First published on 28 Jun 2012. Updated on 28 Jun 2012.
The eternal bickering and sniping amongst the surviving Beach Boys over the past few decades has developed into an impasse to rival the Israel/Palestine problem. How these discordant personalities came to be in the same room together again without a lawsuit ensuing, let alone managed to agree to make a record is not how we expected this saga to play out. The 50th Anniversary tour? Well yeah, kerching! on that one. But all huddled around a microphone in a studio? Blimey.
This is as genuine a Beach Boys line-up as you could ask for in 2012 taking into account of course the absence of Dennis and Carl Wilson. Returning is David Marks, the kid whose tenure in the group as a 14 year old was curtailed after just a year in 1963 (mind you there were four albums released in that year) when his parents and the Wilsons had a spat. Al Jardine is here, always a stable but starchy member who managed to keep his feet on the ground, and his head focused on doing his thing to the best of his middling abilities. Stage right we have Bruce Johnston who took over from the terror-stricken Brian on the road in 1965, and stayed on to produce and contribute some sophisticated stand-out tracks on the cobbled together 20/20, Sunflower and Surf’s Up albums.
And the much-reviled, and enthusiastically litigious Mike Love who owns the Beach Boys name, is naturally in on the action, his passable adenoidal voice usually doing the bottom end grunt work.
Even with the outbreak of peace in the ranks, That’s Why God Made the Radio you’d imagine would not be comparable to anything of quality in the past, but in patches it well and truly is, which is all the more remarkable because Brian Wilson still seems a little disconnected from the rest of us. When you see him you’re always asking yourself, “Is Brian okay?” He has a great young family who clearly bring him joy, and I’m guessing his demons are not making too much of an impression these days. He may be addled at times, and often looks frail and almost distressed on stage, yet over the past decade, he has visited Australia three times with his band, and recorded four divergent albums; a new version of Smile (the original 1967 recordings are finally out for real too, in forensically detailed box sets) a curious but entertaining solo LP, Getting In Over My Head, which was a patchwork of new songs and re-recorded tracks from the aborted 1991 Sweet Insanity project, with Eric Clapton, Paul McCartney, and Elton John guesting. There’s a Gershwin tribute album with remarkable new arrangements, and an LP of Disney tunes which is far less horrid than it sounds. No one who is seriously clouded by mental instability can be that productive, and so precise. In the studio he is still without doubt a genius, a wizard of harmonic invention around whom the other Beach Boys in this case may well have simply stood and waited for instructions. Just like the old days.
Enlisted as Wilson’s chief collaborator here (along with Love who has a, let’s say, surprising number of credits) is Joe Thomas, a trustworthy music biz polymath who has worked on records with Paul McCartney, Elton John, Stevie Nicks and others. The depth of his involvement here? No idea, but I can’t hear anything that sounds conspicuously unlike the Beach Boys. Like Roger Christian, Tony Asher and Van Dyke Parks before him, the match is a good one.
That’s Why God Made the Radio opens with a genuine ‘Holy Shit!’ moment. ‘Think About the Days’ is a wordless vocal incantation guided by a minimalist piano, and it has you sitting up straight from the off. The title track, and single, is impressive too, boasting those perfect, seductive chord shifts and a capella pauses which have enabled the Beach Boys to convince generations that all you ever had to do in life was show up at the beach, and you’d come home with mild sunburn and the love of your life.
‘The Private Life of Bill and Sue’ is some sort of paean to reality TV – awful lyrics – but the overlapping chorus harmonies are irresistible. (And probably to some extent the work of Brian’s own band whose presence is conspicuous.) Once he has all the vocal parts blocked, Wilson creates songs which are the aural equivalent of a 3D movie. He’s only got one good ear (he’s never heard anything in stereo) but can make you feel you have at least four.
‘Shelter’ is a gliding mid-paced tune which takes off into a clear-air falsetto in the chorus. This is a lifelong tactic of Wilson’s; suddenly shifting up an octave, or more, in the same way a car goes through the gears. But somehow seamlessly from first straight to fifth.
There’s a bit more ho-hum stuff – trad Beach Boys party tunes; ‘Isn’t It Time’, ‘Daybreak Over the Ocean’ and the forgettable … I forget. The ‘good times never end’ motif is stretched thin. It feels like the Wilson art aspect has been largely subsumed by the commerce end of the endless summer, but just as the whole thing appears to be drifting to a B+ at best, there arrive three quality closing tracks.
‘From There to Back Again’ is as delicately balanced as anything Wilson has written since the late sixties and is the first step in a trilogy in which it is acknowledged at last that this is not maturity guys, this is old age. Here Wilson achieves something akin to the fractured-romance poignancy of ‘Caroline No’, and ‘Til I Die’. He can’t shock the world the way he did then, with music that seemed more impossible at times than merely impressive, but he can still suck the breath from you just a little.
The next stanza is ‘Pacific Coast Highway’. “Sometimes I realise my days are getting on ... Sunlight’s fading and there’s not much left to say”. Starry voices drift in and out, and then a final four-part harmony “Goodbye …” hangs in the air and ever so gradually fades to silence. The culmination and bittersweet coda is ‘Summer’s Gone’, which may well be the Beach Boys saying, that’s all folks. “Old friends have gone / They’ve gone their separate ways / Our dreams hold on for those who still have more to say”. Yes, plenty of bands continue to cite The Beach Boys as their big influence but most of them are a bit crap.
“It’s finally sinkin’ in … I’m gonna sit and watch the waves … we laugh we cry we live then die”.
As much as Brian Wilson has quoted Gershwin and Phil Spector and the Beatles as artists he still looks up to, it could be argued that in terms of holistic talent, as writer, arranger and producer, he trumps them all. Even some other septuagenarian artist, if they had lived their adult life without too much madness or self-destructive lunacy, would be rolling back the years magnificently if they delivered work comparable to this. For Wilson, who lived on the impenetrable but starlit Planet Brian for much of the Beach Boys’ history, and who has been almost completely uninvolved – he was a kind of executive producer on the execrable Stars and Stripes album in 1996 – with records under that name since the ’70s, That’s Why God Made the Radio is, in its strongest moments, a miraculous gift from a man we have loved but will never know. Oh, and thanks to the other guys in the band for showing up.
The Beach Boys play Rod Laver Arena on August 31.