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When the Beach Boys Were Seven
Thoughts on the 'Sail On, Sailor, 1972' box set
Welcome to a new edition of ‘Listening Sessions’!
This edition tackles a box set released late last year that collects the recordings the Beach Boys made in 1972. That year saw the group invite two young musicians, Blondie Chaplin and Ricky Fataar, to join the band. Carl Wilson had worked with them in 1970 when he produced an album by the Flame, their group at the time. The set offers some insights into the Beach Boys, including how they tried to remain musically relevant while resisting becoming strictly an oldies act. Ultimately, Sail on Sailor, 1972 commemorates a unique chapter in the group's history: little the Beach Boys made before or after 1972 sounded quite like the music they made during that year. I hope you enjoy the below essay and will share your thoughts about it by leaving a comment.
Yesterday (April 25) came news that Harry Belafonte, a giant of an artist and activist, had passed away. Few pursued a belief that a song could change the world as well or as passionately as Belafonte. While some may wish—and understandably so—to focus on his vital and invaluable work as a civil rights activist, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Belafonte’s work as a folk singer of supreme taste, pursuing the belief passed down by Paul Robeson that if you “get them to sing your song, … they will want to know you as a people,” was, in itself, a radical act of political and social activism.
In November of last year, I tried to put into words how Belafonte exemplified the power of song. I include a link to it below to pay humble tribute to Harry Belafonte.
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“I am That
Thou art That,
and All This is That.”
- from ‘All That is That,’ written by Al Jardine, Carl Wilson and Mike Love
On Easter Sunday this year, a two-hour tribute, under the imprimatur of the Grammy Awards, was broadcast. Beyond the performers and the stated purpose: honouring maybe the greatest of all American pop bands, the Beach Boys, the most notable thing about the program, taped at the Dolby Theater in Los Angeles, was that Brian Wilson, Mike Love, Al Jardine, Bruce Johnston and David Marks were all seated together in the same room. The last time that happened was in 2018. Prior to that, there was the glorious reunion in 2012, commemorating the group’s golden anniversary.
For five months that year, the Beach Boys’ universe was all under one very large umbrella. The members of the touring band were an amalgamation of bands fronted by Wilson, by Jardine and by Love and Johnston, who had longed toured under the Beach Boys name. A new album, That’s Why God Made the Radio, was released. The second single released from it, ‘Isn’t It Time,’ seemed to capture the good feelings all around: “Isn’t it time we danced the night away / how about doing it, just like yesterday / every time I think of you and / All of those good things we used to do.”
That’s what it felt like when I caught them in Toronto on June 19—a day shy of Wilson’s 70th birthday. As hot and humid as a summer day in Toronto can be, the Molson Ampitheatre (now the Budweiser Stage), situated along the shore of Lake Ontario, offered a respite as the Beach Boys played just shy of 50 songs. At the start, there were some in the crowd chatting away, a middle-aged man to my left was sitting, scowling. Two hours later when Jardine was singing ‘Help Me, Rhonda,’ the only sound in the crowd was everyone lustily singing along, the middle-aged man to my left was now up on his feet joining in, joy radiating from every bone of his body.
It was, in short, one of the most memorable nights of my life. It must have been even more so for those who attended one of the 50th-anniversary shows where California Saga, the name given to an assemblage of eight of the sons and daughters of the Beach Boys, joined their fathers—either in the flesh or in cases of Carl Wilson’s son, Justyn, and Dennis Wilson’s son, Carl B., in spirit—to sing ‘All This is That,’ a song written by Jardine, Carl Wilson and Love for the 1972 album, Carl and the Passions - “So Tough”.
A song partially inspired by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, under which both Jardine and Love studied and from whom the primary refrain “I am that / thou art that / and all this is that” comes, and Robert Frost and his poem The Road Less Taken, it is among the most powerful in articulating the transcendent feeling of listening to the Beach Boys. Whereas in Frost’s poem, the resolution of the choice faced when a path branches off into two directions was “I took the one less traveled by and that has made all the difference,” in ‘All This is That,’ “two ways and I both travel by, and that has made all the difference to me.”
That one can, perhaps, have one’s cake and eat it too brings up profound emotions when watching a clip of the song performed by the Beach Boys and California Saga at the Hollywood Bowl in June 2012. Everyone, across generations, across normally drawn battle lines, concurring that all is one. The songs of sun, surf and sand. The songs of interiority, questioning and pondering “wouldn’t it be nice.” Mike Love. Brian Wilson. ‘Surfin U.S.A.’ Pet Sounds. All the same. All one.
It is, in my opinion, the only worthy framework through which one can gain the fullest appreciation of why the Beach Boys matter and why they remain important.
