THE BEACH BOYS: WILD HONEY (1967)
1) Wild Honey; 2) Aren't You Glad; 3) I Was Made To Love Her; 4) Country Air; 5) A Thing Or Two; 6) Darlin'; 7) I'd Love Just Once To See You; 8) Here Comes The Night; 9) Let The Wind Blow; 10) How She Boogalooed It; 11) Mama Says.
Wild Honey inaugurates what was probably the most bizarre and, from a historical point of view at least, the most fascinating period in Beach Boys history. Over an impressive seven years, from 1967 to 1973, the band was engulfed in a near-constant state of chaos, scandals, drugs, rushing from one half-baked idea to another, lack of leadership, lack of purpose, clashes of ambitions and interests — the only thing that might explain their staying together is brotherly ties, or, more likely, the insecurity of each individual member as to whether a solo career in music would be realizable. (In the end, Dennis and Carl only went solo after the band solidified its commercial positions in 1976).
The seven studio albums they put out over that period illustrate that lack of coherence perfectly. In stark contrast to every Beach Boys record up to Pet Sounds, they do not even provide the impression of well-rounded collections of songs «from A to Z». None of them beat the rag-tagginess of Smiley Smile, but it is one thing to forgive one hastily concocted, rushed-out contractual obligation consisting of briskly re-recorded demo versions, and quite another one to sit through album after album after album, completely devoid of any sense of purpose or quality control.
Fortunately for all of us, Smiley Smile had used up most of the hyper-experimental ideas that Brian came up with for the SMiLe project, and all of the subsequent records would be generally more melodic and better produced. In fact, Wild Honey does sound, from time to time, like an honest-to-goodness attempt at returning to the standard practice of recording pop music LPs. Not bizarre avantgarde experimentation; not «teenage symphonies to God»; not intentional attempts at beating the Beatles — just a stab at another good old regular pop music record, the way Mike Love had always preferred it the best. It is somewhat symbolic that the album's biggest hit, 'Darlin', was partly written as early as 1963 (the verse melody is taken from an early tune called 'Thinkin' 'Bout You Baby', donated by Brian to Sharon Marie in 1964; the chorus, however, is brand new): Wild Honey was calling us back to basics, in feeble hopes that a Sgt. Pepper and Are You Experienced-fed public could heed the call. Naturally, it didn't.
But it didn't not simply because, by late 1967, there was no more demand for shiny, optimistic surf-pop. No; it didn't because, after the SMiLe fiasco, Brian's workmanship was irrepairably damaged. He did not lose any of his genius — what he did lose was the ability to «flesh out» that genius, the will to take his brilliant ideas and polish them up to the same degree of perfection that characterized his work from 1964 to 1966. Imagine a fabulous painter, with each of his new works causing a shockwave of sensation, who suddenly abandons the canvas and starts dealing exclusively in half-finished sketches on paper — how would his fans react to that?
Of the eleven songs on Wild Honey, nine, in good old fashion, are credited to «Brian Wilson / Mike Love». But, as Robert Christgau, in his original review, correctly (surprise surprise) stated, «each of the 11 tunes ends before you wish it would». Indeed, most of the fade-outs arrive just as you start feeling that the song has finally picked up some steam — almost as if some deranged inner voice was telling Brian, Mike, and the others, «okay guys, time to wind it up, you know a pop song is not supposed to last more than 2:20», forgetting that the year was 1967, not 1963, and that even the conservative American standard had already been revolutionized.
The craziest thing about it, however, is that the songs themselves do not sound very nineteen-sixty-three themselves. I mean, 'Darlin' might have been all that old, but its re-recording, with a very much «post-Beatles» rhythmic base, a steady brass accompaniment that shows serious influence on the part of mid-1960s Atlantic/Motown sound, and a raw, creaky, shaky (and, because of that, quite beautiful) vocal delivery from Carl, was quite modern for 1967, nothing specifically «retro» about it except for the melodic moves, which are, indeed, quite typical of early Phil Spector.
Then there is all the sexuality. Pre-Pet Sounds, Brian's songs were innocence exemplified (so much so that even certain salacious hints inside the lyrics could easily pass unnoticed), and on Pet Sounds itself, not much difference was made between boy-girl and man-God relations (in all fairness, it is Pet Sounds that the Christian fundamentalists should have been a-goin' after in 1966, not Beatles records because of John's silly throwaway remark). Wild Honey, first time ever in Beach Boys history, explicitly puts the body next to spirit.
Obviously, Mike Love can spend the rest of his life explaining how the title of the album was due to the «health food craze» going on around town at the time, but there's no way anyone in his right mind could interpret a line like "My love's coming down since I got a taste of wild honey" as an expression of the protagonist's sincere gratitude to his partner because of her dedication to wholesome eating practices. It's a classy white-boy R'n'B number, for sure, but Carl's ecstatic vocal delivery transparently spells out orgiastic, as do the siren-imitating theremin blasts. Clearly, from the moment that the first copy of Carl Wilson screaming out "gonna take my life eating up her wild honey!" descended on the open market, his fate was sealed. On that fateful day, the man had no choice left but to start growing himself... a beard.
And that is just the beginning. We also have 'A Thing Or Two', which starts out as a lightweight enough bop-de-pop music hall number... then, with a series of "do it right baby"-s and suggestive moans and wails, lets all of us know that the days of not talking, putting your hands on my shoulder and listening to my heart beat are long gone — today it takes something more, uh, active than that to get life a-goin'. And, uh, 'I'd Love Just Once To See You'? It takes an endless one minute and fifty seconds for us to get to the real end of that statement, but we do get to see the boys overcome the «shyness» and make their true point. And 'Here Comes The Night'? Can you imagine that one next to, say, 'Surfer Girl'? The "Oooohh..." at the end of each chorus is about as close as the band ever came to creating a porn movie soundtrack.
Much of this heavy-breathing raunchiness seems «forced» — by now, we all know that the Beach Boys were no prudes when it came to relations with the opposite sex (with Dennis at the progressive forefront of the sexual revolution), but on Wild Honey, it is almost as if they were fulfilling some sort of contractual obligation, one that openly urged them to place «more flesh, less spirit» on their subsequent albums. Fortunately, it is more often funny than annoying, more frequently «silly» than «stupid», and as much as I'd like to dub this the band's «cock pop» album, the fact is that, after all, it took me several years of listening to it to get that idea, so it cannot be blatantly and obviously correct.
Besides, all this sexuality merely adds extra spice to the already bizarre, confused atmosphere of the album. We have not yet mentioned the Stevie Wonder cover — why? no particular reason — or 'Mama Says', a one-minute accappella ode to the art of teethbrushing that was cut out of the original 'Vega-Tables' to close the album — why? because, mama, we're still crazy after all these years. Each subsequent song on Wild Honey is utterly unpredictable: it can end up «normal», like the tender balladry of 'Aren't You Glad' or 'Let The Wind Blow', or it can fall apart into free form atmospherics, like 'A Thing Or Two' or 'Country Air'.
However, where the tunes that fell apart on Smiley Smile would just fall apart, because nobody gave a damn about how they would hold together, the free-form approach on Wild Honey is, on the whole, more motivated. This «sketch-style» approach to recording seems more thought out and intentional, and, from that point of view, far more similar to the «lo-fi» movement in indie pop/rock than the hazy daze of Smiley Smile. The songs share the same the craziness and artistic desperation, but the final result is more easily enjoyable — making Wild Honey, in fact, the real starting point of the last and most mysterious stage of the Beach Boys' greatness. So, clearly, a thumbs up — for God only knows what.
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