Known" and the following track, "Tell Me Why," do is give a priceless sense of time and place. Like everyone, The Beach Boys were listening to The Beatles and playing Beatles songs for each other. Maybe not Mike Love, who was always the proudest Beach Boy and, at 24 years old, probably a little too old for Beatlemania. But certainly the younger Carl Wilson and Al Jardine, who share the lead vocals. Someone hits "record" and we get Beach Boys harmonies and Beatles melodies: The most perfect marriage of '60s-style pop music possible.
After a few more re-treaded doo-wop songs and another Beatles cover, the group takes on Phil Spector's "There's No Other (Like My Baby)" and reprises two of their old hits, "I Get Around" and "Little Deuce Coupe." "I Get Around" is especially fun, with Mike Love joking around by perfectly enunciating every syllable of the first verse in a mock upper-crust accent. The fake crowd, mixed in by Brian Wilson, is heard singing along, even upstaging the singers from time to time. Then, the harmonies snap into place and you remember just what The Beach Boys were capable of at their best.
A cover of Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are a-Changin'" is possibly the most interesting moment. Jardine sings it and, tellingly, you can hear Mike Love and some of the proto-Valley Girls in the crowd mocking the folk anthem, leaving Jardine to perform the song on, more or less, his own.
Again, Party! isn't just what was recorded live — the record is supposed to sound like a one-take bootleg, but it's not — this is what Brian Wilson chose to include. He's addressing the tension within the group and, as the artistic leader who occupies the middle ground between the older and more orthodox Love and the younger, tuned-in Jardine, he lets everyone have his say. This is a tense time, to be sure, and we hear how Brian handles it.
Bob and Al were right: The times they were a-changin'. Within a few months The Beach Boys would become part of that, ultimately taking to psychedelics and recording the avant-garde Smile, an album deemed un-releasable by Capitol Records. Still, the band always had a certain fratty-ness born of their original image as surf-riding, drag-racing, girl-chasing good-timers, and that manifests itself here.
The closing song, "Barbara Ann," is a return to the old classics, and a cherry on top of the malt shop era. The track starts with the guys screwing around, singing the refrain of "Baa Baa Black Sheep," before Dean Torrence of another pioneering surf rock group, Jan and Dean, joins the guys in what would become a fluke hit single.
Brian Wilson's next single, by the way, was "Caroline, No." Released four months later, the slow and complex "Caroline" has been interpreted as a funeral dirge for the surf rock days: "Where did your long hair go? Where is the girl I used to know? How could you lose that happy glow? Oh, Caroline, no."
Despite the success of "Barbara Ann," Party! is largely forgotten today.
Why was the record written off? It's inauspicious origin story probably has a lot to do with that. Party! was, admittedly, recorded as a Christmas season cash-in. As Wilson told me, it was put together in a matter of "two to three days," for the express purpose of re-packaging a few hits with a couple of covers and selling fans the same stuff they'd already bought. This was standard practice back in the day, and it's the sort of gimmick critics love to complain about. Party!, however, transcends its modest purpose in an awe-inspiring way. Truly, only someone with the unique brilliance of Brian Wilson could take such a shameful directive from a record company and turn in something this potent and poignant.
The fact that it hasn't been copied more is what surprises me. Sure, there are a few records like Party! on shelves, but not many, and they all seem to be directly associated with it. Canadian indie-poppers Sloan paid homage with a bonus disc called Live at a Sloan Party! which they included with their 1997 album, One Chord to Another. Also, Weezer's Rivers Cuomo has declared Party! his "favorite summer album" and said it inspired the onstage improvisation on the band's Hootenanny Tour. Considering all the shoddy covers of Blue Album songs I've heard at parties over the years, I'd love to hear Cuomo follow the model exactly. Either way, it's not like I'm the only one who's discovered this record.
Still, this is all I could get Brian Wilson himself to say about it: "That was a great album. That really was a happy album."
Wilson's ambivalence doesn't necessarily mean much, though. He interrupted our opening pleasantries with a terse, "Let's do the interview" and, at the end of the interview, he said, "Bye," like a seventh-grader who'd just been informed the principal was overruling the conviction that condemned him to after-school detention, leaving him free to go.
Wilson seemed a little confused, too, about when his last record, That Lucky Old Sun, came out. Also, he didn't really want to talk much about anything new, since this tour will feature Wilson and an 11-man band playing, in his words, "just Beach Boys classic hits." I'd prefer to hear some new stuff too — but it's unlikely.
Eh, I won't complain. He's still Brian Wilson: the man who made Pet Sounds and Beach Boys Party!
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