In an era marked by rapid evolution, the group’s exponential growth from the charming simplicity of ‘Surfin’’ and ‘Surfin’ Safari’ to the American fables of ‘I Get Around’ and ‘California Girls’ to the vulnerability of Pet Sounds to the mini-symphony of ‘Good Vibrations’ had few parallels in the mid sixties. When Brian Wilson abandoned SMiLE in the spring of 1967, the Beach Boys’ ascent suddenly halted and ushered in a half-decade full of moments of low-fi quirkiness and others that harkened back to the grand sound designs of just a few years ago. There were songs laced with home-grown harmonies and others with moments that hinted at the nostalgic veneer the group would one day embody. As the seventies dawned, they collectively crafted the radiant Sunflower and followed it up with the rusted Surf’s Up. And then dawned perhaps the most interesting interlude of all, comprehensively commemorated in the new six-CD box set Sail on Sailor, 1972.
That year, Bruce Johnston, who had been with the group in mid-1965, was gone—whether he was fired or left by choice is up for interpretation. The year previous, Dennis Wilson injured his hand, curtailing his ability to play the drums and Brian Wilson was becoming less and less involved in all aspects of the group. It was these confluence of circumstances that led the Beach Boys to become a septet.
Guitarist Blondie Chaplin and drummer Ricky Fataar had worked with Carl Wilson when he produced an album by their group, the Flame, in 1970, and were both invited to join the Beach Boys in 1972. The group had been using additional musicians to augment their sound in the studio since almost the very beginning and began to also do so when playing live since 1967—the most notable auxiliary Beach Boy being arguably Darryl Dragon, soon to gain notoriety as the Captain of the Captain & Tennille—but unlike the group’s growing extended musical family, Chaplin and Fataar would be made official band members.
What they heralded, upon the release of the first album by the seven-man-strong Beach Boys, Carl and the Passions - “So Tough”, was the group’s embrace of a more contemporary sounding pop, the haze of Surf’s Up giving way to an often leaner, tougher sound. ‘Marcella,’ written by Brian Wilson, group manager Jack Rieley and Tandyn Almer, an enigmatic singer-songwriter most well-known for penning the first big hit by the Association, ‘Along Comes Mary,’ and who was part of Wilson’s orbit in 1972, has a grit to it that was genuine. Carl Wilson’s lead is miles away from the choir-boy croon of ‘God Only Knows,’ especially as he lays down the joys of the song’s title character: “one arm over my shoulder / sandals dance at my feet / eyes that’ll knock you right over / ooo, Marcella’s so sweet.”
The album opener, ‘You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone,’ is similar in feel, its primary charm being the earworm refrain with Love repeating “she don’t, she don’t, she don’t know.” The songs that comprise Carl and the Passions - “So Tough” are compelling examples of how the Beach Boys, up until 1972, evolved with the times, adapting the layered productions of the sixties for a more streamlined, muscular rock beat, favouring a cymbal-heavy backbeat and adding to it, the texture of their harmonies. What once floated along now pounded the pavement with decision.
In the context of the album, ‘Marcella’ and ‘You Need a Mess of Help to Stand Alone’ comprise one of its several moods that all abutt awkwardly against each other. In a sense, it may be a reflection of the factionalism that was besetting the group: the Wilsons, and Love and Jardine comprising two separate cliques. Bringing in Chaplin and Fataar was done, in part, to be a catalyst to mitigate these divisions. The music on Carl and the Passions - “So Tough” accentuates them, however. The country-tinged ‘Hold On Dear Brother’ by Chaplin and Fataar with a loping, steel-guitar shuffle is connected to ‘Cuddle Up’ by Dennis Wilson and Dragon, one in a series of deeply vulnerable ballads that marked the middle Wilson brother as a songwriter of an almost-shattering intimacy, only in that both are credited to the Beach Boys.
For every ‘Cuddle Up,’ there’s a ‘Make it Good’ that seems undercooked. The aforementioned ‘All This is That,’ a shining example of the group’s philosophy and the most convincing musical articulation of Jardine and Love’s ongoing meditation practice is balanced against ‘He Came Down’ which is more explicitly religious and a rather bald attempt to jump on the gospel bandwagon of recent hits like Hoyt Axton’s ‘Joy to the World’ taken to the top of the charts by Three Dog Night and Gene MacLellan’s ‘Put Your Hand in the Hand’ with which Ocean had a huge hit.
But the general impulse that animated Carl and the Passions - “So Tough”—to continue to try to retain a contemporary relevance as opposed to settling into the dotage of an oldies act—was proof that this new incarnation of the Beach Boys was onto something even as the album itself was somewhat underwhelming and bewildering in its eclecticism. They would better realize its potential on their next album, Holland, titled thusly as most of it was recorded in the Netherlands in the late spring and summer of 1972.
Establishing a temporary home base in Europe was thought of as another way for the group to recharge its creative juices. Even as Dennis Wilson eventually left for the Cayman Islands and Brian Wilson rarely surfaced in the studio—the search for studio space eventually resulted in his home recording facilities being moved across the Atlantic at some considerable cost—Holland ultimately gels in a way that its predecessor did not.
Its most famous track is the opener ‘Sail on Sailor,’ the apex of the Chaplin and Fataar era. Chaplin takes the lead and his vocal—authoritative, expressive and deeply in the pocket—with shades of early Jackson Browne makes clear that while you can take the Beach Boys out of California, you can’t take California out of the Beach Boys.
They may have left town as ‘Leaving This Town’ reminds, featuring another sterling contribution by Chaplin and a memorable instrumental break driven by downright nasty colourations by Fataar on an ARP Odyssey synthesizer and Hammond organ, but the Golden State’s siren song still had a profound pull. The three-part California Saga suite, crafted primarily by Love and Jardine, paints an evocative, multi-faceted portrait: the back-to-the-garden ethos of ‘Big Sur,’ the ethereal birdsong of ‘The Beaks of Eagles,’ complete with a cameo by Charles Lloyd on flute, another member of the Beach Boys’ extended musical family at the time and the work's most beguiling movement, and the celebratory, concluding segment ‘California,’ replete with references to John Steinbeck and Country Joe McDonald.
Holland bursts with ideas and moods. ‘Funky Pretty’ may be the most soulful thing the Beach Boys ever put on on record, particularly the impassioned coda led by Chaplin.
‘The Trader’ is a thoughtful meditation on colonialism. It starts as a maritime travelogue and then, after three verses, morphs into something far more impressionistic, poetic and ultimately resilient. ‘Steamboat,’ written by Dennis Wilson with Rieley, balances the past—invoked by the antiquated mode of transportation that is the song’s subject—and the future—the dense bed of keyboards simulating the churn of a steamboat engine. ‘Only With You,’ written by Dennis Wilson and Love is another in the line of love songs of which Wilson had an inexhaustible supply. All three are sung by Carl Wilson; by this time, the most accomplished and expressive singer of the group with Chaplin a close second.
It’s brother Carl who took the reins during the recording of Holland, but even so, the album included Brian Wilson’s most substantive contribution to the group’s music since the SMiLE era. Mount Vernon and Faraway, a multi-part fairy tale about the wonderful splendor of the radio, was included as a seven-inch bonus to the album. Narrated by Reiley, it can be seen as both a look into Wilson’s increasingly fragile mind—when he appears as the mythical Pied Piper, the effect is both endearing and troubling—and a throwback to the modular style of recording that Wilson favoured in 1966 and part of 1967.
Such insights—a term if I may be so bold as to employ—often escape the listener when presented with a product as commonplace as an album. Indeed, it is sometimes only through the penchant of repackaging and expanding it—to, in essence, re-contextualize it—that a more nuanced viewpoint can be attained about it. Sail on Sailor, 1972 permits this intellectual exercise. In the case of Mount Vernon and Faraway, it is through the inclusion of studio sequences and alternate versions of its various components.
Another is through the inclusion of the complete concert the group at Carnegie Hall on Thanksgiving Day, 1972. Spanning almost two hours and comprising 25 songs, the show has the Beach Boys, for the most part, marvelously balancing giving the audience what they want—the nostalgic high of hearing their hits—and what the band thinks it needs—the music that it was currently up to. Even as the idea of music of the past being labeled as “oldies” was beginning to take hold and the creation of entertainment in which reveling in an idealized vision of the good, old days was starting to become commonplace—George Lucas’ American Graffiti would soon hit theatres and Happy Days would blanket the airwaves a short time afterwards—the Carnegie Hall concert is compelling proof that the Beach Boys were resisting that trend even as the end of the show suggests it would not be destined to last.
Hearing recordings of the Beach Boys live in concert has often been an iffy proposition—the music often rough and ragged, Love almost pathologically unable to resist tasteless jokes and asides—but this concert is a happy exception. There’s a wild run-through on ‘Wild Honey’ with Chaplin in the spotlight and, yes, even a reclamation of ‘Student Demonstration Time’ as it remains ever unclear just what Love is trying to say about the counterculture or the ethos of protest. It’s refreshing to hear something like ‘Don’t Worry Baby’ with a newfound vitality and the group's willingness to go deep in the catalogue to offer versions of ‘Let the Wind Blow’—a highlight of 1967’s Wild Honey—and ‘Wonderful,’ played here more in the spirit of the version that was to be on SMiLE (1972 was one of many times in which rumours that a completed SMiLE was soon on its way were rife) as opposed to the bare bones rendition that made its way onto Smiley Smile.
If the Sail on Sailor, 1972 box set is taken chronologically, the Carnegie Hall show ends the group’s year on a high note. It was not to last.
Chaplin left a year later and Fataar was soon to follow. In the wake of their departure, the Beach Boys ran out of steam. The transition to an oldies act began in earnest. For a while, to be a Beach Boys fan was to invite ridicule but that didn’t last either once new generations discovered Pet Sounds.
But neither did the good feelings engendered by the 2012 tour. Prior to its conclusion in September, Love announced that the Beach Boys would revert to the version led by him and Bruce Johnston, and sans Brian Wilson, Jardine and David Marks. What felt real in Toronto that June now felt, with bitter hindsight, just a little contrived and perhaps even a little more so with the realization that Chaplin and Fataar weren’t invited to take part (Chaplin has toured and recorded with Wilson in recent years).
As with most musical groups, the collision of musical talent and ego (neither mutually exclusive of the other) often makes the music seem secondary to soap opera even as it is the music that is most enduring and tangible—snapshots of time preserving things as they were, capturing a truth that can withstand what may have followed afterwards. Focus on the music and the Beach Boys will always remain as one.